- Waiting to Be FoundThe Citizen Poets of Philadelphia and New York
Disparaging poetry written in the American colonies and then in the early national period is a venerable tradition that can be traced back at least to Benjamin Franklin’s seventh Silence Dogood essay. In it Franklin seems to praise “An Elegy upon the Much Lamented Death of Mrs. Mehite-bell Kitel.” Described as “[e]xtraordinary” and “moving,” it turns out, when quoted, to be extraordinarily risible: “Come let us mourn, for we have lost a Wife, a Daughter, and a Sister, / Who has lately taken Flight, and greatly we have mist her” (1). The challenges of distinguishing native from imported poems in early national magazines, a post-Romantic bias against anonymous writing, and a formalist aesthetic sensibility have long led literary historians to offer negative assessments of poetry published in the United States before 1830. Lyon N. Richardson insisted that the first volume of the Massachusetts Magazine, in 1789, featured “original poetry” by “persons . . . lacking creative power and the higher associative qualities of the mind” (360). Frank Luther Mott emphasized the preference among late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century American readers for imported work by British writers and concluded that, “[i]n verse the period was deficient, so far as America is concerned” (176). And Mott’s view has been echoed or implicitly assumed even by more recent critics who see the cultural significance of the first periodicals published in the United States. In a study of American magazines that appeared between 1810 and 1820, Neal L. Edgar regards the search for American poetry in this decade as “unrewarding,” insofar as it “was not done by skillful hands” (33–34). Jared Gardner, whose study The Rise and Fall of Early American Magazine Culture describes and celebrates the genre-crossing combinations of fiction and nonfiction in these periodicals, pays little attention to the poems that regularly appeared alongside and within the prose, thus intensifying the hybrid effect. And it’s [End Page 679] worth noting that the Library of America’s volume of American Poetry: The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries includes only nine anonymously published poems, a tiny fraction of the number of poems published in this way.
While they take the form of general put-downs, these criticisms appear to be based on two concerns, one national, the other aesthetic. To paraphrase Groucho Marx: early national poetry is bad and there’s not enough of it. It’s worth noting that all but the most recent of these critics labored at a great disadvantage: the sheer quantity of verse published in the United States in the early national period, which can now be accessed online, made it difficult to find and search within volumes scattered in remote archives. As a result, their conclusions were based on limited samples. They were also driven by what now looks like the excessive, mid-twentieth-century focus on formal variety and excellence. The turn to historicism in recent decades has provided a more inclusive sense of literary value just in time to support efforts to study the rapidly expanding body of American writing that has been coming online.
The findings of one such effort, the Boston Poems Project, suggests that a new assessment of early national poetry is in order. Over a three-and-a-half-year period, seventeen Boston College English majors worked with me in small groups to review the roughly forty-five hundred poems that, according to the American Periodical Series database, appeared in about sixty Boston magazines published during the first decades that followed the ratification of the Constitution. Inspired by the desire to recover forgotten chapters of Boston’s literary history, we began by looking for both very good and very bad lost poems—buried treasures and turkeys.1 We found both of these but soon shifted to searching for poems we liked because of their local resonance to include in an anthology of such works that was published by the University Press of New England in 2016 (Lewis).
Now that online databases enable searches by genre, date range, keywords, and place of publication, and now that prior publication can be more readily, if...