American Literature Essays And Opinions

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 attracted students with current political and cultural problems much on their minds and scholars who seemed unable to rid themselves of what detractors regarded as chronic presentism.

For example, the immensely influential (1927–1930), by V. Parrington, an English professor at the University of Washington, was an effort, as tendentious as it was ambitious, to trace the genealogy of democratic populism all the way back to dissident Puritans.

Perry Miller’s great revisionary works on the Puritan mind, conceived in the 1930s partly in response to Parrington, ran parallel to the writings of such neo-Calvinist theologians as Reinhold Niebuhr, who retrieved from deep in the past an account of human psychology that might still serve as a competent description of contemporary reality as the horror of fascism engulfed Europe.

As American literary studies gained in prestige, it became apparent that its leading scholars did not trust, and were not to be trusted with, the ways and means of the English department.

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.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.And James’s 1879 study of Nathaniel Hawthorne, the first significant critical biography of an American writer, brings into view in a few pages the whole moral history of nineteenth-century American culture. ) from the poetic and aesthetic point of view, the point of view of entertainment and irony.In that remarkable book, we see how theological ideas were being displaced and how the artist-observer could take pleasure in witnessing their displacement: It was a necessary condition for a man of Hawthorne’s stock that if his imagination should take licence to amuse itself, it should at least select this grim precinct of the Puritan morality for its play ground . This absence of conviction makes the difference; but the difference is great.critics worth reading were the critics who practiced, and practiced well, the art of which they wrote” – a statement that has been almost universally true in America.In short, forward-looking proponents of American literary ideals tended to be outside the academy.This has been so from the era dominated by the Duyckinck brothers, whose (1942), a revelatory book by a young freelance book reviewer who, like his contemporary Irving Howe, did not take a permanent academic job until late in his career. And a good number of major twentieth-century critics – notably Edmund Wilson, whose (1962) did much to revise our understanding of Civil War literature – expressed frank hostility toward academics as hopelessly straitened and petty.As a more miscellaneous blend of students began passing through the universities, these gentlemen hoped that the study of American literature could be a means of sweetening and enlightening them before they presented themselves for positions of power no longer reserved exclusively for the Brahmins. Yet the Harvard English department, which preserves in its name, “Department of English and American Literature and Language,” a trace of its origins in philological studies, did not add the phrase ‘and American’ until the 1970s.Some professors went further, claiming for themselves the moral authority once reserved for the clergy. Mencken, with a nod to Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt writes his own version of how Americans had fallen away from the moral realism of their forebears. My own department at Columbia, the “Department of English and Comparative Literature,” to this day does not include in its official name the term ‘American’ – and, as far as I know, has no plans to add it.Consider Irving Babbitt, who specialized at Harvard not in American but in French literature, and who became a public commentator on issues of the day by waging war in general-circulation magazines against what he considered the American tendency toward vulgarity and self-indulgence. James had told the tale as the story of Hawthorne liberating himself from the suppressive weight of his ancestors, but Babbitt tells it as a moral descent from self-knowledge into self-deception, as exemplified by Mencken: If the Protestant Church is at present threatened with bankruptcy, it is not because it has produced an occasional Elmer Gantry. Today, though some professors of American literature still feel outnumbered and even beleaguered, the field is populous.The true reproach it has incurred is that, in its drift toward modernism, it has lost its grip not merely on certain dogmas but, simultaneously, on the facts of human nature. Since the founding of the American Literature Section of the Modern Language Association in 1921, the professional status of American literature has been secure, and members of the guild now designate themselves by the term ‘Americanist’ – a word that, like ‘orthopedist’ or ‘taxidermist,’ implies an arduously acquired training for a useful trade.


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