Digital American Literature Anthology
Dr. Michael O'Conner
Millikin University, Decatur, IL

Unit Two: Explorers, Invaders, and Colonists

When American literature was first defined as a discipline in the nineteenth century, the first writers covered were mostly born within and were citizens of the new minted United States. The fledgling nation wanted its own unique brand literature that it could call its own. Names like Irving, Cooper, Bryant, Longfellow, and Lowell all led off the early anthologies of this field. Later, as definitions of American literature expanded, the canon of writers grew and came to include those Europeans adventurers, conquerors and settlers who first observed and recorded their interactions in what would eventually become portions of this country. Much of the positive Eurocentric viewpoint that we once took for granted about these writers and what they wrote still very much remains in the popular imagination. However, in the academy over the last few decades, we have come to view the interactions of Europeans and native peoples and places with a somewhat more critical eye.

Explorers like Christopher Columbus, Bartolome de las Casas, Alvar Nunez Cabeza De Vaca, and John Smith all wrote with particular audiences and specific purposes in mind. Those original audience and purposes are certainly worth our consideration. But today we also read their chronicles and observations through other lenses, with a fuller understanding that the glories of conquest and the rewards of colonization, for some, come at a steep cost for others.

As the American Passages website asks, in studying these writings:
How do [these texts] represent the violence and exploitation that were part of the European exploration of the New World? What kinds of beliefs and expectations did European colonizers bring with them to the Americas? How did the sophisticated and varied cultures of native peoples impact the settlements Europeans created in America? How do European writers represent the experiences and cultures of indigenous peoples? How does gender complicate power relations in contact zones and borderlands? 

American Passages, Unit Two, Exploring Borderlands

Some other themes of this unit on exploration, conquest, and colonization are described in the Heath Anthology Online Instructor's Guide:

[Two themes are] the newness of the experience and the need to relate it in European terms. Columbus initiated the dialogue between American reality and the European codes of signification.

Another theme would be the strategies utilized to convince powerful readers of the benefits of the New World. Again, Columbus marks the beginning. These authors are constantly selling the unknown to potential investors and visitors. Here begins the tradition of hawking new property developments beyond the urban blight of the reader's familiar surroundings.

Cabeza de Vaca introduces the familiar theme of wandering the back roads of the country--a sixteenth-century Kerouac. It is the theme of finding oneself through the difficult pilgrimage into the wilderness--a Carlos Castaneda avant la lettre. Cabeza de Vaca is transformed through suffering, perseverance, and the ability to acculturate.

[Other] texts introduce inter-European rivalries as a major theme of American culture. Competition over territory resulted in violent encounters. The encounters with the Native American population were equally violent, introducing the theme of the subjugation of the native peoples, who would rather retain their own way of life. The arrogant assumption that one's own system is naturally superior to the native's way is again an indisputable characteristic of U.S. history.

Another theme is the sincerity of religious motivation, in spite of the contradicting evidence of economic ambitions. This conflict between the philanthropic ideals and the exploitative motivation still underlies U.S. foreign policy.

See the rest of the essay at:

To summarize and expand a bit, we can also read these sets of texts as examples of travel writing, as examples of writing about conquests, and as examples of writing to persuade its readers of the benefits of coming to these newly discovered shores.

Elements of these types (of explorers, conquerors, and colonists) of writing include:

1. travel writing

a. writing about the unknown

b. comparisons made to the known

c. language is inadequate, old words for new things

d. things in the new world must be named (possessed)

2. writing of conquest

a. conquering a new land, claiming it for king/queen

b. role in life to subdue and dominate, convert "heathens" to Christianity

c. self-justification

d. new land like a woman's body, accepting bride to the European groom (see: American Passages, "The Romance of Colonization")

3. writing as economic perspective and salesmanship/rhetoric

a. it all boils down to money: spices, gold, crops, fish

b. salesmanship very important, rhetoric of convincing more people to come to America

Why is it called "America" instead of Columbia?
Columbus refused to believe in his lifetime that he had not made it to the Far East in his voyages. As such, the European name for this new land, America, comes from Amerigo Vespucci (1454 – 1512), an Italian explorer and cartographer, who argued that the New World was actually a newly discovered land mass. The widespread publication of letters written by Vespucci led German map maker Martin Waldseemüller to name the new continent America on his world map of 1507. The rest, so to speak, is history.

Specific Questions and Considerations

Questions of Fact (often the stuff that quizzes are made of)

For each assigned piece of writing, try to record any relevant information related to reporting the facts: who, what, when, where, why, and how?

Also, for each assigned piece of writing, consider these broader questions:


When did the author write and what are his or her key works?
What overall subject, concept or question is the work about?
Does the writing fall within a particular genre or subgenre and, if so, which elements of that genre are being utilized or ignored?

Considering the Craft of Writing

What is the time/place of the setting?
Who are the major characters? Is there a clear protagonist and antagonist?
Is there clear narrator? Is the narrator/speaker understood to be reliable?
Is the narrator/speaker an intentionally crafted persona.
How are plot expectations met, challenged, or exceeded?
Are there repeated images/concepts/symbols in the work?
If verse, how are the elements of poetry utilized and illustrated?

Reflection and Application

What is the theme, point, or moral of the writing?
How does the author wish readers to consider the subject?

Broader Questions and Considerations

Find specific examples of "travel writing," or "writing in the language of conquest," or "writing to persuade," as described above, in the readings completed for this unit. Be prepared to share these specific examples in class.

Do some quick research on any of these other early European explorers for information on their lives and discoveries:

John Cabot,
Jacques Cartier,
Samuel De Champlain,
Francisco Vasquez de Coronado
Robert de La Salle
Ponce De Leon
Hernando De Soto
Leif Eriksson
Henry Hudson
Louis Joliet
Peter Stuyvesant
Amerigo Vespucci

Likewise, do some quick research on the later influence Columbus would have on the United States. What is Columbus Day? What is controversial about it? How many states have cities named Columbus or Columbia? What is "Columbia," at least in its associations with this country?

Post-Colonial Theory through Science Fiction

In the world of science-fiction, the fictional universe of Gene Roddenberry's many Star Trek programs and movies metaphorically comment on the past human history of contact and conquest by the creation of a guiding principle called the Prime Directive, or non-interference act. One of the fictional captains of this world states:

"The Prime Directive is not just a set of rules. It is a philosophy, and a very correct one. History has proven again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous." - Jean-Luc Picard, "Symbiosis." Star Trek The Next Generation. Season One.

Since the premise of this television program is about exploration and contact with "others," this governing principle forms a sharp critique of human history through the story lines of these modern day science-fiction fables.

How do you think the world would have been different if European countries had a guiding principle like the Prime Directive in the 15th century?


Works Cited

"Exploring Borderlands: Instructor Overview." American Passages. 2003.

Norton, 7th ed.

"The Literature of Discovery and Exploration" Eds. Juan Bruce-Novoa and Carla Mulford. Heath Anthology Online Instructor's Guide. 2012.

"The Romance of Colonization." American Passages. 2003.










Dr.Michael O'Conner, Millikin University