Young America

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An energetic fusion of art and politics, the Young America movement (1840–1850) called for an American culture dissociated from European tradition. The movement united dissimilar personalities such as the colorful John O'Sullivan and the patrician Evert A. Duyckinck, while promoting such favored writers as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Margaret Fuller, and Edgar Allan Poe. Stung by Sydney Smith's question "Who reads an American book?" in the Edinburgh Review (1820), writers and critics promoted an American art consistent with democratic principles. Essential to the movement was New York City's network of book, magazine, and newspaper publishers and contributors and the city's primacy as a distribution center.

A prominent Bostonian, the transcendentalist spokesman Ralph Waldo Emerson, issued a call for American independence from the European literary and philosophical past in his 1837 Phi Beta Kappa address at Harvard, "The American Scholar." His address linked physical expansionism to cultural nationalism, a cry articulated the same year in the inaugural issue of John O'Sullivan and Samuel Langtree's United States Magazine and Democratic Review (October 1837), published in Washington, D.C. The first issue called for writers to promote the democratic principles of a new, participa-tory political system while scorning the past and lauding the "expansive," "boundless" future before the nation.


Calls for a national culture coalesced in New York City, the nation's commerce capital. The October 1825 inauguration of the Erie Canal, linking Albany and Buffalo, signaled the city's eminence in merchandizing. The 363-mile Erie Canal, built by Irish immigrants at a cost of $8 million, allowed New York City merchants control over half of the nation's imports and one-third of the exports. Within just a few years the canal annually saw $15 million worth of freight. The year the canal opened, five hundred new merchants, twelve new banks, and thirteen new marine insurance firms opened for business in the city. Between 1840 and 1860 publishing became one of the city's fastest-growing commercial activities. The prolific magazine contributor Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) was convinced of New York's dominance in 1846 when he noted that one-quarter of all U.S. authors lived there. Because of technological advances such as the steam press and the Hoe rotary press, which could print eight thousand papers an hour, the production of books, magazines, and newspapers became more profitable. Between 1820 and 1852 New York City marketed 345 newspapers. The expansive publishing network facilitated John O'Sullivan and Evert Duyckinck's efforts to market a literary nationalism influenced by Jacksonian democracy's egalitarian ideals.


John O'Sullivan (1813–1895), whose longtime family friend was Martin Van Buren (U.S. president, 1837–1841), graduated from Columbia College with a master's degree in 1834. The following year he passed the bar. At age twenty-five O'Sullivan cofounded the United States Magazine and Democratic Review with his brother-in-law Samuel Langtree, who had been one of the founders of the Knickerbocker magazine in 1833. O'Sullivan, a "Locofoco," the sobriquet for radical Democratic Party members, shrewdly combined literature and politics to ensure a catholic read-ership. The voice of the Democratic liberal wing, which advocated states' rights, abolition of capital punishment, and westward expansion, the Democratic Review boasted six thousand subscriptions by 1839.

One of the intellectual leaders of the Locofoco movement was the periodical press writer William Leggett (1801–1839), a Georgia native who had moved to New York City in the 1820s. Writing for the Plain-dealer, the Examiner, and the New York Evening Post, Leggett espoused equal rights to liberty and property (citing Thomas Jefferson) and antimonopoly reform (resulting in the Free Banking Act of 1838) and inspired the Independent Treasury Act, which removed federal deposits from state banks. Opposed to the entrenched Whig and Wall Street interests, Leggett argued that the periodical press had a role in promoting democratic values to the masses. The poet William Cullen Bryant gave the eulogy at Leggett's 1839 funeral, while O'Sullivan and Walt Whitman admitted their admiration for the fiery editorialist.

President Andrew Jackson (1829–1837), the Locofoco idol, is reported to have been the first subscriber to the Democratic Review, while President Van Buren was rumored to have provided some funding. In addition to promoting young authors such as Hawthorne and Walt Whitman, the periodical engendered two slogans: "The best government is that which governs least" and "Manifest Destiny," the justification for acquisition of new land for a steadily increasing population. While geographic expansionism had been advocated by others, John O'Sullivan coined the phrase "Manifest Destiny," which cast the policy of procuring territories as "providential." In addition, aided by Jacksonian democracy's philosophy of states' rights, universal suffrage, and easy land acquisition, Manifest Destiny argued for the U.S. role in saving the unenlightened "heathen" of the continent, a philosophy that led to the expulsion of Native Americans from lands east of the Mississippi (the Indian Removal Act of 1830) and the annexation of Mexican territories in 1846.

In the magazine's infancy O'Sullivan shrewdly made the acquaintance of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864), soliciting his work for the magazine. O'Sullivan's April 1837 letter to the struggling author promised him a new public for his work. Hawthorne was flattered enough to send "The Toll Gatherer's Day" for the inaugural issue, which would also include poems by John Greenleaf Whittier and William Cullen Bryant. The magazine published twenty-five of Hawthorne's short stories.

After an April 1840 fire destroyed the magazine's office and bindery, O'Sullivan moved the Democratic Review to New York City. Despite recurrent financial crises (1837, 1839, 1841), New York, next to London, was the world's busiest port; in 1840 the city's population was close to 400,000. While New York suffered a dearth of laboring jobs, immigrants, especially Irish, flocked to the city—100,000 in 1842 alone. Suspicion of Catholicism reigned: New York City elected the Whig mayor Aaron Clark in 1837; he had campaigned on an anti-Irish, anti-Catholic platform. The era was also violent: riots of the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s pitted nativists against Irish, Irish against Irish, and whites against blacks. Against this backdrop of social and economic uncertainty, O'Sullivan and others espousing Young America hoped to remind the nation of its inherent promise to all citizens: freedom from feudalism and tyranny. Named by the author and playwright Cornelius Mathews, Young America promoted universal enfranchisement and free trade, along with a national literature written by the people and for the people. O'Sullivan argued that "The spirit of Literature and the spirit of Democracy are one" (pp. 196–197).

Along with O'Sullivan, the New Yorker Evert Duyckinck (1816–1878) was arguably the most influential advocate of the Young America movement. Duyckinck too had attended Columbia College, earning a master's degree, and had been accepted to the bar upon graduation in 1836. That year, in the hope of creating the definitive American novel, he and Cornelius Mathews formed the Tetractys Club; its goals included literary criticism and advocacy of an original native literary culture. In December 1840 Duyckinck and Mathews's first commercial venture appeared: Arcturus, a periodical with essays, notices of the city's cultural events, and short stories. Like O'Sullivan, Duyckinck recognized Hawthorne as a seminal American author: as early as 1838 he had traveled to Salem with a letter of introduction from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Four of Hawthorne's short stories appeared in Arcturus: "The Old Maid in the Winding Sheet," "The Man of Adamant," "The Canterbury Pilgrims," and "Sir William Pepperell." (Hawthorne had offered Arcturus "Young Goodman Brown" and "Monsieur du Miroir," but for some reason they did not appear in its pages.) O'Sullivan, a tireless Hawthorne advocate, was gratified by Duyckinck's six-page essay simply called "Nathaniel Hawthorne," which appeared in May 1841. The essay called the author one of the most original American writers, the "one least indebted to foreign models or literary precedents of any kind." Arcturus, along with the Democratic Review, provided Hawthorne little financial recompense; however, it did provide him access to a combined public of fiction and political readers.

In 1844 O'Sullivan, in addition to publishing the Democratic Review, began publishing a daily newspaper, the New York Morning News, which reprinted some of the Review's articles and stories. For example, Hawthorne's "A Select Party," a story written expressly for the Young America audience, appeared in both periodicals. The Democratic Review also gave the young Walt Whitman (1819–1892) his first national audience for his early fiction. Arguing against the Whig elitist view that literature could not be appreciated, much less written, by the masses, the Democratic Review contained O'Sullivan's essay "Democracy and Literature" in its August 1842 issue. Native authors like Hawthorne and Whitman, O'Sullivan believed, demonstrated the innate superiority of American letters, unsullied by European influence. However, despite its early success, the Democratic Review claimed only two thousand subscribers in 1845, so O'Sullivan withdrew as editor. The same year, Duyckinck became its literary editor. An important vehicle for an emergent aesthetic, the Review published instrumental essays such as "Poetry for the People," "Nationality in Literature," Duyckinck's "On Writing for the Magazines," his review of Fuller's Papers on Literature and Art ("Modern English Poets"), and Whitman's own review of Leaves of Grass. Read today, the Democratic Review illustrates the dynamism of a society struggling to define itself in opposition to European cultural and political traditions.

The following passage, from Young America's primary organ Democratic Review, captures the move-ment's ringing endorsement of democracy as an amalgamation of politics and aesthetics. Freedom is alliance with literature in an emergent democratic nation, created in opposition to an oppressive European hierarchical society.

The spirit of Literature and the spirit of Democracy are one. . . . Literature is not only the natural ally of freedom, political or religious; but it also affords the firmest bulwark the wit of man has yet devised, to protect the interests of freedom. . . . Of all men the author and scholar should come nearest to the ideal of the Patriot. . . . Every discovery he makes is for the benefit of his countrymen: every truth vigorously enunciated should instruct them. . . . The novelist, the historian, and the poet . . . are essentially democratic.

O'Sullivan, "Democracy and Literature," pp. 196, 197.


After the demise of Arcturus in 1842, Duyckinck had sought a publisher for a series of inexpensive American books. After shopping at the Wiley and Putnam bookstore on Broadway and investing in its publishing house, Duyckinck and the firm made a deal in February 1845. Duyckinck would edit two series: Library of Choice Reading, which featured reprints of European titles; and Library of American Books. The Library of American Books, which marketed known and little-known authors, served as an early attempt at native canon formation and, even more important to authors, a venue for providing equitable payment for work. In an arrangement Poe applauded, Library of American Books authors received a 10 percent profit and copyright to their titles once editions met costs.

The latter series saw its first title, Journal of an African Cruiser, hit the streets in May 1845. Duyckinck had approached Hawthorne for a history of witchcraft for the series; Hawthorne had declined but agreed to edit his friend Horatio Bridge's travel narrative, a popular genre of the era. Hawthorne would later contribute twenty-two previously published tales and the new "The Old Manse" for the two-volume Mosses from an Old Manse (1846), volumes 17 and 18 of the series. Appearing two months into his tenure at the Salem Custom House (a position O'Sullivan helped him obtain), Hawthorne, the "Loco-foco Surveyor," vowed never to write magazine articles again. Mosses is a testimony to Duyckinck's business acumen: the book underwent six printings in six years. Whitman, editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, lauded the goals of the series while he hoped that native geniuses could earn the monies awarded to foreign authors. O'Sullivan's Democratic Review and Morning News both promoted the series in reviews and notices of new titles.

Although many of the titles have not survived canon formation, several of the works and their authors have. The Library of American Books published Melville's Typee (1846); Fuller's Papers on Literature and Art (1846), a collection of Dial and Tribune essays, along with the original "American Literature"; Poe's The Raven, and Other Poems (1845) and his Tales (1845); Caroline Kirkland's Western Clearings (1845); and William Gilmore Simms's Views and Reviews in American Literature (1845). With Hawthorne's assistance Duyckinck approached Emerson and Thoreau about contributing to the series: Emerson decided to publish Representative Men (1850) elsewhere, as did Thoreau for A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849). The series should be recognized for its promotion of new writers, especially women writers, and its shrewd recognition that literary art is both culture and a commodity.


The first issue of the Literary World, a weekly magazine melding politics, art, gossip, and advertising, appeared in February 1847. Hired initially as its editor, Evert Duyckinck joined with his brother George to buy the weekly outright in October 1848, and they published it until its demise in 1854. The Duyckincks argued for a public receptive to American culture; hence various issues would call for a funded system of public education. Good magazines, Evert argued, served as "companions" to the cultivated. Generous in attention to Poe, Fuller, Melville, and Hawthorne, the Literary World published excerpts, reviews, and notices of their work, usually soliciting Library of American Books authors to review the books of other writers in the series. Hawthorne contributed reviews of Typee and Views and Reviews in American History; Fuller reviewed Typee and Mosses from an Old Manse. The Literary World, like the Democratic Review, promoted Hawthorne as an original American voice; it lauded The Scarlet Letter as a "psychological romance" and termed The House of the Seven Gables as original and creative.

Gratified by the success of Melville's Typee, Duyckinck had become a literary mentor to the former sailor; as he opened his copious library to Melville, the Literary World published excerpts of Omoo (1847) and Mardi (1849) while soliciting from Melville reviews of other works, including J. Ross Browne's Etchings of a Whaling Cruise (1850). Bewildered by Mardi, which had been intended as a travel narrative, the Literary World loyally promoted the novel as "Rabelaisian." (Duyckinck knew Melville had borrowed Rabelais from his 15,000-volume library.) Mardi was not a commercial success, so Melville authored two more traditional nautical books: Redburn (1849) and White-Jacket (1850). Moving to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to work on his latest book, Melville was introduced to Hawthorne: Duyckinck had brought a copy of Mosses from an Old Manse, which he wanted Melville to review for Literary World. The result was the two-part essay "Hawthorne and His Mosses," a review in which Melville posited Hawthorne as Melville's own literary precursor. Melville then recast his whaling novel as an allegorical, metaphysical epic. Duyckinck, so desirous of a friendship between his two heavily promoted authors, would later be displeased with the creative result of that meeting. Literary World's anonymous two-part review of Moby-Dick, which may have been authored by brother George Duyckinck, praised the novel's striking narration and style while curiously condemning its originality and irreverence toward Christianity. Melville retaliated with his parody of Young America in the 1852 Pierre, ridiculing the fickleness of the marketplace. Neither Moby-Dick nor Pierre was a financial success. The two men would eventually reconcile: visiting Evert Duyckinck on a monthly basis for the last three years of the editor's life, Melville would be his final visitor before the editor's death in 1878.


By 1850 Young America was nearly spent. The May 1849 Astor Place theater riot sounded a symbolic death knell: New York's Seventh Regiment fired upon a mob protesting the British classical actor William Macready's portrayal of Macbeth; 29 people died and 150 were injured. The Literary World published two columns condemning New York's hostility to Macready and applauded the use of force against the unruly crowd. Duyckinck and Melville had previously signed a published letter pleading with the British actor to continue his American tour after a disruption during an earlier performance. Cornelius Mathews too, while advocating power to the people, condemned their unruly behavior in a cultural arena. Duyckinck, Mathews, and Melville were horrified when participatory democracy ran amok.

After 1850 Hawthorne became a popular writer, obtaining a Boston publisher for The Scarlet Letter in 1850; Melville returned to the periodical press, with his finest short stories appearing in Putnam's Monthly Magazine. In 1856 Duyckinck and his brother George published the two-volume Cyclopaedia of American Literature, an exhaustive catalog of some two thousand men and women of American thought and letters. Upon his death Duyckinck left his library of books, pamphlets, and papers to the Lenox Library, where the materials became an invaluable source on the formation of nineteenth-century literary art. O'Sullivan, fictionalized as the political daguerreotypist in Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables, was arrested in 1851 for arming a vessel to attack Cuba; his trial ended with a hung jury. In endorsing the southern states' rights, he sympathized with the Confederacy, remaining in England during the Civil War. Returning to New York City in 1879, he died in obscurity in 1895.


While such authors as Hawthorne, Melville, Fuller, Poe, and Simms received much attention during Young America's heyday, the writer who best articulated O'Sullivan's and Duyckinck's vision of a distinctive native literature was Walt Whitman. Whitman revered the Locofoco hero Andrew Jackson after seeing him at an 1833 rally in Brooklyn. The Democratic Review published his early fiction, written as Whitman also contributed to several daily newspapers, including O'Sullivan's Morning News. Whitman's revolutionary Leaves of Grass (1855), printed in Brooklyn, even then a working-class neighborhood, celebrated a singular American sensibility with a diverse range of characters and idioms Duyckinck would not have approved. Whitman, who clipped articles from Democratic Review, internalized Young America's call while ignoring Mathews's and Duyckinck's insistence that this new style be formal and sublime. Emerson applauded Leaves of Grass, foretelling an illustrious career for Whitman; however, the collection received mixed critical reviews. After the second edition (1856), Whitman assumed editorship of the Brooklyn Daily Times (1857), where he wrote editorials and reviewed books and magazines. He continued revising Leaves of Grass up to his death, so no definitive edition exists. Now recognized for his singular genius, Whitman commemorated the democratic masses: his poetry answered Young America's call for a people's literature.

See alsoDemocracy; Knickerbocker Writers; Manifest Destiny


Primary Works

Duyckinck, Evert A., and George L. Duyckinck, eds. Cyclopaedia of American Literature. 1856. Detroit: Gale, 1965.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Complete Essays and OtherWritings. Edited by Brooks Atkinson. New York: Modern Library, 1950.

"The Great Nation of Futurity." Democratic Review, November 1839, pp. 426–430.

O'Sullivan, John. "Democracy and Literature." Democratic Review (August 1842): 196–200.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. 1855. Edited by Sculley Bradley and Harold W. Blodgett. New York: Norton, 1973.

Secondary Works

Bender, Thomas. New York Intellect: A History ofIntellectual Life in New York City from 1750 to the Beginnings of Our Own Time. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1987.

Miller, Perry. The Raven and the Whale: The War of Words and Wits in the Era of Poe and Melville. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1956.

Spencer, Benjamin T. The Quest for Nationality: AnAmerican Literary Campaign. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1957.

Stafford, John. The Literary Criticism of "Young America":A Study in the Relationship of Politics and Literature 1837–1850. New York: Russell and Russell, 1957.

Weinberg, Albert K. Manifest Destiny: A Study ofNationalist Expansionism in American History. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1958.

Widmer, Edward L. Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City. Oxford: University Press, 1999.

Cheryl D. Bohde