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Title: Initial Studies in American Letters
Author: Henry A. Beers
Release Date: May 18, 2005 [eBook #15854]
***START OF THE PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK INITIAL STUDIES IN AMERICAN LETTERS***
E-text prepared by Al Haines
INITIAL STUDIES IN AMERICAN LETTERS
HENRY A. BEERS
C. L. S. C. Department, 150 Fifth Avenue
The required books of the C. L. S. C. are recommended by a Council of Six. It must, however, be understood that recommendation does not involve an approval by the Council, or by any member of it, of every principle or doctrine contained in the book recommended.
This volume is intended as a companion to the historical sketch of English literature, entitled From Chaucer to Tennyson, published last year for the Chautauqua Circle. In writing it I have followed the same plan, aiming to present the subject in a sort of continuous essay rather than in the form of a "primer" or elementary manual. I have not undertaken to describe, or even to mention, every American author or book of importance, but only those which seemed to me of most significance. Nevertheless I believe that the sketch contains enough detail to make it of some use as a guide-book to our literature. Though meant to be mainly a history of American belles-lettres, it makes some mention of historical and political writings, but hardly any of philosophical, scientific, and technical works.
A chronological rather than a topical order has been followed, although the fact that our best literature is of recent growth has made it impossible to adhere as closely to a chronological plan as in the English sketch. In the reading courses appended to the different chapters I have named a few of the most important authorities in American literary history, such as Duyckinck, Tyler, Stedman, and Richardson. My thanks are due to the authors and publishers who have kindly allowed me the use of copyrighted matter for the appendix, especially to Mr. Park Godwin and Messrs. D. Appleton & Co. for the passages from Bryant; to Messrs. A. O. Armstrong & Son for the selections from Poe; to the Rev. E. E. Hale and Messrs. Roberts Brothers for the extract from The Man Without a Country; to Walt Whitman for his two poems; and to Mr. Clemens and the American Publishing Co. for the passage from The Jumping Frog.
HENRY A. BEERS.
CHAPTER I. THE COLONIAL PERIOD, 1607-1765
CHAPTER II. THE REVOLUTIONARY PERIOD, 1765-1815
CHAPTER III. THE ERA OF NATIONAL EXPANSION, 1815-1837
CHAPTER IV. THE CONCORD WRITERS, 1837-1861
CHAPTER V. THE CAMBRIDGE SCHOLARS, 1837-1861
CHAPTER VI. LITERATURE IN THE CITIES, 1837-1861
CHAPTER VII. LITERATURE SINCE 1861
INITIAL STUDIES IN AMERICAN LETTERS.
THE COLONIAL PERIOD.
The writings of our colonial era have a much greater importance as history than as literature. It would be unfair to judge of the intellectual vigor of the English colonists in America by the books that they wrote; those "stern men with empires in their brains" had more pressing work to do than the making of books. The first settlers, indeed, were brought face to face with strange and exciting conditions—the sea, the wilderness, the Indians, the flora and fauna of a new world—things which seem stimulating to the imagination, and incidents and experiences which might have lent themselves easily to poetry or romance. Of all these they wrote back to England reports which were faithful and sometimes vivid, but which, upon the whole, hardly rise into the region of literature. "New England," said Hawthorne, "was then in a state incomparably more picturesque than at present." But to a contemporary that old New England of the seventeenth century doubtless seemed any thing but picturesque, filled with grim, hard, work-day realities. The planters both of Virginia and Massachusetts were decimated by sickness and starvation, constantly threatened by Indian Wars, and troubled by quarrels among themselves and fears of disturbance from England. The wrangles between the royal governors and the House of Burgesses in the Old Dominion, and the theological squabbles in New England, which fill our colonial records, are petty and wearisome to read of. At least, they would be so did we not bear in mind to what imperial destinies those conflicts were slowly educating the little communities which had hardly yet secured a foothold on the edge of the raw continent.
Even a century and a half after the Jamestown and Plymouth settlements, when the American plantations had grown strong and flourishing, and commerce was building up large towns, and there were wealth and generous living and fine society, the "good old colony days when we lived under the king," had yielded little in the way of literature that is of any permanent interest. There would seem to be something in the relation of a colony to the mother-country which dooms the thought and art of the former to a helpless provincialism. Canada and Australia are great provinces, wealthier and more populous than the thirteen colonies at the time of their separation from England. They have cities whose inhabitants number hundreds of thousands, well-equipped universities, libraries, cathedrals, costly public buildings, all the outward appliances of an advanced civilization; and yet what have Canada and Australia contributed to British literature?
American literature had no infancy. That engaging naïveté and that heroic rudeness which give a charm to the early popular tales and songs of Europe find, of course, no counterpart on our soil. Instead of emerging from the twilight of the past the first American writings were produced under the garish noon of a modern and learned age. Decrepitude rather than youthfulness is the mark of a colonial literature. The poets, in particular, instead of finding a challenge to their imagination in the new life about them, are apt to go on imitating the cast-off literary fashions of the mother-country. America was settled by Englishmen who were contemporary with the greatest names in English literature. Jamestown was planted in 1607, nine years before Shakespeare's death, and the hero of that enterprise, Captain John Smith, may not improbably have been a personal acquaintance of the great dramatist. "They have acted my fatal tragedies on the stage," wrote Smith. Many circumstances in The Tempest were doubtless suggested by the wreck of the Sea Venture on "the still vext Bermoothes," as described by William Strachey in his True Repertory of the Wrack and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates, written at Jamestown, and published at London in 1610. Shakespeare's contemporary, Michael Drayton, the poet of the