Holes in the Canon: The Hartford Wits and Literary History
by Eric D. Lehman
The architects of the American literary canon have always struggled between aesthetics and the demands of historicity. The Hartford Wits are a sad example of how this tension has become lopsided in favor of aesthetic currency, practically erasing this important group from critical study. Although they seem obvious choices for American Literature classes or anthologies, as either early examples of satire, or simply as the literature of the Revolution, few teachers or editors follow a scrupulous model of literary progression. They usually skip directly from Jonathan Edwards’s sermons and Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography to the 19th century as if the years between were too full of debate and violence to produce literature other than the “creative nonfiction” of Thomas Jefferson.
It is a further historical irony that the first movement to champion the idea of “American literature” itself, has been left out of the study of “American literature.” The first general collection of poetry attempted in the country, American Poems, Selected and Original, published in 1793 in Litchfield, Connecticut, was compiled by one of the “minor” Wits, Elihu Hubbard Smith. And of course this anthology is full of poems by his mentor Timothy Dwight, John Trumbull, Joel Barlow, David Humphreys, Lemuel Hopkins, Richard Alsop, and others. Trumbull’s M’Fingal was taught to school children for half a century, and remained the most popular long poem in the nation until Longfellow’s Hiawatha. In 1824 the nation’s second literary movement, New York’s Knickerbocker Group, gathered at a dinner to honor Trumbull. James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving raised their glasses to the 74-year-old veteran of American poetry, honoring his assured place in the canon.
So, what happened? By the early 20th century we have Yale scholar Henry Beers writing about the Wits as a forgotten curiosity, finding these distant schoolmates only by reading an 1865 article by a dismissive Massachusetts partisan. And even the sympathetic Beers cannot help but use words like “unreadable,” “wooden,” and “epic pomp.” Obviously the Wits fell out of aesthetic favor, as all writers eventually do. Every generation remakes the canon in its own image, with all its preferences and prejudices, and anthologies and syllabi must always change with the times. But our choices should not come at the cost of historical inaccuracy. The question should be, not why don’t we like the poetry of the Wits today, but why did the people of that time appreciate it? How did it influence others? What were its successes and its failures? How does it shine a light on past and future literature?
Before looking at ways to counteract this unfortunate development, it might be useful to look at the other factors that erased the Wits so completely from schools and books and national consciousness. Firstly, in the early years of the 19th century, the idea that the group was somehow too “aristocratic” became popular. This was intended as a slur, dreamed up by the more “egalitarian” Jeffersonians. With both pens and swords the Wits fervently took part in the American Revolution, and later in building the new Republic that sprang from it. This was hardly an aristocratic project by the standards of that time.
Likewise, the political nature of some of the poetry itself is problematic – historical context becomes necessary. We see this most clearly with their collaborative effort, the Anarchiad: A Poem on the Restoration of Chaos and Substantial Night, in which they worry that the new national obsession with individual freedom will lead to a breakdown of society in which “every rogue shall literally do what is right in his own eyes.” In the 1780s, this Federalist plea for the adoption of the Constitution seemed like fighting for the soul of the new nation to them, but later generations, especially Jeffersonian democrats, did not see it that way. From the heights of proclaiming national revolution, the Wits had been drawn into mere party politics. Unfortunately, most literature based on politics remains of the moment rather than becoming immortal.
Much of their work took the form of satire, which inevitably rusts with time, too. The portrayal of the British General Howe in M’Fingal may have brought chuckles from contemporaries, but means little to anyone but historians today. Furthermore, their non-satirical work sometimes championed the belief that the American Revolution would herald a golden age of humanity, an enthusiastic proclamation that is far too cloying for readers of more cynical times. “Long” poetry itself has lost its readership in the last century. This leads anthologists in particular to choose one of their contemporaries like Philip Freneau, whose poetry is usually shorter, though hardly better, than the Wits. Even something like Barlow’s “Hasty Pudding,” at three thousand words, was recently considered too long for four different anthologies of food poetry, where it should hold a place of honor.
Their poetry was also seen as “derivative” of the 18th century British writers like Alexander Pope by later American writers, who had developed their own styles separate from the endless couplets and witty rhymes so loved by the people of that time. It didn’t help that a decade later the British Romantics began their movement away from Pope’s established style. This led later scholars to be embarrassed that our own writers of that period had somehow not seen this literary revolution coming, even as they championed the revolution of arms and ideas.
Perhaps the most persistent problem is the domination of modernist and post-modernist academics like me, brought up on free verse and Wallace Stevens complexity. I have to admit that most of the Wits’ poetry is simply not to my personal taste. But erasing their poetry and their story to satisfy my aesthetic preferences mocks both historical accuracy and a comprehensive understanding of American literature.
The first solution might be to move the Wits from literature to history classes, because along with being writers they all played important roles in founding the Republic. Little anecdotes such as Humphreys presenting Cornwallis’s surrendered banner to the new United States Congress complement his elegy on the burning of Fairfield or his Address to the Armies or his poem on the “happiness” of America. Most of these men were writers and warriors, and all were dedicated to the idea of public service.
Focusing on this intersection of the arts and public life is another approach to including the Wits. Timothy Dwight always said that he refused to live in a musty attic in order to become an author, and this was true of all of his generation. For better or worse, their allegiance was to life, to serving the community, and to their own worldly ambitions, rather than to the muse. This might provide a bracing antidote to the musty attic poets that dominate the canon, or it might lead us to the conclusion that their failure to dedicate themselves solely to art prevented them from achieving enduring admiration. But it is wonderful starting point for this conversation.
A more practical way to connect the Wits to modern students is to focus on their college lives at Yale, as they squeezed into tiny dorm rooms in Connecticut Hall, drank hard cider, and experimented with vegetarianism. They joined secret literary societies where they traded banned books, and took part in protests against the administration that nearly led to the college’s dissolution. Trumbull’s poem the Progress of Dulness still makes students laugh, when taken in manageable bites. The adventures of students “Tom Brainless,” “Dick Hairbrain,” and “Harriet Simper” seem fairly universal, and most students or teachers today can relate to couplets such as this:
Four years of college dozed away
In sleep, in slothfulness and play…
Of course, the Wits also had positive things to say about the importance of education for both personal character and public good. Joel Barlow tried to found a national university based on combined research and instruction, a strange and radical idea at the time, and was an early proponent of the belief that education could bring about a real democracy of equals, writing “Banish the mysticism of inequality and you banish almost all the evil attendant on human nature.” This is another good starting point for debate amongst students.
But it is the Wits’ attempt to create a national mythology, to try to define who we are as a people, that seems to hold the most promise in restoring their place in the canon. In this way they form a bridge from Benjamin Franklin to Walt Whitman, and beyond. From the Wits’ perspective, the job of the American author is to define who we are as a people – our character, values, culture, and flaws. And of course almost every American “classic” does just this, whether it is The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, Leaves of Grass, Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, or On the Road. Though the Wits’ poems and books may not have risen to the level of these later classics, they were the first literary movement to explore the cultural and philosophical results of the Revolution, which they saw, and we still see, as the most important event of their age.
One reason John Trumbull’s M’Fingal stayed in the “canon” of American Literature longer than the poems of the Hartford Wits was probably due to his genius lay in bringing the entire Revolution down to human size, and setting the argument at a typical New England town-meeting, something every one of his readers could relate to. In the town meeting argument, he also gives the Tory Squire M’Fingal as much voice as the patriot Honorius, allowing for warnings about “mob rule” with lines like this:
Yet with republics to dismay us,
You’ve call’d up Anarchy from chaos,
With all the followers of her school,
Uproar and Rage and wild Misrule…
Despite its patriotic leanings, the poem remains a balanced satire showing both the promises and dangers of democracy. Therefore, Trumbull is the first to explore one of the major, if obvious, themes of American discourse in a poem.
In some of his lesser known poems, like “The Prophecy of Balaam,” Trumbull also worked on connecting the story of the Biblical Israelites, as understood by the New England Puritans, to the story of the founding of America. However, his friend Timothy Dwight would be more successful in doing this. At the age of nineteen Dwight began what is considered to be America’s first epic poem, which he eventually called The Conquest of Canaan, a story in heroic couplets that interestingly deviated from “biblical authority” and included well-drawn characters, like the Old Testament’s Joshua, portrayed in a much better light than in the Bible. In fact, the characters were a fascinating combination of modern Americans, the Greeks of the Iliad, and Hebrew heroes.
I see to combat ardent heroes rise;
I see bright glory flash from sparkling eyes;
Hark a glad cry! that every danger braves,
“Perish the day, ere Israel’s sons be slaves.”
The connection between the Israelites and the Puritans was something deeply ingrained in Connecticut lore, and with The Conquest of Canaan, Dwight incorporates the battles of the Revolution into that established mythology.
At the end of the war in 1783, Timothy Dwight accepted the pastorate in Greenfield, now part of Fairfield, and settled there. The idyllic village overlooking Long Island Sound inspired another work, Greenfield Hill, an amiable celebration of the beauty of the pastoral landscape and of solid American virtues, where:
… the rich enjoyments round me spring,
Where every farmer reigns a little king;
Where all to comfort, none to danger, rise;
Where pride finds few, but nature all supplies;
Where peace and sweet civility are seen,
And meek good-neighbourhood endears the green.
This poem’s anthemic praise of native land, people, and values prefigures Walt Whitman, and its rejection of European values and norms could have been penned by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Dwight found something special about America, in the rural simplicity of farmers and villagers, about its landscape and its people.
This theme of the importance of community is continued in Dwight’s other works, as well, in essays like “The True Means of Establishing Public Happiness” or his memoir Travels in New England and New York. His friend David Humphreys made a similar attempt to define the national character, but focused on the individual rather than the community. He was also the least “poetic” of the Wits, and it is instructive to look at his other forms.
While talking with the old General Israel Putnam in the 1780s, Humphreys decided to write his biography, contributing to the classic stories like Putnam crawling into the wolf den alone and riding down the steps in Greenwich to escape the redcoats. These stories may have had their origin in truth, but written down by Humphreys they had more in common with a young George Washington chopping down a cherry tree. Unsurprisingly, Putnam’s fanciful story was a huge success, and initiated a succession of semi-mythological hagiographies of national figures. Modern biographers like myself can pooh-pooh these works today, but they were in fact instrumental in creating the mythology that brought Americans together.
We often forget that the people of that time were divided more than we are today, that there was absolutely no idea of what an “American” was. So, by writing about a figure like General Putnam, Humphreys was attempting to define a national character, to point and say, this is what an American is. In the early 19th century when he was president of Yale, he did it again in a drama called The Yankey in England. It may not have been the best play, but was one of the first to codify the “Yankee” character for many people, a national type that would dominate American literature until the cowboy replaced it sixty years later. Furthermore, Israel Putnam, the Yankee, and the cowboy all have something in common, their love of individual freedom, and this continues to be a defining characteristic of Americans.
Joel Barlow also attempted to create a national mythology around a hero, though instead of Israelites or farmers or General Putnam, he chose an Italian explorer. His epic poem The Vision of Columbus, first written in March 1780 and later revised as The Columbiad, featured Christopher Columbus as an ancestor and a herald of the Americans of the 18th century. This might not seem strange to us in the 21st century, long after Italian immigrants have covered the countryside with Columbus statues, but at the time he wrote this only one other person, a Scotsman named William Robertson, had made this connection, three years earlier in The History of America. It connected Columbus with Anglo-American experience in a way that would shape future national mythology.
Columbus hail’d them with a father’s smile,
Fruits of his cares and children of his toil;
With tears of joy, while still his eyes descried
Their course adventurous o’er the distant tide.
In 1828 Washington Irving would champion Columbus as part of American tradition with his three volume biography, yet another myth that later authors built on the foundation of the Wits’ ideas.
Once we start looking at the Wits through these eyes, nearly everything they wrote seems to come into sharp focus. When Barlow sat at a smoky Savoyard inn and ate a dish of hasty pudding, under the name polenta, he was inspired to write about the virtues of this classic New England dish. But we might say that he is not just writing about a beloved recipe. When he writes “all my bones were made of Indian corn” he defines national character by food.
We can see how the Wits’ attempt to build a national, mythological literature might be a fruitful way to incorporate them into the modern canon. We can use this attempt to study the Wits, or vice versa, not only to maintain historical accuracy but to shine a light on the enduring literary concerns of the country. In doing this, we must resist exaggerating the quality or importance of their writing. As scholars or readers we might still agree that they failed to truly define or criticize their age properly, failed to reach the heights of contemporary British poets, or failed to trigger the Renaissance of letters they desired.
But leaving them out of the canon for these reasons is misguided. The same might be said for numerous other important American writers to whom 21st century snobs like me have turned an intolerant eye, from James Fenimore Cooper to Edna St. Vincent Millay. For the sake of historical veracity, we must weave back in the works of Amy Lowell, Anna Hempstead Branch, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and so on. Literary movements that gathered around The Knickerbocker or The Masses should be discussed alongside the transcendentalists of The Dial and the modernists of The Criterion.
As America’s first literary movement, Joel Barlow, John Trumbull, Timothy Dwight, David Humphreys, and their friends demonstrated clearly that the new nation would find its own voice and create its own literature. They focused introspectively on the concerns of their age: human progress, individual freedom, community good, and the promises and dangers of democracy. They were pioneers in defining a national character, outlining a new way of life, and creating a national mythology. Like many pioneers they encountered difficulties, some of their own making, but others would follow the trembling path they carved through the dense forests of early America, clearing the brush so that today we can walk a broad and level highway.
Piece originally published at Queen Mob’s Teahouse.
Beers, Henry. The Connecticut Wits and Other Essays. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1920.
Bowden, Edwin, ed. The Satiric Poems of John Trumbull. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1963.
Briggs, Peter. “English Satire and Connecticut Wit.” American Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 1, Special Issue: American Humor (Spring 1985), pp. 13-29.
Dowling, William C. Poetry and Ideology in Revolutionary Connecticut. Athens: U of Georgia Press, 1990.
Dwight, Timothy. Travels in New England and New York. London: William Baynes and Son, 1828.
Howard, Leon. The Connecticut Wits. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1943.
Parrington, Vernon. The Connecticut Wits. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1963.
Phillips, Carla Rahn, and William D. Phillips. “Christopher Columbus in United States
Historiography: Biography as Projection.” The History Teacher 25.2 (1992): 119–135.
About the Author:
Eric D. Lehman teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Bridgeport and his essays, reviews, poems, and stories have been published in dozens of journals and magazines. His dozen books include A History of Connecticut Food, Literary Connecticut, A History of Connecticut Wine: Vineyard in Your Backyard, Bridgeport: Tales from the Park City, Hamden: Tales from the Sleeping Giant, Insiders’ Guide to Connecticut , and Afoot in Connecticut: Journeys in Natural History, nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Becoming Tom Thumb: Charles Stratton, P. T. Barnum, and the Dawn of American Celebrity was released by Wesleyan University Press and won the Henry Russell Hitchcock Award from the Victorian Society of America, and was chosen as one of the American Library Association’s outstanding university press books of the year. 2015 saw the publication of three books: Homegrown Terror: Benedict Arnold and the Burning of New London, the story collection The Foundation of Summer, and Connecticut Town Greens: History of the State’s Common Centers. 2016 sees the publication of his novella, Shadows of Paris.