THE COLONIAL PERIOD (1640-1770).
1. THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY.—Of all the nations which have sprung into existence through the medium of European colonization, since the discovery of America, the United States is the only one having a literature of its own creation, and containing original works of a high order. Its earliest productions, however, are of little value; they belong not to a period of literary leisure, but to one of trial and danger, when the colonist was forced to contend with a savage enemy, a rude soil, and all the privations of pioneer life. It was not until the spirit of freedom began to influence the national character, that the literature of the colonies assumed a distinctive form, although its earliest productions are not without value as marking its subsequent development.
Among the bold spirits who, with Captain John Smith, braved the pestilential swamps and wily Indians of Virginia, there were some lovers of literature, the most prominent of whom was George Sandys, who translated Ovid's “Metamorphoses” on the banks of James River. The work, published in London in 1620, was dedicated to Charles I. and received the commendations of Pope and Dryden. The Puritans, too, carried a love of letters with them to the shores of New England, and their literary productions, like their colony, took a far more lasting root than did those of their more southern brethren. The intellect of the colonies first developed itself in a theological form, which was the natural consequence of emigration, induced by difference of religious opinion, the free scope afforded for discussion, and the variety of creeds represented by the different races who thus met on a common soil. The clergy, also, were the best educated and the most influential class, and the colonial era therefore boasted chiefly a theological literature, though for the most part controversial and fugitive. While there is no want of learning or reasoning power in the tracts of many of the theologians of that day, they are now chiefly referred to by the antiquarian or the curious student of divinity.
The first hook printed in the colonies was the “Bay Psalm Book,” which appeared in 1640; it was reprinted in England, where it passed through seventy editions, and retained its popularity for more than a century, although it was not strictly original, and was devoid of literary merit.
This was followed by a volume of original poems, by Mrs. Anne Bradstreet (d. 1672); though not above mediocrity, these effusions are chaste in language and not altogether insipid in ideas. A few years later, John Eliot (1604-1690), the famous Apostle to the Indians, published a version of the Psalms and of the Old and New Testaments in the Indian tongue, which was the first Bible printed in America. The next production of value was a “Concordance of the Scriptures,” by John Newman (d. 1663), compiled by the light of pine knots in one of the frontier settlements of New England; the first work of its kind, and for more than a century the most perfect. Cotton Mather (d. 1728) was one of the most learned men of his age, and one of its representative writers. His principal work is the “Magnalia Christi Americana,” an ecclesiastical history of New England, from 1620 to 1698, including the civil history of the times, several biographies, and an account of the Indian wars, and of New England witchcraft. Eliot and Mather were the most prominent colonial writers down to 1700.
2. FROM 1700 TO 1770.—From the year 1700 to the breaking out of the Revolution, it was the custom of many of the colonists to send their sons to England to be educated. Yale College and other institutions of learning were established at home, from which many eminent scholars graduated, and, although it was the fashion of the day to imitate the writers of the time of Queen Anne and the two Georges, the productions of this age exhibit a manly vigor of thought, and mark a transition from the theological to the more purely literary era of American authorship.
Jonathan Edwards (1703-1785) was the first native writer who gave unequivocal evidence of great reasoning power and originality of thought; he may not unworthily be styled the first man of the world during the second quarter of the eighteenth century; and as a theologian, Dr. Chalmers and Robert Hall declare him to have been the greatest in all Christian ages. Of the works of Edwards, consisting of diaries, discourses, and treatises, that on “The Will” is the most celebrated.
Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was equally illustrious in statesmanship and philosophy. The style of his political and philosophical writings is admirable for its simplicity, clearness, precision, and condensation; and that of his letters and essays has all the wit and elegance that characterize the best writers of Queen Anne's time. His autobiography is one of the most pleasing compositions in the English language, and his moral writings have had a powerful influence on the character of the American people.
From the early youth of Franklin until about the year 1770, general literature received much attention, and numerous productions of merit both in prose and verse appeared, which, if not decidedly great, were interesting for the progress they displayed. Many practical minds devoted themselves to colonial history, and their labors have been of great value to subsequent historians. Among these historical writings, those of Cadwallader Colden (1688-1776) take the first rank. As we approach the exciting dawn of the Revolution, the growing independence of thought becomes more and more manifest.