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It is my purpose to write the history of American literature from the earliest English settlements in this country, down to the present time. I hope to accomplish the work within the space of three or four volumes. Each of these volumes will cover a distinct period in the intellectual life of the American people; and while between the several volumes there will exist the tie of mutual interpretation and of historical consecutiveness, it is intended that each shall be, with reference to the epoch which it portrays, a complete and independent work.
Such unity and completeness have been aimed at in the present volumes, which, together, may be described as a history of the rise of American literature at the several isolated colonial centres, where at first each had its peculiar literary accent; of the growth of this sporadic colonial literature in copiousness, range, flexibility, in elegance and force, and especially in tendency toward a common national accent; until, finally, in 1765, after all the years of our minority and of our filial obedience had been lived, the scattered voices of the thirteen colonies were for the first time brought together and blended in one great and resolute utterance:-an utterance expressive of criticism upon the parental control wielded over us by England, of dissent from that control, and at last of resistance to it;
an utterance which meant, among other things, that the thirteen colonies were no longer thirteen colonies but a single nation only, with all its great hopes and great fears in common, with its ideas, its determinations, its literature, in common likewise. The real ending of our colonial epoch, the real beginning of our revolutionary epoch, coincided in that tremendous year of disenchantment, the year 1765. That year, therefore, fixes the limit of the present volumes; for in these volumes I have tried to tell the story of American literary activity during the time of our contented subordination to the European commonwealth out of which we came.
It is possible that the scope of this work is well enough indicated in the words just written; yet to prevent misconception, I venture to state my plan a little more explicitly. I have not undertaken to give an indiscriminate dictionary of all Americans who ever wrote anything, or a complete bibliographical account of all American books that were ever written. It is our literary history only, that I have undertaken to give ;-that is, the history of those writings, in the English language, produced by Americans, which have some noteworthy value as literature, and some real significance in the literary unfolding of the American mind. But within the barriers fixed by the nature of this scheme, my work does aspire to be exhaustive. I have endeavored to examine the entire mass of American writings, during the colonial time, so far as they now exist in the public and private libraries of this country; and in the exercise of a most anxious judgment, and of a desire for completeness that has not grown weary even under physical fatigue, I have tried in these volumes to make an appropriate mention of every one of
our early authors whose writings, whether many or few, have any appreciable literary merit, or throw any helpful light upon the evolution of thought and of style in America, during those flourishing and indispensable days.
In the composition of a work of this kind, it is a very grave judicial responsibility that the author is forced to assume; it is also a very sacred responsibility. With reference to every name presented to him, there arises the debate, first, over its admission into the history at all ; and, secondly, if admitted, over the amount of prominence to be given to it. Upon these two questions, scarcely any two persons can ever exactly agree. As to my own solution of these questions, I can only say that I have studied, as I believe, every American writer of the colonial time, in his extant writings; I have included him within this history or have excluded him from it, after fair inspection of his claims; and I have given to every writer whom I have admitted, just so much room as was demanded by my own sense of his relative literary importance, and by my own view of the necessary adjustment of historical proportions in this book. Upon no topic of literary estimation have I formed an opinion at second hand. In every instance, I have examined for myself the work under consideration. Wherever, upon any subject, I have consciously used the opinion of another, I have made specific acknowledgment of my indebtedness; and by constant reference in the foot-notes to the sources of my information, I have tried to help others in testing my own statements, and in prosecuting similar studies for themselves. Having, after the utmost painstaking, reached my own conclusions, I have endeavored to utter
them frankly, accepting the responsibility of them; and yet, so various are human judgments that I may not dare to hope that any other student of the subject will in all particulars agree with me.
Some difference of opinion, also, is likely to exist over the question of weaving into the text of a history of literature, passages from the authors who are described in it. First of all, let it be mentioned that to do this skilfully is by no means a saving of labor for the literary historian: indeed, after the great matters of construction have been settled, no part of his task is more difficult than this; none requires a daintier touch, a more sensitive judgment, or a literary sense more delicate and alert. It would be far easier to write a history of literature without illustrative quotations than with them. But in the service of his art, the true literary man can never think of his own ease as an offset to the pleasure of doing his work well; and for one, I do not see how a history of literature can be well done, or be of much use, without the frequent verification and illustration of its statements by expertly chosen examples from the authors under study. Unless such examples are given, the most precise, clear, and even vivid delineations of literary characteristics must, for those who have not read the authors spoken of, fade away into pallor and vagueness, and after a time become wearisome; while the whole work, as a presentation of literature, will seem, as Motley once wittily said to George Ticknor, “a kind of Barmecide's feast, in which the reader has to play the part of Shacabac, and believe in the excellence of the lamb stuffed with pistachio nuts, the flavor of the wines, and the perfume of the roses, upon the assertion of the entertainer, and without assist