Made-in-USA Literature A Concise History of American Writing Examines Major Currents

By Merle Rubin. Merle Rubin regularly reviews literature and contemporary fiction . | The Christian Science Monitor, January 13, 1992 | Go to article overview

Made-in-USA Literature A Concise History of American Writing Examines Major Currents


Merle Rubin. Merle Rubin regularly reviews literature and contemporary fiction ., The Christian Science Monitor


AMERICANS began dreaming of a distinctly American literature long before it came into its own. As the poet and patriot Philip Freneau, a veteran of the American Revolution, observed, "a political and a literary independence {are} two very different things - the first was accomplished in about seven years, the latter will not be completely effected, perhaps, in as many centuries."

Certainly, there were new things to write about. Americans had settled in the New World, where they experienced nature as a wilderness - demonic, to some minds, edenic to others - but in either case, very different from the mapped and cultivated nature of Europe. Americans were building a new kind of society, free from the constraints of hereditary aristocracy, state-established churches, and other European social forms.

But well into the 19th century, American literature - and the arts in general - still struck many observers, European and American alike, as underdeveloped: too derivative of European models on the one hand, or too rudely provincial and homespun on the other.

Americans writing in the English language could scarcely ignore the works of Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Pope, Bunyan, Scott, Byron, Wordsworth, and the King James Bible, but they also could not ignore the distance that separated the two countries. Insofar as literature is generated out of life (the time and place in which a writer lives) and out of the verbal matrix of language and previous literature, American literature took on the dual character of an English heritage and an American milieu.

In their jointly written history of American literature, "From Puritanism to Postmodernism," Richard Ruland, an American professor, and Malcolm Bradbury, a British professor and novelist, have combined the perspectives of their two nationalities in a concise and invitingly readable overview of American writing from the 17th century to the present. Ruland is credited with having contributed primarily to the sections on colonial and 19th-century literature and the discussion of poetry; Bradbury, with the modern period and the novel, as well as with initiating the project.

Following in the footsteps of the critic Hugh Kenner, the authors of this book see Modernism as a profoundly, although not exclusively, American movement, with its emphasis on repudiating the past and inventing "A Homemade World" (the title of Kenner's study of American Modernism).

To the Modernists - a diverse, often contentious group that included romantics and classicists, abstractionists and social realists, cosmopolitan expatriates and sturdy celebrators of the "American grain Puritanism was the enemy. America's Puritan past was identified with sexual repression, social conformity, materialism, and anti-aestheticism. More recently, however, subtler critics have found in the Puritan heritage the roots of transcendentalism, self-reliance, belief in one's "inner voice," and a sense of idealism. …

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