The Cambridge History of American Literature

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

CHAPTER VI
Fiction I BROWN, COOPER

THE clear victory which the first great British novelists won over popular taste did not, for some years, make them masters of the colonial public. Pamela, indeed, was printed as early as 1744 in Philadelphia, by Benjamin Franklin, and in the same year in New York and in Boston. But the only other novels printed in America before the Declaration of Independence seem to have been Robinson Crusoe( 1768), Rasselas ( 1768), The Vicar of Wakefield( 1772), Juliet Grenville ( 1774), and The Works of Laurence Sterne M.A. ( 1774). Publishers, however, were less active than importers, for diaries and library catalogues show that British editions were on many shelves. The Southern and Middle colonies may have read more novels than did New England, yet Jonathan Edwards himself, whose savage quarrel with the Northampton congregation had arisen partly over the "licentious books" [possibly Pamela, among others] which some of the younger members "employed to promote lascivious and obscene discourse," was later enchanted by Sir Charles Grandison.

Edwards did not relent in advance of the general public. After the Revolution the novel-reading habit grew, fostered by American publishers and cried out against by many moralists whose cries appeared in magazines side by side with moral tales. Nearly every grade of sophistication applied itself to the problem. It was contested that novels were lies; that they served no virtuous purpose; that they melted rigorous minds; that they crowded out better books; that they painted adventure too romantic and love too vehement, and so unfitted

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