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.

XXII. Divines and Moralists, 1783–1860

§ 4. Timothy Dwight

Timothy Dwight (1752–1817) could have had no such doubts of his present success. After a varied experience as student (graduated 1769) and tutor at Yale, as an army chaplain during the Revolution, as a farmer, as a member of the Connecticut legislature, and as preacher, schoolmaster, and writer of verse at Greenfield, Connecticut, he became, at the age of forty-three, Dr. Stiles’s successor in the presidency of Yale. He seems to have been the prototype of the modern college president,—appreciative of scholarship, but primarily a practical administrator. He raised the college to financial prosperity; he broadened the curriculum, especially by introducing courses in science; and to the infidels then numerous among the student body he brought religious conviction.

His divinity (Theology Explained and Defended, 1818–19), though schematic, is also controversial, aiming perhaps less to systematize than to convince, and establishing orthodoxy by refuting heresy. It consists of the sermons—essentially Hopkinsian—which he delivered from the college pulpit week after week and year after year, repeating the full set every four years so that each student generation might have the benefit of the whole course.

As a contribution to American prose it is much less important than his four posthumously published volumes of Travels in New England and New York (1821–22). These record a series of journeys, on horseback or in a gig or “sulky,” which Dwight undertook for his health, usually during college vacations, beginning in September, 1796, and continuing at intervals until 1815. The book is the upshot of his experience of life; he was engaged upon the manuscript within nine months of his death, and probably within a few days of it.

He professes as his motive for writing, the humanistic desire to vivify the past; he had wished to know “the manner in which New England appeared or to mine own eye would have appeared eighty or one hundred years before”; and, finding this impossible for himself, he resolved to make it possible for posterity. A second professed motive was the desire to refute foreign misrepresentations of America; and with this in view he cast his material into the form of letters and topical essays addressed to an imaginary Englishman.

These definite purposes do not prevent the book from being an omnium gatherum. For Dwight does not use them as a basis of selection or exclusion of material, but admits anything that happens to interest him; and as he is interested in anything he sees and thinks of, the unity of his book is far to seek. Now, in emulation of the early New England annalists, he chronicles a great storm or an egregious murder; now, in a vein reminiscent of White’s Selborne, he tells of the habits of birds, of the fitness of trees for particular soils, or of the right weather for maple sap; now, for chapter after stodgy chapter, he repeats and summarizes the Connecticut constitution and laws, the system of land tenure, the powers and duties of officers of government, and the penal system, even down to the fines imposed for various offences. Yet his commentary upon this tedious material—shrewd and lucid, well-balanced both in judgment and in style, and above all practical—places it in a kind of Blackstonian tradition. For the rest, he mingles topographical accounts of the regions he passes through with sketches of the characters and lives of distinguished residents, descriptions of scenery, estimates of inns and innkeepers, bits of historical narrative, and statistics of industry, wealth, religion, and climate.

Dwight’s descriptive powers are high but unsustained. At Canajoharie, he tells us, the Mohawk runs below, in a gorge, while above is a

  • long narrow stripe of azure seen overhead. On both sides rise stupendous walls of a deep black, awful with their hanging precipices, which are hollowed with a thousand fantastical forms.… As you advance up the stream … you suddenly arrive at a cascade sixty feet in height, where the water descends with a sufficient approximation to perpendicularity to convert the current from a sheet into a mass of foam perfectly white and elegant.
  • The passages that he does not thus spoil, as, for example, his description of the Notch of the White Mountains, of a view in the Catskills, or of the “oak openings” of the Genesee River, are very few. His narratives, too, while interesting as raw material of literature, are seldom more. The woman one hundred and two years old who, when “the bell was heard to toll for a funeral, … burst into tears and said, ‘When will the bell toll for me? It seems that the bell will never toll for me,’” might have appealed poignantly to Hawthorne. Dwight’s traveller, who rode across a bridge in the dark, and only in the morning discovered that the bridge had not a plank on it and that his horse had found his way across the naked frame, was in fact used by Henry Ward Beecher as an illustration rather less effective than the original. Dwight’s tale of how the regicide Goff, then a venerable man in concealment in the house of the minister at Hadley, had suddenly appeared during an Indian raid upon the congregation, rallied them, and disappeared, may well have actually suggested Hawthorne’s story of The Grey Champion. But Dwight has no flair for imaginative material; nor is he content to leave even his expository effects unspoiled. His narrative of the Saratoga campaign is solid historical writing; but alas, hard at its heels follows the judgment that Saratoga was more important than Marathon.

    In description, in narrative, in its dry controversial humour, Dwight’s style is a sound eighteenth-century style, very serviceable in conveying his keen judgments upon statecraft and college management; an administrator’s style, clean in structure, sharp and low-toned in diction, modelled upon Johnson and Burke, but with an occasional richer rhythm. “The bloom of immortality, already deeply faded, now withered away.” The apostle Eliot, when he died, “undoubtedly went to receive the benedictions of multitudes, who, but for him, had finally perished.” Sometimes there are short passages of a sober eloquence not unlike Edwards’s own. Of the congregation to whom Dr. Swift had been a faithful pastor Dwight observes: “Many of them will probably remember him with gratitude throughout eternity.” But such pieces of Attic diction or noble rhythm may be followed in the very next sentence by a banality. As in his descriptions and narratives, so in the general body of his prose, the passages of power or beauty are not sustained. He has merely stumbled upon them.

    From first to last Dwight has either no æsthetic standards or only the standards of cocksure provincialism. “Longitude from Yale College,” the legend upon the map prefixed to each of his volumes, might be their motto. His opinions upon Elizabethan writers, upon architecture, upon the drama, upon Greek and Roman literature, would be incredible if they did not stare us in the face from cold type. His genuine powers are rendered nugatory by his incompetence in the realms of taste and imagination. He is the complete Puritan, inhospitable to art but thoroughly efficient in dealing with things; and—to modify Arnold’s formula concerning the Philistine—a maker of farms that produce, of sermons that edify, of a college that educates, and of characters that wear. His want of adequate standards leaves his book a miscellany, not so much because there are all sorts of things in it as because of their huge artistic incongruities; not so much because of the variety of its contents as because of the unplumbed gaps between their literary levels.

    Yet this is not to say that after some acquaintance with the Travels the reader does not perceive a dominant interest emerge. This is Dwight’s interest in watching the world confirm his creed. Streams erode their banks, waterfalls recede, puddingstone is compounded, in order to support the Mosaic chronology, which infidel geologists had been heard to assail. Insects found alive in wood known to be eighty years old, seeds that germinate after centuries, frogs found alive by diggers far under ground, are not mere curiosities: they prove that a species supposed to be new may well have been the offspring of such durable creatures, and hence that there is no new species and no spontaneous generation. Dwight chronicles them to support the Biblical account of the origin of all species by creation at the beginning, an account which even in his time was being questioned by precursors of the evolutionary philosophy. His interest in other marvels, again, such as floating islands and mysterious bright spots in the clouds, is much the same as Cotton Mather’s interest in magnalia—What hath God wrought! Every detail of the creation is full of manifest providences. The rich vegetable mould on the surface of new lands, for example, which yields an abundant crop to the pioneer almost without effort on his part, has been placed there for that very purpose, to support him during the first years of his settlement, when his energies, being required to build his house and clear more land, are diverted from the soil. Then, when the beneficent mould has disappeared, the poor soil has its providential purpose too, for by now the settler has time to cultivate it, indeed, must cultivate it if he is to live; so that he has a motive for industry and the other virtues which make him respectable. Thus both the presence and the absence of vegetable mould are effects of the final causes which make the world for man.

    Carrying his theology into his judgments upon life, Dwight is interested above all, then, in seeing how a depraved humanity actually gets along in the world. His picture of the trim green New England landscape, with its white spires and prosperous villages, and his picture of the unkempt and sprawling German settlements along the Mohawk, though they may at first seem intended to produce an imaginative contrast, at length reveal his purpose of showing what it is that makes people become respectable. In fact the whole book is a collection of materials toward a genetic psychology of respectability. Dwight’s observations of certain portions of Long Island and Westchester County, of the whole of Rhode Island (which he considers “missionary ground”), of the Indian settlements in parts of Connecticut, of the Irish settlements in central New York, and, generally speaking, of the world outside New England Congregationalism, all strengthen his conviction of the general depravity of man, and help him to confute the doctrines of Rousseau and William Godwin that men are good by nature but have been corrupted by civilization. His theology here coincides with his politics—his inveterate abhorrence of French “atheistic” democracy and Jeffersonianism in general. The Travels is a Federalist document, exhibiting in its most sensible consequences the view that men are presumably bad until something makes them good. Bent therefore upon discovering and applying the incentives that will make them good—for Dwight is a convinced motivist—he exemplifies everywhere the sanctions furnished by thrift, by education, by strong government, and by strong religion. Probably there exists no completer application of Calvinistic principles to secular life. Dwight is the last of the Puritans.