C19 US Literature: How to Approach It


(Is this the American Dream?)

This week—in addition to Hawthorne, about whom I’ll be writing a separate post—we discussed a couple of basic but important issues:

  1. How to approach a historical consideration of C19 America
  2. The essential characteristics and concerns of C19 American literature.

What we said about C19 America is that, to put it simply, there are lots of C19s and lots of Americas! As with any country, America was a profoundly different place in 1900 than it was in 1800. But this was especially so in the US: over the decades of the C19, the country saw a relentless expansion westward, bringing huge additions to the national territory (though often at the expense of the original or earlier inhabitants).

We also saw that the US that emerges at the end of the C19 is one that was—and, perhaps, still is—profoundly marked by the scars of a civil war. This war was not only the gathering storm on the horizon of the early-to-mid 1800s, but was also a factor that shaped the post-bellum period. The essential concept here, of course, is slavery, and the complex and controversial attitudes that the South held towards it.

We discussed, too, the way that the emerging nation, at the beginning of the C19, was admirably idealistic, dynamic, democratic and revolutionary, having successfully broken away from the control of the British Empire, from which it had slowly developed. Yet this very nation also tolerated (or even encouraged) slavery, committed genocide on the American Indians and had little problems attacking and destroying other national sovereignties that were in the way of American expansion, such as that of Mexico.

These aspects and tension (and others) are all reflected in the many forms of literature that grew up in the 1800s in America. This literature, gradually freeing itself of notions of inferiority with respect to the literature produced in Britain, soon entered into a period of confident and successful literary creativity (c. 1820-1865) sometimes termed the American Renaissance, or American Literary Nationalism, in which its writers were recognised both at home and internationally as equal to any of the great authors in continental Europe.

Some of the characteristics of this literature, as we saw, are the following:

  • An abiding interest in “The West”.
  • Its articulation through swiftly growing journalism (which favoured poetry and short stories), thus empowering readers, who make their demands and opinions very clear; women writers, who are given access to publication; and new literary voices, such as Poe and Hawthorne, who gain the first readerships through this medium.
  • A concern with the question of whether the American Revolution has been a failure by undermining its principles.
  • An interest in Travel, especially the idea of expansion into new and unknown territories.
  • A concern with the part particularities of urban life (particularly as the cities of Boston, Philadelphia and New York were developing into cultural centres that rivalled the old European cities).
  • Simultaneously, preoccupation with the new urban poor and immigration, particularly as as it affected the societies of the eastern seaboard.
  • A profound interest in Transcendentalism, which challenged the ways in which modern life appeared to be shaping affected humanity, and which called for a greater unity with nature as a means of constructing more reliable communities.
  • A growing concern with women’s rights, and with the idea of political emancipation for all women.
  • A sense of deception and confusion with the paradox of a revolutionary and liberal nation of the “New World” that so directly engaged itself with genocide and slavery.
  • Voices of the newly marginalised: the native Indians, the slaves…

These are some of the many concerns reflected in much pre-bellum writing, and in this we see in great clarity many of the issues that would lead to the maelstrom of Civil War. Thereafter, things change and other ideas begin to crowd the scene. But that’s another story, and so we’ll have to leave it to another day.

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