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INITIAL STUDIES

IN

AMERICAN LETTERS.

CHAPTER I.

THE COLONIAL PERIOD.

1607-1765

The writings of our colonial era have a much greater importance as history than as literature. It would be unfair to judge of the intellectual vigor of the English colonists in America by the books that they wrote; those "stern men with empires in their brains” had more pressing work to do than the making of books. The first settlers, indeed, were brought face to face with strange and exciting conditionsthe sea, the wilderness, the Indians, the flora and fauna of a new world—things which seem stimulating to the imagination, and incidents and experiences which might have lent themselves easily to poetry or romance.

Of all these they wrote back to England reports which were faithful and sometimes vivid, but which, upon the whole, hardly rise into the region of literature. “New England,” said Hawthorne, "was then in a state incomparably more picturesque than at present.” But to a contemporary that old New England of the seventeenth century doubtless seemed any thing but picturesque, filled with grim, hard, work-day realities. The planters both of Virginia and Massachusetts were decimated by sickness and starvation, constantly threatened by Indian wars, and troubled by quarrels among themselves and fears of disturbance from England. The wrangles between the royal governors and the House of Burgesses in the Old Dominion, and the theological squabbles in New England, which fill our colonial records, are petty and wearisome to read of. At least, they would be so did we not bear in mind to what imperial destinies these conflicts were slowly educating the little communities which had hardly yet secured a foothold on the edge of the raw continent.

Even a century and a half after the Jamestown and Plymouth settlements, when the American plantations had grown strong and flourishing, and commerce was building up large towns, and there were wealth and generous living and fine society, the “good old colony days when we lived under the king,” had yielded little in the way of literature that is of any permanent interest. There would seem to be something in the relation of a colony to the mother-country which dooms the thought and art of the former to a helpless provincialism. Canada and Australia are great provinces, wealthier and more populous than the thirteen colonies at the time of their separation from England. They have cities whose inhabitants number hundreds of thousands, wellequipped universities, libraries, cathedrals, costly public buildings, all the outward appliances of an advanced civilization; and yet what have Canada and Australia contributed to British literature ?

American literature had no infancy. That engaging naiveté and that heroic rudeness which give a charm to the early popular tales and songs of Europe find, of course, no counterpart on our soil. Instead of emerging from the twilight of the past the first American writings were produced under the garish noon of a modern and learned age. Decrepitude rather than youthfulness is the mark of a colonial literature. The poets, in particular, instead of finding a challenge to their imagination in the new life about them, are apt to go on imitating the cast-off literary fashions of the mothercountry. America was settled by Englishmen who were contemporary with the greatest names in English literature. Jamestown was planted in 1607, nine years before Shakespeare's death, and the hero of that enterprise, Captain John Smith, may not improbably have been a personal acquaintance of the great dramatist. “They have acted my fatal tragedies on the stage,” wrote Smith. Many circumstances in The Tempest were doubtless suggested by the wreck of the Sea Venture on “the still vext Bermoothes,” as described by William Strachey in his True Reportory of the Wrack and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates, written at Jamestown, and published at London in 1610. Shakespeare's contemporary, Michael Drayton, the poet of the Polyolbion, addressed a spirited valedictory ode to the three shiploads of “brave, heroic minds” who sailed from London in 1606 to colonize Virginia, an ode which ended with the prophecy of a future American literature:

" And as there plenty grows
Of laurel every-where-
Apollo's sacred tree-
You it may see
A poet's brows
To crown, that may sing there."

Another English poet, Samuel Daniel, the author of the Civil Wars, had also prophesied in a similar strain:

“And who in time knows whither we may vent

The treasure of our tongue, to what strange shores ...
What worlds in the yet unformed Occident

May come refined with accents that are ours ? ”

It needed but a slight movement in the balances of fate, and Walter Raleigh might have been reckoned among the poets of America. He was one of the original promoters of the Virginia colony, and he made voyages in person to Newfoundland and Guiana. And more unlikely things have happened than that when John Milton left Cambridge in 1632 he should have been tempted to follow Winthrop and the colonists of Massachusetts Bay, who had sailed two years before. Sir Henry Vane, the younger, who was afterward Milton's friend

“Vane, young in years, but in sage counsel old "

came over in 1635, and was for a short time governor of Massachusetts. These are idle speculations, and yet, when we reflect that Oliver Cromwell was on the point of embarking for America when he was prevented by the king's officers, we may, for the nonce, “let our frail thoughts dally with false surmise," and fancy by how narrow a chance Paradise Lost missed being written in Boston. But, as a rule, the members of the literary guild are not quick to emigrate. They like the feeling of an old and rich civilization about them, a state of society which America has only begun to reach during the present century.

Virginia and New England, says Lowell, were the “two great distributing centers of the English race.” The men who colonized the country between the Capes of Virginia were not drawn, to any large extent, from the literary or bookish classes in the old country. Many of the first settlers were gentlemen—too many, Captain Smith thought, for the good of the plantation. Some among these were men of worth and spirit, “ of good means and great parentage." Such was, for example, George Percy, a younger brother of the Earl of Northumberland, who was one of the original adventurers, and the author of A Discourse of the Plantation of the Southern Colony of Virginia, which contains a graphic narrative of the fever and famine summer of 1607 at Jamestown. But many of these gentlemen were idlers,

unruly gallants, packed thither by their friends to escape ill destinies;” dissipated younger sons, soldiers of fortune, who came over after the gold which was supposed to abound

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