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a true nation, the nation of which we modern Americans are ourselves a part, was growing towards a maturity which in our time is beginning to reveal itself. Though the phrase seem paradoxical, it is surely true that our national life in its beginnings was something hardly paralleled in other history, – a century of untrammelled national inexperience.
LITERATURE IN AMERICA FROM 1600 to 1700
An instructive impression of the character of literature in America during the seventeenth century may be derived from a glance at the titles recorded in Mr. Whitcomb's “ Chrono logical Outlines.”1 Speaking roughly, -and in considerations like this minute precision is of little importance, - we may say that out of about two hundred and fifteen of these titles one hundred and ten deal with matters which may unquestionably be described as religious, and that of these all but one name books produced in New England. The next most considerable class of writings includes matters which may be called historical or biographical, beginning with “ The True Relation” of Captain John Smith, - a work hardly to be included in any classification of American literature which should not equally include M. de Tocqueville's study of our democracy and Mr. Bryce's of our contemporary commonwealth ; this list also includes such biographies as those of Cotton Mather, whose main purpose was quite as religious as it was biographical. Out of fifty-five titles thus comprehensively grouped, thirty-seven are of New England origin; the other eighteen, including the separate works of Captain John Smith, come either from Virginia or from the middle colonies. Twenty of Mr. Whitcomb's titles, including such things as “The Freeman's Oath,” of 1639, said to have been the first product of the press in the United States, may be called political ; only three of these twenty are not from New England. Of nineteen other titles, including almanacs and works of scientific character, which may best be classified with miscellanies, all but two originated in this same region. Finally there are nine titles to which the name of literature may properly be applied, if under the head of literature one include not only the poems of that tenth Muse, Mrs. Anne Bradstreet, but the “Bay Psalm Book," and so pervasively theological a poem as Michael Wigglesworth's “ Day of Doom,” and the first version of the “New England Primer.” Of the nine books thus recorded only Sandys's translation of Ovid did not proceed directly from New England.
1 Throughout our consideration of literature in America, Whitcomb's “Chronological Outlines of American Literature,” also published by Macmillan, will prove as generally useful as we shall find Ryland's “ Outlines ” concerning English literature. For the history of literature in America during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Professor M. C. Tyler's books, published by Putnam of New York, are indispensable. The extracts from the writers of these centuries in Stedman and Hutchinson's “ Library of American Literature” are adequate for all general purposes.
Though the precise numbers of this hasty count may be inexact, and the classification itself questionable, the main facts which the classification shows can hardly be denied. In the first place, the intellectual activity of New England so far exceeded that of any other part of the country that in literary history other regions may be neglected. In the second place, the intellectual activity of New England expressed itself chiefly in a religious form; and next in a form which, if the term “history” include diaries and the like, may broadly be described as historical. Out of two hundred and fifteen titles all but forty-eight fall under one or the other of these heads; and of these remaining forty-eight only nine may by any stretch of classification be held pure literature. Meanwhile more than half of Whitcomb's titles are incontestably religious in character; and at least the New England publications which we have hastily classified under the heads of history, politics, miscellany, and even literature itself, are considerably impregnated with religious material.
Contrasting this impression with our hasty summary of English literature during this seventeenth century, - the century in which England added to literature the names of Shakspere, of Milton, and of Dryden, — it seems at first as if America produced no literature at all. Glancing at our English summary a shade more carefully, however, we may observe a brief mention that in Elizabethan England along with supreme poetry there was also both lasting prose, like that of Hooker, of Bacon, and of Ralegh, and such minor prose records and annals as are typified by Hakluyt's “ Voyages,” together with a good deal of now forgotten religious writing. In English literature, these last sorts of writing are unimportant; they were generally produced not by men of letters, but either by men of action or by earnest, uninspired men of God. Now, the men who founded the colonies of Virginia and of New England were on the one hand men of action, and on the other, men of God. It is precisely such matter as their Elizabethan prototypes left in books now remembered only as material for history that the fathers of America produced throughout the first century of our national inexperience. If we seek in New England for traces of pure
literature during the seventeenth century, indeed, we shall find our attention sadly or humorously attracted by such work as the “ Bay Psalm Book," produced under the supervision of Richard Mather, Thomas Welde, and John Eliot, in 1640, the year which in England saw the publication of Carew's “Poems," and of Izaak Walton's “Life of Donne." An extract from the preface and from the Nineteenth Psalm will give a sufficient taste of its quality :
“If therefore the verses are not alwayes so smooth and elegant as some may desire or expect; let them consider that God's Altar needs not our pollishings: Ex. 20. for wee have respected rather a plaine translation, then to smooth our verses with the sweetness of any paraphrase, and soe have attended Conscience rather then Elegance,
fidelity rather than poetry, in translating the hebrew words into eng. lish language, and Davids poetry into english meetre ; that soe we may sing in Sion the Lords songs of prayse according to his owne will; untill hee take us from hence, and wipe away all our teares, & bid us enter into our masters ioye to sing eternall Halleluiahs.”
“ PSALME XIX
To the chiefe Musician a psalme of David
the majesty of God:
his handy-work abroad.
night hath to night declar'd.
where their voyce is not heard.
is gone forth, & unto
their speaches reach also :
in them pitcht for the Sun.
glad Giants-race to run.
his course and compassing ; to ends of it, & from the heat
thereof is hid nothing."
King James's version of the same psalm, finally phrased not quite thirty years before, was perfectly familiar to the men who hammered out this barbarous imitation of a metre similarly used by Henry VIII.'s Earl of Surrey. This fact should give sufficient impression of the literary spirit which controlled the Puritan fathers.
Twenty-two years later, in 1662, — the year when Fuller's “Worthies” was published, the year after Davenant's final version of “ The Siege of Rhodes," and the year before the first part of Butler's “Hudibras,” Cowley's “Cutter of Colman Street,” and Dryden's “Wild Gallant,” — Michael