American literature: A New Nation and a New Literature

The approach of the American Revolution and the achievement of the actual independence of the United States was a time of intellectual activity as well as social and economic change. The men who were the chief molders of the new state included excellent writers, among them Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. They were well supported by others such as Philip Freneau, the first American lyric poet of distinction and an able journalist; the pamphleteer Thomas Paine, later an attacker of conventional religion; and the polemicist Francis Hopkinson, who was also the first American musical composer.

The variously gifted Benjamin Franklin forwarded American literature not only through his own writing but also by founding and promoting newspapers and periodicals. Many literary aspirants, such as John Trumbull, Timothy Dwight, Joel Barlow, and the other Connecticut Wits, used English models. The infant American theater showed a nationalistic character both in its first comedy, The Contrast (1787), by Royall Tyler, and in the dramas of William Dunlap. The first American novel, The Power of Sympathy (1789), by William Hill Brown, only shortly preceded the Gothic romance, Wieland (1799), by the first professional American novelist, Charles Brockden Brown.

Recognition in Europe, and especially in England, was coveted by every aspiring American writer and was first achieved by two men from New York: Washington Irving, who first won attention by presenting American folk stories, and James Fenimore Cooper, who wrote enduring tales of adventure on the frontier and at sea. By 1825 William Cullen Bryant had made himself the leading poet of America with his delicate lyrics extolling nature and his smooth, philosophic poems in the best mode of romanticism. Even more distinctly a part of the romantic movement were such poets as Joseph Rodman Drake, Fitz-Greene Halleck, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who won the hearts of Americans with glib, moralizing verse and also commanded international respect.

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau stood at the center of transcendentalism, a movement that made a deep impression upon their native land and upon Europe. High-mindedness, moral earnestness, the desire to reform society and education, the assertion of a philosophy of the individual as superior to tradition and society—all these were strongly American, and transcendentalists such as Emerson, Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and Bronson Alcott insisted upon such principles.

Men as diverse as James Russell Lowell, Boston Brahmin, poet, and critic, and John Greenleaf Whittier, the bucolic poet, joined in support of the abolitionist cause. The more worldly and correct Oliver Wendell Holmes reflected the vigorous intellectual spirit of the time, as did the historians William Hickling Prescott, George Bancroft, Francis Parkman, and John Lothrop Motley. Their solemn histories were as distinctly American as the broadly humorous writing that became popular early in the 19th cent. This was usually set forth as the sayings of semiliterate, often raffish, and always shrewd American characters like Hosea Biglow (James Russell Lowell), Artemus Ward (Charles Farrar Browne), Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby (David Ross Locke), Josh Billings (Henry Walker Shaw), and Sut Lovingood (G. W. Harris).

Far removed from these humorists in spirit and style was Edgar Allan Poe, whose skilled and emotional poetry, clearly expressed aesthetic theories, and tales of mystery and horror won for him a more respectful audience in Europe than—originally, at least—in America. A number of seminal works of American literature were written during the 1850s. These include Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter (1850), depicting the gloomy atmosphere of early Puritanism; Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851), which infused into an adventure tale of whaling days profound symbolic significance; and the rolling measures of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass (1st ed. 1855), which employed a new kind of poetry and proclaimed the optimistic principles of American democracy.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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