Glance At Colonial And Revolutionary Literature
Literature At The Dawn Of The Century
Charles Brockden Brown
Washington Irving And The Knickerbocker Group
William C. Bryant
James Fenimore Cooper
The Early Literary Magazines
New England Literature
Read More Articles About: American Literature
Literature At The Dawn Of The Century
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
In the year 1800, gateway to a Century of almost magi-cal national development, the population of the free States was 2,684,616, of the slave States, 2,621,316, making a total of 5,305,932. Philadelphia was the chief city of the Nation. It had been the national capital during the Revolution, though it fell for a time into possession of the British army. Here the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Federal Constitution had been framed and signed. Here the Federal Congress met and Washington held his Republican court. Here were the American Philosophical Society, which had grown out of Franklin's Junto; the Philadelphia Library, mother of all institutions of the kind; and the University of Pennsylvania, likewise the outgrowth 0f Franklin's matchless genius for public enterprise. The first American monthly magazine had been issued here by Franklin in 1741. After the establishment of peace in 1783 other magazines were issued, the principal being the "American Museum." The city therefore was the literary center of the new Nation, though the political capital was in 1800 removed to Washington. Foreigners of distinction still resorted to Philadelphia, whether they came to visit or to settle in the New World. It boasted itself to be the American Athens.
Noah Webster, long regarded as the American authority in orthography, was in other senses a man of letters, and deserves note as a pioneer of literature. He was born in West Hartford, Connecticut, in 1758, being descended from the first settlers. As a young student of Yale in the spring of 1775, he played the fife proudly before the college escort, accompanying George Washington on his way to Cambridge to take command as General-in-Chief of the new Continental Army. After shouldering a gun as a volunteer private in a campaign without a battle, Webster studied law under Oliver Ellsworth, later chief-justice; then fell into his life career as a school teacher, although later admitted to the Hartford bar. In 1782, while teaching a classical school at Goshen, N. Y., he compiled his "Grammatical Institute of the English Language," the germ of his great "Unabridged." He afterward removed to Philadelphia and there taught school and wrote pamphlets in the interest of the Federal party. For twenty-five years the chief support of his family was the penny royalty on his "Spelling Book." Yet he industriously waged his pioneer work for reformed spelling and a New World system of language. In 1806 he gave to America his "Compendious Dictionary." By continued shifts the self-taught dictionary-maker finally developed his nucleus into his "American Dictionary," in two volumes quarto, published in London in 1828. Horace E. Scudder declares in his appreciative biography, "Webster was the prophet of a national independence, in which language and literature were involved as inseparable elements."
Joseph Dennie, then called the "American Addison," had come to Philadelphia, in 1799, as clerk to Secretary of State Timothy Pickering. He had been born in Boston in 1767, had failed to continue a pupil at Harvard, had attempted law, and at last had drifted into his Bohemian career in journalism. In January, 1801, he began the publication of "The Port-Folio" under the sobriquet of "Oliver Oldschool, Esq." He was the most picturesque figure of his day in the then metropolitan city on the banks of the Delaware. The Port-Folio was praised by Josiah Quincy as the best American magazine of its day, "no whit behind the best English." Dennie himself had a timid reverence for the mother country, and he and his col-leagues drew their inspiration from Pope and Addison. "To study with a view of becoming an author by profession in America," wrote Dennie, "is a prospect of no less flattering promise than to publish among the Esquimaux an essay on delicacy of taste, or to found an academy of sciences in Lapland."
Other authors of the Eighteenth Century still survived : John Trumbull, at the age of fifty, author of the Revolutionary satire "McFingal," and chief survivor of the group known as the "Hartford Wits;" Joel Barlow, aged forty-five, whose prodigious epic, the "Columbiad," was issued in Philadelphia in 1807, and dedicated to Robert Fulton, famous for his steamboat; William Dunlap, aged thirty-four, who had written plays, "The Father," and "André," and who was yet to write the "History of the American Theater;" Joseph Hopkinson, aged thirty, whose song, "Hail Columbia" written in 1798, during the French excitement, to the then popular air of the "President's March" shared public popularity with the celebrated ode of Robert Treat Paine, Jr., "Adams and Liberty." It was not long afterward eclipsed by the "Star Spangled Banner," the words of which were composed by Francis Scott Key, a Marylander, during the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1814.
Philip Freneau did not die until December 18, 1832, when nearly eighty-one years old. This satirical poet of the Revolutionary era had witnessed remarkable progress in his nation and the world. Of Huguenot descent, he was a classmate of Madison at Princeton College, after-ward a British prisoner of war, and later a savage satirist. He lent his pen, on the birth of the Republic, to Jefferson and the Democrats, and so bitter were his newspaper attacks upon the administration that Washington has handed him down to posterity in the epithet, "That rascal Freneau." And yet, while this "rascal's" satires and lampoons have faded away, he still deserves indelible credit as the first real American poet. The English poet Campbell did not hesitate to appropriate one of his most effective lines, and Sir Walter Scott did him the honor to borrow, in "Marmion," the final line of one of his stanzas, "They took the spear, but left the shield." Freneau handled effectively Indian themes. "In his verses, says Professor Beers, "appear for the first time, a sense of the picturesque and poetic elements in the character and wild life of the redman, and that pensive sentiment which the fading away toward the sunset has left in the wake of their retreating footsteps." The Indian was already becoming a strange, half-legendary figure to the dwellers in the American towns, and Freneau's "Indian Student" is brought from the remote backwoods :
"From Susquehanna's farthest springs,
Even in 'his day he found "the hunter and the deer a shade." In his romantic and poetic appreciation of the American aboriginal, Freneau anticipated, in a mild way, "The Leather Stocking Tales" of Cooper and Longfellow's legend of "Hiawatha."
Of Joel Barlow, it may be noted that he had been one of the "Hartford Wits," earnest patriots in the Revolution. But Barlow deserted Hartford for France, where he wrote his thoroughly American mock epic, "Hasty Pudding," and yet became so plague-stricken a Frenchman that he wrote a song in praise of the guillotine. In 1805 he returned and published in sumptuous style his work, the "Columbiad," in which Hesper fetches Columbus from his Spanish prison "to a hill of vision" where the entire panorama of American or Columbian history is unrolled before his eyes. This artificial "Vision," with its machinery borrowed from Milton, and its heroic couplet from Pope, has sunk into oblivion.
Dr. Timothy Dwight's moralizing poem, "Greenfield Hill," descriptive of his own rural parish, gave him contemporary luster as one of the poets of Connecticut. But he is now known only by his "Travels in New England and New York," published posthumously in 1821 and praised by Southey. These descriptions of the Niagara Falls, White Mountains, and the Catskills exerted influence in calling attention to the grandeur and inspiring character of American scenery. James Hall, in his "Letters from the West," had before this written, "The vicinity of Pittsburg may one day wake the lyre of the Pennsylvania bard to strains as martial and as sweet as Scott; . . . believe me, I should tread with as much reverence over the mausoleum of a Shawnee chief, as among the catacombs of Egypt, and speculate with as much delight upon that site of an Indian village as in the gardens of Tivoli, or the ruins of Herculaneum." The first collection of American poems was selected and edited by Elihu H. Smith as far back as 1793, and a second collection, the "Columbian Muse," appeared in the year following.