The Changing American Literary Canon

Secularism in American Literature from 1630 to 1846

It is fairly clear to see that over the history of American Literature there have been countless diverse strategies and paradigms that have influenced generations of prose. Many of these literary traditions have redefined and have had profound effects on their respective genres while others are but footnotes. Perhaps the most interesting of these literary developments has been the introduction and rise of secularism in American writing; as an idea planted in the early seventeenth century (or at least introduced in the Americas with thanks to European Enlightenment), secularism has grown into a full tree from which all of us pick the fruit. Examples are all-encompassing and benefit religion, liberty, and progressivism—the pinnacle of Jefferson’s Wall[1] being the American Revolution itself.

Whatever the case may be for the products of secularism in society, the actual evidence in writing is revealing enough, and interesting in itself. There seems to have been a gradual acceptance of enlightenment principles, which can be traced back to as early as Thomas Morton’s work, more easily identifiable in Thomas Paine’s writing, and which evolved into the more esoteric example of secularism of Edgar Allan Poe’s work. Poe is interesting in that regard because not only is religion not the driving force of his work, but it seems to have taken on the same purpose of the Greek Myths—allegorical accounts and reference, arcane supposition and eldritch atmosphere. On the scale of the influence of theocracy-to-secularism in American literature, Poe would be at the extreme end of religious non-influence, whereas someone like William Bradford would be his opposite.

Four authors from the years 1630 to 1846 can therefore provide adequate literary evidence of this change from predominantly Christian prose to a more diverse and expansive understanding of the world through a secular lens: William Bradford and his ideological crash with Thomas Morton, the fiercely independent polemics of Thomas Paine, and finally the highest art of Poe (who might be said to have lived the ideas that Paine wrote on). The themes of obedience, revelation, and independence are the phases by which American literature metamorphosed from theocratic prose that targeted a newly literate population into the wondrous creature of modern literacy and knowledge aimed at the informed inhabitants of a democratic society.

As with most pre-enlightenment writings the references to god, scripture, and good morals flourish in Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation. Being a Puritan, Bradford was devoted to the honoring and worship of the Christian God whether it was through his actions, his thoughts, or his written and spoken word. Bradford was also a fatalist, meaning that he believed that every event, every damned or saved soul, was determined by his God at the creation of the universe. This is crucial to understand from his writing because it reveals a system of care whereby horrible things can go without reflection, and there is an invisible but effective system of justice in the universe[2]—bad things will happen to bad people, and if a bad thing happens to a good person, then that person was not truly good.

When Bradford describes a member of the crew on his ship during the events of their journey to North America, it is disconcerting to find that this belief in pre-destiny might also serve as an excuse to think otherwise horrible things, a way to reconcile personal vendetta. Bradford describes this sailor as a “very profane young man…lusty, [with an] able body… [and] haughty” giving the reader enough information already to understand that the sailor is not well liked by Braford’s standards. This crewman, as the account in Of Plymouth Plantation has it, had been “contemning the poor people in their sickness, and curing them daily with grievous execrations, and did not let to tell them, that he hoped to…cast them overboard” (131). The account continues when the aforementioned sailor was himself taken ill, dies, and was the first to be thrown overboard after which Bradford exclaims “Thus his curses lighted on his own head; and it was an astonishment to all his fellows, for they noted it to be the just hand of God upon him” (131). By today’s standards the actions of the sailor are contemptuous, and Bradford’s own dislike of the man can be understood, but as analysis of Bradford’s historicity reveals (especially in that Morton’s account on many issues differs considerably) not everything in Of Plymouth Plantation can or should be taken as truth.

Bradford’s writings become extraordinarily interesting when he introduces his fictionalized version of Thomas Morton and the latter’s life on so-called Merry Mount, the land where Morton lived. Almost like the satanic-cult scare in the late 20th century, Bradford seemed quite sure that the activities that Morton was engaging in were in some way wicked. What surely was only a gathering of alcohol, sexuality, and feasting Bradford insisted that they celebrated “as if they had anew revived and celebrated the feasts of the Roman Goddess Flora, or the beastly practice of the mad Bacchanalians” (145) which seems like hyperbole, if not entirely false. Unless one is to believe that Morton and his cohorts were frenzied and tore apart wild animals and devoured them, Bradford’s account is not only judgmental and ignorant, but historically inaccurate—a trait (lying outright) less prevalent post-enlightenment because claims that are made could be checked more easily. The picture that emerges in the reader’s mind is absolutely phantasmagorical and reveals Bradford’s artistic account of the early pilgrims.

It is this freedom with casting truth in his favor that Bradford’s writings are considered literature and not history, though his writings certainly do create the standard by which the advancement of nonspiritual values can be contrasted. In his conflicts with Morton is revealed the emergence of American secularism—the shift from obedience to revelation (though true revelation might be said to only emerge through Paine). Morton seems to represent a more accurate account of the early American settlements, as well as gives reason to suspect in the first place that Bradford’s actions were for personal glory rather the glory of God, as he professed.

This is most clearly evidenced in Morton’s New England Canaan where he describes the events whereby Bradford sent a team of men over to burn Merry Mount and capture Morton for no crime other than what Morton identifies as jealousy: “The Separatists, envying the prosperity and hope of the plantation at Ma-re Mount…conspired together against [me]” including “many threatening speeches [that were] given out both against [me] and [my] habitation, which they divulged should be consumed with fire” (161). Though not directly related to the emergence of secularism, Morton reveals this for another reason later in his writing that Bradford’s actions against him “would add to their glory and diminish the reputation of mine honest host” (164). Morton’s sentiments here seem to show his negative opinion of theocratic dominance over liberty, firmly establishing himself as a writer who sees the benefits of secularism for both the religious and the non-religious. His statement also reaffirms the issue of Bradford secretly seeking personal advancement under the guise of holy motives.

The explanation of the clash between Bradford and Morton is vital to the emergence of American Secularism precisely because Bradford is so far from representing those newer ideas in any way. Morton, on the other hand, does show some of the first feelings of doubt and change to the old ways of writing and thinking. This is not to say that Morton is as radical in thought as those who came after him and developed on those ideas, but he is not irrelevant.

Nowhere else is the transition in theme from obedience to profane revelation seen than in Paine’s The Age of Reason, though. While it is important to recognize that the expression of this revelation is more prominent in Paine than it is in Poe (but that is because, for Poe, the advancement of secularism is taken for granted and entirely normal[3]), Paine was one of the many who fought for it and as such the attitude will be more extreme and easily noticeable. The audience that Paine, the Prince of Pamphleteers, wrote for was ignorant by today’s higher standards (just as we may be senseless compared to humanity in two hundred years’ time), but nevertheless educated and more aware for the time, certainly more so than the audience Bradford wrote for some years before. This alone says a remarkable amount about the inclusion of secular values over time by excluding overt references to being a Christian and a strident follower of scripture. Whatever can be said of Paine’s personal beliefs, his writing tells the world that he is a man of reason; perhaps that is why he titled his works the way he did[4] (another example is Common Sense). His readership did not begrudge him his lack of spirituality, though he had his fair share of critics. As a step removed from Morton, Paine heavily criticized organized religion, particularly Christianity, by accusing the central faith of being “sprung out of the tail of the heathen mythology” (655). If not irreverent enough, Paine goes on to explain himself by recognizing that “the trinity of gods [in Christianity] that then followed was no other than a reduction of the former plurality [of Greek gods]” and that “the deification of heroes [in Greek myths] changed into the canonization of saints,” and finally and most obviously when he writes that Christianity is little different than the other myths but has been “accommodated to the purposes of power and revenue” (656). This is the type of thought that would have been impossible in Bradford’s time and place, given Morton was nearly killed merely because of the rumors and supposition of purportedly devilish activities. Paine’s writing also challenges Bradford in a more direct way than Morton’s does, clearly saying that the supposedly holy motives that the Puritans had were not that at all, but only a business decision that Bradford was aware of but his followers were not[5]. Paine’s contribution to the American Secular canon is still acknowledged today as one of the most important aspects of the American Revolution and the continued support for a separation of church and state. In a very real way, Paine represents the climax of the rise of American Secularism and values, thus concluding the second part of the metamorphosis.

If Paine is the climax of the war for secularism in literature, Poe is the utopia afterwards. As can be read through Poe, the theme most identifiable is that of independence—a separation of the issues that religion offers from his own works. This follows the metamorphosis from obedience to independence through revelation. This is not to say, however, that Poe writes about independence, or that that theme is stronger than his favorite topic: death. Of course Poe has his own interests and variations on themes, but the leitmotif of independence is expressed because Poe is able to focus on the issues that are not holy, or in any way related to Christian dogma. In an absurd way, Poe is most like Bradford because neither of them deals with the fight between secularism and religion. That is, obviously, where the connections stop, though.

Though it seems not to be definitively stated, it is a good guess to say that Poe was not a Christian in the classic sense; some have even gone as far as saying that he was an atheist, but that seems to be nothing more than speculation. What can be said with certainty is that in his writing the Christian imagery is used purely in a secular fashion, that is, it performs the same function that references to either Greek myths or Egyptian myths do—metaphor and mood. In his poem “Annabel Lee”, Poe refers to “the winged seraphs of heaven/ coveted her and me” (643). From what can be ascertained from his “Philosophy of Composition” this divine reference serves only to aid in his form, which was the focus of his poetry. He builds on words and the way that the whole piece sounds rather than on the meaning of individual words; he is an incredibly formulaic writer. The word “seraphs” just happened to have the right sound to it and be the right length; after all there is a reason he used that word and not cherubim, which arguably has a heavier sound to it, besides being longer. The poem continues “The angels, not so half happy in heaven/ went envying her and me” (643), which is notable because instead of the already established word “seraphs” Poe the more conventional “angels” further demonstrating his systematic approach[6]. This same process and effect are detectable in his short story “Ligeia” where the narrator says, “I cannot, for my soul, remember how, when, or even precisely where I first became acquainted with the lady Ligeia” (644). The word “soul” here being merely a common word to use to refer to one’s mind or true self, and having absolutely nothing to do with the Bradford or Jonathan Edward’s style of religion. What is important about this is that, unlike Morton or even Paine, Poe seems to employ this word with no attachment to meaning; the word religion means less to him than do secularism and atheism to Bradford.

Of course these four authors represent only a small fraction of the entire picture, but certainly an important one. Together these writers show the setup of theocratic prose and its eventual downfall (after the enlightenment brought in a new way of thinking and being critical) ultimately leading to the irrelevance of religion as identified in Poe. How this has changed since then and how it is seen in our society today remain in question and surely there have been oscillations between religious supremacy and obscurity. What is not in question is that these four authors, all in their own way, contributed to the state of affairs in American Literary Canon today. They represent the journey from America’s pre-enlightenment larval infancy through its time constrained by the chrysalis of custom and finally allowed American Secularism, in all its diversity, to fly on its own path without the need for intervening literature or unnecessary temperance.




Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation. Franklin. 131-145.


Franklin, et al. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 8th ed. New York: W.W. Norton,

  1. Print.


“Jefferson’s Wall of Separation Letter.”Jefferson’s Wall of Separation Letter. Web. 7 Nov. 2014.


Morton, Thomas. New English Canaan. Franklin. 161-164.


Paine, Thomas. Age of Reason. Franklin. 655-656


Poe, Edgar Allan. Ligeia and Annabel Lee. Franklin. 643-644.



[1] Refers to a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802 in which he wrote in favor of the separation of church and state. The famous excerpt is as follows: “legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”

[2] The Arabic word “Inshallah” is a shorter and fuller version of this sentiment. It means “God willing”. Deo volente is another such phrase, though in Latin.

[3] Today we also take it for granted, though there have been religious revivals since that have required more contact with pre-enlightenment ideas. The creationism versus evolution argument in many southern states is a prime example of just such a situation that calls for a Paine-style approach to debate.

[4] The constant references to understanding reveal an attitude in society that was not hostile to new information like the previous generations were. Truly Paine is a product of the enlightenment

[5] Other examples of just such a scheme are too numerous to list here, and are possibly inflammatory.

[6] Poe described a part of his method thus: “it became necessary to select a word embodying this sound, and at the same time in the fullest possible keeping with that melancholy which I had predetermined as the tone of the poem” (Poe 723).

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