What is this American Literature?
The Search for an American Voice

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From the late eighteenth century through the nineteenth century, Americans anxiously awaited the emergence of a distinctive national literature and "great" American writers. Fearing that American literature would always imitate or be considered inferior to the literary productions of Europe and particularly England, artists and critics often spoke out on the characteristics they believed did or should define American literature. Paradoxically, some of those who argued most strongly about the need for great American writers to appear on the scene have come to be regarded as some of our greatest authors.Below you will have the chance to hear just a few of the voices that have taken part in the long conversation on American literature.

Although this debate reached a peak of intensity in the late nineteenth century and there are few who would now suggest that America lacks great writers, Americans continue to ponder the question of how to identify those works that should be regarded as essential elements in the canon of American literature. For more on that subject, see What is this American Literary Canon?


Thomas Paine

Excerpt from "The Magazine in America," the Pennsylvania Magazine, January 24, 1775

In a country whose reigning character is the love of science, it is somewhat strange that the channels of communication should continue so narrow and limited. The weekly papers are at present the only vehicles of public information. Convenience and necessity prove that the opportunities of acquiring and communicating knowledge ought always to inlarge with the circle of population. America has now outgrown the state of infancy: her strength and commerce make large advances to manhood; and science in all its branches has not only blossomed, but even ripened on the soil. The cottages as it were of yesterday have grown to villages, and the villages to cities; and while proud antiquity, like a skeleton in rags, parades the streets of other nations, their genius, as if sickened and disgusted with the phantom, comes hither for recovery. The present enlarged and improved state of things gives every encouragement which the editor of a New Magazine can reasonably hope for. Change of times adds propriety to new measures. In the early days of colonization, when a whisper was almost sufficient to have negotiated all our internal concerns, the publishing even of a newspaper would have been premature. those times are past; and population has established both their use and their credit. but their plan being almost wholly devoted to news and commerce, affords but a scanty resident to the Muses. Their path lies wide of the field of science, and has left a rich and unexplored region for new adventurers...

America yet inherits a large portion of her first-imported virtue. Degeneracy is here almost a useless word. Those who are conversant with Europe would be tempted to believe that even the air of the Atlantic disagrees with the constitution of foreign vices; if they survive the voyage, they either expire on their arrival, or linger away in an incurable consumption. There is a happy something in the climate of America, which disarms them of all their power both of infection and attraction. But while we give no encouragement to the importation of foreign vices, we ought to be equally as careful not to create any. A vice begotten might be worse than a vice imported. The latter, depending on favour, would be a sycophant; the other, by pride of birth, would be a tyrant: To the one we should be dupes, to the other slaves. There is nothing which obtains so general an influence over the manners and moral of a people as the Press; from that, as from a fountain, the streams of vice or virtue are poured forth over a country: And of all publications, none are more calculated to improve or infect than a periodical one. All others have their rise and their exit: but this renew the pursuit. If it has an evil tendency, it debauches by the power of repetition; if a good one, it obtains favor by the gracefulness of soliciting it. Like a lover, it woods its mistress with unabated ardor, nor gives up the pursuit without a conquest....

A magazine can never want matter in America, if the inhabitants will do justice to their own abilities., Agriculture and manufactures owe much of the improvement in England, to hints first thrown out in some of their magazines. Gentlemen who abilities enabled them to make experiments, frequently chose that method of communication, on account of its convenience,. And who should not the same spirit operate in America? I have to doubt of seeing, in a little time, an American magazine full of more useful matter than I never saw an English one: Because we are not exceeded in abilities, have a more extensive field for enquiry; and, whatever may be out political state, Our happiness will always depend upon ourselves. Something useful will always arise from exercising the invention, though perhaps, like the witch of Endor, we shall raise up a being we did not expect. We owe many of our noblest discoveries more to accident than wisdom. In quest of a pebble we have found a diamond, and returned enriched with the treasure. Such happy accidents give additional encouragement to the making experiments; and the convenience which a magazine affords of collecting and conveying them to the public, enhances their utility. Where this opportunity is wanting, many little inventions, the forerunners of improvement, are suffered to expire on the spot that produced them; and, as an elegant writer beautifully expresses on another occasions,

 

Herman Melville

Excerpts from "Hawthorne and his Mosses," The Literary World, August 17 and 24, 1850

For spite of all the Indian-summer sunlight on the hither side of Hawthorne's soul, the other side--like the dark half of the physical sphere--is shrouded in a blackness, ten times black. But this darkness but gives more effect to the evermoving dawn, that forever advances through it, and cirumnavigates his world. Whether Hawthorne has simply availed himself of this mystical blackness as a means to the wondrous effects he makes it to produce in his lights and shades; or whether there really lurks in him, perhaps unknown to himself, a touch of Puritanic gloom,--this, I cannot altogether tell. Certain it is, however, that this great power of blackness in him derives its force from its appeals to that Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free. For, in certain moods, no man can weigh this world, without throwing in something, somehow like Original Sin, to strike the uneven balance. At all events, perhaps no writer has ever wielded this terrific thought with greater terror than this same harmless Hawthorne. Still more: this black conceit pervades him, through and through. You may be witched by his sunlight,--transported by the bright gildings in the skies he builds over you;--but there is the blackness of darkness beyond; and even his bright gildings but fringe, and play upon the edges of thunder-clouds.--In one word, the world is mistaken in this Nathaniel Hawthorne. He himself must often have smiled at its absurd misconceptions of him. He is immeasurably deeper than the plummet of the mere critic. For it is not the brain that can test such a man; it is only the heart. You cannot come to know greatness by inspecting it; there is no glimpse to be caught of it, except by intuition; you need not ring it, you but touch it, and you find it is gold.

Now it is that blackness in Hawthorne, of which I have spoken, that so fixes and fascinates me. It may be, nevertheless, that it is too largely developed in him. Perhaps he does not give us a ray of his light for every shade of his dark. But however this may be, this blackness it is that furnishes the infinite obscure of his background,--that background, against which Shakespeare plays his grandest conceits, the things that have made for Shakespeare his loftiest, but most circumscribed renown, as the profoundest of thinkers....

Now, I do not say that Nathaniel of Salem is a greater than William of Avon, or as great. But the difference between the two men is by no means immeasurable. Not a very great deal more, and Nathaniel were verily William....

Let America then prize and cherish her writers, yea, let her glorify them. They are not so many in number, as to exhaust her good-will. And while she has good kith and kin of her own, to take to her bosom, let her not lavish her embraces upon the household of an alien. For believe it or not England, after all, is, in many things, an alien to us. China has more bowels of real love for us than she. But even were there no strong literary individualities among us, as there are some dozen at least, nevertheless, let America first praise mediocrity even, in her own children, before she praises (for everywhere, merit demands acknowledgment from every one) the best excellence in the children of any other land. Let her own authors, I say, have the priority of appreciation. I was very much pleased with a hot-headed Carolina cousin of mine, who once said,--"If there were no other American to stand by, in Literature,--why, then, I would stand by Pop Emmons and his 'Fredoniad,' and till a better epic came along, swear it was not very far behind the 'Iliad'." Take away the words, and in spirit he was sound.

Not that American genius needs patronage in order to expand. For that explosive sort of stuff will expand though screwed up in a vice, and burst it, though it were triple steel. It is for the nation's sake, and not for her authors' sake, that I would have America be heedful of the increasing greatness among her writers. For how great the shame, if other nations should be before her, in crowning her heroes of the pen. But this is almost the case now. American authors have received more just and discriminating praise (however loftily and ridiculously given, in certain cases) even from some Englishmen, than from their own countrymen. There are hardly five critics in America, and several of them are asleep. As for patronage, it is the American author who now patronizes the country, and not his country him. And if at times some among them appeal to the people for more recognition, it is not always with selfish motives, but patriotic ones.

It is true, that but few of them as yet have evinced that decided originality which merits great praise. But that graceful writer, who perhaps of all Americans has received the most plaudits from his own country for his productions,--that very popular and amiable writer, however good, and self-reliant in many things, perhaps owes his chief reputation to the self-acknowledged imitation of a foreign model, and to the studied avoidance of all topics but smooth ones. But it is better to fail in originality, than to succeed in imitation. He who has never failed somewhere, that man can not be great. Failure is the true test of greatness. And if it be said, that continual success is a proof that a man wisely knows his powers,--it is only to be added, that, in that case, he knows them to be small. Let us believe it, then, once for all, that there is no hope for us in these smooth pleasing writers that know their powers. Without malice, but to speak the plain fact, they but furnish an appendix to Goldsmith, and other English authors. And we want no American Goldsmiths, nay, we want no American Miltons. It were the vilest thing you could say of a true American author, that he were an American Tompkins. Call him an American, and have done, for you can not say a nobler thing of him.--But it is not meant that all American writers should studiously cleave to nationality in their writings; only this, no American writer should write like an Englishman, or a Frenchman; let him write like a man, for then he will be sure to write like an American. Let us away with this leaven of literary flunkyism towards England. If either we must play the flunky in this thing, let England do it, not us. While we are rapidly preparing for that political supremacy among the nations, which prophetically awaits us at the close of the present century; in a literary point of view, we are deplorably unprepared for it; and we seem studious to remain so. Hitherto, reasons might have existed why this should be; but no good reason exists now. And all that is requisite to amendment in this matter, is simply this: that, while freely acknowledging all excellence, everywhere, we should refrain from unduly lauding foreign writers, and, at the same time, duly recognize the meritorious writers that are our own,--those writers, who breathe that unshackled, democratic spirit of Christianity in all things, which now takes the practical lead in the world, though at the same time led by ourselves--us Americans. Let us boldly contemn all imitation, though it comes to us graceful and fragrant as the morning; and foster all originality, though, at first, it be crabbed and ugly as our own pine knots. And if any of our authors fail, or seem to fail, then, in the words of my enthusiastic Carolina cousin, let us clap him on the shoulder, and back him against all Europe for his second round. The truth is, that in our point of view, this matter of a national literature has come to such a pass with us, that in some sense we must turn bullies, else the day is lost, or superiority so far beyond us, that we can hardly say it will ever be ours.

And now, my countrymen, as an excellent author, of your own flesh and blood,--an unimitating, and perhaps, in his way, an inimitable man--whom better can I commend to you, in the first place, than Nathaniel Hawthorne. He is one of the new, and far better generation of your writer. The smell of your beeches and hemlocks is upon him; your own broad prairies are in his soul; and if you travel away inland into his deep and noble nature, you will hear the far roar of his Niagara. Give not over to future generations the glad duty of acknowledging him for what he is. Take that joy to yourself, in your own generation; and so shall he feel those grateful impulses in him, that may possibly prompt him to the full flower of some still greater achievement in your eyes. And by confessing him, you thereby confess others, you brace the whole brotherhood. For genius, all over the world, stands hand in hand, and one shock of recognition runs the whole circle round.

 

Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

Excerpts from "Democratic Vistas," 1871

But in the region of imaginative, spinal and essential attributes, something equivalent to creation is, for our age and lands, imperatively demanded. For not only is it not enough that the new blood, new frame of democracy shall be vivified and held together merely by political means, superficial suffrage, legislation, &c., but it is clear to me that, unless it goes deeper, gets at least as firm and as warm a hold in men's hearts, emotions and belief, as, in their days, feudalism or ecclesiasticism, and inaugurates its own perennial sources, welling from the centre forever, its strength will be defective, its growth doubtful, and its main charm wanting. I suggest, therefore, the possibility, should some two or three really original American poets, (perhaps artists or lecturers,) arise, mounting the horizon like planets, stars of the first magnitude, that, from their eminence, fusing contributions, races, far localities, &c., together they would give more compaction and more moral identity, (the quality to-day most needed,) to these States, than all its Constitutions, legislative and judicial ties, and all its hitherto political, warlike, or materialistic experiences.... For, I say, the true nationality of the States, the genuine union, when we come to a mortal crisis, is, and is to be, after all, neither the written law, nor, (as is generally supposed,) either self-interest, or common pecuniary or material objects -- but the fervid and tremendous IDEA, melting everything else with resistless heat, and solving all lesser and definite distinctions in vast, indefinite, spiritual, emotional power.

It may be claim'd, (and I admit the weight of the claim,) that common and general worldly prosperity, and a populace well-to-do, and with all life's material comforts, is the main thing, and is enough. It may be argued that our republic is, in performance, really enacting to-day the grandest arts, poems, &c., by beating up the wilderness into fertile farms, and in her railroads, ships, machinery, &c. And it may be ask'd, Are these not better, indeed, for America, than any utterances even of greatest rhapsode, artist, or literatus?

I too hail those achievements with pride and joy: then answer that the soul of man will not with such only -- nay, not with such at all -- be finally satisfied; but needs what, (standing on these and on all things, as the feet stand on the ground,) is address'd to the loftiest, to itself alone.

Out of such considerations, such truths, arises for treatment in these Vistas the important question of character, of an American stock-personality, with literatures and arts for outlets and return-expressions, and, of course, to correspond, within outlines common to all. To these, the main affair, the thinkers of the United States, in general so acute, have either given feeblest attention, or have remain'd, and remain, in a state of somnolence.

For my part, I would alarm and caution even the political and business reader, and to the utmost extent, against the prevailing delusion that the establishment of free political institutions, and plentiful intellectual smartness, with general good order, physical plenty, industry, &c., (desirable and precious advantages as they all are,) do, of themselves, determine and yield to our experiment of democracy the fruitage of success. With such advantages at present fully, or almost fully, possess'd -- the Union just issued, victorious, from the struggle with the only foes it need ever fear, (namely, those within itself, the interior ones,) and with unprecedented materialistic advancement -- society, in these States, is canker'd, crude, superstitious, and rotten. Political, or law-made society is, and private, or voluntary society, is also. In any vigor, the element of the moral conscience, the most important, the verteber to State or man, seems to me either entirely lacking, or seriously enfeebled or ungrown.

I say we had best look our times and lands searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease. Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us. The underlying principles of the States are not honestly believ'd in, (for all this hectic glow, and these melodramatic screamings,) nor is humanity itself believ'd in. What penetrating eye does not everywhere see through the mask? The spectacle is appaling. We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout. The men believe not in the women, nor the women in the men. A scornful superciliousness rules in literature. The aim of all the littérateurs is to find something to make fun of. A lot of churches, sects, &c., the most dismal phantasms I know, usurp the name of religion. Conversation is a mass of badinage. From deceit in the spirit, the mother of all false deeds, the offspring is already incalculable. An acute and candid person, in the revenue department in Washington, who is led by the course of his employment to regularly visit the cities, north, south and west, to investigate frauds, has talk'd much with me about his discoveries. The depravity of the business classes of our country is not less than has been supposed, but infinitely greater. The official services of America, national, state, and municipal, in all their branches and departments, except the judiciary, are saturated in corruption, bribery, falsehood, mal-administration; and the judiciary is tainted. The great cities reek with respectable as much as non-respectable robbery and scoundrelism. In fashionable life, flippancy, tepid amours, weak infidelism, small aims, or no aims at all, only to kill time. In business, (this all-devouring modern word, business,) the one sole object is, by any means, pecuniary gain. The magician's serpent in the fable ate up all the other serpents; and money-making is our magician's serpent, remaining to-day sole master of the field....

Of all this, and these lamentable conditions, to breathe into them the breath recuperative of sane and heroic life, I say a new founded literature, not merely to copy and reflect existing surfaces, or pander to what is called taste -- not only to amuse, pass away time, celebrate the beautiful, the refined, the past, or exhibit technical, rhythmic, or grammatical dexterity -- but a literature underlying life, religious, consistent with science, handling the elements and forces with competent power, teaching and training men -- and, as perhaps the most precious of its results, achieving the entire redemption of woman out of these incredible holds and webs of silliness, millinery, and every kind of dyspeptic depletion -- and thus insuring to the States a strong and sweet Female Race, a race of perfect Mothers -- is what is needed.

And now, in the full conception of these facts and points, and all that they infer, pro and con -- with yet unshaken faith in the elements of the American masses, the composites, of both sexes, and even consider'd as individuals -- and ever recognizing in them the broadest bases of the best literary and esthetic appreciation -- I proceed with my speculations, Vistas.

First, let us see what we can make out of a brief, general, sentimental consideration of political democracy, and whence it has arisen, with regard to some of its current features, as an aggregate, and as the basic structure of our future literature and authorship. We shall, it is true, quickly and continually find the origin-idea of the singleness of man, individualism, asserting itself, and cropping forth, even from the opposite ideas. But the mass, or lump character, for imperative reasons, is to be ever carefully weigh'd, borne in mind, and provided for. Only from it, and from its proper regulation and potency, comes the other, comes the chance of individualism. The two are contradictory, but our task is to reconcile them. *

* The question hinted here is one which time only can answer. Must not the virtue of modern Individualism, continually enlarging, usurping all, seriously affect, perhaps keep down entirely, in America, the like of the ancient virtue of Patriotism, the fervid and absorbing love of general country? I have no doubt myself that the two will merge, and will mutually profit and brace each other, and that from them a greater product, a third, will arise. But I feel that at present they and their oppositions form a serious problem and paradox in the United States

***

There are still other standards, suggestions, for products of high literatuses. That which really balances and conserves the social and political world is not so much legislation, police, treaties, and dread of punishment, as the latent eternal intuitional sense, in humanity, of fairness, manliness, decorum, &c. Indeed, this perennial regulation, control, and oversight, by self-suppliance, is sine qua non to democracy; and a highest widest aim of democratic literature may well be to bring forth, cultivate, brace, and strengthen this sense, in individuals and society. A strong mastership of the general inferior self by the superior self, is to be aided, secured, indirectly, but surely, by the literatus, in his works, shaping, for individual or aggregate democracy, a great passionate body, in and along with which goes a great masterful spirit.

And still, providing for contingencies, I fain confront the fact, the need of powerful native philosophs and orators and bards, these States, as rallying points to come, in times of danger, and to fend off ruin and defection. For history is long, long, long. Shift and turn the combinations of the statement as we may, the problem of the future of America is in certain respects as dark as it is vast. Pride, competition, segregation, vicious wilfulness, and license beyond example, brood already upon us. Unwieldy and immense, who shall hold in behemoth? who bridle leviathan? Flaunt it as we choose, athwart and over the roads of our progress loom huge uncertainty, and dreadful, threatening gloom. It is useless to deny it: Democracy grows rankly up the thickest, noxious, deadliest plants and fruits of all -- brings worse and worse invaders -- needs newer, larger, stronger, keener compensations and compellers.

Our lands, embracing so much, (embracing indeed the whole, rejecting none,) hold in their breast that flame also, capable of consuming themselves, consuming us all. Short as the span of our national life has been, already have death and downfall crowded close upon us -- and will again crowd close, no doubt, even if warded off. Ages to come may never know, but I know, how narrowly during the late secession war -- and more than once, and more than twice or thrice -- our Nationality, (wherein bound up, as in a ship in a storm, depended, and yet depend, all our best life, all hope, all value,) just grazed, just by a hair escaped destruction. Alas! to think of them! the agony and bloody sweat of certain of those hours! those cruel, sharp, suspended crises!

Henry James (1843-1916)

Excerpts from Vol. 1 of The Letters of Henry James, Percy Lubbock, ed. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1920.

Willy asked me in one of his recent letters for an 'opinion ' of the English, which I haven't yet had time to give--tho' at times I have felt as if it were a theme on which I could write from a full mind. In fact, however, I have very little right to have any opinion on the matter. I've seen far too few specimens and those too superficially. The only thing I'm certain about is that I like them--like them heartily. W. asked if as individuals they 'kill' the individual American. To this I would say that the Englishmen I have met not only kill, but bury in unfathomable depths, the Americans I have met. A set of people less framed to provoke national self-complacency than the latter it would be hard to imagine. There is but one word to use in regard to them--vulgar, vulgar, vulgar. Their ignorance--their stingy, defiant, gruding attitude towards everything European--their perpetual reference of all things to some American standard or precedent which exists only in their own unscrupulous wind-bags--and then our unhappy poverty of voice, of speech and of physiognomy--these things glare at you hideously. On the other hand, we seem a people of character, we seem to have energy capacity and intellectual stuff in ample measure. What I have pointed at as our vices are the elements of the modern man with culture quite left out. It's the absolute and incredible lack of culture that strikes you in common travelling Americans. Letter to his mother, Florence, October 13, 1869, Vol. 1, p. 22

Looking about for myself, I conclude that the face of nature and civilization in this our country is to a certain point a very sufficient literary field. But it will yield its secrets only to a really grasping imagination.... ) Bto write well and worthily of American things one need even more than elsewhere to be a master. But unfortunately one is less! . . . But I confess there are now, to my mind, few things of ore appealing interest than the various problems with which England finds herself confronted: and this is owing to the fact that, on the whole, the country is so deeply--so tragicallly--charged with a consciousness of her responsibilities, dangers and duties. She presents in this respect a wondrous contrast to ourseves. We, retarding our healthy progress by all the gross weight of our maniac contempt of the refined idea: England striving vainly to compel her lumbersome carcase by the straining wings of conscience and desire. Of course I speak of the better spirits there and the worst here. . . . We have over here the high natural light of chance and space and prosperity; but at moments dark things seem to be almost more blessed by the dimmer radiance shed by impassioned thought. . . . Letter to Charles Eliot Norton, Cambridge, (Mass.), Jan 16, 1971, vol. 1, pp. 30-31

But pity our poor bare country and don't revile. England and Italy, with their countelss helps to life and pleasure, are the lands for happiness and self-oblivion. It would seem that in our great unendowed, unfurnished, unentertained and unentertaining continent, where we all sit sniffing, as it were, the very earth of our foundations, we ought to have leisure to turn out something handsome from the very heart of simple human nature. Letter to Miss Grace Norton, Florence, Jan 14th, 1874, vo. 1., p. 37

 

William Dean Howells (1837–1920)

Excerpts from "Dostoyevsky and the More Smiling Aspects of Life." Harper's 73 (1886): 641-42.

EDITOR’S STUDY. 641 II. The reader of such a story will hardly be satisfied without knowing something of the author~and in an article of the Revue des Duex Mondes for January 15, 1885, M. Eugene Melchoir de Vogue will tell him the hardly less tragical story of Dostolevsky’s own litb. It seems that he was born at Moscow, in a charity hospital, in 1821, and to the day of his death he struggled with poverty, injustice, and disease. His first book, Poor People, which won him reputation and the hope of better things, was followed within a few years by his arrest for Socialism. He was not real ly concerned in Socialism, except through his friendship for some of the Socialists, but he was imprisoned with them, and after eight months of solitude in the casenmate of a fortress—solitude unrelieved by the sight of a friendly human face, or a book, or a pen—he was led out to receive his sentence. All the prisoners had been condenmed to death; the muskets were loaded in their presence, and levelled at their breasts; then the muzzles were struck up, and the Czar’s commutation of their sentence was read. They were sent to Siberia, where .Dostolevsky spent six years at hard labor. There he made his studies among the prisoners for his book The Humiliated and the Wronged, which the French have now translated with The Crime and the Punishment. At the end of this time he returned to St. Petersburg, famous, beloved, adored, to continue his struggle with poverty and disease. The struggle was long, for he died only five years ago, when his body was followed to the grave by such a mighty concourse of all manner of people as never assembled at the funeral of any author before; “Priests chant ing prayers; the students of the universities; the children of the schools; the young girl medical students; the Nihilists, distinguishable by their eccentricities of costume and bearing—the men with their shawls, and the women with their spectacles and close-clipped hair; all the literary and scientific societies; deputations from all parts of the empire—old Muscovite merchants, peasants, servants, beggars; in the church waited the official dignittaries, the Minister of Public Instruction, and the young princes of the imperial family. A forest of banners, of crosses, and of crowns waved over this army in its march ; and while these different fragments of Russia passed, you could distinguish the gentle and sinister faces, tears, prayers, sneers, and silences, tranquil or fero- cious... . What passed was the spectacle of this man’s own work, formidable and disquieting, with its weakness and its grandeur; in the first rank, without doubt, and the most numerous, his favorite clients, the Poor People, The Humiliated and the Wronqed, even The Bedeviled”—these are all titles of his books wretched beings happy to have their day, and to bear their defender on the path of glory, but with them and enveloping them all that uncertainty and confusion of the national life such as he has painted it, all the vague hopes that lie had roused in all. As the czars of old were said to gather together the Russian eaith, this royal spirit had assembled the Russian soul.”

III.

M. Vogue writes with perhaps too breathless a fervor, but his article is valuable for the light it casts upon the origins of Dostoyevsky’s work, and its inspirations and motives. It was the natural expression of such a life and such conditions. But it is useful to observe that while The Crime and the Punishment may be read with the deepest sympathy and interest, and may enforce with unique power the lessons which it teaches, it is to be praised only in its place, and its message is to be received with allowances by readers exterior to the social and political circumstances in which it was conceived. It used to be one of the disadvantages of the practice of romance in America, which Hawthorne more or less whimsically lamented. that there were so few shadows and inequalities in our broad level of prosperity; and it is one of the reflections suggested by Dostoievsky’s book that whoever struck a note so profoundly tragic in American fiction would do a false and mistaken thiing—as false and as mistaken in its way as dealing in American fiction with certain nudities which the Latin peoples seem to find edifying. Whatever their deserts, very few American novelists have been led out to be shot. or finally exiled to the rigors of a wintter at Duluth one might make Herr Most the hero of a labor-question romance with perfect impunity; and in a land where journeymen carpenters and plumbers strike for four dollars a day the sum of hunger and cold is certainly very small, and the wrong from class to class is almimost inappreciable. We invite our novelists, therefore, to concern themselves with the more smiling aspects of life, which are the more American, and to seek the universal in the individual rather than the social interests. It is worth while, even at the risk of being called commonplace, to be true to our well-to-do actualities; the very passions themselves seem to be softened and modified by conditions which cannot be said to wrong any one, to cramp endeavor, or to cross lawful desire. Sin and suffering and shame there must always be in the world, we suppose, but we believe that in this new world of ous it is mainly from one to another one, and oftener still from one to one’s self. We have death too in America, and a great deal of disagreeable and painful disease, which the multiplicity of our patent medicines dloes not seem to cure; but this is tragedy that comes in the very nature of things, and is not peculiarly American, as the large, cheerful average of health and success and happy life is. It will not do to boast, but it is well to be true to the facts, and to see that, apart from these purely mortal troubles, the race here enjoys conditions in which most of the ills that have darkened its annals may be averted by honest work and unselfish behavior. It is only now and then, when some dark shadow of our shameful past appears, that we can believe there ever was a tragic element in our prosperity. Even then, when we read such an artlessly impressive sketch as Mrs. Sarah Bradford writes of Harriet Tubman— once famous as the Moses of her people—the self-freed bondwoman who led three hundred of her brethren out of slavery, and with a price set upon her head, risked her life and liberty nineteen times in this cause; even thea it affects us like a tale

“Of old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago,’ and nothing within the date of actual history.

We cannot realize that most of the men and women now living were once commanded by the law of the land to turn and hunt such fugitives back into slavery, and to deliver such an outlaw as Harriet over to her owner; that those who abetted such outlaws were sometimes mulcted to the last dollar of their substance in fines. We can hardly imagine such things now for the purposes of fiction; all troubles that now hurt and threaten us are as crumpled rose leaves in our couch. But we may nevertheless read Dostoievsky, and especially our novelists may read him, to advantage, for in spite of his terrible picture of a soul’s agony he is hopeful and wholesome, and teaches in every page patience, merciful judgment, hum ble helpfulness, and that brotherly responsibility, that duty of man to man, from which not even the Americans are emancipated.

 

James Baldwin (1924-87)

Excerpts from "The Discovery of What it Means to Be an American," The New York Times Book Review, January 25, 1959. (This was later reprinted in Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son.)

The charge has often been made against Amerian writers that they do not describe society, and have no interest in it. They only describe individuals in opposition to it, or isolated from it. Of course, what the American writer is desribing is his own situation. But what is Anna Karenina deescribing if not the tragic fate of the isolated individual, at odds with her time and place?

The real difference is that Tolstoy was describing an old and dense society in which everything seemed -- to the people in it, though not to Tolstoy -- to be fixed forever. And the book is a masterpiece because Tolstoy was able to fathom, and make us see, the hidden laws which really governed this society and made Ana's doom inevitable.

American writers do not have a fixed society to describe. The only society they know is one in which nothing is fixed and in which the individual must fight for his identity. This is a rich confusion, indeed, and it creates for the American writer uprecedented opportunities.

That the tensions of American life, as well as the possibilities, are tremendous is certainly not even a question. But these are dealt with in contemporary literature mainly compulsively, that is, the book is more likely to be a symptom of our tension than an examination of it. The time has come, God knows, for us to examine ourselves, but we can only do this if we are willing to free ourselves of the myth of Ameria and try to find out what is really happening here.

"Autobiographical Notes" Collected Essays, 1998

About my own interests: I don't know if I have any....I love to eat and drink--it's my melancholy conviction that I've scarcely ever had enough to eat (this is because it's impossible to eat enough if you're worried about the next meal)--and I love to argue with people who do ot disagree with me too profoundly, and I love to laugh. I do not like bohemia, or bohemians, I do not like people whose principal aim is pleasure, and I do not like people who are earnest about anything. I don't like people who like me because I am a Negro; neither do I like people who find in the same accident grounds for contempt. I love America more than any other countr in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticizew her perpetually. I think all theories are suspect, that the finest principles may have to be modified, or may even be pulverized by the demands of life, and that one must find, threfore, one's own moral center and move through the world hoping that this center will guide one aright. I consider that I have many responsibilities, but none greater than this: to last, as Hemingway says, and get my work done.

I want to be an honest man and a good writer.

 

Bharati Mukherjee

Excerpt from "On Being an American Writer"

We, American writers, are criticized for being concerned with little more than agonizing over questions of identity. And when our novels do address forms of suffering, we are accused of acting out oppression-envy. Authors and readers from countries where a book can result in the author's imprisonment or exile demand how the over-privileged can speak with authority on poverty, injustice, and corruption. What do American writers know of oppression from tradition, from family, religion, the state, and foreign invasion? Americans can settle injustice in a lawsuit. We can escape domestic brutality with a divorce. We can vote the rascals out of office. We can buy state-of-the-art medication to relieve our anxieties and enhance our self-worth.

Even the partially sympathetic critic from Latin America or post-colonial countries -- the critic who doesn't expect a Marquez or a Solzhenitsyn to pop up from our shopping malls, who doesn't scorn the U.S. publishing industry's obsession with mega-dollar advances and circus-like book tours -- is heard asking, "America, where are your concerned writers with stricken conscience?" Aren't you ashamed that you have no equivalents of post-War Germans like Grass and Böll, white South Africans like Gordimer and Coetzee, Israelis like Grossman and Oz, and those marvelous Australians like Malouf and Keneally? (The short answer is we have many, and for the most part, the weight of social and historic injustice has fallen upon them personally, and asymmetrically. The longer answer is, look under the bland, well-tended surface. The mini-acreage of disenchantment might hide a mother-lode of injustice.)

In other words, what have you, as a writer, done for societies lacking democratic institutions and traditions, a loyal opposition, a free press and independent judiciary and an honest civil service? As a fiction writer, what responsibilities do you feel for countries that have been oppressed by colonial powers, war, pestilence, religious and tribal intolerance, corrupt police, judges, politicians and journalists, and for societies that are overcrowded, undereducated, unsanitary, and psychologically wounded? The answer to that is: very little. As an essayist, as a concerned citizen, as a world-traveler, I'm well aware of my country's influence in the world for good and evil. I acknowledge the long history of American involvement and encouragement of global forces that often result in widespread devastation (or silence and active discouragement which have the same effect), and try to speak, act and vote accordingly. In countries that have no reliable instruments of redress, writers are often pressed into service as the first witness, or last resort. But in liberal democracies with well-established institutions, fiction writers can afford a modicum of vigilant trust, freeing themselves to celebrate the impacted glories of individual consciousness. That's why Joyce and Proust and Woolf and Borges and Nabokov never got the Nobel Prize. Probably it's why Vargas Llosa and Kundera and Oates and Updike and Roth will wait in vain.

It's not that we're navel-gazing cowards or lacking in conscience; writers are, with some exceptions, a like-minded tribe. On the international level, I've found serious writers to be universally skeptical of authority, ironic, and sympathetic to the lost and baffled. They feast on incongruity and absurdity, they're quick to appreciate another's work and to recognize the different forces that shape it. Nadine Gordimer once remarked she'd wanted to write comedies of manner -- it's the oppressive South African situation that made it impossible. The Bengali filmmaker, Satyajit Ray, wanted to make fantasies, even science-fiction films, but Calcutta with all its problems and all its charms would not permit it. The quest for relevance and engagement takes from a writer as least as much as it gives.

About the time I arrived in the United States 40 years ago as a graduate student at the University of Iowa, the precocious Philip Roth published his celebrated essay, "Writing American Fiction." The contents of that essay remain pertinent, for in it he laid out the dominant concerns of a new generation of American writers: How does the private imagination compete with the frivolity, the prodigious absurdity, vulgarity, violence, and exuberant replicability of American culture? Its sheer weirdness threatens to mock any attempt at inventing it. And here we have a major difference between American fiction and nearly everyone else's: Nothing here is a given, nor is it permanent; everything is mutable, challengeable. There is no history, there are no barriers, no taboos, no fatwa can be launched, and no secret police will knock on your door. (Or, anticipating the objections those colonial theorists will raise to such blanket assertions -- if they knock on your door, and no one says they haven't in the past and will try it again -- you at least have means of redress.)

Many writers in the world suffer an excess of givens, inherited realities of unforgiving consequence, of narrow possibilities and constricted horizons. It enriches their fiction, lengthens the odds, and raises the stakes. American writers express bafflement in a wilderness of freedom, a vast realm of spontaneous improvisation where the chances are very good that your best stab will not measure up to the next news squib on CNN. What mad satirist thought up the 2000 election in which a poorly designed ballot played a pivotal role in determining the next American president? Is such a comic turn even conceivable anywhere else in the world? And what would have been its bloody consequence?

American fiction is written in a context of relative innocence, a reality that is both limiting and liberating. If American fiction has relevance in the world it is for the odd innocence it celebrates. And this is particularly true of Indian-immigrant fiction, since many of us arrived after the cultural and political wars of the '60s and never experienced the civil rights battles or the Vietnam resistance. We are the beneficiaries of much suffering and heroism, and we've not been called on to pay our dues. Until we do, our innocence is provisional, our freedom is still qualified.


Classic Critical Studies of American Literature:

MAIN CURRENTS IN AMERICAN THOUGHT:THE COLONIAL MIND, 1620-1800, by Vernon Parrington

Studies in Classic American Literature, by D.H. Lawrence

The American Novel, Carl Van Doren


For one analysis of this topic, see Keijo Virtanen's essay, The Role of Philosophy and Literature in building up the National Identity of the Early 19th century United States, at the impressive Hypertext on American History from the colonial period until Modern Times done by the Department of Humanities Computing, University of Groningen, The Netherlands.

 


The E Pluribus Unum Project is funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. It is co-directed by Dr. John McClymer, Professor of History, Assumption College; Dr Lucia Knoles, Professor of English, Assumption College; and Dr. Arnold Pulda, Director of Gifted and Talented student programs for the public schools in Worcester, MA. Visitors are encouraged to send inquiries or suggestions.