American Literary Criticism in the Nineteenth Century
American Literary Criticism in the Nineteenth Century
Criticism and critical theory in the United States did not fully establish itself until early in the nineteenth century. Colonial critical theory was initially associated with eighteenth-century thought, but soon thereafter began to embrace European Romanticism. Dissatisfaction with dependence upon the literature and theories of England, however, would engender the most prominent features of American critical theory: the insistence on a literature that was uniquely American and one that reflected the country's democratic principles.
One of the first forums for American literary criticism was the conservative journal North American Review, which debuted in 1815. Initially hostile to the aesthetics of Romanticism, by the 1830s the journal was featuring reviews in praise of William Wordsworth and other English Romantics. At the same time, however, the new nation's critics were increasingly uncomfortable with the cultural dependence on the former mother country and began calling for the development of a national literature. In the early decades of the nineteenth century this emphasis on nationalism is evident in the work of several critics, with Ralph Waldo Emerson being the most notable. Emerson's famous address to Harvard University's Phi Beta Kappa Society entitled “The American Scholar” (1837) firmly established nationalism as the primary tenet of literary theory in the United States. His insistence on literature that focused on the distinctive American characteristics of untamed wilderness and rugged humanity had an immeasurable influence on the literature that followed. According to René Wellek, America's brand of nationalism was unique in that the country “was a republic, a free democracy, which could not accept the class distinctions and the hierarchies of an older civilization,” but, at the same time, was lacking in any literary history or folklore tradition of its own. The members of the group known as “Young America,” whose work appeared in the Democratic Review, were among those advocating a literature that functioned as a forum for democratic principles such as equality and freedom. These writers were unconcerned with the aesthetic features of literature that commanded the attention of the more conservative commentators.
The possibility of a didactic democratic literature aimed at the common people was embraced by most critics of mid-century with the exception of Edgar Allan Poe, who alone concentrated on the artistic elements of poetry and fiction. Poe was especially concerned that the call for a national literature not lead to the abandonment of literary standards. Norman Foerster reports that Poe believed “a servile respect for European opinion” might be replaced by an equally misguided form of provincialism, fueled by patriotism, that would celebrate American literature regardless of its quality. Poe, like many of the most prominent critics of the nineteenth-century, was both writer and critic. Others include the authors of the Transcendentalist movement—Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller—as well as Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville, and James Russell Lowell. While some of these critics reviewed the work of other writers and produced essays specifically devoted to literary theory, others, particularly Hawthorne and Thoreau, scattered their aesthetic theories throughout their work, often in introductions or prefaces to their own novels or volumes of poetry. Margaret Fuller, however, produced regular reviews for the Dial and the New York Daily Tribune that Wellek claims represented “a solid achievement.” He believes that Fuller “reflected more concretely on the nature and office of criticism than any of her American contemporaries, and she faced literary works more intimately and more frequently than anyone else in the New England group.” Nonetheless, her critical work has largely been ignored, both in her own time and in the years since, reports Helen Neill McMaster, though that is beginning to change. According to McMaster, Fuller “has been distinguished by three recent literary historians as the best critic produced in America prior to 1850.”
The critical theories of Fuller's fellow Transcendentalist, Emerson, have been explored by Vivian C. Hopkins, who rejects the common notion that Emerson's beliefs were rigid and excessively dependent on his own view of morality. Like Fuller, Emerson was inspired by the work of Goethe to abandon art as an instrument of morality “into a freer state of aesthetic appreciation.” Based on organic principles, Emerson's theory “represents a new departure in American thought,” one that differs from the ideas of the eighteenth century, and which forms the basis of his aesthetic beliefs, according to Hopkins.
Walt Whitman, even more than Emerson, was determined to break with the traditions of the past. Calling for “democratic poetry written for the masses about the masses, for poetry freed from the shackles of rhyme and traditional meter, from any restrictions in subject matter and reticence about sex,” Whitman was initially ridiculed for his concept of poetry, according to Wellek. Whitman's democratic and nationalist spirit was not confined to his advocacy of a “Home Literature,” as he called it. It extended, as well, to his theory of language, which celebrated American English complete with the slang expressions used by “fighting men, gamblers, thieves, and prostitutes.”
Lowell's critical essays, while extensive, have received mixed reviews. Brown finds that “Lowell's creed of criticism is perhaps the best in nineteenth-century American criticism.” However, Joseph J. Reilly believes his method was overly subjective, based only on his own impressions of a work: “Here is the secret of Lowell's critical method. However uncertain he might be about penetrating to ultimate principles, he was sure of the feelings which a poem aroused in him.”
William Cullen Bryant
“Early American Verse” (essay) 1818
“American Society as a Field for Fiction” (essay) 1825
William Ellery Channing
“Remarks on National Literature” (essay) 1830
James Fenimore Cooper
“Notions of the Americans” (essay) 1828
Introduction to The Leather-Stocking Tales” (essay) 1850
Introduction to The Pioneers (essay) 1850
Ralph Waldo Emerson
*“The American Scholar” (lecture) 1837
“The Poet” (essay) 1844
“The Young American” (essay) 1849
“Art and Criticism” (essay) 1859
“Beauty” (essay) 1860
“Poetry and Imagination” (essay) 1872
Papers on Literature and Art (essays) 1846
Preface to The Scarlet Letter (essay) 1850
Preface to The House of the Seven Gables (essay) 1851
Oliver Wendell Holmes
“Poetry: A Metrical Essay” (essay) 1836
James Russell Lowell
“A Fable for Critics” (essay) 1848
Lectures on the English Poets (lectures) 1897
“Hawthorne and His Mosses” (essay) 1850
James Kirk Paulding
“National Literature” (essay) 1820
Edgar Allan Poe
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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Brown, Clarence Arthur. “The Aesthetics of Romanticism.” In The Achievement of American Criticism: Representative Selections from Three Hundred Years of American Criticism, selected by Clarence Arthur Brown, pp. 149-82. New York: The Ronald Press, 1954.
[In the following essay, Brown offers an overview of the emergence of the various schools of nineteenth-century American literary criticism, most of which were based on the aesthetics of Romanticism and devoted to the development of a national literature.]
The rise of romanticism can be seen in early issues of the North American Review.1 Traditionally, since its founding in 1815, the magazine had been recognized for its conservatism and its expression of late eighteenth-century points of view in literary criticism as well as in politics. During the first years of its career, the North American was unfriendly to romanticism—Keats, Shelley, Byron, and Coleridge, among others, were either ignored or attacked.2 Such men as Jared Sparks, Edward Everett, and others writing in its pages exhibit parallel literary, social, and political prejudices against those who were preaching the unquiet doctrines of romanticism. They stood for arbitrary, authoritarian conventions and proprieties, for “decorum,” and for traditional morality and “common sense.”
Beginning about 1820, within five years...
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SOURCE: Wellek, René. “American Criticism.” In A History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950, Vol. 3: The Age of Transition, pp. 150-81. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965.
[In the following excerpt, Wellek outlines the dominant critical theories of the early and mid-nineteenth century, concentrating on the works of Poe, Emerson, and other transcendentalists.]
In recent decades American scholars have studied the early history of criticism in the United States closely and have demonstrated that even Colonial times produced some criticism in the sense of literary opinion about authors and the function of literature. In the early 19th century the great bulk of criticism reflected the concern of the new nation with its identity and its definition of a national literature. In the United States, the problem of nationality was possessed of a peculiar character not easily paralleled elsewhere. Here was a new nation that spoke the same language as its mother nation but had broken away from it in anger. Here was a nation that, in contrast to Europe, was a republic, a free democracy, which could not accept the class distinctions and the hierarchies of an older civilization. And here also was a society that struggled hard for its material existence. The cultivation of literature, and especially of poetry and fiction, had constantly to be vindicated against moralistic and...
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SOURCE: Parrinder, Patrick. “Victorian Criticism: The Republic of Letters.” In Authors and Authority: English and American Criticism 1750-1990, pp. 134-139. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan, 1991.
[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1977, Parrinder briefly discusses the critical theories associated with Emerson, Whitman, and Poe.]
THE BIRTH OF AMERICAN CRITICISM: EMERSON, WHITMAN AND POE
‘A BREATH AS OF THE GREEN COUNTRY,—ALL THE WELCOMER THAT IT IS NEW-ENGLAND COUNTRY, NOT SECOND-HAND BUT FIRST-HAND COUNTRY,—MEETS US WHOLESOMELY EVERYWHERE IN THESE ESSAYS’: THESE ARE THE WORDS OF CARLYLE, INTRODUCING THE FIRST COLLECTION OF RALPH WALDO EMERSON'S WRITINGS TO THE ENGLISH PUBLIC IN 1841. THROUGHOUT THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, AMERICAN AUTHORS COULD BE VERY SUCCESSFULLY INCORPORATED INTO VICTORIAN LITERARY CULTURE IN TERMS SUCH AS THESE. LATER IN THE CENTURY, WHAT SANTAYANA WAS TO CALL THE GENTEEL TRADITION GAVE RISE TO A CRITICISM THAT WAS AVOWEDLY PROVINCIAL AND TO THE MIGRATION OF WRITERS OF THE STATURE OF HENRY JAMES AND T. S. ELIOT FROM BOSTON TO LONDON. THE FIRST GENERATION OF AMERICAN CRITICS, HOWEVER, LAID STRESS ON THE FACT OF AMERICAN DIFFERENCE. EMERSON AND WHITMAN DREW ON THE REVOLUTIONARY INHERITANCE IN AMERICAN LIFE TO PRESENT A BARDIC VISION WHICH IS FUNDAMENTALLY OPPOSED TO MILL'S ETIOLATED NOTIONS OF POETRY....
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Criticism: The Transcendentalists
SOURCE: McMaster, Helen Neill. “Ghosts.” Margaret Fuller as a Literary Critic. University of Buffalo Studies 7, no. 3 (December 1928): 35-42.
[In the following excerpt, McMaster claims that Fuller's critical work has been neglected by her editors and biographers.]
The early years of the “great Americano-European legend,” the years before the impending cataclysm of civil strife was to disturb the serenity of America, witnessed the birth of a new phase in New England culture. The Puritan settlers in New England had succeeded in establishing and maintaining, for nearly two centuries, a culture uncontaminated by the depraving influence of European thought; but the time inevitably arrived when their descendants, “the candid children of the West,” became aware of the barrenness of their intellectual heritage. This awakening was accompanied by an exodus of American students reared on the views of Calvin and Knox to the great European universities where they neglected theology for literature. The desire for a native literature and art was inspired, but at the same time the conflicting ideal which may be described as the “cosmopolite” delusion was to perplex and confuse the efforts of American artists.1
Henry James, the younger, whose education had accorded with the ideas of the most rigorous cosmopolite, could in his early residence abroad yet faintly descry the vague,...
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SOURCE: Hopkins, Vivian C. “The Work of Art.” In Spires of Form: A Study of Emerson's Aesthetic Theory, pp. 105-146. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951.
[In the following excerpt, Hopkins explains Emerson's aesthetic theory as it applies to literature.]
FORM IN LITERATURE
In his lecture series on The Philosophy of History (1836-37), Emerson proceeds from the third lecture, on Art, to the fourth, on Literature, and defines the special place of literature in the creative world: “Whilst Art delights in carrying a thought into action, Literature is the conversion of action into thought. The architect executes his dream in stone. The poet enchants you by thinking out your action. Art actualises an idea. Literature idealises action” (lecture on Literature, 1836). For Emerson, the difference between literature and art thus appears in their expression of the ideal; literature is closer to the intellectual, the transcendental, art closer to the actual.
Deeming literature the most universal of the arts, Emerson defines it in this same lecture as “the record of human thought in written language.” One can hardly name a thought or feeling which some writing has not expressed:
Literature is the record of all; the sum and measure of humanity. Every part of man has its department in literature; his observation, in history;...
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Criticism: “Young America”
SOURCE: Stafford, John. “Young America's Theory of Criticism.” In The Literary Criticism of “Young America”: A Study in the Relationship of Politics and Literature 1837-1850, pp. 39-53. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1952.
[In the following excerpt, Stafford examines the critical theory associated with the group of reviewers known as “Young America”—a group that included Cornelius Mathews, Evert A. Duyckinck, William A. Jones, John L. O'Sullivan, and Parke Godwin—and their dedication to a democratic national literature.]
To understand Young America's criticism, we must consider the group's theories and assumptions about the function and method of literary criticism, as well as Young America's social milieu. The adoption of a critical or aesthetic theory or of a particular method of criticism may have only an indirect influence on the practice of criticism. As R. P. Blackmur says of all critics, “the personal element in a given critic—what he happens to know and happens to be able to understand—is strong or obstinate enough to reach into his aesthetic theories”; few critics have a coherent philosophy; “aesthetics sometimes seems only as implicit in the practice of criticism as the atomic physics is present in sunlight when you feel it.”1 Young America's theories of the critical function and of the mode of criticism that the...
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Criticism: James Russell Lowell
SOURCE: Reilly, Joseph J. “Lowell: The Critic and His Criticism.” In James Russell Lowell as a Critic, pp. 200-14. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1915.
[In the following excerpt, Reilly discusses the flaws of Lowell's critical essays, claiming that they were too impressionistic and subjective to meet a strict definition of scholarly criticism.]
Lowell's early critical works have already been discussed. They are worth bearing in mind as eminently characteristic of the mature Lowell. They are discursive, generally vague when the question at issue becomes abstruse, and abound in purple patches. The qualities of the poets discussed are set down without any endeavor to mark their inter-relation or to trace them back to any radical characteristic. Poems are regarded from the standpoint of their effect on the reader, and that effect is translated into figurative language. In his Lectures on the English Poets, Lowell followed the same method. He translated his impressions into simile and metaphor. He never got at the ultimate answer to a difficult question. In his first lecture he said: “The lecturer on science has only to show how much he knows—the lecturer on poetry can only be sure how much he feels.” Here is the secret of Lowell's critical method. However uncertain he might be about penetrating to ultimate principles, he was sure of the feelings which a poem aroused in him. His method in...
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SOURCE: Altick, Richard D. “Was Lowell an Historical Critic?” American Literature 14, no. 3 (November 1942): 250-59.
[In the following essay, Altick counters the usual claim that Lowell's critical theory lacks historical perspective.]
If,” wrote James Russell Lowell in his essay on Milton, “Goethe was right in saying that every man was a citizen of his age as well as of his country, there can be no doubt that in order to understand the motives and conduct of the man we must first make ourselves intimate with the time in which he lived.”1 The observation is one of many such made in the course of Lowell's critical writings. And the neglect with which his remarks in this vein have been treated accounts, it seems to me, for the persistent and erroneous idea that Lowell was virtually unaware of the importance of historical perspective in formulating a critical judgment.
This charge of historical ignorance occurs in nearly every one of the indictments which have been drawn up against Lowell as a critic. Dr. Joseph J. Reilly, the author of the most extended commentary on his criticism, wrote:
His Chaucer, his Shakespeare, his Dryden, and the rest leave the poets too far aloof from their times; or rather to Lowell their existence in literature and in history are things apart. … A knowledge of history would have...
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Criticism: Edgar Allan Poe
SOURCE: Foerster, Norman. “Poe.” In American Criticism: A Study in Literary Theory from Poe to the Present, pp. 1-51. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1928.
[In the following excerpt, Foerster discusses Poe's critical writing, which Foerster claims was devoted to resisting provincialism of two types: excessive respect for the literature of Europe, and excessive devotion to the literature of America.]
With his usual critical acumen, Poe saw that a people's literature may be provincial in either of two opposite ways. At the beginning of his essay on Drake's overrated poem ‘The Culprit Fay,’ he wrote an analysis of the state of American criticism which to this day may be read with profit. First, there is the older type of provincialism: a servile respect for European opinion. ‘That an American book could, by any possibility, be worthy perusal, was an idea by no means extensively prevalent in the land; and if we were induced to read at all the productions of our native writers, it was only after repeated assurances from England that such productions were not altogether contemptible.’ This cringing form of provincialism, however, as Poe is careful to point out, is related with an important virtue—a due respect for what is really superior. It would be folly, he says, to place ourselves on a level with the mature nations of Europe, ‘the earliest steps of whose children are...
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Criticism: Walt Whitman
SOURCE: Wellek, René. “American Criticism.” In A History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950, Vol. 4: The Later Nineteenth Century, pp. 191-200. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965.
[In the following excerpt, Wellek explains Whitman's call for an American poetry that was intended for the masses and was free from the restraints of tradition in both its style and its content.]
WALT WHITMAN (1819-1892)
Walt Whitman called for a poetry of the future, for a clean break with the past, for democratic poetry written for the masses about the masses, for poetry inspired by modern science and technological progress, for poetry freed from the shackles of rhyme and traditional meter, from any restrictions in subject matter and reticence about sex. At first Whitman was ridiculed and ostracized; but he won devoted disciples and, slowly, critical recognition, particularly in Europe. For a time he loomed almost as the founder of modern poetry, the inventor of free verse. His influence on Lindsay, Sandburg, and Hart Crane in America, on Dylan Thomas, Laforgue and Verhaeren, Arno Holz, and Mayakovsky in Europe (to cite only representative names) was highly important. Now the Whitmanians have mostly receded into limbo, ousted by a new race of poets for whom Baudelaire and Mallarmé might rather be claimed as the ancestors.
The impression created by Whitman's pronouncements of a...
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Asselineau, Roger M. “A Poet's Dilemma: Walt Whitman's Attitude to Literary History and Literary Criticism.” In Literary History and Literary Criticism, edited by Leon Edel, pp. 50-61. New York: New York University Press, 1965.
Discusses the influence of Taine's History of English Literature on the development of Walt Whitman's critical thought.
Eliot, T. S. “Imperfect Critics.” In The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, pp. 17-46. London: Methuen, 1920.
Contains a brief section on the American critics Paul More and Irving Babbitt.
Graff, Gerald. Professing Literature: An Institutional History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987, 315 p.
A history of American literary studies in colleges and universities from the late nineteenth century to the present, with an emphasis on the ongoing debate between scholars and literary critics.
Johnson, Maurice O. Walt Whitman as a Critic of Literature. Lincoln, Nebraska: n. p., 1938, 73 p.
Examines Whitman's background and his critical work on both English and American authors.
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