American Literature in Nineteenth-Century England

By Clarence Gohdes | Go to book overview

V. OF CRITICS AND INFLUENCE

"There is the world of ideas and there is the world of practice"

-- MATTHEW ARNOLD.

FOR SOME YEARS after the Revolutionary War the official opinion of literary production in the United States held by the British arbiters of taste was that there was no such article as American literature. The paucity of our authors was a factor in the formation of this opinion, but probably more important was the political animosity inspired by a democratic form of government. In much the same fashion as in our day the idea has been rife in the capitalist countries that Soviet Russia because of political and social viciousness could produce no army of consequence, so the monarchists argued that governmental and social conditions prevailing in the United States were likely to hamstring the development of learning and the arts. A leader in the Athenæum for 1829 on "America and American Writers" supplies a neat illustration in its concluding words: "We do not believe America has a literature. . . . We do not believe that it can have one till its institutions are fundamentally changed."1 When Washington Irving, Fenimore Cooper, and William Ellery Channing attained a very considerable popularity in the twenties and thirties they could be disposed of by dubbing them mere imitators of English models; and, like the chief American painters of the entire century, they were quietly absorbed into the "British School." The critics in the United States themselves seemed to be proud of hailing their own writers as the "American Goldsmith," the "American Scott," and so on; and their docility may have served to reassure the European arbiters of the essential accuracy of their judgment.

Moreover, there was a pretty firmly fixed idea that the presses in the New World merely turned out pirated editions of the works of

____________________
1
October 14, 1829, p. 639. Nevertheless, this journal became one of the chief organs for the reviewing of American books. This fact is partially recognized by Leslie A. Marchand, The Athenæum: a Mirror of Victorian Culture, Chapel Hill, N.C., 1941.

-127-

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