XVI. PROGRESS IN LITERATURE.
[Majority of Authors from New England.]
With English laws, customs, Protestantism, habits of thought, and methods of culture, we also inherited the English literature. So rich was already this inheritance when our colonies were settled, that there was little need or incentive for the early Americans to strike out into new literary paths, and create an original literature. Our ancestors read Milton, Bunyan, Doddridge, Butler, Dryden, Pope, and Shakespeare. It is a noteworthy fact that American literature not only took its start from, but, up to within recent times, was mainly produced by the New England and the Middle States. Even now, the noted writers in any branch of letters born south of Virginia may almost be counted upon the fingers. It is equally true that west of Ohio authors who have won a general and permanent reputation are few. If we survey American literature from the time of Cotton Mather (who may perhaps be called the first author of the country whose works are still remembered and read) to the present, we find that a majority of the best authors, both in prose and verse, have been New Englanders.
The rise of our literature having taken place in the colonies of Puritan stock, and those most fully imbued with Puritan sobriety and seriousness, it was natural that our earliest literary products should be religious and philosophical. Cotton Mather, with his extravagant "Magnolia"; Jonathan Edwards, with his stern treatise on the Will; Franklin, with his shrewd maxims, and clear, strong, unadorned essays, were about the only ante-revolutionary writers who are not by this time forgotten. It was not surprising that the period of the Revolution should develop a literature peculiarly political. There were, no doubt, already poetasters, novelists, and essayists; but even their names are strange to us of this age. Where are they and their works? What faint traces are still left of them show us that they were mostly mere imitators, and not brilliant ones, of the English authors of their day.
But our political literature became, with the Revolution and its sequel, most vigorous, philosophical, eloquent, and profound. The Declaration itself was a masterpiece of political style, as well as of substance; and Jefferson, its author, continuing for years after to discuss political questions with a lucidity and vigor which were unrivalled in America, took his place in literary history as perhaps our greatest political writer. Close behind him came writers like Hamilton, Jay, Madison, Ames, Freneau, and Tom Paine, all of them holding high rank in this department of letters.
When we became an independent nation, literature naturally felt the impulse and inspiration of the new national life. Poets and novelists came up of a higher type than their ante-revolutionary predecessors; writers like Dwight, Hopkinson, Trumbull, Barlow, Brockden Brown, and Paine. But no one of these attained the rank of genius, nor did any of them establish a great reputation; and if they are remembered at all, it is rather by happy isolated pieces than by the general excellence of their works. The American novels of the last century, unlike the English novels of Swift, Fielding, and Goldsmith, have one and all passed into oblivion.
[William Cullen Bryant.]
The position of American literature in 1886 may, especially in the departments of history and poetry, fairly bear comparison with that of England. Yet the first really great American authors, if we except the theological and political writers of whom mention has been made, published their first works at a period quite within the memory of men still living. Our first great poet was William Cullen Bryant, who survived to old age to observe to what vast proportions our literary productions, both in quality and quantity, had grown. Our first great biographer and essayist, Washington Irving, may be remembered as living by the man of thirty-five. Our first eminent novelist, James Fenimore Cooper, would only be ninety-seven if he were still among us. And our first great historian, Prescott, died but twenty-seven years ago.
[Rise of American Poetry.]
The new career of American letters, indeed, may be said to have been begun when William Cullen Bryant published "Thanatopsis," in the year 1816. Our writers then began to feel the influence of the vigorous schools of English poetry of which Byron, Wordsworth, and Coleridge were the shining lights. Like these, our own writers shook off the poetic dominion of Pope, and declared form to be subordinate to the thought and the feeling. Bryant, the enthusiastic disciple of Wordsworth, set the bold example, and from that moment American literature received an element of vitality which was given it its noble and rapid growth. It is almost always the case that, in young nations, poetry is the first branch of letters to be developed. The earliest masterpieces of Greek and English literature are the "Iliad," the "Canterbury Tales," and the "Faerie Queene." Perhaps the best German literature before Lessing, worth remembering, was the songs of the Minnesinger.