American Literary Criticism in the Nineteenth Century Essay - Critical Essays

American Literary Criticism in the Nineteenth Century


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.”

Representative Works

William Cullen Bryant
“Early American Verse” (essay) 1818
“American Society as a Field for Fiction” (essay) 1825

William Ellery Channing
“Remarks on National Literature” (essay) 1830

James Fenimore Cooper
“Notions of the Americans” (essay) 1828
Introduction to The Leather-Stocking Tales” (essay) 1850
Introduction to The Pioneers (essay) 1850

Ralph Waldo Emerson
*“The American Scholar” (lecture) 1837
“The Poet” (essay) 1844
“The Young American” (essay) 1849
“Art and Criticism” (essay) 1859
“Beauty” (essay) 1860
“Poetry and Imagination” (essay) 1872

Margaret Fuller
Papers on Literature and Art (essays) 1846

Nathaniel Hawthorne
Preface to The Scarlet Letter (essay) 1850
Preface to The House of the Seven Gables (essay) 1851

Oliver Wendell Holmes
“Poetry: A Metrical Essay” (essay) 1836

James Russell Lowell
“A Fable for Critics” (essay) 1848
Lectures on the English Poets (lectures) 1897

Herman Melville
“Hawthorne and His Mosses” (essay) 1850

James Kirk Paulding
“National Literature” (essay) 1820

Edgar Allan Poe
“The Philosophy of Composition” (essay) 1846
“The Poetic Principle” (essay) 1850

Henry David Thoreau
“Thomas Carlyle and His Works” (essay) 1847

*First delivered as a lecture before Harvard University's Phi Beta Kappa Society on August 31, 1837, this work was later published as part of Nature; Addresses and Lectures (1849)

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Clarence Arthur Brown (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: Brown, Clarence Arthur. “The Aesthetics of Romanticism.” In The Achievement of American Criticism: Representative Selections from Three Hundred Years of American Criticism, selected by Clarence Arthur Brown, pp. 149-82. New York: The Ronald Press, 1954.

[In the following essay, Brown offers an overview of the emergence of the various schools of nineteenth-century American literary criticism, most of which were based on the aesthetics of Romanticism and devoted to the development of a national literature.]

The rise of romanticism can be seen in early issues of the North American Review.1 Traditionally, since its founding in 1815, the...

(The entire section is 17622 words.)

René Wellek (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: Wellek, René. “American Criticism.” In A History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950, Vol. 3: The Age of Transition, pp. 150-81. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965.

[In the following excerpt, Wellek outlines the dominant critical theories of the early and mid-nineteenth century, concentrating on the works of Poe, Emerson, and other transcendentalists.]


In recent decades American scholars have studied the early history of criticism in the United States closely and have demonstrated that even Colonial times produced some criticism in the sense of literary opinion about authors and the function of literature. In the early...

(The entire section is 15501 words.)

Patrick Parrinder (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Parrinder, Patrick. “Victorian Criticism: The Republic of Letters.” In Authors and Authority: English and American Criticism 1750-1990, pp. 134-139. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan, 1991.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1977, Parrinder briefly discusses the critical theories associated with Emerson, Whitman, and Poe.]



(The entire section is 2319 words.)

Criticism: The Transcendentalists

Helen Neill McMaster (essay date December 1928)

SOURCE: McMaster, Helen Neill. “Ghosts.” Margaret Fuller as a Literary Critic. University of Buffalo Studies 7, no. 3 (December 1928): 35-42.

[In the following excerpt, McMaster claims that Fuller's critical work has been neglected by her editors and biographers.]

The early years of the “great Americano-European legend,” the years before the impending cataclysm of civil strife was to disturb the serenity of America, witnessed the birth of a new phase in New England culture. The Puritan settlers in New England had succeeded in establishing and maintaining, for nearly two centuries, a culture uncontaminated by the depraving influence of European thought; but the...

(The entire section is 3514 words.)

Vivian C. Hopkins (essay date 1951)

SOURCE: Hopkins, Vivian C. “The Work of Art.” In Spires of Form: A Study of Emerson's Aesthetic Theory, pp. 105-146. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951.

[In the following excerpt, Hopkins explains Emerson's aesthetic theory as it applies to literature.]


In his lecture series on The Philosophy of History (1836-37), Emerson proceeds from the third lecture, on Art, to the fourth, on Literature, and defines the special place of literature in the creative world: “Whilst Art delights in carrying a thought into action, Literature is the conversion of action into thought. The architect executes his dream in stone. The...

(The entire section is 13822 words.)

Criticism: “Young America”

SOURCE: Stafford, John. “Young America's Theory of Criticism.” In The Literary Criticism of “Young America”: A Study in the Relationship of Politics and Literature 1837-1850, pp. 39-53. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1952.

[In the following excerpt, Stafford examines the critical theory associated with the group of reviewers known as “Young America”—a group that included Cornelius Mathews, Evert A. Duyckinck, William A. Jones, John L. O'Sullivan, and Parke Godwin—and their dedication to a democratic national literature.]


To understand Young America's criticism, we must consider the group's theories and assumptions...

(The entire section is 5554 words.)

Criticism: James Russell Lowell

Joseph J. Reilly (essay date 1915)

SOURCE: Reilly, Joseph J. “Lowell: The Critic and His Criticism.” In James Russell Lowell as a Critic, pp. 200-14. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1915.

[In the following excerpt, Reilly discusses the flaws of Lowell's critical essays, claiming that they were too impressionistic and subjective to meet a strict definition of scholarly criticism.]

Lowell's early critical works have already been discussed. They are worth bearing in mind as eminently characteristic of the mature Lowell. They are discursive, generally vague when the question at issue becomes abstruse, and abound in purple patches. The qualities of the poets discussed are set down without any endeavor to...

(The entire section is 3500 words.)

Richard D. Altick (essay date November 1942)

SOURCE: Altick, Richard D. “Was Lowell an Historical Critic?” American Literature 14, no. 3 (November 1942): 250-59.

[In the following essay, Altick counters the usual claim that Lowell's critical theory lacks historical perspective.]

If,” wrote James Russell Lowell in his essay on Milton, “Goethe was right in saying that every man was a citizen of his age as well as of his country, there can be no doubt that in order to understand the motives and conduct of the man we must first make ourselves intimate with the time in which he lived.”1 The observation is one of many such made in the course of Lowell's critical writings. And the neglect with which...

(The entire section is 3810 words.)

Criticism: Edgar Allan Poe

SOURCE: Foerster, Norman. “Poe.” In American Criticism: A Study in Literary Theory from Poe to the Present, pp. 1-51. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1928.

[In the following excerpt, Foerster discusses Poe's critical writing, which Foerster claims was devoted to resisting provincialism of two types: excessive respect for the literature of Europe, and excessive devotion to the literature of America.]


With his usual critical acumen, Poe saw that a people's literature may be provincial in either of two opposite ways. At the beginning of his essay on Drake's overrated poem ‘The Culprit Fay,’ he wrote an analysis of the state of American...

(The entire section is 17757 words.)

Criticism: Walt Whitman

SOURCE: Wellek, René. “American Criticism.” In A History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950, Vol. 4: The Later Nineteenth Century, pp. 191-200. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965.

[In the following excerpt, Wellek explains Whitman's call for an American poetry that was intended for the masses and was free from the restraints of tradition in both its style and its content.]

WALT WHITMAN (1819-1892)

Walt Whitman called for a poetry of the future, for a clean break with the past, for democratic poetry written for the masses about the masses, for poetry inspired by modern science and technological progress, for poetry freed from the shackles...

(The entire section is 3988 words.)

Further Reading


Asselineau, Roger M. “A Poet's Dilemma: Walt Whitman's Attitude to Literary History and Literary Criticism.” In Literary History and Literary Criticism, edited by Leon Edel, pp. 50-61. New York: New York University Press, 1965.

Discusses the influence of Taine's History of English Literature on the development of Walt Whitman's critical thought.

Eliot, T. S. “Imperfect Critics.” In The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, pp. 17-46. London: Methuen, 1920.

Contains a brief section on the American critics Paul More and Irving Babbitt.

Graff, Gerald. Professing...

(The entire section is 153 words.)