Northeastern American Identity in Literature Analysis

Historical Background

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Many critics contend that early Northeast literature might more aptly be called English literature in America. There is truth in that contention, but even at the nation’s beginning there were differences between British and American writing. Religion, specifically Calvinist doctrine, was an important factor in the nation’s founding and has thus been reflected in American writing from colonial times onward. When the eighteenth century began, however, the native European Americans had become more secularized than their Puritan predecessors, and concepts of individual self-reliance, idealism, and the natural beauty of the land had taken firm hold in life and literature. The spirit of that period is best recognized in the writing of Benjamin Franklin, Philip Freneau, and Charles Brockden Brown.

Benjamin Franklin

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Franklincame not from Puritan New England, but from the Quaker colony of Pennsylvania. Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack (1732-1757) combines a rustic presentation of miscellaneous data and his famous proverbs, which are summations culled from expressions of past wisdom. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1791) is considered an American classic. The Power of Sympathy (1789), often called the first American novel, was written by “a lady of Boston,” who was later found to be not Sarah Wentworth Morton but rather William Hill Brown. The novel marks the American beginning of a long line of luridly sensational best-selling books written for women. These novels were frowned upon by religious and educational leaders. Under the guise of moral instruction, this British-derived genre tells of seduction, suicide, and betrayal, and is rife with sad revelations of the consequences of unwise love. Another widely read romance of the type, Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette (1797), testifies to the popularity of these formulaic books. An 1805 issue of the Boston Monthly Anthology voiced indignation at the infection of ladies by such “vermin.” The magazine’s editors then rushed to review each new novel as it came off the presses. The sentimental novel captured the imagination of American women in the first years of independence and continued to be widely read well into the nineteenth century.

Hartford Wits

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Aside from the sentimental novel, popular writing in the period surrounding independence was dominated by didactic, revolutionary pamphleteers seeking to separate themselves from Europe and define their place in the New World. The desire to break with European literature and create an indigenous writing style motivated the eighteenth century Hartford Wits, whose efforts represent the first focused attempt to establish formal American literary standards for aesthetic production. The Hartford Wits included such authors as Timothy Dwight, David Humphreys, and Joel Barlow. Barlow’s “The Hasty Pudding” (1793) and The Columbiad (1807) are two examples of literary works intended to glorify America.

In the odes of Freneau, specifically The Wild Honeysuckle (1786), which is a lyric expression of emotional feeling for nature, and the novels of Brown, specifically Edgar Huntley: Or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker (1799), with its impressionist descriptions of natural settings, readers encounter the stirrings of a literary appreciation of the American landscape that is revolutionary.

Knickerbocker School

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In the first quarter of the nineteenth century New York City surpassed Boston as the country’s leading literary center. New York was home to the Knickerbocker School of writers. This loosely defined group was associated simply with being from New York. Among them were Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and William Cullen Bryant. The Knickerbocker School took its name from the region, rather than from any shared style. Irving, perhaps the country’s first great literary talent, was influenced by the Hudson River Valley and by Dutch legends about the region. These influences are felt in his impressionistic A History of New York (1809), while the pleasures of the region’s pathless woods incited Cooper’s imagination; he wrote the adventure novels known collectively as the Leatherstocking Tales, which are set in the country’s earliest frontier. Bryant, a newspaper editor most of his life, is remembered for exploring humankind’s relation to nature in such works as Poems (1821).

In Boston, the literary scene of the nineteenth century included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, best known for three narrative poems, Evangeline (1847), The Song of Hiawatha (1855), and The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858); the critic and poet James Russell Lowell, best known for The Biglow Papers (1848, 1867), a series of essays attacking slavery, opposing the war with Mexico, and opposing the annexation of Texas;...

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Whitman and Melville

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Walt Whitman, America’s poet of optimistic individualism, and Herman Melville were New Yorkers whose writing was essential in forging an American literature. Both writers had sympathy for ordinary life and common occupations. Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855) speaks to the hopeful side of American freedom; Melville’s Moby Dick: Or, The Whale (1851) gives readers the thunderous dark. Nathaniel Hawthorne was a descendant of the Puritans of Massachusetts. His early work was influenced by Irving. Hawthorne’s first book, laden with allegory and parables, is Twice-Told Tales (1837), a collection. His masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter (1850), with its dark picture of the Puritan past, is recognized as a skillful blending of character development, mood, and poetic prose.

New Englander Harriet Beecher Stowe, the daughter and wife of clergymen, wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or, Life Among the Lowly (1852), an antislavery book. The book sold extremely well and was better known than any other American nineteenth century novel. The book stirred strong feeling against the fugitive slave laws. Stowe’s novel is about slavery in the South; Harriet E. Wilson of New Hampshire wrote Our Nig (1859), an autobiographical novel about the pitiful life of an indentured black woman servant in the North. Her novel is the first by an African American to be published in the United States. Sarah Orne Jewett is a local colorist; The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896) masterfully displays Jewett’s familiarity with her native Maine, and the work is considered a minor classic.


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Unknown in her lifetime, Emily Dickinson never sought, with any diligence, publication for her poetry. Her verse is unique, having nothing in common with poetic schools or any regional theme. Dickinson relied entirely on her personal experiences and considered no theme too intimate or too trivial to record. She contributed to American literature a freedom in verse that was unsurpassed.

Poet Amy Lowell, with her collection Sword Blades and Poppy Seed (1914), became a leader in poetic circles by advocating what Dickinson had practiced—that the language of verse resemble common speech and that freedom of choice and subject be absolute. Lowell’s poetry helped to bring a focus not only to her brilliant work but also to the great contribution of her intellectual antecedents, Whitman and Dickinson. These poets contributed greatly toward a distinctly American poetry. Robert Frost, perhaps the twentieth century’s greatest regional poet, also was of the opinion that poetry should be precise and concentrated. His verse portraits of the rural northeast are direct, unaffected, and beautifully sensitive to realistic detail. Frost’s famous poetry is recognized for its profound sense of the American spirit. He, more than Whitman or Dickinson, is identified with the Northeast because he wrote specifically about it.


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Poetry, short stories, and novels fared far better than drama in the Northeast. In Puritan-controlled areas any tendency to represent ideas through pantomime or physical representation was viewed harshly—theater was immoral; dancing was of the devil. Eugene O’Neill, the first American dramatist to command worldwide praise, was born in New York City. O’Neill, strongly influenced by Sigmund Freud’s theories and Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s techniques, brought a new degree of sophistication to American theater. Anna Christie (1921), a study of frustrated lives, is noted for its dramatic intensity and atmosphere of realism. O’Neill’s plays won the Pulitzer Prize for drama four times, and he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1936. The Puritan influence has a long legacy in literature of the Northeast; while more pronounced in the novels and short stories of, for example, Hawthorne, it also, arguably, has a presence in the plays of O’Neill. New York playwright Arthur Miller used the haunting history of the Salem witch trials in The Crucible (1953), in which the issue of freedom of conscience and the witchcraft trials of 1692 are employed to invoke a parallel to America, suffering from delusions of widespread communist infiltration, during the 1950’s.


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Suggested Readings

Brooks, Van Wyck. The Flowering of New England. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1936. A widely reprinted classic.

Buell, Lawrence. New England Literary Culture: From Revolution Through Renaissance. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Covers early Northeastern literature.

Canby, Henry Seidel. Classic Americans: A Study of Eminent American Writers from Irving to Whitman, with an Introductory Survey of the Colonial Background of Our National Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1931. Traces the influence of the Northeast on American literature.

Crow, Charles L., ed. A Companion to the Regional Literatures of America. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2003. This volume appraises regional literature in America from New England to the Pacific Northwest. The accomplishments and careers of regionalist geniuses such as Willa Cather, Bret Harte, and Mark Twain are also surveyed in this volume.

Murdock, Kenneth B. Literature and Theology in Colonial New England. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1949. Describes religious influences on the literature of the Northeast.

Ziff, Larzer. The Literature of the Colonial Period. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970. Surveys the formative years of Northeastern literature.