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A Student's History of American Literature

by Edward Simonds

Chapter 1: I | II | III | IV | Chapter 2: I | II | III | IV | V | Chapter 3: I | II | III | IV | Chapter 4: I | II | III | IV | V | Chapter 5: I | II | III | IV | Chapter 6: I | II | III | IV | V | VI | Chapter 7: I | II | III | IV |
Chapter 1.


THE story of a nation's literature ordinarily has its beginning far back in the remoter history of that nation, obscured by the uncertainties of an age of which no trustworthy records have been preserved. The earliest writings of a people are usually the first efforts at literary production of a race in its childhood; and as these compositions develop they record the intellectual and artistic growth of the race. The conditions which attended the development of literature in America, therefore, are peculiar. At the very time when Sir Walter Raleigh -- a type of the great and splendid men of action who made such glorious history for England in the days of Elizabeth -- was organizing the first futile efforts to colonize the new world, English Literature, which is the joint possession of the whole English-speaking race, was rapidly developing. Sir Philip Sidney had written his Arcadia, first of the great prose romances, and enriched English poetry with his sonnets; Edmund Spenser had composed The Shepherd's Calendar; Christopher Marlowe had established the drama upon heroic lines; and Shakespeare had just entered on the first flights of his fancy. When, in 1606,King James granted to a company of London merchants the first charter of Virginia, Sidney and Spenser and Marlowe were dead, Shakespeare had produced some of his greatest plays, the name of Ben Jonson, along with other notable names, had been added to the list of our great dramatists, and the philosopher, Francis Bacon, had published the first of his essays. These are the familiar names which represent the climax of literary achievement in the Elizabethan age; and this brilliant epoch had reached its full height when the first permanent English settlement in America was made at Jamestown in 1607. On New Year's day, the little fleet commanded by Captain Newport sailed forth on its venturesome and romantic enterprise, the significance of which was not altogether unsuspected by those who saw it depart. Michael Drayton, one of the most popular poets of his day, later poet laureate of the kingdom, sang in quaint, prophetic verses a cheery farewell: --

"You brave heroic minds,
Worthy your country's name,
That honor still pursue,
Go and subdue,
Whilst loitering hinds
Lurk here at home with shame.

"And in regions farre,
Such heroes bring ye forth
As those from whom we came;
And plant our name
Under that star
Not known unto our north.

"And as there plenty grows
Of laurel everywhere,
Apollo's sacred tree,
You it may see,
A poet's brows
To crown, that may sing there."
The Virginia Colony.

This little band of adventurers "in regions farre" disembarked from the ships Discovery, Good Speed, and Susan Constant upon the site of a town yet to be built, fifty miles inland, on the shore of a stream as yet unexplored, in the heart of a vast green wilderness the home of savage tribes who were none too friendly. It was hardly to be expected that the ripe seeds of literary culture should be found in such a company, or should germinate under such conditions in any notable luxuriance. The surprising fact, however, is that in this group of gentlemen adventurers there was one man of some literary craft, who, while leading the most strenuous life of all, efficiently protecting and heartening his less courageous comrades in all manner of perilous experiences, compiled and wrote with much literary skill the picturesque chronicles of the settlement.

John Smith, 1580-1631.

Captain John Smith, the mainstay of the Jamestown colony in the critical period of its early existence, was a true soldier of fortune, venturesome, resolute, self-reliant, resourceful; withal a man of great good sense, and with the grasp on circumstances which belongs to the man of power. His life since leaving his home on a Lincolnshire farm at sixteen years of age, had been replete with romantic adventure. He had been a soldier in the French army and had served in that of Holland. He had wandered through Italy and Greece into the countries of eastern Europe, and had lived for a year in Turkey and Tartary. He had been in Russia, in Germany, in Spain, and in Africa, and was familiar with the islands of the Mediterranean and those of the eastern Atlantic. Smith afterward wrote a narrative of his singularly full and adventurous life, not sparing, apparently, the embellishment which in his time seems to have been reckoned a natural feature of narrative art. The honesty of his statements has been doubted, perhaps to the point of injustice; and at the present time a reaction is to be seen which presents the writings of the sturdy old adventurer in a more favorable light.

It was natural enough that such a daring rover should catch the spirit of enthusiasm with which the exploration and settlement of the New World had inflamed Englishmen of his time and type. And it was a recognition of his experience and practical sagacity which led to his appointment as a member of the Council at the head of affairs in the Jamestown colony.

The True Relation.

In so far as the literary accomplishments of Captain John Smith have any immediate connection with American history, our interest centres upon his True Relation of such occurrences and accidents of noate as hath hapned in Virginia since the first planting of that Collony, which is now resident in the South part thereof, till the last returne from thence (London, 1608). Smith's writings are plain, blunt narratives, which please by their rough vigor and the breezy picturesqueness of his rugged, unaffected style. Hardly to be accounted literature except by way of compliment, the True Relation is not unworthy of its place in our literary record as the first English book produced in America. It supplies our earliest chronicle of the perils and hardships of our American pioneers. The romantic story of Pocahontas is found in its pages, briefly recounted by the writer in terms which hardly warrant its dismissal as a myth; and many another thrilling incident of that distressing struggle with the wilderness which makes a genuine appeal to the reader now, as it undoubtedly did to the kinsmen of the colonists in England for whom the book was originally prepared.

Other writings.

Smith was the author of several other narrative and descriptive pamphlets in which he recounted the early history of the colonies at Plymouth and on Massachusetts Bay. Indeed, it was the redoubtable Captain who first gave to that part of the country the name New England; and to the little harbor on Cape Cod, before the coming of the Puritans, Smith had already given the name of Plymouth. In 1624, he published A General History of Virginia, a compilation edited in England from the reports of various writers.

William Strachey, fl. 1609-1618.

Another interesting chronicle of this perilous time was written in the summer of 1610 by a gentleman recently arrived at Jamestown after a stormy and eventful voyage. This vivid narrative, called A true Reportory of the wracke and redemption of Sir Thomas Gates, knight, upon and from the ilands of the Bermudas, his coming to Virginia, and the estate of that colony, was written by William Strachey, of whose personality little is known. The tremendous picture of shipwreck and disaster is presented in a masterly style.

"The clouds gathering thick upon us, and the winds singing and whistling most unusually,... a dreadful storm and hideous began to blow from out the Northeast, which swelling and roaring as it were by fits, some hours with more violence than others, at length did beat all light from heaven, which like an hell of darkness, turned black upon us....

"Prayers might well be in the heart and lips, but drowned in the outcries of the Officers, -- nothing heard that could give comfort, nothing seen that might encourage hope....

"The sea swelled above the Clouds and gave battle unto heaven.

"Sir George Summers being upon the watch, had an apparition of a little round light, like a faint star, trembling and streaming along with a sparkling blaze, half the height from the mainmast, and shooting sometimes from shroud to shroud, tempting to settle as it were upon any of the four shrouds, and for three or four hours together, or rather more, half the night it kept with us, running sometimes along the mainyard to the very end, and then returning....

"It being now Friday, the fourth morning, it wanted little but that there had been a general determination to have shut up hatches and commending our sinful souls to God, committed the ship to the mercy of the sea."

No wonder that when Strachey's little book, printed in London, fell into the hands of William Shakespeare, this dramatic recital of the furious storm which drove the Virginia fleet on the reefs of "the still vexed Bermoothes" should have inspired the poet in his description of the tempest evoked by Prospero on his enchanted island.

So other narratives were written and other chronicles compiled by these industrious Jamestown settlers; but their chronicles and reports were largely official documents prepared for the guidance of the company's officers in London, and for the general enlightenment of Englishmen at home. Nowhere among them do we find the ring of that resounding style which makes literature of Strachey's prose.

George Sandys, 1578-1644.

It did not seem likely that thus early in Virginia history any laurels would be gathered from Apollo's sacred tree to crown a poet's brow -- as Drayton had pleasantly predicted in his lines of farewell. Yet, after all, among these gentlemen adventurers who continued to come from England in increasing numbers, there arrived in 1621, as treasurer of the Virginia company, one who was recognized as a poet of considerable rank -- George Sandys, author of an excellent metrical translation of the first five books of Ovid. To Sandys also, Drayton, now laureate, had imparted a professional benediction, exhorting his friend with appreciative words: --

"Let see what lines Virginia will produce.
Go on with Ovid....
Entice the muses thither to repair;
Entreat them gently; train them to that air."
And amid the exacting duties of his position in a most discouraging time, in experiences of privation and distress, amid the terrors of Indian uprising and massacre, he "went on" with Ovid. After four years of strenuous life in the new America, Sandys went home to England with his translation of the Metamorphoses completed, and in 1626 presented his finished work to the king. It was a notable poem, was so accepted by contemporaries, and afterward elicited the admiration of Dryden and of Pope. Thus came the first expression of the poetic art in the New World -- "the first utterance of the conscious literary spirit, articulated in America."

We record with interest these few literary appearances in the annals of our early history, but we can in no sense claim these writers as representatives of our native American literature. Smith, Strachey, and Sandys were Englishmen temporarily interested in a great scheme of colonization. After brief sojourn in the colony, they returned to England. They were not colonists; they were travelers; and while their compositions have a peculiar interest, and are not without significance for us, they cannot be accounted American works.

Development of the Colony.

The record of Virginia's early struggles, its difficulties with the Indians, its depletion by illness and famine, its losses due to the incapacity of leaders and policies ill adapted to the conditions of a true colonial life, its reinforcements, its acquisition of colonists, its advancement in wealth and importance, -- this is familiar history. The remarkable fact is the rapidity with which the colony developed. In 1619, twelve hundred settlers arrived; along with them were sent one hundred convicts to become servants. Boys and girls, picked up in the London streets, were shipped to Virginia to be bound during their minority to the planters. In the same year a Dutch man-of-war landed twenty negroes at Jamestown, who were sold as slaves -- the first in America. The cultivation of tobacco became profitable, the plantations were extended, and new colonists were brought over in large numbers. Following the execution of Charles I, and the establishment of the Puritan Protectorate, hundreds of the exiled Cavaliers migrated to Virginia with their families and traditions. These new colonists stamped the character of the dominion that was to be. The best blood of England was thus infused into the new enterprise, and the spirit of the South was determined. In 1650, the population of Virginia was 15,000; twenty years later, it was 40,000.

Yet the southern soil did not prove favorable to literary growth. English books were, of course, brought into the colony, and private libraries were to be found here and there in the homes of the wealthy. There were no free schools in Virginia, and but few private schools. The children of the planters received instruction under tutors in their own homes, of were sent to England for their education. For fear of seditious literature, printing-presses were forbidden by the king. In 1671, Governor Berkeley declared: --

Literary Conditions.

"I thank God there are no free schools, nor printing, and I hope we shall not have these hundred years; for learning has brought disobedience into the world, and printing has divulged them and libels against the best of governments. God keep us from both."

"Leah and Rachel."

Of original literary accomplishment, there was little or no thought until well on in the eighteenth century. Two or three vigorous pamphlets, published in England not long after 1650, are interesting as voicing the first decided utterances of a genuine American spirit in the southern settlements. John Hammond, a resident in the newer colony of Maryland, visiting his old home in 1656, became homesick for the one he had left in America. "It is not long since I came from thence," he said, "nor do I intend, by God's assistance, to be long out of it again.... It is that country in which I desire to spend the remnant of my days, in which I covet to make my grave," His little work, entitled Leach and Rachel ("the two fruitful sisters, Virginia and Maryland"), was written with a purpose to show what boundless opportunity was afforded in these two colonies to those who in England had no opportunity at all.

Chapter 1: I | II | III | IV | Chapter 2: I | II | III | IV | V | Chapter 3: I | II | III | IV | Chapter 4: I | II | III | IV | V | Chapter 5: I | II | III | IV | Chapter 6: I | II | III | IV | V | VI | Chapter 7: I | II | III | IV |
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