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The First Colonial Literature

from 'The American Spirit in Literature'

By Bliss Perry

The simplest and oldest group of colonial writings is made up of records of exploration and adventure. They are like the letters written from California in 1849 to the "folks back East." Addressed to home-keeping Englishmen across the sea, they describe the new world, explain the present situation of the colonists, and express their hopes for the future. Captain Smith's True Relation, already alluded to, is the typical production of this class: a swift marching book, full of eager energy, of bluff and breezy picturesqueness, and of triumphant instinct for the main chance. Like most of the Elizabethans, he cannot help poetizing in his prose. Codfishing is to him a "sport"; "and what sport doth yeald a more pleasing content, and lesse hurt or charge then angling with a hooke, and crossing the sweete ayre from Isle to Isle, over the silent streams of a calme Sea?" But the gallant Captain is also capable of very plain speech, Cromwellian in its simplicity, as when he writes back to the London stockholders of the Virginia Company: "When you send again, I entreat you rather send but thirty carpenters, husbandmen, gardeners, fishermen, blacksmiths, masons, and diggers up of trees' roots, well provided, than a thousand of such as we have."

America was but an episode in the wide wanderings of Captain Smith, but he owes his place in human memory today to the physical and mental energy with which he met the demands of a new situation, and to the vividness with which he dashed down in words whatever his eyes had seen. Whether, in that agreeable passage about Pocahontas, he was guilty of romancing a little, no one really knows, but the Captain, as the first teller of this peculiarly American type of story, will continue to have an indulgent audience.

But other exiles in Virginia were skillful with the pen.

  • William Strachey's True Reportory of the Wrack of Sir Thomas Gates, Kt., vpon and from the islands of the Bermudas may or may not have given a hint to Shakespeare for the storm-scene in "The Tempest." In either case it is admirable writing, flexible, sensitive, shrewdly observant.
  • Whitaker, the apostle of Virginia, mingles, like many a missionary of the present day, the style of an exhorter with a keen discernment of the traits of the savage mind.
  • George Percy, fresh from Northumberland, tells in a language as simple as Defoe's the piteous tale of five months of illness and starvation, watched by "those wild and cruel Pagans."
  • John Pory, of "the strong potations," who thinks that "good company is the soul of this life," nevertheless comforts himself in his solitude among the "crystal rivers and odoriferous woods" by reflecting that he is escaping envy and expense.
  • George Sandys, scholar and poet, finds his solace during a Virginia exile in continuing his translation of Ovid's "Metamorphoses."
  • Colonel Norwood, an adventurer who belongs to a somewhat later day, since he speaks of having "read Mr. Smith's travels," draws the long bow of narrative quite as powerfully as the redoubtable Captain Smith, and far more smoothly, as witness his accounts of starvation on shipboard and cannibalism on shore. This Colonel is an artist who would have delighted Stevenson.

All of these early tellers of Virginia tales were Englishmen, and most of them returned to England, where their books were printed and their remaining lives were passed. But far to the north east of Virginia there were two colonies of men who earned the right to say, in William Bradford's quiet words, "It is not with us as with other men, whom small things can discourage, or small discontentments cause to wish themselves at home again." One was the colony of Pilgrims at Plymouth, headed by Bradford himself. The other was the Puritan colony of Massachusetts Bay, with John Winthrop as governor.

William Bradford and John Winthrop have left journals which are more than chronicles of adventure. They record the growth and government of a commonwealth. Both Bradford and Winthrop were natural leaders of men, grave, dignified, solid, endowed with a spirit that bred confidence. Each was learned. Winthrop, a lawyer and man of property, had a higher social standing than Bradford, who was one of the Separatists of Robinson's flock at Leyden. But the Pilgrim of the Mayflower and the well-to-do Puritan of the Bay Colony both wrote their annals like gentlemen and scholars.

William Bradford's "History of Plymouth Plantation" runs from 1620 to 1647. John Winthrop's diary, now printed as the "History of New England," begins with his voyage in 1630 and closes in the year of his death, 1649. As records of an Anglo-Saxon experiment in self-government under pioneer conditions these books are priceless; as human documents, they illuminate the Puritan character; as for "literary" value in the narrow sense of that word, neither Bradford nor Winthrop seems to have thought of literary effect. Yet the leader of the Pilgrims has passages of grave sweetness and charm, and his sketch of his associate, Elder Brewster, will bear comparison with the best English biographical writing of that century.

John Winthrop is perhaps more varied in tone, as he is in matter, but he writes throughout as a ruler of men should write, with "decent plainness and manly freedom." His best known pages, justly praised by Tyler and other historians of American thought, contain his speech before the General Court in 1645 on the nature of true liberty. No paragraphs written in America previous to the Revolution would have given more pleasure to Abraham Lincoln, but it is to be feared that Lincoln never saw Governor Winthrop's book, though his own ancestor, Samuel Lincoln of Hingham, lived under John Winthrop's jurisdiction.

The theory of government held by the dominant party of the first two generations of New England pioneers has often been called a "theocracy," that is to say, a government according to the Word of God as expounded and enforced by the clergy. The experiment was doomed to ultimate failure, for it ran counter to some of the noblest instincts of human nature. But its administration was in the hands of able men. The power of the clergy was well-nigh absolute. The political organization of the township depended upon the ecclesiastical organization as long as the right to vote was confined to church members. How sacrosanct and awful was the position of the clergyman may be perceived from Hawthorne's The Minister's Black Veil and The Scarlet Letter.

Yet it must be said that men like Thomas Hooker and John Cotton, Shepard and Norton, had every instinct and capacity for leadership. With the notable exception of Hooker, such men were aristocrats, holding John Winthrop's opinion that "Democracy is, among most civil nations, accounted the meanest and worst form of government." They were fiercely intolerant. The precise reason for the Hooker migration from Cambridge to Hartford in 1636-the very year of the founding of Harvard-was prudently withheld, but it is now thought to be the instinct of escape from the clerical architects of the Cambridge Platform. Yet no one would today call Thomas Hooker a liberal in religion, pioneer in political liberty though he proved to be. His extant sermons have the steady stroke of a great hammer; smiting at the mind and heart. "Others because they have felt the heavy hand of God... upon these grounds they build their hopes: 'I have had my hell in this life, and I hope to have heaven in the world to come; I hope the worst is over.'" Not so, thunders the preacher in reply: "Sodom and Gomorrah they burnt in brimstone and they shall burn in hell." One of Hooker's successors has called him "a son of thunder and a son of consolation by turns." The same may be said of Thomas Shepard, another graduate of Emmanuel College in the old Cambridge, who became the "soul-melting preacher" of the newer Cambridge by the Charles. Pure, ravishing notes of spiritual devotion still sing themselves in his pages. He is wholly Calvinist. He thinks "the truth is a poor mean thing in itself" and that the human reason cannot be "the last resolution of all doubts," which must be sought only in the written Word of God. He holds it "a tough work, a wonderful hard matter to be saved." "Jesus Christ is not got with a wet finger." Yet, like so many mystics, he yearns to be "covered with God, as with a cloud," to be "drowned, plunged, and swallowed up with God." One hundred years later we shall find this same rhapsodic ecstasy in the meditations of Jonathan Edwards.

John Cotton, the third of the mighty men in the early Colonial pulpit, owes his fame more to his social and political influence than to his literary power. Yet even that was thought commanding. Trained, like Thomas Hooker and Shepard, at Emmanuel College, and fresh from the rectorship of St. Botolph's in the Lincolnshire Boston, John Cotton dominated that new Boston which was named in his honor. He became the Pope of the theocracy; a clever Pope and not an unkindly one. He seems to have shared some of the opinions of Anne Hutchinson, though he "pronounced the sentence of admonition" against her, says Winthrop, with much zeal and detestation of her errors. Hawthorne, in one of his ironic moods, might have done justice to this scene. Cotton was at heart too liberal for his role of Primate, and fate led him to persecute a man whose very name has become a symbol of victorious tolerance, Roger Williams.

Williams, known today as a friend of Cromwell, Milton, and Sir Harry Vane, had been exiled from Massachusetts for maintaining that the civil power had no jurisdiction over conscience. This doctrine was fatal to the existence of a theocratic state dominated by the church. John Cotton was perfectly logical in "enlarging" Roger Williams into the wilderness, but he showed less than his usual discretion in attacking the quick-tempered Welshman in pamphlets. It was like asking Hotspur if he would kindly consent to fight. Back and forth the books fly, for Williams loves this game. His "Bloody Tenet of Persecution for Cause of Conscience" calls forth Mr. Cotton's "Bloody Tenet washed and made white in the Blood of the Lamb;" and this in turn provokes the torrential flood of Williams's masterpiece, "The Bloody Tenet yet more Bloody, by Mr. Cotton's endeavor to wash it white in the Blood of the Lamb." There is glorious writing here, and its effect cannot be suggested by quoting sentences. But there is one sentence in a letter written by Williams in his old age to his fellow-townsmen of Providence which points the whole moral of the terrible mistake made by the men who sought spiritual liberty in America for themselves, only to deny that same liberty to others. "I have only one motion and petition," begs this veteran pioneer who had forded many a swollen stream and built many a rude bridge in the Plantations: "it is this, that after you have got over the black brook of some soul bondage yourselves, you tear not down the bridge after you."

It is for such wise and humane counsels as this that Roger Williams is remembered. His opponents had mightier intellects than his, but the world has long since decided against them. Colonial sermon literature is read today chiefly by antiquarians who have no sympathy for the creed which once gave it vitality. Its theology, like the theology of "Paradise Lost or the Divine Comedy," has sunk to the bottom of the black brook. But we cannot judge fairly the contemporary effect of this pulpit literature without remembering the passionate faith that made pulpit and pews copartners in a supreme spiritual struggle. Historians properly insist upon the aesthetic poverty of the New England Puritans; that their rule of life cut them off from an enjoyment of the dramatic literature of their race, then just closing its most splendid epoch; that they had little poetry or music and no architecture and plastic art. But we must never forget that to men of their creed the Sunday sermons and the week-day "lectures" served as oratory, poetry, and drama. These outpourings of the mind and heart of their spiritual leaders were the very stuff of human passion in its intensest forms. Puritan churchgoers, passing hours upon hours every week in rapt absorption with the noblest of all poetry and prose in the pages of their chief book, the Bible, were at least as sensitive to the beauty of words and the sweep of emotions as our contemporaries upon whose book-shelves Spenser and Milton stand unread.

It is only by entering into the psychology of the period that we can estimate its attitude towards the poetry written by the pioneers themselves. The "Bay Psalm Book" (1640), the first book printed in the colonies, is a wretched doggerel arrangement of the magnificent King James Version of the Psalms, designed to be sung in churches. Few of the New England churches could sing more than half-a-dozen tunes, and a pitch-pipe was for a long time the only musical instrument allowed. Judged as hymnology or poetry, the Bay "Psalm Book" provokes a smile. But the men and women who used it as a handbook of devotion sang it with their hearts aflame. In judging such a popular seventeenth-century poem as Wigglesworth's "Day of Doom" one must strip oneself quite free from the twentieth century, and pretend to be sitting in the chimney-corner of a Puritan kitchen, reading aloud by that firelight which, as Lowell once humorously suggested, may have added a "livelier relish" to the poet's "premonitions of eternal combustion." Lowell could afford to laugh about it, having crossed that particular black brook. But for several generations the boys and girls of New England had read the "Day of Doom" as if Mr. Wigglesworth, the gentle and somewhat sickly minister of Malden, had veritably peeped into Hell. It is the present fashion to underestimate the power of Wigglesworth's verse. At its best it has a trampling, clattering shock like a charge of cavalry and a sound like clanging steel. Mr. Kipling and other cunning ballad-makers have imitated the peculiar rhyme structure chosen by the nervous little parson. But no living poet can move his readers to the fascinated horror once felt by the Puritans as they followed Wigglesworth's relentless gaze into the future of the soul's destiny.

Historical curiosity may still linger, of course, over other verse-writers of the period. Anne Bradstreet's poems, for instance, are not without grace and womanly sweetness, in spite of their didactic themes and portentous length. But this lady, born in England, the daughter of Governor Dudley and later the wife of Governor Bradstreet, chose to imitate the more fantastic of the moralizing poets of England and France. There is little in her hundreds of pages which seems today the inevitable outcome of her own experience in the New World. For readers who like roughly mischievous satire, of a type initiated in England by Bishop Hall and Donne, there is "The Simple Cobbler of Agawam" written by the roving clergyman Nathaniel Ward. But he lived only a dozen years in Massachusetts, and his satirical pictures are scarcely more "American" than the satire upon German professors in "Sartor Resartus" is "German." Like Charles Dickens's "American Notes," Ward's give the reaction of a born Englishman in the presence of the sights and the talk and the personages of the transatlantic world.

Of all the colonial writings of the seventeenth century, those that have lost least of their interest through the lapse of years are narratives of struggles with the Indians. The image of the "bloody savage" has always hovered in the background of the American imagination. Our boys and girls have "played Indian" from the beginning, and the actual Indian is still found, as for three hundred years past, upon the frontier fringe of our civilization. Novelists like Cooper, historians like Parkman, poets like Longfellow, have dealt with the rich material offered by the life of the aborigines, but the long series begins with the scribbled story of colonists. Here are comedy and tragedy, plain narratives of trading and travel, missionary zeal and triumphs; then the inevitable alienation of the two races and the doom of the native.

The "noble savage" note may be found in John Rolfe, the husband of Pocahontas, with whom, poor fellow, his "best thoughts are so intangled and enthralled." Other Virginians, like Captain Smith, Strachey, and Percy, show close naturalistic observation, touched with the abounding Elizabethan zest for novelties. To Alexander Whitaker, however, these "naked slaves of the devil" were "not so simple as some have supposed." He yearned and labored over their souls, as did John Eliot and Roger Williams and Daniel Gookin of New England. In the Pequot War of 1637 the grim settlers resolved to be rid of that tribe once for all, and the narratives of Captain Edward Johnson and Captain John Mason, who led in the storming and slaughter at the Indians' Mystic Fort, are as piously relentless as anything in the Old Testament. Cromwell at Drogheda, not long after, had soldiers no more merciless than these exterminating Puritans, who wished to plough their fields henceforth in peace. A generation later the storm broke again in King Philip's War. Its tales of massacre, captivity, and single-handed fighting linger in the American imagination still. Typical pamphlets are Mary Rowlandson's thrilling tale of the Lancaster massacre and her subsequent captivity, and the loud-voiced Captain Church's unvarnished description of King Philip's death. The King, shot down like a wearied bull-moose in the deep swamp, "fell upon his face in the mud and water, with his gun under him." They "drew him through the mud to the upland; and a doleful, great, naked dirty beast he looked like." The head brought only thirty shillings at Plymouth: "scanty reward and poor encouragement," thought Captain Church. William Hubbard, the minister of Ipswich, wrote a comprehensive "Narrative of the Troubles with the Indians in New England," bringing the history down to 1677. Under the better known title of "Indian Wars," this fervid and dramatic tale, penned in a quiet parsonage, has stirred the pulses of every succeeding generation. The close of King Philip's War, 1676, coinciding as it does with Bacon's Rebellion in Virginia, marks an era in the development of our independent life. The events of that year, in the words of Professor Tyler, "established two very considerable facts, namely, that English colonists in America could be so provoked as to make physical resistance to the authority of England, and, second, that English colonists in America could, in the last resort, put down any combination of Indians that might be formed against them. In other words, it was then made evident that English colonists would certainly be safe in the new world, and also that they would not always be colonists."

While the end of an historical or literary era cannot always be thus conveniently indicated by a date, there is no doubt that the final quarter of the seventeenth century witnessed deep changes in the outward life and the inner temper of the colonists. The "first fine careless rapture" was over. Only a few aged men could recall the memory of the first settlements. Between the founding of Jamestown and the rebellion under the leadership of Nathaniel Bacon almost seventy years had intervened, an interval corresponding to that which separates us from the Mexican War. Roger Williams ended his much-enduring and beneficent life in the flourishing town of Providence in 1684. He had already outlived Cotton and Hooker, Shepard and Winthrop, by more than thirty years. Inevitably men began, toward the end of the century, to take stock of the great venture of colonization, to scrutinize their own history and present position, to ask searching questions of themselves. "You have better food and raiment than was in former times," wrote the aged Roger Clark, in 1676; "but have you better hearts than your forefathers had?" Thomas Walley's "Languishing Commonwealth" maintains that "Faith is dead, and Love is cold, and Zeal is gone." Urian Oakes's election sermon of 1670 in Cambridge is a condemnation of the prevalent worldliness and ostentation. This period of critical inquiry and assessment, however, also gives grounds for just pride. History, biography, eulogy, are flourishing. The reader is reminded of that epoch, one hundred and fifty years later, when the deaths of John Adams and of Thomas Jefferson, falling upon the same anniversary day, the Fourth of July, 1826, stirred all Americans to a fresh recognition of the services wrought by the Fathers of the Republic. So it was in the colonies at the close of the seventeenth century. Old England, in one final paroxysm of political disgust, cast out the last Stuart in 1688. That Revolution marks, as we have seen, the close of a long and tragic struggle which began in the autocratic theories of James the First and in the absolutism of Charles. Almost every phase of that momentous conflict had its reverberation across the Atlantic, as the history of the granting and withdrawal of colonial charters witnesses abundantly. The American pioneers were quite aware of what was going on in England, and they praised God or grumbled, thriftily profited by the results or quietly nullified them, as the case might be. But all the time, while England was rocked to its foundations, the colonists struck steadily forward into their own independent life.

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