History and Literature

Thoreau and Emerson warned the Americans that they were too materialistic and that they put too much emphasis on machines and technological values. Emerson tried to educate them as members of the European high culture. The visiting commentators from abroad did not have to worry about that. They only described what they saw and made comparisons with the European cultural tradition. Scottish minister, Sydney Smith published an article in 1820 which was largely read in America and made the American intellectuals feel uneasy. He listed provocative questions like:
"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? ... Who drinks out of American glasses? or eats from American plates? or wears American coats or gowns? or sleeps in American blankets?"
This very year 1820 represented old times in a way. 20 years later many of Smiths's questions were getting concrete answers. In literature and the arts the situation was different though. They were aimed at building up the national identity for the new country. Rather than trying to have recognition in Europe, the trend in literature and in the arts was to create something purely American - something that had nothing to do with Europe. On the other hand, every intellectual understood this was not possible; the European example and tradition were too strong to be neglected. But this did not hinder the basic goal: to create a typically American culture.

Romanticism was the dominant attitude in the early 19th century American literature. This was natural, since there were plenty of romantic features in American culture even without the aesthetic or philosophical principles of Romanticism. Americans admired their nature and their short history. Still, the authors faced problems trying to combine their nationalistic ideals with the European impulses.

Past was seen as a very suitable theme for national purposes. Therefore, history was depicted scholarly as well as in fiction and poetry. After the War against England in 1812-1814, historical writing was regarded as a strong means in building up the national identity. Although the historians were aware of the new, modern historical research which originated in Germany, and although many of them got their training in German universities, the task of the historian was seen as educational. Behind the historical facts were eternal truths, "the hand of God", which had to be revealed. The most prominent American historian of the first part of the 19th century, George Bancroft wrote "that every page of history praises the Lord and his wonderful plans for the human beings".

The historian was considered the equal of the poet, orator, and philosopher, possessed of the same aims and insights. The first volume of Bancroft's History of the United States from the Discovery of the Continent was hailed in 1834 as "an instrument of Providence". The last, tenth volume, appeared in 1874. Educated at Harvard, Göttingen, and Berlin and thus influenced by the German historical theory, he chose as his theme "the necessity, the reality, and the promise of the progress of the human race" as it was exemplified in the history of the United States. Even though his critics wrote that Bancroft's history of the United States was like the history of the Kingdom of God, or that every page of his books "voted for Jackson" (Bancroft was a Democrat), his American history became a standard text, and nobody could challenge his authority.

By the middle of the century, however, younger historians, disenchanted with excessive patriotism which infused much Romantic history, took closer looks at the legends, the documents, and the historian's method of using them. The founding of the Historical Magazine in 1857, a scholarly journal devoted solely to historical research and criticism, was a proof that it was no longer enough for history to be patriotic, philosophical, and literary.

Literature also leant on nationalism and Romanticism, which as a literary expression began in America in the early 1820s, together with the works of Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper. Connected to this, a striking development in American literature after 1820 was the rise of fiction. Whereas at the turn of the century there had been a considerable belief among critics that novels tended to diminish the reader's morals with a false impression of life, twenty years later the critics characterized the country as "a nation of newspaper readers and novel readers".

By the middle of the century, there were plenty of new potential readers because of better elementary and higher education, high birth-rate and immigration. The development of transportation eased the distribution of books and magazines. Improved oil lamps meant more reading hours per day. Improvements in printing and bookmaking changed the technology of publishing and made the books cheaper.

Publisher Samuel Goodrich estimated that the number of titles increased as much as twenty times between 1820 and 1850. Copyright laws, both domestic and international, were so loosely drawn and easily evaded that best-sellers were consistently pirated. This was hard for the livelihood of the authors.

The popular novelists did the best. Susan Warner was one of them. In 1855, for example, she published three books, all of which sold over 75 000 copies, netting her in excess of 25 000 dollars. In the 1840s, Edgar Allan Poe received only 4-5 dollars a page, while Henry Wadsworth Longfellow received the highest fees for poetry, as much as 3000 dollars after establishing himself. The absence of copyright laws, on the other hand, was an important factor in making American literature known in Europe. At the beginning, before 1850, this was mainly true only in regards to popular novels.

For the national identity, however, "serious" literature was more important. Political themes dominated immediately after the revolution, with heavy criticism against the English. But when writers discovered how to exploit the American past and the American landscape, the novel became a powerful instrument for defining and developing the national personality. This happened in the 1820s together with the Romantic impact. James Kirke Paulding was not the greatest of historical novelists, but he is a good example for us Finns. He published his novel Konigsmarke. The Long Finne. A Story of the New World in 1823. It describes the 17th century Delaware Finns and Swedes, and what makes it important is the fact that the main character is a Finn. There were many other writers of the American past, and undeniably they have had a strong influence in making the history of the Americans familiar to readers.

The first internationally known authors published their early works also around 1820, namely Irving and Cooper. Their appearance marked the beginnings of a distinctively mature American fiction. As writers, they were completely different. Irving represented a well-established British and Continental tradition. He lived in England for 18 years and was influenced by British Romanticism, particularly Coleridge and Carlyle as well as the historical novelist, Walter Scott. Irving's Sketch Book in 1820 was an immediate success among the British who regarded him more as a European than an American writer. Nevertheless, the whole next generation of American writers was inspired by his example.

But Cooper, much more than Irving, represented a thoroughly native point of view in his novels. If Irving was well-read among the European and American intellectuals, Cooper's public was the average reader, and even though his themes were very American he became well-known also in Continental Europe. His Leatherstocking series came out between 1823 and 1841 introducing true Americanism - nature, Indians, pioneers - in a Romantic way to Americans but also to Europeans who read books like The Last of the Mohicans even today. He published also sea novels and even presented his ideal society in an 1848 book, but for the pioneering national spirit his frontier stories were most influential. He always explored the contradiction between nature and civilization wanting to save the Americans from revolutions, many of which he experienced himself during his five years in Europe.

Both Irving and Cooper were hailed by the critics and public in their lifetime. Edgar Allan Poe was not. His personal way of life and his poetic themes were strange to American values of the 1830s and 1840s. Instead, America's first national poet was William Cullen Bryant whose texts on nature fitted nicely with American nationalism. A little later Longfellow took his place, and it is interesting to note in this context that his most Romantic works like Song of Hiawatha came out as late as in 1855. Longfellow as well as Walt Whitman, for example, were strongly influenced by New England Transcendentalists, particularly Emerson.

Only after the Civil War the Romantic period in American literature started to give room to more realistic trends. One reason for this late start is, of course, that the young nation had needed identity builders, and a strong moralistic ethos had spoken admirably for that cause. And in many ways, as I have mentioned, Romanticism was built in into the American culture and landscape.

Still, we might find this somewhat surprising. Industrialization, urbanization, material values, immigration, and the North/South controversy were all factors which required explanations. In addition, European literature was well on its way to Realism by the middle of the century, and the Americans were certainly aware of that trend. Harriet Beecher Stowe's little book Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) was one of the first signs of Realism, but Longfellow and others were still on the forefront as well. Nationalism and Romanticism needed each other to the bitter end.