The Cambridge History of American Literature/Book I/Chapter I
Travellers and Explorers, 1583–1763
THE English folk who became Americans during the early years of the seventeenth century kept the language of the relatives and friends whom they left, and with it their share in the literary heritage of the race. They owed much to the influences surrounding them in their new homes, but such skill in writing as they possessed came with them from the other side of the Atlantic. The names of an earlier group of adventurers are associated with the New World because they made a voyage along its coastline or resided for a little while at some seaside settlement. Sir Humphrey Gilbert on his homeward voyage from the New-found-land in 1583, sitting abaft with a book in his hand, while the Golden Hind was tossed by "terrible seas breaking short and high pyramidwise," is the finest type of the seamen who made the English occupation of America possible. The narrative of Gilbert's fatal voyage, written by Edward Haie, found a place in the ample store-house of adventurous records which makes all who love good reading and virile English the debtors of Richard Hakluyt.
It is an accident of geography which gives American readers a valid claim upon Humphrey Gilbert and his precursors and successors who told their straightforward tales for Hakluyt or for the booksellers who issued the scores of thin pamphlets in which Londoners first read about the trans-Atlantic voyage. These were in their day only a few among the many pamphlets which entertained the frequenters of St. Paul's churchyard with experiences in odd corners of the Mediterranean or of the Indian Ocean, or along the Arctic route to Central Asia. They all shared in developing the British Empire and English literature. Martin Frobisher and North-West-Foxe beyond the polar circle, Thomas Harlot inside the Carolina sandspits, and Sir Richard Hawkins in the Gulf of Mexico are by this chance of geography given a place at the beginning of the annals of American literature, instead of sharing the scant notice allotted to their equally deserving contemporaries whom fate led elsewhere. The same fate sent Francis Drake to sojourn for a time on the California coast, and it likewise set in motion the economic and political forces which two centuries later transferred this region into the keeping of the English race, thereby adding the great circumnavigator to the American roll. Later came one whom Americans have adopted as a folk hero, Captain John Smith. He risked his life with equal abandon in Flanders and Turkey and Potowatomy's land, but Virginia claims him as her own. He may have been, as it was once the fashion to proclaim, an inordinate liar, but whatever the historians say, the certain fact is that what he wrote was read in his own day and has ever since been read by thousands who have identified him with the first English colony.
"And this is as much as my memory can call to mind worthie of note; which I have purposely collected, to satisfie my friends of the true worth and qualitie of Virginia." So John Smith wrote at the end of his "Description" of that colony published in 1612.
Yet some bad natures will not sticke to slander the Countrey, that will slovenly spit at all things, especially in company where they can find none to contradict them. Who though they were scarse ever 10 miles from James Town, or at the most but at the falles; yet holding it a great disgrace that amongst so much action, their actions were nothing, exclaime of all things, though they never adventured to knowe any thing; nor ever did any thing but devoure the fruits of other mens labours. Being for most part of such tender educations and small experience in martiall accidents, because they found not English cities, nor such faire houses, nor at their owne wishes any of their accustomed dainties, with feather beds and downe pillowes, Tavernes and alehouses in every breathing place, neither such plenty of gold and silver and dissolute liberty as they expected, [they] had little or no care of any thing, but to pamper their bellies, to fly away with our Pinnaces, or procure their means to returne for England. For the Country was to them a miserie, a ruine, a death, a hell, and their reports here, and their owne actions there according.
Straightforwardness of narrative was characteristic of the period. This quality, and the absence of literary consciousness, distinguish the accounts written by these English seafarers from the productions of the rival French and Spanish voyagers. Each adapted his style to the public which he sought to influence. They were all alike trying to start or to accelerate the stream which was to transform the Western hemisphere into a part of the European world. Consequently the English tracts rarely possess qualities which separate them from the rest of the mass of seventeenth-century travel-books. Another result is that nearly all of them are more easily read, three centuries later, than the Continental output of the same period.
The corner of the New-found-land which retained this distinctive name exerted an especial attraction in the earlier days upon the adventurers who felt a longing to express themselves in literary form. Humphrey Gilbert was accompanied thither by the learned Stephen Parmenius of Buda, whose Latin verses "Ad Thamesin" are preserved on Hakluyt's pages. One of the first Englishmen to establish an American residence was William Vaughn, a Welshman and the composer of an amazing volume called The Golden Fleece … Transported from Cambrioll Colchos, out of the Southermost Part of the Iland commonly called the Newfoundland, By Orpheus Junior, to London, where it was printed in 1626. This work has long been the butt of despairing historians, who have sought for the Ariadnean thread which should guide them through its 350 pages of puerile fancies, discursive theology, significant episodes, and rhymed prose. For the reader who skips casually from paragraph to paragraph, the volume yields an entertaining notion of what was talked about in the fishing shacks on the northern coast, and of how the leader of one band of adventurers amused himself. It contains a parody of the Litany which is said to have been sung by four of the “Fraternitie attired in long white Robes,” and may have been part of an embryo pageant wherewith the days were whiled away.
Vaughn had a “deare Friende and Fellow-Planter, Master Robert Hayman, who with Pen and Person” prepared “more roome for Christians in the Newfound-World,” and who published in 1628 a volume of Quodlibets, lately come over from New Britaniola, All of them Composed and done at Harbor-Grace in Britaniola, anciently called Newfound-Land. The verses which fill its pages passed current with the similar output of his age. A number, and by no means the least rhythmical, were inspired by his associates on the western shores of the Atlantic. One of these is addressed “To the right Honourable, Sir George Calvert, Knight, Baron of Baltamore, and Lord of Avalon in Britaniola, who came over to see his Land there, 1627”; it compares Baltimore to the Queen of Sheba.
The repayment of the drafts made upon the literature of the motherland was not long delayed. It is more than probable that Shakespeare found in the reports of some New World voyagers one of his most momentous inspirations. Hugh Peters and the younger Harry Vane were only two of the temporary Americans who returned to take a lively part in the pamphleteering conflicts of the Protectorate. Roger Williams divided his controversial activities equally between the old and New England, and his Key into the Languages of America was cast into shape while he was on his way from one to the other. prolix and rude expressions. I am apt sometimes to think I shall write no more. I am sometimes sick, and think I may fall among the rest of my cotmtrymen; and durst do no other than plainly to let your highness know our state and condition.
Plainly and simply, and most convincingly, he set forth the deplorable situation of Jamaica and of the English soldiers who were dying there.
On the North American mainland, settlement followed exploration and colonization. For half a century there was little record of travelling beyond the limits of the outlying pasture lands and adjoining home sites. Occasionally someone bolder than his neighbours pushed a canoe up-stream to the head of navigation, or wandered into the valleys beyond the surrounding ridges, but very rarely were observations or physical experiences commiitted to paper. The impulse to print the reports of travellers did not come until there was land to be sold. The seventeenth-century promoters of speculation carried on the practice of distributing tracts telling about the property they wished others to buy. The little pamphlets issued by the Virginia Company, by the Massachusetts Agents, by William Penn in German, Dutch, and French as well as in English, by the Scots Proprietors of the Jerseys, and by the Lords of Carolina, are today worth more money than many of the acres that they describe. Most of these early tracts were written by men who had travelled through the regions of which they wrote. Rarely is there any substantial reason for doubting the honesty of what was reported as the result of actual observation. “What I write, is what I have proved,” remarks one of the frankest of these promoters of a New World settlement in which he hoped to make his fortune, Edward Bland, Merchant. On 27 August, 1650, Bland set forth from the head of “ Appamattuck River” in Virginia in search of the Falls of Blandina. His journey took him across broad stretches of “very rich Champian Land,” “a pleasant Country, of temperate Ayre, and fertile Soyle.” The beauty of the country, the heaps of bones which led the native guides to relate tales of valorous deeds, and the preservation of the party through “information our Guide told us he had from a woman that was his Sweet-heart,” offered opportunities that a later-day reader wishes might have been improved with some of the appreciation of literary possibilities which a Frenchman could hardly have neglected. Bland's narrative goes steadily forward toward the goal and home again, without digression for any merely entertaining purpose from each day's march and the nightly watch against surprise.
The natives supplied the picturesque element for most of the writing of colonial times. To them also were due a number of involuntary journeyings, the accounts of which make an important part of American literature. There is nothing in English, or in any other language, that surpasses these narratives of Indian captivities in vividness or in the bare statement of physical suffering and of mental torment. They held the attention of readers who knew the writers, and the stream of successive reprintings is still going on, to supply an unabated demand.
The first and the best known of these narratives is that of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. She was the wife of the minister at Lancaster, Massachusetts, where the natives seized her when they burned the town during King Philip's War. The record of her subsequent “Removes” has seldom been equalled as a direct appeal for human sympathy. The hours following her capture may well have been
the dolefullest night that ever my eyes saw. Oh the roaring, and singing, and dancing, and yelling of those black creatures in the night, which made the place a lively resemblance of hell . . . There remained nothing to me but one poor wounded Babe, and it seemed at present worse than death, that it was in such a pitiful condition, bespeaking Compassion, and I had no refreshing for it, nor suitable things to revive it. Mrs. Rowlandson's narrative is matched by that of John Gyles of Pemaquid (1736), who collected from his minutes
these private Memoirs, at the earnest Request of my Second Consort; that we might have a Memento ever ready at Hand to excite, in our selves Gratitude & Thankfulness to GOD; and in our Offspring a due Sense of their Dependance on the SOVEREIGN of the Universe.
Gyles was captured in 1689, and spent the ensuing nine years with the Indians along the Penobscot River and with the French in Canada. The natives soon tired of the too easy amusement of seeing him suffer, and as he managed to avoid death by drowning and frost-bite, he gradually made a place for himself by the humblest usefulness.
The natives of the woods of Maine and those of the everglades of Florida were equally skilful in devising methods of terrifying strangers who were thrown by chance or indiscretion amongst them. The account of God's Protecting Providence In the Remarkable Deliverance of Robert Barrow, Faithfully Related by Jonathan Dickenson (1699), is in many respects the best of all the captivity tracts. Driven ashore by a storm on the Gulf coast of Florida, late in September, 1696, the survivors, among them Dickenson's wife with their baby at her breast, six weeks later reached St. Augustine. For most of this interval, the wanderers were in hourly expectation of death. As is frequently the case, the record of these experiences is so undemonstrative that it is unconvincing, until the whole story is reread from the beginning. It was only after the more desperate dangers were over, and the prospect began to favour their escape, that Dickenson's narrative became pathetic. When the Spanish outposts were reported to be only two marches away, the fugitives
had a great Loss; having a Quart of Berries whole, and as much pounded to mix with Water, to feed our Child with; the Fire being disturbed, the Cloth which we had our Food in was burn'd.
This was a loss which might easily have proved, to persons emaciated and weakened by suffering, the fatal last straw; but in spite of a driving storm and freezing weather, all but two of the party managed to drag their blood-caked bodies through the sand to the Spanish garrison. At St. Augustine the Commandant and the other residents divided their scanty supplies with the fugitives, and nursed them until they were fit to be sent on their way to the Carolinas. The aged Quaker, Robert Barrow, survived all these experiences just long enough to greet the Friends who were awaiting him at Philadelphia. There he died three days later, on 4 April, 1697,
having passed through great Exercises, in much Patience; and in all the times of our greatest Troubles, was ready to Counsel us to Patience, and to wait what the Lord our God would bring to pass: And he would often express, That it was his Belief, that our Lives should be spared, and not be lost in that Wilderness, and amongst those People, who would have made a Prey of us.
The same fundamental religious impulse which sustained Robert Barrow on the storm-swept Florida beaches had settled the New England Puritan colonies. This same overwhelming impulse drove into these colonies, half a century after their permanent establishment, a succession of groups of wanderers whose peregrinations left a broad and often blood-stained trail the length of the continent and seaward to the islands. The men and women who made up these groups, called in derision Quakers, wrote as freely as they discoursed, and the spirit that animated them brooked no interference with either speech or progress. The names of several, Mary Dyer, Marmaduke Stevenson, and George Fox, whom Roger Williams “digg'd out of his Burrowes,” to wit Edward Burroughs, are better known, but none of them wrote more forcefully than Alice Curwen. In the year 1660, “hearing of the great Tribulation that the Servants of the Lord did suffer in Boston, of cruel Whippings, of Bonds and Imprisonments, yea, to the laying down of their natural Lives,” Mistress Curwen felt the call to go and profess in that bloody town. “Having this Testimony sealed in my Heart,” she writes, “I laboured with my Husband day and night to know his Mind, but he did not yet see it to be required of him,” he having but just returned from the Lancashire gaol in which he had been confined for refusing to pay the tythe. The call reached him in season to enable him to embark on the vessel on which his wife had taken passage for America. Journeying to Boston, they missed imprisonment through a legal technicality, and went on their way to the eastward. They were more fortunate on their return, for the constables drove them “all along the Street, until they came to the Prison, whereinto they thrust us; but the Lord was with us, and our Service there was great; for many people, both rich and poor, came to look upon us.”
Another traveller who did his best to scour the colonists of heretical opinions, his own opinions being as pronounced when he was directed by the Quaker spirit as when he followed the Anglican order, was George Keith. He knew the controversially-minded Americans better than anyone else at the end of the seventeenth century. The descriptions of his opponents which are scattered through his hundred-odd publications are an invaluable elucidation of the state of mind which fructified in the revivals of forty years later, when George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards came to make plain the way to salvation. Whitefield kept a diary during his constant journeyings between England and America and through the mainland colonies. These personal records were published at the close of each important stage of his wanderings, and the seven pamphlets in which they appeared were reprinted in numerous editions. They contributed largely to the success of the great revivalist's ministry. Upon the reader of two hundred years later they still leave the impression of a dominating spirit, and of a sweet nature unconscious of its power. Worn out by wordy wrestlings with a recalcitrant sinner, Whitefield would cheerfully get out of a sick bed to preach to the Free Masons, “with whom I afterwards dined, and was used with the utmost civility.”
An elemental fondness for rhyme and rhythm was responsible for the preservation of a few records of travellings not in themselves as remarkable as the effusions for which they gave the occasion. Two of these were A Monumental Memorial of A Late Voyage from Boston in New-England To London, Anno 1683. In a Poem. By Richard Steere, and a broadside, A Journal of the Taking of Cape-Breton, Put into Metre By L. G., One of the Soldiers of the Expedition, in 1745.
The eighteenth century brought economic independence and settled social conditions to the older English colonies. With these went the leisure and comfort which prepare a community for the conscious enjoyment of literature. These changing circumstances are reflected in the keen observations and amusing descriptions preserved by one of the sprightliest of New England matrons, Madame Sarah Knight. During the winter of 1704-5, Mrs. Knight was obliged to go to New York to attend to some business affairs. The trip from Boston followed the shore line, and was accomplished as expeditiously as her energetic nature, bored by the humdrum happenings along the way, could hurry it along, but five months elapsed before she regained her own fireside and warming pan. From the first stopping place, where she found the other guests “tyed by the Lipps to a pewter engine,” and the next day's guide, whose “shade on his Hors resembled a Globe on a Gate post,” there was scarcely a stage of her journey which did not provide its subject for entertaining comment.
An equal appreciation of the fact that mileage and food are not the only things worth recording by those who go abroad gives permanent value to the diaries kept by the second William Byrd of Westover in 1732 and 1733, when he followed the course of Edward Bland in searching for the likeliest Virginian land-holdings. Byrd was a model for all who journey in company, for he “broke not the Laws of Travelling by uttering the least Complaint” at inopportune torrents or “an impertinent Tooth . . . that I cou'd not grind a Biscuit but with much deliberation and presence of mind.” He “contriv'd to get rid of this troublesome Companion by cutting a Caper,” with a stout cord connecting the tooth and the snag of a log. “This new way of Tooth-drawing, being so silently and deliberately perform'd, both surprized and delighted all that were present, who cou'd not guess what I was going about.”
Byrd has been made known for his “happy proficiency in polite and varied learning.” He was not peculiar, however, among the gentlemen of his generation for a style which shows an acquaintance with what is recognized as literature. Most of the people who possessed inherited wealth and established position were able to spell correctly, and they obeyed the laws of English grammar. Many of Byrd's contemporaries in the New World could not do either of these things, and it has come to be the fashion among their descendants to excuse those eminently respectable and often brave and prosperous men and women, because of a belief that their short-comings were in accord with the practice, or lack thereof, of their own day. Byrd's writings, and even more clearly those of the Maryland physician Alexander Hamilton, furnish the best of evidence that illiteracy was ignorance due to a lack of education as truly in 1700 as it is two centuries later.
Dr. Hamilton, who is not known to have been related to the more eminent publicist of the same name, in 1744 followed his own advice and sought to rid himself of a persistent indisposition by a change of climate and companions. Except for this health-seeking incentive, his journey from Annapolis to Portsmouth in New Hampshire was a pleasure trip, probably the earliest recorded in America.
Reading was easily the first of Dr. Hamilton's pleasures. On his journey he picked up from the Philadelphia book stalls the latest English novels, and in New York he bought a new edition of a classical favourite. When his own supply of reading matter gave out, he rummaged through the inn or explored his host's book shelves. The tavern keeper at Kingston in Rhode Island convinced him that it was unlawful, and therefore inexpedient, to travel on the Sabbath, and so he loitered about all day, “having nothing to do and no books to read, except it was a curious History of the Nine Worthies (which we found in Case's library) a book worthy of that worthy author Mr. Burton, the diligent compiler and historian of Grub Street.” The scenery, luckily, furnished a partial compensation for the dearth of literary pastime, for he noted as he approached this hostelry that it brought to his mind “some romantic descriptions of rural scenes in Spenser's Faerie Queene.”
The day following his arrival at Boston being Sunday, he attended meeting, where he heard “solid sense, strong connected reasoning and good language.” For the rest of this day's entry in his journal he records “staid at home this night, reading a little of Homer's First Iliad.” As he does not say, we can only guess whether he took his Homer in the original or through a translation. With Latin we know that he was on intimate terms, even without the evidence of his Scottish medical degree. While at Newport he writes: I stayed at home most of the forenoon and read Murcius [Meursius], which I had of Dr. Moffatt, a most luscious piece, from whom all our modem salacious poets have borrowed their thoughts. I did not read this book upon account of its lickerish contents, but only because I knew it to be a piece of excellent good Latin, and I wanted to inform myself of the proper idiom of ye language upon that subject.
On his return to New York he notes that a day
passed away, as many of our days do, unremarked and trifling. I did little more than breakfast, dine and sup. I read some of Homer's twelfth Iliad, and went to the coffee-house in the afternoon.
Back in Philadelphia, he found the September air
very sharp and cold for the season, and a fire was very grateful. I did little but stay at home all day, and employed my time in reading of Homer's Iliad.
His next forenoon was
spent in reading of Shakespear's Timon of Athens, or Manhater a play which tho' not written according to Aristotle's rules, yet abounds with inimitable beauties, peculiar to this excellent author.
With such saddle-bag friends to accompany him, Dr. Hamilton was well prepared to pass judgment upon the casual acquaintances who crossed his path. When he first looked about him in Philadelphia, he
observed several comical, grotesque Phizzes in the inn where I put up, which would have afforded variety of hints for a painter of Hogarth's turn. They talked there upon all subjects,—politicks, religion, and trade,—some tolerably well, but most of them ignorantly.
The next morning the Doctor kept his room, reading Montaigne*s Essays, a strange medley of subjects, and particularly entertaining.” On Sunday he was asked out to dinner, but found “our table chat was so trivial and trifling that I mention it not. After dinner I read the second volume of The Adventures of Joseph Andrews, and thought my time well spent." Dr. Hamilton, one of the most entertaining of American travellers, appears to advantage even beside the urbanity of Byrd and the sprightliness of Mrs. Knight. Bent upon no special errand, he observed freely, and all the more so, one suspects, because of his detachment. Such a quality was not so easy during the next generation, when the wars between the French and English in America, the beginnings of colonial, and then national, pride, the growth of natural science, and the coming of the romantic spirit of solitude and love of nature furnished new motives. Then travelling became a fad, a profession, a duty, and led to the production of ah extensive literature which may more properly be discussed with the work of men who were no longer colonials but citizens of the new republic.
- See also Book I, Chap. II.
- 2d ed. 1682. The date of the first edition is unknown.
- See alao Book I, Chap. v.