Early American Fictional Novel - Historical Writings

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      MRS. SARAH MORTON published in Boston in 1789 a novel entitled The Power of Sympathy. This is probably the first American novel to appear in print. The reason for such a late appearance of native fiction may be ascribed to the religious character of the early colonists and to the ascendency of the clergy, who would not have tolerated novel reading by members of their flocks. Jonathan Edwards complained that some of his congregation were reading forbidden books, and he gave from the pulpit the names of the guilty parties. These books were probably English novels. Sir Leslie Stephen thinks that Richardson's Pamela (1740) may have been one of the books under the ban. There is little doubt that a Puritan church member would have been disciplined if he had been known to be a reader of some of Fielding's works, like Joseph Andrews (1742). The Puritan clergy, even at a later period, would not sanction the reading of novels unless they were of the dry, vapid type, like the earliest Sunday school books. Jonathan Edwards wrote the story of one of his youthful experiences, but it was "the story of a spiritual experience so little involved with the earth, that one might fancy it the story of a soul that had missed being born."

American fiction writer
American Fiction Writer

      Timothy Dwight, who became president of Yale in 1795, said that there is a great gulf fixed between novels and the Bible. Even later than 1800 there was a widespread feeling that the reading of novels imperiled the salvation of the soul. To-day we know that certain novels are as dangerous to the soul as leprosy to the body, but we have become more discriminating. We have learned that the right type of fiction, read in moderation, cultivates the imagination, broadens the sympathetic powers, and opens up a new, interesting, and easily accessible land of enjoyment.

      A quarter of a century before the Declaration of Independence, the great eighteenth-century English writers of fiction had given a new creation to the literature of England. Samuel Richardson (1689-1761) had published Pamela in 1740 and Clarissa Harlowe in 1748. Henry Fielding (1707-1754) had given his immortal Tom Jones to the world in 1749.

      Mrs. Morton's Power of Sympathy, a novel written with a moral purpose, is a poorly constructed story of characters whom we fortunately do not meet outside of books. One of these characters, looking at some flowers embroidered by the absent object of his affections, says, "It shall yield more fragrance to my soul than all the bouquets in the universe."

      The majority of the early novels, in aiming to teach some lesson, show the influence of Samuel Richardson, the father of English fiction. This didactic spirit appears in sober statement of the most self-evident truths. "Death, my dear Maria, is a serious event," says the heroine of one of these novels. Another characteristic is tepid or exaggerated sentimentality. The heroine of The Power of Sympathy dies of a broken heart "in a lingering graceful manner."

      At least twenty-two American novels had been published between 1789 and the appearance of Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland 1798. Only an antiquary need linger over these. We must next study the causes that led to a pronounced change in fiction.

      DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE CLASSIC AND THE ROMANTIC SCHOOL.—The next step in fiction will show a breaking away from the classic or didactic school of Samuel Richardson and a turning toward the new Gothic or romantic school. To understand these terms, we must know something of the English influences that led to this change.

      For the first two thirds of the eighteenth century, English literature shows the dominating influence of the classic school. Alexander Pope (1688-1744) in poetry and Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) in prose were the most influential of this school. They are called classicists because they looked to the old classic authors for their guiding rules. Horace, more than any other classic writer, set the standard for poetry. Pope and his followers cared more for the excellence of form than for the worth of the thought. Their keynote was:—

"True Wit is Nature to advantage dress'd,    What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed."  [Footnote: Pope's Essay on Criticism, lines 297-8.]

      In poetry the favorite form was a couplet, that is, two lines which rhymed and usually made complete sense. This was not inaptly termed "rocking horse meter." The prose writers loved the balanced antithetical sentences used by Dr. Johnson in his comparison of Pope and Dryden:—

"If the flights of Dryden, therefore, are higher, Pope continues longer on the wing…. Dryden is read with frequent astonishment and Pope with perpetual delight."

      Such overemphasis placed on mere form tended to draw the attention of the writer away from the matter. The American poetry of this period suffered more than the prose from this formal influence.

      Since the motto of the classicists was polished regularity, they avoided the romantic, irregular, and improbable, and condemned the Arabian Nights, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest, and other "monstrous irregularities of Shakespeare." This school loved to teach and to point out shortcomings, hence the terms "didactic" and "satiric" are often applied to it.

      The last part of the eighteenth century showed a revolt against the classicists. Victory came to the new romantic school, which included authors like Wordsworth (1770-1850), Coleridge (1772-1834), Shelley (1792-1822), and Keats (1795-1821). The terms "romantic" and "imaginative" were at first in great measure synonymous. The romanticists maintained that a reality of the imagination might be as satisfying and as important as a reality of the prosaic reason, since the human mind had the power of imagining as well as of thinking.

      The term "Gothic" was first applied to fiction by Horace Walpole (1717-1797), who gave to his famous romance the title of "The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Romance" (1764). "Gothic" is here used in the same sense as "romantic." Gothic architecture seemed highly imaginative and overwrought in comparison with the severe classic order. In attempting to avoid the old classic monotony, the Gothic school of fiction was soon noted for its lavish use of the unusual, the mysterious, and the terrible. Improbability, or the necessity for calling in the supernatural to untie some knot, did not seriously disturb this school. The standard definition of "Gothic" in fiction soon came to include an element of strangeness added to terror. When the taste for the extreme Gothic declined, there ensued a period of modified romanticism, which demanded the unusual and occasionally the impossible. This influence persisted in the fiction of the greatest writers, until the coming of the realistic school. We are now better prepared to understand the work of Charles Brockden Brown, the first great American writer of romance, and to pass from him to Cooper, Hawthorne, and Poe.

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