The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

XIX. Early Humorists

§ 2. Colonial Humorists

In the eighteenth century humour assumed a more important place in American literature, being represented less by naïve recitals of incongruous situations and incidents and more by a conscious recognition of the incongruity. The narratives of William Byrd (1674–1744), perhaps the wittiest and most accomplished Virginian of the colonial time, are remarkable for their civil geniality amid rude circumstances, and for their touches of cultivated irony. Madam Sarah Kemble Knight (1666–1727), in her diary written in the pauses of her horseback journeys between Boston and New York in 1704 and 1705, recorded in a most amusing manner the humours of the rough roads, the perilous crossing of rivers, the intolerable inns, and the coarse speech of the inland rustics. John Seccomb (1708–93) wrote a piece of verse called Father Abbey’s Will (1732) facetiously describing the estate of Matthew Abdy, sweeper, bed-maker, and bottle-washer to Harvard College. These lines found their way into The Gentleman’s Magazine. Joseph Green, who became well known for his puns, has left us some mischievous lines on Doctor Byles’s Cat (1733). The popular impression of Green is embodied in an epitaph which was written for him by one of his friends:

  • Siste, Viator, Here lies one
  • Whose life was whim, whose soul was pun,
  • And if you go too near his hearse,
  • He’ll joke you both in prose and verse.
  • These few specimens show, if they show nothing more, that other spirits than Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards were alive in America in the eighteenth century.