The Importance of Feeling English: American Literature and the British Diaspora, 1750-1850

The Importance of Feeling English: American Literature and the British Diaspora, 1750-1850

The Importance of Feeling English: American Literature and the British Diaspora, 1750-1850

The Importance of Feeling English: American Literature and the British Diaspora, 1750-1850


American literature is typically seen as something that inspired its own conception and that sprang into being as a cultural offshoot of America's desire for national identity. But what of the vast precedent established by English literature, which was a major American import between 1750 and 1850?

In The Importance of Feeling English, Leonard Tennenhouse revisits the landscape of early American literature and radically revises its features. Using the concept of transatlantic circulation, he shows how some of the first American authors--from poets such as Timothy Dwight and Philip Freneau to novelists like William Hill Brown and Charles Brockden Brown--applied their newfound perspective to pre-existing British literary models. These American "re-writings" would in turn inspire native British authors such as Jane Austen and Horace Walpole to reconsider their own ideas of subject, household, and nation.

The enduring nature of these literary exchanges dramatically recasts early American literature as a literature of diaspora, Tennenhouse argues--and what made the settlers' writings distinctly and indelibly American was precisely their insistence on reproducing Englishness, on making English identity portable and adaptable. Written in an incisive and illuminating style, The Importance of Feeling English reveals the complex roots of American literature, and shows how its transatlantic movement aided and abetted the modernization of Anglophone culture at large.


At the risk of stating the obvious, let me begin by asserting that any a discussion of American literature will at some point have to address the questions of how soon and in what respects British Americans began to think of themselves as American rather than British. Instead of assuming that different national governments mean different national literatures, I come to this problem from the contrary perspective: that the separation of American from British literatures is still at issue and was therefore nothing like the clean break that we tend to project backward onto the late eighteenth century. I plan to look at a wide body of Anglophone literature from the late seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries for the purpose of discovering when it began to divide internally into recognizable British and American traditions. With this material, I move back and forth across the Atlantic, explaining how the American tradition defined itself in an ongoing and yet changing relation to the British. in this respect, my project participates in the growing body of scholarship concerned with transatlantic literary relations.

My argument begins with the proposition that during the period from 1750-1850 American authors and readers were more interested in producing and consuming English literature than in creating, to borrow Elaine Showalter's phrase, “a literature of their own.” the literary evidence indeed suggests that during this period, most writers and readers in America considered themselves to be members of the generic English culture that we generally mean by “British culture,” and they thought of their literature as products of such a culture. But this hardly means that anything written before political independence was British. Nor can we assume that a drive for cultural autonomy must have accompanied political independence. Such a view regards American literature as a coherent body of writing whose colonial-era production sounded themes that resonated with the writers of the American Renaissance. Hence the continuous search within a field constituted solely by American texts to find “profound continuities between early American literary expression and the classic literature of the United States in the mid-nineteenth century.” An alternative view argued most forcefully by William Spengemann claims that literary history . . .

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