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

Timothy Dwight

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.

Dwight’s published 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 1815.

Dwight’s Greenfield 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.

Susan Clair Imbarrato
Minnesota State University–Moorhead

In the Heath Anthology
Greenfield Hill
      from Part IV: The Destruction of the Pequods (1794)
      Part II: The Flourishing Village (1794)

Other Works

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Poet's Corner
  Dwight's poem The Smooth Divine.

Timothy Dwight: An Annotated Bibliography
  A brief, but helpful list of secondary research materials.

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

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