Friday, February 27, 2009

Young America demands genuine American literature

The magazine writers of New York City in the 1840s, the people Perry Miller chronicles in The Raven and the Whale, were obsessed with the supposed problem of American literature. Where were the great American writers - the American Milton, the American Shakespeare, the American Dickens? The American Walter Scott was James Fenimore Cooper, but that did not seem to help much.

One theme Miller traces is the obsession with this idea of the creation of a truly American literature, one that was simultaneously independent from European models, popular enough for writers to make a living, and as good as anyone else's literature. The way they went about creating this literature was to write editorials advocating it, describing it - Niagara Falls, for example, would be a good subject for an American poem* - and claiming that whatever books were around at the moment were definitely not it, not yet.

I found the whole exercise hilarious, and central to the failure of the New York writers to create any lasting work (the New England Dial writers seem to have been just as bad, and the main cause, don't get me wrong, was a lack of talent). It reminded me of a certain strain of litblog writing, mostly directed at criticism, endless worry about how criticism should be done. When I see these sorts of pieces, I always think, what a waste of time - just go ahead and do it yourself.

Manifesto writers rarely seem to recognize the thing they're looking for. To return to Duyckink and Mathews and the other New York members of "Young America" - Emerson and the other transcendentalists did not count, since they were basically German, and possibly all crazy; Longfellow was a fine poet but too European; Washington Irving even preferred to live in Europe. Hawthorne and Poe were also criticized as too "German" - here we see one of the causes of the low status of 19th century German literature in the English-speaking world, an example of the New Yorkers winning the battle while losing the war.

The 1850s saw the publication of The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick and "Bartleby the Scrivener," Walden and Leaves of Grass. Whatever else these books may or may not be, they are unquestionably American. And only the Melville and Whitman books were even tangentially influenced by the manifesto writers. Melville, for example, knew all of the "Young America" writers, and read everything they wrote. When he finally produced Moby-Dick, almost no one understood it, and it was soon virtually forgotten. Worse, in a way, is the fact that Miller has no cause to mention Frederick Douglass and his Autobiography. It would have never have crossed these writers' minds that what they saw as an abolitionist tract was a genuine American masterpiece.

I know that my judgment is retrospective, and I'm ignoring a lot of complications (copyright, politics, the crushing popularity of Dickens), but Miller's account is enjoyably ridiculous. Let the artists do their work. Everything will work out somehow. There will always be good books to read. I look back at the 1840s and see Douglass and Emerson and the stories of Hawthorne and Poe, and think, hey, pretty good, but of course, my 1840s also include Gogol and Balzac, A Christmas Carol and Wuthering Heights and Vanity Fair, and Heine and Stifter. In my reading, I'm not much of a patriot.

* E.g., "Roar, raging torrent! and thou, mighty river, \ Pour thy white foam on the valley below;" - "Niagara", Joseph Rodman Drake. I can't believe anyone wanted more of that.

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