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.”