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date: 16 May 2021


Abstract and Keywords

The Introduction to this book starts by discussing various attempts over time to define the body of writings that constitute American literature. It also explains the structure of this book, stating that the canon of early American literature has expanded rapidly in recent years. The book seeks to consolidate recent gains and impose order on the field of study as a whole. It aims to define American literature in terms of both language and geography. The Introduction describes the various parts of the book that follow. The work focuses on major authors and different literary genres.

Keywords: American literature, language, geography, literary genres, major authors

In 1713, White Kennett, bishop of Peterborough, published Bibliothecae Americanae, the first systematic attempt to define a body of writings that constitute American literature. Bishop Kennett issued this work upon presenting his personal library of Americana to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. Hoping the library would aid the society's mission, he was open-minded enough to recognize that many others could benefit from its holdings: colonial administrators, historians, mariners, members of trading companies, merchants, and ministers of state. Kennett advocated broad accessibility, suggesting that the library could provide for “the Information of Strangers, and the Entertainment of all Persons” (Kennett 1713, iv).

Mentioning the collection's entertainment value, Kennett suggested that these books not only were instructive but also contained much to delight readers. To delight and instruct: this Horatian paradigm succinctly articulates the dual purpose of literature in Bishop Kennett's time and, indeed, through the remainder of the eighteenth century. His bibliography implicitly defines American literature in terms of both language and geography. Though it lists a few titles in Spanish and a few others in Latin, otherwise it consists of works in English. In terms of geography, Kennett included works pertaining to both North and South America. From his perspective, early American literature consists of writings in English pertaining to the Americas that both delight and instruct. This definition would change as the study of American literature developed in the coming years.

(p. 4) The Recognition of Early American Literature

Many readers recognized the value of Kennett's bibliography. Both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson owned copies of the work. Jefferson found his especially useful when he and John Adams were discussing early American literature in their correspondence. Adams introduced the subject. He was motivated by a pamphlet volume John Quincy Adams had found in Germany, which contained three seventeenth-century works, all now recognized as classics of the period: Edward Johnson's Wonder-Working Providence, Thomas Morton's New English Canaan, and William Wood's New Englands Prospect. Adams asked Jefferson what he knew about New English Canaan. Jefferson consulted Kennett's Bibliothecae Americanae and other pertinent works. The most useful volume he had at Monticello for Adams's purpose was Nathaniel Morton's New-England's Memorial, a work detailing Thomas Morton's exploits in New England. Responding to Adams, Jefferson took the time to transcribe several pages from New-England's Memorial.

This exchange, which occurred nearly a hundred years after Kennett published Bibliothecae Americanae, reveals a burgeoning interest in early American literature. Actually, American readers had become curious about their unique literary past decades earlier. A new edition of Mary Rowlandson's Sovereignty and Goodness of God in 1770, for example, sparked a revival of interest in her work. Originally published in 1682, Rowlandson's captivity narrative had not been republished since 1720. Retitled The Narrative of the Captivity, this new edition reflects an interest in uniquely American books among American readers in the run-up to the Revolution. Rowlandson's Narrative went through several more editions in the early 1770s. After the Revolutionary War, it was revived again. The work became so well known that her name became part of a proverbial comparison: “as many removes as Mrs. Rowlandson” (Hayes 1997, 10). Jeremy Belknap, the New Hampshire author whose historical and biographical writings contribute significantly to early national literature, used the phrase in a letter to Ebenezer Hazard, another important historian: “I remember, when you removed your family to New York, you complained of the inconvenience. I now can, more fully than I could then, adopt the same language and entertain the same feelings. Once I could be at home anywhere. From the time I went to college till my settlement at Dover I had near as many removals as Mother Rowlanderson (this is a New England comparison, and will make Mrs. Hazard laugh)” (Belknap 1877).

The references to Thomas Morton in the Adams-Jefferson correspondence and to Mary Rowlandson in Belknap's provide instances of early American literature referring to itself. These letters establish continuity with their literary past even as they form contributions to American literature in themselves. Similar examples abound. Benjamin Franklin's reference to Cotton Mather in his Autobiography may (p. 5) be the most well-known instance of early American literature referring to itself. Franklin not only mentions the Magnalia Christi Americana, Mather's epic history of New England but also refers to Mather's Essays to Do Good.

Franklin mentioned the titles of many books in his autobiography, partly to give readers a program of self-education they could follow. In Mather's case, Franklin's scheme worked brilliantly. The autobiography prompted a revival of Mather's Essays to Do Good. After its publication, a flurry of reprints of Mather's work followed. In the early nineteenth century, American editions of Essays to Do Good were published in Delaware, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, and Vermont. British editions appeared in Glasgow and London. Influenced by Franklin's reference to the work, Thomas Jefferson ordered a copy of Essays to Do Good for the University of Virginia library (Jefferson 1950, 30).

Despite the numerous reprints, Cotton Mather was not known primarily for Essays to Do Good in the early nineteenth century. Nor was he known primarily for the Magnalia Christi Americana, though that work was reprinted in 1820. In the popular imagination, Mather was best remembered for his belief in witchcraft. In “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” which appeared around the same time as the new edition of the Magnalia, Washington Irving has Ichabod Crane read Mather's “History of New England Witchcraft” (Irving 1983, 1063). The work Irving had in mind was Wonders of the Invisible World, in which Mather documented many supposed instances of witchcraft. During the nineteenth century, Cotton Mather came to represent all the prejudice and parochialism of colonial New England, yet he came to represent early American literature, too. For years to some, references to Mather in the popular culture would continue to function as a barometer of national attitudes toward early American literature.

In Grandfather's Chair (1841), Nathaniel Hawthorne asserted that Cotton Mather saw “evil spirits all about the world. Doubtless he imagined that they were hidden in the corners and crevices of his library, and that they peeped out from among the leaves of many of his books, as he turned them over, at midnight” (Hawthorne 1883, 513). Reading another book by Mather, the narrator of Herman Melville's short story “The Apple-Tree Table” (1856) observes, “His style had all the plainness and unpoetic boldness of truth. In the most straightforward way, he laid before me detailed accounts of New England witchcraft.” The more the narrator reads, the more he frets: “I began to think that much midnight reading of Cotton Mather was not good for man; that it had a morbid influence upon the nerves, and gave rise to hallucinations. I resolved to put Cotton Mather permanently aside” (Melville 1987, 382, 385).

The study of early American literature came of age in 1829. This year William Hazlitt used a recent publication by William Ellery Channing, then considered an important American author, to reconsider American literature as a whole. In (p. 6) Hazlitt's opinion, three American authors before Charles Brockden Brown deserved recognition: Benjamin Franklin, Jonathan Edwards, and J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur. Franklin was, in Hazlitt's words, “a great experimental philosopher, a consummate politician, and a paragon of common sense.” Edwards was “one of the acutest, most powerful, and, of all reasoners, the most conscientious and sincere.” And Crèvecoeur's great work, Letters from an American Farmer, offered “a tolerable idea how American scenery and manners may be treated with a lively poetic interest. The pictures are sometimes highly-coloured, but they are vivid and strikingly characteristic. He gives not only the objects, but the feelings, of a new country” (Hazlitt 1829, 130–131).

Unbeknownst to Hazlitt, American scholars were simultaneously taking stock of their national literary heritage. Samuel Knapp's Lectures on American Literature, the first history of American literature, appeared this same year. So did Samuel Kettell's three-volume Specimens of American Poetry, the fullest anthology of American literature published to that time. Not since White Kennett's Bibliothecae Americanae had there been such significant contributions to the study of early American literature.

Not all readers were pleased with these two works. Hugh Swinton Legaré may have been their most vocal critic. Discussing both in the Southern Review, Legaré recognized Kettell's New England bias. Instead of insisting on more southern authors, he questioned the entire project of distinguishing a uniquely American literature. Both Knapp and Kettell clamored for an autochthonous literature, that is, a literature freed from external influence, the influence of Europe in general and of England in particular. Legaré disagreed. He saw no reason that American readers should reject English literature in favor of a less accomplished indigenous literature: “Whatever be the wonders that Cotton Mather and his heroical successors have effected, we not only think that the English literature is good enough for us at present, but that it may actually continue good enough for perhaps a century to come. We have certainly produced bards and philosophers many a one—but neither Miltons, Shakespeares, nor Bacons as yet” (Legaré 1831, 438).

In her review of Kettell's Specimens of American Poetry, a contributor to the Ladies' Magazine offered a different perspective: “Here the curious student may find the remains of our elder poets in the quaint phraseology, enriched and embued with the scriptural learning, of that primitive and peculiar people.” According to this viewpoint, the poems Kettell collected were curiosities, examples of how people used to write, artifacts useful for understanding the past but scarcely what can be called great literature. This reviewer also felt that Kettell should have included more work by female poets: “We must be watchful that our own sex suffer no injustice at the literary tribunal” (Anon. 1829). In the waning decades of the twentieth century, many academics would critique the male-dominated canon of early American literature. Such criticism was nothing new. As this review verifies, gender-based critiques of the canon occurred as early as 1829.

(p. 7) How Edgar Allan Poe Read Early American Literature

Edgar Allan Poe questioned the literary value of the poetry Kettell included in his anthology, too. Poe observed, “The ‘specimens’ of Kettell were specimens of nothing but the ignorance and ill taste of the compiler. A large proportion of what he gave to the world as American poetry, to the exclusion of much that was really so, was the doggerel composition of individuals unheard of and undreamed of, except by Mr. Kettell himself” (Poe 1984, 550). Poe considered writing a history of American literature but ultimately abandoned the project in favor of a description of current American letters. Poe's lack of resources was one reason he abandoned his history of American literature, but not the primary reason. He simply cared little for early American literature (Hayes 2000, 106). His short story “The Business Man” satirizes one of the most revered works of the period, Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography (Lemay 1982). Of Joel Barlow's epic poem, Poe admitted, “We cannot stand being told … that ‘Barlow's Columbiad is a poem of considerable merit’” (Poe 1842). Poe felt comfortable restricting his literary study to contemporary authors because, like Legaré, he did not see American literature beginning much before the nineteenth century.

Poe's dislike of early American literature partly stems from the break he made with traditional ways of thinking about literature. Eschewing the long-standing requirement that art both delight and instruct, Poe established the idea of art for art's sake (Hayes 2004, 225). While this phrase has been attributed to both Algernon Charles Swinburne and Walter Pater, Poe anticipated it in an 1844 book review, in which he insisted “that under the sun there exists no work more intrinsically noble, than this very poem written solely for the poem's sake” (Poe 1984, 295). The fact-filled, often didactic, and frequently admonitory literature of colonial America had no place in Poe's aesthetic.

Poe did appreciate some early American authors, even if he refused them a place on his American Parnassus. When his friend William Gowans published a scholarly edition of Daniel Denton's Brief Description of New York in 1845 as the first title in his Bibliotheca Americana series, Poe appreciated Denton's promotional tract as a work “of exceeding interest—to say nothing of its value in an historical point of view” (Poe 1845, 168). Though interesting and historically valuable, Denton's tract does not measure up as literature when considered from Poe's aesthetic.

Gowans's Bibliotheca Americana series represents an important step in the literary recognition of early American prose, but Gowans was more interested in issuing quality editions than rushing works through the press. The fifth title in the series, George Alsop's Character of the Province of Maryland, did not appear until 1869, nearly a quarter century after the first title. Alsop's delightful tract had been almost completely forgotten in the two centuries since it first appeared. Gowans's (p. 8) edition helped American readers recognize its literary qualities. As one reviewer observed, “Our old author writes in a sharp and pungent style, and his ardent loyalty as a cavalier, and his sufferings whet his sarcasms to a keen edge and give piquancy to his contrasts of civilized and barbarous life” (Anon. 1869, 385).

Rufus Wilmot Griswold, Poe's literary executor, did much to make early American literature more accessible. He established his editorial reputation with The Poets and Poetry of America (1842), The Prose Writers of America (1846), and The Female Poets of America (1848). He subsequently prepared new editions of all three, revising and expanding their contents to suit public demand and to compete in the marketplace. Though Griswold largely plagiarized The Poets and Poetry of America from Kettell's Specimens of American Poetry, his work succeeded commercially whereas Kettell's had failed (Cutting 1975, 227). Dependent on Kettell for most of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century verse he used, Griswold abbreviated Kettell's selections considerably and improved their pace. He also added a handful of poems not in Kettell, including “New England's Annoyances,” which is now recognized as the earliest known American folksong (Lemay 1985). The Prose Writers of America, though more original than The Poets and Poetry of America, is less expansive in its scope. Without an anthology of prose comparable to Kettell's verse anthology, Griswold ignored the seventeenth century altogether. Prose Writers of America begins with Jonathan Edwards.

The Cyclopaedia of American Literature

Part encyclopedia and part anthology, Evert and George Duyckinck's Cyclopaedia of American Literature (1855) excelled any previous work on the subject. In their preface the Duyckinck brothers cautioned against reading the selections for their aesthetic qualities. Early American literature “is not so much an exhibition of art and invention, of literature in its immediate and philosophical sense, as a record of mental progress and cultivation, of facts and opinions, which derives its main interest from its historical rather than its critical value.” Still, they encouraged readers to keep an open mind: “The many noble sentiments, just thoughts, the eloquent orations, the tasteful poems, the various refinements of literary expression, drawn together in these volumes, are indeed the noblest appeal and best apology for the work. The voice of two centuries of American literature may well be worth listening to” (Duyckinck and Duyckinck 1855, 1: v, viii).

The general purpose of the Cyclopaedia was “to exhibit and illustrate the products of the pen on American soil.” These words express an important truth: there is an inextricable relationship between land and literature. Works produced by authors (p. 9) who have spent time in North America reflect the physical influence of the American environment. Whereas previous anthologies were biased toward the literature of New England, the Duyckincks made a conscious effort to include representative selections from southern writers, too. Regardless whether from the North or South, all American authors display the influence of the land on their writings.

The work's chronological organization follows “as nearly as practicable the date of birth of each individual” (Duyckinck and Duyckinck 1855, 1: vi). The Duyckincks violate this stated organizational scheme within their first ten pages. George Sandys, the subject of the first entry, was born in 1578. Thomas Hariot, the subject of the seventh entry, was born in 1560. Starting their Cyclopaedia with Sandys gave the Duyckincks a distinct advantage. Traditionally, it had been assumed that the colonists were so busy carving their communities from the wilderness and guarding against Indian attack they had neither the time nor the inclination for belles lettres. The example of Sandys proves the opposite. Appointed treasurer of the Virginia colony and a member of its governing council, Sandys reached Virginia in 1621. Present for the great Indian uprising that occurred on March 22, 1622, he personally led the first counterattack against the Indians. He remained in Virginia to 1625. During his stay he completed Ovids Metamorphosis Englished (1626), a translation that profoundly affected Milton, Dryden, and Pope. As the Duyckincks tell the story, the premier author of American literature influenced some of the foremost authors of English literature.

Moses Coit Tyler

Though indebted to the work of the Duyckincks, Moses Coit Tyler elevated the study of early American literature to a professional, scholarly level. Tyler combed public and private libraries seeking out original manuscripts and rare first editions (Vanderbilt 1986, 82–83). When he published his History of American Literature (1878), which took the story to 1765, he could boast, “Upon no topic of literary estimation have I formed an opinion at second hand. In every instance, I have examined for myself the work under consideration” (Tyler 1878, vii). Tyler could make a similar boast two decades later when he published his follow-up study, The Literary History of the American Revolution, 1763–1783 (1897). Tyler brought to the field a seriousness and dedication the finest literary scholars have since emulated.

Like the Duyckincks, Tyler recognized the connection between land and literature. He defined American literature in terms of both language and geography. For him, American literature begins with the establishment of the first permanent English colony in America. Unlike Poe, Tyler did not see literature as being (p. 10) constrained to belles lettres. But by the time his literary history appeared in 1878, the phrase “art for art's sake” had become so firmly entrenched in the critical discourse that he found it necessary to allude to it, if only to recognize it as an anachronism when applied to early American literature. Speaking of early colonial days, Tyler observed, “Undoubtedly literature for its own sake was not much thought of, or lived for, in those days” (Tyler 1878, 1: 7).

Tyler devoted his second chapter to the individual he identified as the first author of American literature, Captain John Smith. Like other early settlers of both Virginia and New England, Smith was born in England, but his writings are American through and through. Taking other seventeenth-century works for example in subsequent chapters, Tyler emphasized the influence of the American environment on its literature. After quoting from John Hammond's promotional tract, Leah and Rachel: or, The Two Fruitful Sisters Virginia, and Maryland (1656), for example, Tyler characterized what Hammond had to say: “Here, certainly, in these brusque sentences, do we find a literature smacking of American soil and smelling of American air. Here, thus early in our studies, do we catch in American writings that new note of hope and of help for humanity in distress, and of a rugged personal independence, which, almost from the hour of our first settlements in this land, America began to send back, with unveiled exultation, to Europe” (Tyler 1878, 64). Tyler is convincing: the American strand has had a deep and abiding impact on the literary imagination.

Early American Literature in the Classroom

When Tyler's literary history first appeared in 1878, there were really no college classes devoted to the study of American literature, but courses on American literature proliferated in colleges and high schools toward the end of the century. The textbook industry recognized the trend, and the brief literary history emerged as the preferred pedagogical tool. Around the turn of the century, a dozen or so different works were available. Take American Literature: An Elementary Text-book for Use in High Schools and Academies (1891), for example. Written by Julian Hawthorne (Nathaniel's son) and Leonard Lemmon, a Texas school superintendent, this work was published by D. C. Heath, a major textbook publisher. Though Hawthorne and Lemmon referred to Tyler's history to write theirs, they did not share his appreciation of early American literature. They observed: “The productions of our colonial period can be called literature by courtesy only. They consist of historical and geographical memoranda, and of theological essays and arguments. The Revolutionary era is rich in speeches, protocols and declarations, often elevated in sentiment and (p. 11) massive in thought, but dyed in the passionate hues of patriotism and partisanship, and necessarily lacking the repose and balance that belong to pure literature” (Hawthorne and Lemmon 1891, x-xi). Their first chapter, “Colonial Literature,” shows little understanding of the period, as its opening sentence indicates: “As the physical analysis of the Universe begins with protoplasm, so must intelligent study of a literature begin with examination of the inchoate material upon which the literature is based.” Protoplasm? Inchoate material? These are harsh terms to describe early American literature. Hawthorne and Lemmon mention Captain John Smith's True Relation of Virginia and his Map of Virginia but assure students that they need not read them. They also mention George Alsop and Daniel Denton, an indication that William Gowans's Bibliotheca Americana series had done its work. Ultimately, they suggest that Samuel Sewall's diary may be “the only book of the Colonial period that can be read through with pleasure” (Hawthorne and Lemmon 1891, 1, 6).

In a note to teachers, Hawthorne and Lemmon explain, “Standard writers are now obtainable at so cheap a rate, that any one may afford the material for a year's reading in connection with this manual” (Hawthorne and Lemmon 1891, viii). While there were numerous cheap editions of prominent nineteenth-century authors available, there were no comparable collections for earlier centuries. Ten years would pass before a convenient, reasonably priced, relatively thorough anthology of early American literature would become available. When William P. Trent and Benjamin W. Wells published Colonial Prose and Poetry in late 1901, it was warmly received. Trent and Wells took great pains to include representative works from throughout the American colonies in their three-volume anthology. Authors represented include George Alsop, Robert Beverley, William Byrd, Daniel Denton, Philip Vickers Fithian, Sarah Kemble Knight, Mary Rowlandson, Patrick Tailfer, and John Woolman. “Outwardly delightful and intellectually stimulating,” one reviewer called it. “To those who are doubtful of the intellectual stimulus to be got from Cotton Mather and Michael Wigglesworth, we can say only that our colonial writers have abundant interest for those who are willing to look for it. Viewed from the narrow standpoint of aesthetics, they have little to offer; but seen in the wider vision that broadens before the student of social history and the spiritual life, they occupy a large place in our annals.” This reviewer also emphasized the book's convenience and originality: “Nothing of the sort has heretofore been accessible to the general reader, unless, perchance, he happened to own a Duyckinck,” but the reader “can put these books in his pocket” (Anon. 1902, 91). Colonial Prose and Poetry was reissued in 1903 as part of the series Handy Volume Classics. It was also republished in a convenient one-volume edition specifically designed for college classroom use, which went through numerous reprintings through 1929. Rachael Childrey, for example, read one of the later printings of this work while a student at Cornell in 1926.

Another classroom anthology appeared in 1909 and went through multiple re-printings through the 1920s. In his preface to Selections from Early American Writers, 1607–1800, William B. Cairns observed, “Teachers of American literary history are (p. 12) coming pretty generally to recognize that some knowledge of the temper and the manner of Colonial and Revolutionary writers is necessary to the full understanding of their successors” (Cairns 1909, v). This anthology begins with five selections from Captain John Smith, followed by a description of a storm and a shipwreck by William Strachey, included because of its supposed influence on The Tempest. The next several selections come from New England. In fact, the collection as a whole is decidedly biased toward New England. One selection from early Maryland literature, Ebenezer Cook's The Sotweed Factor, is included because, in Cairns's words, it forms “one of the more curious bits of early Americana” (Cairns 1909, 252).

Hildegarde Hawthorne (Julian's daughter) reviewed the work and noticed the New England slant. Though she generally enjoyed it, she disagreed with what Cairns said in his preface. In fact, she saw no “link between this beginning and the immense superstructure of our present output.” In contrast to the numerous Puritan selections, she found the selections from the Revolutionary period quite refreshing: “The latter part of the book contains excerpts from the writings of Jefferson, Paine, and Hamilton, sonorous and immortal pages where a new spirit is already to be observed spreading pinions far beyond the confines of the Puritan prison” (Hawthorne 1909, 475).

The Cambridge History of American Literature

William P. Trent was the prime mover behind The Cambridge History of American Literature, which he edited with John Erskine, Stuart P. Sherman, and Carl Van Doren. Together they, too, recognized that the modern emphasis on belles lettres was inappropriate to the study of early American literature. As one contemporary reviewer summarized their approach: “The editors believe that to write the intellectual history of America from the modern aesthetic standpoint would be to miss precisely what makes it significant among modern literatures. A people that devoted its main energies to exploration, settlement, labor for sustenance, religion, and statecraft had no time and no disposition to pursue art for art's sake” (Anon. 1917, 646).

Book 1 of The Cambridge History of American Literature, “Colonial and Revolutionary Literature,” includes nine chapters. Book 2, “Early National Literature,” contains two chapters that treat other genres belonging to the previous period, specifically travel writing from the middle to late eighteenth century and early American drama. Each chapter is written by a different contributor. Two are devoted to major authors (Benjamin Franklin and Jonathan Edwards). Others are devoted to different types of writing such as poetry and political writing, and others to different types of writers: divines, historians, philosophers, travelers. One is (p. 13) devoted to print culture. This multifaceted approach makes good sense. The only problem, Walter Bronson (1918) noticed, was that each chapter took its subject back to its beginnings and thus hindered the historical continuity of the work as a whole.

The Cambridge History of American Literature was the first comprehensive, collaborative history of American literature. In Perry Miller's words, the work “was as much a battle-cry as a work of scholarship. It was a manifesto of the Americanists that American literature was no longer to be merely a subsection of the English, but was henceforth to be coequal in dignity and repute” (Miller 1948, 4). Subsequent generations of literary scholars have produced their own comprehensive, collaborative histories: Robert Spiller's Literary History of the United States (1948), Emory Elliot's Columbia Literary History of the United States (1988), and Sacvan Bercovitch's eight-volume Cambridge History of American Literature (1994–2005). All of these works have been devoted to American literature as a whole. There has never been a comprehensive, collaborative literary history of early American literature—until now.

A New England State of Mind

Without a collaborative history specifically devoted to early American literature, the field of study was left to individual scholars. Tyler's History of American Literature had been reprinted numerous times through the late nineteenth century, but it went out of print after 1909. The fullest work on the subject to emerge in the middle third of the twentieth century was Perry Miller's two-volume opus, The New England Mind (1939–1953). More a history of ideas than a literary history, Miller's work makes for difficult reading. To be sure, more people bought The New England Mind than actually read it. Regardless whether they read it, many people bought into Miller's argument. He struck a chord that reverberated across the nation. For decades, elementary school history lessons and annual Thanksgiving Day rituals had reminded Americans of the importance of the Puritans to the development of American culture. While publicly acknowledging their cultural significance, many were privately embarrassed by the Puritans' stern ways and narrow thinking. The great value of The New England Mind was to show that the Puritans were deep and serious thinkers, that they devoted enormous amounts of time pondering their condition, that they did not simply accept their prejudices but worked hard to reconcile reality and faith. Miller gave Americans of the mid–twentieth century great comfort: he let them know that they could be proud of their Puritan ancestors maugre their apparent narrow-mindedness.

(p. 14) There had been a New England bias to the study of early American literature ever since the days of Messrs. Knapp and Kettell; Miller's work reinforced the New England bias all the more. Though important works devoted to the intellectual, literary, and cultural history of the South also appeared in the middle third of the twentieth century—W. J. Cash's The Mind of the South (1941), Jay Hubbell's The South in American Literature, 1607–1900 (1954), and much of Richard Beale Davis's impressive body of work—none captured the popular mind-set the way The New England Mind did. Furthermore, none really changed the general way early American literature was taught.

When Davis's three-volume opus, Intellectual Life in the Colonial South, 1585–1763, appeared in 1978, the Miller-inspired New England bias was so fully ingrained in the study of early American literature that it seemed impossible to change. Writing this same year, James M. Cox observed, “The Puritan ascension could be attributed to three causes: Harvard, Yale, and Perry Miller” (Cox 1978, 635). Professor Cox was being facetious, but he is not far wrong. The appearance of the second volume of The New England Mind in 1953 coincided with the rise of the anthology as the dominant pedagogical tool for teaching American literature. The anthologies further institutionalized the New England bias. As recently as 1989, the third edition of the Norton Anthology of American Literature titled its first section, “Early American Literature, 1620–1820.” In other words, the editors dated the start of the period from the arrival of the Puritans in New England, not from the establishment of Jamestown in 1607. Eleven of the first twelve authors represented in this edition of the Norton Anthology are from New England.

Expanding the Canon

In the history of literary scholarship, certain times and places form wellsprings to nourish and accelerate the development of the field of study. In the history of Melville scholarship, for example, the seminars conducted by Stanley T. Williams at Yale in the 1940s were a watershed. Many prominent Melville scholars of the following generation took Williams's seminar, wrote their doctoral dissertations under him, and went on to publish important Melville editions and critical studies. When it comes to the study of early American literature, the same can be said of the seminars conducted by J. A. Leo Lemay at the University of Delaware in the late twentieth century.

Following the lead of Richard Beale Davis, much of Lemay's own scholarship has involved expanding the canon of early American writings to include works from the colonial South. Upon its publication in 1972, Men of Letters in Colonial (p. 15) Maryland broadened the canon of early American literature to include many delightful yet little known authors. Lemay's Robert Bolling Woos Anne Miller: Love and Courtship in Colonial Virginia, 1760, and his separate publication of “Neanthe” established Robert Bolling as an important early American author. And Lemay's Calendar of American Poetry in the Colonial Newspapers and Magazines (1972) forms a useful research tool that anyone studying the period can use to broaden the canon of early American verse on their own. As significant as they are, Lemay's writings may not be his greatest contribution to the study of early American literature. The classes he has taught—Colonial American Literature, Southern Colonial Literature, Complicity in American Literature—may ultimately prove to be his greatest legacy to the field.

In Colonial American Literature, for example, Professor Lemay's instructions the first week of the semester were intimidating in their simplicity: come back next week with an original essay on any work of early American literature. He did provide his students with a list of suggested topics—a single-spaced, ten-page list—but otherwise he left it up to them to choose which authors and what works to study. Suddenly, early American literature no longer meant William Bradford, Cotton Mather, and John Winthrop; it also involved Robert Beverley, William Byrd, Dr. Alexander Hamilton, and Richard Lewis. No longer was early American literature just Puritan histories and sermons; it now included promotion literature, picaresque travel narratives, and bawdy Hudibrastic verse.

Carla Mulford, one of Lemay's students, became a founding editor of The Heath Anthology of American Literature (1990). Published by D. C. Heath ninety-nine years after the firm had published the Hawthorne and Lemmon textbook, this anthology begins with traditional Native American stories, includes excerpts of numerous European voyages from Christopher Columbus through Samuel de Champlain, presents a liberal sampling of literature from the English colonies on the mainland, and includes a selection entitled “Emerging Voices of a National Literature: African, Native American, Spanish, Mexican.” No longer can early American literature be called protoplasm, but the Heath Anthology still makes the field seem somewhat inchoate. Suddenly, inclusivity had become more valuable criterion than literary quality. Diversity had become more valuable than continuity.

In the decade and a half since the first edition of the Heath Anthology appeared, the canon of early American literature has continued to expand. Essentially, two new approaches to the field have emerged. Whereas early American literature had been defined in the past in terms of language and geography, now it is being defined in terms of language or geography. Some prefer to take a hemispherical approach and look at early American literature as involving all literature written in the Americas during colonial times in any language. Others take a linguistic approach and see early American literature as literature in English about America. This approach, which encompasses North America, Great Britain, and the West Indies, can be called the transatlantic approach.

(p. 16) Though well intended, both the hemispherical approach and the transatlantic approach ignore a central fact about American culture that Tyler and the Duyckincks understood intuitively. Both approaches ignore how important the American soil has been to the development of American literature. New England, the Middle Colonies, and the South all shared a similar geography. Settled along the East Coast, the colonies were separated from the rest of the continent by the Appalachians. Beyond that was a vast and sparsely populated land that stretched westward for thousands of miles. This unique geographic situation contributed immeasurably to make American literature what it would become. “Nota: man is the intelligence of his soil,” Wallace Stevens wrote in “The Comedian as the Letter C.” Before this long poem is through, its speaker revises the phrase to “Nota: his soil is man's intelligence.” Either way, Stevens identified an inextricable link between the land and the intellectual activity that occurs there, a link that is essential for understanding early American literature.

The Structure of This Volume

The canon of early American literature has expanded so rapidly in recent decades that advances in the field made twenty or thirty years ago have been forgotten in the face of more recent discoveries. In other words, the South is being neglected yet again. Ignored in favor of early New England literature through much of the twentieth century, the literature of the colonial South is now ignored in favor of Spanish voyages, Native American legends, and the poetry of the West Indies. While taking advantage of efforts to expand the canon of early American literature, The Oxford Handbook of Early American Literature seeks to consolidate recent gains and impose some order on the field of study. While acknowledging the importance of the hemispherical and transatlantic approaches as important contexts for understanding colonial America, the Oxford Handbook sees early American literature as something that can be defined in terms of both language and geography. As defined here, early American literature is literature written in English in the region contemporary writers referred to as the “colonies of the main,” that is, the British colonies on the American mainland and, after 1776, in the United States. The present work takes the story of early American literature through the period of the Revolutionary War to the mid-1790s. An Oxford Handbook devoted to the next period of study will begin with Charles Brockden Brown.

The Oxford Handbook of Early American Literature is subdivided into seven parts, each part containing from three to five chapters. Five chapters are devoted to major authors: Crèvecoeur, Edwards, Franklin, Hamilton, and Smith. Other chapters are (p. 17) devoted to different literary genres: autobiography, captivity narratives, diaries, novels, plays, political writings, promotion literature, and slave narratives. Some genres receive more than one chapter. Travel writing receives two, one on early voyages and another on picaresque travel narratives. Natural history is treated in a chapter devoted to scientific discourse, as well as in another chapter that examines two of the masterworks of early American literature, Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia and William Bartram's Travels. History writing receives two chapters, and poetry receives three. Part 4 contains three chapters treating different aspects of print culture in early America. And one chapter takes Native American voices as its subject.

The contributors to this volume take advantage of many emerging approaches to literature. Both Melissa Homestead and David Carlson display the usefulness of understanding the transatlantic contexts. In her study, Homestead, for example, shows that the early American novel evolved within the cultural dynamic of ocean crossing. Recent developments in the field of cultural studies are also useful to the study of literature, as several of the contributors demonstrate. The history of the book has become a lively field of study in its own right. The section devoted to contexts of reading makes an effort to integrate the history of the book within the study of literature, but other chapters incorporate advances made by those who study the history of the book, including the profound importance of understanding the interrelationship between manuscript and print culture. Performance studies is another growing field with vast implications for literary study. In his study of Augustan American poetry, Chris Beyers, for example, suggests that the composition of a poem functions as a cultural performance. Intended to explore many different aspects of early American literature, the chapters that follow are arranged in a rough chronological order and, therefore, form, a literary history, the fullest history of early American literature since the days of Moses Coit Tyler. The Oxford Handbook of Early American Literature is not just a history of the subject; it is also a celebration of American culture.


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