American Literature Essays And Opinions

American Literature Essays And Opinions-47
During this first phase of national self-consciousness, there arose a corollary critique of those few New World writers, such as Washington Irving, who had achieved international recognition by copying Old World models – writers who, according to belligerent democrats like Walt Whitman, imitated authors who “had their birth in courts” and “smelled of princes’ favors.” These outbursts of nascent cultural pride tended to take the form of shouts and slurs (Whitman spoke sneeringly of “the copious dribble” of poets he deemed less genuinely American than himself ) rather than reasoned debate.They were analogous to, and sometimes part of, the nasty quarrels between Democrats and Whigs in which the former accused the latter of being British-loving sycophants, and the latter accused the former of being demagogues and cheats.Once its legitimacy had been established, though, professors of American literature settled into defending the virtues of the (mainly New England) ancients against what Boyesen had called the “alien hordes.” In his (1900), Barrett Wendell, of Harvard, devoted virtually all of its first 450 pages to New England writers, followed by a closing chapter entitled “The Rest of the Story.” In a preface to his new anthology of American literature (1901), Brander Matthews, Columbia’s specialist in dramatic literature, followed Johann Gottfried Herder and Hipployte Taine in insisting that a national literature must be understood as the expression of the “race-characteristics” of the people who produce it. [as he] conceived of himself as a sort of morose and sardonic divinity surveying from some superior altitude an immeasurable expanse of “boobs.” Yet even as it served social ends, the study of American literature remained a secondary or even tertiary (after classics and English) part of the program for making boys into gentlemen.

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It has failed above all to carry over in some modern and critical form the truth of a dogma that unfortunately received much support from these facts – the dogma of original sin. It is an unfortunate word for various reasons, not least because it obscures the fact that for many years after their subject achieved academic acceptance, Americanists were among the least professionalized of professors.

Especially at a time when English departments still devoted themselves mostly to philological research and to the recovery of reliable texts, the field of American literary studies was something of a misfit.

Here was the literary equivalent of the ‘Teutonic germ theory’ of American history: the idea that democratic ideas and institutions had germinated in the German forests, from which restless tribes carried them to England, where they sprouted again (against the resistance of the Celtic ancestors of the modern Irish) and from which Puritan emigrants eventually transplanted them to the New World. As late as the 1950s, Harvard graduate students in English could propose American literature as a doctoral examination field only as a substitute for medieval literature, which was coming to seem arcane and archaic, even to traditionalists.

Seen as a branch of this kind of race thinking, the academic study of American literature arose, at least in part, as a defensive maneuver by Anglophile gentlemen who felt their country slipping out of their control into the hands of inferiors. With the continued decline of philology and of Latin and Greek as college pre- requisites in the 1930s and 1940s, the study of American literature finally attained a certain academic respectability.

While a professor at the University of Michigan, he wrote the first serious history of colonial American writing, (1878), based on close study of virtually all published primary texts.

In 1881, Tyler moved to Cornell, where he assumed the first university chair devoted wholly to American literature and produced his (1897).Perhaps the only disinterested critic still worth reading from this period is John Jay Chapman (1862–1933), whose work belongs to the genre of the moral essay in the tradition of Hazlitt and Arnold.But even such minor novelists as the Norwegian-born H. Boyesen (1848–1895) contributed occasional criticism that helped to enlarge the literary horizon.It is worth noting that Tyler began teaching at a midwestern state university and concluded his career at the quasi-public Cornell, founded in 1865 with a combination of private benefactions and public subsidies.Older, more tradition-bound private institutions such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, all of which originated in the colonial period as seminaries allied with one or another Protestant denomination, embraced American writing as a plausible field of study more slowly.Literary versions of these political disputes played themselves out in the pages of such journals as (Richmond) – magazines that sometimes attained high literary quality (in 1855, Thackeray called Putnam’s “much the best Mag. Most contributors to these magazines had nothing to do with academic life, such as it was in the antebellum United States.The literary cadres to which they belonged developed first in Boston; slightly later in New York; and, more modestly, in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Richmond, and Charleston.In Boyesen’s slight book of 1893, , for example, he approved such now-forgotten writers as Edgar Fawcett and H. Bunner for portraying “the physiognomy of New York – the Bowery, Great Jones Street, and all the labyrinthine tangle of malodorous streets and lanes, inhabited by the tribes of Israel, the swarthy Italian, the wily Chinaman, and all the other alien hordes from all the corners of the earth.” Novelist-critics like Boyesen and James Gibbons Huneker (1860–1921), an advocate of impressionism in painting and music, were among many who tried, with a mixture of anxiety and approval, to come to terms with the impact of modernity on American life.Their critical writing, like their fiction, was more descriptive than prescriptive, more inquiring than inquisitorial – and therefore incipiently modern.The author who emerged in the twentieth century as the central figure of nineteenth-century American literature, Herman Melville, was championed mainly by critics working outside the academy, such as Lewis Mumford, Charles Olson, and, in Britain, D. Probably the most significant body of American critical writing to date is that of a novelist, Henry James, in the prefaces to the New York edition (1907–1909) of his fiction as well as in his considerable body of literary journalism.“The Art of Fiction” (1888) – James’s riposte to the English critic Walter Besant’s prescriptive essay about the Do’s and Don’ts of fiction-writing – still has tonic power for young writers who feel hampered by prevailing norms and taste. The old Puritan moral sense, the consciousness of sin and hell, of the fearful nature of our responsibilities and the savage character of our Taskmaster – these things had been lodged in the mind of a man of Fancy, whose fancy had straightway begun to take liberties and play tricks with them – to judge them (Heaven forgive him!


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