« ForrigeFortsæt »
BRITISH CRITICISMS OF AMERICAN
LITERARY CONDITIONS, 1783-1815
No phenomenon in the literary history of America is more amusing than the eagerness with which writers of the young republic set about the creation of a national literature. It speaks well for the intellectual interests of these men that they felt deficiencies, and were anxious to remedy them; it hardly speaks for their good sense that they thought literature could be developed as rapidly, and by much the same energetic methods as ship-building or the woolen industry. It is particularly strange that they should have attempted direct imitation. Not only did they hasten to write epics because they deemed that without its epic no national literature could be complete, but in the name of independence and a new literature they copied individual authors. President Dwight, one of the most energetic promoters of American letters, and the proud author of the very first American epic, planned that the seven parts of his Greenfield Hill should be in frank imitation of the manners of seven distinguished English poets.
The very feverishness with which these men worked is proof that they were extremely sensitive over the lack of an American literature; and it is natural that they should be sensitive over any unfavorable comment on their own work, and should impute any unpleasant foreign criticism to
Inherent in the whole situation was the probability of strained relations between the literary men of America and those of England.
The ambition of our literary pioneers far outran their performance, and little of the strictly literary writing done in America between 1783 and 1815 is of much intrinsic importance. The Revolution developed a number of publicists whose writings were of unusual merit; but political controversy and state papers do not impress contemporary readers as literature, except in the broad sense of that term. The most distinguished group of literary men at the close of the war was the "Hartford Wits" in Connecticut. These seemed, to the critic straining his eyes for the appearance of national geniuses, to be of great importance. But their work was imitative, and imitative of a manner that was already fast becoming out-worn. The same characteristics that have sent their writings to such complete oblivion in this country might well prevent them from receiving even contemporary attention abroad. The better work of Philip Freneau, who is now conceded to have been the finest American poet of his time, was not readily available, and was almost ignored by his countrymen; no wonder, then, that it was not discovered by Englishmen. The latter half of the period, after the more ambitious attempts had failed, was a time of literary barrenness, when little that was written finds more than brief mention in the most inclusive histories of American literature. The one striking exception to this statement, and the one American work of this period which has established its position as an American classic, is the Knickerbocker's History of New York; and this, for reasons that may in part appear, was almost unknown in England before 1815. Franklin's Autobiography is also classic, but although it became known during this period, most of it was written earlier, and it was not published in authentic form until later. Other works of especial importance were Woolman's Journal, and the romances of Charles Brockden Brown.
In England, Johnson died a year after the independence of the United States was recognized. Blair, Crabbe, Beckford, Boswell, Cowper, Gibbon, Burke lived to publish important works after 1783. Of a newer school were Blake, Burns, Rogers, Mrs. Radcliffe, "Monk" Lewis, Godwin, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, Gifford, Sydney Smith, Scott, Lamb, Landor, Peacock. Among still younger writers whose literary careers were fairly started before 1815 were Byron, Shelley, and Leigh Hunt. This list of names is a sufficient reminder of the literary activities of England during the period, and of the changes that were taking place in standards and taste. The state of formal literary criticism will be considered in connection with the list of literary periodicals.
ATTITUDES OF INDIVIDUAL ENGLISH AUTHORS
Almost all Englishmen who read and thought at all took some interest in America and American affairs during the years following the Revolution. Many have left to us opinions regarding specific events in American history, or American theories of government in general. Recorded utterances concerning American literature and literary attempts are, however, relatively rare; and of the few that exist still fewer could have become known in America in a way to influence the literary relations of the two countries. Only those criticisms that were at once published in America are of great importance in this study; but opinions expressed in private letters, or at a later date, may show to some extent the temper of the time, and be somewhat indicative of the general feeling that was in the air.
Men past middle age when the Revolution closed, and particularly men who were engrossed with some definite literary task were not likely to pay much attention to transAtlantic writings. Gibbon's published letters discuss American political affairs, but contain no literary references. Boswell was apparently not interested in America. Cursory examination of Burke's post-Revolutionary writings shows no reference to any American author except Thomas Paine.
Of the earlier poets, Crabbe seems to have had little or nothing to say about American affairs. Cowper's attitude toward the new country was that of a seeker after evangelical conquest. In a letter written in 1783 he speaks of "Thirteen pitiful colonies which the King of England chose to keep ;"" and in another remarks "It is possible America may become
1 Wright, Thomas, Life of William Cowper, p. 323.
a land of extraordinary evangelical light; but at the same. time I cannot discover anything in their new situation peculiarly favorable to such a supposition." In 1791 he wrote Dr. Coggswell of New York, who had sent him a package of American books with the pleasant news that The Task had been reprinted in America. In making his acknowledgments he spoke favorably of "Mr. Edwards's book," and particularly of "Dr. Dwight's Sermon, which pleased me almost more than any that I have either seen or heard.'' It may be that the orthodoxy of this delectable sermon inclined Cowper to a favorable view of The Conquest of Canaan, of which he wrote a criticism for the Analytical Review.
Blake's difficult poem, America, (1793) names only political and military heroes-Washington, Franklin, Paine, Warren, Gates, Hancock, Greene, Allen, Lee and apparently takes no note of any specific American achievements except those of the war.
Nor do the poets of a slightly later time seem to have been much more concerned with their American contemporaries. The projectors of Pantisocracy had no thought of any poetry on the banks of the Susquehannah except that which they might write themselves. Coleridge seems to have ignored the intellectual and cultural aspects of America. From their first meeting in Italy in 1806 he and Washington Allston were close friends, yet he never refers to Allston's poetical work. Southey's general opinion is implied in reviews to be quoted later, and in a letter written to Landor in 1812.*
[The Americans] have become independent (by our fault, most assuredly) a full century before they were of age. See what it is to have a nation to take its place among civilized states before it has either gentlemen or scholars! They have in the course of twenty years acquired a distinct national character for low and lying knavery; and so well do they deserve it that no man ever had any dealings with them without having proofs of its truth.
He is reported to have said in 1836 that he always tried to restrain Gifford from being so strongly anti-American in the
'Wright, Thomas, Life of William Cowper, p. 324. Correspondence of William Cowper, IV: 79. Foerster, Life of Landor, I: 361.