The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.
§ 1. The Periodical Essay in America
During the first decade of the nineteenth century nearly every literary device and favourite character in the long line of British essayists was reproduced in this country. Isaac Bickerstaff owned an American cousin in Launcelot Langstaff of Salmagundi, memories of I’Espion turc were evoked by Wirt’s Letters of a British Spy, and Goldsmith’s Lien Chi Altangi dropped a small corner of his mantle on Irving’s Mustapha Ruba-Dub Kheli Khan and S. L. Knapp’s Shahcoolen. The shade of Johnson dictated the titles of The Traveller, The Rural Wanderer, The Saunterer, and The Loiterer, and such editorial pseudonyms as Jonathan Oldstyle, Oliver Oldschool, and John Oldbug were significant of the attempt to catch the literary tone of the previous age. But the essay of manners, a product of leisurely urban life, was not easily adapted to the environment of a sparsely settled, bustling young republic. “Perhaps, indeed” wrote the Rev. David Graham of Pittsburg, “it is impossible to give interest and standing popularity, to a periodical essay paper, constructed upon the model of the British Essayist, in an infant country.” Even in the populous cities “where the inhabitants amount of several thousand” there was little interest in the art of living. Reprehensible luxury and eccentric characters were hard to discover. But by dint of persistent attempts the essay of manners was made to grow in the new soil.