When the English critic Sydney Smith (1818) declared.
Literature the Americans have none...In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?
he ignited a reaction from the Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote in "The American Scholar" in 1837,
We have listened too long to the courtly uses of Europe...Wht mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself....We will wlk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds....A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.
What, then, is American literature? It is a celebration of this independence of thought, a celebration of the strength of those who have fought for liberty, political or social or spiritual.
The first American narratives were written by Washington Irving, who related tales based upon local legends. Of course, the Transcendentalists, of whom Emerson was one, perceived the importance of intuition and the strength of the individual and doorway of Nature to truth; they had intense optimism about America. After them came Edgar Allan Poe, who formed a counterpoint to the optimism of the Transcendentalists along with Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville who, too, perceived the dark side of human nature. But, the common thread through all of their writings is emphasis on the individual.
One European-American woman who wrote highly lauded novels about individuals is Willa Cather whose 1927 "Death Comes for the Archbishop" is based upon the real lives of Archbishop Lamy, the first bishop of New Mexico, and his vicar, Father Joseph Macbeuf both of whom emigrated from France. Another novel of Cather's, "My Antonia," is the story of both Antonia Shimerda, a Bohemian immigrant who came to Nebraska, and the novel's American-born narrator, Jim Burden.
The portrayal of Antonia is recognized as one of the most memorable of the twentieth-century as, through this character, Cather celebrates the pioneering spirit of immigrants new to American.