2 History of American Literature (1700-1800)

Mr. Subham Chowdhury

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How it began


In Henry James’ The American, a character says of Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) that ‘He invented America: a very great man’. Now Richard Gray writes in A History of American Literature that ‘Columbus, however, was following a prototype devised long before him and surviving long after him, the idea of a new land outside and beyond history: “a Virgin Countrey”’. Therefore, fundamental to this European encounter with the New World was the myth of Eden: Gray writes that ‘European settlers were faced not so much with another culture as with nature, and not really encountering a possible future but, on the contrary, returning to an imagined past.’ In this context, Columbus’ observations of the natives are noteworthy: ‘These people go naked’; ‘their manners are very decent’. As Gray argues, ‘he could see this only as a sign of their aboriginal innocence.’ And, later, William Crashaw (1572-1626) and others went on to compare Virginia to the Promised Land and the immigrants to the Israelites.


Now, faced with the strangeness of the natives, Columbus advised his royal masters to ‘adopt the resolution of converting them to Christianity.’ And Gray writes: ‘Conversion was one strategy […] for dealing with America and the Americans they encountered. Comparison was another: the New World could be understood, perhaps, by discovering likeness with the Old […] Naming was another ploy’. Therefore, the narrative that was being forged in this way was a hybrid of the Old World and the New World.


In the first half of the sixteenth century, many Europeans came to America in search of gold. Of course, they did not find it, but The Journey of Coronado 1540-1542 (1904) reveals an encounter with what Gray puts as ‘the vastness of America, the immense emptiness of the plains’. Gray writes: ‘If space is the central fact of American experience, as writers from  Walt Whitman to Charles Olson have claimed, then this was the European discovery of it.’


Gray also tells us: ‘Into that making, from its earliest stages, went not only the Spanish and the Portuguese, the French and the Native Americans, but also the English and their immediate neighbors in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. From the beginning, the story of America is a story neither of a monolith nor a melting pot but a mosaic: a multicultural environment in which individuals negotiate an identity for themselves between the different traditions they encounter. And the tale of American literature has been one of pluralism: collision, conflict, and even congruence between different languages and literatures’.


Puritan narratives


Between 1630 and 1651, William Bradford (1590-1657) wrote Of Plymouth Plantation which was an unfinished account of the colony up to 1646. At the very beginning of the book, Bradford claimed that he would present ‘the simple truth in all things’; however, he came to develop the idea of the divine plan behind the civilizing mission of the European saints, the elect group of believers. Gray writes: ‘Like so many great American stories, Of Plymouth Plantation is a search for meaning. It has a narrator looking for what might lie behind the mask of the material event […] [T]his habit of interpreting events with the help of a providential vocabulary was to have a profound impact on American writing—just as, for that matter, the moralizing tendency and the preference for fact rather than fiction, “God’s truth” over “men’s lies,” also were.’ However, as the narrative proceeded, it grew more and more elegiac with the passing of the communitarian spirit of the first generation of immigrants whom Bradford called ‘Pilgrims’ and the second generation’s search for better land and further prosperity.


Next, we can think about John Winthrop (1588-1649) who had called England ‘this sinfull land’ as early as 1622 and set out for New England with nearly four hundred other Congregationalist Puritans, ten years after Bradford’s landing at Plymouth, to build there a good society.


However, there were also various challenges to that Puritan discourse. Such challenges emerged from people like Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643), Thomas Morton  (1579?-1642?) and Roger Williams (1603?-1683). Morton’s only literary output was New English Canaan (1637) which was a satirical attack on Puritanism. In Gray’s words, ‘It sets out to show that New England is indeed a Canaan or Promised Land, a naturally abundant world inhabited by friendly and even noble savages […] A celebration of what he calls “the happy life of the savages,” and their natural wisdom, occupies the first section, […] [I]n the third section […] Morton describes the general inhumanity of the Puritans’. In The Bloody Tenent of Persecution (1644), Williams argued for Christianity to be free from secular interests: he believed, as Gray points out, that ‘the Massachusetts Bay Company charter itself was invalid because a Christian king had no right over heathen lands.’

The early 18th century


Let us begin with Cotton Mather (1663-1728) who had more than four hundred publications during his life time: The Negro Christianized (1706), Bonifacius; or, Essays to Do Good (1710), The Christian Philosopher (1720), India Christiana (1721), to name a few of them. Now, as Gray points out, ‘Mather’s belief in the supreme importance of conversion led him, after all, to claim that a slave taught the true faith was far better off than a free black; and it sprang, in the first place, from a low opinion of both African and Native Americans, bordering on contempt […] Mather made no secret of his belief that “the natives of the country now possessed by New Englanders” […] were “miserable savages,” “stupid and senseless,” […] They had “no arts,” […] “little, if any, tradition … worthy of … notice”; reading and writing were “altogether unknown to them” and their religion consisted of no more than “diabolical rites,” “extravagant ridiculous devotions” to “many gods.”’ To some extent, it certainly reminds us of Columbus’ observations: he could not make sense of their customs and found it either odd or abhorrent. Besides, Columbus also observes that the natives were ‘without any religion that could be discovered’. Therefore, while Columbus also desired their conversion, he still saw the natives as marked by the aboriginal innocence. But, Mather saw them as marked by savageness. And, therefore, for Mather, they had to be ‘civilized ere they could be Christianized.’


For a brief discussion of his longest work, Magnalia Christi Americana; or, the Ecclesiastical History of New England (1702), let us simply take a look at what Gray writes about it: ‘It is also an American epic, one of the very first, in which the author sets about capturing in words what he sees as the promise of the nation […] The echo of the Aeneid is an intimation of what Mather is after. He is hoping to link the story of his people to earlier epic migrations […] he is also suggesting a direct analogy with the journey of God’s chosen people to the Promised Land. His subject is a matter of both history and belief’.


Next, we can think about Samuel Sewall (1652-1730) who, Gray tells us, was ‘living at a time when Puritanism no longer exerted the power it once did’. He wrote a journal from 1673 to 1728, eventually published as The Diary of Samuel Sewall (1973). In an entry for June 19, 1700, he writes that, following his conscience, he felt ‘call’d’ to write against ‘the Trade fetching Negroes from Guinea.’ And just after five days, The Selling of Joseph: A Memorial, Sewall’s attack on the practice of slavery, was published in Boston. In this book, he attacked slavery on the ground that it was a violation of biblical precept since ‘all men, as they are the Sons of Adam, are Coheirs; and have equal Right unto Liberty’. However, as Gray writes, ‘[h]is journals reveal the more private side of Puritanism: a daily search for the right path to follow in order to make the individual journey part of the divine plan […] [T]hat was to remain ingrained in American writing long after the Puritan hegemony had vanished.’


Growing secular


Again, Gray writes at length: ‘The power of Puritanism was, in fact, waning in New England well before the end of the eighteenth century. The number of “unchurched” colonists had been large to begin with, and they grew in number and power over the years […] and, by the end of the eighteenth century, more than 275,000 African slaves had been brought to America […] It certainly helped to promote the growing secular tendencies of the age. Religion was still strong; and it was, in fact, made stronger by a sweeping revivalist movement known as the Great Awakening, in the third and fourth decades of the eighteenth century […] The Great Awakening, however, was itself a reaction against what was rightly felt to be the dominant trend: the growing tendency among colonists to accept and practice the ideas of the Enlightenment, albeit usually in popularized form. Those ideas emphasized the determining influence of reason and common sense and the imperatives of self-help, personal and social progress. According to the philosophy of the Enlightenment, the universe was a rational, mechanical phenomenon which, as the English philosopher John Locke put it, ran rather like a self-winding watch. […] And man, using his reason and good sense, could ascertain the laws of this mechanism. He could then use those laws for his own profit, the betterment of society, and his own improvement […] It was an ethic with an obvious attraction for new generations of immigrants eager to stake their place and improve their lot in a new land with such abundant resources. And, even for those, the vast majority, who had never heard of the Enlightenment, the secular gospel of reason, common sense, use, profit, and progress became part of the American way.’


The increasingly secular tendencies of the period are to be found in the travel journals of Sarah Kemble Knight (1666-1727) and William Byrd of Westover (1674-1744). Like the earlier European accounts, they didn’t see the New World as either Eden or Wilderness. Although God is mentioned at times, there is no sense of being guided by the providence. As Gray tells us, Knight’s ‘writings reveal a lively, humorous, gossipy woman alert to the comedy and occasional beauty of life in early America […] She recalls, for instance, how moved she was by the sight of the woods lit up by the moon’. On the other hand, Byrd tells us in a letter published in The Correspondence of the Three William Byrds (1977) that in America he lived ‘like […] the patriarchs.’ As the contemporary Robert Beverley II (1673- 1722) writes in The History and Present State of Virginia (1722), the majority of the immigrants were ‘of low Circumstances […] such as were willing to seek their Fortunes in a Foreign Country.’ There was already an anticipation of the later Southern argument in defense of slavery: slaves were seen as children who needed the guidance and support of a benevolent patriarch. What we see here in Byrd— ‘the idea of the indolent, elegant aristocrat’—was ‘an alternative to the ruminative Puritan or the industrious Northerner’ (Gray).


Secularity in poetry


If we take a look at Nathaniel Evans’s (1742-1767) poetry, which were posthumously published as Poems on Several Occasions (1772), we see that the poems were rarely religious: ‘Hymn to May’, ‘To Benjamin Franklin, Occasioned by Hearing Him Play on the Harmonica’, ‘Ode to the Memory of Mr. Thomas Godfrey’ etc. Although he criticized the greed and immorality of the time, the criticism developed from a secular morality.


We have also the female poets who introduced a female perspective to the familiar subjects and sometimes even focused on the issues specific to their own sex, like childbearing, for instance. They were also conscious of the difficulties of the women in the society: ‘How wretched is a woman’s fate,/’ an anonymous poet wrote in ‘Verses Written by a Young Lady, on Women Born to be controll’d’ (1743), ‘Subject to man in every state. / How can she then be free from woes?’ For another anonymous poet, the solution, as she put it in ‘The Lady’s Complaint’ (1736), was in ‘equal laws’ that would ‘neither sex oppress’: it would ‘More freedom give to womankind’.


Annis Boudinot Stockton (1736-1801) wrote ‘To Laura’ (1757) addressing her friend Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson (1737-1801)—pen name ‘Laura’— who was herself one of the most well known poets of the eighteenth century. Both of them wrote poems on married love, such as ‘Epistle to Lucia’ (1766) and ‘An Ode Written on the Birthday of Mr. Henry Fergusson’ (1774). Like Evans, Stockton also wrote on public figures—for example, ‘The Vision, an Ode to Washington’ (1789). And in ‘On a Beautiful Damask Rose, Emblematical of Love and Wedlock’ (1789), Fergusson explored a philosophical issue like the transience of love. Gray writes about them that ‘[w]hat is remarkable about many of these poems written by women is their sense of a shared suffering and dignity, sometimes associated with the core experience of childbirth.’ Jane Colman Turell (1708-1735) wrote: ‘Thrice in my womb I’ve found the pleasing strife, / In the first struggles of my infant’s life: / But O how soon by Heaven I’m call’d to mourn, / While from my womb a lifeless babe is born?’ However, as Gray notes, ‘[t]hat sense of shared suffering and dignity can also extend beyond the specifically female sphere’: later, Sarah Wentworth Morton (1759-1846) became quite well- known for a strong antislavery poem, ‘The African Chief’ (1823).


While, on the one hand, we have these educated white women poets, we have, on the other hand, Lucy Terry (1730-1821), an African slave who eventually became a free black: she wrote a poem called ‘Bars Fight’ (eventually published in 1855) that captured the experience of pain and a witness of courage during a battle between whites and Indians.


‘To America, one schoolmaster is worth a dozen poets,’ said Benjamin Franklin, because ‘[n]othing is good or beautiful but in the measure that it is useful’. However, many people still believed that poetry helped in the making of America: as Gray writes, ‘[t]he full force of that reply had to wait until the Revolution, when writers and critics began to insist that the new American nation needed an American literature, and more specifically an American poetry, in order to announce and understand itself.’ Even Cotton Mather, who had attacked poetry for its fictional aspect and sensuality, wrote a proto-epic called Magnalia Christi Americana, celebrating the ‘Wonders’ of the New World. Towards the end of the century, Joel Barlow attempted a more specifically poetic epic in Vision of Columbus, an enlarged and revised version of which appeared later as The Columbiad. Ebenezer Cook (1667-1733) and Richard Lewis (1700?-1734) had already tried their hands at producing other forms of early eighteenth-century poetry than epic—satire and pastoral. Cook’s claim to fame rests on his satirical poem The Sot-weed Factor; or, a Voyage to Maryland. In the form of the Hudibrastic verse, this piece is a satire on English snobbery and preciousness. As Gray writes, ‘Cook has taken an English form and turned it to American advantage.’ Lewis, on the other hand, wrote, among other things, pastoral that indicated at the superiority of American nature. When Lewis refers to ‘the out-stretch’d Land’, we immediately understand that it is that same encounter—that we have seen before and which many other poets would experience—with space, the primary aspect of the American landscape. ‘Lewis, however,’ Gray notes, ‘devotes more attention than his European predecessors tended to do to the ideas of patient toil rewarded, the value of self-subsistence, and the pleasures of abundance’— things that are (to become) typically American.


Now, although there was a growing trend towards the secular in the eighteenth century America, religious influences did not entirely disappear. The most important figure in this context would be Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). He became what he was due to his deeply religious upbringing—both his father and grandfather were clergymen. He felt compelled not only ‘to sit and view the moon […] the clouds and the sky,’ ‘to behold the sweet glory of God in these things,’ but also, as Gray puts it, ‘to review and discipline the conduct of his life.’ Between 1722 and 1723, he composed seventy Resolutions with the aim of improving himself in the light of his faith. In 1734, he preached a few sermons which certainly had an effect on many of the congregation who apparently felt exactly the kind of conversion Edwards was preaching and had himself experienced. As an account of this awakening of faith in his community, Edwards wrote a book (developed from a pamphlet) called A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God (1737). In a way, as Gray suggests, this congregation anticipated ‘the Great Awakening that was to sweep through many parts of the American colonies in the next few years’. However, his embodiment of faith was a bit complicated, as Gray points out, insofar as ‘Edwards wanted to harness reason in the service of faith and, if necessary, to defend mystery with logic [which] is nowhere better illustrated than in […] such works as The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended (1758)  and Two Dissertations (1765)’. What makes Edwards more complicated than others is his implicit philosophical dialogue with authorities like Descartes and Locke on the one hand, and his Puritan inheritance on the other hand.


Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)


As Gray writes, ‘Franklin embodied the new spirit of America, emerging in part out of Puritanism and in part out of the Enlightenment, that was coming to dominate the culture.’ However, it does not make him similar to Edwards. In his Autobiography— which he worked on in 1771, 1784, 1788, 1788-89 and of which although an American edition was published in 1818, the first complete edition came out only in 1867—Franklin presents himself as an exemplary figure. The first section of his Autobiography holds a detailed account of his ‘first entry’ into the city of Philadelphiain in 1723. As Gray notes, ‘what he emphasizes [here] is his sorry appearance and poverty.’ The second section reveals his conception of ‘the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.’ Gray writes: ‘Springing from a fundamental belief that the individual could change, improve, and even recreate himself with the help of reason, common sense, and hard work, Franklin’s program for himself was one of the first great formulations of the American dream.’ By 1748, he had, indeed, made quite a lot of money and also become quite famous. Thus, Franklin gave birth to the notion which Gray puts as that of ‘the self-made man as hero, on his first appearance, poor and unknown and unprotected, entering a world that he then proceeds to conquer.’ His The Way to Wealth (1758), which brought together many of his proverbs embodying his philosophy, was a nationwide bestseller and reprinted several hundred times.


The dream of the self-made man could be realized only in America, where, as Franklin says in ‘Information to Those Who Would Remove to America’ (1784), ‘people do not inquire concerning a Stranger, What is he? But, What can he do?’ All ‘Hearty young Labouring Men’ could ‘easily establish themselves’ in this ‘Land of Labour’, which is why ‘a general happy Mediocrity prevails’, here, in America.


Gray writes that ‘throughout his life, Franklin was not only an inventor of proverbial wisdom but a masterly essayist’. In his ‘Silence Dogood’ papers, as Gray informs us, he ‘satirize[d] follies and vices ranging from poor poetry to prostitution.’ He also attacked violence against Native Americans in A Narrative of the Late Massacres (1764) and the superstition leading to the accusation of witchcraft on women in ‘A Witch Trial at Mount Holly’ (1730), and satirized the slave trade in ‘On the Slave Trade’ (1790) and British imperialism in ‘An Edict by the King of Prussia’ (1773). Thus, he shaped his persona of ‘the friend of all good men’. He was also a member of that committee which went onto draft the Declaration of Independence. He was also one of the three American signatories to the treaty that ended the Revolutionary war. And he became a member of the convention which drafted the Constitution of the United Sates. Gray writes that ‘Franklin was, in short, at the heart of the American Revolution from its origins to its conclusion. And he shows, more clearly than any other figure of the time, just how much that Revolution owed to the principles of the Enlightenment.’ And others: towards the Revolution.


In Letters from an American Farmer (1782), J. Hector St. Jean de Crèvecoeur (1735-1813) says that ‘the American is a new man, who acts upon new principles’. Gray tells us that ‘[t]hat was a common theme in the literature surrounding the American Revolution. As the American colonies became a new nation, the United States of America, writers and many others applied themselves to the task of announcing just what this new nation represented’. What is typically American about Crèvecoeur’s narrative is the amalgamation of fiction and autobiography. In this text, we find his belief in the superiority of the American nature in comparison to the European culture. Secondly, he says that America is ‘not composed, as in Europe, of great lords who possess everything, and a herd of people who have nothing’; the American owes nothing to ‘a despotic prince, a rich abbot, or a mighty lord.’ And, thirdly, he also says that ‘here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men.’ However, as Gray notes, ‘[t]ravelling to South Carolina, James is reminded of the obscenity and injustice of slavery […] [which] leads James to reflect on a terrible exception to the American norm of just laws and useful toil rewarded.’


Thomas Paine (1737-1809) was another writer from this period. Gray writes that ‘[u]nlike Crèvecoeur, however, Paine was unambiguously enthusiastic about the Revolution.’ In Common Sense (1776), he argued in the typically Enlightenment spirit—with emphasis on ‘simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense’— for the independence of America and the formation of a republican government. With the defeat of Washington and the retreat at the end of 1776, Paine tried to rouse the nation for further resistance in first of the Crisis papers. After returning to England in 1787, he wrote The Rights of Man (1791-1792) as a kind of reply to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Although it was very popular, nevertheless, for his arguments against a hereditary monarchy, he was charged with sedition and forced to flee to France. Again, for his protest against the execution of Louis XVI he was imprisoned in France. Still, in The Age of Reason (1794-1795), he attacked religion for its irrationality.


Next, we have Thomas Jefferson (1724-1826), who was, as Gray writes, ‘[a] person of eclectic interests—and, in that, the inheritor of a tradition previously best illustrated by Wiliam Byrd of Westover’. He played a pivotal role in the formation of the American nation. In A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774), he argued for America’s freedom from British control on the ground of ‘a right which nature has given to all men, of departing from the country in which chance, not choice, has placed them.’ In 1776, he became a member of the committee which would draft the Declaration of Independence. Gray writes that ‘if any one person can be called the author of that Declaration, it is undoubtedly Jefferson.’ However, Gray also notes that ‘[l]ike Crèvecoeur, Jefferson also felt compelled to confront the challenge to his idyllic vision of America posed by the indelible fact of slavery.’ He condemned slavery and argued for emancipation in Notes on the State of Virginia (1787). However, he was of the opinion that the freed slaves should be sent somewhere else where they would stand as ‘free and independent people’.


John Adams (1735-1826), first vice president and second president, had a very sceptical mind: Jefferson’s idealism stood in opposition to Adams’ pessimism. If Jefferson thought that ‘a natural aristocracy’ of ‘virtue and talents’ could replace ‘an artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth,’ Adams though that ‘[b]oth artificial aristocracy, and Monarchy have grown out of the natural Aristocracy of “virtue and talents.”’

What about the women?


Abigail Adams (1744-1818), wife of John Adams, consistently raised the question of freedom and equality for women. In 1776, she wrote to her husband that ‘in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies’; ‘Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands’; ‘Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could.’ If the new laws are not ‘more generous and favourable’ to women than the old laws had been, she warned, ‘we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.’ And, Gray notes: ‘”All men are created equal,” the Declaration of Independence announced. That explicitly excluded women. Implicitly, it also excluded “Indians” and “Negroes,” since what it meant, of course, was all white men.’


Among the leading voices, Thomas Paine was someone who also raised the question of the rights of women: ‘If we take a survey of ages and countries,’ Paine wrote in ‘An Occasional Letter on the Female Sex’ (1775), ‘we shall find the women, almost—without exception—at all times and in all places, adored and oppressed.’ Judith Sargent Murray’s (1751-1820) 1790 piece, ‘On the Equality of the Sexes’, makes her, arguably, one of the first American feminists. In this piece, she argued, as Gray summarizes, ‘that the capacities of memory and imagination are equal in women and men and that, if women are deficient as far as the two other faculties of the mind, reason and judgment, are concerned, it is because of a difference in education.’ In her 1784 essay, ‘Desultory Thoughts upon the Utility of encouraging a degree of Self-Complacency especially in Female Bosoms’, she said that a young woman should be considered ‘as a rational being’.

Other voices


Although Hendrick Aupaumut (?-1830), a Mahican Indian, tried, in A Short Narration of my Last Journey to the Western Country (written about 1794 and published only in 1827), to convince his people that the American republic would extend its rights to the Native Americans as well, Samson Occom (1723-1792) was a Native American who did not quite believe it. As Gray informs, ‘Quite the contrary, during the Revolutionary War Occom urged the tribes to remain neutral’. For him, as for many others, the solution of their problems was in separation. His Collection of Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1774) was the first Indian bestseller.


Lemuel Haynes (1753-1833), an evangelical minister, was one who articulated the rage of the African-Americans at the huge gap between the promise of the Revolution and their reality. As gray writes, ‘Haynes, along with Jupiter Hammon and Phillis Wheatley, helped to produce the first significant body of African-American writing’. In ‘Liberty Further Extended: Or Free Thoughts on the Illegality of Slave-Keeping’ (written early in the career but unpublished till 1983), he makes use of the Declaration of Independence, the founding documents of the nation, and the Bible, to develop a vigorous argument against slavery. In a petition, Prince Hall (1735?-1807) too asks for the emancipation of ‘great number of Negroes who are detained in a state of Slavery in the Bowels of a free & Christian country.’


We also have Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797), whose autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Valla, the African, Written by Himself (1787), in Gray’s words, ‘established the form of the slave narrative and so, indirectly or otherwise […] has influenced American writing – and African-American writing in particular  to the present day.’ In this work, he viewed Africa as the Eden, the prelapsarian world. And, in many ways, he turned the typical European charges upside down: he was frightened of the white people and thought that he would be eaten; later, he was convinced that his white masters were ‘savages’. However, he also befriended ‘a [white] young lad.’ Gray writes that ‘[t]heir close friendship […] serves as an illustration of the superficiality of racial barriers […] and, besides, anticipates a powerful theme in later American writing – of interracial and often homoerotic intimacy.’

Poetry, drama and fiction


Although Lucy Terry came before with her poem ‘Bars fight,’ Jupiter Hammon (1711-1806?) was the first African-American poet who got his work published: Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ, With Penitential Cries (1760), a series of 22 quatrains, and Address to the Negroe: In the State of New York (1787), a prose work. In the prose work, he argues for the reconciliation between the black people and slavery. His works are prefaced by an acknowledgement of the white people he served. Gray writes: ‘That anticipated a common pattern in African-American writing. Slave narratives, for instance, were commonly prefaced by a note or essay from a white notable, mediating the narrative for what was, after all, an almost entirely white audience – and giving it a white seal of approval. And it has to be borne in mind when reading what Hammon has to say about slavery: which, in essence, takes up a defense of the peculiar institution’.


Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784), with the help of the woman who bought her from a slave market, got her Poems (1773) published in London. Her poetry, notes Gray, ‘paints a less than flattering picture of Africa’. She writes in ‘To the University of Cambridge, in New England’ (1773): ‘’Twas not long since I left my native shore / The land of errors, and Egyptian gloom: / Father of mercy, ’twas thy gracious hand / Brought me in safety from  those dark abodes.’ However, sometimes an Edenic or idyllic image of Africa—of Equiano’s type—can also be found in Wheatley.


Among the white poets of the time, we have Philip Freneau (1752-1832), Timothy Dwight (1752-1817), and Joel Barlow (1754-1826). Interestingly, Freneau’s long poem (written together with his college friend Hugh Brackenridge), The Rising glory of America (written in 1771, published in 1772 and revised in 1786), Gray notes, ‘tends to confirm the power of the mother country even while Freneau and Brackenridge struggle to deny it.’ In his ‘Literary Importation’ (1788), he writes: ‘Can we never be thought to have learning or grace / Unless it be brought from that damnable place.’ This ‘damnable place’ is certainly a reference to Britain. And Gray writes that ‘[i]n some of his poetry, at least, Freneau was working toward a form of literary emancipation’. In ‘To an Author’ (1788), he also focuses on the difficulty of writing poetry in a certain historical context ‘Where rigid Reason reigns alone, / Where lovely Fancy has no sway, / Nor magic forms about us play’. He further adds: ‘An age employed in edging steel / Can no poetic raptures feel.’


Dwight’s most ambitious work, Greenfield Hill: A Poem in Seven Parts (1794), written in imitation of the pastoral and elegiac modes of British writers, portrays an idyllic life in the American countryside where ‘every farmer reigns a little king’. It also attacks slavery. However, as Gray observes, ‘despite Dwight’s references to “Indian woes,” his basic  message is that their removal was a necessary step in the march of progress.’


Royall Tyler (1756-1826), who wrote seven plays, gave birth to the American tradition in drama. He is best known for his play The Contrast (written in 1787, produced in 1790 and published in 1792). Written after watching a performance of R. B. Sheridan’s The School for Scandal and clearly influenced by the English eighteenth century comedies, this was the first comedy by an American writer to earn a professional production. The theme is typically American since, as Gray summarizes, ‘the contrast of the title is between […] European affectation […] [and] American straightforwardness and republican honesty.’


Among the first American novels, we have The Power of Sympathy (1789) by William Hill Brown (1765-1793), Charlotte Temple (1794) by Susanna Haswell Rowson (1762-1824), and The Coquette; or, The History of Eliza Wharton (1797) by Hannah Webster Foster (1758- 1840). The Power of Sympathy is a romance that deals with a contemporary scandal of incest and suicide in the Morton family. Its didactic purpose is clearly visible in the preface: ‘To Expose the dangerous Consequences of Seduction’ and to reveal ‘the Advantages of Female Education.’ Gray writes: ‘Hardly distinguished in itself, the book nevertheless establishes a currency common to all three of these early American novels: a clear basis in fact, actuality (so anticipating and meeting any possible objections to fiction, imaginative self-indulgence, or daydreaming), an even clearer moral purpose (so anticipating and meeting any possible objections from puritans or utilitarians), and a narrative that flirts with sensation and indulges in sentiment (so encouraging the reader to read on). Even more specifically, The Power of Sympathy shares the same currency as the books by Rowson and Webster in the sense that it places a young woman and her fate at the center of the narrative, and addresses other young women as the intended recipients of its message.’ In the preface to Charlotte Temple, the first American bestseller, Rowson writes that her novel is ‘not merely the effusion of Fancy, but […] a reality’ as the basic facts were related to her by ‘an old lady who had personally known Charlotte.’ She says, ‘I have thrown over the whole a slight veil of fiction’. And she also insists on the moral purpose of her writing: ‘For the perusal of the young and thoughtless of the fair sex, this Tale of Truth is designed’. What follows this preface is a tale of seduction of a young girl and her suffering. Judith Sargent Murray’s The Story of Margaretta (1798) and Foster’s The Coquette still revolve around the theme of seduction.

None of these writers took writing as profession; the first person who earned the title of a professional writer is Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810). (However, it is now believed that there were definitely many other writers who tried to earn their living through writing during this time.) Influenced by William Godwin, Brown wrote a treatise on the rights of women, Alcuin: A Dialogue (1798). After that, within two years, he wrote four other novels: Wieland; or, The Transformation (1798), Arthur Mervyn; or, Memoirs of the Year 1793 (1799-1800), Ormond; or, The Secret Witness (1799), and Edgar Huntly; or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker (1799). Gray writes that ‘Brown was ‘one of the first American writers to discover the uses of the unreliable narrator.’ However, he was, like others, careful to point  out that his fictions were based on facts: for example, he wrote in the preface to his first novel that there had been ‘an authentic case, remarkably similar to Wieland.’ Gray writes: ‘he anticipates so much of what was to happen in American fiction in the nineteenth century. His fascination with aberrant psychology, deviations in human thought and behavior, foreshadows the work of Edgar Allan Poe; so, for that matter, does his use of slippery narrators. His use of symbolism, and his transformation of Gothic into a strange, surreal mix of the extraordinary and the everyday, prepares the way for the fiction of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville.’

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