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Trent and Wells, eds. Colonial Prose and Poetry. 1901.

Vol. II. The Beginnings of Americanism: 1650–1710


THIS second volume carries the presentation of American life and thought as expressed in its colonial literature through the first decade of the eighteenth century. It seemed best to include in the general view of colonial literary development given in the introduction to the former volume many of the writers who are presented here, since the logical division of colonial literature is into two periods, while considerations of a practical character render a division into three volumes more desirable.

The year 1688, the date chosen for the close of the first period, corresponds closely with 1676 and the Rebellion of Bacon in political history. The former inaugurated the change which the latter year presaged, and it is at least a curious coincidence that this should be separated by exactly a century from the Declaration of Independence of which it held the presage and the germ. Sixteen hundred and seventy-six was also a year of import alike in New England and in Virginia. It, too, witnessed an outbreak against autocratic misrule, though the storm centre was in Virginia rather than in the Puritan Colonies, and the time was not yet ripe for patriotic insurrection. The same year in New England was the crisis of King Philip’s War. So, as the chief historian of our colonial literature, the late Professor Moses Coit Tyler, has observed, for those two central English communities that year established two great facts: first, that the English colonists already felt themselves so individualized in their national life as to be capable of resisting the authority of England; and, secondly, that they had so developed their colonial existence as to be able to put down any combination of Indians that might be formed against them. It was as evident to them, from that year onward, as it is to us to-day, not merely that their settlement was safe from annihilation through any outward attack, but also, and hardly less evident, at least to the thoughtful, that they were drifting apart from the mother country in their modes of thought and ideals of democracy.

These facts, quite evident to the student of the politics of 1676, soon become evident to the student of literature also. They are unmistakable in Sewall and Beverly. The whole spirit of Sarah Kemble Knight is that of an independent American woman who to-day would be president of a woman’s club. There are foreshadowings of the new spirit, too, in earlier authors, more especially in Johnson, and Gookin, and Folger, though doubtless these elements are more obvious to us, who view them in the light of history, than they were to the contemporaries of those writers, who, with the people for whom they wrote, were building better than they knew for the future of America.

This gradual transformation of our literature may be noticed in almost every department of it, but poetry and theology, being by their nature artificial forms of literary expression, had least of the new spirit, and with these we may begin our general survey. The historians, diarists, chroniclers, with social reformers such as Gookin, lived more in the press of history in the making, and in these we shall find, therefore, most that is distinctively American. It is not difficult to imagine an Increase or a Cotton Mather, a Wigglesworth or an Oakes in England, even in the days of James or of Mary, but we should hardly find there the like of Gookin, and we should probably have to descend considerably beyond the days of Anne before we should find the like of Judge Sewall or of Sarah Knight.

Among the poets we have chosen Urian Oakes as typical of the Fantastic School, or, as Dr. Johnson called it, the Metaphysical School. To his contemporary, Increase Mather, he seemed “one of the greatest lights that ever shone in this part of the world, or that is ever likely to arise on this horizon.” Indeed, there have been those, even in our more critical time, to whom this product of our “autochthonous culture” has seemed to exhibit “splendid literary capacity,” to be at once “affluent, stately, pathetic, beautiful, and strong.” But in the words of Urian Oakes himself, “daring hyperboles have here no place,” and the reader is likely to perceive in his verse no high reach of original genius. Wigglesworth, on the other hand, was distinctively original. There is little or nothing like The Day of Doom in literature, nor like to be, and in its kind it is so good that its jingling verses cling to the mind even of those to whom their conceptions are most foreign, quaint, or even ludicrous. They are thoroughly genuine,—the product of study, indeed, but of study that has translated itself into the life of the soul with a realistic vision that may be grotesque but is none the less terrible. No other colonial book was more popular in its own day, and very few are more worthy to be read in our own, for the picture afforded of the ideals by which and through which the more strenuous of our American ancestors wrought out their contribution to the national character in striving for individual salvation.

But we should get a false idea, even of the poetry of this period, if we were to seek its representatives merely in the verse-writers of whom Oakes and Wigglesworth are typical. Neither classical culture nor intensity of religious conviction could keep even poets from the pressing problems of daily life, and so the crude poem of Folger is here to remind us that for these colonists, as for later reformers, the truth of conviction lay in the application of it; that Christianity was not only a scheme of salvation to be studied in Wigglesworth’s doggerel verse, but a mode of life to be practised toward the Indians and even toward those fellow-Christians who, having separated from the Separatists, had become to them anathema. In Folger we have one of the first efforts to turn poetry to the use of politics in our American life. He was destined later to find many imitators. In general, however, it is clear that the poetry represented in this volume is a survival of a not very vigorous past. It is not here that we are to look, in the first instance at least, for literature that shall be interpretative of life.

Nor shall we find it any longer even in the theologians. These bore an important part in our first volume; now they are relegated to a minor place. But four of the prose writers from whom this volume contains selections were clergymen, and but two of these, the Mathers, were very typical of their class. The contrast between this period and the preceding is so great as to be surprising until we recognize in it the natural result of the development of independent colonial life. Our prose writers are still in the main New Englanders, either by birth or choice. The biographers of Bacon, and Denton, Alsop, Penn, and Beverly are the only exceptions that find place in this volume. All the more marked then is the change of temper that has come over New England since King Philip’s War. At the very outset we find a prototype of the new temper in Edward Johnson, that sturdily characteristic Puritan, whose faith in wonder-working providences was accompanied by a zeal to coöperate in them, alike in ecclesiastical and in civic life. He seems to move in the constant thought of an overruling Providence, yet to lose nothing of his self-dependence, and his attitude to his God finds a sort of counterpart in that assurance which he was selected to present to the English king “of loyalty with a determination to maintain all rights and privileges.” The Apostolic Eliot too was a practical statesman and man of action, as well as an indefatigable missionary and somewhat credulous linguist,—sincere, sweet, winning, lovable, full of the dauntless confidence of faith, yet full, too, of a sort of canny wisdom in which we recognize incipient New England. The Mathers belong rather in temper to a generation whose passing away they witnessed. They were of the Brahmin caste, hereditary clergymen and hierarchs, conservatives to the core, lauding old times and bewailing the new, piling up literary monuments of indefatigable industry for the admiration, if not the edification, of their successors,—prodigious in their learning, philanthropic in their spirit, but sympathizing in their nature with that which was reactionary, ascetic, and pedantic, in a generation that was already beginning to feel the intoxication of liberty. The very bulk of the work of the Mathers makes them loom large in any literary prospect of this period, yet their importance is rather as illustrative of the past than as indicative of what to them was present or future. It is not without interest, however, to find in Cotton Mather a municipal reformer contending against very much the same evils as those that vex the American cities of to-day, and seeking to meet them with the same well-meant exaggeration of exhortation, and the same inability to adapt inherited standards to changing social ideals. This same representative of fantastic pedantry was also, in his advocacy of the application of the principle of collective activity to the problems of moral reform, the precursor by a century and a half of another Boston clergyman, Dr. Edward Everett Hale, and he was one of the most resolute advocates of inoculation for smallpox. And Increase Mather representing his colony in England was a forerunner of Franklin.

Turning now to that more numerous and more interesting group of writers who deal with colonial life as they saw it, whether as annalists such as Hubbard and Gookin, as descriptive writers like Denton and Alsop, as diarists like Sewall and Knight, as genially credulous travellers like Josselyn, or as aristocrats of colonial democracy like Penn, we find ourselves immediately in a more congenial atmosphere. Already in Josselyn there is a breezy frankness of criticism, a sense of humor, that is refreshingly human, a curiosity quite worthy of the Yankee that he was not, as though in his brief sojourn he had been inoculated with the virus of New England, and with something of that credulity that is apt to go with “smartness.” This distinctively new note is caught most clearly in our extract dealing with the “Men of Maine.” Another New England trait, the minding of other people’s business for their good, found one of its first noteworthy representatives in Daniel Gookin, English by birth, Puritan in feeling, but sufficiently catholic in sympathy to cover effectively with the mantle of his charity, not merely the fugitive English regicides, perhaps no very parlous task in the New England of that day, but even, what was a far more serious offence in the eyes of his fellow-countrymen, those Christian Indians of whom he had been made superintendent, and of whose doings and sufferings he was the first chronicler, sacrificing, as many a New Englander has done since, popularity and preferment to the imperative demands of his social conscience.

With Indians, but in quite another spirit, deal also those other New Englanders, Wheeler and Hubbard. The latter was a clergyman, which is somewhat significant, as on the whole, although he does appear occasionally in his clerical capacity, he stands rather for lay activities, having been a paid historiographer, and noted among his admiring fellow-colonists as an “elegant writer.” His popular account of the Indian Wars displays little of the charitable spirit of Gookin; it betrays the Puritan, but hardly the clergyman. It might easily have been the work of such a layman as Johnson, but hardly the work of a clerical contemporary of that New England worthy.

Mary Rowlandson’s Diary stands quite apart among these historical writings, as a poignant story of personal suffering, told with a detailed simplicity that makes it a real work of primitive, unconscious, and, it must be confessed, uncharming art. The two other New England Diarists embraced in this volume of extracts, Judge Sewall and Mrs. Knight, are of quite different character, both from Mrs. Rowlandson and from one another. The former’s voluminous notations appear to have been dictated in part by the not uncommon, though seldom justified, assumption that as nothing human was foreign to his sympathies, so nothing that interested him could fail to interest others. In part it was no doubt a desire to preserve, for his own use, a record of daily happenings and thoughts. In part it appears to have been a sort of confessional to which he confided the records of his moral auto-stethoscope. Perhaps no other production in the whole range of New England’s colonial literature contains more of real value or more of curious interest than this work, wholly lacking as it is, for the main, in continuity, proportion, or constructive unity of any kind.

Last of New Englanders, and latest in time of the writers included in this volume, is Sarah Kemble Knight, whose story of her venturesome journey from Boston to New York in the year 1704 has many of those qualities of literary excellence that Sewall’s Diary conspicuously lacks, and makes us understand her contemporary reputation as a teacher of composition. She is sprightly, graphic, and tells us more than we should otherwise know or guess of the customs of colonial life outside of the pulpit, the assembly hall, and the domestic fireside. She must have had some power of imparting the genial liveliness of her style, for she had the honor of training in the rudiments of English that past master among eighteenth century writers, Benjamin Franklin.

Turning now to the South we find that the disparity between the literary output here and in New England is hardly less than in the former volume, and, indeed, if the total bulk of the literature is regarded, the difference is even greater than our extracts indicate. Yet, in some respects the smaller output is the more significant. What is most typical in the literature of the eighteenth century, what brings American literature and thought in closest touch with the world movement of that period, is less the writing that has its roots in New England culture than that which derives itself from the life of the Middle and Southern colonies. Franklin here is typical, and Franklin, though a New Englander by birth and early education, has in him more of Penn and Alsop, Denton and Beverly, than he has of Hooker or Wigglesworth, or even of Sewall or Gookin. The literature of the Middle Colonies is less serious, less intense, less stimulating than that of New England. It has in it far less of learning, but it is in more sympathetic touch with the amenities of life. The conventions of the ministerial pulpit are no longer felt. There is a lighter touch natural to men whose ideals are secular rather than religious; and just over the border line of this second volume we shall meet in Col. Wm. Byrd of Virginia a writer and a personage who faintly suggests Voltaire. It is from this point of view that we regret that space did not permit quotations from Gabriel Thomas’s sprightly account of West New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but the latter colony got more perhaps of its impress from the character if not from the writing of Penn. It is indeed around Philadelphia that for the next half century interest centres in the literary evolution of America, not, of course, for the bulk of its performance, but for its typical character and the witness that it bears to a more balanced and in a sense a wider culture—the culture of toleration and secularism.