The Origins of the American Literary Tradition (Part 1)


How distant, my fellow Americans, is the comfort of our modern urban and suburban and, indeed, even our rural spaces to the harsh and unyielding wilderness of the colonial era. Wild tribes of vibrantly painted, bow wielding natives wary or wrathful of foreign rule, disease, starvation and the vast pitfalls of the “virgin” land, such as sharp ghosting drops and dangerous beasts all presented monumental challenges to life in the burgeoning British settlements. This is to say nothing of the political ramifications of the revolutionary split from the English monarchy and its manifold after-effects. How filled with passion and striving and torn longing, the desire to be English without maintaining a cultural membrane, connective to the old country and yet, at the same time, to be something else without a, as-yet, fully developed foundation. To read the early writings of the American colonists and settlers is to witness the birth of a new art-form, one which was steeped in and borne out of, these challenging factors and the aspirational drives which would, in goodly time, create the great nation which rises up around us and all the world today. Yet, the literature of the early Americans, for far too long, has not received due attention, scholarly or otherwise. The principal reasons I would ascribe to this lack of sufficient and interesting coverage of America’s early literary period, both among the general public and, more surprisingly, academia, is due to the scarcity of the material, its generally uneven quality (the art-form at the time was only beginning to emerge and was thus, highly derivative of classically established English literature) and overall public disinterest in its own history (the 2017-2018 US crusade against its own historic monuments well attests to this supposition). Mary Lynn Skinner, in her B.A. thesis paper, The Art of Sentimentalism: A Critical Study of William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy, Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple, and Hannah Foster ‘s The Coquette the author notes that, “In discussing the importance of these novels [the early American sentimental novels] as pioneers in literary history, it should be noted that literary historians have failed to consider the early American sentimental novelists as significant contributors to an American national fiction. Little consideration in this area is given to writers before Cooper, but this earlier genre used American settings ranging from New York, Boston, and Philadelphia to Indian villages on the frontiers and employed characters with “Colombian” ideas and pride in the new republic. Rowson, in Reuben and Rachel, tried to stress America’s past with references to Columbus; Brown emphasized American patriotism by mentioning Washington and Layfayette in Ira and Isabella. Literary historians neglect such early evidence of nationalism as literary critics ignore existence of art in the early American sentimental novel.” 1 [boldface mine]

Ms. Skinner’s notes that the early sentimental novels of America were wide ranging and were often set in areas of historic significance and also reflected many facets of the spirit of the times, and yet such works are largely over-looked. Let us then remedy this deplorable situation!

In attempting to accomplish this goal, this paper will seek to look into the foundational works of American literature, their contents and sources of inspiration as well as their cultural and artistic impacts through time upon the immediate trends of the time as well as the American literary tradition more generally. Before we begin out journey back through time, however, we must first address native “literature” and the notion that this is where America’s literary history truly begins.

Both the Aztecs of Mexico and the “Indians” (I maintain is is more accurate to refer to them by particular tribal names then by any such misbegotten Italian-borne exonym) of the Americas had a long and storied tradition of orally transmitted legends, often highly complex and allegorical in nature. However, none of these 500+ native populations wrote down any of their works and as such they are nothing even approaching literature as it has classically been defined, additionally, and more importantly, they were not Americans. A common argument from the modern reparations anarchist or open-borders activist is that if one wants to get at the heart of who is truly American, one must, of course, look to the native “Indians,” such as the Navajo or the Apache or the Hopi or Objibwa. This is obviously mistaken simply due to the fact that America, as a concept (and all nations, states and empires are concepts, derived to explain and temper a specific group of peoples), did not exist until it was created by the English colonists in 1607 under James I where British America was referred to as the British West Indies (vestigial of Columbus’ ad partes Indiae2) until 1776 when the thirteen colonies declared their independence from the rule of George III, then-king of Great Britain. The colonists then formed The United States of America. As such we shall here narrow our examination only to the works of the British colonists and the writers there descended.

1Mary Lynn Skinner, The Art of Sentimentalism, footnote 21, pg. 17

2Meaning: “Towards the regions of India.”

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