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From Academic Dissertations to World Literature: Highlights from 'Defining a Nation: The Literature of Early America'

Posted on 10/07/2022

The literature of Early America is a window which gives us a view into major events and everyday minutiae of the time that helped shape the United States into what it is today. In its earliest stages, most colonists were still heavily influenced by the works of English writers. However, just as America began to seek its independence, so, too, did its art. Leaning on such themes as self-sufficiency, nationhood, exploration, and religion, America surged forward. The newly released digital collection, Defining a Nation: The Literature of Early America (1645-1819) charts that shift from British colony to a new nation.

Many of the earliest ghost stories that kept Americans up at night stemmed from some of the same themes that produced religious and moral literature. These ghost stories are shaped by their regional landscapes and are woven into the fabric of the nation. One such example being, The Fakenham Ghost, by Robert Bloomfield, a British poet who would often choose rural English settings for his writing and whose tale of a young woman pursued by a ghost while walking home one evening, only to discover that it was instead a lost ass, was originally published in 1802.  It was reprinted by Johnson & Warner in Philadelphia, ca. 1810.

The Fakenham Ghost, by Robert Bloomfield. From The Literature of Early America.​​​​​​

Other early stories were influenced by social change and cultural fears. With the Haitian Revolution still fresh in the minds of many Americans, the Black Vampyre: A Legend of St. Domingo—written under the pseudonym of Uriah Derick D’Arcy—is published in 1819. It is credited with not only being the first vampire story written by an American, but also the first comedic vampire tale and the first tale featuring a black vampire. It has also been recently dubbed by Andrew Barger, as “the first short story that advocates emancipation of the Negroes’…fourteen years before Lydia Child published An Appeal in Favor of The Class of Americans Called African, which is widely considered the first anti-slavery book.”

Title page of The Black Vampyre. From The Literature of Early America.

With expansion to the West, America soon developed its own folk tales and heroes. One such hero was the explorer and pioneer, Daniel Boone, who became famous for his exploration of Kentucky at a time when it was still considered wilderness. Boone later became a militia officer during the Revolutionary War and a politician. Much of the mythos that surrounded his life can be found in stories published about his many adventures, including an autobiography that was printed by John Trumbull in Norwich, Connecticut in 1786.

In it he describes, in poetic detail, what Kentucky had once looked like, stating,

I had gained the summit of the commanding ridge, and looking round with astonishing delight, beheld the ample plains and beauteous tracts below. On one hand I surveyed the famous Ohio rolling in silent dignity and marking the western bounds of Kentucke [sic] with inconceivable grandeur. At a vast distance I beheld the mountains lift their venerable brows and penetrate the clouds. All things were still.

From The Literature of Early America.

Tucked amongst traditional literary works are those of everyday life, including personal diaries and cookbooks. In Colonial America, cookbooks, indeed most books, were imported from Britain. In 1804 an anonymous author who called herself An American Lady, published New American Cookery, or Female Companion which was “Peculiarly Adapted to the American Mode of Cooking.”

While the recipes in this book may have been as clear and easy to follow as the author promised, contemporary cooks may not find them wholly satisfactory. Here is the way “To alamode a Round of Beef.” 

To a 14 or 16lb. round of beef, put one ounce salt petre, 48 hours after stuff it with the following: one and an half pound beef, half a pound salt pork, two pound grated bread, chop all fine and rub in half pound butter, salt, pepper, and cayenne, summer savory, thyme; lay it on scewers [sic] in a large pot, over 3 pints hot water (which it must occasionally be supplied with) the steam of which in 4 or 5 hours will render the round tender if over a moderate fire; when tender, take away the gravy and thicken with flour and butter, and boil—brown the round with butter  and flour, adding ketchup and wine to your taste. 

From The Literature of Early America.

Other recipes are unlikely to appeal to contemporary tastes. Tongue pie was made, of course, with the tongue of an ox or cow which has been larded by laboriously threading fat through the organ. To that was added “1 pound apple, one-third of a pound of butter, one-third pound of sugar, one quarter of a pound of butter, one pint wine, one pound of raisins, or currants (or half of each) half ounce cinnamon and mace – bake in paste No. 1, in proportion to size.

Containing over 6,000 primary source documents—from academic dissertations to world literature--that influenced early American readers, The Literature of Early America has topics for every level of researcher or student.

Visit the Readex Defining a Nation: The Literature of Early America page for more information about making this collection available at your institution.




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