The American Indian in English Literature of the Eighteenth Century

The American Indian in English Literature of the Eighteenth Century

The American Indian in English Literature of the Eighteenth Century

The American Indian in English Literature of the Eighteenth Century

Excerpt

The American Indian, as a subject for literary treatment, does not at first sight appear to have made any very great appeal to English writers: of no really first-rate drama, novel, or long poem has he been made the hero. It is rather on the outskirts of literature proper, or in certain forgotten works of minor writers, that the noble savage plays his chief rôle. The significance of the whole subject, therefore, resides not so much in the strictly literary merits of the writings with which we have to deal, as in their relation to some very important tendencies of eighteenth-century thought.

The Renaissance may perhaps be taken as the beginning of a serious inquiry into the authority of tradition, a problem which was to take various forms, and finally come into violent agitation at the end of the eighteenth century. With this whole question the discovery of America is associated in a very vital way. Tradition, or civilization, which is essentially the same thing, could now be viewed in a new aspect--in relation, that is, to primitive nature or savage life. The growing dissatisfaction with civilization which marks the latter half of the eighteenth century--and still persists under changed names in many phases of modernism--was accompanied by a corresponding increase of interest and satisfaction in all that was uncivilized, finally reaching its height in the romanticist's exalted admiration of children, animals, and savages. Hence the literature of the poor Indian or the noble savage, though it offers us nothing in English to compare with the richly imaginative Natchez of Chateaubriand, is worthy of a careful study on account of its philosophic import--its connection with sentimental exoticism, and other romantic tendencies.

In order to treat this subject fully, one should, strictly speaking, begin with the discovery of America, and then . . .

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