The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

III. Early Essayists

§ 1. The Periodical Essay in America

IN anticipating Dr. Johnson’s advice to fashion his prose style on the model of Addison, Franklin anticipated also the practice of American essay-writers for more than a generation. Like Franklin’s Dogood Paper, the first essays printed in colonial newspapers were written with a conscious moral purpose. With some spice of wit Timothy Dwight and John Trumbull collaborated in an imitation of The Spectator in 1769–70, and between 1785 and 1800 nearly a hundred series of light periodical essays were contributed to various New England journals. Those of the better sort like the “Neighbour” of The Massachusetts Spy or the “Metabasist” in The Farmer’s Journal of Danbury, Connecticut, when not discussing politics, filled their columns with grave moralizing or racy satire on manners. They were widely copied and recopied by other paper, and a few such as Noah Webster’s Prompter and Mrs. Judith Murray’s Gleaner attained the distinction of separate publication by reason either of their plain common sense or their studied correctness. In general, the imitation of English models resulted in feeble literary replicas, or in strange patchworks of Yankee homespun with Addisonian finery.

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.