American writing began with the work of English adventurers and colonists in the New World chiefly for the benefit of readers in the mother country. Some of these early works reached the level of literature, as in the robust and perhaps truthful account of his adventures by Captain John Smith and the sober, tendentious journalistic histories of John Winthrop and William Bradford in New England. From the beginning, however, the literature of New England was also directed to the edification and instruction of the colonists themselves, intended to direct them in the ways of the godly.
Sermons and tracts poured forth until austere Calvinism found its last utterance in the words of Jonathan Edwards. In the other colonies writing was usually more mundane and on the whole less notable, though the journal of the Quaker John Woolman is highly esteemed, and some critics maintain that the best writing of the colonial period is found in the witty and urbane observations of William Byrd, a gentleman planter of Westover, Virginia.
A New Nation and a New Literature
The approach of the American Revolution and the achievement of the actual independence of the United States was a time of intellectual activity as well as social and economic change. The men who were the chief molders of the new state included excellent writers, among them Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. They were well supported by others such as Philip Freneau, the first American lyric poet of distinction and an able journalist; the pamphleteer Thomas Paine, later an attacker of conventional religion; and the polemicist Francis Hopkinson, who was also the first American musical composer.
The variously gifted Benjamin Franklin forwarded American literature not only through his own writing but also by founding and promoting newspapers and periodicals. Many literary aspirants, such as John Trumbull, Timothy Dwight, Joel Barlow, and the other Connecticut Wits, used English models. The infant American theater showed a nationalistic character both in its first comedy, The Contrast (1787), by Royall Tyler, and in the dramas of William Dunlap. The first American novel, The Power of Sympathy (1789), by William Hill Brown, only shortly preceded the Gothic romance, Wieland (1799), by the first professional American novelist, Charles Brockden Brown.
Recognition in Europe, and especially in England, was coveted by every aspiring American writer and was first achieved by two men from New York: Washington Irving, who first won attention by presenting American folk stories, and James Fenimore Cooper, who wrote enduring tales of adventure on the frontier and at sea. By 1825 William Cullen Bryant had made himself the leading poet of America with his delicate lyrics extolling nature and his smooth, philosophic poems in the best mode of romanticism. Even more distinctly a part of the romantic movement were such poets as Joseph Rodman Drake, Fitz-Greene Halleck, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who won the hearts of Americans with glib, moralizing verse and also commanded international respect.
Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau stood at the center of transcendentalism, a movement that made a deep impression upon their native land and upon Europe. High-mindedness, moral earnestness, the desire to reform society and education, the assertion of a philosophy of the individual as superior to tradition and society—all these were strongly American, and transcendentalists such as Emerson, Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and Bronson Alcott insisted upon such principles.
Far removed from these humorists in spirit and style was Edgar Allan Poe, whose skilled and emotional poetry, clearly expressed aesthetic theories, and tales of mystery and horror won for him a more respectful audience in Europe than—originally, at least—in America. A number of seminal works of American literature were written during the 1850s. These include Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter (1850), depicting the gloomy atmosphere of early Puritanism; Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851), which infused into an adventure tale of whaling days profound symbolic significance; and the rolling measures of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass (1st ed. 1855), which employed a new kind of poetry and proclaimed the optimistic principles of American democracy.
The rising conflict between the North and the South that ended in the Civil War was reflected in regional literature. The crusading spirit against Southern slavery in Harriet Beecher Stowe's overwhelmingly successful novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) can be compared with the violent anti-Northern diatribes of William Gilmore Simms. While the Civil War was taking its inexorable course, the case for reunion was set forth by President Abraham Lincoln in that purest and most exact statement of American political ideals, the Gettysburg Address.
Once the war was over, literature gradually regained a national identity amid expanding popularity, as writings of regional origin began to find a mass audience. The stories of the California gold fields by Bret Harte, the rustic novel ( The Hoosier Schoolmaster ; 1871) of Edward Eggleston, the rhymes of James Whitcomb Riley, the New England genre stories of Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary E. WilkinsFreeman, the sketches of Louisiana by George W. Cable, even the romance of the Old South woven by the poetry of Henry Timrod and Sidney Lanier and the fiction of Thomas Nelson Page—all were seized eagerly by the readers of the reunited nation. The outstanding example of genius overcoming any regionalism in scene can be found in many of the works of Mark Twain, most notably in hisHuckleberry Finn (1884).
Drama after the Civil War and into the 20th cent. continued to rely, as it had before, on spectacles, on the plays of Shakespeare, and on some of the works of English and Continental playwrights. A few popular plays such as Uncle Tom's Cabin and Rip Van Winkle were based on American fiction; others were crude melodrama. Realism, however, came to the theater with some of the plays of BronsonHoward, James A. Herne, and William Vaughn Moody.