Virtually from the beginning of the American republic our writers have uttered a consistent complaint and issued a consistent call. They have complained of the inhospitable atmosphere of American life to literary creativity, and they have called for a national literature equal to the country’s great material accomplishments.
Thus in the year after Emerson had declared in “The American Scholar” that the time was ripe for us to establish our cultural independence from Europe, James Fenimore Cooper in THE AMERICAN DEMOCRAT spoke harshly of the repressive effects of the democratic system upon men of superior ability and individualistic bent. A dozen years later Herman Melville, tempted to satisfy his public’s desire for more South Sea adventure tales but impelled by his genius toward the darkly symbolic, unpopular, and epic, wrote in a letter to Hawthorne, “Dollars damn me.” And in 1879 Henry James, soon to become a permanent expatriate, wondered in his book on Hawthorne how that writer had cultivated so rich a talent on so thin a cultural soil as the United States.
Walt Whitman, however, thought of America as itself the greatest poem of all, and in his poetry, his prefaces to the several editions of LEAVES OF GRASS, and his essays he prophesied a national literature created by a new breed of poet-prophets the like of which the world had never known. As the century closed William Dean Howells expressed a similar, if...
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