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The Cambridge History of American Literature
  • Volume 1: 1590–1820
  • Edited by Sacvan Bercovitch, Harvard University, Massachusetts

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    The Cambridge History of American Literature
    • Online ISBN: 9781139054690
    • Book DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521301053
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Book description

Volume I of The Cambridge History of American Literature was originally published in 1997, and covers the colonial and early national periods and discusses the work of a diverse assemblage of authors, from Renaissance explorers and Puritan theocrats to Revolutionary pamphleteers and poets and novelists of the new republic. Addressing those characteristics that render the texts distinctively American while placing the literature in an international perspective, the contributors offer a compelling new evaluation of both the literary importance of early American history and the historical value of early American literature.

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'… this is, without doubt and without any serious rival, the scholarly history for our generation.'Journal of American Studies

‘… vast and eminently readable survey of twentieth century American literature …’.Use of English

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Page 1 of 2


  • 1 - The Papers of Empire
    pp 11-36
  • DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521301053.003
  • View abstract
    Summary
    The literature of American colonization is a particular case characterized by its writers' conviction that writing could wield material power in shaping history. By the end of the colonial period, a literature of colonization has helped to forge the identification of the Europeans with the continent. Columbus described his resolution to write his way across the ocean in the prologue to the book whose most reliable recent edition is entitled the Diario of Christopher Columbus's First Voyage to America. The literary history of Europe's discovery of America is the story of a literature that sought to shape history. Richard Hakluyt's 'papers of empire', like Mercator's maps, like Columbus's Diario, were conceived primarily as means not for celebrating it or speculating about it but for acting in it. A literature emerges in Hakluyt's reports that is more powerful than ever in its ability to appropriate history on the model of, and in conjunction with, England's appropriation of foreign lands.
  • 2 - The Natural Inhabitants
    pp 37-58
  • DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521301053.004
  • View abstract
    Summary
    The people who already inhabited the North American continent had an old and richly developed oral literature. To the diligent writers who proposed to colonize the New World the fact that its inhabitants had no system for writing was a definitive sign of their inferiority. This chapter begins with a discussion not of the literary history of North American Indians but of the problems and prejudices that have prevented an adequate account of this history. It turns next to what can be known of the encounter: how Europeans perceived the Indians. The chapter offers a reading of those Spanish texts that present a fuller account of the Indians than do any of the North American texts. Thomas Harriot, the mathematician and scientist, who featured the continent's "Natural Inhabitants" as one of its major resources. Native-American studies necessarily query the nature of texts and of authors, of literature itself, and especially of language.
  • 3 - Three Writers of Early America
    pp 59-83
  • DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521301053.005
  • View abstract
    Summary
    This chapter focuses the work of three writers, Thomas Harriot, John Smith, and Roger Williams, of early America. Thomas Harriot's A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia was published in haste to support Walter Raleigh's petition to the queen not to abandon the Virginia colony, whose first settlement had just failed. Harriot half recognized that America belonged to the Indians. Smith's General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles collects his own earlier writings on Virginia and New England and, on the model of his friend Purchas's compilations, adds documents and reports circulating in the community of merchants and adventurers, interspersed with classical verses as well as some written expressly to celebrate the book and its author. Williams's most extensive and developed work is A Key into the Language of America. The Key is virtually unique in the English literature of colonization in its projection of a developing relationship.
  • 4 - Settlements
    pp 84-108
  • DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521301053.006
  • View abstract
    Summary
    William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation contains perhaps the most frequently cited passage in colonial American writing. In Bradford's history, European civilization appears for the first time in American writing as a foreign and unwholesome creature. Men like Morton dominated the Virginia colony and at first their behavior tended to confirm Bradford's judgment. Virginia, which had come to indicate the settlements around Jamestown, later expanded both west and north, but its coastal holdings were cut back in the Carolina charters of 1663, setting a boundary that was then reset by a second charter two years later, adding a strip of land of about thirty miles to North Carolina. Some twenty-five years earlier, King Philip's War, which united a number of New England tribes in an effort to at least contain English settlement, had roughly coincided with the outbreak of raids along the Potomac.
  • 5 - The Dispute of the New World
    pp 109-125
  • DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521301053.007
  • View abstract
    Summary
    Reciprocity was the central dynamic in a dispute that enacted the culminating moment of the discovery, when the New World fully entered into the worldview of the Old. The intensity of the New World dispute suggests that imperial Europe already felt itself vulnerable even while it was rapidly ascending toward world dominion. The entire issue of the relation of civilization and nature is embodied in the experience of colonization. The setting of Thomas More's Utopia is the discovery of the New World. The dispute began with, and throughout referred to, the Natural History of the Earth by Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon. Buffon's love of technology is an important clue to the animosity he bears for the New World. The vehemence of Buffon's disdain for American nature is partly addressed to earlier idyllic and reprehensibly unscientific accounts. The representation of American evolution invoked the powerful ideology of progress and embodied it flatteringly in the land of the New World.
  • 6 - Traveling in America
    pp 126-148
  • DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521301053.008
  • View abstract
    Summary
    William Bartram's Travels described the naturalist-author's peregrinations over five years 1773-1778 through Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas. One remarkable expression of Bartram's different stance toward the American natives is his recognition that the natives have a substantial history and civilization. America had been portrayed in Europe as utopia and dystopia, adventure story, sacred text, political document, history, scientific report, and travel narrative. Bartram's Travels represents a turning point in the evolution of the American concept of nature, as "nature" is an important part of the definition of 'American'. J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer is properly a travel narrative. It describes a foreign country to people back home, and although the first three letters, describing the idyllic condition of the American farmer, are much better known, more than half involve actual travel. Crevecoeur dreamed America would be a refuge from history, a safe place for the yeomen of the world away from the world.
  • 7 - The Final Voyage
    pp 149-168
  • DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521301053.009
  • View abstract
    Summary
    As the United States completed Europe's voyage of New World discovery, the presence of an indigenous population already occupying the land is unmistakable. The United States seems oddly formal, a matter of forms to be preserved for their inherent being, which history does not alter but dilate. The implications of imperial origins for the national literary culture have yet to be fully explicated. This may be the distinctive task of the current scholarship of letters, enjoined to pay close attention to the relations of language and power. From Harriot at the close of the sixteenth century to Lewis and Clark at the dawn of the nineteenth, the authors of the New World produced a literature of colonization by taking the imperatives of territorial expansion and political domination to be universal structures of meaning. These structures were seen to be as basic to literature as to history and to enter as fully into narrative form as into the institutions of colonization.
  • 1 - The Language of Salem Witchcraft
    pp 169-182
  • DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521301053.010
  • View abstract
    Summary
    Assessments of the entire Puritan period have achieved their sharpest focus through an analysis of the Salem trials, which have served as a litmus test for theories about the nature of life in early America. In different ways, most interpreters share the assumption that the Salem incident marks a critical turning point in New England history when new secular ones were being formed. In Salem Village, language and imagination were the central components in the catastrophic events that marked the last days of an aspiring Christian Utopia. Through typological interpretations of the Bible, events, and various narratives, the clergy had formulated a Puritan linguistic system. Examination of the record and of the historic development of the language and literature of Puritan New England reveals that the seeds of the Salem tragedy were planted at the start and that the fruit it bore resulted from decades of cultivation of symbolic meanings, verbal inventions, and discursive descriptions.
  • 2 - The Dream of a Christian Utopia
    pp 183-204
  • DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521301053.011
  • View abstract
    Summary
    This chapter attempts to account for the compulsions, dissensions, and convergences within culture of New England Puritans and to demonstrate the intellectual complexity of their thought and writing. Puritan, was a term of derision that moderate English Christians and Catholics cast upon radical Protestants, who later embraced it as a badge of honor. The Anglicans viewed the Puritans as narrow literalists, and the Puritans perceived the Anglicans to be blind to human corruption and ignorant of Christ's law. An approach to the literary history of the Puritans necessarily engage with the fact of the presence of the Native-American cultures on the land that was renamed New England and the impact of the indigenous peoples upon the Europeans and the Europeans upon them. Among the several theologians whose writings influenced the English Puritans, John Calvin was preeminent. Along with the Bible and occasional instances of direct divine revelation, nature was for the Puritans a channel of communication from God to humanity.
  • 3 - Personal Narrative and History
    pp 205-225
  • DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521301053.012
  • View abstract
    Summary
    Puritans produced a host of personal narratives of individual lives and histories of the corporate New England enterprise because they believed that, human reason is one of God's primary vehicles for communicating his lessons to humanity. The psychomachy of the soul's struggle against the body, sin, and Satan and of its journey toward grace and salvation was a fundamental scenario repeated in diaries and autobiographies as well as in histories, where the subject is the whole community's trauma. Because it was one of the earliest and powerful personal narratives, the autobiography of Thomas Shepard I served as an important model for the many that followed. In Puritan biography, the narrative of the model saint also became a story of the community of saints so that inner and outer worlds were linked in the exemplary life. In addition to articulating the Puritan vision of America, the work provides insights into more mundane attitudes of the Puritans that his "common-man" viewpoint reveals.
  • 4 - Poetry
    pp 226-254
  • DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521301053.013
  • View abstract
    Summary
    The Puritans' iconoclastic destruction of religious statuary during the Civil War, their closing of the theaters, the plainness of their own churches, and their official statements condemning ornate speech and dress strongly support a view that Puritan art and poetry were all but impossible. Yet, from the 1940s through 1960s, scholars continued to discover and publish considerable numbers of Puritan poems, many of which contain provocatively striking figurative language and allusions not only to the Bible but to classical models such as Ovid, Cicero, Virgil, Horace, and Livy. Numerous poems also contain intertextual references to the work of contemporary poets, among them Spenser, Sidney, Shakespeare, Herbert, Vaughan, and Quarles. The developing component of Puritan thought that served to certify a Puritan poetics was the more liberal employment of biblical typology. Though humor is rare in Puritan poetry, Benjamin Tompson produced a small mock-epic, "On a Fortification at Boston Begun by Women".
  • 5 - The Jeremiad
    pp 255-278
  • DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521301053.014
  • View abstract
    Summary
    The term "jeremiad" has expanded to include not only sermons but also other texts that rehearse the familiar tropes of the formula such as captivity narratives, letters, covenant renewals, as well as some histories and biographies. From the beginning, the content of the election sermons was expected to integrate the theory of Puritan society and the current social and religious practices. Church membership records suggest that the decline in membership may have been a myth born of the jeremiad ritual and the compulsion to place blame for what seemed otherwise to be inexplicable disasters. The jeremiads had a complicated, seemingly contradictory, communal function. They were designed to awaken a lethargic people. In their repetitive and ritualistic nature, they functioned as a form of reassurance, reinscribing proof that the saints were still a coherent body who ruled New England in covenant with God and under His sometimes chastising and yet ultimately protective hand.
  • 6 - Reason and Revivalism
    pp 279-306
  • DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521301053.015
  • View abstract
    Summary
    In 1734, a larger religious revival began in Jonathan Edwards's parish in Northampton, from which it would sweep through the Connecticut River Valley. Edwards's report on these revivals, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls, was widely circulated and helped prepare for the Great Awakening a few years later. For decades, the clergy had been calling for a renewal of piety and zeal and some had heard of 'awakenings' in New Jersey, when the revival came to New England, it served to further disempower the clergy. Benjamin Colman allied himself with the Puritan heritage and with Shepard's renowned balance of fervor and reason. Reports of revivalism began to arrive in Massachusetts from England and from the American southern and middle colonies. Jonathan Edwards' work explores the nature of God, Christ, and the Trinity, and it investigates the problem of evil and the proper nature of the Christian community.
  • 1 - Finding the Revolution
    pp 345-367
  • DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521301053.017
  • View abstract
    Summary
    Understanding the American Revolution is a literary pursuit, and John Adams assumes as much in his own famous summary of the event. Adams and Thomas Jefferson fully understand that the Revolution will be told, and they compete with each other in the knowledge that their own tellings will control subsequent thought. Against the difficulties in viewing the Revolution as a literary phenomenon, the product of its public records, pamphlets, newspapers, and handbills are two crucial complementary strengths. The Federalist claims to be the best discussion of the most important question of the age. Six years after Christopher Seider's death, in 1776, the writers of the Revolution understand that the problem of conflict cannot be resolved in the simple polarities of British tyranny and American rights, self-interest and popular virtue. These realizations come to life in an aside between Jefferson and Dr. Franklin, the most accomplished writers of the American Enlightenment, over the Declaration of Independence.
  • 2 - What is Enlightenment? Some American Answers
    pp 368-389
  • DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521301053.018
  • View abstract
    Summary
    The idea of an American Enlightenment coincides with national formation and a developmental sense of country, its proponents tend to dwell on the emerging prospect. Immanuel Kant shows his understanding of and illustrates the problem in a seminal essay, An Answer to the Question: "What is Enlightenment?". Kant's idea of enlightenment as struggle and process takes on special meaning in understanding the conflict between England and America. Benjamin Franklin, the living symbol of the American Enlightenment, typifies this dynamic with one of his analogies from everyday life. Kant is quite explicit on the problem: not even a revolution, he says, can reform thought fast enough for reason alone to lead in the figure of learning. The intellectual self-confidence, scope, and facility of revolutionary thought are a part of the ultimate paradox of the Enlightenment in America. The American Enlightenment rests in the common or shared rhythms and patterns that the Enlightenment has taken from Christianity.
  • 3 - Religious Voices
    pp 390-425
  • DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521301053.019
  • View abstract
    Summary
    Religious voices speak first in the American Revolution. At one level, this primacy merely restates the dominance of religious expression in early American culture. Revivalism is the religious phenomenon most closely associated with the Revolution; expressly, the series of revivals at midcentury known as the Great Awakening. The two controlling forms of religious expression in the Revolution, the congregational utterance and the sermon, each reflect a spontaneous emphasis in American religion; the decorums and reactive power of the independent or separate congregation meet the pivotal role of the preaching minister. Historians have demonstrated the central role of evangelical activity as a building block in emerging communities and, more generally, as one of the unifying elements in early national life. In the 1790s and after, the Second Great Awakening will turn much of America into a revivalist society.
  • 4 - Writing the Revolution
    pp 426-469
  • DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521301053.020
  • View abstract
    Summary
    "In establishing American independence", David Ramsay observes in The History of the American Revolution, "the pen and the press had merit equal to that of the sword". If one document can explain the several hundred American pamphlets on the crisis in politics between 1764 and 1776, it would be John Adams's A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law. Adams begins with the assertion, taken from Bishop John Tillotson, that ignorance is the greatest cause of human misery, and he closes with the injunction that "every sluice of knowledge be opened and set a-flowing". The American pamphleteer who reaches the largest audience in the world of the late 1760s is John Dickinson in Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania. The first catalyst of change in 1776 is literary in form. Overwhelming when it is issued, Common Sense lives as literature today, the one pamphlet from the period that still captures the imagination of the American reader.
  • 5 - The Literature of Public Documents
    pp 470-495
  • DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521301053.021
  • View abstract
    Summary
    The disruptive modes in sermonizing and pamphleteering in eighteenthcentury America compete with the predisposition toward consensus evident in so much writing of the period. The biblical conjunction of sovereignty and the book of law, the need for an artificially imposed order in the wilderness, and the politics of Anglo-American relations all encourage a literal documentation of governmental forms as the reference point of communal identity. The concise uses of language in the Declaration of Independence have encouraged a search for particular sources even though the broadest influences pertain. John Dickinson pens the first draft of the Articles of Confederation in 1776. The Articles of Confederation bend and then break because they must settle the very ambiguities that the Declaration of Independence is allowed to evade. National deliberations have rarely developed into intellectually impressive events. The Federal Convention stands out not just because of the oft-noted genius of its participants but because of their practiced talents as men of letters.
  • 6 - The Limits of Enlightenment
    pp 496-538
  • DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521301053.022
  • View abstract
    Summary
    The Enlightenment shapes early republican culture, and is both the source of ideas and the boundary placed upon them in revolutionary America. The "discontented tribes" of America - workers, the poor, the young, Native Americans, blacks, and women - all enter into the universal appeal of the Revolution, while John Adams's ridicule, his fear, and his pretended ignorance control the practical limits of achievement. Immanuel Kant begins his discussion of political right by guaranteeing certain principles as a matter of natural law. The poignancy of the Native-American situation lies in the ephemeral moment, which of slavery, in its growing permanence. Postrevolutionary Americans refocus the anger of their beginnings without quite recognizing the shift. A function of narrative expectations as well as cultural aspirations, the revolutionary hero literalizes anger by sealing it off in postrevolutionary discourse. The Revolution encourages the exercise of inalienable rights, protects the right of petition, maintains the legality of formal complaint, and allows for redress.
  • 1 - Letters of the Early Republic
    pp 539-557
  • DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521301053.023
  • View abstract
    Summary
    Until the 1980s, academic criticism accepted and elaborated the pejorative assessment of postrevolutionary culture. To modern readers, there seemed little to admire in the letters of the early Republic apart from its political documents. Early American literature was the product of a historical formation dominated by republicanism, communalism, and a preindustrial agrarian economy. The letters of the early Republic should be described as republican and communal as much as pre-Romantic. In the half century after independence, American culture reenacted on a miniaturized scale the transition in Western civilization from the epic to the novel, from a literature that was public, functional, and possessed by all to one that was subjective, individualistic, and commodified. The letters of the early Republic shared features with contemporaneous African-American culture. The native literature that flourished along with liberal individualism departed from the past but also preserved elements from the earlier cultural universe.
  • 2 - Magazines, Criticism, and Essays
    pp 558-572
  • DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521301053.024
  • View abstract
    Summary
    The genteel tradition in American letters was born in the early Republic. No one more vociferously proclaimed literature's superiority to the vulgarities of American life than did the foppish editor and essayist Joseph Dennie. American newspapers were an important outlet for cultural production; they welcomed poetry, literary essays, and vignettes, and their format frequently effaced the line between factual and nonfactual material. The term 'magazine' refers to a repository or storehouse, and early American magazines were basically compilations drawn from native newspapers and European periodicals. Magazines were group productions, and most prospectuses incorporated pleas to literary friends to assist the editor by sending in their poetry and prose. The Anthology men conceived of the critic's office as essentially political and social like the vigilant Federalist statesman, the critic was to police the commonwealth of letters to keep out the unworthy.
  • 3 - The Drama
    pp 573-590
  • DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521301053.025
  • View abstract
    Summary
    The American drama was the most republican and propagandistic of the literary genres. The drama of the early Republic was intimately tied to the civic sphere. Early American novelists in turn gave him cameo appearances or invoked him by implication in their narratives of material success and failure; many viewed him as a type of the new order of liberal individualism. Drama in the New World had always been an irreducibly social medium. The worst disturbance occurred in the antebellum period, the famous Astor Place Riot of 1849 in which some twenty people died, but the pattern was established in the early Republic: invariably taking on patriotic overtones, theatrical riots blurred the line between politics and the drama. Only William Dunlap and John Howard Payne among early dramatists were daring enough to try to earn a livelihood exclusively from the theater. In the absence of stage copyright, playwrights could best protect their interests by keeping their works in manuscript.
  • 4 - Poetry
    pp 591-619
  • DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521301053.026
  • View abstract
    Summary
    Like the drama, eighteenth-century poetry was a public and didactic art. Early poets who enjoyed special popularity in the Republic included William Shakespeare and John Milton, both of whom were interpreted by Americans as writing on public themes. American poetry participated, with a lag of some years, in the paradigm shift from neoclassic to Romantic that marked English verse in the second half of the eighteenth century. Women poets, African Americans, and aspiring professionals were also much in evidence, although most wrote verse shaped by the ruling orientation toward the formal. The infant Republic's representative poet, Philip Freneau, was typical precisely in his inability to resolve these conflicting impulses. Many people felt that poetry had the same kind of patriotic work to do in American culture as it had performed in the classical past. Many of Freneau's poems pay tribute to deceased leaders like Washington and Franklin or glorify the soldiers who fell in America's wars with Britain.

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This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.


Ruth H. Bloch Visionary Republic: Millennial Themes in American Thought, 1756–1800. Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Lawrence Buell . New England Literary Culture: From Revolution through Renaissance. Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Horton Davies . Worship and Theology in England. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1961–75.

Stephen Greenblatt . Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Richard M. Gummere The American Colonial Mind and the Classical Tradition: Essays in Comparative Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963.

Patrice Higonnet . Sister Republics: The Origins of French and American Republicanism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Howard Mumford Jones . Revolution and Romanticism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974.

Mason I. Lowance The Language of Canaan: Metaphor and Symbol in New England from the Puritans to the Transcendentalists. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980.

Perry Miller . Orthodoxy in Massachusetts, 1630–1650. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1933. Reprinted, with a new preface, Boston: Beacon, 1959.

Samuel Eliot Morison . Harvard College in the Seventeenth Century. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1936.

Kenneth B. Murdock Literature and Theology in Colonial New England. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1949.

Janice Potter . The Liberty We Seek: Loyalist Ideology in Colonial New York and Massachusetts. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983.

David S. Shields Oracles of Empire: Poetry, Politics, and Commerce in British America, 1690–1750. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.