A great deal is known about the reading and writing of the early American elite, the propertied and professional men, but very little about men who were literate but not landowners or college graduates. We know even less about women of all classes, and practically nothing about African and Native Americans. The books and broadsides in this exhibition provide precious evidence of reading practices of people on the margins of society, and even some examples of their writing. For the most part these writings were published as curiosities and so their authors were marginalized yet again.
Samuel Willard. The Christians Exercise by Satans Temptations. Boston: B. Green, 1701.
This Boston sermon comes from the collection of the earliest identifiable American woman book collector, Hannah Sutton, and contains the earliest known American woman’s bookplate.
Sarah Foxcroft’s volume of sermons. Boston, 1705-1741.
Sarah Foxcroft, probably the sister of Thomas Foxcroft (1697-1769), pastor of Boston’s First Church, sewed eight early New England sermons together in this plain paper wrapper some time after 1741. Six of them are by Cotton Mather, her brother’s close friend and mentor. This must have been one of several volumes assembled in this way, since above her name on the cover is written “No. 19.” This rare survival provides important evidence of how pious women preserved for future re-reading some of the many pamphlet sermons that were given to them.
Daniel Defoe. The Wonderful Life, and surprising adventures of … Robinson Crusoe. Boston: J. White, 1792.
The books children read were all mediated by authority figures, but in their margins we sometimes find snippets of juvenile writing. The end-paper of this book is inscribed “This worthy book my name shall have when I am dade lade in the grave— Wentworth Hayes, Barrington, Juley 3, 1798.”
James Nalton. The Nature and Necessity of that Humiliation, which the Spirit of God works in the souls of those that are brought savingly to close with the Lord Jesus Christ, as offered in the Gospel. Boston: Kneeland and Green, 1741.
This is the only American book of the colonial era that can be identified as belonging to a slave. It was given to Lucinda by her mistress; both are identified in an 1885 note written by a descendant. The inscription proves Lucinda could write as well as read, a considerable accomplishment, since even many literate white women never learned to write. The prescribed humiliation is generically Christian, but it clearly had an extra significance for Lucinda.
The Massachuset Psalter or, Psalms of David with the Gospel according to John, in columns of Indian and English. Being an introduction for training up the aboriginal natives, in reading and understanding the Holy Scriptures. Boston: Printed by B. Green and J. Printer, 1709.
The first press in the colonies was established in Cambridge in 1639 in large part to print the scriptures in Indian languages. It took until 1663 to finish printing John Eliot’s translation of the Bible into Algonquin, for the use of Indians of Martha’s Vineyard. It could not have been done without a native speaker to set and proofread the type, and that man was James Printer. A second edition was printed in 1685. (Both editions are in the Library Company.) James Printer lived to produce one last monument of printing in 1709, this translation of the Psalms and the Book of John for the Indians of Plymouth Colony. Their dialect was so different that nearly every verse had to be altered. Many Massachusetts natives learned to read and write as they adopted the Christian religion. The missionaries sincerely hoped to “civilize” them, but their white neighbors thought they could do that more easily by enslaving them.
Samson Occom. A Sermon, preached at the execution of Moses Paul, an Indian. New London: T. Green, .
This is the first work published by a North American Indian in English. Occom was a Christian missionary to several Indian communities, and he helped raise huge sums in England for the Indian charity school that evolved into Dartmouth College. Moses Paul clubbed a man in a drunken tavern brawl; the man later died and Paul was convicted of murder. He requested Occom to preach his execution sermon. It was reissued 13 times within a year.
Benjamin Banneker. Copy of a letter from Benjamin Banneker to the secretary of state, with his answer. Philadelphia: . Lawrence, 1792.
Bannaker’s New-Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia almanac, or ephemeris, for the year of our Lord 1795. Baltimore: S. & J. Adams, 1794.
Banneker, the son of slaves who had purchased their freedom, was the first African-American scientist. He issued his own almanac in Baltimore for a number of years and became a well-known figure in Federal America. In this rare pamphlet he politely but firmly pointed out the hypocrisy of Jefferson’s views on race. Jefferson’s reply was evasive. Referring to “our black brethren,” Jefferson wrote, “no body wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced, for raising the condition, both of their body and mind, to what it ought to be, as far as the imbecility of their present existence, and other circumstances, which cannot be neglected, will admit.”
Phillis Wheatley. [An elegiac poem, on the death of that celebrated divine, and eminent servant of] Jesus Christ, the Reverend [...] George Whitefield, / By Phillis, a servant girl, of 17 years of age, belonging to Mr. J. Wheatley, of Boston. [Boston, 1770?]
The enslaved poet Phillis Wheatley was one of the most popular poets in colonial America judging from the 17 editions of her works in book, pamphlet, and broadside form that have survived. This printing of the poem that made her famous is known only from the incomplete copy in the Zinman Collection. Her collected works were first printed in England, making her fame truly transatlantic. She seldom alluded to her race or her enslaved status in her poems, but her publishers (who included her master) never allowed her readers to forget those facts about her. Her readers included slave owners and abolitionists, and other slaves as well, but we can only guess what they made of her poems.
Nancy Welch. The Experiences of Nancy Welch, a blind woman. [Salem, Mass., not before 1794].
The writings of living American women were seldom published in the colonial era, except when the writer was a prodigy or a curiosity. Here we have poems by a blind woman next to a poem by an enslaved woman. Two different broadside printings of Nancy Welch’s poems survive, both printed for circulation among her friends and neighbors. The poems of Phillis Wheatley reached a much wider audience.
Anne Bradstreet. Several Poems. The second edition, corrected by the author, and enlarged by an addition of several other poems found amongst her papers after her death. Boston: John Foster, 1678.
Bradstreet began writing poems even before she came to New England in 1630. Her early works were encyclopedic treatises in verse on such subjects as “The Four Ages of Man.” They were published in London in 1650 by her brother-in-law, without her knowledge or consent. The title, The Tenth Muse lately sprung up in America, presented the book as an oddity, and in fact it was the first book of poetry published by an American. In the latter part of her life Bradstreet increasingly wrote about her personal feelings and her adopted land. The poet Adrienne Rich calls these “the first good poems in America.” They were first published after her death in this second edition. Though a humble woman, Bradstreet was not patient or submissive. She was a Puritan, but a skeptical one. She sought meaning in the mundane things of life, “A world of wealth within that rubbish lie.” In her work she found that wealth.
Eunice Smith. A dialogue or, discourse between Mary & Martha. Boston: E. Russell, 1797.
The fourth of nine editions of this pamphlet arguing against anxious worldly-mindedness. Another of her pamphlets saw four editions. The author was an otherwise unknown woman from a small New England town.
Susanna Rowson. Charlotte: A Tale of Truth. Philadelphia: . Humphreys for M. Carey, 1794.
Charlotte Temple was the first best-selling American novel, with over 80 editions before 1850. This is the very rare first American edition. It was first published in London in 1791, but despite a favorable review prefixed to this edition it never caught on there. The actress-author came to live in Philadelphia, and the story was set in New York, so it is easy to see how it became naturalized as the great American novel.
Lydia Willis. Madam Willis’s letters and her character. [Joseph Fish, ed.] Boston: Nathaniel Coverly, 1788.
Mary Spaulding. The Remarkable Narrative of Mary Spaulding. [Hezekiah Packard and Timothy Harrington, eds.] Boston: Manning & Loring, 1795.
Two of the earliest examples of what was to become an important genre in the 19th century: the letters (in the case of Lydia Willis) or diaries (in the caseof Mary Spaulding) of a woman posthumously published as a testimony of her piety. With few exceptions the writings of women were only publishable after they were dead and their privacy could no longer be threatened, and then only by a male editor.