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Outlines of English and American Literature|
The Pioneers and Nation-Builders
by Long, William J.
'Twas glory once to be a Roman:
She makes it glory now to be a man.
Bayard Taylor, "America"
We have this double interest in early American literature, that it is our
own and unlike any other. The literatures of Europe began with wonder tales
of a golden age, with stories of fairy ships, of kings akin to gods, of
heroes who ventured into enchanted regions and there waged battle with
dragons or the powers of darkness. American literature began with
historical records, with letters of love and friendship, with diaries or
journals of exploration, with elegiac poems lamenting the death of beloved
leaders or hearth companions,--in a word, with the chronicles of human
experience. In this respect, of recording the facts and the truth of life
as men and women fronted life bravely in the New World, our early
literature differs radically from that of any other great nation: it brings
us face to face not with myths or shadows but with our ancestors.
Two Views of the Pioneers
It has become almost a habit among historians to
disparage early American literature, and nearly all our textbooks apologize
for it on the ground that the forefathers had no artistic feeling, their
souls being oppressed by the gloom and rigor of Puritanism.
Even as we read this apology our eyes rest contentedly upon a beautiful old
piece of Colonial furniture, fashioned most artistically by the very men
who are pitied for their want of art. We remember also that the Puritans
furnished only one of several strong elements in early American life, and
that wherever the Puritan influence was strongest there books and literary
culture did most abound: their private libraries, for example, make our own
appear rather small and trashy by comparison. [Footnote: When Plymouth
consisted of a score of cabins and a meetinghouse it had at least two
excellent libraries. Bradford had over three hundred books, and Brewster
four hundred, consisting of works of poetry, philosophy, science, devotion,
and miscellanies covering the entire field of human knowledge. In view of
the scarcity of books in 1620, one of these collections, which were common
in all the New England settlements, was equivalent to a modern library of
thirty or forty thousand volumes.] Cotton Mather, disciplined in the
strictest of Puritan homes, wrote his poems in Greek, conducted a large
foreign correspondence in Latin, read enormously, published four hundred
works, and in thousands of citations proved himself intimate with the
world's books of poetry and history, science and religion. That the leaders
of the colonies, south and north, were masters of an excellent prose style
is evident from their own records; that their style was influenced by their
familiarity with the best literature appears in many ways,--in the immense
collection of books in Byrd's mansion in Virginia, for instance, or in the
abundant quotations that are found in nearly all Colonial writings. Before
entering college (and there was never another land with so few people and
so many colleges as Colonial America) boys of fourteen passed a classical
examination which few graduates would now care to face; and the men of our
early legislatures produced state papers which for force of reasoning and
lucidity of expression have never been surpassed.
The Question of Art
Again, our whole conception of American art may be modified by these
considerations: that it requires more genius to build a free state than to
make a sonnet, and the Colonists were mighty state-builders; that a ship is
a beautiful object, and American ships with their graceful lines and
towering clouds of canvas were once famous the world over; that
architecture is a noble art, and Colonial architecture still charms us by
its beauty and utility after three hundred years of experimental building.
"Art" is a great word, and we use it too narrowly when we apply it to an
ode of Shelley or a mutilated statue of Praxiteles, but are silent before a
Colonial church or a free commonwealth or the Constitution of the United
Instead of an apology for our early literature, therefore, we offer this
possible explanation: that our forefathers, who set their faces to one of
the most heroic tasks ever undertaken by man, were too busy with great
deeds inspired by the ideal of liberty to find leisure for the epic or
drama in which the deeds and the ideal should be worthily reflected. They
left that work of commemoration to others, and they are still waiting
patiently for their poet. Meanwhile we read the straightforward record
which they left as their only literary memorial, not as we read the
imaginative story of Beowulf or Ulysses, but for the clear light of truth
which it sheds upon the fathers and mothers of a great nation.