Cross-Atlantic Influence

By Emery, Allan | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Winter 1988 | Go to article overview

Cross-Atlantic Influence

Emery, Allan, Nineteenth-Century Prose

Robert Weisbuch, Atlantic Double-Cross: American Literature and British Influence in the Age of Emerson. Chicago UP, 1987. 360pp.

In Atlantic Double-Cross Robert Weisbuch applies the theories of Anglo-American literary relations of the mid-nineteenth century, contending that American writers of this period were "anxious" to prove their equality with (or even superiority to) contemporary British writers and attempted to do so in various ingenious ways. In an exceptionally interesting first chapter, Weisbuch employs a nervous quotation from Emerson (returned from recent visits to Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Carlyle) as the springboard for a comprehensive discussion of American writers' professional insecurities in relation to Britain. Citing numerous comments by American writers of the period, Weisbuch shows that these writers sensed a general American indebtedness to British models; that this indebtedness could not be acknowledged without embarrassment; that (for reasons of prior political and present linguistic connection) British literary achievements provoked far more jealousy in Americans than did the achievements of Continental writers; that American literature's relation to British literature was highly antagonistic; that American writers sought to compete mainly with nineteenth-century British writers (rather than older writers like Shakespeare); that individual quarrels with particular British writers exemplified a larger American quarrel with British literature, thus adding fuel to the American fire; and that the struggle of American writers with their British counterparts continued into the later nineteenth century, though reaching a peak during the American Renaissance.

Later chapters push this argument in significant new directions. In Chapter 3, "A Litany of Causes," Weisbuch views the American literary nationalism of the mid-nineteenth century as partly a symptom of anti-British feeling and underscores the triumph of that nationalism over the internationalism of writers like Lowell and Longfellow. In Chapter 5, "Cultural Time in England and America," he suggests that the American emphasis on the value of "cultural earliness" (an emphasis discoverable in Emerson, Thoreau, and others) resulted from the British contention that America could produce no great literature until it owned an extensive history. And in Chapter 7, "History in the Brain, Thought in the Land," he argues that American writers also responded to his contention in other ways: Hawthorne "stretched" time (exaggerating the oldness of his historical materials); Cooper mythologized American history (turning ordinary historical events into "archetypal" ones); Whitman and Dickinson abolished history, reveling in a radical "futurism;" and Emerson developed the idea of "vertical time," the notion that, in the enlarged self, every moment contained all history.

In Chapters 9 and 11 Weisbuch treats American "actualism" and "ontological insecurity," two other products of America's literary competition with Britain. He explains that British writers (particularly of the Victorian period) believed in the reality of the external world, the power of that world to influence human lives, and the moral importance of portraying that world in literature. In response to these beliefs, American writers developed the contrary theory that internal (mental) reality mattered most, that individuals could freely direct their lives, and that literature's function was to envision ideals that could be "actualized" in the world, replacing the "hard facts of land and industry." Weisbuch suggests that writers like Emerson, Thoreau, and Dickinson disdained all dealings with such facts and chose to spin worlds "out of the self." He also notes, however, that the American confidence in the ultimate importance of imagined reality led at times to a troubling "insecurity" about the substantialness of any reality. This insecurity, to be found most importantly in Hawthorne and Melville, was nevertheless valuable to such writers, for it led them, in works like The Scarlet Letter and Moby-Dick, to address the problem of subjectivity, to examine instances of interpretation, to view human perception as a worthwhile subject of literary study. …

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