Every semester, I discuss how American authors sought to carve out their space in a early-nineteenth century world that countered European cultural and artistic influence. As we read throughout the semester, we encounter numerous authors who either explicitly or indirectly address the question, “How do we construct a distinctly American literature?” For me, this topic arises from the outset of the semester due to the way I structure my course, around conversations and non-chronologically. Today, I want to briefly write about some of the myriad ways that the question of constructing a distinctly American literature must infuse itself into any broad discussion of American literature from the colonial era through the mid-nineteenth century.   (Even though I do not move chronologically in my course, I will for this post.)

Chronologically, the first “distinctly” American authors we typically encounter are Mary Rowlandson and Anne Bradstreet. Published in 1650, Bradstreet’s The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung up in America was the first book of poetry published by an American author. Bradstreet’s brother-in-law, John Woodbridge brought the collection to England and published it. The title classifies Bradstreet’s collection as “American”; however, as Perry Miller notes, “[T]he title is the only thing about the volume which shows any sense of America, and that little merely in order to prove that the plantations had something in the way of European wit and learning, that they had not receded into barbarism. Anne’s flowers are English flowers, the birds, English birds, and the landscape is Lincolnshire.” Even though the title references America, the landscapes and imagery represent England, thus making it more European than American.


Mary Rowlandson’s 1682 text, of course, relates her experiences as a captive during King Philip’s War. The captivity narrative, as scholars note, is the first distinctly American genre because it chronicles the captivity and religious struggles of the author, typically a female. Rowlandson’s narrative, at least partially mediated through Increase Mather and possibly her husband Joseph Rowlandson,  traces her spiritual state-of-mind during her eleven week captivity. The text served to as a didactic text to hopefully turn the community back towards God, but it also, as time moved forward, served to usher in captivity narratives as propagandist tools that espoused racist thought and supported American expansion.

Around twenty years later, Sarah Kemble Knight penned her journal detailing her trip from Boston to New Haven and back again in 1703-1704. Even though she wrote the journal in the early part part of the eighteenth century, it did not appear until 1825 when Theodore Dwight discovered the manuscript and had it published. The publication of Knight’s journal occurred five years after Sydney Smith, one of the founders of the Edinburgh Review, infamously questioned America’s cultural place within the world.

In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book? or goes to an American play? or looks at an American picture or statue? What does the world yet owe to American physicians or surgeons? What new substances have their chemists discovered? or what old ones have they  analyzed? What new constellations have been discovered by the telescopes of Americans? — what have they done in the mathematics? Who drinks out of American glasses? or eats from American plates? or wears American coats or gowns? or sleeps in American blankets?

While Dwight does not mention Smith in his prefatory comments, he directly responds to Smith’s questions through the publication of Knight’s journal, a text that shows the historical context of American colonial society.

All of the texts mentioned above either appeared or originated in the colonial period, specifically from the mid-seventeenth century through the start of the eighteenth. In working to construct a “distinctly American literature,” authors such as Lydia Maria Child, Washington Irving, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, and James Fenimore Cooper all looked back to this period, and at points specifically to King Philip, for material to write about that would highlight America’s cultural position. The 1820s, through about the mid-1830s, turned towards the interactions between colonists and Native Americans, even presenting fictional captivity narratives such as Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie. For me, these instances culminate with William Apess’ Eulogy for King Philip (1836), a speech that takes what the above mentioned authors produced, critiques it, and reorganizes the way we think about history by placing King Philip at the forefront, not the Founding Fathers. Apess does not directly critique Sedgwick, Cooper, and the others; rather, his speech takes the fertile ground that they drew from and questions the cultural representations they created. (For me, this is a project I want to explore more; however, this is not the space. I have written about it some before.)


As America produced literature that centered on America, even going back to authors like Charles Brockden Brown, calls still persisted for that distinct strain that would set the nation apart culturally. In 1831, the North American Review called for a turn towards King Philip, but that did not ultimately result in the answer to the ongoing calls. Six years later, in his The American Scholar address, Ralph Waldo Emerson continued to lament the fact that America had yet to respond in an adequate manner to Smith. Emerson opens his speech by proclaiming, “Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close.”  Assertively, Emerson stakes the position that America will arise culturally and shed its perpetual ties to Europe. He concludes the speech by stressing the importance of looking to our surroundings and not to dusty books that depict far-off lands, even stating, “We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe. The spirit of the American freeman is already suspected to be timid, imitative, tame.”

Emerson’s pronouncements were nothing new. He espoused some of the same ideas a year earlier in Nature when he wrote, “Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.” Child, back in 1830, in “Chocorua’s Curse” argued for the same thing when she wrote, “Had it [Mt. Chocorua] been in Scotland, perhaps the genius of Sir Walter [Scott] would have hallowed it, and Americans would have crowded there to kindle fancy on the altar of memory.” Alas, Scott did not write about Mt. Chocorua, so, according to Child, Americans did not flock there to see it. Even earlier, in her 1824 novel Hobomok, Child talks about the need for a distinct American literature when she has the anonymous editor speak with Frederic.

Moving forward again, calls for a “distinctly” American literature still rang throughout the land when Herman Melville, in 1850, writing about Nathaniel Hawthorne, urged America to “prize and cherish her writers, yea, let her glorify them” because they are not numerous and it is better to praise and admire American “mediocrity” then to be constantly bound to Europe. Fittingly, perhaps, Melville makes these statements about Hawthorne because these two authors would become two-fifths of F.O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941), a book that places the blossoming of American literature with Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Hawthorne, and Whitman.

More than any other author within this vast time frame I have discussed, Whitman best heeds the calls for the “distinct” American literature through his free verse, egalitarian themes, championing of the common man, and mining the American nation. As if responding to Smith’s quixotic pronouncement and taking up Emerson’s pleas, Whitman asks, in Democratic Vistas (1871),

What has America? With exhaustless mines of the richest ore of epic, lyric, tale, tune, picture, &c., in the Four Years’ War; with, indeed, I sometimes think, the richest masses of material ever afforded a nation, more variegated, and on a larger scale — the first sign of proportionate, native, imaginative Soul, and first-class works to match, is, (I cannot too often repeat), so far wanting.

Through his work, like Song of Myself, Whitman plods the mines of America and tills the “imaginative Soul” to produce something distinctly American.

The topic within this post is an ongoing project I have been thinking about for a couple of years. Any one part of this topic could encompass a whole book. When we teach our students American literature, it is important that we have them consider not just the end product produced as something that can stand alone. We must have them consider how that work not only addresses social issues such as slavery, Native American removal, class, and a myriad of other topics; we must make sure they think about how these texts worked within a culture that repeatedly tried to answer the calls for a “distinctly” American literature that separated itself from Europe and the rest of the world. We must think about how they strove to pen, in Oliver Wendell Holmes’ words about Emerson’s The American Scholar, an “intellectual declaration of independence.”

What are your thoughts?  Let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.

5 Comments on “Chronicling the Rise of A Distinctly American Literature in the Survey Course

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