Home  »  Volume XVIII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART III  »  § 2. Colonial Learning

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXV. Scholars

§ 2. Colonial Learning

With the exception of a monstrous accretion like the learning of Cotton Mather, a leviathan of the seventeenth-century type, such learning as the eighteenth century could muster in this country was on the one hand rather elegant than professedly scholarly, for a gentleman must not be too much of a specialist; and on the other hand, distinctly didactic, for a cultivated citizen of a new country must endeavour to teach and improve its uncultivated masses. What the eighteenth century offers is a clerical and gentlemanly cultivation of Hebrew and the classics, a missionary concern with the languages of the American Indians, a somewhat schoolmasterly interest in English grammar and lexicography, and an elegant trifling with the modern and the Oriental languages. Ezekiel Cheever’s Short Introduction to the Latin Tongue … being Accidence Abridged was published in 1709. A mock-heroic Latin poem, Muscipula: The Mousetrap, by Edward Holdsworth, translated into English by Richard Lewis, was published at Annapolis in 1728; and the next year Samuel Keimer printed at Philadelphia a translation of the Morals of Epictetus in a “second edition,” possibly after a first edition published in Europe. William Logan, Chief Justice of Pennsylvania, William Penn’s friend, business agent, and deputy governor, collected books, founded in 1745 the Loganian Library, conducted an extensive correspondence with scholars, and published Latin treatises and translations. His translation of Dionysius Cato’s Moral Distichs (1735) and of Cicero’s Cato Major (1744) were both of them printed by Benjamin Franklin. Another public man, James Otis, found leisure to publish at Boston in 1760 the Rudiments of Latin Prosody, which is said to have been used as a text book at Harvard. Samuel Sewall the younger (grandnephew of Judge Sewall), who in 1762 was librarian and instructor in Hebrew at Harvard, published a Hebrew grammar (1763), a Latin version of the first book of Young’s Night Thoughts (1780), as well as several poems and orations in Greek and Latin. “A native of America,” namely John Park, lieutenant-colonel in the army of General Washington, dedicated to his chief the Lyrick Works of Horace translated into English Verse (Philadelphia, 1786). In 1804 Sallust’s complete works—an edition based upon Crispinus’s Delphin—appeared in Philadelphia, and in 1805, at Salem, Sallust’s history of the Catilinarian and Jugurthine wars—the latter “the first edition of an ancient classic ever published in the United States, which was not a professed reimpression of some former and foreign edition.” The omniscient Dr. Samuel Latham Mitchill, when he was United States Senator from New York, had a song on war “in the Osage tongue” and two Cherokee songs of friendship, which were sung at his house in Washington, translated into French “by an interpreter and rendered into English immediately, January 1, 1806.” From the Latin Mitchill also translated into sober English verse the third and the fifth of Sannazaro’s Piscatory Eclogues (1815); and, from the Italian, Lancisi On the Fens and Marshes of Rome. Not only Lindley Murray’s Grammar (1795), and Noah Webster’s Compendious Dictionary (1806) and Philosophical and Practical Grammar of the English Language (1807), but also Webster’s great Dictionary of 1828, though it represents twenty years of additional work and even some study abroad, belong essentially to this epoch of individual production. Joel Barlow translated Volney’s Ruins. Richard Alsop, one of the Hartford Wits, made translations from the French and the Italian. In The Monthly Anthology in 1805 was reprinted Sir William Jones’s translation of Sacontalà … from the Sanscrit of Calidas.