Early National Period (in American literature)

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Early National Period (in American literature)

Early National Period (in American literature): An era in American literary history roughly spanning the years 1790—1828 that was significantly shaped by the work of building the United States as a new nation. The Early National Period is sometimes referred to as the Federalist Age for the conservative federalists who dominated American government from 1789, when the federal government was formed, to 1828, when Andrew Jackson won the presidential election (an event often called the “second revolution”). Jackson, a slaveholder who implemented some brutal policies affecting Native Americans, was widely characterized as a populist, a proponent of frontier individualism, and a champion of the common people.

While writers of the preceding Colonial and Revolutionary Periods tended to imitate English precursors, more distinctively American voices began to emerge in most genres during the Early National Period. Except in drama, a relatively independent and imaginative literature arose as the nation developed, marking a shift from the didactic or polemical character of much prior “American” writing. William Cullen Bryant is perhaps the best-known poet of the time; Edgar Allan Poe began his literary career toward the end of the period, with Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827). Washington Irving, an essayist and storyteller, is perhaps the best-known prose writer, with works such as A History of New-York (1809), published under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker, and The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon (1819—20), which included “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle.” Moreover, in 1815, the first long-running American magazine, the North American Review (1815—1940; 1964— ), was established.

Novels, most of which were sentimental or Gothic, also began to flourish during the Early National Period. Sentimental novels generally claimed to set forth a “true” story for the purpose of moral instruction in general and for warning young ladies of the perils of seduction in particular. Examples include Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte: A Tale of Truth (1791), later retitled Charlotte Temple; Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette (1797); and Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie: or, Early Times in the Massachusetts (1827). Gothic novels, such as Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland (1798), were characterized by their focus on the grotesque or supernatural and their preoccupation with doom, horror, mystery, passion, and suspense. James Fenimore Cooper took a different path, inaugurating spy fiction with The Spy (1821) and beginning his Leatherstocking Tales, a series of five novels featuring frontiersman Natty Bumppo, with The Pioneers (1823) and The Last of the Mohicans (1826).

Captivity narratives were also popular. Examples include Venture Smith’s slave narrative A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa: But Resident above Sixty Years in the United States of America, Related by Himself (1798); The Narrative of Robert Adams, A Barbary Captive (1816), an account of a mixed-race American sailor enslaved in North Africa; and other narratives of capture by groups such as British soldiers and Native Americans. Ann Eliza Bleecker’s epistolary novel The History of Maria Kittle (posthumously published in 1793), an Indian captivity narrative set during the French and Indian War, is the first-known captivity novel.

Other notable works of the period included descriptive accounts of life on the frontier; Francis Scott Key’s poem “Defense of Fort M’Henry” (1814), which was written in the immediate aftermath of a British bombardment during the War of 1812, set to music and renamed “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and subsequently became the U.S. national anthem; and Noah Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828).