American Literature, American Culture

By Gordon Hutner | Go to book overview

PART I
FORMATIONS

The early history of American literary criticism focuses its farthest-ranging questions on the cultural importance of the nation's literary record. Indeed, the original aims and purposes of literary criticism have preoccupied writers and scholars alike. Those first critics established a tradition of reading American writing as cultural critique. They asked what meaning should American literary expression make: did the meaning of our writers' works also help readers to make sense of ourselves as a nation? Did the meaning these books make also signify to the rest of the world something about the complicated experiment in democracy taking place within our changing borders?

The critical debates characterizing the early years of the republic through the post-Civil War era were focused on determining the salient attributes of a national literature, especially whether and how that literature was the expression of a people. Other countries with a demonstrable connection through the generations to an ancient past-- France, England, Spain--had seemingly incontestable views of which people constituted their nation. So their literatures could readily be understood as expressing a cultural spirit or "genius," even though these countries, not to mention Italy and Germany, were far from being unitary societies. Through much of the first half of the nineteenth century, American literary culture, like these others, argued over what language or dialect--English or American--its literature would be written in, which was also a battle about how national identity was constituted. Was there an American language, and was that properly the language of literature in the United States? The "genius" of other literatures could also be known through the folklore and historical materials that a people recognize as its own, but what if a nation were inventing itself as a new entity? What if its people were from the outset so heterogenous and diversified that there were all too few generally agreed-upon exemplars or determinants of a life of ideas and expression--a culture--for that literature to embody?

Few countries have felt this chronic pressure to justify themselves; few have worried as anxiously about the legitimacy, coherence, and achievement of their nation's literary heritage as America has, insofar as that literature was supposed to express something true and profound about the United States. Yet it would be willfully naive to disregard this question of what constitutes American literature. The search for the answer has not only animated some of the most powerful imaginative writing in the United States but has also inspired a brilliant criticism.

That criticism has generally been more concerned with issues of identity and community and less with issues of form. Yet American critics' contributions to aesthetics have been real and sustained, especially through the tradition of poet-critics--Poe, Emerson, and Whitman through T. S. Eliot, Laura Riding, Langston Hughes, John Crowe Ransom, and Amiri Baraka--a criticism that continues today in the politically engaged theorizing of such Language Poets as Charles Bernstein and Susan Howe. As forceful as this tradition

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