The 18th century
In America in the early years of the 18th century, some writers, such as Cotton Mather, carried on the older traditions. His huge history and biography of Puritan New England, Magnalia Christi Americana, in 1702, and his vigorous Manuductio ad Ministerium, or introduction to the ministry, in 1726, were defenses of ancient Puritan convictions. Jonathan Edwards, initiator of the Great Awakening, a religious revival that stirred the eastern seacoast for many years, eloquently defended his burning belief in Calvinistic doctrine—of the concept that man, born totally depraved, could attain virtue and salvation only through God’s grace—in his powerful sermons and most notably in the philosophical treatiseFreedom of Will (1754). He supported his claims by relating them to a complex metaphysical system and by reasoning brilliantly in clear and often beautiful prose.
But Mather and Edwards were defending a doomed cause. Liberal New England ministers such as John Wise and Jonathan Mayhew moved toward a less rigid religion. Samuel Sewall heralded other changes in his amusing Diary, covering the years 1673–1729. Though sincerely religious, he showed in daily records how commercial life in New England replaced rigid Puritanism with more worldly attitudes. The Journal of Mme Sara Kemble Knight comically detailed a journey that lady took to New York in 1704. She wrote vividly of what she saw and commented upon it from the standpoint of an orthodox believer, but a quality of levity in her witty writings showed that she was much less fervent than the Pilgrim founders had been. In the South, William Byrd of Virginia, an aristocratic plantation owner, contrasted sharply with gloomier predecessors. His record of a surveying trip in 1728, The History of the Dividing Line, and his account of a visit to his frontier properties in 1733, A Journey to the Land of Eden, were his chief works. Years in England, on the Continent, and among the gentry of the South had created gaiety and grace of expression, and, although a devout Anglican, Byrd was as playful as the Restoration wits whose works he clearly admired.
The wrench of the American Revolution emphasized differences that had been growing between American and British political concepts. As the colonists moved to the belief that rebellion was inevitable, fought the bitter war, and worked to found the new nation’s government, they were influenced by a number of very effective political writers, such as Samuel Adams and John Dickinson, both of whom favoured the colonists, and loyalistJoseph Galloway. But two figures loomed above these—Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine.
Franklin, born in 1706, had started to publish his writings in his brother’s newspaper, the New England Courant, as early as 1722. This newspaper championed the cause of the “Leather Apron” man and the farmer and appealed by using easily understood language and practical arguments. The idea that common sense was a good guide was clear in both the popular Poor Richard’s almanac, which Franklin edited between 1732 and 1757 and filled with prudent and witty aphorisms purportedly written by uneducated but experienced Richard Saunders, and in the author’sAutobiography, written between 1771 and 1788, a record of his rise from humble circumstances that offered worldly wise suggestions for future success.
Franklin’s self-attained culture, deep and wide, gave substance and skill to varied articles, pamphlets, and reports that he wrote concerning the dispute with Great Britain, many of them extremely effective in stating and shaping the colonists’ cause.
Thomas Paine went from his native England to Philadelphia and became a magazine editor and then, about 14 months later, the most effective propagandist for the colonial cause. His pamphlet Common Sense (January 1776) did much to influence the colonists to declare their independence. The American Crisis papers (December 1776–December 1783) spurred Americans to fight on through the blackest years of the war. Based upon Paine’s simple deistic beliefs, they showed the conflict as a stirring melodrama with the angelic colonists against the forces of evil. Such white and black picturings were highly effective propaganda. Another reason for Paine’s success was his poetic fervour, which found expression in impassioned words and phrases long to be remembered and quoted.
The new nation
In the postwar period some of these eloquent men were no longer able to win a hearing. Thomas Paine and Samuel Adams lacked the constructive ideas that appealed to those interested in forming a new government. Others fared better—for example, Franklin, whose tolerance and sense showed in addresses to the constitutional convention. A different group of authors, however, became leaders in the new period—Thomas Jefferson and the talented writers of the Federalist papers, a series of 85 essays published in 1787 and 1788 urging the virtues of the proposed new constitution. They were written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. More distinguished for insight into problems of government and cool logic than for eloquence, these works became a classic statement of American governmental, and more generally of republican, theory. At the time they were highly effective in influencing legislators who voted on the new constitution. Hamilton, who wrote perhaps 51 of the Federalist papers, became a leader of the Federalist Party and, as first secretary of the treasury (1789–95), wrote messages that were influential in increasing the power of national government at the expense of the state governments.
Thomas Jefferson was an influential political writer during and after the war. The merits of his great summary, the Declaration of Independence, consisted, as Madison pointed out, “in a lucid communication of human rights…in a style and tone appropriate to the great occasion, and to the spirit of the American people.” After the war he formulated the exact tenets of his faith in various papers but most richly in his letters and inaugural addresses, in which he urged individual freedom and local autonomy—a theory of decentralization differing from Hamilton’s belief in strong federal government. Though he held that all men are created equal, Jefferson thought that “a natural aristocracy” of “virtues and talents” should hold high governmental positions.
Notable works of the period
Poets and poetry
Poetry became a weapon during the American Revolution, with both loyalists and Continentals urging their forces on, stating their arguments, and celebrating their heroes in verse and songs such as “Yankee Doodle,” “Nathan Hale,” and “The Epilogue,” mostly set to popular British melodies and in manner resembling other British poems of the period.
The most memorable American poet of the period was Philip Freneau, whose first well-known poems, Revolutionary War satires, served as effective propaganda; later he turned to various aspects of the American scene. Although he wrote much in the stilted manner of the Neoclassicists, such poems as “The Indian Burying Ground,” “The Wild Honey Suckle,” “To a Caty-did,” and “On a Honey Bee” were romantic lyrics of real grace and feeling that were forerunners of a literary movement destined to be important in the 19th century.
Drama and the novel
In the years toward the close of the 18th century, both dramas and novels of some historical importance were produced. Though theatrical groups had long been active in America, the first American comedy presented professionally was Royall Tyler’s Contrast (1787). This drama was full of echoes of Goldsmith and Sheridan, but it contained a Yankee character (the predecessor of many such in years to follow) who brought something native to the stage.
William Hill Brown wrote the first American novel, The Power of Sympathy (1789), which showed authors how to overcome ancient prejudices against this form by following the sentimental novel form invented by Samuel Richardson. A flood of sentimental novels followed to the end of the 19th century. Hugh Henry Brackenridge succeeded Cervantes’s Don Quixote and Henry Fielding with some popular success in Modern Chivalry (1792–1815), an amusing satire on democracy and an interesting portrayal of frontier life. Gothic thrillers were to some extent nationalized in Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland (1798), Arthur Mervyn (1799–1800), and Edgar Huntly (1799).
Literature and the age
In a tradition of literature remarkable for its exacting and brilliant achievements, the Elizabethan and early Stuart periods have been said to represent the most brilliant century of all. (The reign of Elizabeth I began in 1558 and ended with her death in 1603; she was succeeded by the Stuart king James VI of Scotland, who took the title James I of England as well. English literature of his reign as James I, from 1603 to 1625, is properly called Jacobean.) These years produced a gallery of authors of genius, some of whom have never been surpassed, and conferred on scores of lesser talents the enviable ability to write with fluency, imagination, and verve. From one point of view, this sudden renaissance looks radiant, confident, heroic—and belated, but all the more dazzling for its belatedness. Yet, from another point of view, this was a time of unusually traumatic strain, in which English society underwent massive disruptions that transformed it on every front and decisively affected the life of every individual. In the brief, intense moment in which England assimilated the European Renaissance, the circumstances that made the assimilation possible were already disintegrating and calling into question the newly won certainties, as well as the older truths that they were dislodging. This doubleness, of new possibilities and new doubts simultaneously apprehended, gives the literature its unrivaled intensity.
In this period England’s population doubled; prices rocketed, rents followed, old social loyalties dissolved, and new industrial, agricultural, and commercial veins were first tapped. Real wages hit an all-time low in the 1620s, and social relations were plunged into a state of fluidity from which the merchant and the ambitious lesser gentleman profited at the expense of the aristocrat and the labourer, as satires and comedies current from the 1590s complain. Behind the Elizabethan vogue for pastoral poetry lies the fact of the prosperity of the enclosing sheep farmer, who sought to increase pasture at the expense of the peasantry. Tudor platitudes about order and degree could neither combat nor survive the challenge posed to rank by these arrivistes. The position of the crown, politically dominant yet financially insecure, had always been potentially unstable, and, when Charles I lost the confidence of his greater subjects in the 1640s, his authority crumbled. Meanwhile, the huge body of poor fell ever further behind the rich; the pamphlets of Thomas Harman (1566) and Robert Greene (1591–92), as well as Shakespeare’s King Lear (1605–06), provide glimpses of a horrific world of vagabondage and crime, the Elizabethans’ biggest, unsolvable social problem.
Intellectual and religious revolution
The barely disguised social ferment was accompanied by an intellectual revolution, as the medieval synthesis collapsed before the new science, new religion, and new humanism. While modern mechanical technologies were pressed into service by the Stuarts to create the scenic wonders of the court masque, the discoveries of astronomers and explorers were redrawing the cosmos in a way that was profoundly disturbing:
And freely men confess that this world’s spent,
When in the planets, and the firmament
They seek so many new….
(John Donne, The First Anniversary, 1611)
The majority of people were more immediately affected by the religious revolutions of the 16th century. A person in early adulthood at the accession of Elizabeth in 1558 would, by her death in 1603, have been vouchsafed an unusually disillusioning insight into the duty owed by private conscience to the needs of the state. The Tudor churchhierarchy was an instrument of social and political control, yet the mid-century controversies over the faith had already wrecked any easy confidence in the authority of doctrines and forms and had taught people to inquire carefully into the rationale of their own beliefs (as John Donne does in his third satire [c. 1596]). The Elizabethan ecclesiastical compromise was the object of continual criticism, from radicals both within (who desired progressive reforms, such as the abolition of bishops) and without (who desired the return of England to the Roman Catholic fold), but the incipient liberalism of individuals such as John Milton and the scholar and churchman William Chillingworth was held in check by the majority’s unwillingness to tolerate a plurality of religions in a supposedly unitary state. Nor was the Calvinist orthodoxy that cradled most English writers comforting, for it told them that they were corrupt, unfree, unable to earn their own salvations, and subject to heavenly judgments that were arbitrary and absolute. Calvinism deeply affects the world of the Jacobean tragedies, whose heroes are not masters of their fates but victims of divine purposes that are terrifying yet inscrutable.
The race for cultural development
The third complicating factor was the race to catch up with Continental developments in arts and philosophy. The Tudors needed to create a class of educated diplomats, statesmen, and officials and to dignify their court by making it a fount of cultural as well as political patronage. The new learning, widely disseminated through the Erasmian (after the humanist Desiderius Erasmus) educational programs of such men as John Colet and Sir Thomas Elyot, proposed to use a systematic schooling in Latin authors and some Greek to encourage in the social elites a flexibility of mind and civilized serviceableness that would allow enlightened princely government to walk hand in hand with responsible scholarship. Humanism fostered an intimate familiarity with the classics that was a powerful incentive for the creation of an English literature of answerable dignity. It fostered as well a practical, secular piety that left its impress everywhere on Elizabethan writing. Humanism’s effect, however, was modified by the simultaneous impact of the flourishing Continental cultures, particularly the Italian. Repeatedly, crucial innovations in English letters developed resources originating from Italy—such as the sonnet of Petrarch, the epic of Ludovico Ariosto, the pastoral of Jacopo Sannazzaro, the canzone, and blank verse—and values imported with these forms were in competition with the humanists’ ethical preoccupations. Social ideals of wit, many-sidedness, and sprezzatura (accomplishment mixed with unaffectedness) were imbibed from Baldassare Castiglione’s Il cortegiano, translated as The Courtyer by Sir Thomas Hoby in 1561, and Elizabethan court poetry is steeped in Castiglione’s aristocratic Neoplatonism, his notions of universal proportion, and the love of beauty as the path to virtue. Equally significant was the welcome afforded to Niccolò Machiavelli, whose lessons were vilified publicly and absorbed in private. The Prince, written in 1513, was unavailable in English until 1640, but as early as the 1580s Gabriel Harvey, a friend of the poet Edmund Spenser, can be found enthusiastically hailing its author as the apostle of modern pragmatism. “We are much beholden to Machiavel and others,” said Francis Bacon, “that write what men do, and not what they ought to do.”
So the literary revival occurred in a society rife with tensions, uncertainties, and competing versions of order and authority, religion and status, sex and the self. The Elizabethan settlement was a compromise; the Tudor pretense that the people of England were unified in belief disguised the actual fragmentation of the old consensus under the strain of change. The new scientific knowledge proved both man’s littleness and his power to command nature; against the Calvinist idea of man’s helplessness pulled the humanist faith in his dignity, especially that conviction, derived from the reading of Seneca and so characteristic of the period, of man’s constancy and fortitude, his heroic capacity for self-determination. It was still possible for Elizabeth to hold these divergent tendencies together in a single, heterogeneousculture, but under her successors they would eventually fly apart. The philosophers speaking for the new century would be Francis Bacon, who argued for the gradual advancement of science through patient accumulation of experiments, and the skeptic Michel de Montaigne (his Essays translated from the French by John Florio ), who denied that it was possible to formulate any general principles of knowledge.
Cutting across all of these was the persistence of popular habits of thought and expression. Both humanism and Puritanism set themselves against vulgar ignorance and folk tradition, but, fortunately, neither could remain aloof for long from the robustness of popular taste. Sir Philip Sidney, in England’s first Neoclassical literary treatise, The Defence of Poesie (written c. 1578–83, published 1595), candidly admitted that “the old song [i.e., ballad] of Percy and Douglas” would move his heart “more than with a trumpet,” and his Arcadia (final version published in 1593) is a representative instance of the fruitful cross-fertilization of genres in this period—the contamination of aristocratic pastoral with popular tale, the lyric with the ballad, comedy with romance, tragedy with satire, and poetry with prose. The language, too, was undergoing a rapid expansion that all classes contributed to and benefited from, sophisticated literature borrowing without shame the idioms of colloquial speech. An allusion in Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606–07) to heaven peeping “through the blanket of the dark” would become a “problem” only later, when, for instance, Samuel Johnson complained in 1751 that such words provoked laughter rather than awe. Johnson’s was an age when tragic dignity implied politeness, when it was below the dignity of tragedy to mention so lowly an object as a blanket. But the Elizabethans’ ability to address themselves to several audiences simultaneously and to bring into relation opposed experiences, emphases, and worldviews invested their writing with complexity and power.