American Literature, American Culture

By Gordon Hutner | Go to book overview

I am merely stating what seem to me cold facts. During the thirties the tide seemed to be turning the other way: the representative figure of that decade is W. H. Auden, though there are other British poets of the same generation whose best work will I believe prove equally permanent. Now, I do not know whether Auden is to be considered as an English or as an American poet: his career has been useful to me in providing me with an answer to the same question when asked about myself, for I can say: 'whichever Auden is, I suppose I must be the other'. Today there are several interesting younger poets in both countries, and England has acquired some valuable recruits from Wales. But my point in making this hurried review is simply this. In my time, there have been influences in both directions, and I think, to the mutual profit of literature on both sides of the Atlantic. But English and American poetry do not in consequence tend to become merged into one common international type, even though the poetry of today on one side of the ocean may show a closer kinship with poetry on the other side, than either does with that of an earlier generation. I do not think that a satisfactory statement of what constitutes the difference between an English and an American 'tradition' in poetry could be arrived at: because the moment you produce your definition, and the neater the definition is, the more surely some poet will turn up who doesn't fit into it at all, but who is nevertheless definitely either English or American. And the tradition itself, as I have said long ago, is altered by every new writer of genius. The difference will remain undefined, but it will remain; and this is I think as it should be: for it is because they are different that English poetry and American poetry can help each other, and contribute towards the endless renovation of both.

Henry Nash Smith


The Myth of the Garden and Turner's Frontier Hypothesis

By far the most influential piece of writing about the West produced during the nineteenth century was the essay on "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" read by Frederick Jackson Turner before the American Historical Association at Chicago in 1893. The "frontier hypothesis" which he advanced on that occasion revolutionized American historiography and eventually made itself felt in economics and sociology, in literary criticism, and even in politics.1

____________________
Reprinted by permission of the publishers from Virgin Land. The American West as Symbol and Myth by Henry Nash Smith, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Copyright 1950 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College, renewed 1978 by Henry Nash Smith.
1
References on the Significance of the Frontier in American History, compiled by Everett E. Edwards ( United States Department of Agriculture Library, Bibliographical Contributions, No. 25, 2nd ed. {April, 1939}. Mimeographed), lists 124 items bearing on the subject, ranging in date from Franklin "Observations on the Peopling of Countries" ( 1751) to 1939. A passage from a radio address by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935 which Dr. Edwards quotes in his excellent Introduction illustrates the political application of Turner's ideas: "Today we can no longer escape into virgin territory. We must master our environment . . . We have been compelled by stark necessity to unlearn the too comfortable superstition that the American soil was mystically blessed with every kind of immunity to grave economic maladjustments . . ."(p.3).

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