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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Joel Barlow

Joel Barlow aspired to write the great American epic and did so repeatedly, with his Prospect of Peace (1778), The Vision of Columbus (1787), and The Columbiad (1807). Yet he remains best remembered for his mock-heroic poem about his Connecticut childhood, The Hasty Pudding (1796). Barlow’s accomplishments as poet, chaplain, newspaper editor, bookseller, real estate agent, publisher, and diplomat are impressive, but his simple celebration of American domesticity stands as his most endearing literary contribution.

Joel Barlow was born the eighth of nine children on a 170-acre farm in Redding, Connecticut, on March 24, 1754. His father, Samuel Barlow, was a wealthy farmer; his mother, Esther Hull, was a local Redding resident and Samuel’s second wife. Joel Barlow left home when he was nineteen to attend college at Moor’s Indian School at Hanover, New Hampshire, founded by Eleazar Wheelock, who characterized Barlow as a “middling scholar” possessed of “sober, regular, and good Behavior.” In August 1774, he enrolled at Dartmouth College, but three months later his father died, and Barlow used his portion of the estate, about £100, to transfer to Yale in November. Shortly before he returned to Yale for his sophomore year, his mother died. In the summer of 1776, Barlow enlisted in the Continental Army to fight in the Battle of Long Island. On July 23, 1778, he graduated from Yale and, as class poet, read The Prospect of Peace, a patriotic tribute to the struggle for independence written in rhyming pairs of iambic pentameter known as heroic couplets. The style was significant, for as Timothy Steele reminds us, iambic pentameter was considered “the English measure most suitable for epic subjects,” adopted accordingly by Milton for Paradise Lost, Dryden for his translation of Virgil, and Pope for his translation of Homer. Barlow clearly embraced the epic style of emulating the heroic couplets of Dryden and Pope in The Prospect of Peace, and in a later poem, The Vision of Columbus (1787), which opens with Columbus in prison at the end of his life and relays his vision for a New World founded, somewhat controversially, upon its indigenous inheritance. According to Cecelia Tichi, Barlow’s major writings mythologize America as a “nation destined to begin a global epoch of transcendent peace and progress.” For this ambitious plan, Barlow’s use of the epic style and heroic couplet to narrate America’s founding seems particularly appropriate.

Immediately after graduation, Barlow accepted a position as a schoolmaster, but changed his mind and, after borrowing money from his older brother Nathaniel, returned to Yale for a master’s degree in theology. In 1779, he began boarding at the home of Michael Baldwin, blacksmith and father of his college friend Abraham Baldwin. Barlow became romantically involved with two women at this time, Ruth Baldwin, his landlord’s daughter, and Elizabeth Whitman, a respected local poet. (Ten years later, Whitman died, a single woman, after giving birth to a stillborn child at the Bell Tavern in Danvers, Massachusetts. Her life was supposedly the model for Hannah Foster’s 1797 sentimental novel, The Coquette.) Michael Baldwin was apparently unimpressed with Barlow’s financial potential and sent his daughter off to the family home in Guilford, Connecticut. Barlow and Baldwin became secretly engaged, a risky decision because it was a misdemeanor in Connecticut for a woman to be betrothed without her father’s consent. They married secretly in January 1781. Despite these complicated beginnings, the Barlows were happily married for thirty-one years.

During the 1780s, a group of Hartford writers, all Yale graduates, began collaborating on verse and prose works addressing various local controversies. Initially called the “Wicked Wits,” later the “Connecticut Wits,” the group included Barlow, Timothy Dwight, John Trumbull, David Humphreys, Noah Webster, and Lemuel Hopkins. Their best-known composition is a mock-heroic epic, The Anarchiad: A Poem on the Restoration of Chaos and Substantial Night (1786–1787), directed against Daniel Shays and the general political unrest that followed the Revolutionary War. From 1780 to 1783, Barlow served as chaplain for the Third Massachusetts Brigade. In 1784, he founded the American Mercury, a weekly newspaper, with Elisha Babcock. The paper enjoyed a solid reputation but was financially troubled, causing Barlow to leave a year later and open a bookstore. In 1787, after eight years of composition, The Vision of Columbus was published in nine books with over 5,000 lines of heroic couplets. It was successfully received, and Barlow enjoyed immediate celebrity. He had been admitted to the bar in 1786, but law was not to be a lasting profession, for in 1788 he set sail for Europe as an agent for the Ohio-based Scioto Land Company. The trip was to have been a short one, but Barlow and his wife (who joined him in 1790) remained abroad until 1804.

Throughout the 1790s, the Barlows became patrons of the arts and actively involved in European culture and politics. From his associations with such prominent figures as Thomas Paine, Mary Wallstonecraft, and Thomas Jefferson, Barlow became more politically liberal and even assisted in publishing Paine’s The Age of Reason (1794). The once-conservative Yale graduate began to embrace a more radicalized, anti-monarchical philosophy that forced a break from earlier colleagues, such as Dwight, who allegedly ordered Barlow’s portrait removed from Yale. In 1792, Barlow became an honorary citizen of France. While he was campaigning for a seat in the French National Assembly, he was offered a dish of cornmeal mush. The gift of this American food prompted the nostalgic, mock-heroic, The Hasty Pudding (1793). His next project was The Columbiad (1807), a revised version of The Vision of Columbus, more consonant with Barlow’s deistic beliefs and embrace of Jeffersonian republicanism.

Although Barlow supported the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror that followed caused him to leave France. In his position as U.S. consul to Algiers from 1795 to 1797, Barlow secured the release of over one hundred American seamen who had been taken hostage by pirates. He also negotiated treaties with Algiers, Tripoloi, and Tunis. In 1811, President James Madison appointed Barlow minister plenipotentiary to France and sent him to negotiate a treaty with Napoleon. Barlow wrote his final poem, Advice to a Raven in Russia, in 1812 after witnessing the horrors of Napoleon’s ill-fated Russian campaign. After Napoleon’s defeat at Moscow, Barlow’s delegation attempted to outrun pursuing Russian troops. Barlow traveled in a carriage for ten days, fifteen hours each day, in sub-zero temperatures. He died of pneumonia in Zarnowiec, Poland, near Cracow, on December 26, 1812. His body remains buried there.

Susan Clair Imbarrato
Minnesota State University–Moorhead

In the Heath Anthology
The Hasty Pudding, A Poem, in Three Cantos (1793)

Other Works
The Prospect of Peace. (1778)
The Vision of Columbus (1787)
Advice to the Privileged Orders in the Several States of Europe, Resulting from the Necessity and Propriety of a General Revolution in the Principle of Government (1792)
The Conspiracy of Kings (1792)
The Hasty Pudding (1793)
The Columbiad (1807)
Advice to a Raven in Russia (1812)

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American Literature on the Web
  Brief biography and links to available online texts.

The Reluctant Envoy
  Long essay detailing Barlow's life.

This Day in Diplomacy: Anniversary of the Release of the Algiers Hostages
  Statement by Burns of the State Department in 1996 discussing Barlow's role in Algiers history.

Secondary Sources

William C. Dowling, Poetry and Ideology in Revolutionary Connecticut, 1990

E. Elliott, Revolutionary Writers: Literature and Authority in the New Republic 1725-1810, 1982

David R. Haus, The American Poet: Joel Barlow and American Exceptionalism in the Early Republic, 1999

L. Howard, The Connecticut Wits, 1943

J.A. Leo Lemay, "The Contexts and Themes of 'The Hasty-Pudding'," Early American Literature, 17, 1982: 3-21

Carla Mulford, "Joel Barlow's Radicalism in The Conspiracy of Kings," Deism, Masonry, and the Enlightenment: Essays Honoring Alfred Owen Aldridge, ed. J.A. Leo Lemay, 1987

James Woodress, A Yankee's Odyssey: The Life of Joel Barlow, 1958

Rafia Zafar, "The Proof of the Pudding: of Haggis, Hasty Pudding and Transatlantic Influence," Early American Literature, 31, 1996: 133-149