What is the difference between American and British literature?

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This is a huge question, and to make it manageable, I will focus on comparing United States literature of the first half of the nineteenth century with British literature of the same period.

While Britain had a literary tradition going back a thousand years, starting with Beowulf, Americans had to craft their own. The British had a distinct national identity, asserted and affirmed by and through their literature. Americans, in contrast, had to develop such an identity. Much of the most popular American poetry of this period, for example, focused on recounting heroic deeds from American history, such as Paul Revere's ride. At the same time, prose writers such as Washington Irving and Ralph Waldo Emerson self-consciously posited a robust American male who represented a vast improvement over his tired European counterpart. In "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," for example, Irving contrasts Ichabod Crane, effeminate, vitiated, and backward looking (European), with the red-blooded, vigorous, practical, "manly-man" Brom Bones. Brom represents the robust American spirit, which bests the tired and cowardly European ethos. Likewise, in essays such as "The American Scholar," Emerson self-consciously pits the individualized, self-actualized vigor and experiential nature of the American scholar to that of the book-wedded, vitiated, hollow, and tradition-bound European counterpart. This literature asserts the American as male, white, manly, pragmatic and energized—and distinctly not like a European.

The English of this period, in contrast, were not much interested in American literature, which, with the exception of Emerson, they hardly acknowledged existed. They were the world's sole superpower after the Napoleonic wars, had their own tradition, and looked inward. The direction of the development of their national consciousness during this period went toward Scotland. The novels of the wildly popular writer Walter Scott were romanticizing and pulling that country's history into the British fold more fully than had been done before, while Robert Burns was doing the same with his poetry. Then, as the early part of the century morphed into the Victorian period, British writers became increasingly preoccupied with the profound social...

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Lynnette Wofford eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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