The 17th Century: American Literature - Analysis

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      In its beginnings American literature differs from the literatures of most other great nations; it was a transplanted thing. It sprang in a way like Minerva, full-armed from the head of Jove—Jove in this case being England, and the armor being the heritage which the average American colonist had secured in England before he crossed the Atlantic. In contrast, Greek, Roman, French, German, English, and the other less familiar literatures can all be more or less successfully traced back to primitive conditions. Their early life was interwoven with the growth of the language and the progress of a rude civilization, and their earliest products which have come down to us were not results of authorship as we know it to-day. They were either folk poetry, composed perhaps and certainly enjoyed by the people in groups and accompanied by group singing and dancing—like the psalms and the simpler ballads—or they were the record of folk tradition, slowly and variously developed through generations and finally collected into a continuous story like the Iliad, the Æneid, the “Song of Roland,” the “Nibelungenlied,” and “Beowulf.” They were composed by word of mouth and not reduced to writing for years or generations, and they were not put into print until centuries after they were current in speech or transcribed by monks and scholars.

The English of the early seventeenth century were an eager, restless, driving people. The splendid reign of Queen Elizabeth was just past. The country was secure from foreign enemies and confident in its strength. Great naval leaders had brought new honors to her name; great explorers had planted her flag on mysterious and new-discovered coasts; a group of dramatists had made the theater as popular as the moving-picture house of to-day; a great architect was adorning London with his churches; poets and novelists, preachers and statesmen, scientists and scholars, were all working vividly and keenly.
17th Century American Literature

      The one great story-poem of this sort in American literature is the “Song of Hiawatha,” but this is the story of a conquered and vanishing race; it has nothing basic to do with the Americans of to-day; it is far less related to them than the earlier epics of the older European nations to whom we trace our ancestry. Except for a few place-names even the language of America owes nothing to that of the Indians, for the English tongue is a compound of Greek and Latin and French and German. Our literary beginnings, then, go back to two groups of educated English colonists, or immigrants, and our knowledge of them to conditions in the divided England from which they first came to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607 and to Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620.

      The English of the early seventeenth century were an eager, restless, driving people. The splendid reign of Queen Elizabeth was just past. The country was secure from foreign enemies and confident in its strength. Great naval leaders had brought new honors to her name; great explorers had planted her flag on mysterious and new-discovered coasts; a group of dramatists had made the theater as popular as the moving-picture house of to-day; a great architect was adorning London with his churches; poets and novelists, preachers and statesmen, scientists and scholars, were all working vividly and keenly. There was an active enthusiasm for the day’s doings, a kind of living assent to Hamlet’s commentary, on “this goodly frame, the earth, … this most excellent canopy, the air, … this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire”; and to the exclamation that follows: “What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action, how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!” And under a strong and tactful monarch the nation had been kept at peace with itself.

      Yet in this fallow soil the seeds of controversy had been steadily taking root; and when Elizabeth was followed on the throne by the vain and unregal James I, the crop turned out to be a harvest of dragons’ teeth. Puritan democrats and cavalier Royalists fought with each other over the body of England till it was prostrate and helpless. What followed was the rise of Puritan power, culminating with the execution of Charles II and the establishment of the Commonwealth under the Cromwells from 1649 to 1660, and the peaceful restoration of monarchy at the latter date. It was during the mid-stages of these developments that the first settlements were made in English America. Both factions included large numbers of vigorous individuals of the pioneer type. The Puritans were technically called “dissenters” and “nonconformists” because of their attitude toward the established Church of England; but the Royalists who came over to America were simply nonconformists of another type who preferred doing things out on the frontier to living conventional lives at home.

      The Royalists, who settled in the South, came away, like other travelers and explorers of their day, to settle new English territory as a landed aristocracy. They were a mixed lot, but on the whole they were not an irreligious lot. They believed in the established church as they did in the established government, and they persecuted with a good will those who tried to follow other forms of worship than their own. They were, however, chiefly fortune hunters, just as were the men who surged out to California in 1849 or those who went to Alaska fifty years later; they hoped to make their money in the west and to spend it back in the east, and they had little thought of literature, either as a thing to enjoy or as a thing to create. When they wrote they did so to give information about the country, the Indians, and the new conditions of living, or to keep in touch with relatives, legal authorities, or sources of money supply; and always they had in mind the thought of attracting new settlers, for they needed labor more than anything else. They made no attempt at general education, adopting the now-abandoned aristocratic theory that too much knowledge would be a dangerous source of discontent among the working people. Some few individuals wrote accounts and descriptions that are interesting to the modern reader, but these were not representative of the people as a whole. They were Englishmen away from home, living temporarily in Virgin-ia (the province of the virgin queen, Elizabeth), in James-town, in the Carolinas (from the Latin for Charles), in Mary-land, and, even as late as 1722, in George-ia.

      The nonconformists whom adverse winds drove to the North in 1620 were a very different folk. They were predominantly Puritan in prejudice and in upbringing. Many of their leaders were graduates of Cambridge University who had gone into the Church of England, only to be driven out of it because of their unorthodox preaching—born leaders who were brave enough to risk comfort and safety for conscience’ sake. They came over to America in order, as Mrs. Hemans put it, to have “freedom to worship God,” but not to give this freedom to others. They had endured so much for their religious faith that they wanted a place where this, and this only, should be tolerated. So they became, not illogically, the fiercest kind of persecutors, practicing with a vengeance the lessons in oppression that they had learned in England at the cost of blood and suffering. They settled in compact towns where they could believe and worship together; they put up “meetinghouses” where they could listen to the preacher on the Lord’s Day and where they could transact public business, with the same man as “moderator,” on week days. He was the controlling power—“pastor,” or shepherd, and “dominie,” or master, of the community. And when the meetinghouses were finished, the settlers erected as their next public buildings the schoolhouses, where the children might learn to read the Scriptures so that they could “foil the ould deluder, Satan.” Education became compulsory as well as public. The Puritans’ place-names were Indian—Massachusetts and Agawam; derived from England of Puritan associations, like Boston, Plymouth, and Falmouth; or quaintly Scriptural, like Marthas Vineyard, Providence, and Salem. These people, unlike the settlers in the South, came over to live and die here. They wrote for the same social and business reasons that the Virginians did, but they also wrote much about their religion, compiled the “Bay Psalm Book,” published sermons, and recorded their struggles, which began very early and were doomed to final failure, to keep their New England free from “divers religions.” At first their writings were sent to England for publication, but before long, in 1638, they had their own printing press, and the things that were printed on it were not so much the sayings of individual men as the opinions of the community.

      The history of the migrations to the North and to the South during the seventeenth century is one with the history of the civil struggle in England. Up to 1640 colonization was slow and consistent at both points. From 1640 to 1660 it increased rapidly in the South and declined in the North, for in those years the grip of the Puritans on the old country relieved them from persecution there and from the consequent need to avoid it and, at the same time, made many Royalists glad of a chance to escape to some more peaceful spot. From 1660 on, with the return of the Royalists to power in England, Puritan migration was once more started to the North, and the home country was again secure for the followers of the king. But the real characters of the two districts were unchanged. They were firmly established in the earliest years, and they have persisted during the intervening centuries clear up to the present time. The America of to-day is a compound whose basic native qualities are inherited from the oldest traditions of aristocratic Virginia and the oldest traits of democratic and Puritan Massachusetts.

      In dealing with the early periods of any literature the exercise of artistic judgment is always very charitable. Rough, uncouth, fragmentary pieces are taken into account because they serve as a bridge to the remoter past. Harsh critics of colonial American literature seem to forget this practice when they rule out of court everything produced in this country before the days of Irving and Cooper. A great deal of the earlier writing should, of course, be considered only as source material for the historian; but some of it has the same claim to attention as the old chronicles, plays, and ballads in English literary history. It deserves study if it portrays or criticizes or even unconsciously reflects the life and thought of the times, and it is significant as an American product if in form or content or point of view it clearly belongs to this side of the Atlantic.

      The nature of settlement and the neglect of popular education led to an early lapse in authorship in the Southern colonies, so that in a survey as brief as this chapter their writers do not come into view until they find expression in the oratory and statesmanship of the Revolutionary period. Their narratives and descriptions of colonial life, as long as they wrote them at all, were quite like most of the earliest Northern writings of the sort. The one outstanding difference is that in whatever they wrote, the religious motive for settlement and the belief in a personal Providence were less insistently recorded than by the Puritans. Thus where John Smith was content with the general phrase “it pleased God,” Anthony Thacher, saved from shipwreck in Boston Harbor, wrote devoutly, “the Lord directed my toes into a crevice in the rock”; and where Smith’s companions hoped for the benevolent favor of the Most High, Thacher’s fellow-worshipers were perfectly certain that every step they took was ordained by God, so that even their apparent misfortunes were His punishments for misconduct.

      In all the great mass of Puritan writing in the first century of residence in America one definite current appears, and that is the quiet but irresistible current of change in human thought. The Puritans had made the profound but constantly repeated mistake of assuming that after thousands of years of groping by mankind, they had at last discovered the “ultimate truth”; that for the rest of time men need do nothing but follow the precepts which God had revealed to them about life here and life hereafter. They were, in their own serious way, happy in their confident possession of truth and sternly resolved to bestow it or, if necessary, impose it on all whom they could control. Their failure was recorded with their earliest attempts, and it came, not because of their particular weakness or the strength of their particular adversaries, but because they were trying to obstruct the progress of human thought, which is as inexorable as any other force of nature. They might as well have entered into an argument with gravitation or the tides. The most interesting and the best-written pieces of seventeenth-century New England literature all give evidence of this rearguard action against the advancing forces of truth.

      The Puritanism against which this rising tide of dissent developed was admirably embodied in William Bradford (1590–1657), the Mayflower Pilgrim who was more than thirty times governor of his colony and the author of “A History of Plimouth Plantation.” He was a brave, sober, devout leader with an abiding sense of the holy cause in which he was enlisted. His journal of the first year in America and his history are clearly and sometimes finely written, and give ample proof of his stalwart character—“fervent in spirit, serving the Lord,” and free from the personal narrowness which is often mistakenly ascribed to all Puritans. In his account, for example, of the reasons for the Pilgrims’ removal from Leyden the chronicle tells of the hardships under which they had lived there, the encroachments of old age, the disturbing effects of the life on the children, and, lastly, the great hope they entertained of advancing the church of Christ in some remote part of the world. It recounts many of the objections advanced against attempting settlement in America, and concludes:

      It was answered, that all great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and must be both enterprised and overcome with answerable courages. It was granted the dangers were great, but not desperate; the difficulties were many, but not invincible. For though there were many of them likely, yet they were not certain; it might be sundry of the things feared might never befall; others, by provident care and the use of good means, might in a great measure be prevented; and all of them, through the help of God, by fortitude and patience, might either be borne or overcome. True it was, that such attempts were not to be made and undertaken without good ground and reason; not rashly or lightly, as many have done for curiosity or hope of gain, etc. But their condition was not ordinary; their ends were good and honorable; their calling lawful and urgent; and therefore they might expect the blessing of God in their proceeding. Yea, though they should lose their lives in this action, yet might they have comfort in the same, and their endeavors would be honorable.

      Unhappily this heroic trait of Puritanism was coupled with a desperate religious bigotry which the world is even yet slow to forgive.

      One of the earliest local dissenters was Thomas Morton (1575?-1646), author of the “New English Canaan,” published in London, 1637. It is a half-pathetic fact that this should stand out to-day beyond anything else written in the same decade in America, for the best of it—the third book—is a savage satire on the Puritans in Massachusetts. Morton, it is needless to say, was not a Puritan himself. He was a restless, dishonest, unscrupulous gentleman-adventurer from London who gave the best part of his life to fighting the Puritans on their own grounds. He started a fur-trading post at “Merry Mount,” just southeast of Boston, sold the Indians liquor and firearms, consorted with their women, and in wanton mockery set up a Maypole there and taught the Indians the English games and dances which were particularly offensive to the grave residents of Plymouth and Boston. If he had not written his book, he would be remembered now only as one of the chief trouble-makers whom the Puritans had to fight down; but he did them more damage with his pen than with all his active misbehavior. He undermined their influence by not treating them soberly. He made fun of their costume, derided their speech, ridiculed their religious formalities, and held the valiant Miles Standish up to scorn by nicknaming him Captain Shrimp. He went further, and questioned their motives and their honesty, their integrity in business, and their sincerity in religion. A great deal of what he wrote about them was libelously unfair; he should never be taken as an authority for facts unless supported by other writers of his day. But underneath all his clever abuse of them and their ways, there is an evident basis of truth which is confirmed by the sober study of history. Although the Puritans were brave, strong, self-denying servants of the stern God whom they worshiped, they were sometimes sanctimonious, sometimes cruelly vengeful, and all too often so eager to achieve His ends on earth that they were regardless of the means they took. At the very beginning of their life in America, Thomas Morton held these characteristics up to public scorn; and in so doing he made his book an omen of the long, losing battle they were destined to fight. Morton’s effectiveness as a writer lies in the fact that however ill-behaved he may have been, he was attractively—maybe dangerously—genial in character. He was in truth “a cheerful liar”; but he lied like the writer of fiction who disregards the exact facts because he is telling a good story as well as he can and because that good story is based on real life. The next New Englander to give proof that the Puritans were not having an easy time in their “new English Canaan” was Nathaniel Ward (1578–1652?), author of “The Simple Cobler of Aggawam.” In character and convictions he was as different from Morton as a man could be. When he wrote this book, which was published in London in 1647, he was an irascible old Puritan who had suffered much for his faith, and was still fighting for it, although very near to his threescore years and ten. He had been graduated at Cambridge, gone into the Church of England, been hounded there for his liberalism, come to America, and served a pastorate at Agawam (now Ipswich), Massachusetts. He had withdrawn on account of ill health, but later had served the state so well that he was granted six hundred acres as a reward, and had lived on there until his return to England at the age of seventy. He believed fiercely in the righteousness of the Puritan doctrines and in the wickedness of any departure from them; and his book was a valiant protest against any relaxation on the part of the faithful. It was written with reference to conditions in England, but it was composed after fifteen years’ residence in America, and showed his unrest at conditions in the new country as well as in the old.

      The book is a strange compound. In thought it is a piece of dyed-in-the-wool old fogyism, but in form and literary style it is vigorous, jaunty, and amusing. The full title is “The Simple Cobler of Aggawam in America; willing to help Mend his Native Country, lamentably tattered, both in the upper-Leather and sole, with all the honest stitches he can take. And as willing never to be paid for his work by Old English wonted pay. It is his Trade to patch all the year long, gratis. Therefore I Pray Gentlemen keep your Purses.” He feared all innovations, but most of all the doctrine that men should enjoy liberty of conscience. “Let all the wits under the Heavens lay their heads together and find an Assertion worse than this [and] I will Petition to be chosen the universal Ideot of the World.” “Since I knew what to fear, my timorous heart hath dreaded three things: a blazing Star appearing in the Air; a State Comet, I mean a favourite, rising in a kingdom; a new Opinion spreading in Religion.” The second section of the book is devoted to fashions of dress, an evergreen subject for the satirist. Ward’s attitude toward woman as an inferior creature was almost as primitive as that of the cave man, and apparently he would have liked it better if the "bullymong drossock” had dressed with the simplicity of a cave woman. As it was he felt that the lady of fashion was “the very gizzard of a trifle, the product of the quarter of a cypher, the epitome of Nothing”; and he had equal contempt for tailors who “spend their lives in making fidle-cases for futulous Women’s phansies; which are the very pettitoes of Infirmity, the giblets of perquisquilian toyes.” The remainder of the work is given to a discussion of affairs of English state, written with the same aggressive positiveness. The most interesting bit of it is the portion which proclaims his belief in savage oppression of the Irish, summing up the essence of the wrong-headed stupidity which has made the history of Ireland so lamentable a story even to the present time. What the old gentleman wrote is striking at points, because it seems so timely. But Ward was never up to date, in the sense of being prophetic. When he said things that apply to the twentieth century, they apply either because, like the question of extravagance in dress, the topic is a persistent trait in human nature or because, like the Irish problem, matters which should long ago have been settled have been allowed for centuries to confuse and complicate life. Yet Ward wrote with odd and striking effectiveness; and his book is far more than the “curiosity” which many critics have agreed to call it, for it is one of the best surviving records of the Puritan attempt to maintain a strangle hold on human thought.

      The belief in the righteousness of persecuting dissenters was the particular ground for attack by a younger and equally vigorous man, Roger Williams (1604–1683). Williams, before he was forty years old, had been thrown out of two church establishments—first in Protestant England and then in Puritan Massachusetts. He represented what Macaulay termed the very “dissidence of dissent.” And now, in a long and laborious argument lasting from 1644 to 1652, he fought out the issue with the Reverend John Cotton. Only by the most generous interpretation can the lengthening chain of this printed controversy be considered as literature, yet it has the same right to inclusion as the English disquisitions of Wyclif, Jeremy Taylor, and John Wesley. An English prisoner in Newgate, assailing persecution for cause of conscience, had been answered by John Cotton. Then followed Williams’s “The Bloody Tenent of Persecution for cause of Conscience, discussed in a Conference between Truth and Peace” (1644); Cotton’s reply “The Bloody Tenent washed and made white in the Blood of the Lamb” (1647); and Williams’s rejoinder, “The Bloody Tenent yet More Bloody: by Mr. Cottons endeavor to wash it white in the Blood of the Lambe” (1652). The whole process of argument by both the reverend gentlemen was to set their literal English minds to work at analyzing and expounding Biblical passages which were full of oriental richness of imagery. It was, all things considered, rather less reasonable than it would be for the chancellors of the British and German empires to base an argument about the freedom of the seas upon definite citations from the “Rubaiyat” of Omar Khayyam.

      The chief grounds of offense in the sinful unorthodoxy of Roger Williams were that he asserted two things which have become axioms to-day, and two more which will be admitted by every thoughtful and honest person. The first two were that religion should not be professed by those who did not believe it in their hearts, and that the power of the magistrates extended only to the bodies and the property of the subjects and not to their religious convictions. The second two were that America belonged to the Indians and not to the king of England, and that the established church was necessarily corrupt. By this last he meant simply that any human organization that is given complete authority, and need not fear either competition or overthrow by public opinion, is certain to decay from within. It was the idea beneath Tennyson’s lines

 The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
 And God fulfils himself in many ways,
 Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.

      Yet these opinions, preached and practiced by Williams, resulted in his being expelled from the community. The attempt was made to send him back to England, but he managed to get a permanent foothold in Rhode Island, where he opposed the still more liberal Quakers almost as violently as the churchmen of old and new England had opposed him. To his credit be it said, however, that he did not invoke the law against them. In action as well as in belief he marked the progress of liberal thought.

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