Fred Lewis Pattee was born on his grandfather’s farm near Bristol, New Hampshire, on March 22, 1863. Pattee was the son of farmer Lewis Franklin Pattee and Mary Philbrick Ingalls. During his youth, Pattee studied at public schools in Bristol and South Alexandria, then went on to work as a printer’s assistant in Bristol until 1882. From 1882 to 1883, Pattee studied at New Hampton Institution outside Bristol, then worked as a printer and a waiter in Rhode Island until he enrolled at Dartmouth College in 1884. While at Dartmouth, he worked as a part-time teacher to help pay the cost of his degree and served as editor of the Dartmouth Literary Monthly during his senior year. Pattee graduated from Dartmouth College in 1888.
Though Pattee desired to become a journalist, his financial situation demanded that he find work teaching. For a short time in 1888, Pattee held a position at a grammar school in Eatontown, New Jersey, though poor health prevented him from teaching for an extended time at the school. In 1889, he married Anna Lura Plumer, with whom he had his only child, Sarah Lewis Pattee, born in 1895. Pattee worked intermittently as a reporter, high school principal, and academy principal from 1889 to 1894, and published some of his earliest works at this time. Pattee’s The Wine of May, and Other Lyrics was printed in 1893. In 1894, Pattee filled in for the sole member and department head of the English Department at the Pennsylvania State College (now the Pennsylvania State University) as an Assistant Professor, and later earned a promotion to Full Professor in 1895.
Pattee’s publications at this time included the 1896 article “Is There an American Literature?” that appeared in the Chicago journal Dial, as well as textbooks and historical works aimed to improve education in American literature. Specifically, Pattee aimed to establish American literature as a field worthy of study in its own right, not just as a subset of the well-established British literature. He published his best-known work, A History of American Literature Since 1870, in 1915. In its Preface, Pattee argued: