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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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4. Spirit of Nationalism   

4. Spirit of Nationalism

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- William Apess
- J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur
- Jonathan Edwards
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
- Benjamin Franklin
- Margaret Fuller
- Thomas Jefferson
- Susanna Rowson
- Royall Tyler
- Phillis Wheatley
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: Royall Tyler (1757-1826)

The First Step
[4423] Anonymous, The First Step [Godey's Lady's Book] (1858), courtesy of Hope Greenberg, University of Vermont.

Royall Tyler Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
Born into a wealthy Boston family, Royall Tyler would grow up to become the author of the first successful and widely performed American play. He entered Harvard at the age of fifteen and proved such a brilliant student that he earned baccalaureate degrees from both Harvard and Yale. After graduation, Tyler enlisted with the Boston Independent Company and fought intermittently in the American Revolution, eventually rising to the rank of major. When the focus of the war shifted to the South, Tyler's military duties abated and he turned his attention from the army to the law. He passed the Massachusetts bar in 1780 and soon established himself in a successful legal practice. He became engaged to Abigail Adams, the daughter of John Adams, but failed to impress the future president as a suitable match for his daughter. Adams apparently feared that Tyler's taste for literature and conversation indicated that the young man was "not devoted entirely to Study and to Business--to honour & virtue." Acquiescing to her father's wishes, Abigail Adams broke her engagement to Tyler and married her father's secretary instead.

In 1787, Tyler was recalled into military service, this time to help quell Shays's Rebellion, an insurrection of back-country farmers in Massachusetts who were resisting the government's economic policies, prosecution of debtors, and high taxes. After suppressing the rebellion Tyler was sent to New York City on official business. There he attended the theater for the first time and developed what would become a consuming passion for plays. Inspired by the New York production of English playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The School for Scandal, Tyler decided to write his own play, and, just over a month later, The Contrast was staged at the John Street Theater. Tyler's effort met with a warm response; the play received generally favorable reviews and was soon performed in other American cities. The Contrast is an important milestone in American literature because it was the first widely performed play that featured American characters and self-consciously promoted republican values and American patriotism. In early America, plays were often perceived as a morally questionable genre: Congress had banned theater during the Revolutionary War because it was "extravagant and dissipating," and in postwar society the stage continued to be dogged by its associations with dubious morality and hated British culture. Tyler met these criticisms head-on in his play, making his subject the "contrast" between virtuous, homespun American values (represented by the characters of Manly, Maria, and Jonathan) and foppish, insincere, European pretensions (represented by Dimple, Charlotte, and Jessamy).

Over the course of his long life, Tyler composed several more plays, as well as a number of essays and a novel. Literature was not a lucrative profession in the early nation, however, and he continued to support himself and his family by practicing law. He settled in Vermont in 1791, married in 1794, and rose to prominence as a professor of law at the University of Vermont and eventually as the chief justice of the state Supreme Court.

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