Revolutionary Period (in American literature)

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

Revolutionary Period (in American literature)

Revolutionary Period (in American literature): A period in American literary history spanning the years 1765 to 1790. In 1765, the English Parliament passed the Stamp Act, igniting the first serious opposition in the American colonies to English rule. For the next twenty-five years, until the implementation of the United States Constitution in 1789, the majority of American writing was politically motivated, whether supportive of English rule or revolutionary in character.

Most of the poetry of the Revolutionary Period was neoclassical in style and used forms such as the burlesque, satire, and epic for patriotic political ends. The Hartford Wits, a literary society comprised of poets associated with Yale University, imitated neoclassical models such as English poet Alexander Pope, embraced federalism, and sought to establish a national literature; noted members included Timothy Dwight; John Trumbull, whose mock epic M’Fingal (1776, 1782) was modeled on Samuel Butler’s Hudibras (1663); and Joel Barlow, whose epic The Vision of Columbus (1787) aimed to inspire “the love of national liberty.” Philip Freneau, known as the “Poet of the American Revolution,” wrote both political works, such as “The British Prison-Ship” (1781), and lyrical pieces, such as “The Wild Honey Suckle” (1786), that anticipated American romanticism. Poets writing in the tradition of the Graveyard School and emphasizing an appreciation of nature also foreshadowed romanticism.

Revolutionary prose was often polemical, written to encourage and even inspire the movement for political independence from England and to promote national unification. Thomas Paine championed an absolute break with England in his revolutionary tract Common Sense (1776). Alexander Hamilton and James Madison contributed the majority of the essays making up The Federalist Papers (1787—88), a collection setting forth much of the political theory underlying the U.S. Constitution and advocating its ratification. Other major politically oriented prose authors of the period include Benjamin Franklin, who began to write his Autobiography in 1771, and Thomas Jefferson, who authored the Declaration of Independence (1776). By contrast, the first American novel, William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy (1789), was a sentimental, epistolary novel supposedly based on the true story of a woman who was seduced by her brother-in-law, became pregnant as a result, and committed suicide after the birth of her illegitimate child.

The African American literary tradition, inaugurated late in the Colonial Period, also developed. In poetry, Phillis Wheatley, a West African sold into slavery as a child and brought to Boston, published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773). In prose, Jupiter Hammon, a slave in New York, expressed his views on slavery and Christianity in An Address to the Negroes of the State of New-York (1786), and Olaudah Equiano’s slave narrative The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself (1789), became a sensation in both England and America, fueling the nascent antislavery movement.

Drama also entered the American literary arena during the Revolutionary Period. The first professionally staged American play was Thomas Godfrey’s tragedy The Prince of Parthia (1767), the first professionally staged American comedy Royall Tyler’s The Contrast (1787). Throughout the period, drama was most influential and widespread outside of New England, where the Puritan suspicion of the medium remained strong. Philadelphia, New York, and Charleston became magnets for playwrights, who modeled their works largely after those of neoclassical English dramatists Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan. However, American drama differed in terms of its subject matter, which was chiefly historical, didactic, and patriotic in nature. Mercy Otis Warren, for instance, wrote satiric anti-British plays, such as The Group (1775), which were intended for publication rather than performance.