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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.
G. R. Lomer, ed. The Student’s Course in Literature.

Early American Literature

By Edward Chauncey Baldwin (1870–1940)


AT the very outset of any discussion of the beginnings of American literature we are met by the pertinent query, Is there really an American literature distinct from English? Such a question can be answered only by reminding ourselves what literature is. Here Dean Stanley’s definition is helpful:
  • “By literature I mean those great works … that rise above professional or commonplace uses, and take possession of the mind of a whole nation or a whole age.”
  • With such a definition, for a test it would be absurd to deny that the work of Poe, of Emerson, of Hawthorne, of Lowell, of Whitman, and of other writers of the nineteenth century were contributions to belles-lettres that were distinctively American. Their work unquestionably was the record of the thoughts and feelings of men who are interpreters of American life and who mirror the prevalent tendencies of their time—work that, in Dean Stanley’s phrase, takes possession of the mind of a whole nation. If it be granted that there was, and is, an American, as distinct from an English literature, then its beginnings in the Colonial and Revolutionary periods are of interest and importance.

    Literature of the Colonial Period (1607–1765)

    American literature, in the strictest sense, as comprising only books that are still generally read, is only about one hundred and fifty years old. Including its period of preparation, however, it is more than three hundred years old. The Colonial period extends from 1607, the year of the founding of the Jamestown Colony, to 1765, the year of the Stamp Act, and the first stirring of political revolt. In its beginnings, therefore, it was contemporary with the great accomplishment of the Elizabethan age in England. When Jamestown was settled in 1607, Spenser had been dead only eight years, Shakespeare was doing his greatest work, Raleigh was writing in the Tower his ‘History of the World,’ and Bacon was beginning his ‘Novum Organum.’ The first books written here in America were contemporary with Shakespeare’s plays, the first books printed here were contemporary with Milton’s, and the first authors born here were contemporary with Dryden and Defoe.

    Though the great books produced in England were read and admired on this side the water, they did not excite much emulation. Not in America were the great books written. Indeed few books of any kind were produced. The records of the voyages and first settlements, the diaries of the colonists, the sermons of the preachers, are all the Colonial period can show. The colonists were too busy making history to record it, too much occupied in turning a savage wilderness into a civilized country to find leisure for the cultivation of the muses. What little writing was done was in no sense American. Our early writers followed, albeit afar off, the British authors they knew both in theme and method. They looked at life through British spectacles, and failed to produce anything distinctively American.

    The two centres of literary activity were, naturally, Virginia and Eastern Massachusetts. To the former belongs the credit of having made the first contribution to Colonial literature. The first American book was Captain John Smith’s ‘A True Relation of such Occurrences and Accidents of Noate as hath hapned in Virginia since the first planting of that Colony.’ This book was printed in England in 1608, and was followed by the ‘General History of Virginia’ in 1624. The latter, which was both written and printed in England is an expanded narration of the same incidents recorded in the ‘True Relation.’ Neither the ‘True Relation’ nor its sequel have added anything to Smith’s reputation for veracity. Indeed he ranks with Defoe as one of the most picturesque and entertaining liars in all our literary annals. What he attempted, and succeeded admirably in doing, was to furnish a vivid and, therefore, interesting romance of life in Colonial Virginia. He wrote to satisfy the craving for excitement on the part of the gullible British public, ready to credit anything, even the preposterous Pocahontas story, provided it were localized in the land Michael Drayton (in his poem ‘Virginia’) had affirmed to be “Earth’s only paradise.” Smith’s books catered to the same interest in exciting adventure as Raleigh’s ‘Discovery of the Empire of Guiana,’ published twelve years earlier, or the still earlier Hakluyt’s ‘Voyages touching the Discovery of America’ (1582).

    A still closer link between the Colonial literature and that of England is furnished by William Strachey’s ‘A True Repertory of the Wracke and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates upon and from the Bermudas,’ which was printed in England in 1610 and afterwards included in Purchas’s ‘Pilgrimage.’ It is the story of the loss of the Sea Venture, a ship carrying colonists, which was wrecked in a hurricane off the Bermudas in 1609. Strachey was one of the survivors who finally reached Virginia and there wrote an account of his experience. This account Shakespeare is thought to have utilized in writing ‘The Tempest.’ The following excerpt from Strachey’s narrative is of interest in this connection:

  • “Upon, the Thursday night Sir George Summers being upon the watch had an apparition of a little round light, like a faint star, trembling and streaming along with a sparkling blaze, half the height upon the main-mast, and shooting sometimes from shroud to shroud, tempting to settle as it were upon any of the four shrouds…. We threw overboard much luggage … and stowed many a butt of beer, hogsheads of oil, cider, wine, and vinegar…. On the island some dangerous and discontents nourished amongst us had like to have been the parents of bloody issues and mischiefs.”
  • This sounds like the original of Ariel’s recital in ‘The Tempest’ (Act I, Scene 2).
  • “I boarded the king’s ship; now on the beak,
  • Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin,
  • I flam’d amazement:
  • Sometimes I’d divide,
  • And burn in many places; on the topmast,
  • The yards, and bowsprit, would I flame distinctly,
  • Then meet, and join.”
  • Here possibly Shakespeare got also the suggestion for Stephano’s escape upon a butt of sack which the sailors threw overboard, and for the conspiracy of Antonio and Sebastian against Alonso.

    On the whole, however, southern colonial literature is almost negligible. The rich, illiterate, semi-feudal South made no important contribution to enduring literature. The southern cavalier found his diversion in social life rather than in letters, and was quite content to be surpassed by his Puritan neighbors to the north.

    Passing from Virginia to Massachusetts, we find the colonial literature of New England strongly Puritan. Much of it is avowedly religious; but all of it, even the history and the crude verse, is an expression of the Puritan spirit. The idealistic belief in the reality of the spiritual, the sensitive conscience, and the rigorous creed—of these, the colonial literature of New England was the expression.

    Looking more closely at the products of early New England thought, we find it falling naturally into four divisions—journals, histories, religious writings, and poetry. Representative of the diarists are Governor Bradford (1590–1657) (sometimes called “the father of American history”) of the Plymouth settlement, and Governor Winthrop (1588–1649) of the neighboring colony of Massachusetts Bay. Their work, which is of more historical than literary interest, was continued by Samuel Sewall (1652–1730), who has been called “the Puritan Pepys.” Sewall was Chief Justice of Massachusetts, and was conspicuous in the witchcraft trials at Salem—a prominence that he afterwards bitterly regretted. More famous, or rather infamous, for his connection with the witchcraft delusion, was Cotton Mather (1663–1728). During his long and active life he published more books than any other American writer. They number between four and five hundred, the most notable being his ‘Magnalia Christi Americana,’ or ‘Ecclesiastical History of New England’ (1702). Though called a history, it is by no means written in the modern scientific spirit, but in the spirit of the controversial pamphlet, designed to revive the ideals and traditions of Puritanism among those whom Mather regarded as degenerate. It properly belongs, therefore, to the provincial branch of that English literature of theological treatise and pamphlet warfare to which Milton was the most distinguished contributor. It has been described as the prose epic of Puritanism. The designation is not inapt, for it not only presents Puritan ideals, but clothes them in a style sonorous, and with a certain rhythmical dignity of phrase that recalls, except for the lack of saving humor, the golden periods of Sir Thomas Browne. It is noteworthy that, though it was published after Dryden had established the new school of prose writing destined to hold its place all through the eighteenth century, it was yet written in the periodic, Latinized style which Dryden had long since made obsolete.

    Poetry did not flourish in the chill atmosphere of Puritan New England. Her minstrels were for the most part Puritan divines who turned the nobly beautiful poetry of the Psalms into doggerel scarcely better than the crude rhymes of the ‘New England Primer.’ The result was the ‘Bay Psalm Book’ (1640). In the preface the versifiers announced that they had attempted “conciseness rather than elegance, fidelity rather than poetry.” The declaration seems unnecessary. That fidelity rather than poetry was indeed their aim is shown by the following representative extract:

  • Psalm CXXXVII
  • “The rivers on of Babilon
  • there when wee did sit down,
  • Yea, even then wee mourned when
  • wee remembered Sion.
  • “Our harp wee did hang it amid
  • upon the willow tree
  • Because there they that us away
  • led into captivitee,
  • “Required of us a song, and thus
  • askt mirth us waste who laid,
  • Sing us among a Sion song
  • unto us then they said.
  • “The Lord’s song sing, can wee being
  • in stranger’s land? then let
  • Lose her skill my right hand if I
  • Jerusalem forget.”
  • The secular verse of the time shows a strong influence of the metaphysical poetry of Great Britain. This appears in the prevalent taste for conceits after the manner of Donne, Herbert, and Crashaw. In an elegy upon the death of Sir William Phips, one of the governors of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the following promise is made to the ghost of the deceased executive:

  • “Now lest ungrateful brands we should incur,
  • Your salary we’ll pay in tears, Great Sir.”
  • Again, in some elegiac lines we are told that John Cotton was
  • “A living breathing Bible; tables where
  • Both Covenants, at large, engraven were;
  • Gospel and Law, in’s heart had each its column,
  • His head an index to the sacred volume.”
  • Of more poetic merit is some of the work of Ann Bradstreet (c. 1612–1672), “The Tenth Muse,” as she is acclaimed in the title page of her volume of poems printed in England in 1650. She was the first American poet, and the first woman of America to join the craft of authors. She enjoyed a phenomenal popularity in her day. Cotton Mather declared her fame would outlast the stateliest marble. Another learned clergyman, Nathaniel Ward of Ipswich, represented Apollo as remarking concerning her,

  • “It half revives my chill frost-bitten blood,
  • To see a woman once do aught that’s good.”
  • Her poems seem scarcely to deserve the extravagant praise they received. The subjects are forbidding—the ‘Four Elements,’ ‘Constitutions,’ ‘Ages of Man,’ ‘Seasons of the Year’—and the treatment is what we should expect. She was a devoted admirer of Du Bartas’s ‘Divine Weeks and Works,’ a book ill suited to the inspiration of great poetry. Her poem ‘The Four Monarchies’ was based upon Raleigh’s ‘History of the World.’ Like Mrs. Browning, she is at her best in her simplest poems—in her descriptions of autumn scenery along the Merrimac, as in her poem ‘Contemplations.’

    Though the work of Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) belongs rather to the realm of philosophy than to that of literature, any survey of American literature would be incomplete without a mention of this greatest thinker of the time. His monumental work on the ‘Freedom of the Will,’ published in 1754, had a great influence both here and abroad. In it Edwards maintained in true Calvinistic fashion that the will is not free, that a man does not act by virtue of a free choice, but that every act is pre-determined by God. The logic of the treatise is inexorable. The argument is as unassailable as a geometrical demonstration. More attractive to the general reader is the less pretentious ‘Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections.’ To this work Professor Beers’s criticism strictly applies when he says of Edwards’s style: “There is an intensity and a spiritual elevation about them, apart from the profundity and acuteness of the thought, which lifts them here and there into the finer ether of purely emotional and imaginative art.”

    With Edwards our brief survey of colonial literature closes. He is the only colonial author whose work has survived in the sense that it is read, not for its historical interest, but for its own sake. Aside from him, colonial literature is of interest only as an anticipation of what is to follow.

    Literature of the Revolution (1765–1815)

    During the period from 1765 to the year 1815 America became a nation with a developed national consciousness. In the same period, and as a result of the stirring political events that filled it, America became articulate. In other words, our national literature developed coincident with our national independence, and as a result of it. Much of the writing of this period was ephemeral; but certain figures stand out as having permanently enriched our literature.

    Prominent among these is that many-sided man, philosopher, statesman, philanthropist, man of letters, Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790). His work illustrates what is meant by saying that American literature came into being with the dawn of the Revolutionary era. Franklin represents a new spirit in American letters. The qualities he reveals are thoroughly American. He is the first exponent of those characteristics of shrewdness, thrift, self-reliance, manliness, which we have come to regard as essentially American.

    Though Franklin’s shrewdness, common sense, and wit are racy of his native soil, they nevertheless illustrate his intellectual kinship with eighteenth-century England. He shared the unemotional, unideal temperament of Pope, Swift, and Addison. Upon the last he deliberately formed his style, as he tells us in his ‘Autobiography.’ He imitated Addison’s method, also, in the ‘Busybody Papers,’ contributed to the ‘Philadelphia Mercury’ (1728–9), which are modeled upon the ‘Spectator.’ Franklin’s religion, too, was that of the Deists of Addison’s time; that is, he believed in God as a beneficent spirit, but denied the supernatural elements in orthodox Christianity. To him the things of this world seemed of the highest importance, and the most important of all, right conduct. In his emphasis upon personal righteousness as of paramount importance, and in his low estimate of human nature, Franklin is closely allied to Swift. In the ‘Ephemera,’ written during his residence in France, he paints an allegorical picture of mankind in all its pettiness, which in spirit is identical with ‘Gulliver’s Travels,’ which doubtless inspired it.

    Franklin’s work fills ten volumes. The ‘Almanac,’ though best known of all, does not properly belong to literature at all, and his fame as a man of letters rests chiefly upon his ‘Autobiography.’ This is the only American book written before the nineteenth century that is still widely known and read, fifty editions having been disposed of in this country alone. The work is one of the most fascinating pieces of self-revelation in all literature, comparable in this respect with Bunyan’s ‘Grace Abounding’ and Saint Augustine’s ‘Confessions.’ Its great merit, aside from its interest as a self-portrayal of one of the foremost personalities of an important epoch, is its straightforward simplicity and humor. Franklin wrote much as we can fancy that he talked when at his best, like the versatile, vigorous, shrewd, old man that he was.

    Though there was a good deal of Revolutionary verse, such as Trumbull’s ‘M’Fingal,’ a satire upon the Tories in imitation of Butler’s ‘Hudibras,’ and Timothy Dwight’s serious epic in ten thousand lines entitled ‘The Conquest of Canaan,’ the only American verse written before 1800 that is still read for its own sake is that of Philip Freneau (1752–1832). He was known in his own day as the “patriot poet” because of his occasional lines contributed to the newspapers expressive of the popular feeling against the British and the Tories. This verse is neither better nor worse than much other political writing of the period. Divorced from political themes, however, Freneau shows himself a lyric poet of no mean gifts. He found his subjects, as Burns did, in the simple objects of nature—in ‘The Wild Honeysuckle,’ for example—a poem not less simple and sincere, if a less consummate expression of sympathy with inanimate nature than Burns’s ‘To a Mountain Daisy.’ Some of Freneau’s best poems deal with themes purely American. Of these, the most popular have been ‘Eutaw Springs’ and ‘The Indian Burying Ground.’ Scott’s admiration for the former is attested by his borrowing, with a slight alteration, one of its lines for his ‘Marmion’; and Campbell’s regard for the latter, by his appropriating one of its ideas for his ‘O’Connor’s Child.’ It is not the least of Freneau’s distinctions to have been the first to write of the Indian with imaginative sympathy and thus to show himself the forerunner of Cooper and of Longfellow.

    Still another link between the literature of England and America is furnished by the beginning of prose romance in the work of Charles Brockden Brown (1771–1810). The last decade of the eighteenth century was the period of the vogue of an ultra-romantic type of fiction, of which the prototype had been Walpole’s ‘Castle of Otranto,’ and of which the most typical representative was Mrs. Ann Radcliffe’s ‘Mysteries of Udolpho.’ The chief ingredients of her romances were mystery and terror; but she invariably explains the apparently supernatural elements by natural causes. Of the influence of such a school Brown’s romances are the product. In ‘Wieland,’ the first of the series, the hero, a Philadelphia gentleman, is driven to madness and the murder of his family by a mysterious voice which declares itself to be the voice of God, but which proves to be merely that of a malignant ventriloquist.

    Notwithstanding the resemblance of Brown’s work to that of Mrs. Radcliffe, he does not seem to have admired her. In the preface to his second romance, ‘Edgar Huntly,’ he protests against “puerile superstition and exploded manners, Gothic castles and chimeras” and declares his primary purpose to be American in theme, “to exhibit a series of adventures growing out of our own country,” adding, “that the field of investigation opened to us by our own country should differ essentially from those that exist in Europe may readily be conceived.” Such an emancipation from British influence as this declaration of purpose suggests Brown attained, if not in manner, at least in the choice of material. In ‘Ormond’ and ‘Arthur Mervyn’ there are descriptions of a yellow-fever epidemic scarcely less terrible than Defoe’s account of the plague in London. The relentless realism of these descriptions was based on Brown’s personal experience and observation during the epidemic of 1798. Always the background of the romance is American. Whether the setting of the romance be the city, Philadelphia or Baltimore, or the clearing in the wilds of the Pennsylvania forests, it is always vividly and truthfully presented, so that, in spite of all imaginable faults of construction, of characterization and of style, Brown may be said to have laid a solid foundation for American fiction. In his use of local color he anticipated Cooper, and in his sense of the mystery that lies just beyond our seeing he anticipated Poe and Hawthorne. With Brown our brief survey of the beginnings of American literature must end. We have glanced over two centuries of American life. We have seen that in the seventeenth century, when Americans looked upon themselves as provincial Britons, the books produced in America could be called American only by courtesy. Only with political independence in the eighteenth century came intellectual emancipation from England, and even then the emancipation was only partial. Moreover, the work of the Revolutionary period was much of it experimental; and much of it, therefore, has shared the fate that usually attends experiment.

    Chronological Table

  • 1607Landing at Jamestown, April 26.
  • 1608John Smith: ‘A True Relation.’ Quebec founded.
  • 1613A Dutch trading post established on Manhattan Island.
  • 1620Landing of the Pilgrims.
  • 1636Founding of Harvard College. Roger Williams founded Providence.
  • 1650Anne Bradstreet: ‘The Tenth Muse.’
  • 1661Settlement of North Carolina.
  • 1674Printing press set up in Boston.
  • 1682Founding of Philadelphia by William Penn.
  • 1692Salem Witchcraft.
  • 1700Yale College founded.
  • 1774First Continental Congress.
  • 1775Battle of Lexington.
  • 1776Declaration of Independence.
  • 1781Surrender of Cornwallis.
  • 1782England acknowledges the independence of the United States.
  • 1786Freneau: ‘Poems.’
  • 1787Constitutional Convention.
  • 1788The Constitution ratified by eleven states.
  • 1789Inauguration of the Federal Government, with Washington as President.
  • Reading Recommended

  • 1703–1758Jonathan Edwards
  • 1706–1790Benjamin Franklin
  • 1720–1772John Woolman
  • 1743–1826Thomas Jefferson
  • 1754–1812Joel Barlow
  • 1771–1810Charles Brockden Brown