“A nation scattered in the boundless regions of America resembles rays diverging from a focus. All the rays remain but the heat is gone.”
“Men who are philosophers or poets, without other pursuits, had better end their days in an old country.”
THE POOR QUALITY of American literary works during the colonial period helped keep the market open to the imported product, and gave added significance to the ways of importing. Never before, surely, had so far-flung and so populous a civilization been so literate, nor had so literate a people produced less in the way of belles-lettres. Was there perhaps some connection between these two characteristics of American culture?—between the literacy of the whole community and the un-literary character of the ruling groups? In modern Western European culture the most honorific use of the printed word, except for sacred religious texts, has been in the ornamental literature of its privileged classes. Such cultures are judged by their dramas, poems, novels, and essays, which, like palaces and manor-houses, are the monuments of aristocratic cultures. But must we measure our culture by its ability to produce such monuments? Must we hope to induct an ever larger part of the American people into the mysteries of an aristocratic belles-lettres?
The printed word has had another destiny in America, a role less understandable by the traditional techniques of literary archeologists. The peculiarly American emphasis on relevance, utility, “reader-interest,” and catholicity of appeal has made of printed matter a different institution. Not the litterateur but the journalist, not the essayist but the writer of how-to-do-it manuals, not the “artist” but the publicist is the characteristic American man of letters. His readers are found not in the salon but in the market place, not in the cloister or quadrangle but in the barbershop or by the fireplace of the average citizen. His kind of printed matter is “transparent”: it calls attention to its object, not to itself. Placing less emphasis on form than on purpose, it has no tendency to create a class of professional “appreciators,” a circle of the initiate who value the form for its own sake. Here, too, American life focuses on process rather than product: printed matter is treated less as “literature” than as communication. These tendencies reach deep into our past, and have flourished partly because in the colonial age our soil was not already overgrown with literary culture.
In Western Europe the literature of the dominant classes was first written in a dead and alien “classical” language; its inaccessibility added to its prestige and to the power and self-esteem of those who held the keys to the antique temples of learning. Among aristocratic cultures it is still generally assumed that the works of ancient Greece and Rome can never be equaled by mere moderns. The standard training for the English ruling class has long been the ancient classics—at Oxford they are significantly called simply “Greats”; it has been assumed that a prospective member of the governing groups should know an esoteric literature in Greek and Latin before coming to his own vernacular literature. In America much of this was to be reversed. Some of the most cultivated men would agitate against perpetuating “classical” standards in learning. Despite such romantic exceptions as George Sandys translating Ovid in Virginia in the 1620’s, knowledge of an ancient language was never to acquire the widespread prestige in our culture that it had long possessed in England. We started with a vernacular literature which acquired its prestige from its utility.
Since books, unlike the spoken language, had to be carried in men’s baggage, the kind of bookish culture to be found in colonial America (or in different parts of it) was, from one point of view, a product of the facilities for transportation. Because books are physical objects which are made in some particular place, they tend to remain near the place of manufacture, or at least near a few centers of distribution. To describe the books in colonial America, therefore, as if they were everywhere the same is especially misleading.
During the colonial period, the centers for the importing and selling of books and probably even for reading, were along the Atlantic seaboard. It was easier to travel a thousand miles by water than a hundred by land, and it was infinitely less trouble to carry a dozen books in the hold of a ship for six weeks than to carry them inland for ten days. Bookish culture was substantially a foreign import. Many enduring features of American life were rooted in this simple fact and in the peculiar ways in which the importation was to be accomplished.
Books were an urban commodity, and there was no inland city of any significance before the era of the Revolution. Even as late as 1790, every one of the eight cities with a population of more than six thousand was on the seacoast. One consequence of the westward movement and the growth of inland towns was the rise of urban centers that were less accessible to the literary culture of Europe. But it was not until many decades after the first books were produced in America that they began to take the place of books brought in from England.
The mind of the American city looked across the water to London. “Because its outlook was eastward rather than westward,” observes Carl Bridenbaugh, “it was more nearly a European society in an American setting.” Moreover, almost without exception, the major paths for diffusing the American population started from some eastern seaboard city. The principal cities on the coast were so many separate funnels through which the bookish culture of Britain poured into the inland areas, to be dispersed throughout the countryside. The literary culture of colonial America thus remained for a long time city-filtered. The sole important exception was Virginia, where the numerous rivers and the tobacco economy had diffused distribution onto scores of private plantation-docks; but the cultural stream flowing through all Virginia had already been filtered in London.
No one of the five largest cities established an undisputed cultural dominance over colonial life as a whole. Despite similarities in their forms of government, in their taverns and sociable amusements, there were influential local differences important for the future of American culture. We are accustomed to think of Boston as dominating the culture of 17th-century America, yet as early as 1680 both New York (then still called New Amsterdam) and Newport had an urban life to rival Boston’s. Though Boston was the most populous of the early colonial cities, by 1760 she had already fallen behind both New York and Philadelphia. During the 18th century, then, there was a race for leadership among the colonial cities: even in the early decades Philadelphia was neck-and-neck with Boston, and New York City was not far behind; Newport and Charleston were already large towns by English provincial standards. Numerous smaller cities gradually appeared: Portsmouth, Salem, Hartford, New Haven, New London, and Albany, to mention a few. Such priority as ever did exist was frequently shifting. When Philadelphia became the most populous city, people could not forget that the position had not long before been held by Boston; and, by the end of the 18th century, New Yorkers were beginning to hope that they might in turn displace Philadelphia. But there was never an American London or Paris, a metropolis of undisputed historical, political, cultural, and commercial leadership.
One of the consequences was that American literary culture, even despite the arterial connection with London, began to acquire a varied responsiveness to local problems and to the manifold life of the continent. In the following centuries, too, this would characterize the bookish culture of the nation. The colonial period built this legacy from the variety of religious attitudes, from the numerous local ways of earning a living, and from a hundred other regional differences, all of which would make the hegemony of any one region difficult. The flourishing of an importing book-trade in the several colonial cities thus diffused the power to decide which books were worth the price.