English Literature

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Biblical and Hebraic Influences

The Bible has generally been found to be congenial to the English spirit. Indeed, the earliest English poetry consists of the seventh-century metrical paraphrases of Genesis and Exodus attributed to Caedmon (died c. 680). Here the emphasis is on the military prowess of the ancient Hebrew warriors. Abraham in his fight against the five kings (Gen. 14) takes on the character of an Anglo-Saxon tribal chief leading his thanes into battle. One early biblical work was Jacob and Josep, an anonymous early 13th-century poem written in the Midlands dialect. As in France, biblical figures also appear in the medieval miracle or mystery plays staged in York and other towns. A more religious understanding of the Old Testament was achieved later, in the period of the Reformation, with works such as the Greek academic drama about Jephthah written in 1544 by the Catholic Christopherson. This Hebrew judge inspired several dramatic works, notably the ballad "Jephthah Judge of Israel," quoted by William *Shakespeare (Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2) and included in Bishop Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765); and Jephthes Sive Votum (1554), by the Scottish poet George Buchanan, who also wrote a Latin paraphrase of the Psalms (1566). Other biblical works of the 16th century were God's Promises (1547–48) by John Bale; The Historie of Jacob and Esau (1557), a comedy by Nicholas Udall in which Esau represents the Catholics and Jacob the faithful Protestants; the anonymous New Enterlude of Godly Queene Hester (1560), which had strong political undertones; Thomas Garber's The Commody of the most vertuous and Godlye Susanna (1578); and The Love of King David and Fair Bethsabe (1599) by George Peele mainly about Absalom. From the Middle Ages, biblical and Hebraic influences had a profound impact on English culture. Works inspired by the Bible were especially prominent in the 17th century, first during the era of Puritanism, and later when the undogmatic, practical temper of Anglican piety led to a new evaluation both of the Jews and of the Hebrew scriptures. The Puritans were particularly drawn to the Psalms and to the records of the Judges of Israel, with whom they were apt to identify themselves. John *Milton, their greatest representative, knew Hebrew, and his epic Paradise Lost (1667) and Samson Agonistes (1671) are steeped in biblical and Judaic lore. The Puritans' doctrine of election and covenant also derived to a great extent from Hebrew sources. They made the "Covenant" a central feature of their theological system and also of their social life, often undertaking their religious and political obligations to one another on the basis of a formal covenant, as recorded in Genesis. There are interesting developments of the covenant idea in the philosophies of Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) and John Locke (1632–1704), and also in Milton and the 17th-century religious radicals known as the Levellers. The same period saw the publication of other works based on the Bible or Jewish history, such as the Davideis (1656), an anti-royalist epic poem by Abraham Cowley, and Titus and Berenice (1677), a play by Thomas Otway based on the tragedy Bérénice by Jean *Racine. John Dryden dramatized Milton's Paradise Lost unconvincingly as The State of Innocence and Fall of Man (1677). His famous satire Absalom and Achitophel (1681), in which David represents Charles ii, reflects the contemporary political scene. In the 18th century, various minor writers provided the librettos for Handel's oratorios, over a dozen of which deal with Old Testament themes ranging from Israel in Egypt (1738) to Judas Maccabaeus (1747). Hannah More, who wrote Belshazzar (one of her Sacred Dramas, 1782), was one of several English writers who paid attention to this figure. Others were Henry Hart Milman (Belshazzar, 1822); Robert Eyres Landor, who wrote The Impious Feast (1828); and Lord *Byron, whose Hebrew Melodies (1815) contains a poem on this subject. William Wordsworth revealed an imagination shaped by biblical forms and patterns, and in "Michael" the dramatic focus of the whole poem is the picture of an old man setting up a heap of stones as a covenant between himself and his son at their parting. In a more scholarly field, the Christian Hebraist Robert *Lowth devoted much time to the study of Hebrew poetry in the Bible. One novelist in whom a fairly strong Hebraic background can be discerned is Henry Fielding, whose Joseph Andrews (1742) was intended to recall the lives of Joseph and Abraham.

biblical motifs in later writers

During the third decade of the 19th century, the biblical figure of Cain was the center of some literary controversy and interest. The publication of an English translation of Salomon Gessner's German prose epic Der Tod Abels (1758) in 1761 set a fashion, and Coleridge's "Gothic" work on this theme was one of many. Byron's attempt to transform the first murderer into a hero in his Cain (1821) roused a storm of protest, provoking The Ghost of Abel (1822), a riposte by William *Blake. A less revolutionary side of Byron is seen in his Hebrew Melodies, which includes poems on Jephthah's daughter, Sennacherib, and the Babylonian Exile. The 19th century produced many other works of biblical inspiration by English writers. One which had a great vogue in its day was Joseph and His Brethren (1824), a grandiose epic poem written under a pen name by Charles Jeremiah Wells. In his Poems (1870), Dante Gabriel Rossetti used Midrashic and legendary material for his treatment of the conflict between Satan and Lilith and Adam and Eve in "Eden Bower." Alfred Austin wrote The Tower of Babel (1874); and in defiance of the censors Oscar Wilde first published his daring comedy Salomé in French (1893), the English version only being allowed on to the British stage in 1931. A number of leading 20th-century writers maintained this interest in the personalities and themes of the Old Testament. They include C.M. Doughty, with the dramatic poem Adam Cast Forth (1908); George Bernard Shaw, in his play Back to Methuselah (1921); Thomas Sturge Moore, author of the plays Absalom (1903), Mariamne (1911), and Judith (1911); the poet John Masefield who wrote A King's Daughter (1923) on Jezebel; D.H. Lawrence, with his play David (1926); Arnold Bennett, whose Judith had a brief, sensational run in 1919; and Sir James Barrie, who wrote the imaginative but unsuccessful play The Boy David (1936). The works of the Scots playwright James Bridie include Tobias and the Angel (1930), Jonah and the Whale (1932), and Susannah and the Elders (1937). A number of anti-biblical Old Testament Plays were published in 1950 by Laurence Housman. Figures from the Bible are also introduced in A Sleep of Prisoners (1951), a symbolic play written by Christopher Fry, whose The Firstborn (1946) transformed Moses into a superman. Curiously enough, most of the Jewish writers who emerged in Britain during the 19th and 20th centuries avoided biblical subjects and devoted their attention to social and historical themes. However, Isaac *Rosenberg wrote a Nietzschean drama, Moses (1916).

impact of jewish philosophy and mysticism

In the general abandonment of medieval Christian authorities during the Reformation, there was a certain tendency to look to the medieval Jewish philosophers and exegetes for guidance. The thinking of writers like John, Jeremy Taylor (1613–1667), and the "Cambridge Platonists" was in part shaped by the Bible and by Maimonides. The Platonist poet Henry More (1614–1687) drew heavily on both Philo and Maimonides, and made frequent reference to the Kabbalah. Like many other English writers of his time, More had, however, only a very imperfect idea of what the Kabbalah contained. Two earlier writers whose works contain kabbalistic allusions are the Rabelaisian satirist Thomas Nash and Francis Bacon. Nash's Pierce Pennilesse His Supplication to the Divell (1592), a humorous discourse on the vices and customs of the day, draws from the Christian Kabbalah; while Bacon's The New Atlantis (1627) describes the utopian Pacific island of Bensalem, where the Jewish colonists have a college of natural philosophy called "Solomon's House" and are governed by rules of kabbalistic antiquity. Genuine kabbalistic motifs, admittedly obtained at second hand, are to be found in the late 18th century in the works of William Blake. His notion of the sexual inner life of his divine "Emanations" and "Specters" is at least partially kabbalistic, while his portrait of the "Giant Albion" is explicitly derived from the kabbalistic notion of the Adam Kadmon ("Primal Man"). Kabbalistic notions and images later played a part in the occult system employed by W.B. Yeats (1865–1939) in his poetry; and in the mid-20th century the Kabbalah acquired a considerable vogue, exemplified by the poetry of Nathaniel *Tarn and by Riders in the Chariot (1961), a novel by the Australian writer Patrick White.

The Figure of the Jew

Jews were expelled from England in 1290, and the great medieval English works in which Jews were portrayed, notably John Gower's Confessio Amantis (c. 1390), William Langland's The Vision of Piers Plowman (three versions c. 1360–1400), and Geoffrey *Chaucer's Prioress's Tale (one of the Canterbury Tales, c. 1390) were all composed about a century later. The figure of the Jew was therefore almost certainly not drawn from life, but rather from imagination and popular tradition, the latter a mixture of prejudice and idealization. This approach is not untypical of medieval writing generally, which often used stereotypes and symbols and gave them concrete shape. The evil stereotype of the Jew is clearly based on the Christian account of the crucifixion of Jesus, including his betrayal by Judas (identified with the Jew in general) and his often-stated enmity toward the Jewish scribes and Pharisees. This provided the basis for the image of the Jew in the early mystery or "miracle" plays, current from the 13th century, which presented the Bible records in dramatic form. A contemporary touch was sometimes added by representing Judas as a Jewish usurer. There is an historical link between the dramatizing of the Crucifixion and the rise of the *blood libel, which reached its culmination in the notorious case of *Hugh of Lincoln (1255). This accusation became the subject of several horrific early poems, including the old Scottish ballad of "The Jew's Daughter," reproduced in Percy's Reliques. In this ballad the story is slightly varied, the ritual murder being committed by a young Jewess. Chaucer's Prioress's Tale, a story of child murder committed by Jews, explicitly refers the reader to the case of Hugh of Lincoln a hundred years earlier, the suggestion being that the killing of Christian children by Jews was habitual. Echoes of these medieval fantasies continue to be heard down the centuries, and they provide the starting point for Christopher *Marlowe's The Jew of Malta (c. 1589) and for Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice (c. 1596). Both Marlowe's Barabas and Shakespeare's Shylock obviously delight in the murder of Christians either by knife or by poison, a partial reflection of the charges leveled at the trial of the unfortunate Marrano physician Roderigo *Lopez. The stage Jew down to the Elizabethan period looked rather like the Devil in the old mystery plays, and was very often dressed in a similar costume: this explains why, in Shakespeare's play, Launcelot Gobbo describes Shylock as "the very devil incarnation," while Solanio sees him as the devil come "in the likeness of a Jew."

the dual image

The Jew, however, aroused not only fear and hatred but also awe, and even admiration. Thus the medieval imagination had room not only for Judas, but also for heroic Old Testament figures such as Isaac and Moses. There is no doubt that the Israelites at the Red Sea in the old mysteries were also clearly identified as Jews. *Judah Maccabee (another Judas) was one of the famous Nine Worthies of early legend, along with David and Joshua. Shakespeare, who refers to the Jews in seven of his plays, draws on this tradition in the closing scene of his comedy, Love's Labour's Lost. Another early Christian tradition which carries undertones of admiration and awe is that of the *Wandering Jew. Ahasuerus, as he is sometimes called, in the early ballads was a "cursed shoemaker" who churlishly refused to allow Jesus to rest on a stone when he was on his way to Golgotha, and for this was made to wander the world forever. As the Jew who lives on eternally to testify to the salvation offered to the world, he is by no means an unsympathetic figure. In later romantic literature, particularly in poems by Percy Bysshe Shelley (Queen Mab, 1813) and Wordsworth ("Song for the Wandering Jew," 1800), he finally symbolizes universal wisdom and experience. The anonymous interlude Jacob and Esau (first published in 1568) includes acting directions which state that the players "are to be considered to be Hebrews, and so should be apparalled with attire." Thus, both Jacob the saint and his brother Esau, the lewd ruffian, are clearly Jews. The portrait of the Jew therefore becomes ambiguous: he is both hero and villain, angel and devil. There is more of the devil than the angel in the early portraits, but the balance varies. What is lacking is the middle, neutral ground of everyday reality, for little attempt is made to visualize the Jew in his ordinary environment. It is, however, worth noting certain speeches in The Merchant of Venice, especially Shylock's famous lines beginning, "I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?" Here, there is at least a glimmer of realism. Jews are usually referred to by writers of the Elizabethan and succeeding periods in derogatory terms, the very word Jew invariably suggesting extortioner, beggar, thief, or devil's accomplice. But the resettlement of the Jews in England after 1656 and the new undogmatic character of 17th-century Anglicanism led to some change. George Herbert's poem "The Jews" (in The Temple, 1633) breathes a strain of devout love for Israel as the exiled people of God. Herbert was imitated a few years later by Henry Vaughan who, in an equally passionate poem of the same title, prays that he "might live to see the Olive bear her proper branches." The reference is to the metaphor of the olive used by the apostle Paul (N.T. Rom., ii), when he speaks of Israel as destined one day to be restored to flourishing growth. William Hemings based his drama, The Jewes Tragedy (1662), on the Jewish revolt against Rome, as described by *Josephus and *Josippon. Milton's Samson Agonistes presents a picture which is in part that of the heroic Jew of the Bible, in part a self-portrait of the poet himself. This marks a new phenomenon: the subjective projection of the author into the portrait of the Jew, and it was not to be repeated until much later, by such 19th-century poets as Byron and Coleridge, and by James Joyce in the figure of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses (1922).

later drama and fiction

In 18th-century drama the Jew continued to be portrayed as either utterly evil and depraved or else completely virtuous. One dramatist might often produce both types, as did Charles Dibdin in The Jew and the Doctor (1788) and The School for Prejudice (1801). Richard Brinsley Sheridan introduces an unpleasant Jew, Isaac, in his comic opera, The Duenna (1775), balanced by a virtuous Jew, Moses, in The School for Scandal (1777). The hero of an anonymous play, The Israelites (1785), is a Mr. Israel, who practices all the virtues that the Christians only profess. The most sympathetic portrayal of all is that of the Jew Sheva in Richard *Cumberland's play, The Jew (1794). A kind of Shylock in reverse, Sheva is the English counterpart of the hero of the German dramatist *Lessing's Nathan der Weise (1779). In fiction there was a similar tendency to extremes. The vicious and criminal Jew painted by Daniel Defoe in Roxana (1724) is balanced in Tobias Smollett's novel The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom (1753), where the benevolent Joshuah Manasseh insists on lending the hero money without interest. Yet Smollett himself had a few years earlier (in The Adventures of Roderick Random, 1748) drawn a no less exaggerated portrait of the Jewish usurer in Isaac Rapine, whose name suggests his character. The same duality in the portrait of the Jew is noticeable in the 19th century. Maria Edgeworth, having produced a gallery of rascally Jews in her early Moral Tales (1801), compensated for those in Harrington (1816), a novel largely devoted to the rehabilitation of the Jews, whom she represents as noble, generous, and worthy of respect and affection. All this was part of the new liberal attitude generated by the French Revolution and the spread of the belief in human equality and perfectibility. To entertain anti-Jewish prejudices was to subscribe to outmoded social and ethical forms. Thus, "Imperfect Sympathies," one of the Essays of Elia (1823–33) by Charles Lamb, expresses mild reservations about "Jews Christianizing, Christians Judaizing," Lamb having little time for Jewish conversion or assimilation. The novel Ivanhoe (1819) by Sir Walter Scott introduces Isaac of York, the medieval usurer who, though described as "mean and unamiable," is in fact radically humanized in line with the new conceptions. He has become grey rather than black, and his daughter Rebecca is entirely white, good, and beautiful. Scott has come a long way from the earlier stereotypes, and the Jews, far from being murderers, preach peace and respect for human life to the murderous Christian knights. In later 19th-century English novels there are many Jewish portraits. William Makepeace Thackeray always pictures his Jews as given to deceit and as suitable objects for social satire. In his Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo … (1846), which includes the record of a visit to the Holy Land, Thackeray indulges in a rather more emphatic strain of antisemitism. Charles Kingsley and Charles *Dickens, on the other hand, both have sympathetic as well as unfavorable portraits. Kingsley's bad Jews are to be found in Alton Locke (1850), and his good Jew in Hypatia (1853), while Dickens introduces Fagin, the corrupter of youth and receiver of stolen goods, in Oliver Twist (1837–38), and Mr. Riah, the benefactor of society and ally of the innocent, in Our Mutual Friend (1864–65). Charles Reade has as the central character of his novel It is Never too Late to Mend (1856) a Jew, Isaac Levi, who initially more sinned against than sinning, ends by taking a terrible revenge on his rascally foe. George Henry Borrow, an agent of the British and Foreign Bible Society, was obsessed with Jewish exoticism, but disliked Jews as people. He used a Hebrew title for Targum (1835), a collection of translations, and in his most famous work, The Bible in Spain (1843), recorded his encounter with the alleged leader of Spain's surviving Marranos and included his own verse translation of Adon Olam. In his novel The Way We Live Now (1875), Anthony Trollope drew the fantastically wicked Jew Augustus Melmotte on a melodramatic scale and with no real attempt at verisimilitude. But in the following year, the ultimately noble Jew makes his appearance in George *Eliot's Zionist novel, Daniel Deronda (1876). This shows the Jews not merely as worthy of sympathy, but as having within them a spiritual energy through which mankind may one day be saved and made whole. The 19th-century belief in race and nationality as a source of vital inspiration has here combined with a certain moral idealism to produce a remarkable vision of the Jewish renaissance, in some measure prophetic of what was to come after the rise of Herzlian Zionism. Something similar is to be found in the novelist and statesman Benjamin *Disraeli, who never tired of vaunting the superiority of the Jewish race as a storehouse of energy and vision. In Tancred (1847) and his biography ofLord George Bentinck (1852) he maintained his belief that the Jews were "the aristocrats of mankind." George du Maurier propagated a Jewish caricature nourished by the new Nietzschean philosophy of race. Svengali, the evil Jew in his novel Trilby (1894), is the eternal alien, mysterious and sinister, a sorcerer whose occult powers give the novel the character of a Gothic thriller. Svengali belongs, of course, to an "inferior race," and his exploits are ultimately designed to corrupt the "pure white race" personified in the novel's heroine, Trilby. On the other hand, George Meredith, in The Tragic Comedians (1880), presents a romantically attractive Jew, Alvan, who is actually a portrait of the German-Jewish socialist Ferdinand *Lassalle. Sir Thomas Henry Hall Caine also showed unstinted sympathy and admiration for the Jew in his novel of Jewish life in Morocco, The Scapegoat (1891), although his account is not without some inner contradictions. The non-Jewish Anglo-American Henry Harland, using the pen name Sidney Luska, published three novels – As It Was Written (1885), Mrs. Peixada (1886), and The Yoke of Thorah (1887) – in the guise of an immigrant of Jewish background describing the life of the German Jews of New York. The poets Wordsworth and Byron were drawn to the romantic glamour of the Jewish past, the former in a touching descriptive lyric, "A Jewish Family" (1828), the latter in the more famous Hebrew Melodies. Like Blake, Shelley was repelled by the Old Testament's stress on the Law and the Commandments – his instinct being toward free love and anarchism – but was drawn to the figure of the Wandering Jew. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, too, in his "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (in Lyrical Ballads, 1798) shows an interest in the same theme evidently derived from his reading of M.G. Lewis' gruesome novel The Monk (1796). Coleridge translated Kinat Jeshurun, a Hebrew dirge on the death of Queen Charlotte by his friend Hyman *Hurwitz, calling it Israel's Lament (1817). The warmest and most detailed accounts of Jews are to be found in the poetry of Robert *Browning, who seemed determined to show that even post-biblical Jews, such as the medieval Rabbi Ben Ezra and the Jews of the Roman ghetto, could be given sympathetic, even noble, treatment. Browning tried to do in poetry what *Rembrandt had done in paint – suggest the mixture of everyday realism and sublimity in the lives of Jews. Matthew Arnold, the most "Hebraic" of 19th-century English writers, paid tribute to Hebrew culture in his elegy "On Heine's Grave" (New Poems, 1867), while Algernon Charles Swinburne gave expression to great indignation in his poem "On the Russian Persecution of the Jews" (1882).

the 20th century

English poets of the 20th century have shown less interest in Jews. T.S. Eliot makes a return to the medieval stereotype of avaricious extortioner in his phrase: "My house is a decayed house,/and the jew squats on the window sill, the owner/spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp/…" (Gerontion and other references), although elsewhere he speaks with veneration of Nehemiah, the prophet who "grieved for the broken city Jerusalem." In Catholic writers such as Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, and Graham Greene, there is a similar rendering of the dark image of the Jew. Belloc, an anti-capitalist, held that the Jews and Protestants were the arch-enemies of civilization and evolved a belief in a "Jewish conspiracy" (The Jews, 1922). Greene revived the medieval connection between Judas and the Devil in A Gun for Sale (1936) and Orient Express (1933), and in Brighton Rock (1938), where the Jewish gang-leader Colleoni – one of the most sinister villains in English literature – leads the hero, Pinkie, to damnation. Frankly antisemitic portraits can also be found in the writings of D.H. Lawrence and Wyndham Lewis. A more mild and benevolent portraiture emerges from the biblical dramas of James Bridie, Laurence Housman, and Christopher Fry. George Bernard Shaw brought back the Jew-Devil stage tradition in burlesque form in Man and Superman (1903); and various characters in Major Barbara (1905), Saint Joan (1923), and The Doctor's Dilemma (1906) express Shaw's not unkindly view of the Jew in modern society. An important development in the 20th century was the attempt to abandon the old stereotype and depict Jews in natural, human terms. John Galsworthy took the lead in his novels and more particularly in his play Loyalties (1922). Here the Jew, Ferdinand de Levis, is the victim of a robbery at a country-house party. The other guests band together to defend the thief because he is one of them, whereas the Jew is an alien. Galsworthy has carefully purged his imagination of the kind of emotional attitudes that determined the reaction of Shakespeare and his audience to the basically similar situation in The Merchant of Venice, and the result is an objective study in social psychology. A similarly unemotional approach is to be found in James Joyce's Ulysses, where the central character, Leopold Bloom, is neither exactly hero nor anti-hero but something in between. Less flamboyant Jewish characters appear in novels by E.M. Forster, The Longest Journey (1907); and C.P. Snow. The latter's The Conscience of the Rich (1958) is devoted to the affairs of a Jewish family who differ from the English upper class around them only in an extra touch of gregariousness and more tenacious adherence to tradition.

Palestine and Israel in English Literature

Ever since medieval times English writers have recorded impressions of their visits to the Holy Land or written imaginative works based on Jewish historical themes. One of the earliest books of this kind was the Voiage (1357–71) of the 14th-century Anglo-French traveler Sir John Mandeville. Outstanding works over the centuries were Henry Maundrell's A Journey from Aleppo to Jerusalem at Easter 1697 (1703); The Fall of Jerusalem (1820), a play by Henry Hart Milman, dean of St. Paul's, who also wrote a History of the Jews (1829); Eothen (1844), travel impressions by Alexander William Kinglake; The Brook Kerith (1916), a novel by the Irish writer George Moore; and Oriental Encounters. Palestine and Syria 18941896 (1918) by Marmaduke William Pickthall. Britain's Mandate in Palestine, which led to a political confrontation with the yishuv, and the State of Israel found wide reflection in English fiction, generally of inferior merit. G.K. Chesterton, an antisemite who condoned massacres of Jews during the First Crusade as "a form of democratic violence," was nevertheless attracted to the Zionist ideal of emancipation through physical toil, recording his impressions of a visit to the Holy Land in The New Jerusalem (1920). A thinly disguised account of Jewish-British relations in Ereẓ Israel is combined with an accurate description of Palestine under the Romans in W.P. Crozier's The Letters of Pontius Pilate (1928). Some writers were intensely pro-Zionist, others violently hostile and pro-Arab. Muriel Spark's The Mandelbaum Gate (1965) was a tale of divided Jerusalem with an anti-Israel bias, but another non-Jewish novelist, Lynne Reid Banks, who wrote An End to Running (1962; U.S. ed., House of Hope) and Children at the Gate (1968), settled at kibbutz Yasur. Of the many books about Palestine and Israel written by English Jews outstanding was Arthur *Koestler's dramatic Thieves in the Night (1946).

The Jewish Contribution

Before the Expulsion of 1290, the Jews of England were culturally an integral part of medieval French Jewry, speaking Norman French, and conducting their business affairs in Hebrew or Latin and their literary activities almost exclusively in Hebrew. *Berechiah ben Natronai ha-Nakdan, the 12th–13th-century author of Mishlei Shu'alim ("Fox Fables"), is probably identical with Benedict le Poinctur (i.e., punctuator, Hebrew Nakdan), who is known to have been living in Oxford in 1194. Berechiah's "Fox Fables" compiled from a variety of Jewish, Oriental, and other medieval sources, were both popular and influential, partly determining the shape of later medieval bestiaries. Their influence may also be seen in the Latin Gesta Romanorum, first compiled in England (c. 1330; first printed c. 1472). An important literary figure of the Elizabethan period, John Florio (1553?–1625), was descended from converted Italian Jews. A friend of Ben Jonson and Sir Philip Sidney, he influenced Shakespeare, whose Hamlet and The Tempest echo Florio's pioneering translation of the Essays of Montaigne (1603). It was not until nearly a hundred years after the readmission of the Jews in 1665 that they began to play any significant part in English literary affairs. Moses *Mendes, the grandson of a Marrano physician, was a well-known poetaster and minor playwright. His ballad-opera, The Double Disappointment (1746), was the first work written for the theater by an English Jew. He also wrote The Battiad (1751), a satire, in collaboration with Dr. Isaac *Schomberg. Jael (Mendes) Pye (d. 1782), a convert like Mendes, made a brief but significant entry into English literature with poems and a novel; while another early poet, Emma (Lyon) Henry (1788–1870), a staunch Jewess, received the patronage of the Prince Regent in the early 19th century. Many of the Anglo-Jewish writers of the 18th and 19th centuries were either remote from Jewish life or actually abandoned Judaism. They include Isaac *D'Israeli, father of Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield; the half-Jew John Leycester *Adolphus, the first person to deduce Sir Walter Scott's authorship of the Waverley Novels; members of the *Palgrave dynasty, notably Sir Francis (Cohen) Palgrave and his son, Francis Turner Palgrave, editor of the famous Golden Treasury of English Verse (1861); and Sir Arthur Wing Pinero (1855–1934), the most successful dramatist of his time, who was also of Jewish origin. Late writers included Stephen Hudson (Sydney Schiff); Naomi Jacob; Ada *Leverson; Benn Levy; Lewis Melville; Leonard *Merrick; E.H.W. *Meyerstein; Siegfried *Sassoon; Humbert *Wolfe; and Leonard *Woolf.

jewish themes

From the early 19th century onward, many Anglo-Jewish writers devoted a large part of their talent to Jewish themes. Several of these committed authors were women. The sisters Celia (Moss) Levetus (1819–1873) and Marion (Moss) Hartog (1821–1907), who ran a private school for 40 years, together published a collection of poems, Early Efforts (18381, 18392); a three-volume Romance of Jewish History (1840); Tales of Jewish History (1843); and a short-lived Jewish Sabbath Journal (1855). Better known was Grace *Aguilar, a vigorous champion of Judaism, who wrote the first significant Anglo-Jewish novel, The Vale of Cedars (1850). Two other women writers were Alice Lucas (1851–1935) and Nina (Davis) Salaman (1877–1925), both of whom wrote poetry; Nina Salaman also translated medieval Hebrew verse. Novels on Jewish themes proliferated from the latter half of the 19th century. Benjamin *Farjeon, a writer of North African Sephardi origin, really created this new genre with works such as Solomon Isaacs (1877), Aaron the Jew (1894), and Pride of Race (1900), which described the London-Jewish scene and especially the growing populace of the East End. This was the main location for the more famous novels of Israel *Zangwill, who remains the greatest single figure in England's Jewish literary history. Although Zangwill wrote many books on non-Jewish themes, he is best remembered for his "ghetto" stories – Children of the Ghetto (1892), Ghetto Tragedies (1893), The King of Schnorrers (1894), and Dreamers of the Ghetto (1899). At about the same time, Jewish middle-class life was being faithfully described by three women novelists, Amy *Levy; Julia (Davis) *Frankau ("Frank Danby"); and Mrs. Alfred Sidgwick (Cecily Ullman, 1855–1934), whose works include Scenes of Jewish Life (1904), In Other Days (1915), and Refugee (1934). Their books had little impact outside the Jewish community, but their common central theme – mixed marriage – became increasingly popular. This was the case with the novelist G.B. *Stern, but the most sentimental, and obsessive, use of the motif occurs in the works of Louis *Golding, whose Magnolia Street (1932) and "Doomington" novels enshrine this aspect of Jewish assimilation with an archetypal repetitiveness that suggests a permanent solution of the "Jewish problem" through wholesale extra-marriage. The outstanding Jewish poet of the 20th century was Isaac *Rosenberg, whose feeling for the sufferings of the soldiers in the trenches of World War i was in part nourished by the Bible. Izak *Goller, originally a preacher, was a more intensely Jewish poet, whose passionate Zionist sympathies and outspoken manner brought him both fame and notoriety during the 1930s. Other Jewish writers included S.L. *Bensusan; the biographer and historian, Philip *Guedalla; and M.J. Landa. A number of Jewish writers also became eminent as literary scholars and critics. They include Sir Sidney *Lee; F.S. Boas; Sir Israel *Gollancz; Laurie *Magnus; V. de Sola Pinto; Jacob Isaacs (d. 1973), first professor of English at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; David *Daiches; and George Steiner. The left-wing publisher, author, and pacifist, Victor *Gollancz, attempted to synthesize his conception of Judaism with a liberalized Christianity. Joseph *Leftwich, J.M. Cohen (d. 1989), and Jacob Sonntag (d. 1984) were prominent editors, anthologists, and translators.

new impulses

In the mid-20th century a new dimension was given to the problem of Jewish existence both by the European Holocaust and its aftermath and by the birth and consolidation of the State of Israel. These momentous events, shattering old illusions, in time created a new sense of tragedy and peril, in which the Jew became the focus of a universal situation. This feeling can be detected in several Anglo-Jewish writers, although none of them was as significant as such U.S. authors as Saul *Bellow, Bernard *Malamud, and Philip *Roth. In poetry the outstanding names were Dannie *Abse, Karen Gershon, Michael Hamburger, Emanuel *Litvinoff, Rudolf Nassauer, Jon *Silkin, and Nathaniel Tarn. A writer whose novels, essays, and political and philosophical works commanded wide attention from the 1930s onward was the Hungarian-born Arthur Koestler. Like Koestler, Stephen Spender (1909–1995), a leading poet and critic of partly Jewish origin, was a disillusioned leftist. His works include impressions of Israel, Learning Laughter (1952). Elias *Canetti was a refugee playwright who continued to write in German, his works being translated into English. Harold *Pinter, Peter *Shaffer, and Arnold *Wesker were leading playwrights of the post-World War ii era. In 2005 Pinter was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Janina David (1930– ) described her childhood experiences in pre-war Poland and the Warsaw ghetto in A Square of Sky (1964); its sequel, A Touch of Earth (1966), tells of her postwar move to Australia. The Quick and the Dead (1969), a novel by Thomas Wiseman (1930– ), reflects early memories of Vienna during the 1930s and the Anschluss era. A few writers attempted to demythologize the Jewish image by presenting Jews as basically similar to their fellows. The novelist Alexander Baron, the novelist and playwright Wolf *Mankowitz, and Arnold Wesker all belong to this category, although Mankowitz later reassessed his commitment to Judaism. Popular novelists included the Socialist member of parliament Maurice Edelman, whose book The Fratricides (1963) has a Jewish doctor as its hero; and Henry Cecil (Judge Henry Cecil Leon), who specialized in legal themes. From the late 1950s a "new wave" of Anglo-Jewish writers appeared following the publication of The Bankrupts (1958), a novel by Brian *Glanville harshly criticizing Jewish family life and social forms. Works of similar inspiration were written by Dan *Jacobson, Frederic Raphael, and Bernard *Kops. Following the general inclination to reject or debunk the inheritance of an older generation – these writers were not, however, entirely destructive, their aim being to strip Jewish life in England of its complacency and hypocrisy. Other writers were more firmly committed to Jewish values and ideals. They include the humorist Chaim Bermant; the novelists Gerda Charles, Lionel Davidson, William Goldman (1910– ), Chaim Raphael, and Bernice Rubens; and the Welsh-born poet Jeremy Robson (1939– ), who edited Letters to Israel (1969) and an Anthologyof Young British Poets (1968).

Another member of this group was the critic John Jacob Gross (1935– ), assistant editor of Encounter. The Six-Day War of June 1967 galvanized many Jewish writers in England into a sudden awareness of a common destiny shared with the Israelis in their hour of peril. This found expression in a forthright letter to the London Sunday Times (June 4) signed by more than 30 Anglo-Jewish authors.

[Harold Harel Fisch]

Later Developments

The trends which had characterized Anglo-Jewish literature during the 1960s continued to manifest themselves in the 1970s. New books were published by virtually all of the better-known writers, including the novelists Gerda *Charles, Frederic *Raphael, Chaim *Raphael, Nadine *Gordimer, Bernard *Kops, Barnet *Litvinoff, Chaim *Bermant, Bernice *Rubens, the last of whom was awarded the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1970 for The Elected Member (1970), the story of a drug addict and his Jewish family set against the background of London's East End.

One of the new trends in the years under review was a growing closeness to the Hebrew tradition. Dan *Jacobson's The Rape of Tamar (1970) brought King David, his family, and court to life in a searching and brilliant retelling of biblical narrative. His drama, The Caves of Adullam (1972), treated the David-Saul relationship no less interestingly. Later heroism was described in David *Kossoff's Voices of Masada (1973), the story of the siege as it might have been told by the two women who, according to Josephus, were the only Jewish survivors. In another historical novel, Another Time, Another Voice (1971), Barnet Litvinoff deals with Shabbetai Ẓevi, while against the background of present-day Israel Lionel *Davidson's detective story, Smith's Gazelle (1971), deftly wove together kibbutz and Bedouin and the Israel love for nature.

Davidson, who settled in Israel after the Six-Day War, in 1972 became the first writer in English to win the Shazar Prize of the Israel Government for the encouragement of immigrant authors. Another English writer who settled in Israel was Karen *Gershon, the German-born poet, whose poems on Jerusalem were the heart of her volume of verse, Legacies and Encounters, Poems 19661971 (1972). A cycle of the Jerusalem poems appeared in Israel with Hebrew translations facing each page.

The new, sometimes even personal, relation of Anglo-Jewish writers to Israel is paralleled by a deeper involvement with the Jewish past in England itself. Thus, Gerda Charles' novel, The Destiny Waltz (1971), grew out of the life of Isaac *Rosenberg, the East End poet who died in World War i, while Maurice *Edelman went further back to write Disraeli in Love (1972), a portrait of the statesman in his youth. The largely interrelated aristocratic families that dominated the Anglo-Jewish community in the 19th century and even later were vividly described in The Cousinhood (1971) by Chaim Bermant.

The nearer past continued to be reflected in literature, Emanuel *Litvinoff's Journey through a Small Planet (1972) depicting an East End childhood in the 1930s and Arnold *Wesker in his play, The Old Ones (1973), evoking ideologies and eccentricities of an older East End generation that is now vanishing. The second part of David *Daiches' autobiography, A Third World (1971), describes the author's years in the United States, while Mist of Memory (1973) by the South African writer Bernard Sachs portrayed a Lithuanian childhood and full, contemplative years in South Africa – its politics, racial conflicts, trade unionism, and Jewish attitudes.

Another book on South Africa, Dan Jacobson's novel on interracial marriage, Evidence of Love (1960), was translated and published in the Soviet Union. Both Jacobson and Sachs, like other South African Jewish writers, in recent years made their home in England. Similarly, Canadians like Norman Levine and Mordecai *Richler, though continuing to write about Canada, became resident in England, and Richler's St. Urbain's Horseman (1971) sharply described expatriates in the film and television industry.

[Shulamit Nardi]

Starting in the 1980s Anglo-Jewish literature has undergone something of a transformation. Instead of specifically English concerns and forms of expression, many recent Anglo-Jewish novelists are influenced by the American Jewish novel and incorporate European Jewish history and the contemporary State of Israel into their fiction. This marked lack of parochialism is reflected in novels, often first novels, published in the 1980s by Elaine *Feinstein, Howard *Jacobson, Emanuel *Litvinoff, Simon Louvish, Bernice *Rubens, and Clive *Sinclair.

In 1985, the London Times Literary Supplement indicated a serious general interest in Anglo-Jewish literature by organizing a symposium for English and American Jewish writers on the role of Hebrew and Yiddish culture in the writer's life and work. In general, national British radio, television, and press have devoted a significant amount of time to Anglo-Jewish literature which, in recent years, has included many individual profiles of Jewish novelists in England. Clive Sinclair and Howard Jacobson, in particular, have achieved national prominence with Sinclair, in 1983, designated one of the 20 "Best of Young British Novelists" and Jacobson's Peeping Tom (1984), his second novel, winning a special Guardian fiction prize. Since 1984, the Institute of Jewish Affairs, the London-based research arm of the World Jewish Congress, has organized a regular Jewish writers' circle which has brought together many Anglo-Jewish writers for the first time. This group has grown out of a colloquium in 1984 on Literature and the Contemporary Jewish Experience which included the participation of the Israeli writer Aharon *Appelfeld and the literary critic George *Steiner.

In contrast to Anglo-Jewish literature which includes explicitly Jewish concerns, many Jewish writers in England continue to abstain from overt expression of their Jewishness in a fictional context. Prominent examples, in these terms, include Anita *Brookner's Hotel du Lac (1984), which won the Booker McConnel Prize for Fiction in 1984, Gabriel *Josopovici's Conversations in Another Room (1984), and Russell Hoban's Pilgermann (1983). Against this trend, however, Anita Brookner's Family and Friends (1985), for the first time in her fiction, obliquely refers to the author's European Jewish background and her The Latecomers (1988) makes explicit her grief for a lost European past as well as her Central European Jewish antecedents. Gabriel Josipovici's literary criticism reveals a profound interest and knowledge of Jewish literature. Two of Josipovici's novels, The Big Glass (1991) and In a Hotel Garden (1993), are concerned, respectively, with a Hebraic understanding of art and the continued European dialogue with Jewish history. Josipovici has also published his much acclaimed The Book of God: A Response to the Bible (1988) which has had a considerable impact on his fiction. Josipovici has also written the introduction to the English translation of Aharon Appelfeld's The Retreat (1985).

A young Anglo-Jewish playwright, who has emerged in the last decade, is Stephen Poliakoff, whose plays have been regularly produced in both London and New York. Older playwrights, Bernard *Kops and Arnold *Wesker, continue to produce drama of interest, especially Bernard Kops' Ezra (1980) and Arnold Wesker's The Merchant (1977). Between 1977 and 1981 Harold *Pinter's collected Plays were published to much acclaim and Peter *Shaffer, the author of Amadeus (1980), staged Yonadab (1985), a play based on Dan *Jacobson's The Rape of Tamar (1970), which played in a West End London theater. Jacobson, who was born in South Africa and has lived in England for nearly three decades, continues to produce fiction of high quality as demonstrated by his autobiographical set of short stories, Time and Time Again (1985) and his novel The God-Fearer. The poet Dannie *Abse has published A Strong Dose of Myself (1983), the third volume of his autobiography, and his Collected Poems: 19451976 appeared in 1977.

Much Anglo-Jewish literature continues to situate Jewish characters in a specifically English context. In a comic tour de force, Howard Jacobson contrasts Englishness and Jewishness in his popular campus novel, Coming From Behind (1983). Jacobson's Peeping Tom (1984) is a brilliant and lasting comic treatment of the same theme. His The Very Model of a Man (1992) and Roots Shmoots: Journeys among Jews (1993) are explorations of his Jewishness.

Frederic *Raphael's Heaven and Earth (1985) examines Anglo-Jewishness in the political context of an amoral English conservatism. A more conventional account of middle class Jewish life in England – and its relationship to the State of Israel – is provided by Rosemary Friedman's trilogy, Proofsof Affection (1982), Rose of Jericho (1984), and To Live in Peace (1986). Friedman's fiction demonstrates that the family saga continues to be a popular form of Anglo-Jewish self-expression. Chaim *Bermant's The Patriarch: A Jewish Family Saga (1981) is another example of this genre, as is Maisie Mosco's bestselling Almonds and Raisins trilogy (1979–81). Judith Summers' first novel, Dear Sister (1985), is a woman-centered Jewish family saga.

While much Anglo-Jewish literature continues to be set in an English milieu, many Jewish novelists have begun to reveal a fruitful interest in European Jewish history and the contemporary State of Israel. Emanuel Litvinoff's Falls The Shadow (1983), using the form of a detective novel, examines the Jewishness of modern-day Israel and the relationship of the Jewish State to the Holocaust. A more controversial account of these themes is found in George Steiner's The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. (1981). The 1982 West End stage version of this novella excited a prolonged exchange of articles and letters in the London Times and the Jewish Chronicle. Steiner also published an interesting work of fiction, Proofs and Three Fables (1992). Other works of fiction by Jewish critics include Al Alvarez's Day of Atonement (1991) and Harold Pinter's autobiographical novel The Dwarfs (1990 but mainly written in the 1950s). Pinter, like Steven *Berkoff in his challenging plays, was deeply influenced by his poor London East End Jewish background. Provocative fictional accounts of contemporary Israel are found in Simon Louvish's novels, The Therapy of Avram Blok (1985), The Death of Moishe-Ganel (1986), City of Blok (1988), The Last Trump of Avram Blok (1990), and The Silencer (1991). Louvish, who lives London, was raised in Jerusalem and served in the Six-Day War. His fiction is an iconoclastic, deliberately grotesque, portrait of the State of Israel. Clive Sinclair's Blood Libels (1985), his second novel, also utilizes Israeli history, especially the Lebanon War, and combines such history with a haunting imagination. In fact, Sinclair epitomizes the explicitly Jewish self-assertion and maturity of a new generation of Anglo-Jewish writers that has emerged in the 1980s. He describes himself as a Jewish writer "in a national sense" and so situates his fiction in Eastern Europe, America, and Israel. In this way, he eschews the usual self-referring, parochial concerns of the Anglo-Jewish novel. This is especially true in his collection of short stories, Hearts of Gold (1979) – which won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1981 – and Bedbugs (1982). His later works are Cosmetic Effects (1989), Augustus Rex (1992), and Diaspora Blues: A View of Israel (1987).

Elaine Feinstein is another Anglo-Jewish writer who, over the last decade, has consistently produced fiction of the highest literary excellence and has demonstrated a profound engagement with European history. Her fiction, especially Children of the Rose (1975), The Ecstasy of Dr. Miriam Gardner (1976), The Shadow Master (1978), The Survivors (1982), and The Border (1984), all demonstrate the persistence of the past in her characters' lives. Apart from The Survivors, all of these novels have a continental European setting. That is, Feinstein's fiction has successfully drawn on European Jewish history in a bid to understand her own sense of Jewishness. In recent years this has been clearly focused in her autobiographical The Survivors, set in England, and her less overtly autobiographical The Border which is set in Central Europe in 1938. The Border received high critical acclaim. The novel, using the form of a collection of letters and diaries, enacts the irrevocable march of history leading up to the outbreak of World War ii. In juxtaposition to this historical backdrop, Feinstein's rare lucidity evokes her characters' passionately differing sense of reality. Bernice Rubens' Brothers (1983) utilizes modern Jewish history in more expansive terms than Feinstein, but, perhaps because of this, with less success.

The growing strength of British-Jewish writing is further indicated by a younger generation of Jewish novelists which is now emerging. Work by them includes Jenny Diski's Like Mother (1988), Will Self's Cock and Bull (1992), and Jonathan Wilson's Schoom (1993). When this writing is coupled with the plays of a number of young Jewish dramatists such as Diane Samuels, Julia Pascall, and Gavin Kostick, then the future of British-Jewish literature looks particularly healthy.

The last decade has demonstrated that there is a coincidence of interests between English literature in general and the concerns of the Anglo-Jewish novel. In recent years, much of the best English fiction looks to Asia, the Americas, and continental Europe for its subject matter and sense of history. It is not uncommon, therefore, for non-Jewish writers to incorporate Jewish history into their novels. With regard to the Holocaust, two of the most prominent examples of this phenomena are Thomas Keneally's Booker Prize winning Schindler's Ark (1982) – based on the life of the righteous gentile Oskar *Schindler – and D.M. Thomas' controversial The White Hotel (1981).

[Bryan Cheyette]


E.N. Calisch, The Jew in English Literature (1909), includes bibliography; D. Philipson, The Jew in English Fiction (1911); M.J. Landa, The Jew in Drama (1926; repr. 1969); H. Michelson, The Jew in Early English Literature (1926), includes bibliography; L. Magnus, in: E.R. Bevan and C. Singer (eds.), The Legacy of Israel (1927), 483–505; W.B. Selbie, ibid., 407–33; E.D. Coleman, The Bible in English Drama (1931), a bibliography; idem, The Jew in English Drama (1943; repr. 1970), a bibliography; H.R.S. van der Veen, Jewish Characters in Eighteenth Century English Fiction and Drama (1935), includes bibliography; M.F. Modder, The Jew in the Literature of England (1939), includes bibliography; J. Trachtenberg, The Devil and the Jews (1961), includes bibliography; J.L. Blau, The Christian Interpretation of the Cabala in the Renaissance (1944); A.M. Hyamson, in: Anglo-Jewish Notabilities (1949), 4–73; J. Leftwich, in: Jewish Quarterly (Spring 1953), 14–24; A. Baron, ibid. (Spring 1955); H. Fisch, The Dual Image (1959); idem, Jerusalem and Albion (1964), includes bibliographical references; D. Daiches, in: L. Finkelstein (ed.), The Jews …, 2 (19603), 1452–71; E. Rosenberg, From Shylock to Svengali (1960), includes bibliography; G.K. Anderson, The Legend of the Wandering Jew (1965); M. Roston, Biblical Drama in England (1968), includes bibliography; D.J. DeLaura, Hebrew and Hellene in Victorian England (1969), includes bibliography; Shunami, Bibl, 248ff.

English Literature

views updated Jun 11 2018


For inhabitants of Britain and the United States in the mid-nineteenth century, the American War of Independence was only two generations past, roughly the same distance in time as the Second World War from those living at the turn of the twenty-first century. It was, in other words, still an active memory within the general culture as well as being an actual memory for the elderly. Furthermore there had been a series of conflicts between these two countries in the early nineteenth century, the most significant of which was the War of 1812 arising out of trade disputes and American anger at the Royal Navy's methods of impressment. These hostilities led to British troops entering Washington and burning the White House to the ground. Heated controversies also erupted over rights to the fur-trading territories of the Pacific Northwest, a saga described in Washington Irving's popular work Astoria; or, Anecdotes of an Enterprise beyond the Rocky Mountains (1836, first published with a slightly different title), and over the boundary between Maine and British Canada. Not only were the cultural fortunes of Britain and the United States closely interwoven in the early nineteenth century, then, but also much mutual antipathy existed between the two nations. As Britain was consolidating its own empire, it was becoming increasingly suspicious of the United States partly because of what it regarded as that nation's anarchic principles of democracy and liberty but also because of U.S. potential to become an imperial competitor, an increasingly significant player on the world stage.

In the 1820s Lord George Gordon Byron (1788–1824) was still noting how the republican sensibility had migrated west across the Atlantic, upbraiding George III before a celestial court in The Vision of Judgment (1822) in a manner that would have brought smiles to the faces of the Founding Fathers. Indeed Byron's well-known sympathies for American independence induced the London Times to complain on 6 November of 1822 that "Lord Byron, who hates his own countrymen and countrywomen, has a prodigious penchant for the men and women of America." This old spirit of libertarian radicalism, however, was superseded in the early years of the nineteenth century by more romantic forms of patriotic attachment that tended to use transatlantic comparisons in order to emphasize the superiority of the writer's native culture, either American or British. Accounts of travels to North America by English writers became very popular in Britain at this time, and the success of such narratives was predicated upon their predictability, their tendency to reinforce an existing set of national stereotypes or prejudices rather than to discover anything new. Typifying this conservative mentality was Captain Basil Hall (1788–1844), whose Travels in North America, in the Years 1827 and 1828 (1829) offers a severely critical account of the American political system, although, as Hall himself admitted: "I have often been so much out of humour with the people amongst whom I was wandering, that I have most perversely derived pleasure from meeting things to find fault with" (1:167).

Mocking Americans became something of a national sport for the British at this time, with Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832), written by Frances Trollope (1779–1863), being perhaps the most famous work in this genre. Trollope's narrative is an account of the time she spent between 1827 and 1831 in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she moved with her family in an attempt to reestablish their wealth by selling imported luxury goods after her husband's business in England had failed. Domestic Manners represents America as a land of vulgarity and greed, and it concludes that the "total and universal want of manners" in the United States "is so remarkable, that I was constantly endeavouring to account for it" (pp. 39–40). The book also achieved a certain political notoriety among liberal circles in Britain by being published on 19 March 1832, three days before the Reform Bill to enlarge enfranchisement had its third and final reading in the House of Commons. Many Tories in England blamed the democratizing impulse of the electoral reformers on the pernicious effects and example of American republicanism, and the liberal Edinburgh Review was not alone in suspecting that Trollope had conspired with her publishers on the timing of her book to make it appear "an express advertisement against the Reform Bill" (July 1832). However this may be, Domestic Manners fits within a tradition of travel writing in the first half of the nineteenth century wherein English writers patronize their American cousins as uncouth upstarts who have failed fully to understand the codes of civilized behavior.

In the following representative selection taken from chapter five of Frances Trollope's Domestic Manners of the Americans, the author describes her residence in Cincinnati:

The "simple" manner of living in Western America was more distasteful to me from its levelling effects on the manners of the people, than from the personal privations that it rendered necessary; and yet, till I was without them, I was in no degree aware of the many pleasurable sensations derived from the little elegancies and refinements enjoyed by the middle classes in Europe. There were many circumstances, too trifling even for my gossiping pages, which pressed themselves daily and hourly upon us, and which forced us to remember painfully that we were not at home. It requires an abler pen than mine to trace the connection which I am persuaded exists between these deficiencies and the minds and manners of the people. All animal wants are supplied profusely at Cincinnati, and at a very easy rate; but, alas! These go but a little way in the history of a day's enjoyment. The total and universal want of manners, both in males and females, is so remarkable, that I was constantly endeavouring to account for it. It certainly does not proceed from want of intellect: I have listened to much dull and heavy conversation in America, but rarely to any that I could strictly call silly, (if I except the every where privileged class of very young ladies). They appear to me to have clear heads and active intellects; are more ignorant on subjects that are only of conventional value, than on such as are of intrinsic importance; but there is no charm, no grace in their conversation. I very seldom, during my whole stay in the country, heard a sentence elegantly turned, and correctly pronounced from the lips of an American. There is always something either in the expression or the accent that jars the feelings and shocks the taste.

Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans, pp. 39–40.


For Charles Dickens (1812–1870), who well knew Trollope's work and its emphasized objection to New World manners, the more pressing reason for hostility toward America was financial in nature. During the depression of the late 1830s in the United States, many British companies that had invested heavily in America found the value of their state bonds collapsing, with British investors learning to their cost that neither the American federal government nor taxpayers regarded themselves as responsible for the financial affairs of individual states. One of Dickens's complaints about America in The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (published serially in 1843 and 1844) is that, as its hero tells Elijah Pogram, from "disregarding small obligations" Americans "come in regular course to disregard great ones: and so refuse to pay their debts" (p. 508). This double-dealing is associated by Dickens not only with a personal breach of trust but also with the inherent financial instability of the country: one of Martin's English acquaintances tells the story of "Lummy Ned," a man who emigrated to New York to make his fortune but then "lost it all the day after, in six-and-twenty banks as broke" (pp. 213–214). This sense of the United States as a den of financial iniquity would have merged in Dickens's mind with his bitterness regarding the absence of an international copyright agreement, an absence that meant he received no royalties at all from his vast sales in the United States. Indeed he went to America partly to campaign for a change in the law, an issue on which he was supported by Washington Irving and other American authors; but he underestimated the ferocity of the American popular press in defending its territory against what they saw as unjustified levies, particularly levies imposed by that old tax tyrant, Great Britain. Paradoxically, it was the widespread dissemination of Dickens's novels through unauthorized American reprints that brought his huge popularity in the United States during the late 1830s, a popularity he could turn to his financial advantage only through personal appearances and readings. Although the copyright question never surfaces overtly in Dickens's nonfictional American Notes for General Circulation (1842) or in Martin Chuzzlewit, this perception of the United States as a commercial predator is never far from the author's thoughts.

American Notes maps its version of the United States by constant comparison to English affairs, discovering parallels between the two countries all over the East Coast—the effect of Yale, for example, being "very like that of an old cathedral yard in England" (p. 125)—but finding the American West much more difficult to fit into Anglocentric perspectives. The prairies, complains Dickens, do not give the same "sense of freedom and exhilaration which a Scottish heath inspires, or even our English downs" because of their "very flatness and extent, which [leaves] nothing to the imagination" (p. 226). Since the American West appears not to accord with Dickens's English imagination, he conceptualizes these untamed lands by relating them to the vulgar state of Ireland, another country to the west of England, represented here as a parallel to the barbarous nature of these American frontier territories. On his journey to Cincinnati in the company of pioneers bound farther west, he comes across a village that is "partly American and partly Irish" (p. 204) while in the heart of New York state he encounters "an Irish colony" comprising "hideously ugly old women and very buxom young ones, pigs, dogs, men, children, babies, pots, kettles, dunghills, vile refuse, rank straw, and standing water, all wallowing together in an inseparable heap" (p. 256). The jumble of disparate materials here is akin to the vast flatness of the prairies in that both betoken a threat to the Dickensian predilection for an aesthetic perspective interwoven with recognizable social and spatial hierarchies; thus the Irish, like the Americans, cannot be fitted into Dickens's sacrosanct domestic categories. On his second visit to the United States in 1867 and 1868, Dickens expressed a more specific hostility toward the "enormous influence" of the "Irish element" (Dickens on America, p. 230) in urban centers like New York City, talking of the "depraved condition" (Dickens on America, p. 225) of their political culture and linking it with the Fenian explosion, an attempt to free Fenians held as prisoners at the Clerkenwell House of Detention in Clerkenwell, near London, in December 1867.

The negative portrayal of the United States in Martin Chuzzlewit is well known, and indeed the novel is dogmatically and compulsively anti-American in its overall style and structure as well as in those episodes actually set in the United States. The burden of the narrative is to expose what Dickens takes to be the hypocritical discrepancy between "saintly semblances" and corrupt self-interest, a discrepancy that manifests itself on a personal level in the characterization of Pecksniff and on a national level through the inflated American conception of its own destiny in the "Valley of Eden" (p. 347). With the relentless urge to crush self-aggrandizing delusions that typified the English Victorian moralist, Dickens seizes upon the fat target of slavery as a prime instance of the American tendency to preach liberty while practicing oppression, mocking that "air of Freedom which carries death to all tyrants, and can never (under any circumstances worth mentioning) be breathed by slaves" (p. 248). This satirical overthrow of constitutional idealism is conceptualized by the author through iconoclastic imagery, as he describes how the "great American eagle, which is always airing itself sky-high in purest aether . . . tumbles down, with draggled wings into the mud" (p. 485). Associated with this idiom of bathos is a thread running throughout the novel designed to interrogate the supposed primacy of "mind over matter," as the author puts it, and thus to elucidate what he takes to be the intellectual failure of transcendentalism and all its works. Dickens's empiricist perspective ridicules the way "Edeners were 'going' to build a superb establishment for the transaction of their business, and had already got so far as to mark out the site: which is a great way in America" (p. 338).


While the more conservative Dickens was skeptical about the idealist aspects of American culture, in his poetry Arthur Hugh Clough (1819–1861) approaches transcendentalism much more sympathetically. Although born in England in 1819, Clough spent six years of his childhood in Charleston, South Carolina, after his father had taken the family to the United States in the winter of 1822–1823. The plan of Clough's father was to circumvent the economic depression that had followed the Napoleonic Wars in Europe by tapping sources of raw cotton in the American South and exporting it back to England. The family did not settle back in England until 1836, and, though Clough himself was sent back to England for his schooling in 1828, he retained early memories of living by the harbor at Charleston—South Carolina was, of course, then still a slave state—as well as of three summers when the family sojourned in the milder climate of New York. Clough was nicknamed "Yankee" at Rugby School, and his American childhood also ensured that when he traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts, as an adult in December 1852, Clough was aware in an important sense of returning to the United States rather than encountering that country for the first time. In the 1840s Clough had experienced a tense relationship with the English cultural establishment, resigning his Oxford fellowship in 1848 on the grounds that he felt himself unable in principle to subscribe to the Church of England's Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, a requirement at that time for all Oxford dons. Meanwhile Clough had met and spent some considerable time with Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) when the latter visited England in 1848—Emerson, the senior partner by sixteen years, noted in his private journal for 22 December 1848: "'Tis, I think, the most real benefit I have had from my English visit, this genius of Clough (Journals 11:64)—and, after Clough's trials and tribulations in English academe had led him to consider emigration, Emerson was quick to write encouraging him to come to Cambridge and assuring him of a plentiful supply of private tutorial work. Emerson, who was a great admirer of Clough's first major poem, The Bothie of Tober-na-fuosich (1848; later revised and retitled The Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich), blamed the neglect of his friend on the narrow prejudices of English society, and he also hoped that Clough would assist him with "a catechism of details touching England" (1:316) in relation to his own work, English Traits (1856), which he was then writing.

At first Clough was generally enthusiastic about America. He met James Russell Lowell (1819–1891) and his wife on board the Canada en route to the United States, and in New England he was welcomed into the Emersonian circle, becoming quickly acquainted with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Theodore Parker, Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Ellery Channing, and others. Clough also developed some important intellectual friendships, particularly with Lowell and with Charles Eliot Norton (1827–1908), and, even though he soon became weary of Massachusetts and chose to return to England in 1853, these associations were to have significant repercussions for his subsequent literary career. Clough was indebted to Lowell, in particular, for the first publication of his best-known poem, Amours de Voyage, which was written in 1849 but suppressed by the author until Lowell persuaded him to allow it to be published in installments in the new magazine he was editing, the Atlantic Monthly, between February and May 1858.

It is clear from Amours de Voyage that Clough's work is torn between English and American cultural influences and that his poetry involves a shuttling between alternative transatlantic points of view. The poem itself features a hero wandering forlornly through Europe who is unable ultimately to find within himself either human love or religious faith; and it might be described as a poem that interrogates the notion of transcendentalism since there is a debate here between idealism and materialism, between an idea of neoplatonic "affinity," wherein correspondences are predestined, and mere "juxtaposition," wherein all encounters are seen as random and haphazard. Though he generally admired Amours de Voyage, Emerson himself disliked what in a letter to Clough he described as "the baulking end or no end" of the poem, its structural anticlimax whereby the hero Claude and his prospective lover Mary Trevellyn miss each other on their travels; Emerson was appalled that Clough appeared to "waste such power on a broken dream," a sense of disappointment that the American sage deemed "bad enough in life, and inadmissible in poetry" (Clough 2:548). Clough answered indirectly by writing in a letter to Norton that he had "always meant" to organize the poem in this way, and that he "began it with the full intention of its ending so" (2:551). Clough's response here indicates how the English-born poet saw himself not, like Walt Whitman, as Emerson's acolyte or mere follower, but rather as his transatlantic rival and interlocutor.


Such authorial dialogues give only an indication of the extent to which English literature and American literature in the mid-nineteenth century were intellectually intertwined. Anthony Trollope (1815–1882), son of Frances, wrote his own account of U.S. manners in North America (1862), during the course of which he mentions hearing Emerson lecture in Boston. Although Trollope had feared beforehand "how the star-spangled flag would look when wrapped in a mist of mystic Platonism," he actually found to his surprise that Emerson spoke "with admirable simplicity and truth," being "terse and perspicuous in his sentences, practical in his advice" (p. 223); for this new generation of visitors, the crude stereotypes promulgated by Trollope's mother no longer seemed sufficient. Anthony Trollope also met Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864) at a dinner in Boston during this visit, and he later wrote a highly perceptive and complimentary critical essay on Hawthorne published in the North American Review in 1879.

Trollope's visit to America took place between August 1861 and May 1862, in the shadow of the American Civil War, which had broken out in April 1861. It is probably true to say that this war was the event that changed the cultural balance of power between Britain and the United States permanently. While Britain maintained an official position of neutrality during this conflict, the sympathies of Trollope himself, like those of other English liberals, lay with the North, even though he was suspicious of what he took to be the fanaticism of New England abolitionists. Elizabeth Gaskell, a friend and correspondent of Charles Eliot Norton, similarly supported the Northern states, as did John Stuart Mill and political advocates of free trade such as Richard Cobden and John Bright. There had been considerable support for the antislavery cause in Britain over the previous two decades, with Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) garnering much support during his successful tour of Britain between 1845 and 1847; indeed it was actually his English friends, led by Ellen and Anna Richardson of Newcastle, who raised the funds to purchase Douglass's freedom from Hugh Auld of Maryland in 1846. Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896) was also welcomed enthusiastically by Queen Victoria during a tour of Britain in 1853, when she was presented with a petition containing the signatures of over half a million British women against slavery. This experience later encouraged Stowe to write "A Reply" (1863), addressed to the women of Britain, urging them to raise their voices in protest against the British establishment's tacit support for the Confederacy.

Stowe's wrath was directed not only against open apologists for slavery such as Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881), but also against Lancashire industrialists protective of their vested interests who did not want to see their profitable cotton trade with the American South disrupted, and the London Times, which supported the social idea of a Southern aristocracy and feared how the emancipation of slaves in the American South might destabilize British colonial interests in the West Indies. The black uprising in Jamaica in October 1865, when nearly five hundred insurrection-ists were massacred by the army on the instructions of Governor E. J. Eyre, seemed to the Times to bear out its fears about "the original savageness of the African blood" (13 November 1865). After 1865 when the United States became in constitutional terms (in however problematic a way) a racially mixed and integrated society, the idea of a natural continuum between different branches of the Anglo-Saxon race on either side of the Atlantic became more difficult to sustain. In addition the reconciliation of the different regions of the United States into one strong federal nation marked a decisive stage in the shift of imperial power from Britain to America. The U.S. population had exceeded that of Britain for the first time in the 1840s, and, though Britain in the late nineteenth century remained strong politically and economically, the rapid growth in communications technologies and other forms of national standardization in America after 1865 led inexorably toward its establishment as the world's leading power.


American writers of the mid-nineteenth century viewed their English counterparts with various degrees of enthusiasm, but in each case there was a strong sense of the two cultures being in dialogue with each other. For Washington Irving (1783–1859) in The Sketch Book (1819–1820) and Bracebridge Hall (1822), the English landscape existed in a continuum with its extension westward across the Atlantic, and he portrayed Shakespeare's Stratford-on-Avon as just as much a part of the American heritage as the Hudson River valley represented in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle." Emerson famously declared in his 1837 address "The American Scholar" that his countrymen had "listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe" (p. 69), but the desire for such cultural independence arose not out of simple hostility toward England but from a desire to associate the spirit of nationalism with a home environment, a desire Emerson shared with William Wordsworth, Thomas Carlyle, and other British romantic writers by whom he was influenced. Emerson first wrote to Carlyle in 1834 expressing his delight that "one living scholar is self-centred & will be true to himself" (Slater, ed., p. 98) and the two men always remained on friendly terms despite Carlyle's complaint in a letter to his brother in 1862 that Emerson seemed to think of himself as "becoming celestial by emancipating Niggers" (Slater, ed., p. 537). "Each of the masters has some puerility," noted Emerson indulgently in his journal, "as Carlyle his pro-slavery whim" (Journals 10:52).

In English Traits, his account of a visit to England in 1847 and 1848, Emerson suggests that the British race has fragmented into two parts, with "her liberals in America, and her conservatives at London" (p. 28). This statement testifies to his sense of the vital genealogical continuities (as well as political differences) between the two nations, something mirrored in Henry David Thoreau's Walden (1854), which similarly draws on and revises conventions of Elizabethan pastoral. Herman Melville (1819–1891), who was widely read in English literature, particularly that of the Renaissance era, deliberately conceived of Moby-Dick (1851) as a response to John Milton's Paradise Lost, a transgressive narrative in which vengeance is glorified as Captain Ahab unleashes the destructive potential that is implicit, but never fully licensed, in Milton's Satan. Melville is sometimes thought of as a specifically Anglophobic writer because of his involvement with Evert Duyckinck's Young America movement in the late 1840s and the wariness he expresses toward "alien" England in his famous essay "Hawthorne and His Mosses" (1850). In fact, Melville's enthusiasm for this nationalist program was short-lived and all of Melville's works after Moby-Dick treat the English literary inheritance in a respectful if quizzical manner. Melville met with Hawthorne, then serving as American consul in Liverpool, during his visit to Europe in the fall of 1856, and it is odd to think of them walking together on the beach in the unlikely surroundings of Stockport, Lancashire, exchanging views on Calvinist notions of predestination. Hawthorne's own account of English customs, Our Old Home, was published in 1863, and in the manuscripts to his unfinished novel about an American claimant, Hawthorne attempts to reconfigure transatlantically his style of romance, with the story turning upon an estate passing from the English to the American branch of a fictional family.

Since the publication in 1941 of F. O. Matthiessen's seminal work American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman, American literature between 1820 and 1870 has normally been read within a nationalist context, with Emerson and his compeers conventionally said to have forged an independent culture that could stand apart from English models. However, more recent work on the extent to which English literature itself at this time was shaped by imperial and colonial designs has reintroduced the question of how relationships between English and American literature might be understood within a postcolonial framework, where different traditions develop in uneasy parallels. Such an emphasis was anticipated by the England volume of James Fenimore Cooper's (1789–1851) Gleanings in Europe, an account published in 1837 of a trip he had undertaken nine years earlier. In this work Cooper critiques the British ruling classes by arguing that colonial dependencies are essential to the maintenance of English authority—otherwise "she would sink to a second-rate power in twenty years" (p. 257). He comments also on the general ignorance among the English population about American conditions, recollecting how he talked to a man who insisted that "the winters are too long in America to keep sheep" (p. 254), despite the fact that there were at that time, Cooper says, three and a half million sheep in New York state alone. Paradoxically, though, such misunderstandings create breaches that Cooper welcomes, since he wishes to correct the general American tendency to pay too much heed to English views and thus to free Americans from the "mental dependence created by colonial subserviency" (p. 233).

What is interesting here is the way in which Cooper sees America as engaged in a postcolonial struggle with the specters of British cultural authority. Whereas Emerson's lecture "The American Scholar," also published in 1837, is characteristically abstract, representing freedom and self-determination as philosophical necessities, Cooper's treatise is more attuned to the social and material conditions that brought about increased tensions between Britain and the United States in the early nineteenth century. Cooper mentions the War of 1812 as a lingering source of antipathy between the two countries, and he also remarks on British unease at the growing political power of the United States. If the critical direction of Matthiessen's American Renaissance, drawing its impetus from an imagined organic unity in the native culture, was inspired by the spirit of Emerson, it might not be too much of an exaggeration to suggest that recent accounts of interactions between British and American literature in the nineteenth century—from John Carlos Rowe, Susan Manning, and others—have taken their cue more from the method of Cooper, with its emphasis on ways in which the national symbolic forms of the United States were shaped both domestically and internationally by a variety of historical circumstances.

See alsoAmerican English; Americans Abroad; Book Publishing; Democracy; Literary Criticism; Literary Nationalism; Taste; Tourism; Travel Writing; Young America


Primary Works

Clough, Arthur Hugh. The Correspondence of Arthur Hugh Clough. Edited by Frederick L. Mulhauser. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957.

Cooper, James Fenimore. Gleanings in Europe: England. 1837. Edited by Donald A. Ringe and Kenneth W. Staggs. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982.

Dickens, Charles. American Notes for General Circulation. 1842. Edited by John S. Whitley and Arnold Goldman. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1972.

Dickens, Charles. Dickens on America and the Americans. Edited by Michael Slater. Sussex, U.K.: Harvester Press, 1979.

Dickens, Charles. The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit. 1843–1844. Edited by Patricia Ingham. London: Penguin, 1999.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo."The American Scholar." 1837. In The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 1, Nature, Addresses, and Lectures, edited by Alfred R. Ferguson, pp. 49–70. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. English Traits. 1856. Edited by Douglas Emory Wilson. Vol. 5 of The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks. 16 vols. Edited by William H. Gilman et al. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960–1982.

Hall, Basil. Travels in North America, in the Years 1827 and 1828. 3 vols. Edinburgh: Cadell, 1829.

Slater, Joseph, ed. The Correspondence of Emerson and Carlyle. New York: Columbia University Press, 1964.

Trollope, Anthony. North America. 1862. Edited by Donald Smalley and Bradford Allen Booth. New York: Knopf, 1951.

Trollope, Frances. Domestic Manners of the Americans. 1832. Edited by Pamela Neville-Sington. London: Penguin, 1997.

Secondary Works

Buell, Lawrence. "American Literary Emergence as a Postcolonial Phenomenon." American Literary History 4, no. 3 (1992): 411–442.

Dekker, George. The American Historical Romance. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Giles, Paul. Transatlantic Insurrections: British Culture and the Formation of American Literature, 1730–1860. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

Gravil, Richard. Romantic Dialogues: Anglo-American Continuities, 1776–1862. New York: St. Martin's, 2000.

Grey, Robin. The Complicity of Imagination: The American Renaissance, Contests of Authority, and Seventeenth-Century English Culture. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Kasson, Joy S. Artistic Voyagers: Europe and the American Imagination in the Works of Irving, Allston, Cole, Cooper, and Hawthorne. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982.

Lease, Benjamin. Anglo-American Encounters: England and the Rise of American Literature. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Manning, Susan. The Puritan-Provincial Vision: Scottish and American Literature in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

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

Mulvey, Christopher. Anglo-American Landscapes: A Study of Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American Travel Literature. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Mulvey, Christopher. Transatlantic Manners: Social Patterns in Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American Travel Literature. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Nevins, Allan, ed. America through British Eyes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1948.

Peach, Linden. British Influence on the Birth of American Literature. London: Macmillan, 1982.

Rowe, John Carlos. Literary Culture and U.S. Imperialism: From the Revolution to World War II. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Weisbuch, Robert. Atlantic Double-Cross: American Literature and British Influence in the Age of Emerson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

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

Paul Giles


views updated Jun 08 2018

ENGLISH LITERATURE Short form Eng lit. An ambiguous term used and understood in at least five ways: as the LITERATURE of England, the literature of Great Britain (and Ireland) written in English, all literature in English (whatever the place of origin), a varying mix of all or any of these (depending on circumstance, preference, and emphasis), and any of these as a subject taught in schools and colleges.

The literature of England

In its first sense, English literature is on a par with other national literatures, such as Italian literature seen as the achievement and heritage of the people of Italy. This is the commonest sense of the term, widely used to contrast not only with Italian or French national literature but also with the national literature of the US, as in:
When we think of modern literature, we almost invariably associate it with national groups. English literature does not include American, and there is even hesitation in including Austrian literature under German. In the Middle Ages such national groups either did not exist at all or existed only in a rudimentary form. We can speak only of works written in a particular language ( W. T. H. Jackson , Medieval Literature, 1966)

The literature of Great Britain

In its second sense, the term refers to literature in English in the nation-state made up of England, Scotland, and Wales (and at certain times and in various ways all or part of Ireland), or of the British Isles:
For coherence, I have focused on the literature of the British Isles, and specifically of England—although with many necessary side glances at Scotland and Ireland( Alastair Fowler , A History of English Literature, 1987)

This dimension is often inconsistently perceived and described: for example, Scottish writers like Walter Scott, John Buchan, and J. M. Barrie are included unreflectingly in lists, studies, and histories that do not precisely specify the ‘Englishness’ of the canon in question. This imprecision sometimes confuses the narrower heritage of England with the broader heritage of Britain and Ireland. The use of the term British literature, however, is complicated by the existence of literatures that are not in English (Gaelic, Welsh, and Cornish, and Scots when defined as distinct from English). The term is, however, sometimes used in contrast with literatures in English elsewhere.

All literature in English

The third, non-national or supra-national sense includes the preceding and such terms as African literature in English, American literature, Australian literature, Canadian literature in English, Irish literature in English. It may or may not have a capital L. The sense dates from the 19c, with changing emphases:
Around 1900, not many literary historians in Europe or the United States would have been prepared to argue that there was such a thing as an American literature, or that the literature so far produced in America was worth an extensive analysis. Able American authors were conceded to exist. But they tended to be treated as men of individual merit—contributors (as Matthew Arnold saw it) to ‘one great literature—English literature’( Marcus Cunliffe , American Literature to 1900, 1986).
This literature of English at large is sometimes referred to as literature (written) in English, as in The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English (ed. Ian Ousby, 1988). It includes not only the British and American traditions, but also COMMONWEALTH literature. The usage world literature written in English includes all literatures created in English and all literary works translated into English.

A mixture of senses

Because of the possible confusions and misunderstandings, resentment can arise among those interested in the literature and its description. Critics discussing such writers as Chinua Achebe, Robertson Davies, James Joyce, V. S. Naipaul, and Walter Scott, as part of ‘mainstream’ English literature with its supposedly ‘universal’ messages may or may not recall or appreciate that such writers have Nigerian, Canadian, Irish, Trinidadian, Scottish, or other dimensions as significant for their work as the English dimension of William Wordsworth and the American dimension of Mark Twain. Such problems arise partly from ambiguities inherent in the word ‘English’ itself and partly from distinctions and tensions among the peoples who use English, some of whom have no other language, some of whom are bi- or multilingual, and some of whom have seen English replace other languages important to them.

The development of English literature

Imaginative works have been written in English for over a thousand years, and, in historical terms, most of them are primarily the heritage of England. As with the language itself, such literature can be divided into Old, Middle, and Modern periods, the modern phase subdividing conveniently into compartments whose labels relate to monarchs (Tudor, Elizabethan, Jacobean, Victorian), cultural phases and assumptions (Augustan, Romantic, Modernist, etc.), centuries (16c drama, the 18c novel, etc.), and, most recently, varieties (American literature, Indian English literature, etc.).

The language of literature

Although English literature has not been so detached from everyday usage as some literatures, it is closer to everyday life in the 20c than previously. The concept and practice of a ‘high style’, to be kept apart from common usage, has been steadily eroded; the idiom of speech has thoroughly penetrated the literary text and become the norm for those genres of cinema and television which have inherited so much from literature. The tradition has been public and responsible; few writers have taken a position of total withdrawal and alienation from society. The language has in all periods been a literary medium; conversely, literature has enriched the language with neologisms, allusions, and quotations. People regularly use literary quotations, often without knowing their origins: to the manner born, not wisely but too well, what's in a name? ( Shakespeare); a little learning is a dangerous thing (Pope); God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb ( Sterne); a sadder and a wiser man ( Coleridge); the female of the species (is deadlier than the male) ( Kipling); some animals are more equal than others ( Orwell).

Literature in education

The academic study and examinable subject known as English Literature (short form Eng Lit) is comparatively recent. Appreciation of English as a literary language began in the late 16c, but literary works in the vernacular were valued mainly for recreation and moral instruction, while the classical languages and literatures continued to dominate education at every level. However, knowledge of English writers was gradually encouraged as a social accomplishment and a mark of breeding, especially among women, for whom a classical education was not usually available.

The dissenting academies

The first movement away from the classical monopoly in education came in the 17c, among the English Protestant dissenters, for whom texts in English served as sources for exercises in grammar and rhetoric. When the Act of Uniformity (1662) excluded dissenters from the universities, a number of clergymen dispossessed of their livings opened schools in their own houses, and after the restrictions were slightly eased by the Act of Toleration (1689), some of these schools developed into the dissenting academies, offering an alternative to the ancient universities. Their curricula were usually similar to those of Oxford and Cambridge in the study of the classical languages, but gradually broadened to include history, science, modern languages, and English literature. The Northampton Academy, founded by Philip Doddridge in 1729, was one of the first to teach English authors, and John Aikin lectured on Milton and 18c English poets at Warrington Academy, founded in 1757. The influence of those academies was widespread, not only in the UK but in many other parts of the English-speaking world.

The universities

The first chair of English Literature was in Scotland, at the U. of Edinburgh (1762), and was known as the Chair of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres. Its first occupant was the rhetorician Hugh Blair. This was followed in the 19c by the first colleges of the U. of London: U. College (1828) and King's College (1831). Chairs of English Literature were then created at Owens College, Manchester (1850) and at the U. of Glasgow (1862), after which the practice extended widely. In 1848, Frederick Denison Maurice and others founded in London the Queen's College for Women. Here, in 1848, Charles Kingsley, in his inaugural lecture as Professor of English, spoke of literature as suitable preparation for women's lives. In the US, the academic study of English literature was established in the early 19c. The first Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard, in 1806, was John Quincy Adams (later US president). In 1851, Francis J. Child occupied the same chair as Professor of English.

Oxford and Cambridge were slow in taking the subject up, but when they did their prestige helped establish it firmly in the English-using world. At Oxford, English literature was offered in the pass degree in 1873 and the Merton Chair of English Language and Literature was created in 1885. After much controversy, the Oxford honours school of English was founded in 1894, its growth owing much to the work of J. C. Collins and W. A. Raleigh. At Cambridge, the Edward VII Chair of English Literature was first held in 1912 by Arthur Quiller-Couch. In 1917, it became possible to take English with another subject, for a degree, but English did not rank as a sole honours subject until 1926. However, Cambridge made up for this late start by its influence on literary criticism, notably through the work of I. A. Richards (1893–1979) and F. R. Leavis (1895–1978). There was considerable controversy about the study of early forms of the language, especially Old English, in an honours school of English, although Old English had been studied by some Oxford scholars since the 17c. A chair of Anglo-Saxon had existed at Oxford since 1849 and at Cambridge since 1878.

Canons and classics

The literary texts of a language can be many things to many people; attitudes vary regarding the social and educational value or the appropriateness of certain texts and authors. Many people, whether or not they read acknowledged works of literature, regard them as a repository of ‘good English’ and as models for both the written and spoken language. The works form a canon (the classics), a greater or lesser knowledge of which is shared by the culturally literate. Historians, lexicographers, and other scholars, regardless of whether they share this view or gain aesthetic as well as academic satisfaction from their studies, find in the body of English literature a record of language usage over many centuries. Currently, many teachers and critics of English literature waver between a traditional aesthetic and value-laden approach to their subject and linguistic, Marxist, Freudian, postmodernist, feminist, or deconstructionist views of the inherited canon as texts to be dissected to provide proof of the rightness of a doctrine or reveal a writer's hidden agenda. They may seek at the same time to enlarge the canon by including overlooked writers (especially women) or adjust it by reassessing writers whom they see as overly revered, including Shakespeare.

English literature

views updated May 21 2018

English literature Body of written works produced in the British Isles in the English language. The earliest surviving works are from the Old English period (475–1000). Mainly poems in the heroic mould, epics such as Beowulf belong to an oral tradition but were written down in the 7th century. Alfred the Great translated a number of Latin works into the vernacular and initiated the Anglo Saxon Chronicle. Norman French replaced Old English as the language of the ruling classes after 1066, and the influence of French literature was reflected in the numerous romances centred around the stories of Charlemagne and the legends of King Arthur. The native tradition of alliterative poetry re-emerged in the 14th century in the works of Langland, Malory and Geoffrey Chaucer, whose talent was unrivalled until the 16th century. Humanism and the Renaissance influenced English writing in the 16th century. William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe were the leading figures in Elizabethan drama. Shakespeare's late works formed a bridge with the Jacobean era. Edmund Spenser and Philip Sidney ensured the period was also a golden age for poetry. John Donne and the metaphysical poets continued this tradition, but the poetry of Milton was unsurpassed in the 17th century. English prose flourished with the production of the Authorised Version of the Bible in 1611. After the Restoration, drama revived in the comedies of Congreve, while the satiric prose of Swift, the poetry of Pope, the drama of Goldsmith, and the criticism of Samuel Johnson, typify the classical ideals of the Augustan age (c.1690–1740). The novel emerged during the early 18th century, with works by Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, Sterne, and Smollett, and was developed further in the 19th century by Jane Austen, Walter Scott, Thackeray, the Brontë sisters, Eliot, and Dickens. The Romantic movement, presaged by Blake's visionary poetry, gained full expression with Wordsworth and Coleridge, and was developed by Keats, Byron, and Shelley. The major Victorian poets were Tennyson and Robert and Elizabeth Browning. The wit of Shaw and Wilde, and the bleak novels of Hardy, gave way to the cynicism of war poets such as Sigfried Sassoon. The novels of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and D. H. Lawrence, and the poetic dramas of T. S. Eliot, best realised the formal inventions of modernism. W. B. Yeats looked back to the visions of Blake. The novel diversified with the writings of Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene. In the 1930s, W. H. Auden produced explicitly political poems and Noel Coward lampooned the British class system. The 1950s saw the emergence of the ‘Angry Young Men’, including John Osborne and Kingsley Amis, and the absurdist plays of Samuel Beckett. Post-war novelists include Anthony Burgess, William Golding, Iris Murdoch, Angela Carter, and Salman Rushdie; dramatists include Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Joe Orton and David Hare; poets include Dylan Thomas, Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, and Seamus Heaney.

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English literature

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