| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Timothy Dwight hailed from one of the most influential families in
New England. His mother, Mary Edwards Dwight, was the third daughter of
Jonathan Edwards; his father, Major Timothy Dwight, was a judge, military man,
farmer, and merchant. His grandfather Jonathan Edwards had been especially
instrumental in promoting Congregationalism during the Great Awakening (c.
1720–1740). His great-grandfather was Calvinist preacher Solomon Stoddard, and
his great-great-grandfather was Puritan leader Thomas Hooker. Where Stoddard
had been called the “Congregational Pope”
of the Connecticut Valley for his immense power and influence, Timothy
Dwight was nicknamed “Pope Dwight” for his autocratic ways at Yale College.
From this dynamic lineage, Dwight inherited an intellectual enthusiasm
befitting the eighteenth century: he was a poet, an essayist, a preacher, a
politician, a teacher, a college president, and a travel writer.
Timothy Dwight was
born at midcentury, on May 14, 1752, in Northampton, Massachusetts. Largely
under his mother’s tutelage, he was reading the Bible by age four and teaching
catechism to local Indians by age seven. Although he had fulfilled the Yale
entrance requirements by the age of eight, he had to wait until 1765 to enter
college at the age of thirteen. After a momentary lapse into gambling, he
allegedly studied fourteen hours a day, which, coupled with his pre-dawn
reading habits to master Homer, resulted in progressively weakened eyesight.
Dwight was awarded his B.A. in 1769 and his M.A. in 1772, delivering the
commencement address entitled “A Dissertation on the History, Eloquence, and
Poetry of the Bible.” Despite an initial inclination to study law, he became a
tutor at Yale from 1771 to 1777. He married Mary Woolsey in March 1777 and in
June took up his first ministry, at Weathersfield. In October, he became
chaplain at West Point. Two years later, in 1779, Dwight returned to
Northampton upon his father’s death. For the next five years, he supported his
mother and twelve siblings, managed two farms, preached, and taught. In 1783,
the Dwights moved to Greenfield, Connecticut, when he was granted a pastorate.
During his twelve-year appointment, Dwight established a highly reputable
coeducational academy, where female students could study the more classical
forms of literature and thus presumably avoid the dangers of novel-reading. In 1795,
Dwight succeeded Ezra Stiles as president of Yale College.
For twenty-two years,
Timothy Dwight enthusiastically embraced his role as president of Yale and was
credited with raising the college’s profile and expanding its academic scope.
He encouraged the study of medicine and chemistry and, in addition to his
administrative duties, taught classes in rhetoric, theology, logic, and the
belles-lettres. Dwight was apparently quite popular with the students and
promoted a more congenial environment by abolishing a system of public
punishments of undergraduates based upon fines and reinforced by physical
abuse. He also ushered in several religious revivals associated with the Second
Great Awakening (c. 1795–1835). In 1796, despite a youthful aversion to exercise
that led him to experiment with eating only twelve mouthfuls per meal to
maintain his weight rather then exercise, Dwight began making lengthy journeys
through New York and New England. He traveled mostly by horseback during the
fall when school was in recess, a break that allowed students to return home
for the harvest. Eventually, he traveled over 18,000 miles, and his journals
took up four volumes, approximately 2,000 pages. The Travels provide
valuable social, botanical, and geographical data for early-American scholars.
Dwight delivered numerous sermons, including one on dueling at Yale on
September 9, 1804, two months after Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a
duel (Burr was Dwight’s first cousin). In 1816, Dwight’s health began to
decline with the onset of cancer of the bladder, and on January 11, 1817,
he died in New Haven, Connecticut.
Dwight came of age
during the heady days of the Revolutionary War and the forming of the new
American republic. During his college years, he became a member of a literary
group at Yale known as the “Connecticut Wits” (or “Hartford Wits”). The primary
group included Joel Barlow, David Humphreys, and John Trumbull, along with Noah
Webster and Lemuel Hopkins. The group adopted the satirical form of Samuel Butler’s
Hudibras and Alexander Pope’s Dunciad to espouse their
conservative views and to criticize more liberal democratic figures such as
Thomas Jefferson. They advocated a literature based upon American subjects.
Fancying themselves as American bards in the Homeric tradition, their most
famous work, The Anarchiad: A Poem on the Restoration of Chaos and
Substantial Night (1786–1786), was a mock epic critical of states that were
slow to ratify the Constitution. Vincent Freimarck compares the Wits to other
student groups that, like the “Fugitives at Vanderbilt and the Beats at
Columbia, [were] warmed by a sense of literary vocation and at odds with the
curricular status quo.” Despite their conservatism, Dwight and Trumbull
advocated the radical notion of introducing “contemporary English literature as
a subject of study” and encouraged their students to write poetry and essays.
Their works were often didactic, disseminating the image of a virtuous America.
works were comprehensive in scope. The Conquest of Canäan; a Poem, in Eleven
Books (1785), dedicated to George Washington, is based upon the narrative
of Joshua. The Triumph of Infidelity (1788), dedicated to Voltaire,
chronicles Satan’s battles to undermine the virtues of the new republic. Greenfield
Hill (1794), dedicated to John Adams, is a pastoral poem using Connecticut
as the exemplar of the perfect society. Travels in New England and New York
(4 vols., 1821–1822) is a collection of travel letters written from 1796 to
Hill is a seven-part 4,500-line poem modeled on the English poet John
Denham’s Cooper’s Hill (1642). Its descriptions of beautiful scenery are
overlaid with moral guidance and social commentary. The dedication to Vice
President John Adams reads: “with Sentiments of the highest Respect for his
Private Character, and for the important Services he has rendered to his
Country.” Dwight described the setting in his introduction: “In the parish of
Greenfield, in the town of Fairfield, in Connecticut, there is a pleasant and
beautiful eminence, called Greenfield Hill; at the distance of three miles from
Long-Island Sound.” The poet uses several narrators to convey Greenfield Hill
as an American utopia. In Part II, excerpted in the Heath Anthology, he evokes Oliver Goldsmith’s
The Deserted Village by adopting the sentimental style and upholding the
ideals of the simple country life; the narrator of this part is a
poet-preacher. American virtue is contrasted with European corruption, and as
Emory Elliott explains, the contrast exemplifies one of Dwight’s favorite
themes: “the decadence of Europe as opposed to the pristine and moral beauty of
America.” Greenfield Hill thus emerges as the superior social and moral locale.
Part IV shifts our attention to war and the lessons of the Pequot War,
whereupon past glory is tempered by the virtual annihilation of a noble race.
Dwight’s overall comparison between Europe and America favors his homeland as
ultimately more virtuous, grounded as it was in an agrarian dream.
In the Heath Anthology
from Part IV: The Destruction of the Pequods
Part II: The Flourishing Village
There are no Cultural Objects for this author.
Would you like to add a Cultural Object?
There are no pedagogical assignments or approaches for this author.
Dwight's poem The Smooth Divine.
Timothy Dwight: An Annotated Bibliography
A brief, but helpful list of secondary research materials.
William C. Dowling, Poetry and Ideology in Revolutionary Connecticut, 1990
E. Elliott, Revolutionary Writers: Literature and Authority in the New Republic 1725-1810, 1982
John R. Fitzmier, New England's Moral Legislator: A Life of Timothy Dwight, 1752-1817, 1998
N.O. Hatch, The Sacred Cause of Liberty: Republican Thought and the Millennium in Revolutionary New England, 1977
Leon Howard, The Connecticut Wits, 1943
Peter K. Kafer "The Making of Timothy Dwight: A Connecticut Morality Tale," The William and Mary Quarterly, 47, 1990: 189-210
Jane Kamensky, "'In These Contrasted Climes, How Chang'd the Scene': Progress, Declension, and Balance in the Landscapes of Timothy Dwight." The New England Quarterly, 63, 1990: 80-109
K. Silverman, Timothy Dwight, 1969
Colin Wells, "Timothy Dwight's American 'Dunciad': 'The Triumph of Infidelity' and the Universalist Controversy," Early American Literature, 33, 1998: 173-182
Anabelle S. Wenzke, Timothy Dwight, 1989