A Library of American Literature

THE first three volumes of Mr. Stedman’s Library of American Literature1 cover the colonial and revolutionary times down to the adoption of the Constitution. It may seem surprising that three large quarto volumes should be required to hold what is worth preservation in a period usually regarded as barren, in a literary sense ; but the editors have interpreted the term “ literature ” in a liberal way, and mean to present in this collection a view of the intellectual life in the colonies, and later in the States of the Union, without too strict a regard to that quality of form and style which makes literature classic. The colonial writings are for the most part interesting on historical grounds : they consist of chronicles, diaries of adventure, and all kinds of sermonizing; and undoubtedly, as a whole, they are very tedious, more fit for the leisure of our state historical societies in their proceedings than for general reading. The impression that there is so little of real value in the colonial literature that it is not worth while to search for it is widespread ; and in a certain sense this is true. In those days literature was not practiced as a fine art in this country. The books that were written, however, came very near to the real life of the people, reflected their thoughts and their doings with truthfulness, if not with beauty, and constitute the record of the settlement. Literature was at all events a practical art. There was as much life in sermons then as there is in newspapers now; and in the tragedies of the wilderness, in shipwreck, Indian battle, and pirate-hunting, in Quakerism and witchcraft, there was that union of romance and reality which gives to history the liveliness of fiction. One who is unacquainted with the stores of our historical societies would turn these pages with surprise at their riches. The first volume is the American Hakluyt. Here is a chapter out of that voyaging which was opening the whole western world, and to us the most interesting of all because it contains the adventures of the American coast; it is read, too, as it came from the lips of the men who were themselves chief actors in the scene, direct in speech as they were sturdy in deed. There is no art in the saying of their words, but the pulse of the action is still to be felt in their narratives; the story is yet warm with memory of joys and sorrows, the ipsissima verba of castaways rescued against hope. One who would obtain a vivid impression of what planting the wilderness was could not do better than read these pages, in which admirable selection has brought together the best of these living narratives; and as he continues, he will find the entire life of the colonies, their hopes, beliefs, and customs, their perils and their deliverances, opening under his view. The collection in these three volumes is an illustration, better than any history, of the first hundred and fifty years of English life on this continent.

A considerable part of the material is necessarily familiar, inasmuch as the more important events in history and the more striking incidents in personal adventure are natural subjects for editorial selection ; but these are told from the original sources. It is unavoidable, too, that the colonies of Virginia and of New England, especially the latter, should occupy a disproportionate place, because their inhabitants left more written records of themselves and came more into the ken of travelers. Intellectual life was more vigorous among the Puritans of the Bay than elsewhere, and the whole social system felt its stimulus. From the other parts of the country we get little else than descriptions of places, anecdotes of warfare, and a few characterizations of men, together with the famous shipwreck of Sir Thomas Gates off the Bermudas, which some suppose to be the original of Shakespeare’s storm in the Tempest, and the dolorous narrative of Colonel Norwood’s voyage and sufferings in Virginia, which is as fine a story of adventure as the chronicles contain, and is told in a manner to delight Kingsley or Thackeray. We get, also, a glimpse of the Southern pirates, but no more. Similarly, the collection affords only a slight account of New York, a bird’s-eye view of the trading village, and a glance at its city politics, disturbed even at that early day. It is New England that furnishes the bulk of the matter which has come down to us, from the internal troubles of the Leyden church, the landing at Plymouth, the coming of Endicott, Morton of Merrymount, the hiding of the king’s judges, down through Quakerism and witchcraft, French and Indian wars, to the defiance of Adams and Otis. This was a most interesting period, with changes and incidents in plenty, with solid characters for counsel and action, and with one of the most remarkable communities of the world to mould and develop. Mr. Stedman’s skill in so choosing extracts from the mass of forgotten writings as to place before us the traits of the people is a very fortunate gift. It is especially matter for congratulation that he has taken from the ecclesiastical record so many characterizations of the leading Puritan ministers, such as Hooker, Shepard, Cotton, Eliot, the Mathers, and also of some of their wives. Of the theology of the time, he gives no more of the blazing kind than is needful to a full idea of the sermons of the divines, while of other extracts there are enough to show that if the people thought much upon the wrath to come, they also sought pious and godly living. Perhaps the most curious theological examples are the denunciations launched by the Quakers at Endicott and his fellows, in the style of the Hebrew prophets : “ Woe, woe to thee, thou bloody town of Boston, and the rest that are confederate with thee, and it thou canst not escape, — thou who hast shed the blood of the innocent people called Quakers, and imprisoned and fined them, and taken away their goods, and they have become a prey unto thee, for thee to exercise thy cruelty upon them; and thou boasts in thy wickedness, and ' thinks thou dost God good service to brand and put to death ’ the people called Quakers. Verily this is the thoughts and intents of the hearts of many of you in New England; but especially within thee, and within thy jurisdiction that belongs to thee, O thou town of Boston ! ” Of this kind of jeremiad there is a considerable amount, but the extract is interesting as an example of that command of Biblical style to which much of the earlier volumes owe what literary merit they contain. The Scripture, from the time that the Bible was a new book in England, was almost an English dialect; and in these divines of New England one sees how invigorating it was before it became a cant. Undoubtedly it encouraged the exhortatory style of harangue, but it gave force to the utterance of the mind, and from a literary point of view great influence is to be ascribed to it. Wherever the style rises and becomes fervid, one easily perceives the study of the Bible; intellectual passion, high feeling of all kinds, took on this Scriptural expression; it was the poetry, the highest form of impassioned speech, of the period. Even in descriptions one sees its dominating influence. It is not the mosaic of Biblical words that we refer to, but the very spirit of the orator who pours them forth. Here is an admirable instance of the manner of it; and a more vigorous picture of battle, one more abundant in the ancient English force, could hardly be found. It is from the pen of William Hooke.

“ Here ride some dead men swagging in their deep saddles ; there fall others alive upon their dead horses ; death sends a message to those from the mouth of the muskets; these it talks with face to face, and stabs them in the fifth rib. In yonder file there is a man hath his arms struck off from his shoulder, another by him hath lost his leg; here stands a soldier with half a face, there fights another upon his stumps, and at once both kills and is killed ; not far off lies a company wallowing in their sweat and gore ; such a man whilst he chargeth his musket is discharged of his life, and falls upon his dead fellow. Every battle of the warrior is with confused noise and garments rolled in blood. Death reigns in the field, and is sure to have the day, which side soever falls. In the mean while (O formidable !) the infernal fiends follow the camp to catch after the souls of rude nefarious soldiers (such as are commonly men of that calling), who fight themselves fearlessly into the mouth of hell for revenge, a booty, or a little revenue. How thick and threefold do they speed one another to destruction! A day of battle is a day of harvest for the devil.”

Such an extract is sufficient to show that these pages are not without masterly style. It is interesting to observe, too, in these theological portions the efforts of the imaginative faculties of the mind to make themselves felt, in parable and fancied dialogue, and here and there one comes on that not unfrequent union of the actor and the preacher which was offensive to the usually grave and serious ways of the Puritan pulpit. There was one preacher who enacted Christ’s agony and impersonated God dropping sinners into the pit. Perhaps long discourses encouraged such sporadic attempts at variety.

Outside of this infusion of the noble language of Scripture into style, there is little for the literary critic to notice. In the minds of the writers one perceives no great distinction, no remarkable individual gifts. It is plain that piety and strength of character must have sustained intellectual power in these leaders of the community. Jonathan Edwards was the sole example of a mind of the first order in the colonies, and his metaphysical analysis and closeness of logic stand by themselves, apart from all else in the collection; for though Bishop Berkeley is included as a contributor to American literature, and some pages of Berkeleyism are interpolated, the mind refuses to regard him as other than an Englishman of the mother country. John Norton, also, occupies a solitary niche, with his style deeply imbued with classical example and studded with the names and maxims of the ancients. He alone shows the powerful influence of the old collegiate learning ; nor did he emulate the example of Cotton, whom he eulogizes as “savoring more of the cross of Christ than of human learning.” In him alone we come upon those mingled strains of pagan learning and Puritanism which were most happily blended in Milton. The other noted ministers of the early colonists have a family resemblance, and their memory, as here shown, exemplifies the common ideal of the “ godly men ” who planted the church in the new soil.

In the broad view which such a collection as this gives, one trait in the public spirit of the colonists stands out prominently with equal eminence in both the lay and clerical authors, in New England and in Virginia. There were carpers, of course, restless spirits, adventurers of all sorts, who had fault to find, who felt irked by restraint, and would have produced some Gonzalo’s commonwealth. But, commonly speaking, they looked upon this country, this wilderness as they called it, as a paradise, a land of promise and plenty, where the poor people of the Old World could begin life anew. The terms in which they describe the fertility of the land, the excellence of the climate, the speed with which comfort was obtained, all the advantages of material prosperity, are identical with those now associated in our minds with the new West. Kansas and Nebraska are not praised more in our day, nor is the opportunity the West offers for the poor to build homes of plenty more persistently and glowingly put forth than is the lot of the planter and the colonist subject for congratulation in many of these extracts. It is true there were Indians, but, generally speaking, the Indians were kind friends to the first comers; there were shipwrecks, such as that marvelous one of Thacher and Avery on their August voyage from Ipswich to Marblehead, which gave the name to Thacher’s Island, but such perils were exceptional. The wellbeing of the people at large was greater than in the mother country ; they were full of hope and energy, and rapidly developed that versatility in expedients and keenness in acquiring wealth which were to be the great traits of their descendants. They prized, too, from an early date, their liberties. These were never left unmentioned in the enumeration of their blessings. Nor was it many years before they were proud of their achievements, like a Western community ; only that they were more prone to see the hand of God in it, and to look on themselves as God’s people, of whom he had a special care. This was true more particularly of New England. The heresies that arose among them are a proof of the free action of their minds. The persecution of the dissenters, of Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams, and the delusion of the Salem witchcraft have been made much of ; but however lamentable these seem now, in a different age and a more settled society, they were then looked on as religious disorders of the same nature, relative to the commonwealth, as were the doings of Morton at Merrymount in a secular way. The Puritans believed in government, and had the English sense for it, and they valued their liberties likewise in an English temper. When the most has been charged against them, there remains the state they founded, with the public spirit that grew up with it; and the fact that from the first they nursed this high hope of their fortunes, looked on the land as their own and believed in it, and regarded their prosperity in a free condition as God’s dealing with them was one fundamental ground underlying the entire revolutionary period. The Revolution was ingrained in them by their birth as citizens of the New World.

This is one reason why, when we come to the third volume of the work, there is no break in the continuity of the Puritan spirit. A new political question had arisen, and men in secular life were called to the front by it, but the temperament of the people as expressed in the new voices was the same. Society had grown more varied, and commerce and law were coming into rivalry with the pulpit; yet the mental tone is still one of sobriety, dignity, and a fervor which did not pass into unreason. At the beginning of this volume stands Franklin, and nearly all the men of the Revolution appear before the end is reached. The change that is noticed is a great one. One feels that the colonies, in obtaining independence, have passed into the state of a true nation. Washington’s Farewell Address is here, and more than the Declaration itself, which is also here, those words of Washington signal a new era. Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Patrick Henry’s famous speech, Paine, and Otis admonish the reader that the question is no longer of sea or land adventures, of Berkeley’s or Edwards’s theories, of Cambridge or Saybrook platforms, but of those broad matters which concern the founding of a stable state. This volume is necessarily largely political, and yet the selection here has also been excellently made, and the nature of the contents lightened by introducing many letters of our public men. Even here we do not come into the view of literature, in the ordinary sense. Mr. Stedman has done his best by the poets and poetesses, but without any success in restoring to them any of their contemporary lustre, such as it was. In the earlier volumes there were a few verses, all that could possibly be called into service ; in this volume there are many, and those which illustrate the popular songs of the Revolution well deserve such remembrance as is given them ; but even with Freneau, the first name which yet retains a lingering reputation in the world, he cannot persuade us that Poetry had yet come to the shores which Berkeley and Herbert had prophesied should be her chosen seat. There is only one copy of verses, by a youth who died at twenty-two, and left this pathetic waif of pleasantry behind him, which has a spark of nature in it, and with it the volume ends.

The Library, it will be seen from what has been said, is, so far as it has gone, an excellent and convenient résumé of all writings which by a liberal use of the word can be called American, for the first century and a half after the settlement. The extracts afford a complete and abundant view of this literature in travel, history, anecdote, theology, politics, and versifying ; and the passages chosen are such as illustrate in the most instructive and entertaining way the habits and customs, the modes of thought, the lives, and the public spirit of the people, so far as any record of them survives. Many of the originals from which these extracts are made are rare or difficult of access, and many of them also are such that even a patient reader would never hunt out their contents. The editors claim that the “ first two volumes contain a more select and compact representation of the writings of our colonial divines than has before been attempted.” Certainly these two volumes serve the purpose of exhibiting the general character of the Puritan mind in New England admirably, and the justice with which a somewhat delicate task has been discharged is notable. There are few persons whom it is easier to misrepresent than those divines of the old stock ; but as they are illustrated here by their own words, they really seem to live and speak in their proper persons. As much can be said, too, for the sufficiency of the tales of personal adventure, of Indian warfare, and of the disturbers of the colonies. In the third volume, which summarizes the growth and progress of the ideas of the Revolution and contains its greatest state papers, one feels that only a part of that large mass of admirable political speech and discussion is given ; but the best of it has been included, and so as to reflect in a lively way the times and the men. In the succeeding volumes, literature proper, though not to the exclusion of anything which may be fairly embraced under the name of the nation’s writings, may be expected to hold the chief place; and so far as the plan of the work is disclosed, it bids fair to be as useful and successful as what has already been published. At all events, these three volumes are a substantial addition to popular literature, and make, as they profess to do, a library of our best American reading for the people at large.

  1. 2A Library of American Literature. From the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time. Compiled and edited by EDMUND CLARENCE STEDMAN and ELLEN MACKAY HUTCHINSON. In ten volumes. Vol. I., II., III. New York: Charles L. Webster & Co. 1888.