The Cambridge History of American Literature

By William Peterfield Trent; John Erskine et al. | Go to book overview

CHAPTER III
Early Essayists

IN anticipating Dr. Johnson's advice to fashion his prose style on the model of Addison, Franklin anticipated also the practice of American essay-writers for more than a generation. Like Franklin's Dogood Papers, the first essays printed in colonial newspapers were written with a conscious moral purpose. With some spice of wit Timothy Dwight and John Trumbull collaborated in an imitation of The Spectator in 176970, and between 1785 and 1800 nearly a hundred series of light periodical essays were contributed to various New England journals. 1. Those of the better sort like the "Neighbour" of The Massachusetts Spy or the "Metabasist" in The Farmer's Journal of Danbury, Connecticut, when not discussing politics, filled their columns with grave moralizing or racy satire on manners. They were widely copied and recopied by other papers, and a few such as Noah Websters Prompter and Mrs. Judith Murray's Gleaner attained the distinction of separate publication by reason either of their plain common sense or their studied correctness. In general, the imitation of English models resulted in feeble literary replicas, or in strange patchworks of Yankee homespun with Addisonian finery.

During the first decade of the nineteenth century nearly every literary device and favourite character in the long line of British essayists was reproduced in this country. Isaac Bickerstaff owned an American cousin in Launcelot Langstaff of Salmagundi, memories of l'Espion turc were evoked by Wirt's Letters of a British Spy, and Goldsmith's Lien Chi Altangi dropped a small corner of his mantle on Irving's Mustapha Ruba-Dub Kheli Khan and S. L. Knapp's Shahcoolen. The shade of Johnson dictated the titles of The Traveller, The Rural

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1
Ellis, H. M., Joseph Dennie and his Circle, p. 51

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