American Letters: A Literary List, Part I: The Colonial Period

The following is a chronological list of American texts organized by century. Initially, I set out to compose a compendium of American literature (fiction and poetry) consisting of exactly 250 examples, or one for each year from the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 to the 250th anniversary of the United States in 2026. I had envisioned a very tidy list of 25 books to read each year over the next decade. However, I quickly found that this was more difficult than I had first imagined—not reading 25 books in a year; that should be easy enough. Rather, the project itself was flawed.

For one, there is a dearth of what might constitute literature as such during the earliest years of the republic in the late-eighteenth century—the works of Charles Brockden Brown and Susanna Rowson being major exceptions. Though publication increases in the nineteenth century, there remained a few gaps in my list, especially in the first quarter-century—with the exception of Washington IrvingJames Fenimore Cooper, and Lydia Maria Child. Things pick up in the twentieth century with sustained population growth, increases in immigration, technological advancements, and the corresponding complexities of culture and society, i.e.: new subjects for writers to address in their work. So I thought I would just double- or triple-up in the twentieth century to compensate for those gaps in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. However, in the course of my research, I came to realize that what constitutes "American" can be very tricky as well. 

American literature truly begins in the pre-revolutionary colonial period. Much of this writing is in the form of accounts, journal entries, narratives, relations, religious poetry, and sermons, and is therefore not what we would call fiction. However, dramatic embellishments by many colonial authors coupled with their own passionate religious worldviews enabled writing that can hardly be described as nonfiction either. These works are somewhere between fact and fiction, neither journalistic nor entirely fabricated. This blending of fact and fiction runs throughout the history of American literature, from La Relación (1542), the harrowing account of the sixteenth-century Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca's expedition of what is now the southern and southwestern United States and northern Mexico, to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (1972) by Hunter S. Thompson

What follows here is the first installment of "American Letters: A Literary List, Part I: The Colonial Period," outlining the first 250 years of American literature, from Sailors narratives of voyages along the New England coast, 1524-1624 to the United States Declaration of Independence in 1776. Please feel free to read along with me, or occasionally check in to see my progress. 


16th Century

1524-1624
Sailors narratives of voyages along the New England coast, 1524-1624
By George Parker Winship (ed.) & Giovanni da Verrazzano

1542
La Relación
By Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca


17th Century

1630-1651
Of Plymouth Plantation
By William Bradford

1637
The New English Canaan
By Thomas Morton

1640
Bay Psalme Book
By Cotton Mather (preface)

1643
Key into the Languages of America
By Roger Williams

1645
The Simple Cobler of Aggawam in America
By Nathaniel Ward

1650
The Tenth Muse, lately Sprung up in America (book of poetry)
By Anne Bradstreet

1662
"The Day of Doom" (long poem)
By Michael Wigglesworth

1682
A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson
By Mary Rowlandson

1690
The Misfortunes of Alonso Ramírez
By Carlos de Sigüenza


18th Century

1704
Journal of Madam Knight
By Sarah Knight

1710
Essays to Do Good
By Cotton Mather

1728
The History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina
By William Byrd II

1733-1758
Poor Richard's Almanack
By Benjamin Franklin

1741
"Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" (sermon)
By Jonathan Edwards

1741-1746 (?)
Some Account of the Fore Part of the Life of Elizabeth Ashbridge
By Elizabeth Ashbridge

1744
Gentleman's Progress: The Itinerarium of Dr. Alexander Hamilton
By Alexander Hamilton

1770
Father Bombo's Pilgrimage to Mecca (first published in 1975)
By Philip Freneau & Hugh Henry

1771-1788
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and Other Writings
By Benjamin Franklin

1773
Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral
By Phillis Wheatley (first published African-American woman poet)

1774
A Summary View of the Rights of British America
By Thomas Jefferson

1775
Adventures of Alonso... By a Native of Maryland
By Thomas Atwood Digges

1775-1776
Common Sense
By Thomas Paine

1776
United States Declaration of Independence
By Thomas Jefferson et al.