Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, United States National Literature, and the Canonical Erasure of Material Nature

Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, United States National Literature, and the Canonical Erasure of Material Nature

Article excerpt

When George Santayana and Van Wyck Brooks began constructing an American canon around Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman during the early decades of the twentieth century, they initiated a long fade into obscurity for a range of authors such as Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, William Cullen Bryant, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Irving's popularity had always been tenuous, though, and Cooper had damaged his own reputation so badly with his libel suits that the new generation of critics simply finished a critical dismantlement that was already well under way. Bryant supported himself primarily as an editor throughout his career and he never produced a huge body of literary work, and Whittier was remembered as an abolitionist as much as a poet. More than any other literary figure, though, it was Longfellow--the most successful, most widely read American poet of the nineteenth century--who embodied better than any other poet the "genteel tradition" that Santayana and Brooks worked to overthrow. Ultimately, Santayana and Brooks accomplished their goal of breaking the "genteel tradition," and in the process they also broke Longfellow, whose reputation, despite a mild revival over the last fifteen years, has never recovered. (1)

Longfellow's erasure from the American canon surely marked an extreme shift in literary aesthetics, but it also constituted a pivotal moment in the history of American literature's silent environmental politics. Regardless of how unpalatable Longfellow's poetry may have been to early twentieth-century poets and critics, and regardless of how foreign it may seem in the twenty-first century, many of Longfellow's most enduring artistic productions were conscious efforts to enact an environmentally determined American literature. This national literature, as Longfellow envisioned it, would draw its uniqueness from a North American environment that he understood in physical and terrestrial terms--nature, for him, was a visible, tactile phenomenon, not a set of abstractions like those formulated by Emerson in "Nature."

Three times during his career, in his 1824 "The Literary Spirit of Our Country," in his 1832 "Defence of Poetry," and in his 1849 Kavanagh, Longfellow argued that any legitimate national literature of the United States would have to be environmentally determined but also internationalist. It should, and would, Longfellow believed, spring from European literary roots, but this new national literature would be made unique through the influence of North American nature. Longfellow's plan for an environmentally determined and trans-Atlantic American literature stood with allies like James Russell Lowell and C. C. Felton against the hyper-nationalistic and nativist visions for American literature espoused by young Americans such as Evert Augustus Duyckinck and Cornelius Mathews, and Longfellow's most well-remembered national epics, Evangeline and The Song of Hiawatha, worked to enact this particular literary plan.

When it is mentioned at all, Longfellow's theorization of an American literature is regularly reduced to a single essay, usually the 1832 "Defence of Poetry," or dismissed as a voice in the crowd. Admittedly, Longfellow published his first literary manifesto, "The Literary Spirit of Our Country," when he was very young. Regardless of its early date, 1825, this manifesto is critical to understanding the endurance of Longfellow's commitment to an environmentally determined and trans-Atlantic American literature. It offers a prehistory to the 1832 "Defence of Poetry" that has attracted some critical attention, just as Longfellow's discussion of United States national literature in his 1849 Kavanagh carries his plan for American literature into mid-century.

Over the course of these three pieces, Longfellow remains committed to a middle course between American literary nativism and the imitation of European models; he laments the impediments to literary culture that exist in the United States, and he always argues that the North American environment must be the source of any emergent American national literature. …

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