The Revolutionary Period: (1776-1820) in American Literature

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      In the month of April, 1775, the first shots of the American Revolution were shot. The colonial rule was for more than a century and a half after the establishment of the first permanent settlement in Jamestown. Not only the colonies grew in their economic strength but also had their own cultural attainment and kind of self-government. The combined population was reached 1,50,000 in 1760s. As the French Menace was eliminated, the American colonies were demanding more and more freedom of their won for the first time. The British did the internal organization of the colonies, including the conquest of Canada and of Ohio valley. The various colonies demanded the extension of their geographical boundaries as there was a steep increase in population. More geographical space was needed for the new settlements.

      At this historical juncture, the British government thought that the lands should be opened to the colonialists gradually, otherwise, they involve themselves in the bloody wars with the Indians. The Royal Proclamation of 1763 reserved all the western lands like, Alleghenies, Florida, the Mississippi River and Quebec for the Native Americans. The new policy of the British became serious thing for them which demanded more money to support the growing empire. The revenues would have been extracted from the colonies through a strong central administration. Therefore they brought the Molasses Act of 1733. This act placed tax for importing rum and molasses from the non-English areas. Also, there was the Sugar Act of 1764. Thus, they forbade the importing of molasses and levies duties on large silks, coffee, and a number of luxury goods. The British warships were strictly instructed to keep vigilance on any kind of smuggling from the Dutch and French. In 1764, another act come into force i.e., Currency Act to prevent the paper bills of credit hereafter issued in any of his Majesty’s colonies from being made a legal tender. It had an impact on them as they lacked hard currency because of deceitful trade and commerce. This Quartering Act was passed in 1765 by which the colonies had to support the expenses of the royal troops with provisions and barracks.

      As a result, an organized resistance by the Americans under the name “Stamp Act” took place. All people were forced to affix stamps to all newspapers, broadsides, pamphlets, licenses, and other legal documents etc., whether they did business or not. The trade with the mother country, England foil off in the summer of 1765 as the important men organized themselves into a group “Sons of Liberty”. Some secret organizations were also formed to resist the Act often through violent means. The act was nullified from Massachusetts to South Carolina. The Virginia House passed a set of resolutions in month of May denouncing the taxation without representation as threat to the colonial rule. The House of Burgesses declared that their own representatives should tax them as the English. Twenty-seven representatives from nine colonies sought the opportunities to mobilize the colonial opinion against the parliamentary inference into the American affairs. After much debate and discussion the Congress said “ taxes have ever been or can be constitutionally imposed on them, by their representative legislatures.” Consequently, the Stamp Act was repealed and the Sugar Act was modified. To please the supporters of the central control over the colonies the Parliament passed another act, Declaratory Act that asserted the authority of the Parliament to make laws of bidding the colonies.

      Later on, Townsend Acts were passed with an intention to raise the revenues to be used in part to support the colonial governance. John Dickinson, a Philadelphia lawyer, argued that Parliament had right to control imperial commerce but not have the right to tax the colonies, whether duties were external or internal. The agitation following the enactment of these acts was less serious than the agitation stirred by the Stamp Act but it was nevertheless strong, particularly in the cities of the Eastern seaboard. The merchants resorted to non-importation agreements, the people managed with the local products and colonialists dressed in their homespun clothing and found substitutes for tea. Also, they used homemade paper and kept their houses unpainted. The presence of the British troops in Boston on 5 March, 1770 flared a violent situation between the citizens and the British soldiers, starting with a mob attack. The Bostonians lay dead and this incident was dubbed as “Boston Massacre” symbolizing the British heartlessness and cruelty. Consequently, all Townsend duties were repealed except on tea. The controversy regarding the colonial rule was kept alive by some of the Radicals.

      In 1773, the British furnished Adams of Massachusetts, the most effective leader of a small group of Radicals and his allies with incendiary issue. The East Indian Company appealed to the British Government and the government not only granted it a monopoly of tea trade but also permitted to supply retailers by passing the wholesales of the colonies. Since 1770 such a flourishing trade illegally existed and most of the tea imported into America was from foreign origin and duty free. So the Company made the trade unprofitable and threatened to end with the merchants of the colonies. The colonial traders joined hands with the radicals agitating for independence. The agents of the company were forced to resign. Other shipments of tea returned to England. On the night of 16, December 1773, a rebellion named “Boston Tea Party” occurred. The disguised Mohawk Indians, led by Samuel Adams, boarded three British ships and dumped their tea cargo into Boston border because of their fear of the colonialists” purchase of tea. The East Indian Company had carried out a parliamentary statute regarding the punishment of the vagabonds who were involved in the act. The hard-fought American Revolution against Britain (1775-1783) was the first modem war of liberation against the colonial power. The triumph of American independence seemed to many, at the time, a divine sign that America and her people were destined for greatness. Military victory fanned nationalistic hopes for a great new literature. Yet with the exception of outstanding political writing, few works of note appeared during or soon after the Revolution.

      The American books were harshly reviewed in England. They were painfully aware of their excessive dependence on the English literary models. The search for a native literature became a national obsession. As one American magazine editor wrote, around 1816, “Dependence is a state of degradation fraught with disgrace, and to be dependent on a foreign mind for what we can ourselves produces is to add to the crime of indolence the weakness of stupidity.” Cultural revolutions, unlike military revolutions, cannot be successfully imposed but they must grow from the soil of shared experience. The revolutions are expressions of the heart of the people. They grow gradually out of new sensibilities and wealth of experience. It would take 50 years of accumulated history for America to earn its cultural independence and to produce the first great generation of American writers: Washington Irving. James Fenimore Cooper, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson. America’s literary independence was slowed by a lingering identification with England, an excessive imitation of English or classical literary models, and difficult economic and political conditions that hampered the publishing industry.

      Revolutionary writers, despite their genuine patriotism, were of necessity self-conscious, and they could never find roots in their American sensibilities. The colonial writers of the revolutionary generation had been born English but had grown to maturity as English citizens, and had cultivated English modes of thought and English fashions in dress and manners. Their parents and grandparents were English (or European), as were all their friends. Added to this, American awareness of literary fashion still lagged behind the English, and this time, lag intensified American imitation. Fifty years after their fame in England, English neoclassic writers such as Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Oliver Goldsmith, and Samuel Johnson were still eagerly imitated in America. Moreover, the heady challenges of building a new nation attracted talented and educated people to politics, law, and diplomacy. These pursuits brought honor, glory, and financial security. Writing, on the other hand, did not pay them much.

      The early American writers, now separated from England, effectively had no modern publishers, no audience, and no adequate legal protection. The editorial assistance, distribution, and publicity were rudimentary. Until 1825, the most American authors paid printers to publish their work. Obviously only the leisured and independently wealthy, like Washington Irving and the New York Knickerbockers group, or the group of Connecticut poets known as the Hartford Wits, could afford to indulge their interest in writing. The only exception, Benjamin Franklin though from a poor family, was a printer by trade and could publish his own work. Charles Brocken Brown was more typical. The author of several interesting Gothic romances, Brown was the first American author to attempt to live from His writing but his short life ended in dire poverty.

      The lack of an audience was another problem. The small-cultivated audience in America wanted well-known European authors, partly out of the exaggerated respect with which former colonies regarded their previous rulers. This preference for English works was not entirely unreasonable, considering the inferiority of American output but it worsened the situation by depriving American authors of an audience. Only journalism offered financial remuneration but the mass audience wanted light, undemanding verse and short topical essays - not long or experimental work. The absence of adequate copyright laws was perhaps the clearest cause of literary stagnation. The American printers pirating English best-sellers understandably were unwilling to pay an American author for the unknown material.

      The unauthorized reprinting of foreign books was first seen as a service to the colonies as well as a source of profit for printers like, Franklin who reprinted works of the classics and great European books to educate the American public. The printers everywhere in America followed him. There are notorious examples of pirating. Matthew Carey, an important American publisher, paid a London agent - a sort of literary spy - to send copies of unbound pages to him in fast ships that could sail to America in a month. Carey’s men would sail out to greet the incoming ships in the harbor and speed the pirated books into print using typesetters who divided the book into sections and worked in shifts around the clock. Such a pirated English book could be reprinted in a day and placed on the shelves for sale in American bookstores almost as fast as it is done in England.

      Because imported authorized editions were costlier and could not compete with pirated ones, the copyright situation damaged foreign authors such as Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens along with American authors but at least the foreign authors had already been paid by their original publishers and were already well known. The Americans such as James Fenimore Cooper not only failed to receive adequate payment but they also had to suffer seeing their works pirated under their very noses. Four different printers pirated Cooper’s first successful book, The Spy (1821) within a month of its appearance. Ironically, the Copyright Law of 1790 which allowed pirating, was nationalistic in intent. Drafted by Noah Webster, the great lexicographer, who later compiled an American dictionary, the law protected only the work of American authors. It was felt that English writers should look out for themselves.

      Bad as the law was, none of the early publishers was willing to have it changed because it proved profitable for them. The piracy starved the first generation of revolutionary American writers, not surprisingly, the generation after them produced even less work of merit. The high point of piracy, in 1815, corresponds with the low point of American writing. Nevertheless? the cheap and plentiful supply of pirated foreign books and classics in the first 50 years of the new country did educate the Americans, including the first great writers who began to make their appearance around 1825.

      The 18th century ‘American Enlightenment’ was an intellectual movement marked by an emphasis mainly on the aspect of rationality rather than tradition, scientific inquiry instead of unquestioning religious dogma, and representative government in place of the monarchy. The Enlightenment thinkers and writers were loyal to the ideals of justice, liberty and equality as the natural rights of man.

      Unfortunately, “literary” writing was not as simple and direct as political writing. When trying to write poetry, most educated authors stumbled into the pitfall of elegant neo-classicism. The epic, in particular, exercised a fatal attraction. American literary patriots felt sure that the great American Revolution naturally would find expression in the epic - a long, dramatic narrative poem in an elevated language, celebrating the feats of a legendary hero. Many writers tried but none succeeded. Timothy Dwight, (1752-1817), one of the group of writers known as the Hartford Wits, is great example. Dwight, who eventually became the president of Yale University, based his epic, The Conquest of Canaan (1785), on the Biblical story of Joshua’s struggle to enter the Promised Land. Dwight cast General Washington, commander of the American army and later the first president of the United States, as Joshua in his allegory and borrowed the couplet from that Alexander Pope used to translate Homer. Dwight’s epic was as boring as it was ambitious. The English critics demolished it; even Dwight’s friends, such as John Trumbull (1750-1831), remained unenthusiastic. So much thunder and lightning raged in the melodramatic battle scenes that Trumbull proposed that the epic be provided with lightning rods.

      Not surprisingly, satirical poetry fared much better than the serious verse. The mock epic genre encouraged the American poets to use their natural voices and did not lure them into a bog of portentous and predictable patriotic sentiments, and faceless conventional poetic epithets out of the Greek poet Homer and the Roman poet Virgil by way of the English poets. In mock epics like, John Trumbull’s good humored Fingal (1776-1782), stylized emotions and conventional trunks of phrase are ammunition for good satire, and the bombastic oratory of the Revolution is itself ridiculed. Modeled on the British poet Samuel Butler’s Hudibras, the mock epic derides a Tory, M’Fingal. It is often pithy, as when noting of condemned criminals facing hanging: “No man ever felt the halter draw/ With good opinion of the law”. M’Fingal went into over 30 editions, was reprinted for a half-century, and was appreciated in England as well as America. Satire appealed to Revolutionary audience partly because it contained social comment, criticism, political topics and social problems of the day.

      The drama in the beginnings was transported from England. The early attempted the form in the imitation of the English dramatists of the eighteenth century. The first American comedy to be performed, The Contrast (produced 1787) by Royall Tyler (1757-1826), humorously contrasts Colonel Manly, an American officer, with Dimple, who imitates English fashions. Naturally, Dimple is made to look ridiculous. The play introduces the first Yankee character, Jonathan, huge, picaresque novel on Don Quixote which describes the mis-adventures of Captain Farago and his stupid, brutal, yet appealingly human, servant Teague O’ Regan.

      In a number of accomplished Revolutionary-era women writers have been rediscovered by the feminist scholars. There are women novelists like Rowson, Fasta Browa etc. Susanna Haswell Rowson (1762-1824) was one of America’s first professional novelists. Her seven Hovels included the best-selling seduction story Charlotte Temple (1791). It was published in London in 1791 and then In States three years later where it became the first American best-seller. She founded her novel on the story to “an old lady who had personally known to” “I have thrown over the whole a slight veil of fiction, she adds,” and substituted the names of and places holding to my own fancy.” What she has written fundamentally a moral purpose. Charlotte a girl of fifteen in a school for the young ladies, is seduced by an army officer called Montraville. Montraville is aided by an unscrupulous school teacher whom Charlotte trusts Mile La Rue. After a considerable hesitation, she elopes with Montraville from Kingland to New York. There, she is deserted by both Montraville and the teacher, gives a birth to a daughter, Lucy, and dies in poverty. She treats feminist and abolitionist themes and depicts American Indians with respect. Another long-forgotten novelist was Hannah Foster, whose best-selling novel The Coquette, or The History of Eliza Wharton (1797) was about a young woman lorn between virtue and temptation. Rejected by her weetheart, a cold man of the church, she is seduced, abandoned, she bears a child, and dies alone.

      Hannah Foster’s The Coquette is an epistolary novel of seventy-four letters written by the heroine Eliza Wharton to her friend Lucy Freeman. It is another tale of seduction and abandonment. Eliza, the Coquette, is a young spirited woman, thoroughly aware of needs and charms but she unwilling to bury herself in the conventional marriage but saved from a match with a elderly clergyman, Mr. Haly when he dies before her parents can get them both near. Another clergyman Reverend Boyer courts her but she finds him dull and boring. She confides to her friend: ‘‘Marriage is the tomb of friendship. It appears to me a very selfish state.” She would gladly enter the kind of marriage with equal as enioved by her friends. She meets a self-confessed ‘rake’

      Peter Sanford and is entranced. Discovering the intimacy between Eliza and Sanford, he gives up Eliza. Sanford also deserts Eliza for an heiress Still attracted, Eliza has an affair with Sanford, becomes pregnant; she leaves her home and friends and dies in childbirth.

      Although the colonial period produced several women writers of some excellence, the revolutionary era did not further the work of women and minorities, despite the many schools, magazines, newspapers, and literary clubs that were springing up. The colonial women such as Anne Bradstreet, Anne Hutchinson, Ann Cotton, and Sarah Kemble Knight exerted considerable social and literary influence in spite of primitive conditions and dangers. Of the 18 women who came to America on the ship Mayflower in 1620, only four survived the first year. When every able-bodied person counted and conditions were fluid, innate talent could find expression. The cultural institutions became formalized in the new republic; women and minorities gradually were excluded from them. This Revolutionary Age is like the earlier one, full of political controversies and conflicts at personal and levels of communities and groups.

      Two women writers of this period are Caroline Lee Hentz (1800-1856) and Mary Boykin Chesnut (1823-1886).

      Hentz was born in North; however, she moved to south, North Carolina then later Kentucky, Alabama and Florida. To support herself and her husband she wrote many good novels. The best of them is The Planter's Northern Bride (1854). The interest of the novel lies in its depiction of the idyllic life on the old plantation. It replicates the pro-slavery argument in fictional form. Mary Boykin Chesnut was born in South Carolina and married to a wealthy man in Chesnut family. Her husband was an influential political and a close associate of Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Like many of women writers of her times, she kept a diary in which recorded her meetings with the national figures, news of the progress of the War and her experiences and opinions. Her famous Diary is dairy from Dixie, the original and highly personal and it was not published till 1984. There is remarkable commentary on slavery. She is well aware of the superiority of the white and their sexual contacts with the black inferiors. She frankly admits that she hates slavery. Her diaries offer diagnosis of the moral and material brutalities. What she saw was limited and illuminated by her condition as an intelligent white woman of the privileged class.

      The whole nation is moving towards a kind of unifying into a new nation called America politically. Further, there was the growth of the poetry, drama and novel. Men and women from both white and black communities could express their emotions through their writings. This tumultuous period is full of public intellectualism and the involvement of the people in building up of the nation.

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