Nonfiction Prose

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Nonfiction prose in the period from 1754 to 1829 is marked by a shift from Calvinist introspection and a preoccupation with spiritual salvation to a focus on the public sphere in which attempts are made to define what an American is and what the American continent is like for curious Europeans and future immigrants. Those already living in America saw in this literature a guide to fashioning a distinctively American political, social, and cultural identity. Thus, the project of description and analysis of America had both a domestic as well as an international audience. Among the modes of expression most suited to this enterprise were autobiographies (of model Americans) and scientific writings describing the natural landscape as well as observations about the American character by recent immigrants. Added to these were popular advice books about how one might succeed in the American environment through rigorous domestic (household) economy and practical (farmer's) almanacs. And finally, among the characteristic nonfiction prose forms were histories of the American Revolution and political writings about the best modes of governance, supplemented by dissenting polemical writings (orations, sermons, dialogues, and published letters) about the overlooked capabilities of women, Native Americans, and African slaves.

This is not to suggest that intimate, personal writings disappeared, for certainly correspondence was the main form of communication and offered alternative perspectives on the new nation by less public voices, such as those of women (as seen in the correspondence between Abigail and John Adams). Nor is this to suggest that religion had foundered, for there were many revivals that followed the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s, and diverse denominations flourished in the latter half the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century. Furthermore, spiritual autobiographies, as exemplified by that of Quaker Elizabeth Ashbridge (1713–1755) continued to be written. Rather, it is to suggest that John Winthrop's vision of America as God's "city upon a hill" was adapted and naturalized in the descriptions of America by Thomas Jefferson in Notes on the State of Virginia (1785) and in William Bartram's Travels (1791). Similarly, spiritual autobiographies, like Jonathan Edwards's Personal Narrative (1765) and Cotton Mather's Bonifacius (1710; later reprinted as Essays to Do Good) were modified into a moral, secular, and national memoir in the Autobiography (1818) of Benjamin Franklin. America remained an exceptional nation, but its exceptional basis as God's chosen people was less immediately the topic of discussion, replaced by the practical exigencies of how to form a distinct and sustainable nation in the eyes of the world. The emphasis had shifted from predestination and God's sovereignty to scientific discovery and human craftsmanship—of the political state, of society, and of cultural artifacts.

autobiography and the nation

Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography is in many respects a document of the nation's history, written at important junctures in Franklin's and the nation's development and from the vantage of a global perspective. The earlier parts were written in England (in 1771), where Franklin was engaged in discussions with Parliament, and in France (1784), where he stayed on as minister after the Treaty of Paris (1783) with Great Britain was signed; the last part was written in Philadelphia (in 1788) after the Constitutional Convention. The narrative documented his own attainment of personal independence (just a few years before the nation achieved its own) and his method for building a character of discernment and good judgment, which broadened into ever-widening circles of civic-mindedness, public service, and autonomous identity. The Autobiography was partly indebted to spiritual autobiographies that registered a journey through trials to achieve grace (for example, John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress [1678]) and guides to moral conduct (for example, Mather's Bonifacius).

Franklin's Autobiography focuses, however, not upon the intractable stain of human sin in the eyes of God, but rather upon the (metaphoric) printer's errata, which can be corrected for each new readership. For Franklin, human agency is effective, and self-improvement means that others can learn from his example. His is a self-consciously rhetorical enterprise: a record of his life in the style that he taught himself from Joseph Addison and Richard Steele's Spectator (1711–1712), a style that is "smooth, clear, and short: For the contrary Qualities are apt to offend, either the Ear, the Understanding, or the Patience" (Franklin, "On Literary Style," 2 August 1733). Unlike his Puritan predecessors, he did not dwell on his own imperfections but was willing to accept some limitations and vices. Clearly, what he sought most was not to avoid God's wrath. Rather, it was—in the famous words of Jefferson's Declaration of Independence—"Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness" that this self-made man most desired, "for in Proportion as a Man is vicious he loses the Favour of God and Man, and brings upon himself many Inconveniences, the least of which is capable of marring and demolishing his Happiness" (Franklin, "A Man of Sense," 11 February 1735"). Franklin's Autobiography is a document, then, of a man who felicitously rose to international status through self-improvement and self-discipline, just as his nation had done. Franklin included a letter by Benjamin Vaughan (31 January 1783) urging him to publish his life story because there was a parallel between a wise and upwardly mobile Franklin and the new nation's rise to independence and success; "All that has happened to you is also connected with the detail of the manners and situation of a rising people," Vaughan wrote. Franklin's life story is also the nation's history.

Similarly, Thomas Jefferson's "Autobiography," written in 1821, suggests the deep intertwining of his life with the evolution of the nation, perhaps most clearly revealed in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence, included in the "Autobiography." Unlike the final document, which was heavily revised by Congress and has the qualities of a timeless, universal statement representing a consensus of the American people, the original version reveals Jefferson's passionate anger and exasperation in the historical moment. In the changes that are visible in the deletions and emendations, we see the shift from a heated, polemical, and in many respects personal letter to a heavily negotiated and debated document fashioned into a public performance for a broader, international audience. The meaning of the revisions and the final document are still being debated by scholars. In Inventing America (1978), Garry Wills suggests that the phrase "all men are created equal" means that they all possess a moral sense that is equal to all other men's in seeking the beauties of virtue, whereas in The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson (1948; 1981), Daniel Boorstin suggests that the original phrase ("all men are created equal and independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable") derives its sense of equality from Jefferson's scientific interests in the facts and perfection of God's creation. Indeed, from that supreme design Jefferson infers the human potential for crafting the state and the importance of perfecting the governmental design.

flora, fauna, and americans

To a European audience, America still represented the exotic New World and was one more clue to the entirety of God's diverse and perfect design. Thomas Jefferson wrote Notes on the State of Virginia (1785) in response to a request from the French government in 1781. A careful description of the flora, fauna, rivers, mountains, laws, manufactures, religions, and populations of Virginia, Notes offers a scientist's and perhaps an anthropologist's analysis of one section of America. In fact, significant sharing of scientific information much like this regularly moved back and forth across the Atlantic. Jefferson's emphasis in his descriptions was upon the landscape's orderly design, its natural wonders, and its virtuous people who derived their grace from their proximity to the land. His descriptions are frequently comparative to the Old World and were measured with a scientist's interest in accuracy. One should not forget Jefferson's—not to mention Franklin's—scientific interests and their roles in a scientific community that included Benjamin Rush (doctor and medical scientist), Benjamin Barton Smith (botanist), David Ritten-house (astronomer), Charles Willson Peale (museum creator), and Joseph Priestley (the chemist who discovered oxygen).

William Bartram's Travels Through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida … (1791) was the work of a botanist who described himself as "impelled by a restless spirit of curiosity, in pursuit of new productions of nature." Compared to Jefferson's, his descriptions of America are more vivid and sensuous and verge on the poetical as he discovered New World novelties. In fact, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth were known to have gleaned descriptions from Bartram's Travels for their poetry, ranging from the terrifying roar of alligators ("it most resembles very heavy distant thunder, not only shaking the air and waters, but causing the earth to tremble") to the never-ending blossoming of a tree ("with large milkwhite fragrant blossoms … renewed each morning … in such incredible profusion that the Tree appears silvered over with them and the ground beneath covered with the fallen flowers"). Bartram combined the sort of autobiographical narrative that public figures like Jefferson wrote with the scientific explorer's interest in the exotic and the poet's interest in the lyrical. Besides offering up a landscape of enchantment to Europeans who hungered for such fare, Bartram hoped to be "instrumental in discovering, and introducing into my native country, some original productions of nature, which might become useful to society."

In many respects these descriptive narratives of America, and many others of a more exaggeratedly positive nature, functioned as propaganda to entice immigrants to this country. There was, in fact, a genre of emigration promotion pamphlets that so inflated the benefits of America that Franklin spoofed them in his essay, "Information to Those Who Would Remove to America" (1782), addressed to those who might be gullible enough to believe that in America roofs were tiled with pancakes and "fowls [that] fly about ready roasted, crying come eat me!" J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, an immigrant from France to New York, however, wrote a more balanced series of essays titled Letters from an American Farmer (1782). The best known, Letter III, or "What Is an American," paints a picture of America as a pastoral land and as refuge for the beleaguered European: "We have no princes, for whom we toil, starve, and bleed: we are the most perfect society now existing in the world." Compared to the Old World, America was open and abundant. "Every industrious European who transports himself here, may be compared to a sprout growing at the foot of a tree; it enjoys and draws but a little portion of sap; wrench it from the parent roots, transplant it, and it will become a tree bearing fruit also." Crèvecoeur presents America as an orderly, self-regulated agrarian landscape and as a peaceful melting pot made up of an internationally "promiscuous [mixed] breed … now called Americans."

Although not all his reflections on his adopted country are so unqualified in their praise, and although he was hostile to the forces of progress that came increasingly to characterize the country, Crèvecoeur does explore the process of forging an American identity and thus stands as a significant precursor to Alexis de Tocqueville, whose later observations in Democracy in America (1835) characterized America for Europeans. For those who came to this country, there was ample advice in the form of almanacs, the best-known and most popular of which was Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac, published annually between 1732 and 1757. A work of wisdom and humor, it made Franklin's name a byword in the colonies. For women, too, there was advice on domestic economy, including that of Lydia Maria Child's The Frugal Housewife (1829), where the rising middle-class woman could learn to make do with thrift, resourcefulness, and diligent economy.

politics, persuasion, and history

Political pamphlets, newspaper essays, orations, and histories, particularly as they related to the Revolution, were another among the chief forms of expression in nonfiction prose. Among the pamphleteers, Thomas Paine is perhaps the best known. His series of patriotic and eloquent letters, The American Crisis (1776–1783), and his incendiary and highly influential pamphlet in favor of independence, Common Sense (1776), earned him the epithet "spark plug of the American Revolution." In his earlier writings for the Pennsylvania Magazine (1775), Paine had advocated for the freedom of slaves and for the rights of women. But others, too, advocated on behalf of women and against slavery, and for Native Americans as well. Using the gently suggestive form of a Socratic dialogue, Charles Brockden Brown wrote Alcuin; A Dialogue (1797) on behalf of the legal, economic, and political freedom of women. In "Remarks Concerning the Savages of America" (1784), Benjamin Franklin insisted that Native Americans were not barbarians, as many had portrayed them, but rather a civilized people whose advanced code of etiquette was misinterpreted as simplicity and naïveté. In 1700 Samuel Sewall wrote The Selling of Joseph, the first tract in America to denounce slavery, but late in the eighteenth century, many African American voices began to be heard on their own behalf. Benjamin Banneker, in a letter to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson that was published in 1792, advocated for the freedom of his brothers in slavery by reciting back to Jefferson his own words from the Declaration of Independence and reminding Jefferson of the latter's own feelings under the tyranny and servitude of an exploitative king. Similarly, William Hamilton's "Oration Delivered in the African Zion Church on the Fourth of July, 1827, in Commemoration of the Abolition of Domestic Slavery in this State [New York]" (1827) highlighted the contradiction between the republican ideals in the Declaration of Independence and the institution of slavery, for which he called Thomas Jefferson "an ambidexter philosopher." And while men were active on the stage of politics, elite female historians with access to relevant documents wrote patriotic histories of the events, as exemplified by Mercy Otis Warren's History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution (1805).

By the early nineteenth century, however, with political independence behind them, Americans faced more squarely the challenge to achieve cultural independence from Britain, a challenge heightened by Sydney Smith's taunt in the Edinburgh Review (1820): "In the four quarters of the globe who reads an American book? Or goes to an American play? Or looks at an American picture or statue?" Partly in answer to this call, Washington Irving wrote his genteel and much-loved The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent (1820), a series of stories set in colonial America along with travel sketches of England. But it would be the writers of the 1830s through the 1850s, including Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville, who sought to forge a distinctively American literature that was neither an imitation of English modes nor the crude and provincial writing that had provoked the negative characterization by Sydney Smith. These authors more than answered the call to create an American literature in what has come to be known as the American Renaissance of the 1850s.

See alsoAlmanacs; Declaration of Independence; Franklin, Benjamin; Jefferson, Thomas; Paine, Thomas; Religious Publishing; Satire; Travel Guides and Accounts .


Baym, Nina. American Women Writers and the Work of History, 1790–1860. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

Boorstin, Daniel J. The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson: With a New Preface. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948. Reprint, 1981.

Hoffman, Ronald, Mechal Sobel, and Fredrika J. Teute, eds. Through a Glass Darkly: Reflections on Personal Identity in Early America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Kerber, Linda K. Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980.

Looby, Christopher. Voicing America: Language, Literary Form, and the Origins of the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Patterson, Mark R. Authority, Autonomy, and Representation in American Literature, 1776–1865. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988.

Warner, Michael. The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990.

Wills, Garry. Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1978.

Robin Grey