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

§ 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?”

  • Duty, as well as inclination, urges the Lay Preacher to sermonize, while others slumber. To read numerous volumes in the morning, and to observe various characters at noon, will leave but little time, except the night, to digest the one or speculate upon the other. The night, therefore, is often dedicated to composition, and while the light of the paly planets discovers at his desk the Preacher, more wan than they, he may be heard repeating emphatically with Dr. Young,
  • “Darkness has much Divinity for me.”
  • He is then alone, he is then at peace. No companions near, but the silent volumes on his shelf, no noise abroad, but the click of the village clock, or the bark of the village dog. The Deacon has then smoked his sixth, and last pipe, and asks not a question more, concerning Josephus, or the Church. Stillness aids study, and the sermon proceeds.

    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:

  • One of the best of his Lay Sermons was written at the village tavern, directly opposite to the office, in a chamber where he and his friends were amusing themselves with cards. It was delivered to me by piece-meal, at four or five different times. If he happened to be engaged in a game, when I applied for copy, he would ask some one to play his hand for him, while he could “give the devil his due.” When I called for the closing paragraph of the sermon, he said, “Call again in five minutes.” “No,” said Tyler, “I’II write the improvement for you.” He accordingly wrote the concluding paragraph, and Dennie never saw it till it was in print.
  • No trace of the “nights of mirth and mind” that he shared with “Anacreon” Moore, none of the ready puns that Irving learned to dread, can be found in the pious columns of The Lay Preacher. The wonder is, not that Dennie should be forgotten, but that, writing so evidently against the gain, he should have achieved his extraordinary vogue.

    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

  • You’d scarce expect one of my age
  • To speak in public on the stage,
  • wrote essays called Common Sense in Dishabille for The Farmer’s Museum, but his inclination for belles lettres soon yielded to a maturer passion for writing political leaders and commentaries on the Apocalypse. Only the hardiest political writings could survive the frost of piety in New England.