New Jersey: A Guide to Its Present and Past

By Federal Writers' Project (N.J.) | Go to book overview

The Arts

Literature

FROM the time of Philip Freneau and Francis Hopkinson in the late eighteenth century, New Jersey has often shared in the leadership of American letters. In much the same manner that these Revolutionary poets led the way to the great poetic flowering of New England, Stephen Crane a century later influenced the modern American novel. More recently, the Humanism of Paul Elmer More at Princeton inspired the growth of a definite and influential school of American criticism. Between these peaks in New Jersey literature lies a chain of plateaus which represents a consistently solid contribution to American literature.

Those who, in the pre-Revolutionary era, looked to the printed word for inspiration and enlightenment were fed, for the most part, upon a native diet of theological dissertations, moral tracts, and political polemics. Against this dreary mass of what Charles Lamb termed biblia-a-biblia, or books that are not books, only the writings of the gentle Quaker preacher, John Woolman ( 1720-72), shine out conspicuously with the glow of creative literature.

Woolman, born at Ancocas (later Rancocas) in the province of West Jersey, served as a tailor's apprentice in his youth and then for a time had his own shop in Mount Holly. At the age of twenty-three he joined the Quaker ministry, spending the rest of his life as an itinerant crusader against the social evils of his time -- chiefly the evil of slavery. His Journal embodies a remarkable picture of Colonial society "Get the writings of John Woolman by heart" was Lamb's counsel, and Ellery Channing spoke of the Journal as "the sweetest and purest autobiography in the language."

The Revolutionary War produced Jonathan Odell ( 1737-1818), a native of Newark, whose rampant Toryism caused him to be driven from Burlington to New York in 1776. There he wrote three verse satires in which he characterized the Revolution as "a hideous hell-broth made up of lies and hallucinations." Prime objects of Odell's vicious attacks were two able patriot pamphleteers: William Livingston ( 1723-90), a vigorous

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