Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  Preface

Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889



THE DESIGN of this work is to afford the reader a general view of the course of American Literature from the outset to the present time. It is made for popular use and enjoyment, and to occupy a vacant field. There are several anthologies of our native verse. There is a compilation of specimens from our prose writers of the last hundred years; and we have a standard “Cyclopædia” in two large volumes, containing biographical and critical notices, with extracts from the writings of all American authors, great and small. The last-named work, so wide in scope and not limited to what is best and representative, is chiefly valuable to the curious student. Our own object is to place before the reader select and characteristic examples of the literature of this country, and to do so, as far as possible, without note or comment, leaving to others the field of critical review.

If our task shall be rightly executed, an important addition will be provided for the library of an American household. The work, as its name implies, will be a library in itself, whose contents are most attractive, offering precisely that of which the home-reader wishes to be informed. After all, as with the study of Nature, the best way to gain a knowledge of literature is to survey it with our own eyes. Nothing can enable one sooner to test the quality of our native product,—to comprehend its origin and development, and its reflection of the different stages of American history and aspiration,—than such an exhibition as we propose.

As this work is neither a history nor an encyclopædia, we are not forced to place all American writers, colonial and national, upon the list of those represented. Some, of more or less note,—divines, orators, journalists, romancers, poets,—will be omitted, so that our selections from those quoted may often be of greater length than is usual in books of this kind. Our aim is to give distinctive, readable examples of the writings of every class and of each successive period; to form a collection that shall be to our literature what a “National Gallery” is to national art; to bring together practical illustrations of the work of centuries,—of the changes of topic and style, the rise of learning, imagination, and creative power,—which finally resulted in a true home-school of authorship, upon which our people now rely with increasing confidence and pride.

We shall not overlook those noteworthy specimens of prose and verse which, although anonymous, or possessing slight literary merit, have a special and independent value. State papers, and the utterances of famous public men, come within our field. Nothing will be rejected because it is already familiar; pieces that have established a claim are representative and likely to be found in this collection. Examples are chosen for the genuine interest of their style or subject-matter. Short poems, tales, and sketches are given in full; from longer works we select the most vital and significant passages, or those that have a completeness of their own. At least five of the ten volumes will be devoted to the literature of the last half-century, but, owing to its wealth, and to the steadily enlarging number of modern authors, less proportional space can be given to many of those cited.

It has not been thought best to follow in all cases the quaint and often inconsistent spelling, and the undue use of Italic and capital letters, to which the earlier writers were addicted, but to present only so much of this as illustrates the usage of their time. Otherwise, when practicable, we give the text of original or authoritative editions, closely reproducing it where the old manner lends a charm to some narrative like that of Captain John Smith. In recent editions found of service, the orthography often has been modernized already. Failing to procure certain rare books, we sometimes profit by the research of former explorers. The arrangement of this work is chronological, with an order of succession not strictly governed by the order of the births of authors, but occasionally taking into consideration the dates of their important writings. Where the statisticians differ, we follow those who seem most trustworthy. With respect to living female writers, we have not felt bound to extend our scrutiny to dates which are not already matters of published record.

Our survey, beginning with the annals of the earliest successful colonies,—those of Virginia and New England,—naturally divides itself into successive Periods. The written product of each is charged with the temper and conditions of its time. The Early Colonial Literature (1607–1675) starts with the tales of the Voyagers who first gained a permanent foothold on these shores. Their choicest quality is displayed in the Jamestown and Plymouth narratives,—from which we fake our extracts, without going back to the records of Raleigh’s earlier ventures, or to Captain Gosnold’s and Captain Waymouth’s explorations in 1602 and 1605. Having to do with the writings of the English tongue, we include no translations from the French and Spanish explorers of the Canadian and Southern coasts and the Dutch settlers of New Netherlands. The striking accounts of voyaging, shipwreck, discovery, connected with the two settlements first-named, are a breezy introduction to the whole work. Otherwise the literature of the first Colonial Period comprises the history of that time, and the theology, the law, the fancy in prose and verse, of the educated judges and divines who were the ruling class in the colonies for more than a century. The books and pamphlets of these writers were published in England, and were modelled in style as closely upon that of the old country as the speech of a child is upon that of its parents. But their spirit was one of independence and New World life. The first American book-press was set up in Cambridge, Mass., A.D. 1640, and with resources of the scantiest limit. But we term all literature American that was produced by the heroic pioneers, whose thought, learning and resolution shaped the colonial mind.

The Later Colonial Literature (1676–1764) is less flavored with adventure, but abounds in religious and political discussion. The divines were still the ruling class. Their polemic theology, varied by their records of startling and mysterious “Providences,” characterized the writings of this time.

With the Revolutionary Period (1765–1787) we come to the speeches and writings of patriotic statesmen,—the founders of the Republic,—to a wealth of political wisdom, eloquence, and law, bequeathed to us by Franklin, Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson and Adams. The public journals, on their part, throughout and after the War, were enlivened with metrical satire, and printed not a few Tyrtæan lyrics. The vigorous intellects that combined to form a new Government gave it an enduring guide in the Federal Constitution of 1787. The ensuing epoch was one of rest from strife. Public and private energies were applied to the recuperation of strength, and to the maintenance and comprehension of the new liberty, so that little attention could be paid to letters and the liberal arts. Our first volume (1788–1820) of the Literature of the Republic may seem less significant and historic than its predecessors. But it covers a time rich in analysis and settlement of the Constitutional law, and one that, on its imaginative side, produced a writer of singular genius, the first American romancer, Charles Brockden Brown.

From the close of the War of 1812, until the year 1835, was the noontide of American Oratory. Clay, Webster, Calhoun, Benton, and their compeers, were masters of that classic eloquence whose practice and grandeur belong chiefly to the past. Some of their speeches fastened the idea of Liberty, the reverence for Union, upon the minds of their own and younger generations. And now a school of novelists arose, with Paulding, Cooper and Irving in the foreground. Bryant, Dana, Drake, Halleck, and others, gave the country a poetry of her own. Channing enfranchised her moral thought. These authors were the begetters of a genuine literature, preparing the way for an advance in imagination, reason, feeling, which on the whole has marked the course of American letters since their time.

The second half of our work is wholly occupied with the best and most creative Literature of the Republic, that of the last Fifty Years. Three volumes are required for any representation of the genius of Poe, Emerson, Longfellow, Bancroft, Motley, Hawthorne, Lowell and other worthies of their prime. Two more will be devoted to the prose and verse of the most recent period, our own, inaugurated by the War for the Union and its great result,—the Abolition of Slavery in the United States. We close, therefore, with the presage of a new and different era. For the first time we have an absolutely free and democratic Republic, extending from sea to sea. It is a fitting moment for this historical survey of the stages through which we have reached the threshold of an assured future.

In proportion with the advance of authorship as a profession in this country, and with the increase of American works of a purely literary character, theology and polities seem to us of less relative value for the purposes of this compilation. Our first two volumes contain, we believe, a more select and compact representation of the writings of our Colonial divines than has before been attempted. In volumes III. and IV., American statesmanship and oratory, at their most famous period, will be prominently illustrated. The last half-century’s roll of clergymen and scholars, with whom writing has been a habit, is very large, so that of the making of their many books there seems indeed no end. We therefore shall be compelled to quote seldom and sparingly from even our most brilliant modern divines, savants, and civil or military “public men.” A few whose fame and influence have taken hold upon the nation at large we shall not overlook; but our concluding volumes must be devoted chiefly to the rich and increasing yield of history, poetry, fiction, and other productions of a strictly literary order.

Doubtless the better portion of our literature has originated, hitherto, within the territory of the primitive “Thirteen States.” We endeavor to make a just and impartial representation of all sections, old or new. In the latest period, the West, the South, and the Pacific coast, offer abundant claims for recognition. Henceforth the country will look to them for their equal share of what is best and most indigenous in our national literature.

The Tenth volume of this series will contain a careful Index to the whole work, and a brief Supplementary Preface. The latter will enable us to make acknowledgments to friends and institutions rendering us assistance. We shall express our thanks to those who have permitted us to make extracts from copyright works, sharing their belief that the popular desire for a knowledge of the authors quoted will be increased by the study of this compendium.

NEW YORK, March, 1887.