The Connecticut Wits Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

The Connecticut Wits

The Connecticut Wits, also referred to as the Hartford Wits and the Friendly Club, were a group of colonial American intellectuals living in and around Hartford, Connecticut, who met regularly during the 1780s and 1790s to discuss politics, literature, and their own writings. The membership of the club fluctuated over the years, but the best-known Wits included John Trumbull, Timothy Dwight, Joel Barlow, David Humphries, Theodore Dwight, Richard Alsop, Elihu Hubbard Smith, Mason Cogswell, and Lemuel Hopkins. Although they were engaged in different professions—farming, business, the law, medicine, education, the ministry—they were united by their affiliation with Yale College, Calvinist faith, conservative political views, and their strong interest in the creation of a national literature.

The group members' similarity in political outlook and literary taste is evident from their three anonymously published collaborative publications, satires written in a neoclassical style influenced by the works of Samuel Butler, Alexander Pope, Oliver Goldsmith, and Charles Churchill. Writing in the postrevolutionary period, the Wits desired to celebrate American independence from England in their works, yet they were troubled by the political instability and the turbulent economic climate that prevailed in the new republic. Their first joint effort, The Anarchiad: A Poem on the Restoration of Chaos and Substantial Night, published in the New Haven Gazette from October 1786 to September 1787, is a collection of scathing satirical essays criticizing individual greed, political rebellion, and the reluctance of some states to ratify the Constitution. Members of the society also advocated a strong central government to bring nascent disagreements and unscrupulous business practices under control, and they reacted vehemently against Thomas Jefferson's liberal, democratic ideals then gaining popularity. The Wits burlesqued the views of Jefferson and his supporters in The Echo, a collection of verse published between 1791 and 1805. Many numbers of The Echo appeared individually in the American Mercury and were so popular that they were reprinted as pamphlets and broadsides before being published in book form. The Political Greenhouse, the work of Richard Alsop, Lemuel Hopkins, and Theodore Dwight, is a verse satire written from the federalist perspective describing events taking place in 1798. First appearing in the Connecticut Courant, it was reprinted in book form in 1799.

Aside from participation in the group's projects, three of the Connecticut Wits distinguished themselves in individual literary careers. Trumbull's two best-known works, The Progress of Dulness and M'Fingal, written in 1772-73 and 1782 respectively, are political satires that enjoyed enormous popularity in their time. Modeled on Butler's Hudibras, The Progress of Dulness narrates the events in the career of a farmer's son, named Tom Brainless, who ineptly makes his way through school, society, and, eventually, the ministry. Composed in a similar but more pointed vein, M'Fingal ridicules the Tory and Loyalist causes as it glorifies American independence; a mock epic, the poem deals with a Tory colonial official who is tarred and feathered by the townspeople of whom he is supposedly in charge. Following in the patriotic mode of Trumbull's works, Barlow in the The Columbiad (1807) looks back to the time of Christopher Columbus and weaves a mythological version of America's past. The premise of the poem is that Columbus, imprisoned by Spain's King Ferdinand, has a vision which encompasses the past, the present, and the future, and which foretells the discovery of America as well as explains the ramifications of that discovery for all humankind. Considered a highly ambitious undertaking, the epic was originally published in 1787 as The Vision of Columbus; Barlow expanded and extensively revised this early version in writing The Columbiad, but critics have generally preferred the first work because of its simpler style and less pompous treatment of the subject matter. The work that most endeared Barlow to his American readers, however, was a poem entitled The Hasty Pudding. Written during his travels in England in 1793 and published in 1796, it enthusiastically praises the farming life and the agrarian ideal. In a similar vein, Dwight's Greenfield Hill, published in 1794 and written in heroic couplets imitative of John Denham and James Thomson, celebrates American rural life as a source of poetic inspiration. Dwight's most noted work, The Conquest of Canaan, published in 1785, is considered by many commentators the first American religious epic. In it, he extols American values by way of biblical analogy with the Book of Joshua, retold in 10,000 lines of heroic couplets.

Criticism about the Connecticut Wits has focused on their historical significance as the first American school of poets and on their writings considered in the context of the conservative response during the postrevolutionary period in America. Their works have been studied as a kind of barometer to the changing values of the young American nation as it slowly shifted away from federalism and toward democracy. Some scholars have noted an inconsistency in the Wits's writings, pointing out that while they were earnest proponents of American literary, intellectual, and political independence from Europe, their works reveal a troubling tendency to imitate European forms and style. More recently, commentators have explored the ideas of the major Wits in terms of their relationship to the values of the enlightenment, humanism, and radical political and philosophical thought in Europe. In summarizing the importance of the Wits in American literature, Leon Howard has written that "the greatest value of [their] writings,… both in verse and in prose, lies in the illumination they cast upon an age which was to have, socially and aesthetically, an extraordinary influence upon the future. Their story shares how men of different temperaments found sustenance for their dispositions in a limited provincial environment and…prepared the way for a new literature and formed a new national character."