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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Colonial American Literature

By Moses Coit Tyler (1835–1900)

[Born in Griswold, Conn., 1835. Died in Ithaca, N. Y., 1900. A History of American Literature.—Vols. I., II. 1879.]


THE PRESENT race of Americans who are of English lineage—that is, the most numerous and decidedly the dominant portion of the American people of to-day—are the direct descendants of the crowds of Englishmen who came to America in the seventeenth century. Our first literary period, therefore, fills the larger part of that century in which American civilization had its planting; even as its training into some maturity and power has been the business of the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. Of course, also, the most of the men who produced American literature during that period were immigrant authors of English birth and English culture; while the most of those who have produced American literature in the subsequent periods have been authors of American birth and of American culture. Notwithstanding their English birth, these first writers in America were Americans: we may not exclude them from our story of American literature. They founded that literature; they are its Fathers; they stamped their spiritual lineaments upon it; and we shall never deeply enter into the meanings of American literature in its later forms without tracing it back, affectionately, to its beginning with them. At the same time, our first literary epoch cannot fail to bear traces of the fact that nearly all the men who made it were Englishmen who had become Americans merely by removing to America. American life, indeed, at once reacted upon their minds, and began to give its tone and hue to their words; and for every reason, what they wrote here, we rightfully claim as a part of American literature; but England has a right to claim it likewise as a part of English literature. Indeed England and America are joint proprietors of this first tract of the great literary territory which we have undertaken to survey. Ought any one to wonder, however, if in the American literature of the seventeenth century he shall find the distinctive traits, good and bad, which during the same period characterized English literature? How could it be otherwise? Is it likely that an Englishman undergoes a literary revolution by sitting down to write in America instead of in England; or that he will write either much better or much worse only for having sailed across a thousand leagues of brine?

Undoubtedly literature for its own sake was not much thought of, or lived for, in those days. The men and women of force were putting their force into the strong and most urgent tasks pertaining to this world and the next. There was an abundance of intellectual vitality among them; and the nation grew

  • “strong thru shifts, an’ wants, an’ pains,
  • Nussed by stern men with empires in their brains.”
  • Literature as a fine art, literature as the voice and the mistress of æsthetic delight, they had perhaps little skill in and little regard for; but literature as an instrument of humane and immediate utility, they honored, and at this they wrought with all the earnestness that was born in their blood. They wrote books not because they cared to write books, but because by writing books they could accomplish certain other things which they did care for.

    And what were those other things? If we can discover them we shall at once grasp the clue to the right classification and the right interpretation of that still chaotic heap of writings which make up American literature in the colonial age….

    The several groups of writings … sprang in considerable measure from motives looking toward the love, or the interest, or the authority of the people of England, from whom those earliest Americans had but recently withdrawn themselves. These groups of writings, however, by no means constitute a moiety of American literature even in our first period. By far the larger portion of our writings were composed for our own people alone, and with reference to our own interests, inspirations, and needs. These include, first, sermons and other religious treatises; second, histories; and third, poetry and some examples of miscellaneous prose.

    Since the earliest English colonists upon these shores began to make a literature as soon as they arrived here, it follows that we can fix the exact date of the birth of American literature. It is that year 1607, when Englishmen, by transplanting themselves to America, first began to be Americans. Thus may the history of our literature be traced back from the present hour, as it recedes along the track of our national life, through the early days of the republic, through five generations of colonial existence, until, in the first decade of the seventeenth century, it is merged in its splendid parentage—the written speech of England. And the birth-epoch of American literature was a fortunate one: it was amid the full magnificence of the Elizabethan period, whose creative vitality, whose superb fruitage reached forward and cast their glory across the entire generation succeeding the death of Elizabeth herself. The first lispings of American literature were heard along the sands of the Chesapeake and near the gurgling tides of the James River, at the very time when the firmament of English literature was all ablaze with the light of her full-orbed and most wonderful writers, the wits, the dramatists, scholars, orators, singers, philosophers, who formed that incomparable group of titanic men gathered in London during the earlier years of the seventeenth century; when the very air of London must have been electric with the daily words of those immortals, whose casual talk upon the pavement by the street-side was a coinage of speech richer, more virile, more expressive, than has been known on this planet since the great days of Athenian poetry, eloquence, and mirth….


    Did the people of New England in their earliest age begin to produce a literature? Who can doubt it? With their incessant activity of brain, with so much both of common and of uncommon culture among them, with intellectual interests so lofty and strong, with so many outward occasions to stir their deepest passions into the same great currents, it would be hard to explain it had they indeed produced no literature. Moreover, contrary to what is commonly asserted of them, they were not without a literary class. In as large a proportion to the whole population as was then the case in the mother-country, there were in New England many men trained to the use of books, accustomed to express themselves fluently by voice and pen, and not so immersed in the physical tasks of life as to be deprived of the leisure for whatever writing they were prompted to undertake. It was a literary class made up of men of affairs, country-gentlemen, teachers, above all of clergymen; men of letters who did not depend upon letters for their bread, and who thus did their work under conditions of intellectual independence. Nor is it true that all the environments of their lives were unfriendly to literary action; indeed for a certain class of minds those environments were extremely wholesome and stimulating. There were about them many of the tokens and forces of a picturesque, romantic, and impressive life: the infinite solitudes of the wilderness, its mystery, its peace; the near presence of nature, vast, potent, unassailed; the strange problems presented to them by savage character and savage life; their own escape from great cities, from crowds, from mean competitions; the luxury of having room enough; the delight of being free; the urgent interest of all the Protestant world in their undertaking; the hopes of humanity already looking thither; the coming to them of scholars, saints, statesmen, philosophers. Many of these factors in the early colonial times are such as cannot be reached by statistics, and are apt to be lost by those who merely grope on the surface of history. If our antiquarians have generally missed this view, it may reassure us to know that our greatest literary artists have not failed to see it. “New England,” as Hawthorne believed, “was then in a state incomparably more picturesque than at present, or than it has been within the memory of man.” That, indeed, was the beginning of “the old colonial day” which Longfellow has pictured to us,
  • “When men lived in a grander way,
  • With ampler hospitality.”
  • For the study of literature, they turned with eagerness to the ancient classics; read them freely; quoted them with apt facility. Though their new home was but a province, their minds were not provincial: they had so stalwart and chaste a faith in the ideas which brought them to America as to think that wherever those ideas were put into practice, there was the metropolis. In the public expression of thought they limited themselves by restraints which, though then prevalent in all parts of the civilized world, now seem shameful and intolerable: the printing-press in New England during the seventeenth century was in chains. The first instrument of the craft and mystery of printing was set up at Cambridge in 1639, under the auspices of Harvard College; and for the subsequent twenty-three years the president of that College was in effect responsible for the good behavior of the terrible machine. His control of it did not prove sufficiently vigilant. The fears of the clergy were excited by the lenity that had permitted the escape into the world of certain books which tended “to open the door of heresy”; therefore, in 1662 two official licensers were appointed, without whose consent nothing was to be printed. Even this did not make the world seem safe; and two years afterward the law was made more stringent. Other licensers were appointed; excepting the one at Cambridge no printing-press was to be allowed in the colony; and if from the printing-press that was allowed, anything should be printed without the permission of the licensers, the peccant engine was to be forfeited to the government and the printer himself was to be forbidden the exercise of his profession “within this jurisdiction for the time to come.” But even the new licensers were not severe enough. In 1667, having learned that these officers had given their consent to the publication of “The Imitation of Christ,” a book written “by a popish minister, wherein is contained some things that are less safe to be infused amongst the people of this place,” the authorities directed that the book should be returned to the licensers for “a more full revisal,” and that in the mean time the printing-press should stand still. In the leading colony of New England legal restraints upon printing were not entirely removed until about twenty-one years before the Declaration of Independence.

    The chief literary disadvantages of New England were, that her writers lived far from the great repositories of books, and far from the central currents of the world’s best thinking; that the lines of their own literary activity were few; and that, though they nourished their minds upon the Hebrew Scriptures and upon the classics of the Roman and Greek literatures, they stood aloof, with a sort of horror, from the richest and most exhilarating types of classic writing in their own tongue. In many ways their literary development was stunted and stiffened by the narrowness of Puritanism. Nevertheless, what they lacked in symmetry of culture and in range of literary movement, was something which the very integrity of their natures was sure to compel them, either in themselves or in their posterity, to acquire. For the people of New England it must be said that in stock, spiritual and physical, they were well started; and that of such a race, under such opportunities, almost anything great and bright may be predicted. Within their souls at that time the æsthetic sense was crushed down and almost trampled out by the fell tyranny of their creed. But the æsthetic sense was still within them; and in pure and wholesome natures such as theirs, its emergence was only a matter of normal growth. They who have their eyes fixed in adoration upon the beauty of holiness are not far from the sight of all beauty. It is not permitted to us to doubt that in music, in painting, architecture, sculpture, poetry, prose, the highest art will be reached, in some epoch of its growth, by the robust and versatile race sprung from those practical idealists of the seventeenth century—those impassioned seekers after the invisible truth and beauty and goodness. Even in their times, as we shall presently see, some sparkles and prophecies of the destined splendor could not help breaking forth….


    In his theme, in his audience, in the appointments of each sacred occasion, the preacher had everything to stimulate him to put into his sermons his utmost intellectual force. The entire community were present, constituting a congregation hardly to be equalled now for its high average of critical intelligence: trained to acute and rugged thinking by their habit of grappling day by day with the most difficult problems in theology; fond of subtile metaphysical distinctions; fond of system, minuteness, and completeness of treatment; not bringing to church any moods of listlessness or flippancy; not expecting to find there mental diversion, or mental repose; but going there with their minds aroused for strenuous and robust work, and demanding from the preacher solid thought, not gushes of sentiment, not torrents of eloquent sound. Then, too, there was time enough for the preacher to move upon his subject carefully, and to turn himself about in it, and to develop the resources of it amply, to his mind’s content, hour by hour, in perfect assurance that his congregation would not desert him either by going out or by going to sleep. Moreover, if a single discourse, even on the vast scale of a Puritan pulpit-performance, were not enough to enable him to give full statement to his topic, he was at liberty, according to a favorite usage in those days, to resume and continue the topic week by week, and month by month, in orderly sequence; thus, after the manner of a professor of theology, traversing with minute care and triumphant completeness the several great realms of his science. If the methods of the preacher resembled those of a theological professor, it may be added that his congregation likewise had the appearance of an assemblage of theological students; since it was customary for nearly every one to bring his note-book to church, and to write in it diligently as much of the sermon as he could take down. They had no newspapers, no theatres, no miscellaneous lectures, no entertainments of secular music or of secular oratory, none of the genial distractions of our modern life: the place of all these was filled by the sermon. The sermon was without a competitor in the eye or mind of the community. It was the central and commanding incident in their lives; the one stately spectacle for all men and all women year after year; the grandest matter of anticipation or of memory; the theme for hot disputes on which all New England would take sides, and which would seem sometimes to shake the world to its centre. Thus were the preachers held to a high standard of intellectual work. Hardly anything was lacking that could incite a strong man to do his best continually, to the end of his days; and into the function of preaching, the supreme function at that time in popular homage and influence, the strongest men were drawn. Their pastorships were usually for life; and no man could long satisfy such listeners, or fail soon to talk himself empty in their presence, who did not toil mightily in reading and in thinking, pouring ideas into his mind even faster than he poured them out of it.

    Without doubt, the sermons produced in New England during the colonial times, and especially during the seventeenth century, are the most authentic and characteristic revelations of the mind of New England for all that wonderful epoch. They are commonly spoken of mirthfully by an age that lacks the faith of that period, its earnestness, its grip, its mental robustness; a grinning and a flabby age, an age hating effort, and requiring to be amused. The theological and religious writings of early New England may not now be readable; but they are certainly not despicable. They represent an enormous amount of subtile, sustained, and sturdy brain-power. They are, of course, grave, dry, abstruse, dreadful; to our debilitated attentions they are hard to follow; in style they are often uncouth and ponderous; they are technical in the extreme; they are devoted to a theology that yet lingers in the memory of mankind only through certain shells of words long since emptied of their original meaning. Nevertheless, these writings are monuments of vast learning, and of a stupendous intellectual energy both in the men who produced them and in the men who listened to them. Of course they can never be recalled to any vital human interest. They have long since done their work in moving the minds of men. Few of them can be cited as literature. In the mass, they can only be labelled by the antiquarians and laid away upon shelves to be looked at occasionally as curiosities of verbal expression, and as relics of an intellectual condition gone forever. They were conceived by noble minds; they are themselves noble. They are superior to our jests. We may deride them, if we will; but they are not derided….


    A happy surprise awaits those who come to the study of the early literature of New England with the expectation of finding it altogether and in sentiment, or void of the spirit and aroma of poetry. The New-Englander of the seventeenth century was indeed a typical Puritan; and it will hardly be said that any typical Puritan of that century was a poetical personage. In proportion to his devotion to the ideas that won for him the derisive honor of his name, was he at war with nearly every form of the beautiful. He himself believed that there was an inappeasable feud between religion and art; and hence, the duty of suppressing art was bound up in his soul with the master-purpose of promoting religion. He cultivated the grim and the ugly. He was afraid of the approaches of Satan through the avenues of what is graceful and joyous. The principal business of men and women in this world seemed to him to be not to make it as delightful as possible, but to get through it as safely as possible. By a whimsical and horrid freak of unconscious Manichæism, he thought that whatever is good here is appropriated to God, and whatever is pleasant, to the devil. It is not strange if he were inclined to measure the holiness of a man’s life by its disagreeableness. In the logic and fury of his tremendous faith, he turned away utterly from music, from sculpture and painting, from architecture, from the adornments of costume, from the pleasures and embellishments of society; because these things seemed only “the devil’s flippery and seduction” to his “ascetic soul, aglow with the gloomy or rapturous mysteries of his theology.” Hence, very naturally, he turned away likewise from certain great and splendid types of literature,—from the drama, from the playful and sensuous verse of Chaucer and his innumerable sons, from the secular prose writings of his contemporaries, and from all forms of modern lyric verse except the Calvinistic hymn.

    Nevertheless, the Puritan did not succeed in eradicating poetry from his nature. Of course, poetry was planted there too deep even for his theological grub-hooks to root it out. Though denied expression in one way, the poetry that was in him forced itself into utterance in another. If his theology drove poetry out of many forms in which it had been used to reside, poetry itself practised a noble revenge by taking up its abode in his theology. His supreme thought was given to theology; and there he nourished his imagination with the mightiest and sublimest conceptions that a human being can entertain—conceptions of God and man, of angels and devils, of Providence and duty and destiny, of heaven, earth, hell. Though he stamped his foot in horror and scorn upon many exquisite and delicious types of literary art; stripped society of all its embellishments, life of all its amenities, sacred architecture of all its grandeur, the public service of divine worship of the hallowed pomp, the pathos and beauty of its most reverend and stately forms; though his prayers were often a snuffle, his hymns a dolorous whine, his extemporized liturgy a bleak ritual of ungainly postures and of harsh monotonous howls; yet the idea that filled and thrilled his soul was one in every way sublime, immense, imaginative, poetic—the idea of the awful omnipotent Jehovah, his inexorable justice, his holiness, the inconceivable brightness of his majesty, the vastness of his unchanging designs along the entire range of his relations with the hierarchies of heaven, the principalities and powers of the pit, and the elect and the reprobate of the sons of Adam. How resplendent and superb was the poetry that lay at the heart of Puritanism, was seen by the sightless eyes of John Milton, whose great epic is indeed the epic of Puritanism.

    Turning to Puritanism as it existed in New England, we may perhaps imagine it as solemnly declining the visits of the Muses of poetry, sending out to them the blunt but honest message—“Otherwise engaged.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Of course, Thalia, and Melpomene, and Terpsichore could not under any pretence have been admitted; but Polyhymnia—why should not she have been allowed to come in? especially if she were willing to forsake her deplorable sisters, give up her pagan habits, and submit to Christian baptism. Indeed, the Muse of New England, whosoever that respectable damsel may have been, was a muse by no means exclusive; such as she was, she cordially visited every one who would receive her,—and every one would receive her. It is an extraordinary fact about these grave and substantial men of New England, especially during our earliest literary age, that they all had a lurking propensity to write what they sincerely believed to be poetry,—and this, in most cases, in unconscious defiance of the edicts of nature and of a predetermining Providence. Lady Mary Montagu said that in England, in her time, verse-making had become as common as taking snuff: in New England, in the age before that, it had become much more common than taking snuff—since there were some who did not take snuff. It is impressive to note, as we inspect our first period, that neither advanced age, nor high office, nor mental unfitness, nor previous condition of respectability, was sufficient to protect any one from the poetic vice. We read of venerable men, like Peter Bulkley, continuing to lapse into it when far beyond the grand climacteric. Governor Thomas Dudley was hardly a man to be suspected of such a thing; yet even against him the evidence must be pronounced conclusive: some verses in his own handwriting were found upon his person after his death. Even the sage and serious governor of Plymouth wrote ostensible poems. The renowned pulpit-orator, John Cotton, did the same; although, in some instances, he prudently concealed the fact by inscribing his English verses in Greek characters upon the blank leaves of his almanac. Here and there, even a town-clerk, placing on record the deeply prosaic proceedings of the selectmen, would adorn them in the sacred costume of poetry. Perhaps, indeed, all this was their solitary condescension to human frailty. The earthly element, the passion, the carnal taint, the vanity, the weariness, or whatever else it be that, in other men, works itself off in a pleasure-journey, in a flirtation, in going to the play, or in a convivial bout, did in these venerable men exhaust itself in the sly dissipation of writing verses. Remembering their unfriendly attitude toward art in general, this universal mania of theirs for some forms of the poetic art—this unrestrained proclivity toward the “lust of versification”—must seem to us an odd psychological freak. Or, shall we rather say that it was not a freak at all, but a normal effort of nature, which, being unduly repressed in one direction, is accustomed to burst over all barriers in another; and that these grim and godly personages in the old times fell into the intemperance of rhyming, just as in later days, excellent ministers of the gospel and gray-haired deacons, recoiling from the sin and scandal of a game at billiards, have been known to manifest an inordinate joy in the orthodox frivolity of croquet? As respects the poetry which was perpetrated by our ancestors, it must be mentioned that a benignant Providence has its own methods of protecting the human family from intolerable misfortune; and that the most of this poetry has perished. Enough, however, has survived to furnish us with materials for everlasting gratitude, by enabling us in a measure to realize the nature and extent of the calamity which the divine intervention has spared us….


    In the intellectual distinction of the Mather family, there seemed to be, for at least three generations, a certain cumulative felicity. The general acknowledgment of this fact is recorded in an old epitaph, composed for the founder of the illustrious tribe:
  • “Under this stone lies Richard Mather,
  • Who had a son greater than his father,
  • And eke a grandson greater than either.”
  • This overtopping grandson was, of course, none other than Cotton Mather, the literary behemoth of New England in our colonial era; the man whose fame as a writer surpasses, in later times and especially in foreign countries, that of any other pre-Revolutionary American, excepting Jonathan Edwards and Benjamin Franklin.

    The twelfth of February, 1663, was the happy day on which he was bestowed upon the world,—the eldest of a family of ten children, his mother being the only daughter of the celebrated pulpit-orator, John Cotton. In himself, therefore, the forces and graces of two ancestral lines renowned for force and for grace seemed to meet and culminate.

    From his earliest childhood, and through all his days, he was gazed at and belauded by his immediate associates, as a being of almost supernatural genius, and of quite indescribable godliness. That his nature early became saturated with self-consciousness, and that he grew to be a vast literary and religious coxcomb, is a thing not likely to astonish any one who duly considers, first, the strong original aptitude of the man in that direction, and, secondly, the manner of his mortal life from the cradle to the grave,—the idol of a distinguished family, the prodigy both of school and of college, the oracle of a rich parish, the pet and demigod of an endless series of sewing-societies.

    It may be said of Cotton Mather, that he was born with an enormous memory, an enormous appetite for every species of knowledge, an enormous zeal and power for work, an enormous passion for praise. At his birth, also, he came into a household of books and of students. The first breath he drew was air charged with erudition. His toys and his playmates were books. The dialect of his childhood was the ponderous phraseology of philosophers and divines. To be a scholar was a part of the family inheritance. At eleven years of age he was a freshman in Harvard College; having, however, before that time, read Homer and Isocrates, and many unusual Latin authors, and having likewise entered upon the congenial employment of exhorting his juvenile friends to lives of godliness, and even of writing “poems of devotion” for their private use. At fifteen, on taking his first degree, he had the pleasure of hearing the president of the college address to him, by name, in the presence of the great throng at commencement, a glowing compliment,—admirably constructed to ripen in this precocious and decidedly priggish young gentleman his already well-developed sense of his own importance. At eighteen, on taking his second degree, he delivered a learned and persuasive thesis, on “the divine origin of the Hebrew points.”

    One year before the event last mentioned, he began to preach. Being oppressed by a grievous habit of stammering, he was on the point of abandoning the ministry for the medical profession, when “that good old school-master, Mr. Corlet,” told him that he could cure himself of his trouble, if he would but remember always to speak “with a dilated deliberation.” He adopted the suggestion, and was cured. At the age of twenty-two, he was made an associate of his father in the pastorship of North Church, Boston. There, in the pauseless prosecution of almost incredible labors, literary, philanthropic, oratorical, and social, he continued to the end of his days on earth. He departed this life in 1728, having been permitted to contemplate, for many years and with immense delight, the progress of his own fame, as it reverberated through Christendom.

    Upon the whole, the picture of Cotton Mather, given to us in his own writings, and in the writings of those who knew him and loved him, is one of surpassing painfulness. We see a person whose intellectual endowments were quite remarkable, but inflated and perverted by egotism; himself imposed upon by his own moral affectations; completely surrendered to spiritual artifice; stretched, every instant of his life, on the rack of ostentatious exertion, intellectual and religious, and all this partly for vanity’s sake, partly for conscience’ sake—in deference to a dreadful system of ascetic and pharisaic formalism, in which his nature was hopelessly enmeshed….

    At the age of sixteen, he had drawn up for himself systems of all the sciences. Besides the ancient languages, Hebrew, Latin, Greek, which he used with facility, he knew French, Spanish, and even one of the Indian tongues, and prided himself on having composed and published works in most of them. It was his ambition to be acquainted with all branches of knowledge, with all spheres of thought; to get sight of all books. His library was the largest private collection on the American continent. They who called upon him in his study were instructed by this legend written in capitals above the door: “Be Short.” He had no time to waste. He was always at work. They who beheld him marvelled at his power of dispatching most books at a glance, and yet of possessing all that was in them. “He would ride post through an author.” “He pencilled as he went along, and at the end reduced the substance to his commonplaces, to be reviewed at leisure; and all this with wonderful celerity.” The results of all his omnivorous readings were at perfect command; his talk overflowed with learning and wit: “he seemed to have an inexhaustible source of divine flame and vigor…. How instructive, learned, pious, and engaging was he in his private converse; superior company for the greatest of men…. How agreeably tempered with a various mixture of wit and cheerfulness.” The readers of his books may, indeed, infer from them something of his splendid powers of intellect; but they cannot “imagine that extraordinary lustre of pious and useful literature wherewith we were every day entertained, surprised, and satisfied, who dwelt in the directer rays, in the more immediate vision.” The people in daily association with him were, indeed, constantly amazed at “the capacity of his mind, the readiness of his wit, the vastness of his reading, the strength of his memory,… the tenor of a most entertaining and profitable conversation.”

    On his death-bed, he gave to his son, Samuel, this final charge: “Remember only that one word—‘Fructuosus.’” It seemed the hereditary motto of the Mathers. He himself could have uttered no word more descriptive of the passion and achievement of his own life. There is a chronological list of the publications made in America during the colonial time; and it is swollen and overlaid by the name of Cotton Mather, and by the polyglot and arduous titles of his books. We are told that in a single year, besides doing all his work as minister of a great metropolitan parish, and besides keeping sixty fasts and twenty vigils, he published fourteen books. The whole number of his separate writings published during his lifetime exceeds three hundred and eighty-three. No wonder that his contemporaries took note of such fecundity. One of them exclaimed:

  • “Is the blest Mather necromancer turned?”
  • Another one declared:

  • “Play is his toil, and work his recreation.”
  • The most famous book produced by him,—the most famous book, likewise, produced by any American during the colonial time,—is one to which, in these pages, we have often gone for curious spoils: “Magnalia Christi Americana; or, The Ecclesiastical History of New England, from its first planting, in the year 1620, unto the year of our Lord 1698.”…

    Upon the whole, as an historian, he was unequal to his high opportunity. The “Magnalia” has great merits; it has, also, fatal defects. In its mighty chaos of fables and blunders and misrepresentations, are of course lodged many single facts of the utmost value, personal reminiscences, social gossip, snatches of conversation, touches of description, traits of character and life, that can be found nowhere else, and that help us to paint for ourselves some living picture of the great men and the great days of early New England; yet herein, also, history and fiction are so jumbled and shuffled together, that it is never possible to tell, without other help than the author’s, just where the fiction ends and the history begins. On no disputed question of fact is the unaided testimony of Cotton Mather of much weight; and it is probably true, as a very acute though very unfriendly modern critic of his has declared, that he has “published more errors of carelessness than any other writer on the history of New England.”

    Though the fame of the “Magnalia” overshadows that of all the other writings produced by its author, it was the book of a young man—if, indeed, we are permitted to suppose that Cotton Mather ever was a young man. Of the books he wrote after that, and especially in his later years, several are more readable, and perhaps also more valuable, than the work on which his literary renown principally rests.

    The true place of Cotton Mather in our literary history is indicated when we say that he was in prose writing exactly what Nicholas Noyes was in poetry,—the last, the most vigorous, and, therefore, the most disagreeable representative of the Fantastic school in literature; and that, like Nicholas Noyes, he prolonged in New England the methods of that school even after his most cultivated contemporaries there had outgrown them and had come to dislike them. The expulsion of the beautiful from thought, from sentiment, from language; a lawless and a merciless fury for the odd, the disorderly, the grotesque, the violent; strained analogies, unexpected images, pedantries, indelicacies, freaks of allusion, monstrosities of phrase:—these are the traits of Cotton Mather’s writing, even as they are the traits common to that perverse and detestable literary mood that held sway in different countries of Christendom during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Its birthplace was Italy; New England was its grave; Cotton Mather was its last great apostle.

    His writings, in fact, are an immense reservoir of examples in Fantastic prose. Their most salient characteristic is pedantry,—a pedantry that is gigantic, stark, untempered, rejoicing in itself, unconscious of shame, filling all space in his books like an atmosphere. The mind of Cotton Mather was so possessed by the books he had read that his most common thought had to force its way into utterance through dense hedges and jungles of quotation. Not only every sentence, but nearly every clause, pivots itself on some learned allusion; and by inveterate habit he had come to consider all subjects not directly, but in their reflections and echoes in books. It is quite evident, too, that, just as the poet often shapes his idea to his rhymes and is helped to an idea by his rhyme, so Mather’s mind acquired the knack of steering his thought so as to take in his quotation, from which in turn, perhaps, he reaped another thought.

    That his manner of writing outlived the liking of his contemporaries, especially his later contemporaries, is plain. The best of them,—Jeremiah Dummer, Benjamin Colman, John Barnard, Mather Byles, Charles Chauncy, Jonathan Mayhew,—rejected his style, and formed themselves, instead, upon the temperate and tasteful prose that had already come into use in England; while, even by his most devoted admirers, the vices of his literary expression were acknowledged. Thomas Prince, for example, gently said of him: “In his style he was something singular, and not so agreeable to the gust of the age.” Even his own son, Samuel Mather, regretted his fault of “straining for far-fetched and dear-bought hints.”

    But Cotton Mather had not formed his style by accident, nor was he without a philosophy to justify it. In early life he described his compositions as ornamented “by the multiplied references to other and former concerns, closely couched, for the observation of the attentive, in almost every paragraph”; and declared that this was “the best way of writing.” And in his old age, nettled by the many sarcastic criticisms that were made upon his style by presumptuous persons even in his own city, he resumed the subject; and in a simple and trenchant passage, of real worth not only for itself but for its bearing upon the literary spirit of the period, he proudly defended his own literary manner, and even retorted criticism upon the literary manner of his assailants.


    This notable fact of the isolation of each colony or of each small group of colonies reflects itself both in the form and in the spirit of our early literature, giving to each colony or to each group its own literary accent.

    The English language that prevailed in all the colonies was, of course, the English language that had been brought from England in the seventeenth century; but, according to a well-established linguistic law, it had at once suffered here an arrest of development, remaining for some time in the stage in which it was at the period of the emigration; and when it began to alter, it altered more slowly than it had done, in the mean time, in the mother-country, and it altered in a different direction. Indeed, even in the nineteenth century, “the speech of the American English is archaic with respect to that of the British English,” its peculiarities consisting, in the main, of “seventeenth century survivals as modified by environment.”

    Moreover, just as environment led to many modifications of the English language as between the several colonies and the mother-country, so did it lead to many modifications of the English language as between the several colonies themselves; and by the year 1752 it was possible for Benjamin Franklin to say that every colony had “some peculiar expressions, familiar to its own people, but strange and unintelligible to others.”

    But the separate literary accent of each colony was derived, also, from dissimilarities deeper than those relating to verbal forms and verbal combinations, namely, dissimilarities in personal character. Thus, the literature of the Churchmen and Cavaliers of Virginia differed from the literature of the Calvinists and Roundheads of New England, just as their natures differed: the former being merry, sparkling, with a sensual and a worldly vein, having some echoes from the lyric poets and the dramatists of the seventeenth century, and from the wits of the time of Queen Anne; the latter, sad, devout, theological, analytic, with a constant effort toward the austerities of the spirit, looking joylessly upon this material world as upon a sphere blighted by sin, giving back plaintive reverberations from the diction of the Bible, of the sermon-writers, and of the makers of grim and sorrowful verse. Between these two extremes—Virginia and New England—there lay the middle regions of spiritual and literary compromise, New York and Pennsylvania; and there the gravity and immobility of the Dutch Presbyterians, the primness, the literalness, the art-scorning mysticism of the Pennsylvania Quakers, were soon tempered and diversified by an infusion of personal influences that were strongly stimulating and expanding,—many of them being, indeed, free-minded, light-hearted, and moved by a conscious attraction toward the catholic and the beautiful. In general, the characteristic note of American literature in the colonial time is, for New England, scholarly, logical, speculative, unworldly, rugged, sombre; and as one passes southward along the coast, across other spiritual zones, this literary note changes rapidly toward lightness and brightness, until it reaches the sensuous mirth, the frank and jovial worldliness, the satire, the persiflage, the gentlemanly grace, the amenity, the jocular coarseness, of literature in Maryland, Virginia, and the farther south.

    On the other hand, the fact must not be overlooked that, while the tendency toward colonial isolation had its way, throughout the entire colonial age, there was also an opposite tendency—a tendency toward colonial fellowship—that asserted itself even from the first, and yet at the first faintly, but afterward with steadily increasing power as time went on; until at last, in 1765, aided by a fortunate blunder in the statesmanship of England, this tendency became suddenly dominant, and led to that united and great national life, without which a united and great national literature here would have been forever impossible. This august fact of fellowship between the several English populations in America,—a fellowship maintained and even strengthened after the original occasion of it had ceased,—has perhaps saved the English language in America from finally breaking up into a multitude of mutually repellent dialects; it has certainly saved American literature from the pettiness of permanent local distinctions, from fitfulness in its development, and from disheartening limitations in its audience.

    Of the causes that were at work during our colonial age to produce and strengthen this benign tendency toward colonial fellowship, and to ripen it for the illustrious opportunity that came in the year 1765, several belong especially to the domain of general history; and it will be enough for our present purposes merely to name them here. First, it is evident that, between the English residents in America, blood told; for, whatever partisan distinctions, religious or political, separated the primitive colonists on their departure from England and during their earlier years here, these distinctions, after a while, grew dim, especially under the consciousness that they who cherished them were, after all, members of the same great English family, and that the contrasts between themselves were far less than the contrasts between themselves and all other persons on this side of the Atlantic,—Frenchmen, Spaniards, and Indians. Secondly, there were certain religious sympathies that led to intercolonial acquaintance,—Churchmen in one colony reaching out the hand of brotherhood to Churchmen in another colony, Quakers in Pennsylvania greeting Quakers in New Jersey or Rhode Island, the Congregational Calvinists of New England reciprocating kind words with the Presbyterian Calvinists of the middle colonies and the south. Thirdly, in the interchange of commodities between the several colonies, commerce played its usual part as a missionary of genial acquaintance and coöperation. Fourthly, there were in all the colonies certain problems common to all, growing out of their relation to the supreme authority of England; and the method of dealing with these problems in any one colony was of interest to all the others. Finally, all were aware of a common peril from the American ambition of France, and from the savage allies of France on this continent.

    Besides these general causes leading toward colonial union,—kinship, religion, commerce, dependence upon the same sovereign, peril from the same enemies,—there were three other causes that may be described as purely intellectual—the rise of journalism, the founding of colleges, and the study of physical science….

    In spite of all these influences working toward colonial fellowship, the prevailing fact in American life, down to the year 1765, was colonial isolation. With that year came the immense event that suddenly swept nearly all minds in the several colonies into the same great current of absorbing thought, and that held them there for nearly twenty years. From the date of that event, we cease to concern ourselves with an American literature in the east or the south, in this colony or in that. Henceforward American literature flows in one great common stream, and not in petty rills of geographical discrimination.