The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.
§ 3. William Wirt
Literary essays in the South were almost neglected in the general enthusiasm for forensic and pulpit oratory, or when written, reflected the formal style of public speeches. The most persistent essayist was William Wirt (1772–1834), who commenced lawyer with “a copy of Blackstone, two volumes of Don Quixote, and a volume of Tristram Shandy,” gave sufficient attention to the first item of his library to become Attorney-General of the United States, and left as his chief literary monument a biography of Patrick Henry. The Letters of a British Spy, first printed in the Richmond Argus for 1803, justly gained him a reputation as a critic and master of eloquence. A temperateness, discernment, and sincerity unusual in the journalism of the day marked his observations on Virginia society and his strictures on the style of public men, and his descriptive powers, best illustrated in the stricking picture of the Blind Preacher, elevated the Spy at once into the class of “elegant native classical literature.” Later in conjunction with friends Wirt wrote ten essays, collected as The Rainbow, dealing with sundry political and social questions. These, like The Old Bachelor, in which he set himself to follow more closely the admired model of Addison, were too thickly studded with florid passages, oratorical climaxes, and didactic fulminations. Wirt’s natural charm of manner survived only in his playful private letters. Nothing of permanent mark came from the facile pen of William Crafts, editor of the Charleston Courier, and the ornate prose of Hugh Swinton Legare is that of the scholar rather than of the familiar essayist.
New York and Philadelphia were comparatively free from the blight of theology and the bane of eloquence, though the latter city seems to have suffered from a constitutional profundity which even Dennie could not entirely overcome. It gave to the world nothing better than the Didactics of Robert Walsh. The commercial interests of Manhattan could claim little attention from young men of wit and spirit, but leisure and a society both cosmopolitan and congenial afforded them ample opportunity and provocation for literary jeux d’esprit. When the busy savant, Samuel Latham Mitchill, presided at the Sour Krout crowned with cabbage leaves or burlesqued his own erudition in jovial speeches at the Turtle Club, what wonder if Irving and the “lads of Kilkenny” found time to “riot at Dyde’s on imperial champagne” or to sally out to Kemble’s mansion on the Passaic—the original of Cockloft Hall—for a night of high fun and jollification. Dr. Mitchill’s Picture of New York, with a wealth of geological and antiquarian lore travestied in the first parts of the ‘Knickerbocker’ History, records the numerous landmarks and traditions of the city. Corlaer’s Hook was then something more than a memory, Hell Gate was still a menace to navigation, the Collect was not all filled up, and the tolls levied at Kissing Bridge formed a standing jest. In such an environment the tradition of Steele and Goldsmith culminated not unworthily with Salmagundi, a buoyant series of papers ridiculing the follies of 1807. Thereafter imitation of Addison could no further go. Moreover, in announcing with mock gravity their intention “simply to instruct the young, reform the old, correct the town, and castigate the age” the authors of Salmagundi exposed the prevailing overearnestness of the grim guardians of public virtue and taught their readers to except entertainment as well as instruction from writers of the essay.