A Literary Portrait of America Colonial Times

Colonial literature in the 17th and 18th centuries retained much of its Elizabethan flavor, which still persists among writers from the mountains and prairies. Half of the matter in this vigorous style had to do with religious subjects; the rest, with history. During this period the witchcraft trials and the struggles against persecution by Roger Williams and the Quakers had built up a considerable background of dramatic historical material.

In the period between 1700 and 1776, despite the unfortunate attitude of the Puritanical priestcraft in New England, and the determination on the part of such provincial leaders as Governor Berkeley of Virginia to keep the people ignorant by forbidding free schools and printing, there had grown up a strong spirit of liberal idealism, which can be detected in the writings of Jonathan Edwards. Edwards's Essay on Beauty presents a definition which displays both the strength and the weakness of the Puritan's position -- that beauty is similarity, regularity, or mutual accord, that is, conformity.

Benjamin Franklin, the most typical 18th-century literary figure, educated himself with Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, the writings of Daniel Defoe, The Spectator Papers, Plutarch's Lives, and the powerful sermons of Cotton Mather. From this balanced humanistic-medieval background arose a liberal, witty personality with a pragmatic philosophy. Franklin's Autobiography presents the first authentic American self-portrait.

The spirit of the Revolution, clearly presaged in the writings of Paine, Jefferson, and other patriots, is closely related to the deism and the social pamphlets of Rousseau and Voltaire. Clarity and fineness of expression in American statecraft is a tradition which found its epitome in the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the Constitution, as well as in the state papers of Abraham Lincoln.

The Early Republic. The early years of the 19th century saw the beginnings of westward expansion, accompanied by the growth of the merchant marine, steamboat travel on the inland rivers, and the building of canals and railways. New England and New York at that time were the acknowledged centers of cultural activity. Washington Irving's Tales of a Traveller, Sketch Book, and Knickerbocker's History of New York carry forward the tradition of Elizabethan style untempered by sober puritanism. Irving also wrote the Conquest of Granada and The Alhambra. The energy of the American spirit, with its love of adventure and the sea, is nowhere better expressed than in Herman Melville's great novel, Moby Dick, the story of the revengeful Captain Ahab and the whale Moby Dick, or in Two Years before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana.
In a more romantic vein, James Fenimore Cooper 's Leatherstocking Tales told the story of frontier heroes and Indians. George Catlin wrote and illustrated careful scientific monographs on the Indians, while Henry Rowe Schoolcraft collected their legends directly from the tribal storytellers. With a romantic's love of nature, and with Rousseau's determination to live free from the bonds of civilization, Henry David Thoreau built his cabin by Walden Pond and wrote his essays to prove that simple living under the beneficent influence of nature nourishes the soul of man more than can material success. In New England an intellectual attitude grew up which was characterized by Oliver Wendell Holmes as "Brahminism."

The Brahmins were those literary artists who acknowledged inherited backgrounds of European culture. Most of them had university training and some had traveled abroad. The philosopher Emerson, author of the poem Brahma, led the group, which included Longfellow, Lowell, and Holmes himself. Contrasting with the Brahmins, Holmes found less cultured, virile men whose provinciality led them to ignore Continental backgrounds. Although he wrote only in jest, Dr. Holmes characterized two definite tendencies in American artistic thought. The "Brahmins" for all their inheritance, never reached the primitive virility and revolutionary fervor of their contemporaries -- Thoreau, Whittier, Edgar Allan Poe, and later, Walt Whitman and Mark Twain. Two women -- Louisa May Alcott and Harriet Beecher Stowe -- reached wide audiences, respectively, with Little Women and Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Nathaniel Hawthorne is remembered for his short stories, and his well-constructed novels, The Scarlet Letter, The Marble Faun, and The House of the Seven Gables. These are distinguished by writing of great suggestive power and welldrawn characters, presented together with a fine psychological analysis of the inner motives of their actions. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who translated both the Niebelungen Lied and Dante's Inferno, is best remembered for his romantic minor epics Hiawatha and Evangeline, his Tales of a Wayside Inn, and The Courtship of Miles Standish. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a philosopher in the deist tradition of Pope, although he was the leader of the "Brahmins," believed that American literature should be based directly upon American life. The exuberance of the unformed American spirit lives in all Emerson's essays. Particularly in his attempted definitions of beauty one finds that he includes all nature and suggests universal associational patterns.

The natural depth of American character, already demonstrated in the early years of the 19th century by such poems as Bryant's A Forest Hymn, The Prairies, and Thanatopsis, emerged again in Whittier's Snowbound, in the vast reaches of Whitman's descriptive verse and the Marshes of Glynn and other poems by Sidney Lanier. A vein of utopianism runs through the writings of all these men, as it had in those of Emerson's friend, Thoreau. Those were the days of many experiments in communal living. Hawthorne, for a time, lived at Brook Farm, a Utopian community, but found that intellectual life could not easily be combined with the hard manual labor of the pioneer. Americans must experiment with ways for improving man's lot or else they belie the premises of their Declaration of Independence. Underlying the writings of most philosophic American literary men is that belief expressed in Lowell's essay On a Certain Condescension in Foreigners, "There never was a colony save this that went forth not to seek gold but God."

Edgar Allan Poe, the most brilliant writer of prose fiction during the first half of the century, alone among the early Americans discovered the romantic formula that the primary purpose of art is pure sense impression. Lacking stability of character and great social integrity, Poe had to believe that the primary purpose of art is amusement. His Symbolist verse and his exciting, macabre short stories made him a Continental literary figure long before his compatriots were so accepted. Walt Whitman, another pioneer in the field of expressionism, wove Emerson's philosophy into a mighty, expansive, rhythmical verse of epic grandeur.

No comments: