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. The New England Courant
It was James Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s older brother, who first made a news sheet something more than a garbled mass of stale items, “taken from the Gazetts and other Publick Prints of London” some six months late. Franklin, “encouraged by a number of respectable characters, who were desirous of having a paper of a different cast from those then published,…began the publication, at his own risk, of a third newspapers, entitled The New England Courant.” These respectable characters were known as the Hell-Fire Club; they succeeded in publishing a paper “of a different cast,” which, although it shocked New England orthodoxy pretty thoroughly, nevertheless proved vastly entertaining and established a kind of literary precedent.
For instead of filling the first page of the Courant with the tedious conventionalities of governors’ addresses to provincial legislatures, James Franklin’s club wrote essays and satirical letters after the manner of The Spectator just ten years after the first appearance of The Spectator in London. How novel the whole method would be to New England readers may be inferred from the fact that even the Harvard library had no copies of Addison or Steele at this period. Swift, Pope, Prior, and Dryden would also have been looked for in vain. Milton himself was little known in the stronghold of Puritanism. But the printing office of James Franklin had Shakespeare, Milton, Addison, Steele, Cowley, Butler’s Hudibras, and “The Tail of the Tub”on its shelves. All these were read and used in the editor’s office, but The Spectator and its kind became the actual model for the new journalism.
As a result, the very look of an ordinary first page of the Courant is like that of a Spectator page. After the more formal introductory paper on some general topic, such as zeal or hypocrisy or honour or contentment, the facetious letters of imaginary correspondents commonly fill the remainder of the Courant’s first page. Timothy Turnstone addresses flippant jibes to Justice Nicholas Clodpate in the first extant number of the Courant Tom Pen-Shallow quickly follows, with his mischievous little postscript: “Pray inform me whether in your Province Criminals have the Privilege of a Jury.” Tom Tram writes from the moon about a certain “villainous Post master” he has heard rumours of. (The Courant was always perilously close to legal difficulties and had, besides, a lasting feud with the town postmaster.) Ichabod Henroost complains of a gadding wife. Abigail Afterwit would like to know when the editor of the rival paper, the Gazette, “intends to have done printing the Carolina Addresses to their Governour, and give his Readers Something in the Room of them, that will be more entertaining.” Homespun Jack deplores the fashions in general, and small waists in particular. Some of these papers represent native wit, with only a general approach to the model; others are little more than paraphrases of The Spectator. And sometimes a Spectator paper is inserted bodily, with no attempt at paraphrase whatever
Benjamin Franklin, a mere boy at this time, contributed to the Courant the first fruits of his days and nights with Addison. The fourteen little essays from Silence Dogood to the editor are among the most readable and charming of Franklin’s early imitations, clearly following The Spectator, yet at rather long environment. Silence rambles considerable adaptation to the New England environment. Silence rambles on amiably enough except for occasional slurs on the New England clergy, in regard to whom the Courant was always bitter, and often scurrilous. For the Hell-Fire Club never grasped the inner secret of Mr. Spectator, his urbane, imperturbable, impersonal kindliness of manner. Instead, they vented their hatred of dogmatism and intolerance in personalities so insolent as to become in themselves intolerant. Entertaining, however, the Courant is, from first to last, and full of a genuine humour and a shrewd satiric truth to life.