Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Royall Tyler is recalled in contemporary anthologies of American literature principally as the author of the first professionally performed comedy by an American; this play, The Contrast, is one of five extant plays by Tyler. Readers of his own day, however, probably knew Tyler best as the witty and energetic author of the Spondee essays and poems, which he, along with his longtime friend Joseph Dennie, known as Colon, submitted for several years to various journals, gentlemen’s magazines, and newspapers. In these Spondee pieces, collected by Marius B. Péladeau in The Prose of Royall Tyler (1972), Tyler addressed himself to such contemporary subjects as current artistic tastes or preferences, social mores, slavery (to which he was vehemently opposed), his staunch support of Federalist politics, and attacks on the French experiment in democracy. His position in regard to these subjects was almost invariably that of the satirist. Tyler and Dennie, as Spondee and Colon, carried on a compatible, if sometimes strained (by geographic separation), literary partnership from 1794 until 1811. The pair often found themselves imitated by other literary partners who assumed such arresting signatures as “Messrs. Dactyl and Comma,” “Quip, Crank and Co.,” “Messrs. Verbal and Trochee,” and “The Shop of Messrs. Anapoestic and Trochee.”

Among Tyler’s other works is the two-volume Reports of Cases in the Supreme Court of Vermont (1809-1810); these volumes resulted from Tyler’s tenure as chief justice of Vermont’s supreme court. Tyler also published a single novel, The Algerine Captive (1797), which enjoyed a modicum of success and became one of the first novels by an American to be reprinted in London (in 1802 and again in Lady’s Magazine in 1804).

Tyler also wrote quite a few poems, collected by Marius B. Péladeau in The Verse of Royall Tyler (1968). Such poems as “Ode Composed for the Fourth of July,” “Spondee’s Mistresses,” “Choice of a Wife,” and “The Chestnut Tree” display Tyler’s penchant for witty satire. At the same time, these poems, especially “The Chestnut Tree,” demonstrate the poet’s underlying serious concerns.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Although Royall Tyler is remembered today almost exclusively as the author of The Contrast, the first American comedy to be professionally produced (on April 16, 1787, at the John Street Theatre in New York City), his achievements as a literary artist were much more extensive than is currently recognized. Four others of Tyler’s estimated nine or ten plays have been published in the twentieth century, and several of the lyrics of his no longer extant May Day in Town: Or, New York in an Uproar (pr. 1787)—perhaps the first musical written and produced by an American—were discovered and published in 1975. Tyler’s contribution to American literature, however, does not end with his dramas. The Algerine Captive was one of America’s first native novels, as well as one of its first to be printed abroad, and Tyler’s collaborative efforts with Joseph Dennie on the Spondee and Colon pieces constitute one of the first American newspaper columns. Certainly his poetry, which is both witty and serious, deserves to be more extensively studied and anthologized. An all-around man of letters, Tyler distinguished himself as one of America’s first authors who self-consciously wrote as an American.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Carson, Ada Lou, and Herbert L. Carson. Royall Tyler. Boston: Twayne, 1979. This volume offers the most convenient and available account of this early American lawyer, law professor, judge, and scholar.

Silverman, Kenneth. A Cultural History of the American Revolution: Painting, Music, Literature, and the Theatre in the Colonies and the United States from the Treaty of Paris to the Inauguration of George Washington, 1763-1789. Reprint. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987. The most comprehensive survey of Tyler’s life and times. Silverman places Vermont’s first scholar in a historical and cultural context.

Tanselle, G. Thomas. Royall Tyler. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967. This volume has become the standard source on this early American playwright, poet, and novelist.