“How tame will his language sound, who would describe Niagara in language fitted for the falls at London bridge, or attempt the majesty of the Mississippi in that which was made for the Thames?” —North American Review (1815)
“In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?” —Edinburgh Review (1820)
Turning from an eastern dusk and towards a western dawn, Benjamin Franklin miraculously saw a rising sun on the horizon after having done some sober demographic calculations in 1751. Not quite yet the aged, paunchy, gouty, balding raconteur of the American Revolution, but rather only the slightly paunchy, slightly gouty, slightly balding raconteur of middle-age, Franklin examined the data concerning the births, immigration, and quality of life in the English colonies by contrast to Great Britain. In his Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Franklin noted that a century hence, and “the greatest Number of Englishmen will be on this Side of the Water” (while also taking time to make a number of patently racist observations about a minority group in Pennsylvania—the Germans). For the scientist and statesman, such magnitude implied inevitable conclusions about empire.
Whereas London and Manchester were fetid, crowded, stinking, chaotic, and over-populated, Philadelphia and Boston were expansive, fresh, and had room to breathe. In Britain land was at a premium, but in America there was the seemingly limitless expanse stretching towards an unimaginable West (which was, of course, already populated by people). In the verdant fecundity of the New World, Franklin imagined (as many other colonists did) that a certain “Merry Old England” that had been supplanted in Europe could once again be resurrected, a land defined by leisure and plenty for the largest number of people. Such thoughts occurred, explains Henry Nash Smith in his classic study Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth, because “the American West was nevertheless there, a physical fact of great if unknown magnitude.”
As Britain expanded into that West, Franklin argued that the empire’s ambitions should shift from the nautical to the agricultural, from the oceanic to the continental, from sea to land. Smith describes Franklin as a “far-seeing theorist who understood what a portentous role North America” might play in a future British Empire. Not yet an American, but still an Englishmen—and the gun smoke of Lexington and Concord still 24 years away—Franklin enthusiastically prophesizes in his pamphlet that “What an Accession of Power to the British Empire by Sea as well as Land!”
A decade later, and he’d write in a 1760 missive to a one Lord Kames that “I have long been of opinion, that the foundations of the future grandeur and stability of the British empire lie in America.” And so, with some patriotism as a trueborn Englishmen, Benjamin Franklin could perhaps imagine the Court of St. James transplanted to the environs of the Boston Common, the Houses of Parliament south of Manhattan’s old Dutch Wall Street, the residence of George II of Great Britain moved from Westminster to Philadelphia’s Southwest Square. After all, it was the Anglo-Irish philosopher and poet George Berkeley, writing his lyric “Verses on the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America” in his Providence, Rhode Island manse, who could gush that “Westward the course of empire takes its way.”
But even if aristocrats could perhaps share Franklin’s ambitions for a British Empire that stretched from the white cliffs of Dover to San Francisco Bay (after all, christened “New Albion” by Francis Drake), the idea of moving the capital to Boston or Philadelphia seemed anathema. Smith explained that it was “asking too much of an Englishmen to look forward with pleasure to the time when London might become a provincial capital taking orders from an imperial metropolis somewhere in the interior of North America.” Besides, it was a moot point, since history would intervene. Maybe Franklin’s pamphlet was written a quarter century before, but the gun smoke of Lexington and Concord was wafting, and soon the idea of a British capital on American shores seemed an alternative history and a historical absurdity.
Something both evocative and informative, however, in this counterfactual; imagining a retinue of the Queen’s Guard processing down the neon skyscraper canyon of Broadway, or the dusk splintering off of the gold dome of the House of Lords at the crest of Beacon Hill overlooking Boston Common. Don’t mistake my enthusiasms for this line of speculation as evidence of a reactionary monarchism, I’m very happy that such a divorce happened, even if less than amicably. What does fascinate me is the way in which the cleaving of America from Britain affected how we understand each other, the ways in which we become “two nations divided by a common language,” as variously Mark Twain or George Bernard Shaw have been reported as having waggishly once uttered.
Even more than the relatively uninteresting issue that the British spell their words with too many u’s, or say weird things like “lorry” when they mean truck, or “biscuit” when they mean cookie, is the more theoretical but crucial issue of definitions of national literature. Why are American and British literature two different things if they’re mostly written in English, and how exactly do we delineate those differences? It can seem arbitrary that the supreme Anglophiles Henry James and T.S. Eliot are (technically) Americans, and their British counterparts W.H. Auden and Dylan Thomas can seem so fervently Yankee. Then there is what we do with the early folks; is the “tenth muse,” colonial poet Anne Bradstreet, British because she was born in Northampton, England, or was she American because she died in Ipswich, Mass.? Was Thomas More “American” because Utopia is in the Western Hemisphere, was Shakespeare a native because he dreamt of The Tempest? Such divisions make us question how language relates to literature, and how literature interacts with nationality, and what that says vis-à-vis the differences between Britain and America, the lion and the eagle.
A difficulty emerges in separating two national literatures that share a common tongue, and that’s because traditionally literary historians equated “nation with a tongue,” as critic William C. Spengemann writes in A New World of Words: Redefining Early American Literature, explaining how what gave French literature or German literature a semblance of “identity, coherence, and historical continuity” was that they were defined by language and not by nationality. By such logic, if Dante was an Italian writer, Jean-Jacques Rousseau a French one, and Franz Kafka a German author, then it was because those were the languages in which they wrote, despite them respectively being Swiss, Czech, and Florentine.
Americans, however, largely speak in the tongue of the country that once held dominion over the thin sliver of land that stretched from Maine to Georgia, and as far west as the Alleghenies. Thus, an unsettling conclusion has to be drawn; perhaps the nationality of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Emily Dickinson was American, but the literature they produced would be English, so that with horror we realize that Walt Whitman’s transcendent “barbaric yawp” would be growled in the Queen’s tongue. Before he brilliantly complicates that logic, Spengemann sheepishly concludes, “writings in English by Americans belong, by definition, to English literature.”
Sometimes misattributed to linguist Noam Chomsky, it was actually the scholar of Yiddish Max Weinreich who quipped that a “language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” If that’s the case, then a national literature is the bit of territory that that army and navy police. But what happens when that language is shared by two separate armies and navies? To what nation does the resultant literature then belong? No doubt there are other countries where English is the lingua franca; all of this anxiety over the difference between British and American literature doesn’t seem so quite involved as regards British literature and its relationship to poetry and prose from Canada, Australia, or New Zealand for that matter.
Sometimes those national literatures, and especially English writing from former colonies like India and South Africa, are still folded into “British Literature.” So Alice Munro, Les Murray, Clive James, J.M. Coetzee, and Salman Rushdie could conceivably be included in anthologies or survey courses focused on “British Literature”—though they’re Canadian, Australian, South African, and Indian—where it would seem absurd to similarly include William Faulkner and Toni Morrison in the same course. Some anthologizers who are seemingly unaware that Ireland isn’t Great Britain will even include James Joyce and W.B. Yeats alongside Gerard Manley Hopkins and D.H. Lawrence as somehow transcendentally “English,” but the similar (and honestly less offensive) audacity of including Robert Lowell or Sylvia Plath as “English” writers is unthinkable.
Perhaps it’s simply a matter of shared pronunciation, the superficial similarity of accent that makes us lump Commonwealth countries (and Ireland) together as “English” literature, but something about that strict division between American and British literature seems more deliberate to me, especially since they ostensibly do share a language. An irony in that though, for as a sad and newly independent American said in 1787, “a national language answers the purpose of distinction: but we have the misfortune of speaking the same language with a nation, who, of all people in Europe, have given, and continue to give us thefewest proofs of love.”
Before embracing English, or pretending that “American” was something different than English, both the Federal Congress and several state legislatures considered making variously French, German, Greek, and Hebrew our national tongue, before wisely rejecting the idea of one preferred language. So unprecedented and so violent was the breaking of America with Britain, it did after all signal the end of the first British Empire, and so conscious was the construction of a new national identity in the following century, that it seems inevitable that these new Federalists would also declare an independence for American literature.
One way this was done, shortly after the independence of the Republic, is exemplified by the fantastically named New York Philological Society, whose 1788 charter exclaimed their founding “for the purpose of ascertaining and improving the American Tongue.” If national literatures were defined by language, and America’s language was already the inheritance of the English, well then, these brave philologists would just have to transform English into American. Historian Jill Lepore writes in A Is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States that the society was created in the “aftermath of the bloody War for Independence” in the hope that “peacetime America would embrace language and literature and adopt…a federal, national language.”
Lepore explains the arbitrariness of national borders; their contingency in the time period that the United States was born; and the manner in which, though language is tied to nationality, such an axiom is thrust through with ambiguity, for countries are diverse of speech and the majority of a major language’s speakers historically don’t reside in the birthplace of that tongue. For the New York Philological Society, it was imperative to come up with the solution of an American tongue, to “spell and speak the same as one another, but differently from people in England.” So variable were (and are) the dialects of the United States, from the non-rhotic dropped “r” of Boston and Charleston, which in the 18th century was just developing in imitation of English merchants to the guttural, piratical swagger of Western accents in the Appalachians, that this lexicographer hoped to systematize such diversity into an unique American language. As one of those assembled scholars wrote, “Language, as well as government should be national…America should have her own distinct from all the world.” His name was Noah Webster and he intended his American Dictionary to birth an entirely new language.
It didn’t of course, even if “u” fell out of “favour.” Such was what Lepore describes as an orthographic declaration of independence, for “there iz no alternativ” as Webster would write in his reformed spelling. But if Webster’s goal was the creation of a genuine new language, he inevitably fell short, for the fiction that English and “American” are two separate tongues is as political as is the claim that Bosnian and Serbian, or Swedish and Norwegian, are different languages (or that English and Scots are the same, for that matter). British linguist David Crystal writes in The Stories of English that “The English language bird was not freed by the American manoeuvre,” his Anglophilic spelling a direct rebuke to Webster, concluding that the American speech “hopped out of one cage into another.”
Rather, the intellectual class turned towards literature itself to distinguish America from Britain, seeing in the establishment of writers who surpassed Geoffrey Chaucer or Shakespeare a national salvation. Melville, in his consideration of Hawthorne and American literature more generally, predicted in 1850 that “men not very much inferior to Shakespeare are this day born on the banks of the Ohio.” Three decades before that, and the critic Sydney Smith had a different evaluation of the former colonies and their literary merit, snarking interrogatively in the Edinburgh Review that “In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?” In the estimation of the Englishmen (and Scotsmen) who defined the parameters of the tongue, Joel Barlow, Philip Freneau, Hugh Henry Brackenridge, Washington Irving, Charles Brockden Brown, and James Fenimore Cooper couldn’t compete with the sublimity of British literature.
Yet, by 2018, British critics weren’t quite as smug as Smith had been, as more than 30 authors protested the decision four years earlier to allow Americans to be considered for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. In response to the winning of the prize by George Saunders and Paul Beatty, English author Tessa Hadley told The New York Times “it’s as though we’re perceived…as only a subset of U.S. fiction, lost in its margins and eventually, this dilution of the community of writers plays out in the writing.” Who in the four corners of the globe reads an American novel? Apparently, the Man Booker committee. But Hadley wasn’t, in a manner, wrong in her appraisal. By the 21st century, British literature is just a branch of American literature. The question is how did we get here?
Only a few decades after Smith wrote his dismissal, and writers would start to prove Melville’s contention, including of course the author of Benito Cereno and Billy Bud himself. In the decade before the Civil War there was a Cambrian Explosion of American letters, as suddenly Romanticism had its last and most glorious flowering in the form of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Emily Dickinson, and of course Walt Whitman. Such was the movement whose parameters were defined by the seminal scholar F.O. Matthiessen in his 1941 classic American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman, who included studies of all of those figures saving (unfortunately) Dickinson.
The Pasadena-born-but-Harvard-trained Matthiessen remains one of the greatest professors to ever ask his students to close-read a passage of Emerson. American Renaissance was crucial in discovering American literature as something distinct and great in its own right from British literature. Strange to think now, but for most of the 20th century the teaching of American literature was left for either history classes, or the nascent (State Department funded) discipline of American Studies. English departments, true to the very name of the field, tended to see American poetry and novels as beneath consideration in the study of “serious” literature. The general attitude of American literary scholars about their own national literature can be summed up by Victorian critic Charles F. Richardson, who, in his 1886 American Literature, opined that “If we think of Shakespeare, Bunyan, Milton, the seventeenth-century choir of lyrists, Sir. Thomas Browne, Jeremy Taylor, Addison, Swift, Dryden, Gray, Goldsmith, and the eighteenth-century novelists…what shall we say of the intrinsic worth of most of the book written on American soil?” And that was a book by an American about American literature!
On the eve of the World War II and Matthiessen approached his subject in a markedly different way, and while scholars had granted the field a respectability, American Renaissance was chief in radically altering the manner in which we thought about writing in English (or “American”). Matthiessen surveyed the diversity of the 1850s from the repressed Puritanism of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter to the Pagan-Calvinist cosmopolitan nihilism of Moby-Dick and the pantheistic manual that is Thoreau’s Walden in light of the exuberant homoerotic mysticism of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Despite such diversity, Matthiessen concluded that the “one common denominator of my five writers…was their devotion to the possibilities of democracy.” Matthiessen was thanked for his discovery of American literature by being hounded by the House Un-American Activities Committee over his left-wing politics, until the scholar jumped from the 12th floor of Boston’s Hotel Manger in 1950. The critic’s commitment to democracy was all the more poignant in light of his death, for Matthiessen understood that it’s in negotiation, diversity, and collaboration that American literature truly distinguished itself. Here was an important truth, what Spengemann explains when he argues that American literature is defined not by the language in which it is written (as with British literature), but rather “American literature had to be defined politically.”
When considering the American Renaissance, an observer might be tempted to whisper “Westward the course of empire,” indeed. Franklin’s literal dream of an American capital to the British Empire never happened. Yet by the decade when the United States would wrench itself apart in an apocalyptic civil war, ironically America would become figurative capital of the English language. From London the energy, vitality, and creativity of the English language would move westward to Massachusetts in the twilight of Romanticism, and after a short sojourn in Harvard and Copley Squares, Concord and Amherst, it would migrate towards New York City with Whitman, which if not the capital of the English became the capital of the English language. From the 1850s onward, British literature became a regional variation of American literature, a branch on the latter’s tree, a mere phylum in its kingdom.
English literary critics of the middle part of the 19th century didn’t note this transition; arguable if British reviewers in the mid part of the 20th century did either, but if they didn’t, it’s an act of critical malpractice. For who would trade the epiphanies in ballad-meter that are the lyrics of Dickinson in favor of the arid flatulence of Alfred Lord Tennyson? Who would reject the maximalist experimentations of Melville for the reactionary nostalgia of chivalry in Walter Scott? Something ineffable crossed the Atlantic during the American Renaissance, and the old problem of how we could call American literature distinct from British since both are written in English was solved—the later is just a subset of the former.
Thus, Hadley’s fear is a reality, and has been for a while. Decades before Smith would mock the pretensions of American genius, and the English gothic novelist (and son of the first prime minister) Horace Walpole would write, in a 1774 letter to Horace Mann, that the “next Augustan age will dawn on the other side of the Atlantic. There will, perhaps, be a Thucydides at Boston, a Xenophon at New York, and, in time, a Virgil at Mexico, and an Isaac Newton at Peru. At last, some curious traveler from Lima will visit England and give a description of the ruins of St. Paul’s.” Or maybe Walpole’s curious traveler was from California, as our language’s literature has ever moved west, with Spengemann observing that if by the American Renaissance the “English-speaking world had removed from London to the eastern seaboard of the United States, carrying the stylistic capital of the language along with it…[then] Today, that center of linguistic fashion appears to reside in the vicinity of Los Angeles.” Franklin would seem to have gotten his capital, staring out onto a burnt ochre dusk over the Pacific Palisades, as westward the course of empire has deposited history in that final location of Hollywood.
John Leland writes in Hip: The History that “Three generations after Whitman and Thoreau had called for a unique national language, that language communicated through jazz, the Lost Generation and the Harlem Renaissance…American cool was being reproduced, identically, in living rooms from Paducah to Paris.” Leland concludes it was “With this voice, [that] America began to produce the popular culture that would stamp the 20th century as profoundly as the great wars.” What’s been offered by the American vernacular, by American literature as broadly constituted and including not just our letters but popular music and film as well, is a rapacious, energetic, endlessly regenerative tongue whose power is drawn not by circumscription but in its porous and absorbent ability to draw from a variety of languages that have been spoken in this land. Not just English, but languages from Algonquin to Zuni.
No one less than the great grey poet Whitman himself wrote, “We American have yet to really learn our own antecedents, and sort them, to unify them. They will be found ampler than has been supposed, and in widely different sources.” Addressed to an assembly gathered to celebrate the 333th anniversary of Santa Fe, Whitman surmised that “we tacitly abandon ourselves to the notion that our United States have been fashion’d from the British Islands only, and essentially form a second England only—which is a very great mistake.” He of the multitudinous crowd, the expansive one, the incarnation of America itself, understood better than most that the English tongue alone can never define American literature. Our literature is Huck and Jim heading out into the territories, and James Baldwin drinking coffee by the Seine; Dickinson scribbling on the backs of envelopes and Miguel Piñero at the Nuyorican Poets Café. Do I contradict myself? Very well then. Large?—of course. Contain multitudes?—absolutely.
Spengemann glories in the fact that “if American literature is literature written by Americans, then it can presumably appear in whatever language an American writer happens to use,” be it English or Choctaw, Ibo or Spanish. Rather than debating what the capital of the English language is, I advocate that there shall be no capitals. Rather than making borders between national literatures we must rip down those arbitrary and unnecessary walls. There is a national speech unique to everyone who puts pen to paper; millions of literatures for millions of speakers. How do you speak American? By speaking English. And Dutch. And French. And Yiddish. And Italian. And Hebrew. And Arabic. And Ibo. And Wolof. And Iroquois. And Navajo. And Mandarin. And Japanese. And of course, Spanish. Everything can be American literature because nothing is American literature. Its promise is not just a language, but a covenant.
Image credit: Freestock/Joanna Malinowska.
Some writers find their voices by heading off to Europe. Others (like Thoreau in Walden) head off to the woods instead. At The Rumpus, David Biespiel writes about the year he moved to Vermont, and what it meant to see himself as “leaning into” his youth. Pair with our own Anne K. Yoder on Ken Kesey and the Oregon coast.
At Brain Pickings, Maria Popova shares a series of drawings (produced in collaboration with Debbie Millman) that map the regions of the US according to literary quotations. Thoreau, perhaps not surprisingly, gets the East Coast with a quote from Walden, while Year in Reading alum Jeffrey Eugenides represents the Midwest.