The Literature of Discovery and Exploration

    Contributing Editors:
    Juan Bruce-Novoa and Carla Mulford

    Christopher Columbus (1451-1506)
    Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca (1490?-1556?)
    A Gentleman of Elvas (fl. 1537-1557)
    René Goulaine de Laudonnière (fl. 1562-1582)
    Pedro Menéndez de Avilés (1519-1574)
    Fray Marcos de Niza (1495?-1542?)
    Pedro de Casteñeda (1510?-1570?)
    Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá (1555-1620)
    Samuel de Champlain (1570?-1635)

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    Students' lack of general historical knowledge is compounded by the usual disinformation they learn in U.S. history as taught in this country. To address this problem, I give the students a list of historical facts as they probably have learned them (i.e., dates of Jamestown, Plymouth, etc.), and we discuss this traditional way of teaching U.S. history. I sometimes ask them to draw a map representing U.S. history in movement. Then I give them a second list with the Spanish and French settlements included and discuss how this new context changes the way we conceive of U.S. history. Next I take time to explain the European backgrounds of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in which Spain, the first national state, was a dominant power and England a marginal and even second-rate power. Third, I emphasize the economic reality of colonization. Students must understand that none of the Europeans viewed the Native Americans as equals. The destruction of the Acoma people is just the start of a long U.S. tradition of subjugating conquered peoples and should not be read as a Spanish aberration. The Cabeza de Vaca experience is unique in that it prefigures not only captivity literature but also migrant literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: he and his comrades had to assimilate and acculturate to survive, working at whatever job they could get among a majority culture that did not necessarily need or want them around.

    Students often ask why these texts are important and how they relate to more conventional U.S. literature. You might suggest that they entertain a change in their traditional concept of the U.S. as an English-based country, considering the paradigm of a land that from the start was in contention by forces of several language groups and distinct origins. Students should be taught that this situation is still the same, in spite of the assumption that English won out. The forces present in this period are still contending for a place in U.S. territory. Perhaps the oldest tradition in the U.S. is the struggle among different groups for the recognition of the right to participate fully in making the future of this land.

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    The headnotes specify two major themes: 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.

    The Laudonnière and Avilés 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.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    First, the form of much of this material is the epistolary chronicle: a subjective report on the events without the limitations of supposedly objective historical science. It is a personal account like a memoir, but it is also a letter to a powerful reader, not the general public. It has no literary pretensions, but the circumstances demanded rhetorical skill.

    Second, the period is one of transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, so there will be mixtures of characteristics from the two, the Medieval chronicle alongside the Renaissance epic of Villagrá.

    Style is also hybrid. While most of these authors were educated well above the average commoner of the period, most of them were not trained in letters. Thus their writing is mostly unpretentious and direct. Again, Villagrá is an exception.

    Most of these texts record personal experiences in the New World and thus have a ring of realism and direct contact with the earth and people.

    Original Audience

    The audience then was specifically the powerful leaders. One can compare U.S. military reports on Vietnam or propaganda films on WWII like Victory at Sea to get a sense of nationalistic justification.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    There are plenty of writers in this section to compare and contrast. I would also recommend comparisons with Virginia and New England writers to get a sense of the newness encountered, the use of divine right to justify the project, and the determination to hold and civilize what is seen as wilderness.

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing

    1. Ask students to review what they learned about this period in previous classes: who, what, where, when, why. Have them formulate a brief summary of the period according to this training. Have them compare it to the list of places and events you gave them at first and then to consider what the second list implies.

    2. General assignments: Write about how this information changes their view of U.S. history. Write on the imagery used by the authors to characterize the New World.

    3. Consider the role of violence in the colonization of the Americas.

    Specific possibilities: On Cabeza de Vaca: Compare his experience with Robinson Crusoe's. On Villagrá: Compare his version with the Native American one in the anthology selections.


    See headnotes for references.