Joel Barlow (1754-1812)
Contributing Editor: Carla Mulford
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
The writings of Joel Barlow were early anthologized among those of his Connecticut contemporaries of 1785-87, when Barlow and David Humphreys, John Trumbull, Timothy Dwight, and a few others engaged in collaborative writing projects and called themselves the Connecticut or Hartford wits. In the first half of the twentieth century, scholars tended to follow the lead of nineteenth-century literary historians and continued to rank Barlow among his conservative contemporaries. Leon Howard's groundbreaking The Connecticut Wits (1943) confirmed Barlow's association with this group, and Howard's influence has continued within the scholarly community. Cecelia Tichi's more timely New World, New Earth: Environmental Reform in American Literature from the Puritans through Whitman (1979) continues the Howard interpretation, but clearly within a different context. The interpretation is promulgated in literary and biographical handbooks: the recent commentator cited in the headnote to the Barlow readings, for instance, is Jeffrey Walker, in the Barlow entry in American Writers Before 1800, eds. James A. Levemier and Douglas R. Wilmes. As a corrective to these assessments of Barlow, scholars should consult the work, cited below, of Arner, Lemay, Mulford, and Richardson.
Central to the reinterpretation of Barlow's writings is an understanding of the audience to which Barlow was addressing his writings. Barlow seems to have believed, in his early years, that patrons of the arts could be found in America. As a poet seeking patrons in the eastern portion of the new nation-from New Hampshire to Georgia--Barlow would predictably have bespoken the traditional Christian assumptions about God, home, and country, assuming them to be his readers' beliefs. But given his own reading of Henry Home, Lord Kames, dissenting minister Dr. Richard Price, and historian William Robertson, Barlow most likely personally espoused a conception of the progress of morals not necessarily Judeo-Christian in orientation--despite his Revolutionary War chaplaincy. His potentially deistic interests, in fact, seem to have entered even the rather conservative (in terms of religion) poem, The Vision of Columbus (see the Christensen citation below). Given the context of Barlow's writing during his earliest years, then, there seems little reason to continue the assumption that he necessarily held the beliefs he propagandized. His interests and his readings continued, through his life, to be philosophical, republican, scientific, and propagandist.
The standard biography of Barlow remains the critical biography by James Woodress, A Yankee's Odyssey: The Life of Joel Barlow (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1958).
The standard critical references have been those by Howard and Tichi.
For a reassessment of Barlow's work, see:
Arner, Robert. "The Smooth and Emblematic Song: Joel Barlow's The Hasty Pudding." Early American Literature, 7 (1972): 76-91.
Lemay, J. A. Leo. "The Contexts and Themes of `The Hasty Pudding.' " Early American Literature 17 (1982): 3-23.
Mulford, Carla. "Radicalism in Joel Barlow's The Conspiracy of Kings (1792). In Deism, Masonry, and the Enlightenment: Essays Honoring Alfred Owen Aldridge. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1987, 137-57.
Richardson, Robert O. "The Enlightenment View of Myth and Joel Barlow's Vision of Columbus." Early American Literature 13 (1978): 34-44.
See also Merton A. Christensen, "Deism in Joel Barlow's Early Work: Heterodox Passages in The Vision of Columbus," American Literature 27 (1956): 509-29.
For an assessment of Barlow's poetry in light of English poetry, see William C. Dowling, Poetry and Ideology in Revolutionary Connecticut. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990, passim.