Questions for Anne Bradstreet

  • By now we’ve read enough texts that I hope you’ll start drawing connections between them, noting echoes or sharp contrasts between the many voices in this early period. In what ways might Bradstreet connect to other authors? In what ways might she challenge some of the other authors we’ve read?
  • Who is the intended audience of “The Prologue”? Where do you hear Bradstreet addressing particular kinds of readers? What might she be trying to accomplish in this poem?
  • What do you see as the central metaphor of “The Author to Her Book”? What ironies and memorable imagery does Bradstreet develop by extending this metaphor? How might the historical context shape your understanding of this poem, if it was written sixteen years after her book had been published, possibly as a poem to include in a second edition?
  • “The Flesh and the Spirit” personifies two symbolic figures engaged in debate. Why is this debate important to Bradstreet? Which figure gains the upper hand in the debate, and why? What about Bradstreet’s cultural environment might have made this a risky poem to write?
  • Feel free to browse some of her other poems, particularly poems written about her children and her husband. Which of these stand out to you as particularly meaningful? Why?

Questions for Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation

Of Plymouth Plantation was written as history near the end of Bradford’s life. But as with other texts based primarily on memory, like Vaca’s The Relation and Smith’s General History of Virginia, Bradford’s narrative contains elements of memoir, where he is not only relaying facts but also conveying his interpretation of what happened. As a Calvinist Bradford would have been looking for confirmation of his election (or chosen status) while remembering his past.

Questions to consider:

  • History: How much of this narrative is factual history, how much is myth (symbolic of how Bradford wants to be remembered), and how can we identify the difference (if we can)? See Campbell’s timeline for a sense of where Bradford fits into the sequence of events in this early period. What similarities and differences do you see between Bradford’s history and others we’ve read?
  • Religion: What evidence of Calvinism do you find in Bradford’s narrative? See also Campbell’s definition of typology. What examples of typology do you find?
  • Style: Compare Bradford’s writing style to that of the other authors we’ve covered. What do you especially admire about his writing style? How does the content of his text differ from the others we’ve read? What seems notable about his metaphors, word choices (diction), and imagery?
  • Society: How do you think Bradford’s vision for Plymouth compares with Winthrop’s vision for Massachusetts Bay in “A Model of Christian Charity”? How does the fate of Thomas Granger compare with Anne Hutchinson’s?
  • Race and Identity: We get two contrasting glimpses of relations with Native Americans here. How might the oral narratives help you understand these contrasts? What do Bradford’s entries say about the state of seventeenth-century race relations in the New World?

Film clips about the first Thanksgiving:

Questions for Anne Hutchinson Trial Transcript

Anne Hutchinson has been a controversial figure in American history for her explicit challenges to Winthrop’s utopian project. She has been denigrated by some as an “American Jezebel,” but her resistance might also be seen as one of the earliest examples of political dissent, and she is often remembered today as an early advocate for women’s rights. Let’s try to understand both voices—Winthrop’s and Hutchinson’s—as we read this transcript and the story it tells.

Questions to consider:

  • What, exactly, is Hutchinson charged with? How would you describe her alleged crime in your own words?
  • Where do you find Hutchinson especially persuasive in defending herself? At what point does her self-defense falter? What are some of the main turning points in her trial?
  • What comparisons and contrasts might you draw between Winthrop’s sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” and this trial transcript?
  • The brief biography at Perspectives in American Literature offers useful context.
  • How does Hutchinson’s use of the Bible both help and hurt her case? See the book of Titus and Jeremiah 46:27-28. This online Bible at the University of Michigan could be useful for searches about Daniel, Abraham, John the Baptist, and other figures that Hutchinson mentions.

How well does this dramatization of Hutchinson’s trial capture the essence of the text?

This CBS radio broadcast from 1947 offers another popular culture adaptation of Hutchinson’s trial:


Questions for Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity”

Winthrop’s sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” has been a hugely influential text in U.S. history, so influential that Ronald Reagan quoted it in his farewell speech, John McCain invoked it during his 2008 campaign, and Romney alluded to it in 2012. Like John Smith’s version of Jamestown, which represents as much what he wanted to believe about himself as what actually transpired, Winthrop’s sermon crystallizes some of the earliest American myths. It’s a dense text, with lots to unpack, so give yourself time to read it at least twice.

Questions to consider:

  • What metaphors do you find in this sermon, and how do they help you understand Winthrop’s vision for the Massachussetts Bay colony?
  • What evidence do you find of Winthrop’s views on social class? How does this compare with your opinions about wealth and poverty in the U.S. today?
  • Why do you think this sermon is referenced almost exclusively by political conservatives today (beyond the obvious religious context)?
  • See Donna Campbell’s overview of Calvinism for the basic tenets of Winthrop’s faith. What illustrations of Calvinism do you see in “A Model of Christian Charity”?
  • How might a sermon be understood as a literary text? What makes a sermon different from other narratives we’ve read (origin stories, letters, and the hybrid texts we’ve considered this week that intertwine history, memoir, and other modes)? What stylistic examples do you see in Winthrop’s sermon that seem especially notable, and why might they be significant?
  • What mythological elements might we find in Winthrop’s sermon? What does the sermon contribute to our historical understanding of the Colonial period? What does Winthrop add to our understanding of colonial American literature?

Questions for Cabeza De Vaca (El Conquistador Conquistado)

What do you do if you’re a failed conquistador, but still want to get royal funding for future explorations? Find out in La Relación.

Questions to consider:

  • Based on what we’ve read so far, including The Relation, how might you characterize this colonial period: as a period of discovery, contact, or conquest?
  • How do the echoes of Genesis in La Relacion compare to the cultural assumptions we discussed in Columbus and Harriot?
  • Where does Cabeza de Vaca allude to Exodus 3 and Numbers 13:17-33? What reasons might he have for doing this? What other connections do you see between La Relacion and the Bible?
  • As you’ll read in the biographical sketch, some scholars see Vaca’s Relación as the first “American” narrative, in that his identity is transformed into something new by the end of his journey. In what ways does he seem to be changing in this first excerpt?
  • What makes Cabeza de Vaca a reliable or unreliable narrator? Where might we read against the grain of this narrative, the way we did with Columbus and Harriot by considering how their audiences (and/or transcribers) influenced the text?
  • Scholars have described this narrative variously as an immigrant tale, a captivity narrative, a mestizo text, a history, and a saint’s memoir (see hagiography and beatification and canonization). What do you think the appropriate literary classification for The Relation should be? Why?

This History Channel dramatization of texts like La Relacion is a helpful companion to the reading:

See also National Geographic’s adaptation of Guns, Germs, and Steel:



Columbus and Harriot

  • Both authors have brief biographical sketches in the anthology. Which insights about their lives do you find especially helpful in understanding their perspectives and what their purposes might have been for writing these texts? 
  • Which description of the colonial period do you think is best supported by Columbus’s and Harriot’s texts: a period of discovery, of contact, or of conquest?
  • What influences of the creation story in Genesis do you see on Columbus’s and Harriot’s interpretation of what they see in the New World? What tensions exist between their understanding of what they observe and the interpretation that a Native American might offer (based on what we know from the origin stories we have discussed)?
  • Columbus’s manuscript might be categorized as a journal of discovery, rather than an origin story or sacred text. What stylistic differences do you notice between his text and the origin stories? What kind of literary conventions do you think Columbus is trying to follow in this journal that are different from other genres?
  • What mythical (symbolic or interpretive) elements do you see in Columbus’s and Harriot’s narratives? What historical elements do these texts have? Which examples illustrate the differences between myth and history most clearly?
  • To make Columbus’s journal real to us now, consider the following as you read: substitute “oil” for “gold,” “insurgent” for “savage,” and “freedom” (or “democracy”) for “salvation.” In what ways does Columbus’s narrative compare to our own time?

How accurate is the following animated film in representing Columbus’ travels and legacy, compared to what you see in the text of Columbus’ journal?

Origin stories

Everyone should bring reading notes on Friday over “Wohpe and the Gift of the Pipe,” “The Origin of Stories,” and Genesis 1-3. You’ll find the Lakota and Seneca stories in Volume A of the Heath Anthology (see the syllabus for page numbers). Be sure to read the sample notes on Blackboard for examples.

Questions to consider for notes:

  • What do these three stories tell you about the beliefs or values of the Lakota, Seneca, and European cultures they represent? How do you read Genesis 1-3 in comparison to the other oral narratives (keeping in mind that the Hebrew creation narrative began as an oral narrative before it appeared in print)? 
  • In what ways do you think all three stories can be read as a myth, based on our definition of “myth” in class today? In what ways can these three stories be read as histories? How do you distinguish between the two ways of reading these texts?
  • What are some important themes and symbols in each story? 
  • In the stories for Friday, what complicating aspects of authorship do you find, or what questions might we raise about the reliability of these narratives? Be sure to look at the footnotes in the anthology, as they help clarify sources for the written accounts of the oral narratives.

If you’d like to read more origin stories, see the recommended readings in the syllabus or other creation stories on the online readings page.