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Index by Period

A New Nation
(1800 - 1840)


  Behind him lay the gray Azores,
    Behind, the gates of Hercules;
  Before him not the ghost of shores,
    Before him only shoreless seas.
  The good mate said, "Now must we pray,
    For lo! the very stars are gone:
  Brave Admiral, speak; what shall I say?"
    "Why say, 'Sail on! sail on! and on!'"

                        Joaquin Miller, "Columbus"

Historical Background

It was in the early part of the nineteenth century that America began to be counted among the great nations of the world, and it was precisely at that time that she produced her first national literature, a literature so broadly human that it appealed not only to the whole country but to readers beyond the sea. Irving, Cooper and Bryant are commonly regarded as the first notable New World writers; and we may better understand them and their enthusiastic young contemporaries if we remember that they "grew up with the country"; that they reflected life at a time when America, having won her independence and emerged from a long period of doubt and struggle, was taking her first confident steps in the sun and becoming splendidly conscious of her destiny as a leader among the world's free people.

National Enthusiasm

Indeed, there was good reason for confidence in those early days; for never had a young nation looked forth upon a more heartening prospect. The primitive hamlets of Colonial days had been replaced by a multitude of substantial towns, the somber wilderness by a prosperous farming country. The power of a thousand rivers was turning the wheels of as many mills or factories, and to the natural wealth of America was added the increase of a mighty commerce with other nations. By the Louisiana Purchase and the acquisition of Florida her territory was vastly increased, and still her sturdy pioneers were pressing eagerly into more spacious lands beyond the Mississippi. Best of all, this enlarging nation, once a number of scattered colonies holding each to its own course, was now the Union; her people were as one in their patriotism, their loyalty, their intense conviction that the brave New World experiment in free government, once scoffed at as an idle dream, was destined to a glorious future. American democracy was not merely a success; it was an amazing triumph. Moreover, this democracy, supposed to be the weakest form of government, had already proved its power; it had sent its navy abroad to humble the insolent Barbary States, and had measured the temper of its soul and the strength of its arm in the second war with Great Britain.

In fine, the New World had brought forth a hopeful young giant of a nation; and its hopefulness was reflected, with more of zeal than of art, in the prose and poetry of its literary men. Just as the enthusiastic Elizabethan spirit reflected itself in lyric or drama after the defeat of the Armada, so the American spirit seemed to exult in the romances of Cooper and Simms; in the verse of Pinckney, Halleck, Drake and Percival; in a multitude of national songs, such as "The American Flag," Warren's Address, "Home Sweet Home" and "The Star-Spangled Banner." We would not venture to liken one set of writings to the other, for we should be on the weak side of an Elizabethan comparison; we simply note that a great national enthusiasm was largely responsible for the sudden appearance of a new literature in the one land as in the other.

Literary Environment

In the works of four writers, Irving, Cooper, Bryant and Poe, we have the best that the early national period produced; but we shall not appreciate these writers until we see them, like pines in a wood, lifting their heads over numerous companions, all drawing their nourishment from the same soil and air. The growth of towns and cities in America had led to a rapid increase of newspapers, magazines and annuals (collections of contemporary prose and verse), which called with increasing emphasis for poems, stories, essays, light or "polite" literature. The rapid growth of the nation set men to singing the old psalm of Sursum Corda, and every man and woman who felt the impulse added his story or his verse to the national chorus. When the first attempt at a summary of American literature was made in 1837, the author, Royal Robbins, found more than two thousand living writers demanding his attention.

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William Cullen Bryant
James Fenimore Cooper
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Washington Irving
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