The New World in Renaissance Literature Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

The New World in Renaissance Literature

The revelation of America as a newly-discovered continent challenged fundamental aspects of the Renaissance worldview while introducing a new body of ideas and myths into European thought. Strongly influential in shaping perceptions of the New World were the published diaries and letters of such explorers as Sir Walter Raleigh and Hernán Cortés, which documented the course of exploration voyages and the characteristics of the new land and its inhabitants. The literary outgrowths of these popular writings included the expansion of travel literature, fictional genres including the imaginary voyage and the prose romance, and the imaginary societies depicted in Renaissance Utopian literature.

Contemporary critics have noted that Renaissance exploration chronicles are characterized by the imposition of European images and values onto an unfamiliar world—explorers often recorded only what they expected to see, overlooking or severely altering features of the American landscape and Native American culture for which they had no familiar reference point. The Christian tradition, for example, contributed to the early conception of America as an Edenic land populated by "peaceful and innocent children", free from the corruption of material possessions and government. Conversely, as conflicts arose between Europeans and Natives, Indians were widely regarded as "children of Satan" who symbolized the dangerous implications of a world free of law or religion. The Renaissance idea of progress was also influential in depictions of the New World. Percy G. Adams commented: "Very early in the sixteenth century, the discovery of America became a symbol of discovery and invention in general as well as evidence to historians of the New World that their age had made advances over former ages." Such notions as manifest destiny, which have been formative in shaping the course of American history, find their roots in the earliest European colonization efforts and writings that promoted the myth of a European mandate from God to Christianize and profit from the New World.