I’ve lost the prompt for this essay. It refers to the various literary forms growing in the 18th century, and how they helped to develop a distinct American Literature.
With the 18th century came the decline of Puritanism and the rise of Enlightenment ideals. This ushered a newfound power in the will and ability of the human being, as opposed to the divine. It was an awakening of science, individualism, and personal prosperity. The Enlightenment gave rise to the introspective accounts of individuals like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Indeed, the autobiography became a popular vehicle to relate the personal narratives that in the previous century had professed the power of God as the driver of human conduct. Where William Bradford credits God for his success, Franklin extols his own will and determination. There is little doubt that Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography departs all but completely from the Puritanical literature of the previous centuries. Political documents such as The Federalist Papers and the Declaration of Independence were important in birthing the nation, and also grew from Enlightenment ideals. But this emboldened self-reliance and responsibility created a backlash from some religious leaders. Religious revivalism grew out of opposition to Enlightenment ideals and spurred deeply liturgical texts. Sermons became vivid and emotional appeals to strengthen a religious faith that seemed increasingly threatened. Jonathan Edwards fiercely compels his congregation to more fully experience their love of God in his sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.
Yet the English language as a voice of literature was somewhat behind in 18th century America. Until the 19th century, Dutch was still spoken broadly in New York; across colonial America, other languages were both a means of practical communication as well as literary expression. And although printing was occurring in many American colonies, few pieces were printed when compared to those of London. Still, for reasons both political and expressive, English did become the dominant means of correspondence, and would follow as an important literary medium (Baym and Levine 15).
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is an interesting evolution of the American personal narrative. Whereas authors in the previous century told their stories almost as objective accounts of the will of God (Rowlandson and Bradford put full faith and credit for their survival into the hands of religion), Franklin’s narrative beams with his pride and determined drive to success. Throughout his story, Franklin displays his own cleverness, and the indispensable support he received from other important persons. While he does not reject religion, he seeks to reformulate it to fit his own thinking and lifestyle. Franklin goes so far as to create his doctrine of “Thirteen Virtues,” saying that the common religions at the time were “very dry, uninteresting, and unedifying” (Franklin 300). He valued morality, to be sure, but had concerns that religious “sects” were more involved in growing their numbers than growing their minds and morals. Certainly, the personal narrative was an important literary form before his time, but Franklin imbued his life’s story with a deeply personal and humanist air. It was his will, his prosperity, his self-reliance and self-respect that ultimately led to his success.
It was this willful attitude that surged behind the push for independence. Enlightenment’s emphasis on human knowledge, will, and freedom gave force to the ideas of Thomas Jefferson, and the Declaration of Independence he penned. Indeed, this was a political document throughout; it gave substance, structure, and voice to the ideal that would soon form the free American nation. It set the precedence for political assertions that followed. It spoke deeply and optimistically of mankind, our right to be free from despotic rule, from “opprobrium of infidel powers” (Jefferson 343). I read infidel here to mean a government’s disbelief in the ability of the people to govern themselves, and this was Jefferson’s message and method alike. His political ideas indeed extend beyond politics and to the heart of our current model of human rights. Even if Jefferson and the framers were less than universal in their practice of equality, we take from his words, today, that all humans deserve equitable treatment—in social, religious, and political spheres alike.
Not all wholly embraced this exaltation of the existential power of humankind. Jonathan Edwards, in his Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, rejects completely the innate will of the human being. Edwards holds that “There is no want of power in God to cast wicked men into hell” (Edwards 210). His intense and passionate sermon asserts that we have no choice but to surrender our lives utterly to God; at any time, the “unregenerate” man is subject to the “everlasting wrath” and “exquisite horrible misery” of Gods anger (Edwards 218). Unless we acknowledge the weakness of humanity, we stand no chance in the eyes of God. This is in complete recoil to Enlightenment ideals. Edwards reinvents liturgical texts, I believe, with his strikingly expressive and powerful prose. Within a literary medium that typically focuses on the light and love of God, Edwards appeals to a powerful emotion—fear—to compel his congregation.
Within the still limiting confines of English in America, and without the benefit of widespread publishing, these authors used the means available to propel their thoughts to a thirsty readership. Franklin reformed the personal narrative, and gave it an empowering human voice; Jefferson disseminated his ideological beliefs in powerful political texts that would form the America that, today, we appreciate. Edwards used the power of the sermon to wrangle his people back to their faith in God. Ultimately, they all helped to breed the mingling of the myriad ideals that we value today.
Baym, Nina, and Robert S. Levine. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Eighth Edition. Volume 1. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2013.
Edwards, Jonathan. “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Eighth Edition. Volume 1. Ed. Nina Baym, and Robert S. Levine. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2013. 209-220. Print.
Franklin, Benjamin. “The Autobiography.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Eighth Edition. Volume 1. Ed. Nina Baym, and Robert S. Levine. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2013. 248-308. Print.
Jefferson, Thomas. “The Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Eighth Edition. Volume 1. Ed. Nina Baym, and Robert S. Levine. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2013. 339-344. Print.