The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

VII. Colonial Newspapers and Magazines, 1704–1775

§ 1. Literature in the Colonial Newspapers

THE DEVELOPMENT of the colonial press coincides with a period often regarded as narrowly provincial in American literature. That spirit of adventure which enlivens the early historical narratives had settled into a thrifty concern with practical affairs, combined with an exaggerated interest in fine-spun doctrinal reasoning. The echoes of Spenser and other Elizabethans to be heard in some few Puritan elegies and in Anne Bradstreet’s quaint imagery, had died away. Knowledge of Europe had become so casual that the colonial newspaper often found it necessary to describe Dresden or Berlin as “a fair, large, and strong city of Germany,” and to insert other geographical notes of the simplest sort.

These limitations in the colonial point of view, however, had several striking effects on the early journalism between 1704 and 1750, or thereabouts. The reader who examines the small, ill-printed, half illegible news sheets is surprised to find them more varied in many ways, and more distinctly literary than modern journalism aims to be. The simple fact of the matter is that the dearth of news at length forced the editorial mind to become inventive and even, in some instances, creative. When we remember that European news failed entirely during the long winters; that intercolonial communication was irregular and unsystematic; that criticism of the government in political editorials meant an official inquiry followed by the forced discontinuance of the paper, if not by a trial for libel; that the public already had enough religious exhortation from the pulpit and from pamphlets on The Fatal Consequences of Unscriptural Doctrine or Twenty Considerations against Sin,—remembering these things it will not seem so extraordinary that the newspapers turned to the spectacle of the actual life about them, and, to convey it, sought their models in the world of letters so little known in the colonies.