Colonial Writings of American Literature - (17th Century)

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      COLONIAL LITERATURE OF AMERICA RELATION TO ENGLISH LITERATURE.—The literature produced in that part of America known as the United States did not begin as an independent literature. The early colonists were Englishmen who brought with them their own language, books, and modes of thought. England had a world-famous literature before her sons established a permanent settlement across the Atlantic. Shakespeare had died four years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. When an American goes to Paris he can neither read the books, nor converse with the citizens, if he knows no language but his own. Let him cross to London, and he will find that, although more than three hundred years have elapsed since the first colonists came to America, he immediately feels at home, so far as the language and literature are concerned.

Colonial Literature

      For nearly two hundred years after the first English settlements in America, the majority of the works read there were written by English authors. The hard struggle necessary to obtain a foothold in a wilderness is not favorable to the early development of a literature. Those who remained in England could not clear away the forest, till the soil, and conquer the Indians, but they could write the books and send them across the ocean. The early settlers were for the most part content to allow English authors to do this. For these reasons it would be surprising if early American literature could vie with that produced in England during the same period.

      When Americans began to write in larger numbers, there was at first close adherence to English models. For a while it seemed as if American literature would be only a feeble imitation of these models, but a change finally came, as will be shown in later chapters. It is to be hoped, however, that American writers of the future will never cease to learn from Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Bunyan, and Wordsworth.

      AMERICAN LITERATURE AN IMPORTANT STUDY.—We should not begin the study of American literature in an apologetic spirit. There should be no attempt to minimize the debt that America owes to English literature, nor to conceal the fact that American literature is young and has not had time to produce as many masterpieces as England gave to the world during a thousand years. However, it is now time also to record the fact that the literature of England gained something from America. Cultivated Englishmen to-day willingly admit that without a study of Cooper, Poe, and Hawthorne no one could give an adequate account of the landmarks of achievement in fiction, written in our common tongue. French critics have even gone so far as to canonize Poe. In a certain field he and Hawthorne occupy a unique place in the world's achievement. Again, men like Bret Harte and Mark Twain are not common in any literature. Foreigners have had American books translated into all the leading languages of the world. It is now more than one hundred years since Franklin, the great American philosopher of the practical, died, and yet several European nations reprint nearly every year some of his sayings, which continue to influence the masses. English critics, like John Addington Symonds, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Edward Dowden, have testified to the power of the democratic element in our literature and have given the dictum that it cannot be neglected.

      Some of the reasons why American literature developed along original lines and thus conveyed a message of its own to the world are to be found in the changed environment and the varying problems and ideals of American life. Even more important than the changed ways of earning a living and the difference in climate, animals, and scenery were the struggles leading to the Revolutionary War, the formation and guidance of the Republic, and the Civil War. All these combined to give individuality to American thought and literature.

      Taken as a whole, American literature has accomplished more than might reasonably have been expected. Its study is especially important for us, since the deeds associated with our birthplace must mean more to us than more remarkable achievements of men born under other skies. Our literature, even in its humble beginnings, contains a lesson that no American can afford to miss. Unless we know its ideals and moral aims and are swayed by them, we cannot keep our heritage.

      WHY VIRGINIA WAS COLONIZED.—In 1607 the first permanent English colony within the present limits of the United States was planted at Jamestown in Virginia. The colony was founded for commercial reasons by the London Company, an organization formed to secure profits from colonization. The colonists and the company that furnished their ship and outfit expected large profits from the gold mines and the precious stones which were believed to await discovery. Of course, the adventurers were also influenced by the honor and the romantic interest which they thought would result from a successful settlement.

      When the expedition sailed from England in December, 1606, Michael Drayton, an Elizabethan poet, wrote verses dedicated "To the Virginian Voyage." These stanzas show the reason for sending the colonizers to Virginia:—

 "You brave heroic minds,
  Worthy your country's name,
  That honor still pursue,
  Whilst loit'ring hinds
  Lurk here at home with shame,
  Go and subdue.
  * * * * *
  And cheerfully at sea,
  Success you still entice,
  To get the pearl and gold;
  And ours to hold
  Virginia,
  Earth's only paradise."

      The majority of the early Virginian colonists were unfit for their task. Contemporary accounts tell of the "many unruly gallants, packed hither by their friends to escape ill destinies." Beggars, vagabonds, indentured servants, kidnapped girls, even convicts, were sent to Jamestown and became the ancestors of some of the "poor white trash" of the South. After the execution of Charles I. in 1649, and the setting up of the Puritan Commonwealth, many of the royalists, or Cavaliers, as they were called, came to Virginia to escape the obnoxious Puritan rule. They became the ancestors of Presidents and statesmen, and of many of the aristocratic families of the South.

      The ideals expressed by Captain John Smith, the leader and preserver of the Jamestown colony, are worthy to rank beside those of the colonizers of New England. Looking back at his achievement in Virginia, he wrote, "Then seeing we are not born for ourselves but each to help other … Seeing honor is our lives' ambition … and seeing by no means would we be abated of the dignities and glories of our predecessors; let us imitate their virtues to be worthily their successors."

      WHY THE PURITANS COLONIZED NEW ENGLAND.—During the period from 1620 to 1640, large numbers of Englishmen migrated to that part of America now known as New England. These emigrants were not impelled by hope of wealth, or ease, or pleasure. They were called Puritans because they wished to purify the Church of England from what seemed to them great abuses; and the purpose of these men in emigrating to America was to lay the foundations of a state built upon their religious principles. These people came for an intangible something—liberty of conscience, a fuller life of the spirit—which has never commanded a price on any stock exchange in the world. They looked beyond

      "Things done that took the eye and had the price;

  O'er which, from level stand,
  The low world laid its hand,

      Found straightway to its mind, could value in a trice."

      These Puritans had been more than one century in the making. We hear of them in the time of Wycliffe (1324-1384). Their religion was a constant command to put the unseen above the seen, the eternal above the temporal, to satisfy the aspiration of the spirit. James I. (reign, 1603-1625) told them that he would harry them out of the kingdom unless they conformed to the rites of the Established Church. His son and successor Charles I. (reign, 1625-1649) called to his aid Archbishop Laud (1573-1645), a bigoted official of that church. Laud hunted the dissenting clergy like wild beasts, threw them into prison, whipped them in the pillory, branded them, slit their nostrils, and mutilated their ears. JOHN COTTON, pastor of the church of Boston, England, was told that if he had been guilty only of an infraction of certain of the Ten Commandments, he might have been pardoned, but since his crime was Puritanism, he must suffer. He had great trouble in escaping on a ship bound for the New England Boston. [Illustration: JOHN COTTON]

      Professor Tyler says: "New England has perhaps never quite appreciated its great obligations to Archbishop Laud. It was his overmastering hate of nonconformity, it was the vigilance and vigor and consecrated cruelty with which he scoured his own diocese and afterward all England, and hunted down and hunted out the ministers who were committing the unpardonable sin of dissent, that conferred upon the principal colonies of New England their ablest and noblest men."

      It should be noted that the Puritan colonization of New England took place in a comparatively brief space of time, during the twenty years from 1620 to 1640. Until 1640 persecution drove the Puritans to New England in multitudes, but in that year they suddenly stopped coming. "During the one hundred and twenty-five years following that date, more persons, it is supposed, went back from the New to the Old England than came from the Old England to the New," says Professor Tyler. The year 1640 marks the assembling of the Long Parliament, which finally brought to the block both Archbishop Laud (1645) and King Charles I. (1649), and chose the great Puritan, Oliver Cromwell, to lead the Commonwealth.

      ELIZABETHAN TRAITS.—The leading men in the colonization of Virginia and New England were born in the reign of Queen Elizabeth (1558-1603), and they and their descendants showed on this side of the Atlantic those characteristics which made the Elizabethan age preeminent.

      In the first place, the Elizabethans possessed initiative. This power consists, first, in having ideas, and secondly, in passing from the ideas to the suggested action. Some people merely dream. The Elizabethans dreamed glorious dreams, which they translated into action. They defeated the Spanish Armada; they circumnavigated the globe; they made it possible for Shakespeare's pen to mold the thought and to influence the actions of the world.

      If we except those indentured servants and apprentices who came to America merely because others brought them, we shall find not only that the first colonists were born in an age distinguished for its initiative, but also that they came because they possessed this characteristic in a greater degree than those who remained behind. It was easier for the majority to stay with their friends; hence England was not depopulated. The few came, those who had sufficient initiative to cross three thousand miles of unknown sea, who had the power to dream dreams of a new commonwealth, and the will to embody those dreams in action.

      In the second place, the Elizabethans were ingenious, that is, they were imaginative and resourceful. Impelled by the mighty forces of the Reformation and the Revival of Learning which the England of Elizabeth alone felt at one and the same time, the Elizabethans craved and obtained variety of experience, which kept the fountainhead of ingenuity filled. It is instructive to follow the lives of Elizabethans as different as Sir Philip Sidney, William Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh, Captain John Smith, and John Winthrop, and to note the varied experiences of each. Yankee ingenuity had an Elizabethan ancestry. The hard conditions of the New World merely gave an opportunity to exercise to the utmost an ingenuity which the colonists brought with them.

      In the third place, the Elizabethans were unusually democratic; that is, the different classes mingled together in a marked degree, more than in modern England, more even than in the United States to-day. This intermingling was due in part to increased travel, to the desire born of the New Learning to live as varied and as complete a life as possible, and to the absence of overspecialization among individuals. This chance for varied experience with all sorts and conditions of men enabled Shakespeare to speak to all humanity. All England was represented in his plays. When the Rev. Thomas Hooker, born in the last half of Elizabeth's reign, was made pastor at Hartford, Connecticut, he suggested to his flock a democratic form of government much like that under which we now live.

      Let us remember that American life and literature owe their most interesting traits to these three Elizabethan qualities—initiative, ingenuity, and democracy. Let us not forget that the Cambridge University graduate, the cooper, cloth-maker, printer, and blacksmith had the initiative to set out for the New World, the ingenuity to deal with its varied exigencies, and the democratic spirit that enabled them to work side by side, no matter how diverse their former trades, modes of life, and social condition.

SUMMARY 
       In this chapter we have traced the history of American colonial literature from the foundation of the Jamestown Colony until 1754. Before 1607 Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakespeare had written, and before 1620 the King James version of the Bible had been produced. England had, therefore, a wonderful literature before her colonies came to America. They were the heirs of all that the English race had previously accomplished; and they brought to these shores an Elizabethan initiative, ingenuity, and democratic spirit.

      The Virginia colony was founded, as colonies usually are, for a commercial reason. The Virginians and the other southern colonists lived more by agriculture, were more widely scattered, had fewer schools, more slaves, and less town life than the New Englanders. Under the influence of a commanding clergy, common schools, and the stimulus of town life, the New England colony produced more literature.

      The chief early writers of Virginia are: (1) Captain John Smith, who described the country and the Indians, and gave to literature the story of Pocahontas, thereby disclosing a new world to the imagination of writers; (2) William Strachey, who outranks contemporary colonial writers in describing the wrath of the sea, and who may even have furnished a suggestion to Shakespeare for The Tempest; (3) two poets, (a) George Sandys, who translated part of Ovid, and (b) the unknown author of the elegy on Nathaniel Bacon; and (4) Robert Beverly and William Byrd, who gave interesting descriptions of early Virginia.

      The chief colonial writers of New England are: (1) William Bradford, whose History of Plymouth Plantation tells the story of the first Pilgrim colony; (2) John Winthrop, who wrote in his Journal the early history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony; (3) the poets, including (a) the translators of the Bay Psalm Book, the first volume of so-called verse printed in the British American colonies, (b) Wigglesworth, whose Day of Doom, was a poetic exposition of Calvinistic theology, (c) Anne Bradstreet, who wrote a small amount of genuine poetry, after she had passed from the influence of the "fantastic" school of poets; (4) Nathaniel Ward, the author of The Simple Cobbler of Agawam, an attempt to mend human ways; (5) Samuel Sewall, New England's greatest colonial diarist; (6) Cotton Mather, the most famous clerical writer, whose Magnalia is a compound of early colonial history and biography, sometimes written in a "fantastic" style; (7) Jonathan Edwards, America's greatest metaphysician and theologian, who maintained that the action of the human will is determined by the strongest motive, that the substance of this universe is nothing but "the divine Idea," communicated to human consciousness, and who could invest spiritual truth with the beauty of the Rose of Sharon and the Lily of the valleys.

      The New England colonist came to America because of religious feeling. His religion was to him a matter of eternal life or eternal death. From the modern point of view, this religion may seem too inflexibly stern, too little illumined by the spirit of love, too much darkened by the shadow of eternal punishment, but unless that religion had communicated something of its own dominating inflexibility to the colonist, he would never have braved the ocean, the wilderness, the Indians; he would never have flung the gauntlet down to tyranny at Lexington and Concord.

      The greatest lesson taught by colonial literature, by men like Bradford, Winthrop, Edwards, and the New England clergy in general, is moral heroism, the determination to follow the shining path of the Eternal over the wave and through the forest to a new temple of human liberty. Their aspiration, endeavor, suffering, accomplishment, should strengthen our faith in the worth of those spiritual realities which are not quoted in the markets of the world, but which alone possess imperishable value.

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