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

By Leonard Tennenhouse | Go to book overview

2
WRITING ENGLISH IN AMERICA

FROM the Declaration of Independence until well after the War of 1812, authors and intellectuals writing in English in the United States debated the relationship between language and national identity. This debate ranged widely over philological, linguistic, and aesthetic matters and took up the question of what consequences might ensue from the political break with Britain: Was the Revolution only a political rupture, or did it require revolutionary arts of cultural and linguistic self-definition as well? The majority of modern scholars take the position that, yes, in order to be a nation, an emergent political order must establish its own language or languages. This language should not only serve the purpose of conducting state business but, equally important, it should also be able to produce a national literature or literatures.1 But, I would argue, it is more in keeping with eighteenthcentury thinking to say that revolution effects a return or restoration of national origins.2 This concept of revolution did not entail breaking all cultural and linguistic ties with the imperial nation, but only those considered corrupt and corrupting. David Simpson characterizes this well-known position with regard to language usage: “there were many, aside from the committed Anglophiles who would sanction no deviation from the rules set down in London, who were open to the prospect of some particularly American modification of the language, but who were at the same time uncomfortable about making a completely new beginning.”3 From this position can be inferred yet a third, which I will put forth in this chapter—namely, that the language debates in the new United States continued a process of national redefinition that were underway in Great Britain from the mideighteenth century on. Independence was indeed a motive for the debate in America, and the result was an American language and literature. Even so, there is reason to pause before concluding that this process of redefinition was a distinctively American phenomenon, which can be understood as a departure from the European-English model. To the contrary it was in their respective attempts to do the same thing as the English—namely, stabilize English usage—that an American difference emerged.

During the long eighteenth century, both England and America experienced a sudden expansion of literacy and an explosion in the number and

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

Table of contents

  • The Importance of Feeling English iii
  • For Nancy v
  • Contents vii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • 1: Diaspora and Empire 1
  • 2: Writing English in America 19
  • 3: The Sentimental Libertine 43
  • 4: The Heart of Masculinity 73
  • 5: The Gothic in Diaspora 94
  • Afterword from Cosmopolitanism to Hegemony 118
  • Notes 129
  • Index 153
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