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Chapter 1: the Puritan writers

The point of view.

When Shakespeare's Slender in “The Merry wives of Windsor” claims that his cousin Shallow is a gentleman born, and may write himself armigero, he adds proudly, “All his successors, gone before him, have done it, and all his ancestors that come after him may.” Slender really builded better than he knew; probably most of the applications at the Heralds' College in London, or at the offices of heraldic engravers in New York, are based on the principle he laid down. Its most triumphant application is that recorded by Gilbert Stuart. While he was in London the painter had a call from an Irishman who had become, through some lucky speculation, the possessor of a castle, and who appealed to Stuart to provide him [2] with a family portrait gallery. Stuart naturally supposed that there were miniatures or pictures of some kind which he might follow, but on arriving at the castle he found there was nothing of the sort.

“ Then how am I to paint your ancestors, if you have no ancestors?” he asked in some indignation.

“Nothing is easier,” said the Irishman; “you have only to paint me the ancestors that I ought to have had.”

The proposal struck Stuart's sense of humor, and he went to work, soon producing a series of knights in armor, judges in bushy wigs, and fine ladies with nosegays and lambs, to the perfect satisfaction of his patron. Here was Slender's fine conception literally carried out; the ancestors came afterward because their enterprising successor had gone before.

Something like this method has been employed by many chroniclers of American literature. Perceiving that America has produced much that is creditable during the past century, they have set about finding a direct American pedigree for it. Yet they would readily agree that almost nothing which has attained permanent fame was written [3] in America before the nineteenth century; and they would not deny that, so far as its form, at least, is concerned, most of our later literature confesses an English ancestry.


But if the spirit of those older writers, the writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was American, what does the form of their writing matter? The answer to this question depends upon what we mean by Americanism. Until the very outbreak of the Revolution there were few persons in the American colonies who were not, in sentiment as well as in mental inheritance, English. England was “home” to them, as it is now to the British Canadian or Australian. Circumstances were of course bringing about a gradual divergence in manners and in special sympathies between the colonist of Massachusetts or Virginia and the Englishman of London. Even the shock of the Revolution could, so far as literature was concerned, only hasten that divergence of type — not transform it into a difference of type. To this day, indeed, the course of that divergence has been so slow that we still find Mr. Howells uttering the opinion, not quite justly, that American literature is merely “a condition of English literature.”


American literature.

It would be a remarkable fact if America had, in so short a time, created an altogether new and distinct type of literature. What Fisher Ames said nearly a century ago is still true : “It is no reproach to the genius of America, if it does not produce ordinarily such men as were deemed the prodigies of the ancient world. Nature has provided for the propagation of men — giants are rare; and it is forbidden by her laws that there should be races of them.” Probably no more wholesome service can now be done to the elementary study of the literature of the United States than by directing it toward the sane and cheerful recognition of the close relation which has always existed between American writing and English writing; and toward a careful weighing of the American authors in whom we properly take pride, upon the same scales which have served us in determining the value of British authors.

With such ends in view, the present book will attempt, not to be a literary history of America, but simply to give a connected account of the pure literature which has been produced by Americans. It will not assume to be in any sense a minute literary cyclopedia [5] of this work, but will rather attempt to select, as time selects, the best or representative names of each period in its course. The intrinsic literary importance of these writers will be considered, rather than their merely historical importance. Many minor names, therefore, which might properly be included in a summary of respectable books hitherto produced in America are here omitted altogether; and others are given such minor mention as their literary merit appears to warrant.

Pure literature.

But it is time, you may say, to define more specifically what literature is. No definition of it ever yet given has surpassed that magnificent Latin sentence of Bacon's which one marvels never to have seen quoted among the too scanty evidences that he wrote the works attributed to Shakespeare :--
It [literature] hath something divine in it, because it raises the mind and hurries it into sublimity, by conforming the show of things to the desires of the soul, instead of subjecting the soul to external things, as reason and history do. De Augmentis, Book II.

It is only literature then, in Bacon's definition, which truly “raises the mind and hurries it into sublimity.” All else is reason

(or reasoning) and history (or narrative). [6]

Where does literature find its source? Not in thought or feeling alone, else we should look to the cradle for our literature. Not even in the first impulses of speech; the cradle supplies those, and so, in maturer life, do the street, the railway, the shop. Mere language is not a deliberate creation, but begins in an impulse; and those who, like Emerson, have excelled in its use have long since admitted that language, as such, is the product of the people at large, not of the student. But the word “literature” implies that another step has been taken. Language is but the instrument of literature. Literature involves not merely impulse, but structure; it goes beyond the word and reaches “the perfection and precision of the instantaneous line.” Its foundation is thought, but it goes farther and seeks to utter thought in continuous and symmetrical form. We must pass beyond the vivid phrase to the vivid line. Thought, emotion, the instinct toward expression — the whole personality of the man and his skill as an artist — must work together in perfect adjustment, in order to gain this end. Very few men are both strong and skillful enough for this; and that is why, [7] out of the great mass of written and printed matter which the world produces, so little is worth preserving in the treasury of pure literature.

In proceeding with our account of American literature, then, we shall try to keep ourselves within the boundary here set. We shall find occasion from time to time to suggest the historical importance of an author or a book, but the final judgment on them will be based upon their relation to literature. Such an account may properly begin with a consideration of the germs or fragments of pure literature which were produced in America before, with Franklin, what we may now more properly call American Literature began.

The early colonists.

The earliest writing done in America was the work of persons who not only were of English birth, but whose stay in America was comparatively short. Captain John Smith was the first American colonist to write a book, “A true relation of Virginia.” It was a brilliant and vigorous piece of narrative, and was followed before his return to England by two other books of merit. But it is only in a historical sense that [8] we can call him one of the “fathers of American literature.” 1 He was, in fact, a sturdy and accomplished Englishman of the best Elizabethan type. The famous story of his rescue by Pocahontas apparently represents the instinctive effort of a gallant gentleman-adventurer with a turn for expression to embellish his bluff narrative with a romantic incident.

The first person of professedly literary pursuits to come to America was George Sandys, already a poet of recognized standing when, in 1621, he crossed the ocean as an official under the Governor of Virginia. The first five books of his translation of Ovid's “Metamorphoses” had just been published in England, and had been received with enthusiasm. On his departure for America he was sped by a rhymed tribute from Michael Drayton, exhorting him to go on with the same work in Virginia:--

Entice the Muses thither to repair;
Entreat them gently; train them to that air,

he urges. It was a rude air. To the ordinary privations of the pioneer, and the wearing routine of official duties, were added the [9] sudden horrors of the James River massacre (March, 1622), and the stress of the troubled days which followed. Yet when Sandys returned to England in 1625, he brought with him the ten books which completed his version of the “Metamorphoses.” This translation lived to be much admired by Dryden and Pope, and, what is more important, undoubtedly had great influence upon their method of versification. The not altogether admirable distinction, therefore, belongs to Sandys of having laid the foundation for the form of heroic couplet which became a blight upon English poetry in the eighteenth century. At all events, the accident of his having lived for a time in America gives us a very shadowy claim upon him as an American writer.

Anne Bradstreet.

Even from the point of view of the literary historian, the work of Sandys is of little significance. It does not appear that he influenced later American writing, good or bad. The situation is very different with Anne Bradstreet, who, indeed, represents a second step toward a type of writing which should be in some sense American in quality as well as in birthplace. Though born in England, she became absolutely [10] identified with American thought and life, exerted an immense influence in her day, and was the ancestor of five especially intellectual families in New England, counting among her descendants William Ellery Channing, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Richard Henry Dana, Wendell Phillips, and Andrews Norton. She was born in 1612 of Puritan stock, her father being steward of the estates of the Puritan nobleman, the Earl of Lincoln. She was married at sixteen and came to America with her husband, Governor Bradstreet, in 1630. It is evident that, in spite of her Puritan sense of duty, she could not leave England for the raw life of the colonies without a pang. “After a time,” she wrote many years later, “I changed my condition and was married, and came into this country, where I found a new world and new manners, at which my heart rose. But after I was convinced it was the way of God, I submitted to it.” She was of delicate constitution and refined instincts, and was to become the mother of eight children. Yet most of her poems were written before she was thirty years old, in the midst of the daily toils of the wife of a New England [11] farmer, and under her rapidly increasing burden of motherhood. Her work at once gained such attention that she was called “a tenth muse” by her contemporaries. Her poems were published in London in 1650 under a title which gives a tabular view of her range of thought and knowledge, being as follows: “The Tenth Muse, lately sprung up in America, or Several Poems Compiled with Great Variety of Wit and Learning, Full of Delight, Wherein especially is Contained a Complete Discourse and Description of the Four Elements, Constitutions, Ages of Man, Seasons of the Year, together with an exact Epitome of the Four Monarchies, viz., The Assyrian, Persian, Grecian, Roman. Also a Dialogue between Old England and New, concerning the late troubles. With divers other pleasant and serious Poems. By a Gentlewoman in those parts.” (London, 1650.)

Her name could not be properly mentioned here if her poems were not shorter than her title-pages, which possibly got intertangled with the messages of her husband, the governor. Her poetry would not now be considered great, or in fact readable, except by [12] the special student, though it is in no way behind that of the most distinguished English poetess of the same period, Mrs. Katharine Phillips. Yet Cotton Mather said of her works that “they would outlast the stateliest marble,” and other admirers “weltered in delight” or were “sunk in a sea of bliss” on reading them. Her literary taste was, like that of other Puritans, fatally compromised by religious prejudice. Shakespeare and the other robust Elizabethan spirits were an abomination to her; and she readily fell * under the influence of “fantastic” poets like

Herbert, Quarles, and Du Bartas, upon whom she formed her own style. It is on the whole remarkable that she should have been able now and then to free herself from these chosen fetters, and speak her own heart in really simple and noble verse.

Her “Contemplations,” not published until after her death, contain verses which suggest that Spenser might have been her master, and require no apology. This is true, for instance, of her poem upon “The seasons:”

When I behold the heavens as in their prime,
And then the earth (though old) still clad in green, [13]
The stones and trees, insensible of time,
Nor age nor wrinkle on their front are seen.
If winter come, and greenness then do fade,
A Spring returns, and they more youthful made;
But Man grows old, lies down, remains where once he's laid.

Shall I then praise the heavens, the trees, the earth,
Because their beauty and their strength last longer?
Shall I wish there, or never, to had birth,
Because they're bigger and their bodies stronger?
Nay, they shall darken, perish, fade, and die,
And when unmade so ever shall they lie;
But man was made for endless immortality.

O Time, the fatal wrack of mortal things,
That draws oblivion's curtains over kings;
Their sumptuous monuments, men know them not,
Their names without a record are forgot,
Their parts, their ports, their pomp's all laid in tha dust,
Nor wit nor gold, nor buildings 'scape time's rust;
But he whose name is grav'd in the white stone
Shall last and shine when all of these are gone.

Anne Bradstreet had the most genuinely poetic gift among our Puritan writers of verse. These formed, however, a surprisingly large class. “Lady Mary Montagu said that in England, in her time, verse-making had become as common as taking snuff; in New England, in the age before that, it had become much more common than taking snuff [14] --since there were some who did not take snuff.” 2 The New England divine, who had a horror of fine art, could not keep his hand from the making of bad verses. It was, to be sure, a sort of poetry in Sunday clothes which he allowed himself to cultivate. He loved to record his religious fears and ecstasies in thumping doggerel, and to set his grim sermons to a taking jingle.

Michael Wigglesworth.

The writer who better than Anne Bradstreet or any one else represents this class, is Michael Wigglesworth (1631-1705). His most famous work was “The Day of Doom; or, A Poetical Description of the great and last Judgment.” A sufficient taste of its quality may be given by quoting the last words of the verdict upon those who have died in infancy:--
A crime it is; therefore in bliss
You may not hope to dwell;
But unto you I shall allow
The easiest room in Hell.

A generation which found it possible to accept such a passage without feeling it to be either revolting or ridiculous, could not be expected to produce real poetry. This [15] poem, published about 1660, had, it has been claimed, “a popularity far exceeding that of any other work, in prose or verse, produced in America before the Revolution.” It had, indeed, far greater temporary fame than “Paradise lost,” which was written at about the same time by the veritable poet of Puritanism, John Milton.

Puritan prose.

The literary instinct of New England Puritanism by no means exhausted itself in verse. In prose as well as in poetry the most effective work of the period was the product of Puritan zeal and Puritan narrowness. Two names stand out prominently as representative of this school of prose writing, mighty names in their day which have not yet ceased to echo in our memories: those of Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards.

Cotton Mather.

Cotton Mather was born in 1663, the third and greatest of the four Mathers who morally and intellectually dominated America for more than a century. From his cradle he was petted and flattered into what his best critic calls “a vast literary and religious coxcomb.” He was a Harvard freshman at eleven, a Master of Arts at eighteen. [16] At twenty-two, as assistant to his distinguished father, he had entered the pastorate of the North Church of Boston, in which he remained until his death in 1728. All that was most acute, most pedantic, most rigid in the Puritan faith and practice appeared to be embodied in him. He fasted, he forced himself to incredible feats of mental endurance, he deliberately cultivated a habit of decorating the simplest experiences of life with pious reflections: “When he washed his hands, he must think of the clean hands, as well as pure heart, which belong to the citizens of Zion.” . . . “Upon the sight of a tall man, he said, ‘Lord, give that man high attainments in Christianity; let him fear God above many.’ ” More characteristic than either of these instances, perhaps, is his remark on the occasion of “a man going by without observing him, ‘ Lord, I pray thee help that man to take a due notice of Christ.’ ”

He was an extraordinarily voluminous writer. He published fourteen books in one year, and a list of his known publications contains three hundred and eighty-three titles. Most of these titles, like — a large part of his writing, are fearfully and wonderfully made: [17] “Christianus per Ignem; or, a Disciple Warming of Himself and Owning his Lord” “Nails Fastened; or, Proposals of Piety Complied Withal;” and so on. No theme appeared to be simple enough for Cotton Mather to treat simply; and in consequence most of his work is now dead. Even that greatest book of his, the formidable “Magnalia Christi Americana,” 3 can now be read only by the special student of history. “He was,” says Professor Tyler, “the last, the most vigorous, and therefore the most disagreeable representative of the fantastic school in literature; he prolonged in New England the methods of that school even after his most cultivated contemporaries there had outgrown them, and had come to dislike them. The expulsion of the beautiful from thought, from sentiment, from language; a lawless and a merciless fury for the odd, the disorderly, the grotesque, the violent; strained analogies, unexpected images, pedantries, indelicacies, freaks of allusion, monstrosities of phrase;these are the traits of Cotton Mather's writing, [18] even as they are the traits common to that perverse and detestable literary mood that held sway in different countries of Christendom during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Its birthplace was Italy; New England was its grave; Cotton Mather was its last great apostle.”

However true this may be of Mather at his worst, it is certain that at times he did succeed, like Anne Bradstreet, in forgetting his artifice, and in producing passages of noble prose. Professor William James, after quoting that exquisite passage in which Cotton Mather bids farewell to his young wife, lying dead in the house with her two young children, also dead, finds in it “the impulse to sacrifice” only. We may see in it also the impulse to expression which, ultimately developed, creates literature. ProfessorWendell says truly of Mather that he frequently wrote “with a rhythmical beauty which recalls the enthusiastic spontaneity of Elizabethan English, so different from the English which came after the Civil War.” It is when a Puritan clergyman ceases to be theological that he is most apt to touch our hearts and delight our ears. We find in Mather, for [19] instance, this rhythmical beauty when he describes the career of Thomas Shepard, the first minister of Cambridge, as “a trembling walk with God,” or gives this picture (1702) of what he calls “The conversation of gentlemen :”

There seems no need of adding anything but this, that when gentlemen occasionally meet together, why should not their conversation correspond with their superior station? Methinks they should deem it beneath persons of their quality to employ the conversation on trifling impertinences, or in such a way that, if it were secretly taken in shorthand, they would blush to hear it repeated. “Nothing but jesting and laughing, and words scattered by the wind.” Sirs, it becomes a gentleman to entertain his company with the finest thoughts on the finest themes; and certainly there cannot be a subject so worthy of a gentleman as this — What good is there to be done in the world? Were this noble subject more frequently started in the conversation of gentlemen, an incredible good might be done.

Beyond the fact that they were both ardent defenders of the Calvinistic doctrine, Jonathan Edwards and Cotton Mather had really very little in common, as to either character or experience. Edwards was modest and gentle in character, and simple to the point of bareness in style; and life was not arranged very smoothly for him.


Jonathan Edwards.

Jonathan Edwards was born, the son of a Connecticut minister, in 1703. He took his degree at Yale in 1720, and thereafter became college tutor, minister at Northampton, missionary to the Stockbridge Indians, and finally president of Princeton College. He died in 1758. As a child he showed ability in mental science and divinity. At twelve he displayed the acuteness and courtesy in speculative controversy which were to be his lifelong characteristics. Until he had fairly entered the ministry he manifested just as keen interest and intelligence in other fields. At seventeen he had somehow evolved a system of idealistic philosophy much like that which Berkeley was to make famous a few years later. In physics and astronomy, also, he had, before the end of his tutorship at Yale, recorded speculative theories very far in advance of his time. Yet at twenty-four he deliberately cast all this intellectual activity behind him, to devote himself for the rest of his life to the championship of a rigid and belated system of theology. The doctrines that in the handling of Wigglesworth and Mather had often been grotesque, became terrific when [21] submitted to the calm and relentless logic of Edwards. Accepting without question the stern tenets of his inherited faith, he set himself the task of giving them their full logical development. He was not an orator, but his directness and earnestness gave him astonishing power over his audiences. Many passages from his sermons are almost too terrible to quote: “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; . . he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fire. . . . You are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful, venomous serpent is in ours.” It is one of the strangest of facts, only to be accounted for on the ground of that form of insanity which is called bigotry, that so acute a mind and so gentle a heart should have bent themselves to the enunciation of a creed so blind and so brutal.

No modern audience could now hear, without a shudder amounting to detestation, some of those pages in the sermons of Jonathan Edwards by which he felt himself to be best [22] serving God and man; but Jonathan Edwards wrote literature when, in 1725, at the age of twenty-two, he inscribed on the blank leaf of a book this description of Sarah Pierrepont, afterwards his wife:--

They say there is a young lady in New Haven who is beloved of that Great Being, who made and rules the world, and that there are certain seasons in which this Great Being, in some way or other invisible, comes to her and fills her mind with exceeding sweet delight, and that she hardly cares for anything, except to meditate on him — that she expects after a while to be received up where he is, to be raised up out of the world and caught up into heaven; being assured that he loves her too well to let her remain at a distance from him always. There she is to dwell with him, and to be ravished with his love and delight forever. Therefore, if you present all the world before her, with the richest of its treasures, she disregards and cares not for it, and is unmindful of any pain or affliction. She has a strange sweetness in her mind and singular purity in her affections; is most just and conscientious in all her conduct; and you could not persuade her to do anything wrong or sinful, if you would give her all the world, lest she should offend this Great Being. She is of a wonderful sweetness, calmness and universal benevolence of mind; especially after this great God has manifested himself to her mind. She will sometimes go about from place to place, singing sweetly; and seems to be always full of joy and pleasure; and [23] no one knows for what. She loves to be alone, walking in the fields and groves, and seems to have some one invisible always conversing with her.

This may fairly be called the high-water mark of Puritan prose.

1 Tyler, History of American literature, i. p. 7.

2 Tyler, II. p. 267.

3 Its sub-title was The Ecclesiastical history of New England from its first planting, in the year 1620, unto the year of our Lord 1698. It was first published in London in 1702.

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