Newly Emergence of American Literature (18th Century)

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      PROGRESS TOWARD NATIONALITY.—The French and Indian War, which began in 1754, served its purpose in making the colonists feel that they were one people. At this time most of them were living on the seacoast from Georgia to Maine, and had not yet even crossed the great Appalachian range of mountains. The chief men of one colony knew little of the leaders in the other colonies. This war made George Washington known outside of Virginia. There was not much interchange of literature between the two leading colonies, Virginia and Massachusetts. Prior to this time, the other colonies had not produced much that had literary value. No national literature could be written until the colonists were welded together.

Emergence of American Literature
Emergence of American Literature

      The French and Indian War, which decided whether France or England was to be supreme in America, exposed the colonists to a common danger. They fought side by side against the French and Indians, and learned that the defeat of one was the defeat of all. After a desperate struggle France lost, and the Anglo-Saxon race was dominant on the new continent. By the treaty of Paris, signed in 1763, England became the possessor of Canada and the land east of the Mississippi River.

      THE REVOLUTION.—All of the colonies had been under English rule, although they had in large part managed in one way or another to govern themselves. At the close of the French and Indian War, the colonists had not thought of breaking away from England, although they had learned the lesson of union against a common foe. George III. came to the throne in 1760. By temperament he was unusually adapted to play his part in changing the New World's history. He was determined to rule according to his own personal inclinations. He dominated his cabinet and controlled Parliament by bribery. He decided that the American colonies should feel the weight of his authority, and in 1763 his prime minister, George Grenville, undertook to execute measures in restraint of colonial trade. Numbers of commodities, like tobacco, for instance, could not be traded with France or Spain or Holland, but must be sent to England. If there was any profit to be made in selling goods to foreign nations, England would make that profit. He also planned to tax the colonists and to quarter British troops among them. These measures aroused the colonies to armed resistance and led to the Revolutionary War, which began in 1775.

      Freneau, a poet of the Revolution, thus expresses in verse some of these events:—

 "When a certain great king, whose initial is G,
 Shall force stamps upon paper and folks to drink tea;
 When these folks burn his tea and stampt paper like stubble,
 You may guess that this king is then coming to trouble."


     The early essays of the period, Paine's Common Sense and the Crisis, Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, Hamilton's pamphlets and papers, all champion human liberty and show the influence of the Revolution. The orators, James Otis, Patrick Henry, and Samuel Adams, were inspired by the same cause. The words of Patrick Henry, "Give me liberty or give me death," have in them the essence of immortality because they voice the supreme feeling of one of the critical ages in the world's history.

      Benjamin Franklin was the greatest writer of the period. His Autobiography has a value possessed by no other work of the kind. This and his Poor Richard's Almanac have taught generations of Americans the duty of self-culture, self-reliance, thrift, and the value of practical common sense. He was the first of our writers to show a balanced sense of humor and to use it as an agent in impressing truth on unwilling listeners. He is an equally great apostle of the practical and the altruistic, although he lacked the higher spirituality of the old Puritans and of the Quaker, John Woolman. This age is marked by a comparative decline in the influence of the clergy. Not a single clerical name appears on the list of the most prominent writers.

      This period shows the beginning of American fiction, dominated by English writers, like Samuel Richardson. The early novels, like Mrs. Morton's The Power of Sympathy, were usually prosy, didactic, and as dull as the Sunday school books of three quarters of a century ago. The victory of the English school of romanticists influenced Charles Brockden Brown, the first professional American author, to throw off the yoke of classical didacticism and regularity and to write a group of Gothic romances, in which the imagination was given a freer rein than the intellect. While he freely employed the imported Gothic elements of "strangeness added to terror," he nevertheless managed to give a distinctively American coloring to his work by showing the romantic use to which the Indian and the forest could be put.

      Authors struggled intensely to write poetry. "The Hartford Wits," Dwight, Barlow, and Trumbull, wrote a vast quantity of verse. The most of this is artificial, and reveals the influence of the classical school of Alexander Pope. Freneau wrote a few short lyrics which suggest the romantic school of Wordsworth.

     The American literature of this period shows in the main the influence of the older English classical school. America produced no authors who can rank with the contemporary school of English writers, such as Burns, Wordsworth, and Coleridge. Of all the writers of this age, Franklin alone shows an undiminished popularity with readers of the twentieth century.

      Three events in the history of the period are epoch-making in the world's history; (a) the securing of independence through the Revolutionary War, (b) the adoption of a constitution and the formation of a republic, and (c) the magnitude of the work of the pioneer settlers, who advanced steadily west from the coast, and founded commonwealths beyond the Alleghanies.


      The great prose representatives of the first half of the eighteenth century, Swift, Addison, Steele, and Defoe, had passed away before the middle of the century. The creators of the novel, Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding, had done their best work by 1750.

      The prose writers of the last half of the century were OLIVER GOLDSMITH (1728-1774), who published the Vicar of Wakefield in 1766; EDWARD GIBBON (1737-1794), who wrote The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; EDMUND BURKE (1729-1797), best known to-day for his Speech on Conciliation with America; and SAMUEL JOHNSON (1709-1784), whose Lives of the Poets is the best specimen of eighteenth-century classical criticism.

     The most noteworthy achievement of the century was the victory of romanticism over classicism. Pope's polished satiric and didactic verse, neglecting the primrose by the river's brim, lacking deep feeling, high ideals, and heaven-climbing imagination, had long been the model that inspired cold intellectual poetry. In the latter part of the century, romantic feeling and imagination won their battle and came into their own heritage in literature. ROBERT BURNS (1759-1796) wrote poetry that touched the heart. A classicist like Dr. Johnson preferred the town to the most beautiful country scenes, but WILLIAM COWPER (1731-1800) says:—

"God made the country, and man made the town."

      Romantic poetry culminated in the work of WILLIAM WORDSWORTH and SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE, whose Lyrical Ballads (1798) included the wonderful romantic poem of The Ancient Mariner, and poems by Wordsworth, which brought to thousands of human souls a new sense of companionship with nature, a new feeling

"… that every flower Enjoys the air it breathes,"

     And that all nature is anxious to share its joy with man and to introduce him to a new world. The American poets of this age, save Freneau in a few short lyrics, felt but little of this great impulse; but in the next period we shall see that William Cullen Bryant heard the call and sang:—

"Scarce less the cleft-born wild-flower seems to enjoy, Existence than the winged plunderer, That sucks its sweets."

      The romantic prose was not of as high an order as the poetry. Writers of romances like WALPOLE'S Castle of Otranto and GODWIN'S Caleb Williams did not allow their imaginations to be fettered by either the probable or the possible. In America the romances of Charles Brockden Brown show the direct influence of this school.

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