America, as you’ve no doubt realized, does not have an equivalent poem. To some extent, I suppose, the notion of the “Great American Novel” is our corollary to the nationalist epic poem—but the fact that no one has ever been able to agree on what exactly that novel is (and the more recent assertions that we should just eliminate it as an ideal category altogether) suggests that America’s mythological history is to some extent up in the air.
(Were I to suggest an American epic, incidentally, it would be neither poetry nor in the strictest sense fiction. Instead, I’d say Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography is about as close to the mythic roots of this country as it’s possible to get. Franklin makes a lot of stuff up, mostly to make himself look better, and in the process of doing so creates the American Dream, the bugaboo that has haunted American writers ever since.)
The absence of a national epic—and the unwillingness or inability of our early American authors to construct one—created in the first literary century of the new country an enormous anxiety, one that is never far beneath the surface of the fiction of the era. We’d thrown off the chains of “oppression” from our Mother Country and earned our freedom, and we’d come up with a radical system of government that we were enormously proud of.
But Britain still had Shakespeare, and Milton, and Spenser, and Chaucer, and Beowulf, and a whole host of lesser writers who were nevertheless more respected and more widely read than anyone produced in the colonies. We had, at the time of the Declaration of Independence, Anne Bradstreet, Edward Taylor, Phillis Wheatley, a few other notable Puritans—plus the political and social writings of the founding fathers. We couldn’t compete on the global market, and American books did not sell well in England and on the Continent—even when they were printed there.
The result of this imbalance of artistic power is a dual impulse on the part of American writers of the early 19th century. On the one hand, they wished to say in no uncertain terms that American had its own literature, one that could compete in philosophy and artistic effect with the best Europe had to offer. On the other hand, they were forced to lean hard on the models of the past—none of whom were American.
James Fenimore Cooper is probably a good place to start. Cooper wrote enormous bestsellers that dealt with the American frontier and wilderness; they are historical romances with a heavily patriotic edge. Like many other authors of the time, Cooper begins each chapter in his novels with a quotation from an outside source. The texts he quotes are illuminating. In his most famous and popular novel, The Last of the Mohicans, he provides the reader with 34 epigraphs. Only two of them come from American writers, William Cullen Bryant and the now-forgotten Fitz-Green Halleck. The rest are all British, with Shakespeare receiving the lion’s share (twenty chapters, more than half of them, feature a quote from him).
This is a way of asserting America’s equality, both political and literary, with its Mother Country. Further, several of the epigraphs are clearly used ironically—one, from The Merchant of Venice, is just a bunch of nonsense words—suggesting that Cooper is taking down British literature at the same time he is praising American works. And finally, the last epigraph in the book is from Halleck, suggesting that America has come out on top in the final analysis. Cooper dismantles the master’s house using the master’s tools.
That’s not to suggest that he wastes any opportunity of making fun of the British outright, of course. Early in the novel, our narrator informs us that the Britain who fought the French and Indian War was a dying animal, waiting to be euthanized by its colonies just a few years later. This may be my favorite paragraph in the entire novel:
The imbecility of her military leaders abroad, and the fatal want of energy in her councils at home, had lowered the character of Great Britain from the proud elevation on which it had been placed, by the talents and enterprise of her former warriors and statesmen. No longer dreaded by her enemies, her servants were fast losing the confidence of self-respect. In this mortifying abasement, the colonists, though innocent of her imbecility, and too humble to be the agents of her blunders, were but the natural participators.Charles Brockden Brown is less up front in Wieland, America’s first novel. Wieland owes less to British sources than to the Continent, specifically the rich German tradition of the Gothic novel, into which it fits like a hand into a glove—with a single exception. Perhaps the most defining feature of the Gothic novel is the great castle in which it takes place. The castle allows the Gothic novelist to present her reader with a score of easy thrills—cobwebs, creaking doors, unexplained drafts, etc., etc.
Not so with Brown. America, of course, does not have thousand-year-old castles the way that Germany does, and so there’s no castle in Wieland. (There’s not even a cave, the other grand setting of the European Gothic romance, although caves play a major role in Brown’s later Edgar Huntly.) One might be tempted to imagine that the castle is absent from the novel because it is absent from America. Brown disagrees, saying that his “one merit [is] that of calling forth the passions and engaging the sympathies of the reader by means hitherto unemployed by preceding authors. Puerile superstitions and exploded manners, Gothic castles and chimeras are the materials usually employed for this end.” The setting of Wieland—along with Brown’s unfortunate need to explain everything that happens—is in itself a protest against the literature of the Old World and an attempt to forge a new American literature.
Of the three major American writers of fiction before the American Renaissance, Washington Irving is the most read today and the most interesting in terms of his treatment of Britain. The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon is openly nationalistic and patriotic but begins with a lengthy explanation as to why Europeans are better than Americans:
I had read in the works of various philosophers that all animals degenerated in America, and man among the number. A great man of Europe, thought I, must therefore be as superior to a great man of America as a peak of the Alps to a highland of the Hudson; and in this idea I was confirmed by observing the comparative importance and swelling magnitude of many English travelers among us, who, I was assured, were very little people in their own country.Irving, obviously, is being sarcastic here; later, in an essay on the treatment of America by British authors, he will say that America has heretofore been “visited by the worst kind of English travelers . . . the broken-down tradesman, the scheming adventurer, the wandering mechanic.” And if the book begins with “Crayon” traveling to England to see a superior race, it spends an awful lot of time in the New World instead.
So he’s forever ambivalent on the subject of Europe vs. America, an ambiguity that is only heightened in his two most famous stories, “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” These have come to be regarded as two of the most quintessentially American short stories—I can’t get close to Halloween without thinking about upstate New York, thanks to Irving—but they’re not American at all, strictly speaking, as they are based on German and Dutch fables. Irving cannot create an American literary identity out of whole cloth but must borrow and adapt.
This is, in fact, Irving’s solution to the anxiety of influence. Unlike Cooper, who openly mocks the Old World and subverts their literature to use against them, and Brown, who simply purges Old World styles of the elements that don’t mesh with rural Pennsylvania, Irving suggests a common lineage with the British and suggests a more open and universal approach to reading and writing:
Generation after generation, both in animal and vegetable life, passes away, but the vital principle is transmitted to posterity and the species continue to flourish. Thus, also, do authors beget authors, and having produced a numerous progeny, in a good old age they sleep with their fathers, that is to say, with the authors who preceded them—and from whom they had stolen.Literature becomes the bearer of a kerygma, and authors become merely the birds who drop the seeds. The question of a national literature thus becomes, at least to some extent, moot. Irving reaches higher than creating an American literature—he wishes to be ranked outside of nationality and by truth instead. Two hundred years later, now that American authors generally do not feel inferior to their European counterparts, his route to authorial courage seems much more attractive: Admit your smallness in the grand scheme of things and your importance in transmission.