- Two New, Significant Volumes Treating Early American Literature
Recent years have marked the appearance of two major contributions to the field of Early American literary studies: American Poetry: The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, selections and notes by David S. Shields, and The Oxford Handbook of Early American Literature, edited by Kevin J. Hayes. As the first two centuries of American literature remain in serious need of concentrated and comprehensive explorations, these two volumes are welcome arrivals, though I do have reservations about both.
As do all Oxford Handbooks, The Oxford Handbook of Early American Literature promises to provide concerned readers with a fresh and authoritative approach to the field of Early American literary studies. The Hayes collection has much to recommend it. In his "Introduction," for example, Hayes is studious to point out the importance to Early American literature that the new-found land (new at least to white folks and Africans) exercised on Early American literary productions; I agree with Hayes's judgment here. Moreover, I warmly endorse his determination to bring the parameters of Early American literature to encompass that writing produced within the boundaries of the "British colonies on the American mainland and, after 1776, in the United States" (16). These parameters, according to Hayes, include the period "to the mid-1790s" (16). To cast about for new texts among writings produced in parts of New France, New Spain, and the Caribbean dilutes a more certain and more teachable focus on those literary works composed within the colonial and incipient United States of America. Hayes and his contributors miss the mark, however, when first, they promote prose over poetry; second, they all but ignore the major role classicism contributes to the shaping of Early American (and general American) cultural consciousness; and, third, they determine that the body of Early American letters woefully lacks a close participation in the field of literary aesthetics.
Prose, for example, comprises the subject of 530 pages out of a total of 611, leaving merely 81 or so pages for poetry. As for the pantheon he proposes for literary productions before the mid-1790s, Hayes names St. Jean de Crèvecoeur, Jonathan Edwards, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton (1712-56), and Captain John Smith. Note that not a single poet numbers among the figures on this list. Why are Anne Bradstreet, Edward Taylor, Mather Byles, Phillis Wheatley, and Philip Freneau not celebrated as major authors? This bias toward prose is clearly predicted by Carla Mulford, one of Hayes's contributors, in her recently published Early American Writings (Oxford UP, 2002); in an anthology of 1124 pages, 152 are given to poetry, but 972 to prose, roughly mirroring the proportion of prose to poetry we have observed of the Hayes collection. In his "Introduction" Hayes claims to be inclusive. In his words, "There has never been a comprehensive, collaborative literary history of early American literature—until now" (13). I am certainly not convinced that Hayes and his contributors have produced a text that comes [End Page 412] even close to his overweening assertion. The genres he identifies, which he and his contributors would have us believe cover the literary output of Early Americans, comprise autobiographies, captivity narratives, diaries, novels, plays, political writings, promotional tracts, slave narratives, travel writings, natural history and history discourses, "Native American voices" (one chapter), "and poetry," which out of twenty-six chapters "receives three" (17). One might question the inclusion of Jonathan Edwards, who was assuredly one of our first and most original philosophers (vide his Freedom of the Will) and must be considered a master of homiletics but hardly of creative letters, and John Smith, a champion of promotional narrative, a genre not heretofore raised to such high status. As Edwards has been elevated to major author, where are other treatments of authors who composed homiletic literature? Although the chapter on "Revolutionary Verse" does briefly, but wholly inadequately, treat epic, where are the considerations...