In honor of July 4th, we thought we’d talk a bit about the early literature of our country, especially some books and writers that we no longer read in school. Even in these early works, we see the richness of American literature coming alive.
Let’s begin with taking a look at the earliest American novels. Popular consensus says that the first novel written in a free United States was The Power of Sympathy, by William Hill Brown, in 1789. The story is told in an epistolary form (i.e. through the exchange of letters), as was popular at the time. The Power of Sympathy is classified as a “sentimental” novel, one which deals heavily with the characters’ emotions. The plot is racy, even by today’s standards, as it is based on a real-life case of scandal and seduction.
While Brown’s book is considered the first American novel, the first American novelist to establish a reputation was another “Brown”, fully named Charles Brockden Brown. The writings of Charles Brockden Brown are famous as being early examples of the Gothic novel, involving old manor houses, eerie passageways, graveyards, and sinister doings. Some of Brockden Brown’s novels include Wieland, Ormond, and Edgar Huntly.
Shortly after Brockden Brown, we see the arrival of Washington Irving, generally considered the first American writer to support himself entirely by his pen. Irving’s literary fame commenced with his History of New York, a hilarious satire which poked fun at New York’s colonial Dutch families. This work was followed by The Sketch Book, which contained the tales of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” – both of which remain part of the standard American literary canon to this day.
While Irving was not a novelist, the next writer of novels to gain notoriety was James Fenimore Cooper. Many of his novels focus on the American colonies before Independence. One of his early novels, The Spy, is an exciting tale of the American Revolution. His most famous novel, The Last of the Mohicans, is a story of the French and Indian War, which took place from 1756-1763.
Moving away from fiction, a book that serves as an embodiment of early America is The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Covering the first half of Franklin’s life, the book gives a first-hand glimpse of life in colonial Boston and Philadelphia, while capturing the American spirit of diligence and practicality. Franklin himself is often referred to as “The First American”. Lastly, the work is a great guide for how to improve our daily lives — in addition to being an autobiography, it is also a self-help book!
While Franklin’s autobiography does not mention his political career, an early series of political writings is found in The Federalist Papers, a combination of essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay (our first Chief Justice). Written from 1787-1788, the essays had the intention of motivating states to sign the Constitution, which was being criticized by people who did not want a strong central government. The Federalist Papers is a stimulating insight into the brilliant minds of our Founding Fathers – it shows their intellect, education, and genuine concern for the republic. The most famous essay is #10, written by Madison, and discusses the dangers of faction. The writing style is sublime, featuring the beauty of 18th-century prose and comparable to Burke and Gibbon in England – showing that these young American whippersnappers could write just as well as their cousins across the pond. To give you a taste of this literary flair, one early sentence by Hamilton reads, “The consciousness of good intentions disdains ambiguity.”
(There is also a series called The Anti-Federalist Papers, though it has not fared so well in literary longevity – perhaps because its overall message failed!)
It’s difficult to think of early America without thinking of the religious dimension. Our first successful colony, Massachusetts, was largely founded by Puritans, and their influence remains in our culture to this day. William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation contains descriptions of colonial life from 1620 to the late 1640s, though for the sheer religious side of life, one can look at the sermons of Jonathan Edwards. A Puritan minister, Edwards adhered to a very strict interpretation of Christianity, and his sermons were characterized as having a “fire-and-brimstone” quality, with references to the “black clouds of God’s wrath” hanging over us. Mankind was doomed, except for a very select few — whom, inexplicably, God apparently had already saved. Check out his most famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, here.
Finally, if you liked the film The Revenant, you will probably enjoy reading about the travels of Lewis and Clark through the Louisiana Purchase. For some reason, this adventurous journey has received relatively little attention in literature and film, but it must have been both fascinating and extremely dangerous. These explorers were up against a completely unchartered territory, with deadly animals and hostile inhabitants, and they braved through it with true American manliness and perseverance. You can order The Journals of Lewis and Clark over amazon.com for free, and for further study, there is the masterful volume Undaunted Courage by Professor Stephen E. Ambrose.
Naturally there is a wealth of other works from early American literature, and we encourage you to delve deeper into this period. Let us know any books that you can recommend!
— By Tom McKinley