Literature and the frontier

In a quite different sphere, there was clear evidence that national consciousness was stirring, for this period marked the appearance of a truly American literature. Foremost among the writers of this new American school were Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper. Irving's humorous History of New York by Diedrich Knickerbocker, published in 1809, drew its inspiration wholly from the local American scene. Some of Irving's best work, such as the story of Rip Van Winkle, is set in the Hudson Valley of New York and reveals America as a land of legend and romance. Similarly Cooper's talent found expression through indigenous materials. After an attempt at a novel of the conventional English type, he published The Spy, a tale of the Revolution which won immediate popularity. Next came The Pioneers, a vivid prose picture of the simple life of the American frontier. In the series called the Leatherstocking Tales, published between 1823 and 1841, Cooper made the pioneer, Natty Bumppo, and the silent-footed Indian chief, Uncas, permanent figures in world literature. Cooper also wrote tales of the sea, and they too were products of American influences. Another significant event of the literary world was the founding in 1815 of The North American Review. Under its able editor, Jared Sparks, it set a high standard of excellence, drawing enough contributions and support from the young intellectuals of New England to give it an enduring place in the developing culture of the nation.

Another force which did much to shape American life- more probably than any other single factor-was the frontier. Conditions along the entire Atlantic seaboard stimulated migration to the newer regions. The soil of New England hillsides was incapable of producing grain in competition with the cheap and fertile western lands. Soon a steady stream of men and women left their coastal farms and villages to take advantage of the rich lands in the interior. In the south, also, conditions induced migration. People in the back settlements of the Carolinas and Virginia were handicapped by the lack of roads and canals giving access to coastal markets, and they suffered also from the political dominance of the tidewater planters. And so, they too moved across- slowly but steadily-from the Atlantic to the Rockies. This movement profoundly affected the American character-it encouraged individual initiative; it made for political and economic democracy; it roughened manners; it broke down conservatism; it bred a spirit of local self-determination coupled with respect for national authority.

Without pause, the westward stream flowed beyond the first frontier-the Atlantic coast strip-beyond the head- waters of the coastal rivers, and over the Appalachians. By 1800, the Mississippi and Ohio valleys were becoming a great frontier region. "Hi-o, away we go, floating down the river on the O-hi-o," became the song of thousands of emigrants. The tremendous shift of population in the early nineteenth century led to the division of old territories and the drawing of new boundaries with bewildering rapidity. Then, as new states were admitted, the political map was stabilized east of the Mississippi. Within a half-dozen years, six states were created-Indiana in 1816, Mississippi in 1817, Illinois in 1818, Alabama in 1819, Maine in 1820, and Missouri in 1821. The first frontier had been tied closely to Europe, the second to the coast settlements, but the Mississippi Valley was independent and its people looked west rather than east.

Naturally the frontier settlers were a varied body of men. In the van of emigration marched the hunter and trapper, described by an English traveler named Fordharn as "a daring, hardy race of men, who live in miserable cabins.... They are unpolished but hospitable, kind to strangers, honest and trustworthy. They raise a little Indian corn, pumpkins, hogs, and sometimes have a cow or two. . . . But the rifle is their principal means of support." These men were dexterous with the axe, snare, and fishing line; they blazed the trails, built the first log cabins, and held back the Indians.