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Poetry Without Poets

THE SEABOARD CITIES, each for its own reasons, sifted the bookish culture of the mother country for a widely literate but not strikingly literary people. Uncannily, the tastes of distant parts converged toward the practical and the purposeful in the world of books. Almost wholly dependent on London for their books, the colonists could not avoid borrowing English ways of thinking about many things, but they did not borrow the institution of a literary class.

The rich variety and equal competition of town life in America deprived the colonies of the natural habitat of a literary class. That class usually cannot thrive unless it can sit at the center of things, and in America there was no center.

The cultural mountain top from which the English literary word was proclaimed was, of course, London. The simple fact that books in America were, for all the colonial era, primarily an imported English product held a vast significance: it helped make tolerable, or even desirable, to the minds of energetic Americans their own lack of a literary class. Actually, colonial America possessed a large stock of ready-made belles-lettres supplied from abroad and in its own language. The colonial situation thus provided Americans with the finest fruit of a great literature which they could in a sense call their own, yet without the institutions which had produced it. In short, the colonists could enjoy the best of poetry without having to put up with a class of poets; they could chuckle over the elegant trifles of Addison and Steele without having to support a class of essayists; they could amuse themselves with the products of Grub Street without having to build any such neighborhood. The colonists were able to reap the profit from several centuries of an aristocratic and leisured culture without having to accumulate for themselves the capital sum of social distinctions and intellectual and economic inequalities from which that culture had been produced.

Some observant colonists noted the opportunities and disadvantages of their situation. “Your Authors,” Benjamin Franklin wrote to William Strahan, his bookseller friend in London (Feb. 12, 1744), “know but little of the Fame they have on this side of the Ocean. We are a kind of Posterity in respect to them.” A posterity is in the comfortable position of being able to enjoy the most delightful fruits of a past society without having to endure its peculiar institutions: it can read Greek philosophers without experiencing the slavery on which the Greek community was based; it can relive Benvenuto Cellini’s exploits without risking the murderous passageways of Renaissance Italy. A posterity can be eclectic; its detachment from the scenes and issues enables it to be more catholic in its taste. “I would not have you be too nice in the Choice of Pamphlets you send me,” Franklin wrote to Strahan, “Let me have everything, good or bad, that makes a Noise and has a Run: For I have Friends here of different tastes to oblige with the sight of them.” He explained his order for six sets of a new edition of Alexander Pope’s works by saying that Americans had a broad interest in all the best English authors. “We read their Works with perfect impartiality, being at too great a distance to be byassed by the Factions, Parties and Prejudices that prevail among you. We know nothing of their Personal Failings; the Blemishes in their Charactre never reaches us, and therefore the bright and amiable part strikes us with its full Force. They have never offended us or any of our Friends, and we have no competitions with them, therefore we praise and admire them without Restraint. Whatever Thomson writes send me a dozen copies of. I had read no poetry for several years, and almost lost the Relish of it, till I met with his Seasons.”

But American men of letters were not literati; they were clergymen, physicians, printers, lawyers, farmers. They were busy men; and the busier they were, the scantier the record which they left us. We have more ample literary accounts of American life during the earlier 18th century than of the turbulent years toward the end of the century. Perhaps no great event of modern times has left so poor an account of itself by participants as has the American Revolution.

In America this absence of a specifically literary class lasted into the 19th century. But it had not been much noted until writers like Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper actually began to found such a class. “We have no distinct class of literati in our country,” Jefferson wrote in 1813, “Every man is engaged in some industrious pursuit, and science is but a secondary occupation, always subordinate to the main business of life. Few therefore of those who are qualified, have leisure to write.” John Pickering agreed that here there was hardly such a thing as “authors by profession.” “So great is the call for talents of all sorts in the active use of professional and other business in America,” explained Justice Joseph Story (1819), “that few of our ablest men have leisure to devote exclusively to literature or the fine arts…. This obvious reason will explain why we have so few professional authors, and those not among our ablest men.” President Timothy Dwight of Yale clearly described the consequences of being a nation with a borrowed literature:

Books of almost every kind, on almost every subject, are already written to our hands. Our situation in this respect is singular. As we speak the same language with the people of Great Britain, and have usually been at peace with that country; our commerce with it brings to us, regularly not a small part of the books with which it is deluged. In every art, science, and path of literature, we obtain those, which to a great extent supply our wants. Hence book-making is a business, less necessary to us than to any nation in the world; and this is a reason, powerfully operative, why comparatively few books are written.

A few nostalgic, imitative spirits yearned for an American reincarnation of English letters. As late as 1769, a writer in the Pennsylvania Chronicle who called himself “Timothy Sobersides” warned that Philadelphians, while busily encouraging manufacture, should no longer ignore the Nine Muses: “It does not appear that any of those Lovely Personages migrated with our Ancestors in the early days of peopling this Continent from Europe.” The critic hoped that “we shall no longer be so entirely beholden to the Mother Country, as we have hitherto been, for all the articles of Poetical Haberdashery; but that we may, at length, become able to furnish ourselves with a sufficiency of sing-song, the product of our own labour and Industry.” Yet even in Philadelphia, where if anywhere on the continent there was a cosmopolitan atmosphere, efforts to produce a polite literature were stiff, self-conscious, and sterile. For example, the Rev. William Smith, provost of the College of Philadelphia, tried to gather a coterie of poets under the name of the Society of Gentlemen, but he found only poetasters. The best American utterance during the colonial age, as perhaps in later ages, was not confined in measured verse nor in the rounded essay. Instead it trickled out of a thousand miscellaneous places: statute-books, pamphlets of political controversy, projects, promotional brochures, sermons, speeches on the floors of legislatures, newspaper-columns, and the staccato proceedings of scientific societies. Such literature could never satisfy the men of letters of the Old World.

American printed matter thrived on the absence of a strong literary aristocracy. It was diffuse. Its center was everywhere because it was nowhere. Every man was close to what it talked about. Everyone could speak its language. It was the product and the producer of a busy, mobile, public society, which preferred relevant truths to empyrean Truth and would always retain a wholesome suspicion of the private highfalutin’ multilingual witticisms of the salon. In 1772 the Anglican Rev. Jacob Duché, one of the earliest of a long line of popular American pulpit orators, observed:

The poorest labourer upon the shore of Delaware thinks himself intitled to deliver his sentiments in matters of religion or politics with as much freedom as the gentleman or the scholar. Indeed, there is less distinction among the citizens of Philadelphia, than among those of any civilized city in the world. Riches give none. For every man expects one day or another to be upon a footing with his wealthiest neighbour…. Such is the prevailing taste for books of every kind, that almost every man is a reader; and by pronouncing sentence, right or wrong, upon the various publications that come in his way, puts himself upon a level, in point of knowledge, with their several authors.

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