Academic journal article ARIEL

Frames and Discourse in American Writing

Academic journal article ARIEL

Frames and Discourse in American Writing

Article excerpt

A compelling idiosyncrasy of development originated in America's possessing exactly the same language as England. It was so important that in the early nineteenth century strategies were suggested to circumvent this perceived impediment of language, responsible for an absence of "national character" (Channing, "Essay" 311). (1) Walter Channing, interestingly, chose the word "character." Although by this period critics--including Charles Brockden Brown, William Cullen Bryant, Samuel Miller, and essayists for the Port Folio--noted successes (such as trade, science, the "Mechanic Arts" (2)), the language and literature were considered at times intractably non-original. (3) According to these nineteenth-century voices, language was a British prison on American soil.

Ironically, the disparity between self-governing commercial success and this sense of a hand-me-down language put pressure on the word "originality." The adjective "original" began as it should, referentially, relating one country of origin to another, synonymous with another adjective such as "distinctive" in this sentence: "Our descriptions, of course, which must, if we ever have a poetry, be made in the language of another country, can never be distinctive" (Channing, "Essay" 309). It ended up abstract, self-evident, equivalent to "natural genius," a noun: "The importance of a national language to the rise and progress of the literature of a country, can be argued from all we know of every nation which has pretended to originality" (Channing, "Essay" 311). As essayists linked "character" quite literally over and over again to imitative language, they ended up ordering (commanding and lining up) a new protagonist of American stories, the ways and means of "originality," a precious commodity. Stripped of its colonial antecedent, however, this mold is tricky. Unlike Aristotle's definition of "character," in which characteristics are ascribable--whether to "bravery, temperance, generosity, magnificence, magnanimity, honor, mildness, friendliness in social intercourse [...]" (4)--"character" was made-to-order: "originality." But what can this look like?

You can see wide reverberations of this anxiety in nineteenth-century America. Concerned about "mixed-language communities," Celia M. Britton asks, "How does the colonized subject relate to a language initially imposed by the colonizer but subsequently, to some extent, subverted and reappropriated? And what role can fictional representation play in this process?" She cites Edouard Glissant's work on "counterpoetics," a "detour around the problem of the lack of a natural authentic language" (Britton 31). A sticky problem exists, however, in these terms, when it is a not a "mixed-language" but same-language community. As Peter Hulme argues, "the inclusion of America will, and should, affect the shape and definition of the field" (119). (5) At the same time the inclusion of the nonoral in any approach of American language has yet to be fully recognized as an approach to generations of America's texts. Voices are framed in America by the English of the colonizing country, England. What Britton terms the "natural authentic language" came close being to a national obsession, excessively isolated in America as a perceived hindrance to direct and "spontaneous" self-expression, given its recent and assertive past of political independence in the name of "autonomous social agency" (Britton 31).

Strategies to rectify the situation proliferated. One was to consider alternatives to English. (6) Another idea was to quash all British influences of language, making room for America's character to take instant shape. (7) Those British influences included classroom education, forms of speech and grammar, and even the wholesale suppression of British literary tradition. (8) American schools began to remove Latin and Greek from the curriculum and abolished copying British texts in handwriting exercises. "The best authors," Theophilus Parsons claims, "they whose effect upon the mind would be to give it strength and elevation, should be studied, with assiduity; but no writer, however excellent, however perfect in his own style, or however good that style may be, should be imitated; for imitation always tends to destroy originality and independence of mind, and cannot substitute in their place any thing half so valuable. …

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