In American literature, it is important to study all types of literature to discover the reality of life in the past. Memoirs, documentaries, and diaries are among useful literature necessary in this quest for discovery. When determining the usefulness of a piece of American literature, one must consider how the piece impacts our view of colonial life and values as well as American culture as a whole. William Byrd, John Smith, and Mary Rowlandson are three great examples of writers who personally wrote about their lives and gave insight into the reality of colonial American life.
William Byrd’s diary shines the light on the daily life of a wealthy land owner. He gives a layout of his daily routine.
“I rose at 5 o’clock and read a chapter in Hebrew and four leaves in Lucian. I said my prayers and ate boiled milk for breakfast.” This gives the reader a taste of the culture. There is a move of values from sacred to secular.
While Byrd reads the sacred Hebrew writings, he also is reading Greek satire which is very secular. As the reader continues, he will discover the amount of sickness prevalent in this time. Byrd talks about how many of his slaves are sick and his family is even sick. Byrd also talks about a vision he had: “I saw a flaming sword in the sky…seemed to foretell some misfortune to me which afterwards came to pass in the death of several of my negroes” (pg. 617). There is a level of superstition among the American of that day.
Byrd’s writings are uniquely American in the sense that he is writing about his experiences in America.
John Smith is writing for an audience in his writings while Byrd was mainly writing for himself to keep track of his life. John Smith writes a historical documentary about his life. While he overly dramatizes his life, he includes important details that add value to his writings. Smith discusses customs of the natives: “At his return to Opechancanough’s, all the Kings women and their children, flocked about him for their parts, as a due by custom” (pg. 119). He also writes about the value of bravery and leadership. Smith discusses Christianity and the importance of conversion: “If he have any grain of faith…to seek to convert those poor savages”(Pg. 122-123). This is a relevant value among the colonials. There is an innate desire to spread Christianity. The author notes the value of hard work in his writings: “Let us move to embrace employments”. On pg. 123, There is a description of nature and geography. The writings of Smith are uniquely American in that they are all about American life and the culture therein.
Mary Rowlandson stands out from the others because she is a woman and she writes about the reality of captivity. Her focus is on the native American culture because they are the ones who capture her. Instead of despair, she runs to God and the Bible as a source of hope and strength. “Still the Lord upheld me with his gracious and merciful spirit” (pg. 272). Her writings are very distinctly American in the fact that she is writing about the native’s culture. Her writings help the reader understand the reality of Indian attacks and the danger they could cause.
William Byrd, John Smith, and Mary Rowlandson are three great examples of writers who personally wrote about their lives and gave insight into the reality of colonial American life. Each of these writers comes from a different perspective but their importance remains. The writers allow readers to see different aspects of American culture. The fact that they are written in a journal setting, makes them more realistic and personal. The elements of religion, nature, geography, people, and events help readers to better understand colonial life and values. In early colonial life, values are still leaning towards the sacred, but there is a slow shift towards secular that must be accounted for.