The United States of America: A Study of the American Commonwealth, Its Natural Resources, People, Industries, Manufactures, Commerce, and Its Work in Literature, Science, Education, and Self-Government - Vol. 2

By Nathaniel Southgate Shaler | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VIII.
LITERATURE, ART, AND ARCHITECTURE.

AMERICAN LITERATURE.

THE beginnings of American literature are not obscure, but its development is none the less interesting on that account. Its origins are not to be sought in dialects nor in the twilight of song and story, during which a distinct vehicle of literary expression was slowly evolved, as in the literatures of France, Italy, Germany, and England. Bearing this in mind, we shall more clearly understand its development, and its present condition and tendency.

It was once the demand of foreign critics that a new country which had a new government should have a new literature. A new government in time we had--in its peculiar Federal and State relations an absolutely new experiment in the world--but our political institutions, in spirit, were a growth on English lines of constitutional development, an adaptation of a body of tradition and principles to new territory. We inherited these ruling ideas for the conduct of States exactly as we inherited the English language, and consequently the English literature. Inheritance, however, is not the right word: the English who came here brought with them their own literature, with absolute ownership in its origins and history, and the absolute right to develop it and adapt it to the conditions of the New World, that the English had to mold literature according to the changes in the scholarship and social life of England. The literature of the United States was English. There were Dutch here, and later Germans; there were French and Swedes; but north of the Gulf of Mexico, except in the province of Quebec and the State of Louisiana, the literature was English, without any appreciable influence from other sources, and so it remained for a hundred years. Of original pure literature in this time the United States produced almost nothing, though in the fields of politics and theology its vital force was felt throughout the reading world. Toward every effort of liter-

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