The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.
§ 2. Joseph Dennie
Perhaps the most successful “American Addison” was Joseph Dennie (1768–1812), who was “reasonably tinged with literature” while resisting a Harvard education, and after a short trial of the law, devoted his desultory talents to periodical writing until his death. He kindled the first sparks of a reputation by the Farrago essays, contributed to various country newspapers, but his Tablet, a hopeful weekly paper devoted to belles lettres, failed to set Boston ablaze. Yankee readers objected to his exercises in the manner of Goldsmith and Addision as “sprightly rather than moral”. While a law-student, Dennie had supplemented his income by reading sermons in unsupplied churches, and now to gain a hearing he fitted each of his lucubrations with a text and tempered his sentiments ostensibly for the pulpit. The Lay Preacher, commenced in 1795, won immediate applause. Seven years later John Davis, the traveller, declared it the most widely read work in American, and its popularity contributed largely to the author’s success as editor, first of The Farmer’s Weekly Museum at Walpole, New Hampshire, and finally of that notable literary gazette, the Philadelphia Port Folio.
Though Dennie collaborated with his friend Royall Tyler in a melange of light prose and verse “From the Shop of Messrs. Colon & Spondee,” which later developed into a series of “Author’s Evenings” reminiscent of men and books, his scattered writings were never collected or even completely identified, and his reputation must rest almost entirely upon The Lay Preacher. In these papers he sometimes dallied with a trifling subject, or to the indignation of severe critics applied a sacred text to the discussion of Mrs. Radcliffe’s romances, or gave free rein to his eccentric humour in denouncing French innovations. But in the main he preserved a solemn front, dimming his wit with sobriety, as in the following extract from “Watchman, what of the night?”
In reality, however, Dennie was as fond of conviviality as Steele, and as elegant in dress as Goldsmith. His literary pose had little in common with his actual habits of composition, as described by a former printer’s devil of The Farmer’s Museum:
Among many young lawyers who found time to use their pens while waiting for briefs, Dennie is historically important as one of the first to adopt literature as a profession. Others who continued to write as an avocation were easily allured into religious or political controversy, for the renown of the Federalist papers was yet new. So Royall Tyler, author of several plays and a series of periodical observations entitled Trash, besides a waggish account of Dennie’s first appearance at the bar, became more a chief justice and less a man of letters after the publication of his novel, The Algerine Captive, in 1797. David Everett, now barely remembered as the author of