Caritat’s great circulating library on Pearl Street, later Broadway, must have been, for browsers and lovers of French fiction, one of New York City’s more attractive spots. Opened in 1797, the library published a catalog of its holdings in 1804. It lists more than two hundred titles in this category of literature.1 One could find at Caritat’s Laclos’s Les Liaisons dangereuses in French or English, a French edition of Restif de la Bretonne’s Le Paysan perverti, and a copy in English of Le Sopha, by Crébillon fils. The knowledge of the early availability of such novels as these is tantalizing. It leads one to question seriously the correctness of assertions by some scholars that eighteenth-century Americans knew little or nothing about French literature. Harvey Gates Townsend, for instance, writes, “Before the Revolutionary War … we were practically limited to one language—the English…. Even at the time of the transcendental movement, it was still a rare individual who could read any modern foreign language.”2 And Carl Becker, as previously noted, felt constrained to assert, “It does not appear that Jefferson, or any American, read many French books.” A sweeping statement, and especially with regard to the third president of the United States. On the list of books Jefferson proposed in 1771 to Robert Skipwith as a library, there were many names of prominent French authors.3 Jefferson was then only twenty-eight. The books recommended were to be read in English translation. In his own collection, he had a great number of books in French. Their titles are arrayed in the five volumes of E. Millicent Sowerby’s Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson.
One could write another monograph on John Adams’s, the second president’s, knowledge of French authors.4 James Madison, the fourth president, read French books constantly from his youth until his death.5 The reading of innumerable American contemporaries of these men was by no means confined solely to English. For instance, James Kent, a Columbia University law professor, jurist, and author of the Commentaries on American Law, wrote that he had begun the study of French in 1789, that by the year 1793 he had become a master of the language “and read the authors with facility.” Among the authors whose writings he mentioned as having read were Corneille, Sévigné, Fénelon, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Marmontel, and Barthélémy.6 And William Dunlap, the playwright, noted in his Diary on November 9, 1797, “I bought… an Octavo close printed French edition of Buffon.” On the following page he jotted down, “Read in Buffon.”7
American culture, until well into the nineteenth century, was derivative. The greater part of the books purchased in the United States in the eighteenth century came from or via England. But acquaintance with the literary productions of France was far more extensive than some have been ready to admit. To belittle the acquaintance of Americans with the literature of France, without taking the American cultural background into account, is presumptuous and profitless. An awareness of readership, reading interests, and book availability is indispensable. I have dealt with these subjects elsewhere.8 But whether Americans read this literature in the original language or in English translation does not greatly matter. Far more important was their introduction to French writers.
Bookstores and booksellers abounded. Russel B. Nye writes that Boston had fifty bookstores in the 1770s and Philadelphia “probably thirty or more.”9 The catalog of a Boston bookseller, Benjamin Guild, published about 1790 offered “nearly a thousand titles of books of English, French and classical origin,” and the catalog of books for sale or circulation by a Salem bookdealer in 1791 was “larger than Guild’s in size, but much the same in content.”10 Moreau de Saint-Méry was a prominent Philadelphia bookseller and publisher. Albert Schinz has analyzed a catalog of books which he offered for sale in 1795.11 Thirty of its seventy-six pages are devoted to French books.
The catalogs of libraries of various sorts—private, college, social, and circulating—provide firsthand information concerning French book holdings. The circulating library was a particularly serviceable institution. Michael Kraus found that by 1800 Connecticut alone had more than a hundred such libraries.12 Two large New York City libraries of this type were those of Garrat Noel and Hocquet Caritat. Even as early as 1763 Noel’s library was thought “to contain several thousand volumes.”13
The anthology, however limited the number of readers, cannot be ignored in any cultural survey. L’Abeille françoise (Boston: Belknap and Young, 1792) is a classic example. This is a collection of prose extracts from French authors. Containing 339 pages of reading matter, it is one of the earliest French textbooks printed in the United States for American students.14 Michel Martel’s Elements (New York: C. C. Van Alen, 1796) is also an example. This textbook, dedicated to Theodosia Burr, Aaron’s daughter, who had studied French with Martel, was intended for young people, especially demoiselles. Others were Robert Bell’s Illuminations for Legislators, and for Sentimentalists (Philadelphia, 1784), and Mathew Carey’s The School of Wisdom (Philadelphia, 1800). So much now for collections of literary pieces.
Howard Mumford Jones, in one of his many articles, said that “the character and amount of American interest in French literature during the last half of the eighteenth century is among the difficult problems of comparative literature.” A partial solution of this problem, particularly as it relates to literature other than philosophic and scientific, is offered here. Philosophic writings are dealt with elsewhere. Let me first point out a few bibliographical sources that one may consult on matters concerning this literature during the American Enlightenment. Qui scit ubi scientia sit, ille est proximus habenti (F. Brunetiére). Mention of and comments on the French authors whose books were well and widely received follow. My conclusions as to the character and amount of American interest in French literature in the last forty years of the century come afterward.
For literature in English and French published in the United States see especially Clifford K. Shipton and James E. Mooney, National Index of American Imprints Through 1800: The Short Title Evans (1969). This is an excellent tool to which I am much indebted for information contained in these pages. For translations from the French printed in America through 1820, consult the admirable work of Forrest Bowe.15
The newspaper is an invaluable research tool. Scholars have examined the papers of cities, towns, colonies, and states for their own purposes and projects. Two instances shall suffice. Howard Mumford Jones used New York and Philadelphia papers in studies on the importation of French literature into these cities.16 His two articles merit careful consideration. Mary E. Loughrey also made good use of newspapers in her book France and Rhode Island, 1686–1800 (New York: King’s Crown Press, 1944). Booksellers’ advertisements appear rather regularly in the papers. See, for early examples, the long lists of books for sale in the Boston Gazette, November 30, 1761, and in the Maryland Gazette (Annapolis), August 26, 1762. They included writings of Rabelais, Ninon de Lenclos, Fénelon, Le Sage, and Voltaire. Anecdotes about French authors, paragraphs concerning them, and quotations from their works also enliven the pages and articles of these weekly and daily publications. One could read much later, for instance, a biography of Malesherbes in the Gazette of the United States for February 10, 1798. Editors sometimes printed even lengthy excerpts from French books, in English translation of course, to amuse, instruct, or fill up space—and all too often without acknowledgment of source. This practice alone rules out the feasibility of any undertaking to identify the authors; polymaths are not available for such work. An examination of newspapers is rewarding, but time-consuming because of the absence of indexes, or at least indexes broad in scope. Anyone with a particular project in mind must go through them anew. Frank Luther Mott has found that “in all, 202 papers were being published January 1, 1801.”17 Would that there were comprehensive indexes for all the more important American newspapers during the Enlightenment! I know of only one: Lester J. Cappon and Stella F. Duff, Virginia Gazette Index 1736–1780 (Williamsburg: Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1950). This is an excellent historical work of reference in two volumes.
Magazines also provide valuable information. Mott in his book A History of American Magazines 1741–1880 (1957) states that about seventy-five of them were begun during the years 1783–1801. For some findings from studies of these periodicals see Adrian H. Jaffe, Bibliography of French Literature in American Magazines in the Eighteenth Century (East Lansing: Michigan State College Press, 1951). Jaffe’s booklet must be supplemented by the Index to Early American Periodicals to 1850, edited by Nelson F. Adkins (New York: Readex Microprint, 1964). An older study is that of Charles Dean Cool, “French Literature in American Magazines Prior to 1830” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin, 1909).
There is no statistical standard by which one can compare quantitatively the reception of French authors and their writings in the United States in our period. But David Lundberg and Henry F. May have attempted to develop statistical information on the reception of certain major authors of the European Enlightenment. To do this they used booksellers’ auction or sales catalogs, and libraries of all sorts in the period from 1700 to 1813.18 Much more important than statistics of course is the nature of a writer’s impact. Let me turn, then, to the French authors whose writings were well and in many cases widely received. With very few exceptions this general survey does not aim to establish any order of precedence of one writer over another.
Fénelon was highly esteemed. Magazines printed biographical sketches of the author.19 A number of editions of his great didactic novel, Les Aventures de Télémaque (1699), in both French and English, as well as a bilingual edition, were published here.20 Newspapers up and down the Atlantic coast carried advertisements of it.21 Copies were everywhere. Télémaque was, for example, on the shelves of Maryland libraries.22 It was “popular” in colonial Virginia.23 Interest in this Homeric novel was indeed widespread and of long duration. Its first American reader whose name I know was Richard Hickman of Williamsburg. An inventory of his books, recorded in 1732, shows that he owned “Telemachus, French.”24 Telemachus was listed in the 1744 edition of “A Catalogue of Some of the Most Valuable Authors … Proper to Be Read by the Students” at Columbia.25 The son of a president of Harvard “was reading” it with Nathaniel Gardner, “a resident graduate” at the college in 1748.26 Many years later, a Massachusetts minister, John Clarke, wrote to another Harvard student, said to have been John Pickering, “I hope soon to hear that you have made considerable progress in Telemachus, delighted equally with the style as with the sentiment.”27 A Philadelphia poet, Elizabeth Graeme Ferguson, had long since translated the entire novel into English heroic couplets.28 From Dumfries, Virginia, on May 21, 1797, Parson Weems, peddler of books in the South for Mathew Carey, Philadelphia publisher and bookseller, sent this message to Carey: “Télémaque Eng. & French are much, much Wanted … it were well to put them for Dumfries as soon as possible.”29 In this same year, a New York publisher brought out another edition of the novel in English, in two volumes. George Washington’s library contained the publisher’s presentation copy of this edition.30 There is good justification for having gone into such detail concerning this masterpiece. In his study of the popular book in the United States, James D. Hart writes, “Voltaire may have been the most popular French author, but no single book of his seems to have been so well read as was Fénelon’s Télémaque.31 Agreed! Said one reader, “I have entertained myself all day reading Telemachus. It is really delightful, and very improving.”32 People the country over must have found it so. A few of Fénelon’s minor pieces were also published here before the eighteenth century came to a close. But not his treatise, Traité de l’éducation des filles (1687). John Witherspoon, president of the College of New Jersey (Princeton), cited it in writing on education.33 According to V. L. Collins, “Fénelon appears to have been carefully studied by him and is easily his favorite author after Montesquieu.”34
Rousseau’s novel La Nouvelle Héloïse, first published in French in 1761, was one of the two greatest succès de librairie in eighteenth-century France. This novel, in English translation, was also highly successful here. And his pedagogical novel, Emile, enjoyed a vogue in the United States.
Another favorite author was Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, an immediate disciple of Rousseau. His famous exotic and “idyllic” novel Paul et Virginie (1787) was widely liked, found on the shelves of private, circulating, and other types of libraries. It was published in the United States in a bilingual edition, French and English on opposite pages, and in French and English editions, two of which appeared under the title of Paul and Mary instead of Paul and Virginia. Parson Weems called it a book of “high fame,” a “sweet and improving piece.” In February 1801 he berated Mathew Carey for not having sent him books like this, saying, “I ought … to know at this time of day, what books will suit & sell well.”35 Saint-Pierre’s Etudes de la nature (1784), in Henry Hunter’s English translation, was also read by many. Isaiah Thomas printed an edition of this work in English for Joseph Nancrède in 1797.36 This three-volume set was dedicated to George Washington, as president. The book furnished arguments to combat atheism. In an advertisement of it by William Young, a Philadelphia bookseller, in the Gazette of the United States, June 2, 1798, one reads, “The avidity with which the clergy and other learned characters in New-England have purchased the English edition of this delightful performance, and the opinion entertained by them, and warranted by experience, that although written before the ‘Age of Reason,’ a part of it contains a more solid and compleat refutation of it, than any thing published since, are perhaps a sufficient recommendation of the STUDIES OF NATURE, in which the Botanist, the natural and christian Philosopher, the friend of order and government are equally interested, and by which they will be equally gratified.” Magazines printed extracts from this work.37 John Clarke wrote in the letters to a student at Harvard cited above, “The Studies of St. Pierre will afford you much entertainment. If his philosophy is sometimes lame, his language is good.” William Dunlap, the playwright, having the Studies in mind, found Saint-Pierre “very shallow” as a “reasoner.” Some of the French writer’s ideas on science did not go down well with Americans, particularly his rejection of Newton’s theory of tides, and his own explanation of them. Said Samuel Miller, “Surely this and some other of his doctrines are utterly unworthy of a mind which had been conversant with the inquiries and the writings of the great practical philosophers of the eighteenth century.”38 I shall mention only two other publications of Saint-Pierre in the United States, the Voyages of Amasis and the Indian Cottage (La Chaumière indienne). With French and English texts on opposite pages, this edition of Amasis was offered to those learning French as an alternative to a similar edition of Telemachus. The translators suggested that it might be better suited, prove of greater utility, to this country than Fénelon’s novel “designed for the education of a prince.” Samuel Miller, minister and polymath, probably spoke for most Americans in saying, “The fictitious writings of M. De St. Pierre, Madame Genlis, and M. Florian are worthy of particular distinction, especially on account of their pure moral tendency.”39
Alain René Le Sage was also a favored author. The History and Adventures of Gil Blas de Santillane turns up almost everywhere. It was advertised in the South Carolina Gazette in 1753. It was “popular” in Virginia.40 In Maryland in the years 1700–1776, this picaresquc novel was apparently “the most read foreign book excepting Voltaire’s historical works, judging from the number of times it was mentioned.”41 In Boston in 1786 the manager of a circulating library complained in the Independent Chronicle that Gil Bias, along with a few other titles, “had been absent more than two months, to the ‘great disappointment of the Subscribers and disgrace of the establishment.’”42 In the Philadelphia General Advertiser, August 14, 1792, one finds a long paragraph of criticism, which could be indigenous, devoted to Le Sage. The writer asserts that Gil Bias will be read “long after Voltaire’s physical and metaphysical novels and romances shall be forgotten.” English translations of Gil Bias were published here, as was Le Diable boiteux; or, The Devil upon Two Sticks, an edition of the latter novel having French and English texts on opposite pages. According to Frank Luther Mott, Gil Bias was a “better seller” in this country in the year 1790.43 He finds that of all French fiction published in English translation in the United States before the end of the eighteenth century only this novel of Le Sage and Rousseau’s The New Eloisa, in 1796, attained to such distinction.
Madame de Genlis was a prolific author of novels, children’s books, plays, and writings on education. Several of her things were published in English in the United States in the period under consideration. The reader can find the titles in Bo we, French Literature in Early American Translation. Ruth Halsey writes, “Many educated people regarded [her books] as particularly suitable for their daughters, both in the original text and in the English translations.”44 Mary S. Benson finds that Madame de Genlis was one of the very few writers who were considered here as “authorities on female character and education” and whose works “exerted marked influence on American thought” in the 1780s and 1790s.45 Her play, Zelie, was translated and adapted by Mrs. Elizabeth Inchbald. Entitled The Child of Nature, it was performed many times in different cities along the eastern seaboard.46 Her Theatre of Education and Sacred Dramas, as well as writings of many other French authors mentioned in these pages, were listed in Thaddeus M. Harris’s A Selected Catalogue of Some of the Most Esteemed Publications in the English Language, Proper to Form a Social Library, With an Introduction upon the Choice of Books (Boston, 1793). Harris was the librarian of Harvard.47
Young people read The Children’s Friend and The Looking-Glass for the Mind, translations of writings of Arnaud Berquin. A number of editions of these books were printed here. “For half a century [The Looking-Glass for the Mind] was to be found in the shop of all booksellers, and had its place in the library of every family of means.’548
Americans read history with avidity. Charles Rollin and Voltaire stood in the forefront in this category of the “literature of knowledge.” As early as 1749, Franklin recommended Rollin’s “Ancient and Roman Histories” for consideration by the trustees of the Philadelphia Academy for “The Third Class.”49 A Boston bookseller advertised Rollin’s “Ancient History 10 vol” in the Boston Gazette, November 30, 1761, and a Maryland bookdealer offered his “Roman History, 16 Vols.” for sale in the Maryland Gazette, August 26, 1762. Smart found the Ancient History “fairly common” in libraries in colonial Virginia. For its fortune in the private libraries of North Carolina, consult the thorough study of Stephen B. Weeks.50 The Ancient History seems to surface more often in this country than Rollin’s other books, even though his The Life of Alexander the Great was published in Providence in 1796. In this same year John Clarke, advising the Harvard student, wrote, “The name of Rollin is well known and respected at the university. You will read his ancient history with the care due to a work so well-intended; and which displays such various learning.”51 Thaddeus Harris included the Ancient History in his Selected Catalogue. And Frank Luther Mott determined that it was a “better seller” in 1796.
The histories of Voltaire were everywhere. Expressing admiration for the French author, a writer of that time made this telling statement in a Massachusetts periodical: “In our country he is best known as a historian.”52 Present-day findings bear him out.53 After Rollin and Voltaire came the Abbé Raynal and the Abbé Barthélémy, whose “histories” catered to the tastes of many. Raynal’s A Philosophical and Political History of the Settlements and Trade of the Europeans in the East and West Indies was included in Thaddeus M. Harris’s Selected Catalogue. In his Letters (p. 66), John Clarke said, “Raynal’s account of the East and West-Indies was read and admired, when it first made its appearance.” Only Raynal’s The Revolution of America was published here in the years under study. Robert Bell printed a lengthy extract from Raynal in his compilation Illuminations for Legislators, and for Sentimentalists (Philadelphia, 1784), and Mathew Carey included brief extracts from the French author in his own collection, The School of Wisdom (Philadelphia, 1800). Mary E. Loughrey, in her book mentioned above, found that after Voltaire, there were a few more allusions to Raynal than to Rousseau or Montesquieu in Rhode Island newspapers of the eighteenth century. And a colleague, Edward Seeber, regarding his work on Charleston newspapers in the last half of the century, informs me that “considerable attention was paid also to Raynal.” The Abbé Barthélémy’s Travels of Anacharsis the Younger in Greece was also well received. Clarke called this book a production of “acknowledged merit.” And the American Universal Magazine (Philadelphia), for example, printed extracts from it, as well as an account of Barthélemy’s life, in various numbers of three of its four volumes, published in the years 1797–98.
The erudite Samuel Miller had a high opinion of eighteenth-century French historians. Close to the time of which he writes, here is how he placed some of them in the order of their popularity among Americans. He ranked Rollin first. Rollin, in his Ancient History, paid respect “to the government and providence of God, and to Revelation,” and he was “more generally perused and praised than most other historians of the age.” Next came Vertot, obscure to the modern reader, then Voltaire. Miller considered Voltaire a historian “partial, uncandid, grossly defective in authenticity, and disposed, upon every pretext, to depart from probability, truth, and decorum, for the purpose of reviling the religion of Christ.” The Abbé Millot, also obscure today, succeeded Voltaire. And finally, Miller mentions Raynal, whose History of the East and West Indies, “though not generally respected as authentic, drew much of the attention of the literary world.”54 So much for the French novelists and historians who were downstage on the eighteenth-century American literary scene. Who were the most prominent figures upstage? I exclude the philosophes in this essay.
According to one scholar, “Rabelais and Montaigne were probably the best-known sixteenth-century writers.”55 My findings corroborate this statement. The works of Rabelais were advertised in the South Carolina Gazette in 1756 and in the Boston Gazette on November 30, 1761, and March 15, 1762 (in this latter issue an advertisement of a five-volume edition in French). Rabelais was “among the foreign titles” Joseph T. Wheeler found in his study of books owned by Marylanders. I shall not go into details of individual ownership, and one allusion to the author will have to suffice. In a reprint in the Gazette of the United States, September 20, 1798, “The Lay Preacher,” deriding some of the English romantic writers, included an appreciative mention of Rabelais. Some of the Founding Fathers had Montaigne’s Essays on their bookshelves, as did other libraries of various types.56
Among seventeenth-century writers, Molière was the most conspicuous. His Works were offered for sale in Williamsburg in 1765.57 “Molière in French & English” was advertised in the South Carolina Gazette in 1767, and again in the same paper, “Molière,” in 1768. Smart found Molière, Corneille, and Racine in a few private libraries in colonial Virginia. Joseph T. Wheeler came upon Molière’s comedies in two personal libraries in Maryland.58 “Molière’s Works” were available at the Library Company of Philadelphia.59 And French editions of Molière, as well as of Corneille, were in Caritat’s circulating library. James Bowdoin, to cite only one name, had plays of Molière, “fr. & Eng.,” in his library in 1775.60 Bowdoin became a governor of Massachusetts. A Philadelphia periodical printed a life of the great comic playwright, “embellished with a portrait.”61
Almost no Racine was come upon in private libraries, and even less Corneille. A bookseller advertised “Racine, 3 tom.” in the Boston Gazette, March 15, 1762. A three-volume French edition of Racine’s works, along with an eight-volume edition in French of Molière, were offered for sale in the Maryland Journal, September 10, 1782. Gilbert Chinard, who edited The Literary Bible of Thomas Jefferson: His Commonplace Book of Philosophers and Poets (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1928) found that “Racine is the only French writer represented here.”
Library holdings aside, many Americans had the opportunity to see performances of English adaptations of plays by the three illustrious classical dramatists and others. Performances of Molière outstripped those of all other French playwrights in eighteenth-century America. After Molière with some 160-odd performances came Destouches, followed very closely by Corneille, Dancourt, and Voltaire, in descending order.62 Few plays were presented in French. In light of this record, it is surprising to read that “despite more than a century and a quarter of traditional friendship between France and the United States, American production of Molière’s plays had to await the era of the First World War.”63
Other writers of the classical period were known only to a few. The Library Company of Philadelphia had “Boileau’s Works” and “Pascal’s Thoughts.”64 Mentions of La Fontaine are surprisingly rare. Wreg offered “Fontaine’s Fables” for sale in Williamsburg in 1765. La Rochefoucauld’s name does turn up, but very infrequently even though editions of his Maxims and Moral Reflections were published in the United States toward the end of the century. V. L. Collins, in his book President Witherspoon: A Biography, writes that Witherspoon “scored” La Rochefoucauld in his Address to the Senior Class at Princeton, and that he “barely named” Boileau and Pascal.65 “Pascal’s Thoughts on Religion and other curious Subjects” was advertised in the Virginia Gazette, November 25, 1775, in a very long and interesting “Catalogue of Books for Sale” in Williamsburg.66 The New York Magazine devoted two pages to a reprint of “Remarkable Particulars in the Life and Conduct of Pascal” in its issue for May 1790. Pascal was quoted on religion in the Philadelphia General Advertiser, June 4, 1792. James Kent, proud reader of French, owned Les Pensées.67 In a recent book by John Barker, there is an appendix on “Pascal in America.” Here one can find information concerning John Adams’s, Madison’s, and Jefferson’s acquaintance with Pascal’s writings, as well as information on library holdings of these.68 Barker finds no real influence of Pascal on the development of American thought.
Eighteenth-century French authors upstage, dramatic and philosophic literature excluded, were Marmontel and Florian. Editions of Marmontel’s novel Belisarius were published here in 1770 and 1796. Several of his minor pieces, in English, also appeared. In 1771 Jefferson recommended “Marmontel’s moral tales” and Belisarius to Robert Skipwith as desiderata for his library.69 Belisarius, for instance, was advertised for sale in the Maryland Journal, May 6, 1777, and in the General Advertiser, July 28, 1791. Under the rubric “Tales of an Evening,” the American Universal Magazine (Philadelphia) printed five stories from “Marmontel’s new Moral Tales” in its first volume (1797). A writer in the Gazette of the United States, February 4, 1797, in announcing the performance of a play in the City of Brotherly Love, referred to the inclusion in it of “the pathetic Tale of CORA and ALONZO, from Marmontel’s Incas.” The Library Company of Philadelphia, according to Reitzel, owned both the Tales and Belisarius. Writings of Marmontel and Florian in English and French were available in Caritat’s circulating library. Florian’s Galatea: A Pastoral Romance, was published in Boston in 1798, and his brief piece, A Very Entertaining and Affecting History of Claudine, at Whitestown, New York, in 1800. Thaddeus M. Harris included “Florian’s Select Tales” in A Selected Catalogue of Some of the Most Esteemed Publications in the English Language.
What does the evidence show with regard to the character and amount of American interest in French literature up to 1800? A concern with it on the part of a select few goes back to the seventeeth century. The fine library of John Winthrop, Jr., governor of Connecticut, contained French books.70 William Byrd’s great library at Westover, in Virginia, contained three hundred volumes in French embracing the complete works of some famous authors.71 Cotton Mather was interested in, and most familiar with, the literature of French refugee writers published toward the end of the Grand Siècle.72 According to Forrest Bowe, the first translation of a French text printed in the colonies, at Cambridge in 1668, was a small work by Guy de Brès pertaining to one of the radical religious movements of the Reformation. “Between 1668 and 1775,” Bowe adds, “the printing of translations of French works was limited; indeed, for sixty-four of those years, none have been located. During this period, of course, most translations were published in England and exported to the colonies.”73 The contrast between the lack of publication in these sixty-four “empty” years and the numerous translations printed in the United States toward the end of the century could hardly have been greater. But much had happened in the intervening time. As the exercise of reason waxed, puritanism and intolerance waned. Ancient enmity against France had begun to weaken. The Franco-American alliance would be created in 1778, and the myriad contacts during the War of Independence would engender fraternity and arouse interest in things French.
Most American readers of books were urban residents—generally people of the middle class who were able to buy them or who had fairly easy access to collections in cities and towns. French books were advertised in both northern and southern newspapers. After the French and Indian War (1754–63), their acquisition by all kinds of libraries gradually increased as the century advanced. The private libraries in the period 1760–1800 were generally quite small. But the number of books by French authors in some collections commands attention, and especially in such private libraries as those of James Bowdoin,74 a governor of Massachusetts; Charles Carroll, a signer of the Declaration of Independence; James Madison,75 “Father of the Constitution”; William Duane,76 editor of the Aurora General Advertiser, a powerful Philadelphia democratic newspaper; and James Kent,77 the distinguished jurist. The great libraries of Jefferson and John Adams require no further remarks.
The growth of the circulating library was phenomenal. J. H. Shera writes that it “was concurrent with and in large measure dependent upon the rising popularity of the novel as a literary form.”78 According to James D. Hart, “Novels were the reading matter of the lower middle class which rose to prominence after the Revolution, of nearly all the younger generation, and of women of every age and station, but older, more sober, or more religious citizens were generally horrified at the degradation of morality and intellect that they associated with fiction.”79 Both Shera and Hart agree that the circulating library had become a middle-class institution by 1800. It would be onerous to search out the numerous titles of French fiction available to American readers in the eighteenth century, which the Reverend Samuel Miller called the “Age of Novels.” Had it been in his power, he would have wholly prohibited the reading of this literary genre.80 And so would have many others.
The importance of newspapers as vehicles of Enlightenment thought can hardly be overstressed. One example is enough. In a study of the fortune of Montesquieu in America, I made extensive use of newspapers. The editors, my findings show, were wont to print entire chapters of the Spirit of Laws. I concluded that the most important parts of this masterpiece could be reconstructed, verbatim, from the eighteenth-century papers. They were the most popular and certainly one of the least expensive forms of reading matter. When William Cobbett announced in the Gazette of the United States on February 1, 1797, his intention to publish Porcupine’s Gazette to combat the pro-French journals, he said that “thousands who read them [American newspapers] read nothing else.” And John Ward Fenno, the well-informed publisher of the Gazette of the United States, declared in this paper on March 4, 1799, that “more than nine-tenths of the scanty literature of America is made up of newspaper reading.”
The magazines were also highly useful intermediaries. They did much to acquaint their readers with the literature of France. I can say that almost any French author of note was represented, referred to, made the subject of an anecdote, or quoted in the periodicals, and to a lesser degree, I think, in the newspapers. Here are a few random examples. Anecdotes concerning Piron, Argens, Crebillon fils, and Gresset can be found in the Boston Magazine, April 1784. The Charleston Morning Post, on May 17, 1786, contained citations from Mercier’s Tableau de Paris. The New York Magazine; or Literary Repository included Montesquieu’s Arsace and Ismenia: An Oriental Story in four of its numbers in 1791. This magazine also printed The History of Apheridon and Astarte, from Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, in May 1795. Aucassin and Nicolette ran in issues of the South Carolina Weekly Museum between January and July of 1797. The American Universal Magazine carried a page of appreciation of Pierre Corneille in August of this year. And in 1798 this same magazine printed Selico: An African Tale, by Florian. The Lady’s Magazine and Repository (Philadelphia) had already published Selico in 1793. Charles Dean Cool, whose unpublished dissertation on the magazines was referred to at the outset, calls the years before 1800 their “extract period.” His tabulation shows that the incidence of extracts from French literature was far greater from 1789 to 1799 than at any time preceding. Adrian H. Jaffe’s study of the magazines, also previously mentioned, corroborates Cool’s findings concerning this decade.
From the information I have amassed over the years I can only conclude that countless American readers had, at the very least, some familiarity with French writing. The evidence is everywhere. In addition to what has been brought forward for consideration, I could cite innumerable references to, and quotations of, French authors in then contemporary addresses, books, biographical sketches, essays, lectures, letters, orations, sermons, records, and printed matter of almost every kind. Available statistics on the circulation of newspapers and magazines will throw some light on readership. But we shall never have an accurate conception of the number of readers of French books in private, college, social, and circulating libraries. With regard to the character or sort of French literature that appealed to these readers one may safely conclude, from what has been adduced in this essay, that they were certainly interested in novels, histories, and moral tales. I cannot affirm, however, that they showed a marked preference for one type of literature, imaginative as opposed, say, to philosophic, at a given time or period. There were different levels of readers in the American Enlightenment. But they were not, of necessity, mutually exclusive.
There was some criticism of this literature. Not much. John Witherspoon thought that “in general, there is to be found a greater purity, simplicity and precision in the French authors than in the English.”81 John Clarke wrote that “France has produced numberless writers who do honour to human genius.”82 An expression of this sort today would strike us as hackneyed in the extreme. But coming as it does from a Boston clergyman at the end of the eighteenth century, it is far from trite. In addition to Clarke, Samuel Miller83 and Jefferson84 had more to say about the merits and faults of many of the littérateurs discussed in this section than any others to whom I can point.
Literature from France increased in volume as the century approached its end. This can be seen, among other indications, in the number of translations printed in the United States in the 1780s, and especially in the last decade of the century. Among these were Le Sage’s Gil Blas, Rousseau’s The New Eloisa, and Rollin’s Ancient History, all “better sellers” in the 1790s, according to Frank Luther Mott. Mott’s concern was with first editions published in America. As a criterion for the designation of a book as a best seller, he sets the sales figure at one percent of the entire population of the continental United States for the decade in which the book was published.85 To be an “over-all best seller” in the decade 1790–99 he stipulates as a requirement total American sales of forty thousand copies. “Better sellers,” Mott writes, were “runners-up.” They came close to, but did not reach, he believes, the total sales required to be a best seller. His calculations arrest our attention, especially when we reflect that in the first census in 1790 the white population numbered 3,172,444. Mott’s figures with regard to the sales of books at that time, if compared with the sale of books in proportion to the population of the United States today, are quite significant.