Literary Criticism (American History Through Literature)
Reviewing the Pennsylvanian Adam Seybert's (1773825) Annals of the United States in the January 1820 issue of Scotland's venerable Edinburgh Review, the English critic, clergyman, and author Sydney Smith (1771845) asked a question that would ring in the ears of American writers for over a generation: "In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book? Or goes to an American play? Or looks at an American picture or statue?" Several decades after the Declaration of Independence and the successfully waged Revolution, most knowledgeable observers felt that it was still too soon to identify a distinctively American way of writing, much less a coherent body of literary criticism produced on the American scene. A mere half century later, however, a vibrant, compelling, and durable body of American literature had been produced, and criticism had begun to take stock of the young nation's literary efforts.
The most important American literary criticism of the antebellum period was not written in university settings by professional academics but instead was produced by public intellectuals who typically were also active themselves as writers in such genres as poetry, fiction, essays, and religious sermons. The rise of major research universities in the United States, which began in earnest only in the late nineteenth century, would eventually spawn legions of highly trained academic critics wielding advanced degrees and diverse critical theories, but before the Civil War, literary criticism developed much more sporadically and with far less institutional support than in later years. Nevertheless, the criticism produced during this period has been extremely influential, particularly since some of the most indelibly important literary artists of the periodalt Whitman (1819892), Herman Melville (1819891), Edgar Allan Poe (1809849), Margaret Fuller (1810850), and Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803882)lso made major contributions to American literary criticism.
PERIODICALS AND THE RISE OF AMERICAN CRITICISM
Literary tastes were shaped largely by essays and reviews published in a range of newspapers and, especially, American magazines like the Christian Examiner, Biblical Repertory, United States Magazine and Democratic Review, American Whig Review, The Dial, North American Review, Boston Quarterly Review, Southern Literary Messenger, Putnam's Monthly Magazine, Atlantic Monthly, and Catholic World. Periodicals flourished in the United States, but American readers, most of whom read prose and poetry by both British and American writers, also continued to rely as well upon British critical opinion found in periodicals such as Blackwood's Magazine and Edinburgh Review in order to cultivate their own ideas about literature. Indeed, many American periodicals did not serve to produce distinctively "American" writing and criticism but instead followed the more conservative aesthetic tendency to favor the British Enlightenment tradition of neoclassical prose styles and oratory rather than the Romanticism, Democratic nationalism, and vernacular styles that eventually came to dominate the literary production of the major nineteenth-century American writers. Of particular note, the North American Review, an eminent Boston magazine founded in 1815, served as a venue for major publications in the areas of history, literature (especially poetry), and literary criticism. For instance, more than any other American magazine of the period, the North American Review was created along the lines of nineteenth-century English literary quarterliesssues included not only literary criticism but also scholarly articles and reviews in an eclectic range of other intellectual fields, such as history, science, and theologynd maintained very strong ties with the scholarly worlds of Harvard and the Boston Unitarian establishment. So important were British publications for the development of American criticism that the young Maine novelist John Neal (1793876), an early advocate of American literature, actually had some of his greatest influence during 1824827, when he lived in England and became the first American to write for the major British reviews, including a series of critical essays on American writers for Blackwood's Magazine.
DOCUMENTING THE "AMERICAN RENAISSANCE"
At approximately mid-century, an important exception to the dominance of periodicals in the field of antebellum literary criticism was produced just at the moment of America's most profound literary activity; just a few of the major works published during 1850855 include Emerson's Representative Men (1850), Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), Thoreau's Walden (1854), Whitman's Leaves of Grass (1855), Melville's Moby-Dick (1851), and Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850). The first major book to reckon comprehensively and critically with the American literary tradition arrived in the form of the large (ten pounds spread over two volumes) and lavishly illustrated Cyclopedia of American Literature (1855), produced by Evert Augustus Duyckinck (1816878) and George L. Duyckinck (1823863), two prominent New York editors and contributors to the Literary World, the leading weekly literary review of the period. Destined to become a standard reference work for American literary history, the Cyclopedia trumpeted innovative fiction by Duyckinck's close friends Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804864) and Melville in particular as representative of the best in American writing while reserving lesser praise for more popular (and more traditional) writers like the poets Nathaniel Parker Willis (1806867), James Russell Lowell (1819891), and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807882).
Although he is remembered primarily for his short fiction and poetry, during the frenetic two decades before his death in 1849, Edgar Allan Poe was one of the more active book reviewers and liter-ary critics of his generation. Having acquired some literary repute for his popular poem "The Raven" (1845), Poe proceeded soon after to detail his method and principles for composing verse in "The Philosophy of Composition" (1846), published in Graham's Magazine (1826858). It is here that Poe famously announced his intersecting aesthetic principles of brevity and the macabre. First, "If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression. . . . What we term a long poem is, in fact, merely a succession of brief ones" (p. 1375). Second, and more notoriously, Poe insisted on the production of beautiful lyrical effects, the most critical being that of poetry's ideal subject. Consequently, he would write "Beauty . . .
The fullest expression of Poe's theory of prosody and poetic technique arrived in final form in the pages of the Southern Literary Messenger with the publication of "The Rationale of Verse" (1848). Based in Richmond, Virginia, the Southern Literary Messenger (1834864) became one of the earliest American vehicles for southern literary criticism and book reviews. Its most prominent contributor, Poe, took over the editorship for the period 1835837, during which time he became notorious for his hard-hitting reviews and attacks on other writers. The Southern Literary Messenger quickly waned in its literary influence in the 1840s and especially as the Civil War approached, and the magazine's pages came to be filled with discussions of military and naval affairs.
"YOUNG AMERICA" AND NATIONALIST CRITICISM
For the early decades of the nineteenth century, most American writers continued to look to Europe, and especially to England, for their ideas about literature. But the theme of American literary identity steadily came to dominate the new nation's literary criticism during the antebellum period. As the century progressed, American writers increasingly spoke of the need for a distinctively American literature: one that would boldly express the new nation's difference from Europe while setting forth its own distinctive cultural, political, and moral sensibility. Based in New York City in the decades before the Civil War, the "Young America" literary movement, led by critics such as Evert Augustus Duyckinck, Cornelius Mathews, Bayard Taylor, Rufus Wilmot Griswold, and William Gilmore Simms, was perhaps the most vocal of all American groups advocating a resistance to European literary influences in favor of an authentic and innovative American way of writing. The antebellum Young America movement, which was active in both political and literary discourses, took a good deal of its energy from the jingoistic political concept of American "Manifest Destiny," a term first published in 1845 by John L. O'Sullivan (1813895) in New York City's United States Magazine and Democratic Review.
The fervor associated with the Young America movement can be traced through much literary criticism of the antebellum period, but the matter of American literary achievement found its watershed precisely in the summer of 1850 with the publication of Melville's lengthy essay-review of his friend Hawthorne's Mosses from an Old Manse (1846) in the influential New York magazine the Literary World. Identifying himself only as "a Virginian Spending July in Vermont," Melville in his review took the bold step of comparing Hawthorne's genius to that of William Shakespeare, whose plays had become a highly popular staple of the antebellum American stage. The tragic sensibility of Shakespeare, wrote Melville, could be discerned in Hawthorne's great historical fictions of early America, in which readers could discover a "great power of blackness in him [that] 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" (p. 243). At the same time Melville, who would not publish his masterwork Moby-Dick (1851) until the following year, would leave room for a new American writer (perhaps himself) who might surpass Shakespeare and Hawthorne in both genius and national sensibility:
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 flunkeyism [sic] towards England. If either we must play the flunkey [sic] 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. (P. 248)
LITERARY TRANSCENDENTALISM: ETHICS AND AESTHETICS
Before the Young America movement took firm hold at mid-century and signaled the shift of intellectual and critical preeminence from Boston to New York City, the most innovative currents of American liter-ary criticism drew their sustenance from European Romanticism. Foremost among the groups of writers influenced by Romanticism were the New England transcendentalists, led by Ralph Waldo Emerson and including such writers and critics as Amos Bronson Alcott, Theodore Parker, Sarah Margaret Fuller, George Ripley, Orestes Augustus Brownson, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Jones Very, and others. The critical principles of Romanticism came to these writers from numerous European sources, but a watershed event for many of them was James Marsh's (1794842) American edition of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Aids to Reflection (1829). It was Coleridge's Neoplatonic distinction between ordinary cognition (Understanding) and the spiritual activity of the mind's eye (Reason) that led Emerson to a number of crucial pronouncements about poetry in his most important essays.
The Dial (1840844), a seminal but short-lived Boston journal devoted to literature, philosophy, and religion, served in many respects as an organ of the New England transcendentalist movement and was a major vehicle for important critics of the day. Although its circulation was small and its content disparaged by the mainstream press at the time, The Dialdited by the brilliant feminist critic Margaret Fuller, who was assisted by George Ripley (1802880)resented a learned and eclectic mixture of literary criticism, much of it grounded firmly in the traditions of European Romanticism. Its essays included, for example, Fuller's "Goethe" and the Unitarian minister Theodore Parker's (1810860) "German Literature," among many others. While it never adopted a clear editorial position or cultivated a single critical model, its pages nevertheless reflected the continuing influence of European thinkers on the development of an American literature. Emerson succeeded Fuller as editor of The Dial in 1842.
Emerson's literary theory is at once the most rigorously stated and the most subtly complex of the antebellum period. Beginning with the eight brief chapters of his anonymously published Nature (1836) and continuing with his first edition of collected Essays (1841), Emerson set forth the main principles of his distinctive brand of Romantic intuitionism and laid the groundwork for Henry David Thoreau's (1817862) profound analysis of the correspondence between language and nature in Walden (1854). For instance, from Emerson's assertion, in Nature, that "words are signs of natural facts" (p. 20) grows much of Thoreau's interest in the relation between thinking, writing, and the natural world.
WHITMAN: TOWARD A NEW AMERICAN POETICS
Walt Whitman (1819892), whose preface to his 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass stands with, and probably above, Emerson's essays as the major statement of American literary theory for the nineteenth century, is at once a major theorist and an unprecedented innovator in the field of American poetry. Although their ideas about American literature are not identical, there are profound links between Emerson's transcendental intuitionism and the younger Walt Whitman's own critical ideas and the innovative poetry that he produced between 1855 and 1891. As Whitman himself readily admitted, Emerson's literary theoryxpounded not only in Nature but also in "The Poet," "The American Scholar," and "Self-Reliance"as transformative for Whitman's sense of himself as America's greatest poet. "I was simmering, simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me to a boil" (Trowbridge, p. 166), Whitman was said to have written of the influence of Emerson's thought, thus confirming the intellectual linkage between the most crucial American poet and essayist, respectively, of the nineteenth century.
In his essay "The Poet" (1844), which was so important for Whitman's intellectual development, Emerson had outlined a concept of the poet as an heir to intertwined traditions of Christianity and Romanticism. As a former Unitarian minister trained at Harvard, Emerson saw in the greatest poets a prophetic dimension that infused an aesthetic of Romantic self-expression with the moral force of religion. Consequently, he could say with supreme confidence that "the poet is the sayer, the namer, and represents beauty" and, moreover, that "the world is not painted or adorned, but is from the beginning beautiful; and God has not made some beautiful things, but Beauty is the creator of the universe. Therefore the poet is not any permissive potentate, but is emperor in his own right" (p. 449).
Less a literary critic than a founder of a new type of poetics in his untitled preface to Leaves of Grass, Whitman is nevertheless of major importance as a theorist concerned with new forms of writing that would be appropriate to the American nation. In that crucial preface, Whitman declares that the ideal poet must be a complete lover of the universe, one who draws the materials of his composition from nature while prophetically serving as America's representative of the common people. The preface also makes specific assertions about a new poetry that will proceed organically, will be free of all unnecessary ornament, and will entirely avoid conventional rhyme and meter. When it came to the formal requirements of the new American poetry, Whitman insisted boldly,
the rhyme and uniformity of perfect poems show the free growth of metrical laws and bud from them as unerringly and loosely as lilacs or roses on a bush, and take shapes as compact as the shapes of chestnuts and oranges and melons and pears, and shed the perfume impalpable to form. (P. 11)
In addition to his prescription for poetry freed of the traditional rules of rhyme and meter, though, Whitman's largest critical project is woven into his political sympathies and nationalist preferences for the concept of "America." Thus, he opens his preface to Leaves of Grass with a prose hymn to America, thereby signifying that his revolutionary poetics are inseparable from an implicit critique of all that is not American: "The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem" (p. 5). The elitism and cultural imperialism that such statements apparently engender, though, are modified by Whitman's abiding concern for democratic arrangements and a populist sense of preference for the ordinary human being, so that "the poet sees for a certainty how one not a great artist may be just as sacred and perfect as the greatest artist" (p. 9). Echoing the New York advocates of Young America who preceded him, Whitman would insist further in his preface to Leaves of Grass that "of all nations the United States with veins full of poetical stuff most need poets and will doubtless have the greatest and use them the greatest" (p. 5)he problem of literary criticism in America would remain for much of the nineteenth century inseparable from the problem of national politics. And only by enduring the trauma of the Civil War would criticism in America finally make the enormous adjustments required to see the complexities of American literary ambition through a cultural lens shaped profoundly by issues of race, class, and gender as well as by the earlier desire to create a literature of distinction that could claim artistic independence from Europe.
See also The Dial; "Hawthorne and His Mosses"; Literary Nationalism; Periodicals; "The Philosophy of Composition"; "The Poet"; Transcendentalism; Young America
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. 1836. In Essays and Poems, pp. 79. New York: Library of America, 1996.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "The Poet." 1844. In Essays and Poems, pp. 44568. New York: Library of America, 1996.
Melville, Herman. "Hawthorne and His Mosses." 1850. In The Writings of Herman Melville, vol. 9, The Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces, edited by Harrison Hayford et al., pp. 23953. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1987.
Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Philosophy of Composition." 1846. In Poetry, Tales, and Selected Essays, pp. 1373385. New York: Library of America, 1996.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. 1855. In Poetry and Prose. New York: Library of America, 1996.
Trowbridge, John Townsend. "Reminiscences of Walt Whitman." Atlantic Monthly, February 1902, pp. 16375.
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James Emmett Ryan