THE ORIGINS OF THE AMERICAN LITERARY TRADITION (PART 6)

To better help the reader understand the religious and social criticism and commentary in Wieland, it is pertinent to examine the historical context in which it was written. Brown’s novel was published in 1798 and subsequent republication in 1811 which places the writing of the piece just around the beginning of what has come to be known as The Second Great Awakening (SGC), a period of societal transformation in the early United States which saw a marked surge in the popularity of Protestant revivalism. The moniker of Second Great Awakening was patterned after the Evangelical revival movement dubbed The Great Awakening by US historians which occurred in Britain in the 1730s through the 1740s. Most historians generally place the beginning of the SGC at around 1790 which would mean that Brown would be well acquainted with the rising Protestant zeitgeist. Brown was also a extremely peculiar man and one rather at odds, both with society and with his friends whom he constantly reproached in the most arcane of fashions. In his youth Brown shirked the chance for a profitable law career, opting instead to move to New York and live in the apartments of various radicals and malcontents he had befriended1. Unlike the stereotypical starving artist, constantly hard-up and struggling to make ends meet by some deviance of Fate, Brown was not a social outcast by unbidden circumstance but rather by choice. Brown was also a avid student of Rousseau and William Godwin2 whose Enlightenment fervor permeates his pages. It was likely this peculiar combination of being mired in the Religious fever of the Second Great Awakening and also being imbued with the rationalist energies of two of the Enlightenment’s fiercest champions, which led Brown to his even-keel position, a sort of balancing between two extremes, that of the Old World Convention and extreme collectivism of the Zizendorf Moravians and the New World invention and extreme individualism of Wieland, Sr.’s syncretic Catharism. Further evidence that Brown’s situation of these religious creeds within his work is not merely incidental can be found in the fact that the novel begins in 1787, the very same date upon which the Constitution of the United States was created and it was this creation which opened up the doors for the settlers to new horizons of spiritual and philosophical experimentation. As Lara E. Gibson writes, “The spiritual climate just beginning to surface in Wieland reflects an American quest for individualism. Given the events of the novel, we may interpret that individualism as a form of savagery in which the civilized institutions and rituals of the old world are refused in favor of a diverse and still uncultivated American conception of religion. Wieland’s son, Wieland, Jr., carries his beliefs to such an extreme that self-styled spirituality becomes an abuse of religious freedom.”3

We will come to Wieland, Jr., and Brown’s subsequent critiques, somewhat later, until then it is prudent to explain the latter occurrences of the novel. After the death of the elder Wieland’s, Clara and her brother, Wieland, Jr., are left traumatized, confused, directionless and orphaned. Luckily for them, they were not without caring arms into which to fall.

The shock which this disastrous occurrence occasioned to my mother, was the foundation of a disease which carried her, in a few months, to the grave. My brother and myself were children at this time, and were now reduced to the condition of orphans. The property which our parents left was by no means inconsiderable. It was entrusted to faithful hands, till we should arrive at a suitable age. Meanwhile, our education was assigned to a maiden aunt who resided in the city, and whose tenderness made us in a short time cease to regret that we had lost a mother.”4

The curious callousness here portends the strangeness of the younger Wielands who have – as will later be quite readily clear – inherited their late parent’s eccentricity. Callousness aside, the intervening years after the grotesque tragedy are bright and merry ones. Our steadfast narrator, Clara, remarks that their dutiful aunt’s temper “-seldom deviated to either extreme of rigour or lenity.” Again we see Brown positing two poles and the moving there between. First there was the extremity of the elder Wieland’s and their faith creeds, the previous poles of “rigour” and “lenity,” the difference being that the aunt, unlike the either Mrs. Wieland or her fanatical husband were able to properly navigate between those extremes and there find some semblance of balance. Upon coming of age, Wieland, Jr. receives a sizable inheritance, falls in love with a young woman and moves into his father’s house with his sister, Clara. Clara describes her brother as “grave, considerate, and thoughtful,” and goes on to note that she “-will not say whether he was indebted to sublimer views for this disposition. Human life, in his opinion, was made up of changeable elements, and the principles of duty were not easily unfolded.” She further notes that in this happy period she “scarcely ever knew him to laugh” and also determines a certain similarity between Wieland, Jr. and their father (Wieland, Sr.), “There was an obvious resemblance between him and my father, in their conceptions of the importance of certain topics, and in the light in which the vicissitudes of human life were accustomed to be viewed.” A harbinger of things to come.

Wieland, Sr.’s temple, the grim site of his ghastly combustion, was transmuted from a site of worship into a place of leisure.

The temple was no longer assigned to its ancient use. From an Italian adventurer, who erroneously imagined that he could find employment for his skill, and sale for his sculptures in America, my brother had purchased a bust of Cicero. He professed to have copied this piece from an antique dug up with his own hands in the environs of Modena. Of the truth of his assertions we were not qualified to judge; but the marble was pure and polished, and we were contented to admire the performance, without waiting for the sanction of connoisseurs. We hired the same artist to hew a suitable pedestal from a neighbouring quarry. This was placed in the temple, and the bust rested upon it. Opposite to this was a harpsichord, sheltered by a temporary roof from the weather. This was the place of resort in the evenings of summer. Here we sung, and talked, and read, and occasionally banqueted. Every joyous and tender scene most dear to my memory, is connected with this edifice. Here the performances of our musical and poetical ancestor were rehearsed. Here my brother’s children received the rudiments of their education; here a thousand conversations, pregnant with delight and improvement, took place; and here the social affections were accustomed to expand, and the tear of delicious sympathy to be shed.”5


[—continued in part 7—]


1Caleb Crain, Something Wicked This Way Comes (New York Times, Dec 6, 1998)

2See, Violence, Jennifer Thorn, Piety, Enlightenment & Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland, for more on the connection between Godwin & Brown.

3Lara E. Gibson, The Politics of Excess: Religion, Gender & Race in the Novels of Charles Brockden Brown, 2008.

4Brown, Wieland, p. 24, chapter III.

5Brown, Wieland, p. 28

THE ORIGINS OF THE AMERICAN LITERARY TRADITION (PART 5)

W I E L A N D

The following work is delivered to the world as the first of a series of performances, which the favorable reception of this will induce the writer to publish. His purpose is neither selfish nor temporary, but aims at the illustration of some important branches of the moral constitution of man. Whether this tale will be classed with the ordinary or frivolous sources of amusement, or to be ranked with the few productions of whose usefulness secures to them a lasting reputation, the reader must be permitted to decide.

-Advertisement, Wieland, B.C.B., September, 1798.


“From Virtue’s blissful paths away

The double-tongued are sure to stray;

Good is a forth-right journey still,

And mazy paths but lead to ill.”

-Introductory inscription to Wieland.


That he tried the impossible and that he failed; that he had disavowed his own art before his untimely death of tuberculosis at the age of thirty-nine; that he hardened from a wild disciple of the Enlightenment, a flagrant Godwinian (“Godwin came and all was light!”), into a pious conservative; that he drew his inspiration from loneliness and male companionship, and that he ceased to be a creative writer when he married; that over his whole frantic, doomed career, the blight of melancholy presides.”

-Leslie Fiedler on Charles Brockden Brown.


Wieland, also known as The Transformation: An American Tale, was first published in 1798 by the ambitious and prolific novelist Charles Brockden Brown, America’s first professional writer and a man who the literary critic Leslie Fieldler dubbed, “the inventor of the American writer.” The novel is noteworthy not just as being one of the earliest works of American fiction but also as the very first American Gothic novel. The story is, as with most gothic tales, dark and extremely bizarre and, just like its predecessor, The Power of Sympathy, it is written in the epistolary style which was popular with many early American novels. Taking place at a unspecified time between the French Indian War and the American Revolutionary War, the plot follows the letters of Clara Wieland who tells a tale of a grotesque series of seemingly impossible events that occurred throughout her early years.

The story begins with Clara’s description of her father, a studious and aloof man of severe religious conviction, who adopted a life of piety and evangelism. This evangelical streak leads the elder Wieland to believe that he must spread his creed to the indigenous peoples of America. He fails utterly at this task and, depressed, withdraws from the world to a modest house with his family. His religious convictions lead him to a life of fastidious prayer which find him oft retreating to a private temple. The structure is detailed in the text thusly:

At the distance of three hundred yards from his house, on the top of a rock whose sides were steep, rugged, and encumbered with dwarf cedars and stony asperities, he built what to a common eye would have seemed a summer house. […] The edifice was slight and airy. It was no more than a circular area, twelve feet in diameter, whose flooring was the rock, cleared of moss and shrubs, and exactly leveled, edged by twelve Tuscan columns, and covered by an undulating dome. […] It was without seat, table, or ornament of any kind.”1

During one of Wieland’s devotional sessions at this spartan temple, his family hears a scream and rushes forth to investigate what has befallen him. They arrive to find the elder Wieland’s arm crushed “as if by some heavy body” and the whole of his form covered over in ghastly burns, though his scalp and feet remained curiously unscathed. The family is shocked and rush to what little is left of the elder Wieland to his room where he waxes insensible and shortly thereafter succumbs to a illness brought on by his wounds and dies. The killer, whether mortal man (or woman) or some phantasmal entity, profane or divine or both, remains a mystery. His wife, dies shortly thereafter. Brown describes Mrs. Wieland’s end, thusly, “The shock which this disastrous occurrence occasioned to my mother, was the foundation of a disease which carried her, in a few months, to the grave.”2

The elder Wieland was not the only member of the family who was intensely religious, however, as his wife (before her untimely end) was also a woman of devout faith, though her creed differed markedly from her husband as Wieland, Sr. was inspired by the Albegensians whereas Ms. Wieland was influenced primarily by the Zizendorf Moravians. The Albegensians, also known as Cathars, were a southern French protestant sect who formed in opposition to what they perceived as the spiritual and moral decay of the Catholic Church; the name Albegensian (alternatively, Albigensian) came from the city of Albi, France, where the movement initially formed. The Cathars, who referred to themselves as the Bons Hommes (or Good Men), were theologically, extremely divergent from The Catholics, as they rejected monotheism (one God) and instead posited that there were two gods, one good, one evil; for them, the good deity was personified by the God of the New Testament, whereas the evil deity was taken to be the God of the Old Testament; this, in direct contravention to the ostensible monotheism of Catholicism. Cathars further believed that, because the God of the Old Testament was the creator of the world, the world, and everything within it, must be, of necessity, evil, tainted by his essence; this included, of course, Man himself. Due to this belief, the Cathars also held to anti-sacerdotal principals and thus rejected the central position of a interventionist priesthood, instead, opting for a leadership body composed of spiritual ascetics with few set guidelines pertaining to worship. Naturally, this was invidious to the Catholics, so much so that they would go on to wage a crusade against the dissident sect after a murder involving a papal legate that all but wiped the Cathars off the face of the earth.

In contrast, the beliefs of the Zizendorf Moravians (also known as the Unity of the Brethern) was a creation of the 15th century Bohemian Reformation and formed their creed around three major ecumenical creeds, those being, the trinitarian Apostles’ Creed, the salvation affirming Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed, which affirms the “Shield of the Trinity.” The central characteristics of the “spirit” of the church, as described by Moravian Bishop, Clarence Shawe3 were: simplicity, happiness, unintrusiveness, fellowship and the ideal of service. The Moravians then, in contrast to the Cathars, might be rightly thought of as a imminently more positive, fraternal and optimistic movement (despite the pessimism concerning humanity inherent in all major strains of Christianity which might be reasonably described as such) whereas the Cathars took Christian pessimism to its utmost extremes. This both attests to the authors considerable historical knowledge and also is a swift (if somewhat arcane) way to lay out the personal philosophies of the novel’s early side characters.

In the character of Catharic solitude, Wieland, Sr. is a solemn, aloof man, given over to independence and intense devotion in both his mundane and spiritual life, whereas his wife is much more sociable and light-hearted (at least until her husbands untimely and inexplicable demise) though just as devout. Brown describes Ms. Wieland’s religious habits thusly: “The character of my mother was no less devout [than Mr. Wieland, Sr.]; but her education had habituated her to a different mode of worship. The loneliness of their dwelling prevented her from joining an established congregation; but she was punctual in the offices of prayer, and in the performance of hymns to her Saviour, after the manner of the disciples of Zinzendorf. My father refused to interfere in her arrangement. His own system was embraced not, accurately speaking, because it was the best, but because it had been expressly prescribed to him.”4 Clearly, the careful focus and lengthy description of the character’s religious habituation points to some kind of commentary the author is attempting to make upon the religious tenor of the times and various ways such beliefs interfaced with society, both positively and negatively (in Brown’s estimation at least). But what is Brown trying here to get at? In summation what one has in the story thus far is two communalistic but extremely divergent religions practiced under the same household, Mrs. Wieland’s being optimistic, Wieland, Sr.’s being pessimistic and the latter receiving the ultimate penalty for it (the fact that Wieland Sr. meets his demise whilst in solitary prayer is obviously not incidental). The religious individualization of both of the elder Wielands was, on Wieland, Sr. account, intentional and desired whilst it was not (at least entirely or largely) desired as far as Mrs. Wieland was concerned. Thus it seems as if Brown is indicting Wieland, Sr. for his rejection of communal interaction, a criticism with which I should certainly agree as history is replete with examples of the problems inherent in extreme societal atomization. The English word “idiot,” for example, derives from the Greek, idios5, meaning “private,” or, “one’s own.” In Athens, any individual (who was able) who did not participate in any official or serious political capacity in the Assembly was dubbed “idiotai,” meaning, “unskilled worker,” and was generally utilized to discern the common folk from the poor (penetes) those of a more elevated social standing (dynatoi). Though the moniker of idiotai was not always deployed as a insult, it certainly could be, as Aristotle remarks in The Athenian Constitution6,Further, [Solon] saw the state often engaged in internal disputes, while many of the citizens from sheer indifference accepted whatever might turn up, he made a law with express reference to such persons, enacting that any one who, in a time civil factions, did not take up arms with either party, should lose his rights as a citizen and cease to have any part in the state.”


[—continued in part 6—]


1Brown, Wieland, p. 13

2Brown, Wieland, p. 24

3 Rt Revd C H Shawe, DD (1977), The Spirit of the Moravian Church, London, The Moravian Book Room.

4Brown, Wieland, p. 13-14

5See Liddell-Scott-Jones, A Greek-English Lexicon, entries for ἰδιώτης and ἴδιος.

6Aristotle, Athenian Constitution, 350 BCE, Translated by Sir Fredric G. Kenyon.

THE ORIGINS OF THE AMERICAN LITERARY TRADITION (PART 4)

Early American Novels: The Sentimental Period


The first novel ever written in America of which anything is today known is The Power of Sympathy which was penned by the largely unknown author, William Hill Brown. For many years it was thought to have been written by a woman due to a erroneous attribution by Arthur Bayley of The Bostonian, who republished the work in 1793, after Brown’s death. The writer credited in Bayley’s edition of the tome was thought to have been the American poet, Sarah Wentworth Apthorp Morton.1

First published 25 years after Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, in 1789, Brown’s epistolary2 novel concerns a lurid romance between two Americans in their home country, the libidinous, if kindly, Thomas Harrington and the beautiful, if all-too naive, Harriot Fawcet. Harriot is hesitant to accept Harrington’s advances, at first, due to his direct manner and his desire to make her his mistress, which would entail a good deal of impropriety (something which mattered greatly for the highly prudent Americans of the time). After receiving criticism from his tactful friend, Worthy, Harrington decides to take a more nuanced and socially acceptable approach in courting the object of his affections. This eventually wins Harriot over and she and Harrington plan a wedding, however, after they announce their engagement dire news surfaces. Harrington and Harriet are brother and sister; their love affair, incestuous. Harriet is so devastated by this grotesque news that she falls ill and dies of consumption. Harrington, distraught at the loss of his love and fully aware that it was his desire which brought her to such a sorry end, takes his own life with a pistol to end the suffering; his only legacy, a suicide note and copy of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werter (Die Leiden des jungen Werthers), which illustrates both Harrington’s fatalistic and despairing state of mind as well as one of the author’s obvious influences.

The circumstances of the young couple’s death is interesting given that, despite their prolific passion for the other, the lovers had remained chaste friends, both noble of heart and soul, despite their flaws. It would then seem that Brown means to indite neither Harriet nor Harrington, but rather their father whose seduction of Harriet’s mother acted as the catalyst for the dire affair. 

The grim tale’s purpose is clarified in the preface wherein the author writes that in the story,“-the dangerous consequences of seduction are exposed, and the advantages of female education set forth and recommended.” The preface’s litany against corruption is repeated again and again throughout the text, most stridently and overtly, perhaps, in a passage wherein the protagonists father remarks that, “-our female libraries are overrun,” with books which were, “-not regulated on the chaste principles of true friendship, rational love, and connubial duty, which appear to me totally unfit to form the minds of women, of friends, or of wives.” Another more poetic passage concerning the theme occurs when Harriot’s friend, Myra, learns of a seduction which led to the birth of “a child, at once the son and nephew of” the seducer. Myra laments the situation thusly:

Surely there is no human vice of so black a die, so fatal in its consequences — or which causes a more general calamity — than that of seducing a female from the path of honour.”

This moral instruction was born out of Brown’s opinion that females of his day had too keenly embraced all manner of novels which were barren of any salient moral lessons, due this, he feared a gradual moral decay. The general thrust of Brown’s pedagogy is not just against seduction and the degradation of female propriety, however, but also the overabundance of sympathy, for Brown (through the narrative) contends that this is no virtue, but the blackest of vices. The novel’s style is as distinctive as its message. Written as a series of letters between the primary characters similar to Diego de San Pedro‘s Cárcel de amor or C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, the book also tackles ancillary topics of the time such as slavery. In passage, the protagonist, Thomas Harrington, addresses a female black slave who had offered up herself to the lash in place of her child. So noble does Harrington find this act that he offers up something of his own, a passionate blessing: “May he whom you call the best of beings continue you in the same sentiments…Then shalt thou feel every circumstance of thy life afford thee satisfaction…All thy labors will become easy — all thy burdens light, and the yoke of slavery will never gall thy neck.”

This espousal of hysterical tenderness towards a member of a out-group both attests to Harrington’s moral virtues as well as his abundance of sympathy, his supreme giving-over of himself to passion, that omnipresent hammer which hangs ever-ready to shatter the fetters of reason that impose themselves upon the well-kept mind. This titular fixation with the pitfalls associated with sympathy is one of the more originary aspects of the novel, one which the reader would doubtless be hard-pressed to find in a modern literary work. Cautions against over-sympathic self-giving are generally dolled out within the framework of the story by Thomas’ firm friend, the calm and sensible, Worthy. In one passage, Worthy discovers that Harrington is planning suicide and attempts to dissuade his friend from his self-destructive path by saying, “You argue as if your reason were perverted–Let your mind be employed, and time will wear out these gloomy ideas…” (II, 132). Somewhat later, Worthy employs his friend to reason further, “If you are disposed to argue, do not put foolish cases that never existed—take the light of facts, and reason from them” (II, 139). Needless to say, Harrington, perhaps, might have survived his ordeal had he headed his friends simple, but wise advice.

More interestingly, to me, is the willful separation, in the novel, of the descriptors “English/European” and “American.” Characters and places within the Americas are never referred to as English or European but only ever as American which seems to be the authors way of asserting the as yet developing sense of US identity (The Power of Sympathy was written just before Washington was chosen by the first Electoral College). This drive towards capturing and promoting a uniquely American identity is most starkly apparent in Ms. Holmes’ letter XXX to Myra, wherein she declares that the very notion of ridiculing “learned ladies” was a relic of transatlantic thought, a misbegotten notion which Ms. Holmes believes has been extracted from “some English novel or magazine.” She further goes on to say that, “The American ladies of this class, who come within our knowledge, we know to be justly celebrated as ornaments to our society, and an honour to the sex.” Ms. Holmes also bemoans the fact that there were not more works of American literature penned by the fairer sex. This distancing of one’s self from stodgy gender-specific moralizing seems to have been believed by Brown to be a important and distinguishing feature of American identity; where he viewed the British as chaffish and chastising to their womenfolk he say the noble American as up lifting their women to such a degree that they would desire to see them try their hand in the arts.

Though well known today, mainly due to its historical singularity, The Power of Sympathy was not widely distributed upon its initial release in 1789 and did not cultivate a immediate cultural impact. One of the reasons which had been generally offered to explain this is suppression. The novel contains a subplot which explains how the principal female protagonist, Harriet, was conceived; in this sub-section of the tale a real life affair is mirrored, one which was so widely covered that even casual, a-political individuals of the time would instantly recognized the parallel between the novel and the real life event. [continued in part 4]

 

1 Davidson, Cathy. Revolution and the Word. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. pp. 30–31

2 Epistolary novels are those wherein the story is communicated through letters as “epistle” means “letter.”

THE ORIGINS OF THE AMERICAN LITERARY TRADITION (PART 3)

John Winthrop (1588-1649) is primarily known for his journal which documents the development and daily goings-on of the Massachusetts Bay Colony between the period of 1630 well into the 1640s. Winthrop, just like Smith, was a immigrant, who moved from England to the colony of Massachusetts in 1630 after losing a prominent and profitable political position due to his Puritan leanings a year prior. Winthrop had good reason to leave, due to a climate of increasing religious intolerance brewing in his home country at the behest of Archbishop Laud who delighted in pillorying his political and theological opponents, often having them mutilated and imprisoned indefinitely. Such instances of theocratic oppression were doubly trouble, not just because of their vicious and increasingly common nature, but also because such instances were backed by none other than King Charles I. The public incidents of political violence were largely perpetrated as a means of instantiating a renewed conformity of religious thought and opposing Puritanical fervor; given the fact that both Laud and Charles, were no fans of the Puritans, who they considered theological as well as political adversaries, Winthrop’s exodus was wisely timed. The religious animosity had a history stretching back to the Church of England’s split with papal authority in the 1534 under the reign of Tudor monarch, Henry VIII and only intensified as reformation sentiment re-instantiated itself within the country.

Winthrop’s journal today is generally printed under the title, The History of New England and concerns the history, in great detail, of the first 19 years of the sea passage to America and continues to document the development of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Since it was incorporated into the scholarly corpus, Winthrop’s journal has remained the central text utilized to understand the early history of Massachusetts.

Winthrop demonstrates a more poetic touch in his letters to his fiance, Margaret Tyndal, wherein he writes, Being filled with the joy of thy love, and wanting opportunity of more familiar communion with thee, which my heart fervently desires, I am constrained to ease the burden of my mind by this poor help of my scribbling pen. … Love was their banqueting house, love was their wine, love was their ensign; love was his invitings, love was her faintings; love was his apples, love was her comforts, love was his embracings, love was her refreshing.” Such admissions of sexual passion are not only stirring in their lyrical flow and raw delicacy, but also run counter to the commonly held misconception that the Puritans were sexless, joyless sops who slunk about as sullen slugs.

Just like Winthrop, another one of the most significant early writers of the period was a settler from England named William Bradford (1590-1657) of Yorkshire. Bradford joined the English voyagers who traveled to America on the Mayflower in 1620; these errant travelers would go on to establish the Plymouth Colony where Bradford would rule as governor for over thirty years. From 1606 to 1646 Bradford kept a meticulous record of his adventures. His documentation of the events of the Plymouth Colony from 1620-1657 form the backbone of his history, Of Plymouth Plantation. Just as interesting as his considerable body of writings was the circumstances which propelled Bradford to leave England for the New World. In his youth, Bradford fell ill for a lengthy period of time which left him unable to work; during this malaise he became extremely bookish and took a keen interest in theology. His interest lead him to the Rev. Richard Clyfton, a staunch opponent of Roman Catholicism who sought to bring about marked reformation within the Church of England. Bradford became very enamored of the persuasive preacher and began frequent attendance. During one of these sermons he encountered William Brewster, a bailiff and political activist; Bradford and Brewster struck up a friendly relationship with Bradford often borrowing books from Brewsters collection at Scrooby Manor. However, shortly thereafter, King James I ascended to the throne in 1603, declaring that he would bring about a end to all church reformation movements who sought to change the theological makeup of The Church. He demanded that all Puritans and other assorted dissidents would adhere to theocratic conformity else measures would be undertaken to “-harry them out of the land-.” Four years after the king’s ascent, Brewster set to organizing secret meetings at Scrooby Manor; members in attendance included the aforementioned Rev. Clyfton as well as Rev. John Robinson, one of the earliest leaders of the English Separatists (those Puritans who did not believe that the Church of England could be reformed and who thus, broke wholly from it). These gatherings were both political and religious in nature and went expressly against the King’s decree of religious conformity. As such, the Scrooby Manor dissidents garnered the watchful eyes of the clerisy who quickly had numerous members of the sizable congregation arrested. Brewster being chief among them who was found guilty of religiously “disobedient” and was severely fined. Other members of the congregation who were not outright imprisoned were followed, some were watched around the clock, day and night by Church loyalists. Young Bradford witnessed many of these events and was shaped markedly by the development. Given this persecution under the guiding hand of the English theocracy, the manor congregation decided that there was nothing for it but to leave England for the Dutch republic given its secular tendencies and permission of religious freedom. This decision was complicated by the fact that such a move was illegal, even despite this, Bradford decided that he would follow the congregation on its way. However, on their way, the congregation was betrayed by a English sea captain who turned them over to the English authorities; all members were imprisoned, including Bradford. By 1608, however, the group managed to escape once more and set off for the Dutch Republic; an 18 year old Bradford traveled with them. Despite their improved degree of freedom found in the Netherlands, the congregation had spent the majority of their money in the crossing and so lived as paupers and began to become increasingly troubled by the influence upon their children of and, by 1617, they made extensive plans to move to America to establish a colony which would eventually fall under Bradford’s sway.

Having set up a bit of a understanding of the type and style of early writing in the New World let us jump briskly forth through time and examine the genesis of the American novel. [continued in part 4]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE ORIGINS OF THE AMERICAN LITERARY TRADITION (PART 2)

Early American Writings: The Pre-literary Period


The first recorded piece of American writing is, by scholarly consensus, considered to be A True Relation of Virginia (1608) which was written by the prolific soldier of fortune and early leader of the Jamestown colony, John Smith (1580-1631). The book, though non-fiction and quite thoroughly English in its style and verbiage, encapsulates the pioneering spirit of the early Americans. In addition to being a keen window into the exploratory fervor and the linguistic peculiarity of the times, Smith’s book also offers a interesting contrast to the modern philosophical and social proclivities of our country; the desire to absent society in part or totality, or to lord one’s ego as a cudgel to cleave away all that intrusive stuff found external to itself, is, in the pages of A True Relation, nowhere to be found. What one will instead find is loyalty (sometimes to a near-hysterical degree), humility, boldness and reverence (which is not to say Smith was without his faults, a wrathful temper, being chief among them) and the impulse to absent only apparent under the aegis of the impulse to conquer unknown spaces. Smith was known as a incorrigible romantic and it is, in part, this very character peculiarity that makes his texts such a joy to read, even were nothing particularly interesting is being recorded, the goodly Captain’s vigor and verbosity make of it a rather colorful bridge to more meaty matters. Rather amusingly and incomprehensibly, various early editions of the text were, for some reason, erroneously attributed to a one “Thomas Watson, Gent. one of said Collony.” It is doubtful if any such person as Thomas Watson even existed, but if he did, he did not pen A True Relation. This error was swiftly corrected and seemed to have left a impression upon the minds of the publisher who issued a public note and apology of the previous confuse in the subsequent prefaces, stating, “Happening vpon this Relation by chance, (as I take it, at the second or third hand) induced thereunto by diuers well willers the action… I thought good to publish it: but the author being absent from the presse, it cannot be doubted that some faults haue escaped in the printing, especially in the names of Countries, Towns, and People, which are somewhat strange vnto us: but most of all , and which is the chief error, (for want of knowledge of the Writer) some of the bookes were printed vnder the name of Thomas Watson, by whose occasion I know not, vnless it were the ouer rashness or mistaking of the workeman, but since hauing learned that the saide discourse was written by Captain John Smith, who is one of the Counsell there in Virginia, I thought good to make the like Apollogie, by shewing the true Author so far as my selfe could learn,” (A True Relation, Preface, pg. 18).

Smith penned many other books after A True Relation, including, A General History of Virginia, New England and the Summer Isles (1624), which is generally regarded as his finest work. Yet, despite his sizable and scribish output, Smith, today, is known primarily for his adventures with the native, Matoaka (or Amonute) who is better recognized along the pop-historical record by a name she took later in life: Pocahontas.

The tale goes that Smith was captured by the Powhatan Confederacy of the Tsenacommacah region and was set to be executed by clubbing. Yet when Powhatan approached to perform the execution Pocahontas threw herself upon Smith, laying her head upon his own as if to declare that should her tribesmen desire his death they would have to do as much to her as well; Powhatan subsequently spared Smith’s life.

What is peculiar to note of Smith is that though he wrote no fiction, he is today known to the broader public almost solely through it; principally, through the immensely popular animated romance-musical and Disney film, Pocahontas wherein Smith is portrayed by voice actor, Mel Gibson. Whist this fact is tangential to the primary content and general thesis of this text, it is noteworthy as a example of the potency of art to instantiate mental images within a collective organism, in this case, American society (and “western civilization” more broadly).

The intrepid Smith was succeeded by John Winthrop, a man no less daring (though considerably less romantic) and certainly no less important to the early development of the Early American Style.


[continued in part 3]

The Origins of the American Literary Tradition (Part 1)

Introduction


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.”