Home  »  Volume XV: English COLONIAL AND REVOLUTIONARY LITERATURE EARLY NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART I  »  § 4. Hugh Henry Brackenridge; Modern Chivalry

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

VI. Fiction I

§ 4. Hugh Henry Brackenridge; Modern Chivalry

In 1792–3–7 Pennsylvania saw the publication, in four volumes, of the first part of the remarkable Modern Chivarly. The author, Hugh Henry Brackenridge (1748–1816), son of a poor Scotch immigrant, graduate of Princeton, tutor and licensed preacher, master of an academy in Maryland, editor of The United States Magazine in Philadelphia (1776), chaplain in the Revolutionary army, author of patriotic tragedies and pamphelts, and lawyer and judge in Pittsburg after 1781, brough to his work a culture and experience which gave his satiric picture of American life many of the features of truth. Farrago, the hero, is a new Don Quixote, his servant Teague a witless and grotesque Sancho Panza, but the chief follies of the book are found not in them but in the public which they encounter and which would gladly make Teague hero and office-holder. No man was a more convinced democrat than Brackenridge, but he was also solid, well-read, and deeply bored by fools who canted about free men and wise majorities. Against such cant and the excesses of political ambition he directed his chief satire, but he let few current fads and affectations go unwhipped. His book had an abundant popularity, especially along the frontier which it satirized. The second part (1804–5), ostensibly the chronicle of a new Western settlement, is almost a comic history of civilization in America. It is so badly constructed, however, and so often goes over ground well trodden in the earlier part as to be generally inferior to it in interest. Here Brackenridge deposited scraps of irony and censure which he had been producing since 1787, when he had set out to imitate Hudibras. His prose is better than his verse, plain and simple in style, by his own confession following that of Hume, Swift, and Fielding, Swift was his dearest master. Very curious, if hard to follow, are the successive revisions by which Brackenridge kept pace with new follies.

Smollett had something to do with another novel which, though less read than Modern Chivalry, deserves mention with it, The Algerine Captive (1797) of Royall Tyler, poet, wit, playwright, and jurist. The first volume has some entertaining though not subtle studies of American manners; the second, a tale of six years’ captivity in Algiers, belongs with the many books and pamphlets called forth by the war with Tripoli. Historically important is the preface, which declared that the American taste for novels had grown in the past seven years from apathy to a general demand.