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Literary Nationalism


For most of the latter half of the twentieth century, mid-nineteenth-century American literary nationalism appeared to be a straightforward subject. Early Americanists such as F.O. Matthiessen (1902–1950) and Richard Volney Chase (1914–1962) mapped out what Matthiessen labeled an "American Renaissance," centered on the New England and New York writers Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864), Herman Melville (1819–1891), and Walt Whitman (1819–1892). These authors were perceived to have adopted the main tenets of European Romanticism and to have adapted them to the demands and possibilities of what was still a new nation. Thus, while James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851) could claim in Notions of the Americans (1828) that there was "not much to be said" about American authorship, and that it is "obvious that . . . the literature of England and that of America must be fashioned after the same models" (pp. 647–648), by 1855 all of the above writers had contributed to the creation of what came to be seen as a distinctively national canon.

Critics have identified other national narratives, told by Americans who did not belong to the northern male literary elite, and have challenged this account. Long-neglected writings by women and by African Americans have been rediscovered and reclaimed, along with the stories told by Native Americans and immigrants, and it is now generally recognized that American literary nationalism is a complex and multi-voiced genre. Although Matthiessen's subjects were (and remain) integral to the emergence of a national voice, American literature was not merely constructed as a discourse concerned with distancing itself from English texts written in a shared language. Instead, as the writings of women, African Americans, and other once-marginalized groups illustrate, the American identity was multiple, contested, and unsettled in the years preceding the Civil War.


The philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson is the pivotal figure in the emergence of the American Renaissance. In differing ways, all the other writers identified by Matthiessen can be said to have responded to Emerson's calls for a national literature. In essays such as Nature (1836), "The American Scholar" (1837), and "Self-Reliance" (1841), Emerson both defines what he sees as the principal characteristics of American identity, and calls for authors to represent them. Thus, in "The American Scholar," he announces that "our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close" (p. 83) and demands that American writers follow his lead and "embrace the common . . . the familiar, the low" (p. 102). Despite the learned nature of his own prose, Emerson stresses the need for a literature that can celebrate the individualism, democracy, and equality that he identifies at the heart of American life.

Emerson's transcendentalism can also be seen to symbolize a particular nationalist ideology. He imagines the self to expand and to incorporate the universe at a time when the United States was adopting a policy of westward expansion and the ideology of Manifest Destiny (a term coined in 1845 by the New York Post editor and journalist John L. O'Sullivan to help justify the annexation of Texas). Emerson's quest for spiritual occupation of the continent echoes political national-ism's understanding of the relationship between Americans and what was assumed to be their land.

But Emerson is also writing at a moment of crisis: he begins Nature by stating, "Our age is retrospective," and calls for his generation to "enjoy an original relation to the universe" and "a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition" rather than "grop[ing] among the dry bones of the past." For Emerson, the dependence on a European tradition and on history rather than self-reliance is distinctly un-American, and he makes a nationalistic demand for the "new lands, new men, new thoughts" to shape "our own works and laws and worship" (p. 35)

The succeeding generation of American writers, as identified by Matthiessen, address this sense of crisis in a variety of different ways, but each fosters his own brand of literary nationalism. Henry David Thoreau is perhaps closest to Emerson in his understanding of the importance of nature to the construction of individual and national selfhood, but Thoreau also extends Emerson's transcendentalist philosophy in two signifi-cant directions. First, where Emerson tends to deal in sweeping generalizations, Thoreau's writings are constructed around attention to detail, whether in listing his provisions during his stay at Walden Pond or in his measurements of the pond itself. Thoreau attempts to demonstrate an idealized version of the "simplicity" advocated by Emerson and juxtaposes this with what he sees as the overly complicated, economically driven lives led by his contemporaries. Second, Thoreau is unafraid to engage directly with political causes in a manner that is absent from Emerson's most famous early writings. Thus, in "Resistance to Civil Government" (1849), Thoreau explains that his refusal to pay his poll tax and subsequent imprisonment for one night is based (at least in part) on a principled opposition to slavery and to the war with Mexico and on the belief that the problems of the United States are the result of the abandonment of the Bible and the Constitution and the "purer sources of truth" (p. 411) from which they stem. For Thoreau, the very concept of government is anathema to American identity based upon individualist action from principle.

For Walt Whitman, the process is as much to do with form as with content. Thus, while much of the subject matter of the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855) echoes Emerson's ideas about the relationship of the self to the natural world and to the nation—as well as extending them to include celebration of the increasingly urban and industrialized society of which Emerson was deeply suspicious—the structures of poems such as "Song of Myself" are also important. Whitman's free-verse efforts to unite the nation at a moment when it was being pulled apart in the build up to the Civil War function in a variety of ways. First, the differences in layout of various sections mirror the diversity of peoples and environments within the United States. His claim that "I am large . . . I contain multitudes" (p. 85) is as much a commentary on his verse form as on the relationship between the poetic "I" and the nation. As subsequent revisions of Leaves of Grass illustrate, Whitman's poetry allows for expansion and incorporation of new ideas and peoples, just like the expanding nation. Unlike traditional formal poetry, Whitman's verse is always capable of being stretched to include celebrations of new aspects of an ever-changing and growing national identity. And like the nation pushing across the continent, the individual lines of Whitman's poems continue until their image or meaning is complete, rather than being curtailed by the lack of space of the old (European) world and its rigid poetic structures.

Like Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne is concerned with how Americans should write as well as with what they should say. Thus, while his romances engage with ideological and historical conceptions of what the nation should be as a fundamental component of their narratives, they also (both implicitly and explicitly) argue for a particularly American way of writing. Alongside engagement with issues such as self-reliance, class, the legacy of Puritanism, and the relationship of the self to the community, his fictions also contain a metanarrative considering the appropriate way to tell the national story. Unlike Emerson, Hawthorne feels that contemporary America can only be understood in relation to its past. Thus, many of his tales (including, most notably, The Scarlet Letter, 1850) utilize their staging in seventeenth-century Puritan New England as a means of allegorizing events taking place in the mid-nineteenth century. The point is made in two ways: in "The Custom-House" introduction to The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne uses the indolence of his coworkers as an example of the lethargy he believes has replaced the zeal of his ancestors. Although Hawthorne finds much to fault in the Puritans, he believes that their energy—if not their lack of imagination and subsequent failure to tolerate other opinions—offers a positive alternative to the decaying society he sees around him. Hawthorne justifies his turn to the past as subject matter for his fiction because the world he represents in "The Custom-House" is dull and unimaginative.

For this reason, Hawthorne argues that the dominant European form of storytelling—the realist novel—is unsuitable to American needs. While the realism of Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850) and Charles Dickens (1812–1870) depended upon the complexities of class relations, urban geography, and political and legal intrigue based on hundreds of years of history, the relatively new and egalitarian nation, which lacked such surface complexities, demanded a different form. In the preface to The House of the Seven Gables (1851), Hawthorne explains that the writer of a romance should "claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material" (p. 1) not available to the novelist. To discover the truths of the "new" nation, Hawthorne felt that it was necessary to look beneath the surface and to apply the powers of the imagination to the bare bones of historical detail. Unlike in the old world, where the surfaces presented the realities of individual and social identity, Hawthorne argued that in the United States the potential of the nation—the self-reliance that he called the "truth of the human heart" (p. 1)—could only be discovered elliptically, through the use of symbolism and allegory.

In many ways, Herman Melville is the most problematic of Matthiessen's authors. What are now considered to be his major novels (Moby-Dick, Pierre, The Confidence-Man) were largely unread during his lifetime, and those critics who did comment on his work, such as George Washington Peck (1817–1859), thought that Melville was more effective when writing about "savages" than when attacking white American society. Indeed, in response to the publication of Moby-Dick (1851), many critics felt that Melville had lost his mind.

Much of Melville's rediscovery in the twentieth century by the leading Americanists of the cold war, such as Richard Volney Chase, is due to their reading of Moby-Dick's Ishmael as the embodiment of an American freedom juxtaposed with the totalitarianism of Captain Ahab. Nevertheless, such readings are highly problematic: rather than celebrating this freedom, Melville's writing echoes Emerson's in their shared sense of national crisis. Moby-Dick and Pierre (1852), like shorter pieces including "Bartleby, the Scrivener" (1853) and "Benito Cereno" (1855), suggest that the politicians and people of the northern states are self-interested proto-imperialists obsessed with financial gain, and are complicit with (rather than opposed to) southern racial practice. For Melville, as for Thoreau, it is evident that the nation has deviated from the ideals established in the Constitution, and the fates of his non-conformists, such as Bartleby and Pierre, illustrate his sense of despair about modern America. Thus, while Melville's writing is nationalistic in its adherence to a particular set of principles laid out in one of the nation's founding documents, he sees little in his own culture that resembles those ideals.


The notion that a select group of writers from New England and New York could speak for the American people remained largely uncontested until the 1970s. With a general critical consensus accepting transcendentalism as the benchmark of American cultural identity, even the most popular white male writers of the early to mid-nineteenth century, such as Washington Irving (1783–1859), James Fenimore Cooper, and the poets Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882), James Russell Lowell (1819–1891), and John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892), were largely forgotten, their national narratives condemned for their adherence to European forms despite Longfellow's celebration of Native American legends and Lowell and Whittier's support for the abolitionist cause.

As popular a writer as Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) did not warrant a mention from Matthiessen, perhaps because his southern upbringing and sympathies generated a discourse that refused to participate in American cultural life in the manner of Thoreau, Whitman, or Melville. In line with his southern sympathies, Poe appears to have been not only proslavery but also very different from his New England contemporaries in his understanding of the writer as an aristocratic, rather than democratic, figure and in his attitude toward women. In addition, most of Poe's fictions deal with American national identity obliquely, in narratives set in a timeless European past, rather than in the open fashion of Thoreau, Whitman, and Melville. As a result—and also perhaps because of the unease with which most critics confront his political position—Poe has tended to be read as a modernist and removed from his specific historical circumstances. The defeat of the South in 1865 and the canonization of transcendentalism as the embodiment of American literary nationalism have led many critics to forget the extent to which the debate over what constituted American literature was contested at the time.


The exclusion of women from the nationalist canon was a product of the belief that women's lives were confined to the domestic sphere and that their selves were defined accordingly. In some ways, the writers of the American Renaissance underwrote the process: following the death of the leading transcendentalist Margaret Fuller (1810–1850), Emerson spent many years subtly undermining her reputation; likewise, Hawthorne and Melville resented and ridiculed the success of their much more commercially successful female contemporaries, condemned by Hawthorne in a letter to his publisher as a "damned mob of scribbling women." Later, a generation of critics that accepted implicitly the primacy of the public, political world assumed, almost by definition, that writing by women would be inferior and unimportant.

More recently, this dichotomy has been reassessed in various ways: critics such as Jane Tompkins have argued that the sentimental fiction of writers including Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896), Susan Warner (1819–1885), and Fanny Fern (Sarah Payson Willis Parton, 1811–1872) performed essential cultural work and is as important as the works of Hawthorne and Melville in the construction of an American literature. Thus, most famously in the case of Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), sentimental narratives function as jeremiads showing their American reader-ship how the country is straying from its proper course, warning of the consequences if matters are not rectified, and promising national and spiritual salvation if, as Stowe puts it, people's feelings "are in harmony with the sympathies of Christ" (p. 624). Uncle Tom's Cabin is largely addressed to wives and mothers and is an attempt not only to imagine the nation from a female perspective but also to use that perspective to change the nation's cultural identity. Thus, unlike the individual self-reliance of Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne, it posits national identity collectively. The book serves as one example of what Amy Kaplan and others have pointed out—that is, the extent to which women were not merely confined to the domestic sphere (counter to earlier critical belief) but participated in the public debate over national identity, in the call for suffrage and abolition, and in political debates over Indian removal and Manifest Destiny.

The multitude of recent studies of Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) has also illustrated the degree to which this "private" poet both challenges and reshapes our sense of literary nationalism. Although Dickinson tends to be contrasted with Whitman—they had differing attitudes to American public and private life and opposing verse forms—such bracketing is unnecessarily restrictive. Dickinson's privacy in itself serves as an ironic commentary on nationalist narratives of individual self-reliance, from the perspective of a writer whose options were limited because she was a woman. In her verse, Dickinson turns such narratives inward, experiencing processes of self-discovery through internal journeys, and through the act of writing, rather than through the travels across public space that characterize the works of Whitman and Melville.

In the form of her verse, Dickinson also challenges the equation of a national voice with limitless space. Her ideas are condensed into short poems, constantly disrupted by her use of dashes, and her subject matter is equally fragmented. Where Whitman seeks symbolic harmony between the "multitudes" he "contains," Dickinson's verse epitomizes the divided nature of the United States at the time, both in its form and in her refusal to reach tidy, unifying conclusions. Perhaps more than any other writer of her time, Dickinson illustrates the irresolvable conflicts that were tearing the nation apart.


A further product of the construction of an American literary canon comprised of white New England and New York writers involved in adapting (and distancing themselves from) the European Romantic tradition was the marginalization of other racial voices. Much recent criticism has demonstrated that fugitive slave narratives can be seen to construct a very different kind of national literary identity that both embraces and subverts dominant narratives of individualism and self-reliance. In addition, scholars such as Eric J. Sundquist and John Carlos Rowe have extended the critical studies of African American literature conducted in the 1960s and 1970s in order to illustrate the presence of African folklore alongside strategies of affirmation developed to deal with centuries of oppression, not only in slave narratives but also in the work of white writers such as Melville. Sundquist sees a reciprocal process of exchange between the traditions of European American and African American literatures, and Rowe shows how the explicitly political works of Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) and Harriet Jacobs (c. 1813–1897) engage more directly with national identity than do many texts by Emerson, Whitman, and Melville. It is clear not only that there are important independent traditions inherent to women, and to African Americans (as well as to other groups whose narratives had less effective political or literary impact at the time, such as Native Americans), but also that there is an ongoing dialogue across and among these groups and the figures once assumed to define American literary nationalism.

See also"The American Scholar"; Leaves of Grass;Literary Criticism; Manifest Destiny; Transcendentalism; Young America


Primary Works

Cooper, James Fenimore. Notions of the Americans. 1828. In The Norton Anthology of American Literature, vol. 1, edited by Ronald Gottesman, Laurence B. Holland, David Kalstone, Francis Murphy, Hershel Parker and William H. Pritchard, pp. 643–671. New York: Norton, 1979.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "The American Scholar." 1837. In Selected Essays, edited with an introduction by Larzer Ziff, pp. 83–105. New York: Penguin, 1982.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. 1836. In Selected Essays, edited with an introduction by Larzer Ziff, pp. 35–82. New York: Penguin, 1982.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The House of the Seven Gables. 1851. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin. 1852. New York: Penguin, 1981.

Thoreau, Henry David. "Resistance to Civil Government." 1849. In Walden and Civil Disobedience, edited with an introduction by Michael Meyer, pp. 385–413. New York: Penguin, 1983.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. 1855. New York: Penguin, 1986.

Secondary Works

Bercovitch, Sacvan, ed. The Cambridge History of AmericanLiterature, vol. 2, Prose Writing 18201865. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Bercovitch, Sacvan, and Myra Jehlen, eds. Ideology andClassic American Literature. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Chase, Richard Volney. The American Novel and Its Tradition. New York: Doubleday, 1957.

Giles, Paul. Transatlantic Insurrections: British Culture and the Formation of American Literature, 17301860. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

Kaplan, Amy. The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S.Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Lewis, R. W. B. The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955.

Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and thePastoral Ideal in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964.

Matthiessen, F.O. American Renaissance: Art andExpression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1941.

Pease, Donald E. Visionary Compacts: American RenaissanceWritings in Cultural Context. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987.

Reising, Russell J. The Unusable Past: Theory and the Study of American Literature. London: Routledge, 1986.

Reynolds, David S. Beneath the American Renaissance: The

Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Rowe, John Carlos. At Emerson's Tomb: The Politics ofClassic American Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Sundquist, Eric J. To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work ofAmerican Fiction, 17901860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Christopher Gair

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