[English 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.

[Ante-Revolutionary Writers.]

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.

[Political Literature.]

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.

[Post-Revolutionary Writers.]

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.

[Earlier Poets.]

[Later Posts.]

In the United States, Bryant was soon followed by a succession of poets whose productions clearly revealed the magnetism of the English revival, and gave promise of the rise of that poetic art which we have seen reach its culmination in our own day. Richard H. Dana wrote the "Buccaneer"; Fitz-Greene Halleck, "Marco Bozarris"; Edgar A. Poe "The Raven"; the painter Allston turned easily from brush to pen, and added more than one fine poem to our literature; Emerson rose to found a school of transcendental poetry as well as philosophy; N.P. Willis became the lyrical likeness of Moore on this side of the Atlantic; Percival reached a brief popularity, and wrote some things well worthy of remembrance; and the banker-poet Sprague filled a worthy place in our group of bards. In the next generation came the poets of the highest culture and most widely extended popularity: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes.


The United States have produced a race of historians whose works and names may not unfairly be ranked with those of Hume, Macaulay, Hallam, and Froude. Prescott and Irving have been followed by Bancroft, Motley, Parkman, Adams, Kirk, Goodwin, Young, and Ticknor. Sydney Smith, were he now living, would find his question, "Who reads an American book?" speedily answered; for in English drawing-rooms and on English book-stalls "Evangeline" and "The Wayside Inn" are to be found quite as often as "In Memoriam" and "Idyls of the King"; and "Ferdinand and Isabella" and the "Rise of the Dutch Republic," as often as the histories of Macaulay and Froude.

[Theological Literature.]

Our theologians have kept pace, in the amount and intellectual force of their writings, with those of the older continent. It is not astonishing that, in a nation established by a sect for the purpose of doing God honor, a race of great theological authors should arise. The names of Hopkins and Emmons, of Dwight, Channing, Norton, Theodore Parker, Wayland, Bacon, Park, Bushnell, and many others, will recur, to remind us how active religious philosophy and speculation have been from the time of Jonathan Edwards to the present.

[Political and Legal Writers.]

In other departments of letters our progress during the century, though less marked, has been very distinct. Webster, Everett, Sumner, Winthrop, and, it may well be added, Lincoln, have made a literary art, as well as a practical career, of politics. American legal writers, like Greenleaf, Kent, Story, and Parsons, are quoted in the English as in the American courts, as authorities worthy of respect and trust. In the domain of searching literary criticism, England has perhaps produced no author since the days of Gifford and Jeffrey superior in learning, acuteness, and grace to Edwin P. Whipple.


[Writers of Fiction.]

Humorists have been many; in this field we count not only Lowell, Neal, and Holmes, but the younger band, which includes Artemas Ward, Mark Twain, Nasby, Bret Harte, Warner, and Leland. In the department of essays and miscellaneous belles-lettres, the names of George William Curtis, Thoreau, Tuckerman, Higginson, Marsh, and many more, crowd upon the mind. Foremost among writers of fiction may be classed Cooper and Nathaniel Hawthorne; and though in this field America can scarcely contest the palm with the mother country, and the great purely national novel has not yet appeared, the fertility of our novelists affords promise that in time great and national romances will come. Meanwhile, Mrs. Stowe, Donald G. Mitchell, T.B. Aldrich, William D. Howells (poet as well as novelist), Henry James, Julian Hawthorne, Stockton, Miss Phelps, E.E. Hale, and others, have delighted thousands by their imaginative works.

[American Dictionaries.]

To present even a list, indeed, of American writers who may be called noted, would much more than occupy the limits assigned to this chapter. The multitude that crowds upon the memory, even in a cursory glance over our history, is so large that even in mentioning any names at all one runs the risk of some unjust omission. Suffice it to say that no field of letters has remained wholly uncultivated in this country, and that literary invention in the United States, though sometimes at a pause, on the whole advances with their population and civilization. We have philosophers, men of science, poets, critics, essayists, art writers, theologians, fully able to cope with their literary brethren in the old world. Let it be added that America has produced the two dictionaries which are to-day paramount authority in every English school, college, and university; and that in the science of language George P. Marsh and William D. Whitney have carried their studies to depths as profound, and have given the world results as valuable, as have any old-world philologists.