Poetry: The Connecticut Wits
Poetry: The Connecticut Wits
Background. At the forefront of the effort to develop a national literature was the group of poets known as the Connecticut (or Hartford) Wits, who formed the first major American literary circle. This group consisted of well-known poets such as John Trumbull, Timothy Dwight, and David Humphreys, and lesser poets, including Lemuel Hopkins, Theodore Dwight, and Richard Alsop. Almost all came from elite Connecticut families and were closely associated with Yale University. Their shared educational and social background profoundly influenced their poetry, which reveals the tensions between the Enlightenment, Protestant, and republican traditions in New England culture as a whole.
The Progress of Dulness. As products of the Enlightenment, the Wits embraced the neoclassical ideals of balance and order, repudiating religious extremism as inimical to their ideal of enlightened moderation. Yet their Calvinist origins made them equally hostile to attacks on organized religion. In his satirical poem The Progress of Dulness (1772, 1773) Trumbull combined Enlightenment rationalism with Protestant religiosity. While the first part of this poem satirizes ignorant ministers educated at Yale, Trumbull also affirms his respect for religion and severely mocks deism and irreligion in the second part of the poem.
notion of social order based on hierarchy and deference. Initially, they expressed optimism about the nation’s republican future. In his long poem America (1780) Timothy Dwight, borrowing a famous phrase from Philip Freneau and Hugh Henry Brackenridge’s long poem The Rising Glory of America (1771), confidently predicted that America’s “rising glory shall expand its rays, / And lands and times unknown rehearse their endless praise.” He continued to forecast a special role for the United States in his later long poem The Conquest of Canäan (1785).
Fear of Anarchy. Yet Dwight’s fears of anarchy and infidelity ultimately prevailed over his hopes, and he became pessimistic about the nation’s prospects for future improvement. In The Triumph of Infidelity (1788) he attacks what he perceives as forces that endanger social order, while in his pastoral poem Greenfield Hill (1794) he holds out the hope that his native Connecticut can show the nation “How balanc’d powers, in just gradation, prove / The means of order, freedom, peace, and love.”
The Anarchiad. By the late 1780s the Connecticut Wits as a whole shared Dwight’s disillusionment with the egalitarian tendencies of American society, and their writings became strident attacks on the excesses of democracy and the dangers of social unrest. The most sustained and systematic of these diatribes was The Anarchiad. Joel Barlow, Trumbull, Humphreys, Hopkins, and other Connecticut Wits contributed to this satirical mock-epic poem, published in twelve installments in the New Haven Gazette between October 1786 and September 1787. Expressing their fears about the threat of anarchy in the new nation, they were responding specifically to Shays’s Rebellion of 1786, which epitomized for them the dangerous democratic forces that seemed to be employing the mob to destroy the ordered liberty of the republic. The Anarchiad portrays the farmers who took part in the uprising as irrational and subhuman figures, who have fallen into debt through their own laziness and taste for luxury. The Wits described their vision of the potential social disorder such a rebellion might bring in these lines: “Here shall my best and brightest empire rise, / Wild riot reign, and discord greet the skies. / Awake, my chosen sons, in folly brave, / Stab Independence! dance o’er Freedom’s grave!” The Anarchiad was immensely popular and was republished by newspapers in Massachusetts, New York, and other states.
Later Careers. The Connecticut Wits eventually followed their interests in divergent directions. After The Anarchiad Trumbull turned away from poetry and increasingly devoted his attention to law and politics. Barlow ultimately repudiated the Federalist politics of the Wits altogether. Timothy Dwight became president of Yale in 1795 and used his position as a platform from which to continue his attacks on the enemies of social order.
Emory Elliott, ed., American Writers of the Early Republic, Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 37 (Detroit: Gale Research, 1985);