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A HISTORY of our vernacular literature has occu
pied my studies for many years. It was my design not to furnish an arid narrative of books or of authors, but following the steps of the human mind through the wide track of Time, -to trace from their beginnings the rise, the progress, and the decline of public opinions, and to illustrate, as the objects presented themselves, the great incidents in our
In the progress of these researches many topics
presented themselves, some of which, from their
novelty and curiosity, courted investigation. Literary history, in this enlarged circuit, becomes not merely
a philological history of critical erudition, but ascends into a philosophy of books, where their subjects, their tendency, and their immediate or gradual influence over the people discover their
Authors are the creators or the creatures of
opinion; the great form an epoch, the many reflect their age. With them the transient becomes permanent, the suppressed lies open, and they are the truest representatives of their nation for those very passions with which they are themselves infected. The pen of the ready-writer transmits to us the public and the domestic story, and thus books become the intellectual history of a people. As authors are scattered through all the ranks of society, among the governors and the governed, and the objects of their pursuits are usually carried on by their own peculiar idiosyncracy, we are deeply working in characters of native force, all their felicities and their failures, and the fortunes which such men have shaped for themselves, and often for the world, we discover what is not found in biographical dictionaries, the history of the mind of the individual;—and this constitutes the psychology of genius.
interested in the secret connexion of the incidents
of their lives with their intellectual habits. In the development of that predisposition which is ever
In the midst of my studies I was arrested by the loss of sight; the papers in this collection are a portion of my projected history.
The title prefixed to this work has been adopted to connect it with its brothers, the “Curiosities of Literature,” and “Miscellanies of Literature;” but though the form and manner bear a family reseniblance, the subject has more unity of design.
The propriety of the title, I must confess, depends on the graciousness of my readers; the diversified literature in which I have so long indulged is of such late origin in this country, that the species has
never obtained a name. Blair entitles his work “ Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres," and
Goldsmith in his review of the modern literature of
Europe, calls it “polite learning.” The Italians have been more fortunate in describing this class, as la letteratura amena; and if it were required to place a classical seal on the term, we might appeal to Pliny, who has given it to literary pursuits in general, amoenitates studiorum.
These volumes are not addressed to learned
antiquaries, to whose stores it is so difficult to add ; I stand gratefully indebted to their labours, for though I have sometimes held a sickle in their harvest, I am oftener a gleaner in their fields : these volumes are designed for those of my contemporaries who amid the diversified acquisitions of this age in science and in art, some of which had no existence
with the public in my youth, are still susceptible of inquiries so intimately connected with the progress of the human mind and of society, which should never be separated. Whoever imagines