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The history of literature in the United States is naturally divided into three periods, corresponding with the various stages of the political, commercial, and social progress of the country: 1. The colonial period, from the first settlements to near the middle of the eighteenth century; 2. The revolutionary period, from the first awakening of the spirit of independence to the successful issue of the struggle and the peaceful close of the administration of Washington ; and 3. The period of national development in which we are now living
For many and obvious reasons the colonial period was not favorable to literature. All the energies of the early settlers were expended in felling trees, providing shelter from the elements, procuring their daily food, and defending their families from the savages. There was no cessation from toil, no respite from danger. The grand scenery of the unbroken forests created no sentiment of admiration in the minds of the colonists. They were not landscapes to be mused upon in poetic reverie, but so many acres of stubborn woods to be chopped down and burned. The settler found the forest his enemy, as well as a shelter for his ambushed foes'; and the feeling of hostility has been savagely kept up, as too many of our bare, windy hills and arid plains attest. The noble rivers, fringed with shrubs, through which the antlered deer pushed their regarded less as mirrors of Nature's beauty than as obstructions to travel that required bridging. The painted warrior was not the picturesque figure of woodland romance, as in the novels of later days, but a demon with a torch, tomahawk, and scalping-knife. There was little scope for the imagination, as an element of literature, in the midst of an all-pervading fear. The few letters sent to friends in Old England, the preachers' notes for Sabbath discourses, and the homely annals kept by secretaries and magistrates, were the principal intellectual performances for a generation. Not that there was any lack of ability and learning among the colonists. The settlers of Boston, in particular, had many well-educated men among their number ; but only the clergy had leisure for literary culture, and they were, for the most part, so much occupied with the duties of their calling, that they wrote very few books of general interest. It was truly “church militant” that ruled in the infant colonies. Controversy was the means and end of education. The very air shivered with theological subtilty. The feet of the doubter or the debater (on the wrong side) were sooner or later made acquainted with the stocks, or with the lonely ways that led away from Christian homes into the depths of the unpitying wilderness, or the haunts of the white man's pitiless foe.
The department of dramatic literature, at that time the most prolific of any in the language, was avoided and reprobated by the Puritans. The stage was regarded as unchristian, and all its literature was under ban. Prose fiction had not then been created. Science was but just awaking from the sleep of centuries, and the powerful influence it was to exert on letters was then unsuspected. A little reflection will show that these causes were sufficient to confine the efforts of writers in a comparatively narrow compass. And it is not to be forgotten that religion had a constant and an overwhelming interest, especially with educate:l men, so that all other topics seemed trivial and barren in comparison.
Therefore let us be just to the memory of the fathers. They had their task, and they accomplished it. Let us own that the very
unloveliness of their temper, the severity of their discipline, and their discain of sentiment, were indispensable to the great work of founding the colonies on an enduring basis ; and that if tłty had come here to indite poems and romances, to dream of Utopias and Arcadias, and to dance around Maypoles, their mention in history would have been a brief one, and their place in the respect of mankind far different from what it now is.
There were other influences unfavorable to the growth of literature, which affected not only New England, but the other colonies as well. There were few libraries, scanty means for the communication of ideas, and a want of literary centres. These indispensable elements could come only with the accumulation of wealth, the establishment of social order, and the opportunity for leisure. But the greatest obstacle was in the very condition of the people as colonists. They were Englishmen, but without a country. They had left the society, traditions, and history which made them proud of their lineage, and they had nothing, so far, as a substitute for these sources of inspiration.
Daniel Webster, speaking of the British empire, said, "She has dotted the whole surface of the globe with her possessions and military posts, whose morning drum-beat following the sun, and keeping company with the hours, circles the earth daily with one continuous and unbroken strain of the martial airs of England.” But where in that majestic round will you find any English literature in any colony that is still a colony, which does not depend upon the favorable judgment of English critics, and derive its support from the inhabitants of the British isles ?.
“Who reads an American book ?” was the scornful question that was asked about us some forty years ago by Sydney Smith ; but who has seen or read the literature of Montreal, Quebec, or Halifax ? of Calcutta or Bombay ? of Melbourne, Cape Town, Dunedin, or Hong Kong? Whatever buds of genius appear in those distant outposts of British civilization are transplanted to bloom in the heart of the empire. Literature, like the vine, requires something stable to cling to, and grows greenest when it adorns the structures and institutions that are venerable for their antiquity or for their patriotic associations
Our early literature is interesting only to antiquarians and students of church history: there were few books written in America during the seventeenth century which the readers of our day, especially the younger ones, would peruse, except as a task. This is set down with a knowledge of the value of Winthrop's Journal and Letters, of Bradford's History of the Plymouth Colony, of: Wood's New England Prospect, of Cotton Mather's laborious ecclesiastical history, of Ward's quaint pamphlet, and some other works, as foundations.
The first book printed in America was the Bay Psalm Book, compiled by the apostle Eliot, aided by Rev. Richard Mather and
Rev. Thomas Weld. The work was done by Stephen Daye, in 1640, at Cambridge, on a press set up in the president's house. He was remembered for his work by the government. In the Records of the Colony, December, 1641, may be seen an order in these words : “ Stephen Daye, being the first that set upon printing, is allowed three hundred acres of land where it may be convenient, without prejudice to any town.” Not much can be said in favor of the poetry of the Bay Psalm Book. The verses have but little grace, and less melody. As a sample of
“The stretchéd metre of an antique song,"
we give some lines, in which David bewails his desolate condition
From Psalm lxxxviii.
rhy fierce wrath over mee doth goe,
From Psalm civ.
For beasts hee makes the grasse to grow, herbs also for mans good : that hee may bring out of the earth what may be for their food:
Wine also that mans heart may glad,
Not more than half a dozen copies of the original edition of this book are known to be extant.
The Journal and Letters of Governor Winthrop are more interesting in matter and more simple and effective in manner than any works that have been preserved of this period. The Journal is at once a history of the church, town, and colony. We give a short specimen from his defence, made after the election of Governor Thomas Dudley.
“ The great questions that have troubled the country, are about the authority of the magistrates and the liberty of the people. It is yourselves that have called us to this office, and, being called by you, we have our authority from God, in the way of an ordinance, such as hath the image of God eminently stamped upon it, the contempt and violation whereof hath been vindicated with examples of divine vengeance. I entreat you to consider, that when you choose magistrates, you take them from among yourselves, men subject to like passions as you are. Therefore when you see infirmities in us, you should reflect upon your own, and that would make you bear the more with us, and not be severe censurers of the failings of your magistrates when you have continual experience of the like infirmities in yourselves and others."
His letters contain many beautiful passages. We print an extract from his farewell to his wife, when about starting to this country.
“ It goeth very near my heart to leave thee ; but I know to whom I have committed thee, even to him who loves thee much better than