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American Literature

The wide use of the author's History of English Literature, the favor with which it has been received in all parts of the United States, and the number of earnest requests for a History of American Literature on the same plan, have led to the writing of this book.

RELATION TO ENGLISH LITERATURE.—The literature produced in that part of America known as the United States did not begin as an independent literature. The early colonists were Englishmen who brought with them their own language, books, and modes of thought. England had a world-famous literature before her sons established a permanent settlement across the Atlantic. Shakespeare had died four years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. When an American goes to Paris he can neither read the books, nor converse with the citizens, if he knows no language but his own.

PROGRESS TOWARD NATIONALITY.—The French and Indian War, which began in 1754, served its purpose in making the colonists feel that they were one people. At this time most of them were living on the seacoast from Georgia to Maine, and had not yet even crossed the great Appalachian range of mountains. The chief men of one colony knew little of the leaders in the other colonies. This war made George Washington known outside of Virginia. There was not much interchange of literature between the two leading colonies, Virginia and Massachusetts.

A NEW LITERARY CENTER.—We have seen that Massachusetts supplied the majority of the colonial writers before the French and Indian War. During the next period, Philadelphia came to the front with Benjamin Franklin and Charles Brockden Brown. In this third period, New York forged ahead, both in population and in the number of her literary men. Although in 1810 she was smaller than Philadelphia, by 1820 she had a population of 123,706, which was 15,590 more than Philadelphia, and 80,408 more than Boston.

CHANGE IN RELIGIOUS THOUGHT.—Since the death of Jonathan Edwards in the middle of the seventeenth century, New England had done little to sustain her former literary reputation. As the middle of the nineteenth century approaches, however, we shall find a remarkable group of writers in Boston and its vicinity. The causes of this wonderful literary awakening are in some respects similar to those which produced the Elizabethan age. In the sixteenth century the Reformation and the Revival of Learning exerted their joint force on England.

This volume is intended as a companion to the historical sketch of English literature, entitled From Chaucer to Tennyson, published last year for the Chautauqua Circle. In writing it I have followed the same plan, aiming to present the subject in a sort of continuous essay rather than in the form of a “primer” or elementary manual. I have not undertaken to describe, or even to mention, every American author or book of importance, but only those which seemed to me of most significance.

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