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The "American" qualities of our literature must be judged in connection with its conformity to universal standards of excellence. Tested by any universal standard, The Scarlet Letter is a notable romance. It has won a secure place among the literature written by men of English blood and speech. Yet to overlook the peculiarly local or provincial characteristics of this remarkable story is to miss the secret of its inspiration.
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It could have been written only by a New Englander, in the atmosphere of a certain epoch. Our task, then, in this rapid review of the chief interpreters of the American spirit in literature, is a twofold one. We are primarily concerned with a procession of men, each of whom is interesting as an individual and as a writer. But we cannot watch the individuals long without perceiving the general direction of their march, the ideas that animate them, the common hopes and loyalties that make up the life of their spirit.
To become aware of these general tendencies is to understand the "American" note in our national writing. Our historians have taught us that the history of the United States is an evolution towards political 8 unity. The separatist, particularist movements are gradually thrust to one side. In literary history, likewise, we best remember those authors who fall into line with what we now perceive to have been the course of our literary development.
The erratic men and women, the "sports" of the great experiment, are ultimately neglected by the critics, unless, like the leaders of political insurrections, those writing men and women have raised a notable standard of revolt. No doubt the apparently unique literary specimens, if clearly understood in their origins and surroundings, would be found rooted in the general laws of literary evolution. But these laws are not easy to codify and we must avoid the temptation to discover, in any particular period, more of unity than there actually was.
And we must always remember that there will be beautiful prose and verse unrelated to the main national tendencies save as "the literature of escape. Let us test these principles by applying them to the earliest colonists. The first book written on the soil of what is now the United States was Captain John Smith's True Relation of the planting of the Virginia colony in It was published in 9 London in The Captain was a typical Elizabethan adventurer, with a gift, like so many of his class, for picturesque narrative.
In what sense, if at all, may his writings on American topics be classified as "American" literary productions? It is clear that his experiences in the New World were only one phase of the variegated life of this English soldier of fortune. But the American imagination has persistently claimed him as representing something peculiarly ours, namely, a kind of pioneer hardihood, resourcefulness, leadership, which was essential to the exploration and conquest of the wilderness.
Most of Smith's companions were unfitted for the ordeal which he survived. They perished miserably in the "starving time. In each of these books the possible unveracities in detail are a confirmation of their representative American character.
In other words, we have unconsciously formulated, in the course of centuries, a general concept of "the pioneer. Nothing is more inevitable than our reaching back to the beginning of the seventeenth century and endeavoring to select, among the thousands of Englishmen who emigrated or even thought of emigrating to this country, those who possessed the genuine heart and sinew of the permanent settler. Oliver Cromwell, for instance, is said to have thought of emigrating hither in If he had joined his friends John Cotton and Roger Williams in New England, who can doubt that the personal characteristics of "my brave Oliver" would today be identified with the "American" qualities which we discover in on the shores of Massachusetts Bay?
And what an American settler Cromwell would have made! If we turn from physical and moral daring to the 11 field of theological and political speculation, it is easy today to select, among the writings of the earliest colonists, certain radical utterances which seem to presage the very temper of the late eighteenth century. Pastor John Robinson's farewell address to the Pilgrims at Leyden in contained the famous words: "The Lord has more truth yet to break forth out of His holy Word. I cannot sufficiently bewail the condition of the reformed churches, who are come to a period in religion.
In political discussion, the early emergence of that type of independence familiar to the decade is equally striking. In a letter written in , John Adams insisted that "the principles and feelings which produced the Revolution ought to be traced back for two hundred years, and sought in the history of the country from the first plantations in America. The idea of it as a possible thing, as a probable event, nay as a necessary and unavoidable measure, in case Great Britain should assume an unconstitutional authority over us, has been familiar to Americans from the first settlement of the country.
There is, then, a predisposition, a latent or potential Americanism which existed long before the United States came into being.
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Now that our political unity has become a fact, the predisposition is certain to be regarded by our own and by future generations as evidence of a state of mind which made our separate national life inevitable. Yet to Thomas Hutchinson, a sound historian and honest man, the last Royal Governor of Massachusetts, a separate national life seemed in an unspeakable error and calamity. The seventeenth-century colonists were predominantly English, in blood, in traditions, and in impulses. Whether we look at Virginia or Plymouth or at the other colonies that were planted in swift succession along the seaboard, it is clear that we are dealing primarily with men of the English race.
Most of them would have declared, with as much emphasis as Francis Hopkinson a 13 century later, "We of America are in all respects Englishmen. But the student of literature must keep constantly in mind that these English colonizers represented no single type of the national character. There were many men of many minds even within the contracted cabin of the Mayflower.
The "sifted wheat" was by no means all of the same variety. For Old England was never more torn by divergent thought and subversive act than in the period between the death of Elizabeth in and the Revolution of In this distracted time who could say what was really "English"? Was it James the First or Raleigh? Archbishop Laud or John Cotton? Charles the First or Cromwell? Charles the Second or William Penn? One is tempted to say that the title of Ben Jonson's comedy Every Man in his Humour became the standard of action for two whole generations of Englishmen, and that there is no common denominator for emigrants of such 14 varied pattern as Smith and Sandys of Virginia, Morton of Merrymount, John Winthrop, "Sir" Christopher Gardiner and Anne Hutchinson of Boston, and Roger Williams of Providence.
They seem as miscellaneous as "Kitchener's Army. It is true that we can make certain distinctions. Virginia, as has often been said, was more like a continuation of English society, while New England represented a digression from English society. There were then, as now, "stand-patters" and "progressives. But to the student of early American literature all such generalizations are of limited value. He is dealing with individual men, not with "Cavalier" or "Roundhead" as such.
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He has learned from recent historians to distrust any such facile classification of the first colonists. He knows by this time that there were aristocrats in Massachusetts and commoners in Virginia; that the Pilgrims of Plymouth were more tolerant than the Puritans of Boston, and that Rhode Island was more tolerant than either. Yet useful as these general statements may be, the interpreter 15 of men of letters must always go back of the racial type or the social system to the individual person.
He recognizes, as a truth for him, that theory of creative evolution which holds that in the ascending progress of the race each thinking person becomes a species by himself. While something is gained, then, by remembering that the racial instincts and traditions of the first colonists were overwhelmingly English, and that their political and ethical views were the product of a turbulent and distraught time, it is even more important to note how the physical situation of the colonists affected their intellectual and moral, as well as their political problems.
Among the emigrants from England, as we have seen, there were great varieties of social status, religious opinion, individual motive. But at least they all possessed the physical courage and moral hardihood to risk the dangerous voyage, the fearful hardships, and the vast uncertainties of the new life.
To go out at all, under the pressure of any motive, was to meet triumphantly a searching test. It was in truth a "sifting," and though a few picturesque rascals had the courage to go into exile while a few saints may have been deterred, it is a truism to say that the 16 pioneers were made up of brave men and braver women. It cannot be asserted that their courage was the result of any single, dominating motive, equally operative in all of the colonies.
Hemans's familiar line about seeking "freedom to worship God" was measurably true of the Pilgrims of Plymouth, about whom she was writing. But the far more important Puritan emigration to Massachusetts under Winthrop aimed not so much at "freedom" as at the establishment of a theocracy according to the Scriptures. These men straightway denied freedom of worship, not only to newcomers who sought to join them, but to those members of their own company who developed independent ways of thinking.
The list of motives for emigration ran the whole gamut, from missionary fervor for converting the savages, down through a commendable desire for gain, to the perhaps no less praiseworthy wish to escape a debtor's prison or the pillory. A few of the colonists were rich. Some were beggars or indentured servants. Most of them belonged to the middle class. John Harvard was the son of a butcher; Thomas Shepard, the son of a grocer; Roger Williams, the son of a tailor. But all three were 17 university bred and were natural leaders of men.
Once arrived in the wilderness, the pioneer life common to all of the colonists began instantly to exert its slow, irresistible pressure upon their minds and to mould them into certain ways of thinking and feeling. Without some perception of these modes of thought and emotion a knowledge of the spirit of our literature is impossible. Take, for instance, the mere physical situation of the first colonists, encamped on the very beach of the wide ocean with an illimitable forest in their rear. Their provisions were scanty. They grew watchful of the strange soil, of the new skies, of the unknown climate.
Even upon the voyage over, John Winthrop thought that "the declination of the pole star was much, even to the view, beneath that it is in England," and that "the new moon, when it first appeared, was much smaller than at any time he had seen it in England. Under these changed skies the mind began gradually to change also. At first the colonists felt themselves an outpost of Europe, a forlorn hope of the Protestant Reformation. The emigrant Englishmen were soon to discover that it contained a doctrine of human rights based upon human needs.
At the beginning of their novel experience they were doubtless unaware of any alteration in their theories. But they were facing a new situation, and that new situation became an immense factor in their unconscious growth.
Their intellectual and moral problems shifted, as a boat shifts her ballast when the wind blows from a new quarter. The John Cotton preaching in a shed in the new Boston had come to "suffer a sea-change" from the John Cotton who had been rector of St.
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Botolph's splendid church in Lincolnshire. The "church without a bishop" and the "state without a king" became a different church and state from the old, however loyally the ancient forms and phrases were retained. If the political problems of equality which were latent in Calvinism now began to take on a different meaning under the democratic conditions of pioneer life, the inner, spiritual problems of that amazing creed were intensified. But the moral strain of the old insoluble conflict between "fixed fate" and "free will" was heightened by the physical loneliness of the colonists.
Each soul must fight its own unaided, unending battle. In that moral solitude, as in the physical solitude of the settlers upon the far northwestern prairies of a later epoch, many a mind snapped.
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