In 1988, the U.S. Information Agency’s Division for the Study of the United States published An Early American Reader for scholars outside the U.S. It was compiled and edited by Professor J. A. Leo Lemay (1935-2008), the du Pont Winterthur Professor at the University of Delaware. Lemay — also known as the “Ambassador of Early American Literary Studies” — was most known for his scholarship on Benjamin Franklin, but editing the reader for USIA merits inclusion among his many accolades.
My copy of this rich volume is quite well worn. Lemay’s reader is more than an anthology of American literature. It provides more than 700 pages of early American essays, sermons, captivity narratives, letters, accounts, poems, stories, and travels — from the first English settlements to the beginning of the 19th century. I have read it for pleasure, and during my Public Diplomacy career, I sat with professors and teachers in other countries to help them discover the wonders inside.
Under six main headings — “The American Dream,” “Religious Traditions,” “The Indians and the Frontier,” “Nature in the New World,” “Slavery and the Black,” and “The American Revolution” — the reader meets such well-known figures as John Smith, John Winthrop, William Bradford, Benjamin Franklin, Jonathan Edwards, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and George Washington. Writers like Philip Freneau, Cotton Mather, William Cullen Bryant, and Joel Barlow deepen understanding of colonial and early national themes. The notes and introductions by Professor Lemay are brief and cogent.
Since this book was published, the old “canon” of American literature has been challenged, with special attention to diversity, identity, gender, and inclusion. How does the volume stand up now?
Lemay’s selections range far beyond the standard list of writers in the old high school and college “American Lit” textbooks. Readers meet Anne Bradstreet, Mary Rowlandson, and Orators for the Six Nations. The volume’s two sections on “The Indians and the Frontier” and “Slavery and the Black” provide more than 200 pages of material. Included are critiques of slavery by John Woolman, William Byrd, and Hector St. Jean de Crevecoeur — as well as pieces by Phyllis Wheatley and Olaudah Equiano. Three decades after Lemay made his selections for the volume, scholars mindful of diversity have brought neglected early writers into the light, but there’s plenty in this reader to spark classroom debates — and come to deeper understanding of America’s origins, achievements, contradictions, and stains.
There are other American readers (compiled by Caroline Kennedy, Leon Kass, Amy Kass, and Diana Schaub, and Christopher Burkett, for instance). All have their pluses and minuses. Most have only a few selections from the colonial and Revolutionary periods, so Lemay’s unique volume that limns our nation’s origins is a real keeper.
A Note for Readers
This book was published by the U.S. Information Agency for readers in foreign countries. In accordance with a 1972 amendment to the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, U.S. public diplomacy products were not allowed to be available in the U.S. After USIA was folded into the State Department in 1999, the restriction continued for publications issued by its Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP). The restriction ended in 2013.
The imprints for USIA publications were “United States Information Service,” “United States Information Agency,” “International Communication Agency” (1978-1982), or “Embassy of the United States of America.” The volumes were usually printed at one of the USIA regional printing plants in Vienna, Mexico City, or Manila and shipped to U.S. diplomatic posts for distribution. To date an individual copy, look for the number at the bottom of the last page inside the back cover. The first two digits represent the year the volume was printed.
Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications in the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years.