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Literature in Early America

With America’s declaration of political independence came the call for literary independence, for an American literature that would be independent of (and, implicitly, superior to) British literature. This call for a truly distinctive American literature would be uttered repeatedly for generations, based on the belief that America’s distinctive form of government, unique mix of peoples, and geographical grandeur would naturally inspire a unique literary voice. Despite such literary nationalism, most of what Americans read in the early republic was British literature, in part because the absence of international copyright make it cheap and easy for American publishers to pirate British texts. Transporting books across the American expanse was difficult, time-consuming, and costly.

One of the most important books to emerge in early America was Noah Webster’s The American Spelling Book (1783). Webster’s textbook, usually referred to as the “blue-backed speller,” was used to teach five generations of Americans to read, first by learning syllables, then working up to whole words. The blue-backed speller was also an effort to standardize American spelling, a goal which also fueled Webster’s other key work, the American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), which forms the basis of most American dictionaries to this day.


Two major authors of color emerged in the early republican period, fueling reformist fervor and inspiring writers for generations to come.

In 1789, Olaudah Equiano published a narrative that became central to the antislavery cause, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, an early example of the slave narrative genre that would become wildly popular in the antebellum period.

In 1829, William Apess, a Pequot, published A Son of the Forest, the first extensive autobiography published by a Native American. His essay “An Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man” (1833) is a fierce indictment of racial prejudice.


William Cullen Bryant was one of the first American poets to achieve fame, through poems like “Thanatopsis” (1811). “Thanatopsis” means “view of death,” and, in the poem, dying means embracing communion with nature and equality with others, as death is the ultimate leveler.


Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple, first published in London in 1791 and the U.S. in 1794, is frequently cited as America’s first best-seller. Charlotte Temple is a seduction novel, like many eighteenth-century British bestsellers, and it tells the story of a young woman lead astray by an attractive but ultimately immoral man who finds herself pregnant, alone, and, ultimately, dead.

Charles Brockden Brown is often referred to as the father of American fiction for the key role he played in turning the European gothic into an American art form. Gothic literature is filled with hidden secrets, repressed desires, mysterious crumbling mansions, madmen, and damsels in distress. While this might make the gothic fiction sound primarily plot- and setting-oriented, gothic literature is also very much about psychology, about the half-hidden horrors of the human mind. American gothic frequently registers the traumas of our nation’s history, exploring the “dark side” of our democratic experiment, the racism, classism, and sexism that exists alongside a rhetoric of equality. Brown’s most famous novel, Wieland (1798), brings the gothic to a country estate outside of Philadelphia, where a man is goaded to kill his loved ones by a voice that sometimes is and sometimes isn’t just in his head. Brown may have been the first significant practitioner of the gothic in America, but he certainly wasn’t the last: Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe, among many others, were also drawn to the gothic.

Washington Irving was the first American writer to achieve substantial international fame, thanks in large part to his 1820 collection of essays, sketches, and short stories, The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1820). The collection included “Rip Van Winkle, the story of a hen-pecked husband who falls asleep in the Catskill Mountains, dreams of bowling with Henry Hudson and his crew, and awakens to find he has missed the American Revolution. It also contains “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” the story of a superstitious schoolmaster scared into thinking he is being pursued by the Headless Horseman, the ghost of a Hessian soldier. Both stories are invested in giving a strong sense of the unique flavor of Dutch New York, making them important precursors to the local color and regionalist movements later in the century.

James Fenimore Cooper also achieved international fame, producing over thirty novels. Most importantly, Cooper was the author of The Leatherstocking Tales, a series of five novels centered around his mythic frontiersman, Natty Bumppo, also referred to as Hawkeye or the Leatherstocking: The Pioneers (1823), The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Prairie (1827), The Pathfinder (1840), and The Deerslayer (1841). In these novels, Cooper invented the frontier romance and created a long-standing myth of the American West, inhabited by romanticized American Indians who befriend whites while ultimately still passing away and violent American Indians who seem to deserve the mistreatment doled out by whites. Like the “good Indians” he befriends, Chingachgook/Indian John and his son Uncas, Natty is the last of his kind, a man who lives between cultures, a romantic myth that will pass away with the civilization of the frontier. Cooper’s work spurred an array of imitations and created stereotypes of Native Americans that still have a good deal of cultural sway.

Inspired by Cooper’s example, two of the best-known female writers in the early republic also wrote historical romances dealing with Native Americans. Lydia Maria Child’s Hobomok (1824) goes boldly where Cooper will not, imagining a marriage between a white woman and an American Indian. Child’s large body of work, which ranges from novels to housekeeping manuals to children’s stories, reflects her sustained opposition to slavery and Indian removal, a rare stance for a white writer. Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie (1827), pairs a strong American Indian female protagonist, Magawisca, with the strong white female protagonist, Hope Leslie, in Puritan New England.

By the end of the republican period, the United States had produced a small group of writers that most critical commentators agreed proved the worth of American literature: Irving, Bryant, Cooper, and Sedgwick. But, as we will see, this did little to abate calls for a distinctive American tradition: such calls were central to the next period in American literature as well, the period scholars now call the American Renaissance.


To craft this document, I consulted Richard Ruland and Malcolm Bradbury’s From Puritanism to Postmodernism, the Norton Anthology of American Literature (shortened eighth edition), and American History Through Literature, 1820-1870, ed. Janet Gabler-Hover and Robert Sattelmeyer.