Questions for Bradford

  • 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 Hutchinson

  • 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.

Questions for Winthrop

  • 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 one exception below.
  • 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 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?

Examples of allusions to Winthrop in American politics:

Questions for Smith

  • What does Smith add to our discussion of whether this period might be best characterized as one of discovery, contact, or conquest?
  • What do we learn from the bio sketch and Smith’s text about who his intended audience might be? What differences do you see between his imagined reader(s) and the audiences Columbus, Casas, and Cabeza de Vaca had in mind? How might Smith’s intended audience shape both his tone and the content of his narrative?
  • As with Vaca’s Relation, we might consider the stylistic complexity of Smith’s writing. How reliable is his presentation of the narrative as a history? What other literary classifications might be appropriate for this excerpt? Why might Smith refer to himself in the third person, and what effect does this have on the narrative?
  • How might we find a proper balance between “reading against the grain” of Smith’s narrative and trying to understand how his views might have been shaped by his time?

For fun, we might compare these film versions of Smith’s narrative with his original text:

Thoughts on “Ikto Conquers Iya, the Eater”

This story, like many transcribed oral narratives, invites a host of questions about authorship and textual preservation. It’s worth noting that the version the anthology provides by way of Deloria’s translation is not identical to the original, having lost the performative qualities of an oral narrative and the tribal sense of audience that the oral tradition assumes. Even so, the tale is remarkable for its stylistic contrast to the personal and historical narratives written by the Spanish and English during this period. Its relevance to our course lies primarily in its glimpse of a worldview other than the Judeo-Christian tradition and in the ways it and other oral narratives anticipate literary conventions that define American literature in the nineteenth century.

From its opening lines, “Ikto” piques the imagination. Iktomi is “wandering,” presumably without purpose, when he happens upon Iya. Both startle each other, and their debate about who is the elder establishes a conflict that moves toward a climax and denouement, the way a work of short fiction might. The characters are colorful, memorable for their imperfections (such as Iktomi’s cursing and Iya’s unwieldy girth), and unpredictable. As dull as Iya seems, bent only on eating everyone in his path, he is distinctive because he seems not to destroy the people he eats (whole tribes still live in his belly, as Ikto observes through his mouth as he sleeps). He poses a real threat, but he seems slow-witted as he confesses his vulnerabilities to Iktomi.

Iktomi is distinctive in other tales for his shape-shifting and caprice, but in this text his cunning is chiefly impressive. Rather than attempting to stop Iya through brute force, a match he would surely lose even if he is the elder, Iktomi lures him into confessing his vulnerabilities, then exploits them. As the footnotes suggest, this is a rare instance where Iktomi eases rather than causes human suffering, reinforcing the nuanced view of good and evil in the Iroquois and Navajo creation stories, where no deity or human is wholly good or wholly evil.

European writers of this period – Columbus, Casas, Cabeza de Vaca – stress the factuality of their writing, sometimes explicitly claiming not to lie or exaggerate. Iktomi makes no such promise to Iya, and his deception becomes a key stratagem for survival. Whereas a veneer of naiveté and honesty pervades the Spanish writings, cunning (even outright lying) is the mark of a superior mind in the Sioux tale. As we’ll see in the Puritan writings, Europeans often attributed this kind of cunning – when they observed it in their dealings with Natives – to evil, even satanic qualities. Doing so meant misunderstanding the reasons indigenous people had for speaking warily to Europeans – and the value that deception might have as a survival strategy.

But this quality – outwitting an antagonist or character foil – is often celebrated in short fiction. For instance, Irving’s prankster Brom Bones, in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” dupes Ichabod Crane to the reader’s great satisfaction and, potentially, to the benefit of the community. One of the hallmarks of Enlightenment writing was satire, which might be seen as a close cousin of a lie: saying one thing but intending another. A satirist is a kind of trickster, one might say, who might use irony as an instructional tool or purely for entertainment.

These are only a few reasons why I believe it is imperative to frame the American literary tradition with the oral tradition. Trickster tales and creation tales not only reveal a rich literary history in North American before European contact, they also emphasize storytelling conventions that white authors would emulate as American fiction, poetry, and essay writing came of age in the nineteenth century. As Craig Womack suggests, “Without Native American literature, there is no American canon.” Not only should the American canon include Native American literature, it should recognize the influence of the oral tradition on literary style in America. Whatever innovations Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and other writers of the American Renaissance might have pioneered, they also owe a debt to the First Nations storytellers they emulated in part.

Questions for Cabeza de Vaca and Trickster Tales

  • Compare/contrast Cabeza de Vaca’s account with those we’ve seen in Columbus and Casas. What does Cabeza de Vaca add to our conversation about whether this period is best characterized as one of discovery, contact, or conquest?
  • Bearing in mind that Cabeza de Vaca did not interact with the Sioux, how might the Sioux trickster tale about Iktomi (or Ikto) help us extend our discussion of cultural comparisons and contrasts between European and Native American creation stories? Where in The Relation do you feel Cabeza de Vaca is getting closer to understanding indigenous culture on its own terms? Where does he project European or Catholic values onto Native American society?
  • What genre might best describe The Relation? Memoir/autobiography, history, biography? Something else? Compare/contrast stylistically to “Ikto Conquers Iya, the Eater.” What do these literary artifacts tell you, stylistically or thematically, about how the Spanish and the Sioux viewed the world – and how they represented truth or reality, as they understood it, in literary narratives
  • Who is the author’s intended audience? How might you describe his purpose? How do the audience and purpose of the text influence its tone and structure?
  • Where does Cabeza de Vaca’s text fit into the historical timeline that we’ve covered so far? What is significant about when it was read, or when it joined the conversation among Spanish and other Europeans about the New World?
  • Some scholars see La Relación (The Relation) as the first “American” narrative because the author’s identity is transformed into something new by the end of his journey. In what ways does he seem to change throughout the narrative? What evidence makes these changes in his character persuasive or unpersuasive?
  • What other questions does Cabeza de Vaca raise for you?

For fun – here is a cartoon representation of The Relation:

Questions for Columbus and Casas

  • 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? Who are their audiences? How might these audiences influence the tone or content of their narratives?
  • Which description of the colonial period do you think is best supported by Columbus’s and Casas’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 Casas’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 and Casas’s texts might be classified differently from an origin story or sacred text. What stylistic differences do you notice between their texts and the origin stories? What kind of literary conventions do you think Columbus and Casas are trying to follow in a letter or a history that are different from other genres, such as origin stories, essays, sermons, ___?
  • What mythical elements do you see in Columbus’s and Casas’s narratives? What historical elements do these texts have? Which examples illustrate the differences between myth and history most clearly?

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