Timothy Dwight (1752-1817)
Contributing Editor: Carla Mulford
Classroom Issues and Strategies
An absence of space in the anthology prevented offering the more typical view of Timothy Dwight as a reactionary conservative in the Federalist era rather than as an "enlightened" albeit conservative citizen of the new Republic. Fuller contextualization of Dwight might assist students in their coming to terms with the complexity of the era called the Enlightenment. They might find interesting the fact that Dwight took part in, even as he prepared for the ministry, the writing of The Anarchiad, a collaborative and satiric foray against social and political attitudes prevalent during the early years of the new United States. They might also find The Anarchiad an interesting counterpoint--if it is indeed a counterpoint, and this is something that students might wish to examine--to Dwight's outburst, The Triumph of Infidelity, aimed at French rationalist philosophers of the middle and late eighteenth century.
The Dwight presented in the anthology is the same Timothy Dwight, but the representation given here cannot by any means present the whole canon of the writings, just as the long Georgic poem, Greenfield Hill, cannot necessarily be said to be fully representative of this complex man and poet. Nonetheless, this selection will enable a teacher to consider several aspects of poetry--such as, most importantly, the Augustan mode and its social implications--along with several of the conflicts of the era of "Enlightenment" so as to present to students a fuller dimension of Enlightenment culture than that usually considered.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Themes that this selection suggests include the millennialism of Puritan culture and its cultural descendant, Congregationalism; the poetic (and bourgeois) attempt to find a way to model or represent a civic culture that the populace could only pretend to imitate; the motif, promulgated by whites, of the necessary, even if sorrowful, vanishing of Indians in advance of a growing and more "civic" white population.
By approaching the selection in these three ways, students can begin to see that their easy assumptions about Puritanism (that it somehow "stopped" when "Enlightenment" began), about poetics (that these poems are boring in their supposed harmonious repetitiveness), and about Indian culture (for white students, especially, that it vanished) are fully called into question. By examining the complicated poetics and socio-poetics of this era called the Enlightenment, students can begin to understand the residual effects of this era evident in our own. Trying to get students to phrase this, on their own, is one of my key teaching challenges with these materials.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
This selection shows extremely well the Augustan notion that civic humanism can be modelled in poetry. In terms of poetics, students interested in poetry might be asked to examine the poetic lines for regularity in meter, harmony (or cacophony) in diction, and the sound-and-sense effects of Augustan poetry. They might be encouraged, too, to compare the poetics of the selection with the poetics employed in the selections of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century poems in the anthology, as well as with those of Dwight's contemporaries, Joel Barlow, Philip Freneau, Judith Sargent Murray, and Phillis Wheatley.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Students might be asked to examine Dwight's social attitudes in light of the writings by Prince Hall, Samson Occom, Hendrick Aupaumut, Benjamin Franklin, and Joel Barlow. They also might find suitable materials for comparison and contrast in the William Byrd, Sarah Kemble Knight, and Mary Rowlandson selections. A useful exploration of religious culture would result from a comparative treatment of the millennialism of, say, Winthrop, Bradford, or even Edwards, with that of Dwight, and then an examination of Dwight as opposed to, say, Emerson or Thoreau. Contrastively, students might like to explore the rhetoric of Christian humanism as evident in Angelina Grimké and in Timothy Dwight.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. How are Dwight's poetics different from or similar to the poetics of seventeenth-century and other eighteenth-century writers?
2. Are there similarities between Dwight's position on Indians and the positions held by Benjamin Franklin and Samson Occom?
3. Is there a connection between Dwight's "city on a hill" (i.e., Greenfield Hill) and Winthrop's vision of that city, as expressed at the end of his lay sermon, "A Modell of Christian Charity"?
4. How does Dwight's implication about "vanishing" Native Americans get played out in the nineteenth century?
A variety of titles are listed below. They should assist the teacher interested in examining the complexities of both Dwight and his era, as suggested in the material above:
Berk, Stephen E. Calvinism Versus Democracy: Timothy Dwight and the Origins of American Evangelical Orthodoxy. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1974.
Bloch, Ruth. Visionary Republic: Millennial Themes in American Thought, 1756-1800. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Dippie, Brian W. The Vanishing American: White Attitudes and U.S. Indian Policy. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1982.
Dowling, William C. Poetry and Ideology in Revolutionary Connecticut. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990.
Elliott, Emory. Revolutionary Writers: Literature and Authority in the New Republic, 1725-1810. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Howard, Leon. The Connecticut Wits. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1943.
McTaggart, William J. and William K. Bottorff, eds. The Major Poems of Timothy Dwight. Gainesville, Fla.: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1969.
Silliman, Benjamin. A Sketch of the Life and Character of President Dwight. New Haven: Maltby, Goldsmith, 1817.
Silverman, Kenneth. Timothy Dwight. New York: Twayne, 1969.
Tichi, Cecilia. New World, New Earth: Environmental Reform in American Literature from the Puritans through Whitman. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979.