American Modernism in literature photo

American Modernism in literature

Defining the (literary) self and the nation: representative figures

As an aesthetic phenomenon, Modernism refers to a period that ended in the late 1930s to early 1940s.

The term “modernism” was first used in Germany in the 1890s, the period in which Modernism is said to have appeared.

Unlike such terms as Romanticism or Classicism, Modernism does not refer to the qualities of works of art in a particular period: it is based on the idea that works of art represent a rupture, a break with the past.

Historians say that Modernism is the result of the general transformation of society caused by industrialism and technology during the 19th century.

It was in the big urban centers of Europe that the industrial innovations, the social tensions, and the economic problems of modernity were most intensely manifested.

Therefore, it was also in those cities that the first manifestations of modern art appeared.

During the two decades before World War I, the legitimacy and authority of public institutions were decreasing. Those public institutions were no longer universally accepted after World War I and this vacuum was filled by the arts.

Many artists believed it was now the function of art to define and to orient the expectations of both the individual and the collectivity. This vision of the function of art reflects an entire moment in the history of western societies, especially European societies.

Marked by the revolutionary effects of industrialism, this moment in history also reflected the collective belief that conventions and institutions were not eternal: like any social formation in a capitalistic system, those institutions were subject to perpetual change.

At the level of artistic production, this collective consciousness of permanent change found its most radical expression in subversive aesthetic practices.

For instance, in Dada, the creation of Tristan Tzara, expression seems to be based on radical rupture. The “raison d’être” of artistic production was to negate all social and aesthetic conventions. Every artistic work was supposed to be a new and marginal form of expression.

Moreover, every artistic attempt was a form of engagement with social and historical change.

How can we define American Modernism and its representatives in relation to this definition of European Modernism ?

First, it is important to notice a major contrast: while for the European modernists, art represented a dynamic engagement with historical change, for most American modernists, art was seen as a continuous effort to develop the individual character of the artist and his artistic identity.

In this sense, the early American modernists were more in continuity with their mid-19th century predecessors. Writing at a remove from society, their art (contrary to the European modernists) was less obsessed with experimental innovations or social change.

For most American modernists, developing an individual character and a literary voice was an act of self-marginalization from society (a materialistic society based on the logic of business and the accumulation of money). It is no surprise that many critics consider Henry James the first modernist author.

His conception of art reveals a man committed to an artistic vision that both expresses and attacks the spiritual emptiness of materialism and the pursuit of enrichment.

However, Henry James did not think of his art in terms of historical mission or social critique. Instead, he considered that the highest expressions of art are those that exist beyond historical contingency.

In this sense, the first American modernists were the descendants of H. James. Their common relationship to James and to each other is their belief that they were at the margin of their culture. What made them different from such a culture was their strong resolution not to be influenced by its commercialism and its bourgeois consumerism.

Among these first modernists, we find such representative artists as Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, and Williams Carlos Williams. For this latter, being an artist or a writer meant first and foremost standing at the margin of a country dedicated to business.

In his book-length-essay entitled In the American Grain (1925), Williams Carlos Williams tried to describe the alienated experience of the poet in an American society dominated by materialistic bourgeois ideals.

He also tried to describe the sense of sterility and isolation of individual existence in a materialistic society. This book describes an America alienated from its past and its monumental nature. For Williams, past and nature are the sources of vitality and creative energy:

“Bill Bird (a publisher Williams had met in Paris) says that Americans are the greatest businessmen in the world: the only ones who understand the passion of making money: absorbed enthralled in it. It’s a game. To me, it is because we fear to wake up that we play so well. Imagine stopping money-making. Our whole conception of reality would have to be altered.”

Even in his judgment of American language, Williams thought money-making would “infect” daily and literary discourse. The mission of the poet was therefore to renew the use of language and to adopt an original diction.

As his long poem Paterson indicates, this original diction should reflect the vital energies of life, the opposite of the energies dedicated to economic production and consumption.

Other literary figures

Unlike Williams, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound developed their mature literary vision in Europe. Still, their aesthetic and intellectual evolution reveals their deeply American concerns.

In the history of modernism, Eliot and Pound figure as powerful catalysts, poets who brought about change and exerted significant influence over other literary figures.

Even when they settled in London, Eliot and Pound had been, in different ways, deeply influenced by the French Symbolists and the more recent French poetry and literary criticism.

To a great extent, such poetry and literary criticism allowed them to evolve beyond conventional literary criteria and poetic practices – it allowed them to discover the possibility of new and original modes of literary criticism and poetic expression.

As far as poetics is concerned, both poets found in European and cultural heritage a vast source of inspiration.

Concerning Eliot, Europe – with its rich past – provided the ideal imaginary scene for the poet seeking to create a literary identity and a world vision.

In this respect, Eliot’s entire oeuvre can be considered as an expression of the internal drama of his intellectual and artistic development.

When The Waste Land (1922) appeared, not only was it considered a highly accomplished poem, it was also viewed as a historical document: a testimony of cultural anxiety that signaled a deep transformation in human sensibility.

However, recent studies have indicated that The Waste Land is more personal than historical testimony: it is the testimony of a tormented sensibility struggling to find spiritual assurance in a world of spatio-temporal fragmentation, a world governed by the fragmentary logic of capitalistic instrumentality.

Throughout his oeuvre, Eliot tries to oppose a total vision to the fragmentary world of modernity.

In both his plays and poems, the quest of the total vision emerges as an attempt to situate the self in relation to the restored cultural and religious tradition of the Western world.

Needless to say, Eliot’s vision of a restored Western world tradition stands in stark opposition t the project of modernity as a whole. In Eliot’s world vision, this project was systematically associated with American capitalism and its European variant.

Hence, the primordial ideal of the artist is to develop an identity removed from the increasing materialism of the modern world: a world in which, as he said, “the acquisitive, rather than the creative and spiritual instincts are concerned”.

Facing the bourgeois consumerism of an increasingly instrumental capitalist society, many American modernists shared Eliot’s conception of the literary persona.

According to those modernists, the only form of cultural production offered by a consumer society is mass culture. They saw the self-marginalization of the artist as a necessary condition of literary freedom and inspiration.

Many writers were preoccupied with cultivating their own artistic freedom. Therefore, they resisted what they considered as the superficiality of mass-culture.

In the years following World War I, some were disillusioned enough by the materialism of American culture to live for Europe (E. E. Cummings, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein).

Although they were collectively called “the lost generation”, these authors were bound together more by their artistic sensibility than by a set of common beliefs. Europe, mainly Paris, provided the authors of the lost generation with a perfect cultural atmosphere in which they could develop a sentimental attachment to Paris.

Gertrude Stein captured the literary importance of Paris when she said that Paris was “where the 20th century was”.

A note on the literary scene, modernism is also the age of the literary magazine and the magazine of political and cultural critique. The early and mid-twentieth century saw the appearance of such magazines as The Masses (1911), Poetry (1912), The New Republic (1914), The Seven Arts (1916), and The American Mercury (1924).

Each magazine served as an important forum for cultural criticism, fresh political debate, and avant-garde hysteric ideas. Radical cultural transformations were the order of the day.

The editors of The New Republic, for instance, proclaimed at the goal of their magazine was “less to inform or entertain its reader than to start little insurrections in the realm of their convictions”.

The Seven Arts presented many of America’s most important literary voices: Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos, Theodore Dreiser, Robert Frost, and Amy Lowell.

In the 1920s, The Dial emerged as the most prominent literary monthly in America. Its contributors included writers of international fame such as Thomas Mann, Jules Romain, and William Butler Yeats.

Among the newly celebrated American writers, T. S. Eliot, E. E. Cummings, and Hart Crane were also published in The Dial.

The American Renaissance photo

The American Renaissance

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson’s literary and philosophical importance in the American renaissance and after it has always been associated with his lasting influence in two domains of American intellectual and social life:

  • The emergence of an America romantic sensibility.
  • The emergence of a characteristically American conception of individual consciousness and actions.

For the first time in America, Emerson gave full expression to a philosophy of romantic idealism.

He thought that the spiritual and intellectual ideals of the 18th century, the principles of the Age of Reason, had ended in sterility. Emerson’s ethic of self-reliance represents the necessity for the individual to question most of all forms of social conventions and to refuse his ideas by the accepted standards and values of society.

Also, it represents the necessity for the individual to think and act according to his standards.

But this self-reliance can also be interpreted as moral relativism and as a certain cult of individualistic power. Indeed, Emerson’s philosophy does reflect a certain fascination with power.

Very often, he seems to be too enthusiastic about all manifestations of energy, personal force and superior vitality: “power first. In politics and in trade, pirates are of better promise than talkers and clerks”: it’s a philosophy of action.

Such ambivalent affirmations show a great deal of the liberating potential of Emerson’s philosophy but evidently, they also hide a dangerously anarchistic potential that can not be denied.

Henry David Thoreau

Is the spiritual son of Emerson: he did what Emerson said and tried to act according to the philosophy of self-reliance.

One of the most important observations that can be made about Thoreau’s life as a man and as an artist is that he considered freedom as the highest ideal of society.

His life as a writer and as a thinker was dedicated to the freedom of trying new ideals and new experiences.

Also, freedom for Thoreau meant the possibility for the individual to discover himself and to live his life against social conventions. In order to accomplish his ideal of freedom,

Thoreau went to live at Walden Pond in 1845. This decision was essentially determined by three tendencies in Thoreau’s personality.

As a man, he wanted to explore and discover new aspects of his own personality.

As an intellectual, he wanted to experiment with a new form of life different from life in an organized complex capitalistic society.

As a writer, he wanted to explore and experiment with his own writing. In this respect, Thoreau’s experience marks the beginning of the essay as lived experience.

Concerning Thoreau’s experience as a writer, his poetry and prose reflect the work of a very careful artist: a great deal of attention to the nuances of the language.

It may appear spontaneous, even like a conversation but it is not. His prose is carefully studied. He’s always addressing the reader.

Walden is representative of Thoreau’s style. It is quite artful and elaborate. Yet, it appears to be artistically modest. The ideals are complex and sophisticated. Yet, it appears to be simple.

Simplicity in Thoreau’s is not just a literary characteristic of Walden, which also incarnates the ideal of an intellectual who wants to limit life to the simplest activities.

Thoreau came to Walden Pond in order to make a fresh start, to see intellectual and natural experiences directly. He did not look for inspiration in books but in Nature.

He established a real tradition of individualism: life in Nature is by necessity a separation from society and its conventions. Consequently, the writer’s position outside society becomes the best place to observe society and its institutions with critical eyes.

Through this return to Nature, Thoreau wants to move away from the regulations of a materialistic and instrumental society. He wants to reorganize his life according to his own philosophy.

At the beginning of the essay, Thoreau uses ironic expressions for his new experience: “a private business”. To call this escape from the materialism of society a “business” is irony and Walden becomes the story of this escape.

It reminds us of Zen Buddhism or Hindu mysticism: his life in nature seems to be a form of sacrifice in order to reach a higher transcendent state of being.

Even when Thoreau describes himself building his cabin, we have the impression that the business of building is also a religious ceremony of purification and renewal.

Therefore, Thoreau belongs to the American tradition of renewal, a sort of symbolic baptism of the individual through an escape to nature.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Is much more pessimistic about human nature: he didn’t believe in a new beginning: to him, the past comes back to haunt the present. He wrote short stories and novels with a complex and disturbing aspect of American life.

His literary imagination was strongly influenced by his early life in Salem (Massachusetts) where he was born.

The history of Salem and American Puritanism presented the context in which he developed his ideas about human nature and the ambivalent nature of human psychology, and about sin and guilt, the dangers of the intellect, and the risks of passion.

Later, when he lived in Concord (Massachusetts), Hawthorne dedicated his efforts to sketches and short stories, called “allegories of the heart”. His novels are “romances”.

In both short stories and novels, Hawthorne was excellent at describing the complexities and ambiguities of human psychology.

According to Hawthorne, the human mind is determined by a division between sensuality & repression of sensuality, conformity & individualism. It is also the scene of a dialectical conflict between good and evil.

His fictions represent the co-existence of contradictory forces on the individual. Hawthorne is a romantic author whose short stories and novels are marked by a concern with the American past with the role of the creative artist in a materialistic society.

He insisted on the importance of human emotions and imagination, and on the dangers of cold intellect.

Henry James and Edgar Allan Poe criticized Hawthorne for being too allegorical in his style. Hawthorne himself admitted that his allegorical style is vague and not easy to understand: “I am not quite sure that I entirely comprehend my own meaning in these blasted allegories”.

In his “allegories of the heart”, Hawthorne uses symbols in order to represent the narrow separation between good and evil in the human mind.

Through his allegorical technique, he shows that humankind can never solve the mysteries and the ambiguities of a divided human psychology. Hawthorne’s moral and religious concerns are central to his literary symbolism.

His most representative symbols were derived from the puritan history of New England. He developed his themes about good and evil around the historical events and the personalities that influenced New England culture and society.

Walt Whitman

Along with Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman stands in the literary history of America as the poet who has generated the most dramatic and lasting transformations in American poetry and in the function of the American poet.

Indeed, Whitman redefined poetry and the role of the poet in, at least, two important ways:

  • In terms of aesthetic practice
  • In terms of the social position of the poet as an active participant in a democratic society

As far as his aesthetic practice is concerned, Whitman considered the poet essentially as an experimental artist first and foremost: the poet’s function is to create both new forms and new themes for poetry.

The poet must re-create a literary tradition: conventions were out. In Whitman’s dynamic and revolutionary conception of poetry, there are 2 important consequences:

  1. Rhyme would not matter: would have no importance at all.
  2. Uniformity in the structure of stanzas should be abandoned.

Concerning the thematic content of new poetry, Whitman also expressed his opinion quite clearly. The new American poet would avoid sentimental poetry and simplistic moralization: he is no longer a moral teacher.

Also, exaggeration in style and in subject would be replaced by realistic descriptions of life and its impressions. Whitman would abandon any sentimental idealism.

As far as his intellectual influence is concerned, he believed reading literary texts should not be limited to an elite of intellectuals. Whitman thought it was possible to include the people in the experience of literature.

He wanted to make literature a popular art: the poet can come to play an important role in exalting the people. Through his capacity to sing (= to exalt) and encourage the people, the poet also indicates the way to collective self-realization and self-realization for each individual.

Whitman, therefore, believed that literature, as an instrument of communication, was also a democratic instrument. With Whitman, we realize that his analysis of democratic society can not be separated from his conception of poetry.

This relationship is reflected in the poem Song of Myself. According to Whitman, Song of Myself depends on the creative participation of each reader. It is in this context that he defines the great poet as a bridge between the reader and society at large.

It is this definition of the poet that he affirmed in the opening lines of Song of Myself:

“I celebrate myself and sing myself

And what I assume you shall assume”.

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
Declaration of Literary Independence photo

American Literature: Declaration of Literary Independence

Washington Irving: evolution, nostalgia and imaginary compensation

Irving was not under the influence of sentimentalism or romanticism, the two big influences of that time. In a way, he was the perfect incarnation of the American early literary development. He was a figure of literary transition in a society where American literature was still a hybrid.

Irving’s artistic opinions and his style changed dramatically over time but we can detect certain opinions and thematic elements that dominate his early as well as his later works.

One of the most important things about Irving is the nostalgic consciousness of change and the evanescence of things and people. This melancholic sensibility is to be found in all his works.

Other distinctive aspects of Irving’s writings are:

  • The transformation of material reality through fantasy and imagination. Such a transformation allows the author to represent reality as a fable.
  • The use of humor: human enterprises as trivial and ridiculous (cynicism and bitterness).
  • The use of sentimentalism to describe scenes and characters.

On the whole, Irving emphasizes narration and description rather than analysis and critic. This choice can be explained for he did not consider his prose as an expression of political or cultural positions (consciously).

Irving started his literary carrier writing satirical pieces of journalism about the New York cultural and social scene, especially about the Theater circles. We can see that his humor and his early satire were a collage of rational critic, nonsense humor and irony.

In his satirical works, he turned all human beings into fools including the writer himself: that’s self-reference (makes funny comments about himself as a writer), a very modern way of writing.

He gave full expression to the sense of his satires and historiobiographies (history in a novel or in historical books); it showed his sharp sense of satire.

In 1809, he wrote A History of New York from the creation of the World to the end of the Dutch Dynasty, which is a parody of the New York Dutch descendants and an ironic questioning of objective historical facts and historiographical skepticism.

The narrator is Dietrich Knickerbocker. It’s not a monumental but an ironic history. Behind the irony, there is a very serious historical effort on the part of Irving. He rewrites history from his own point of view: it’s very modern.

As he develops these two themes, the narrator of the book sees this historical monument of human accomplishment as a monument of human ridicule: he turns it upside down.

In 1815, Irving sailed to Liverpool and traveled extensively in Europe. His English travels inspired The SketchBook of Geoffrey Crayon, a collection of 33 essays and stories. The narrator of his book is the sentimental G. Crayon who expresses his attachment to British culture and its old monuments.

The SketchBook is essentially an homage to English scenes and English writers. It is conservative in its cultural views and antiquarian in its aesthetic inspirations. Indeed, Crayon doesn’t hesitate to express his preference for tradition, aristocracy, and rurality rather than for innovation, democracy, and urbanization.

Rip Van Wikle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow are his most distinguished pieces. These excellent short stories present a mixture of fantasy and realism, of fable and fact.

As far as the use of fantasy is concerned, the short stories already announced the narrative art of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe. Presently, the legendary opposition between New York and New England, Sleepy Hollow, is a comic variation on Gothic fiction (develops an atmosphere of terror, horrifying, macabre and where strange events happen).

Throughout the narrative, Irving metamorphoses the setting of the story (the Hudson River Valley) into a fabulous landscape where we can follow his analysis of American history, although we know that the images of the history are the product of his wild imagination and fantasy.

The historical context of Sleepy Hollow is that of a rapidly changing American in the face of America: it reflects Irving’s profound fear of America’s territorial expansion and its rapid socio-economic transformation. In this sense, Sleepy Hollow is found on a profound sense of melancholy and nostalgia, as an ideal rural past.

In this, Irving proved to be an author with profoundly American impulses. He faced a country plunging into change, development, and expansion but at the same time, when he’s trying to understand this country; he expresses his nostalgic desires to preserve the eternal arcadia of the colonial vision. His paradox is the American one.

During his diplomatic service in Spain, Irving turned to biography: The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus represents an important change in his literary life.

In this biography, he kept using the narrative techniques that he used in his novels, mixing history and fiction. In his historic books, he abandoned his ironic tone: it became more serious and formal despite the fact that he kept using the narrative techniques.

All his novels are the products of very precise researches. However, Irving did not define such works as purely economic literature.

In The Conquest of Granada, he described Granada as somewhat “between history and romance”. From this period, The Alhambra is the only book that can be compared with the SketchBook.

In 1832, after 17 years in Europe, Irving returned to the USA that was in full expansion and he realized that the New Frontier was a big source of literary inspiration. During that period, he traveled extensively in the West. Results:

  • A Tour of the Prairie (1835)
  • Asteria and The Adventure (1836)

Irving has always been interested in the Frontier. Like James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers, in a way, Irving thought of his western books of the 1830’s not just as literary experimentations but also as a concrete contribution to the west world expansion of the USA and the realization of his “manifest destiny”.

James Fenimore Cooper: the voice of the Frontier as general critique

Jacksonian democracy’s rise and its effect on the Frontier represent the most important elements in the historical background of Cooper’s fictions. 1829-1837: democratic populist campaign based on a fight for poop people (land, farms and realization of the American dream) but no place for Indians.

For Cooper, realizing your dreams is a good ideal. But it does not come without the extermination of Puritans entities: Indians and Nature.

Cooper’s role in this history of American literature: his representation of the Frontier certainly appears as his greatest contribution to an authentically American literature. Cooper transformed the American Frontier into a symbol of a national myth.

Among the general public, Cooper is known for his leatherstocking tales (main character: Natty Bumpo):

  • The Pioneer (1823)
  • The Last of the Mohicans (1823)
  • The Prairie (1827)
  • The Pathfinder (1840)
  • The Crater (1847)

The Last of the Mohicans

Compared with the other leatherstocking novels, Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans is the most complex and dramatic.

Its complexity and dramatic powers come from the ambiguities of the Frontier itself. Similar to Captain Smith’s vision of nature, The Last of the Mohicans represents the Frontier as the scene of constant struggle.

His characters are more characterized by action than reflection. In Cooper’s fictions, action and struggle very often degenerate into violence and absurd tragedy.

This representation of the Frontier shows an understanding of American history in general as an ambiguous and complex process in which the people struggling to possess and keep the land are subjected to natural and historical forces they can not control: Nature is seen as bigger than man in tragic view.

Indeed, The Last of the Mohicans often describes scenes of a devastated Nature, scenes that powerfully suggest the theme of what America has lost, the grace of primitive natural beauty.

Nature is humanized: we can’t remain indifferent. Along with the poetry of its natural scenes, The Last of the Mohicans also reflects Cooper’s sense of realism.

Indeed, judged by the standards of his time, his wilderness fiction as the whole follows very closely the best sources of Indian studies that existed in the early 19th century.

Moreover, Cooper met and spoke with the most important Indian chiefs of this period. He overall pictured that general picture we get in his narratives: the tragic, dramatic and ambiguous change. Even his most courageous and energetic characters find themselves incapable of facing the forces of Nature and History.

According to Cooper, the phenomenon of settlement is the ideal metaphoric expression of the tragedy of American civilization. But, in Cooper’s narrative vision, the Frontier is also an image of the sense of opportunity that comes from change.

In this description of the process of settlement, Cooper describes with eloquence the hopes and aspirations of the pioneers and simultaneously the Indians’ feeling of loss and displacement.

The Pioneers

The vastness of Cooper’s historical vision, the complexity and tragic sense of this Frontier can be seen in his first Frontiers novel, The Pioneers, which shows Cooper’s profound attachment to the Frontier as a philosophy of life based on hope, with its suggestion of autobiographical nostalgia.

More than anything else, the autobiographic element shows the eloquence with which Cooper described the Frontier. Again, as in his other narratives of Nature, Cooper’s conception of the Frontier is never simplistic.

On the one hand, he describes the daily life of the pioneers and their relations with Nature in idyllic terms. On the other hand, behind the Frontier idyll, there is the irreversible march of the historical process.

The settlers’ irresponsible destruction of natural resources is a dramatic reminder of human intrusion upon the wilderness. The complexity of Cooper’s narratives of a Frontier resides in the ambiguity of his feelings toward the settlement process.

In The Pioneers, one has certainly the sense of his enthusiasm concerning America’s conquest of Nature; however, we also feel his profound anxiety as an unstoppable march of civilization. In this sense, his works are the first expression of a really ecological consciousness.

Although the question of ecological danger was a serious subject for Cooper, he found the social disorder that comes with economic changes even more problematic. In this sense, the social themes of his novels have a prophetic quality. They tell of the limits and dangers of Jacksonian democracy and its proclamation of the possibilities on the individual.

He saw in it the future destruction of America’s sense of community and responsibility. In the final analysis, The Pioneers and its contrast between Nature and civilization is less pessimistic than some of Cooper’s later novels.

Indeed, The Pioneers offers a harmonious synthesis between the European and Indian past. The American Frontier is supposed to be the neutral ground where the synthesis is supposed to happen.

This trend to make a synthesis of the past and the present, development and wilderness, the American people and Native Americans, seems to be the result of a division within Cooper himself. This particular aspect of his fiction reflects his own role in the settlement of American, which is full of contradictions.

On the one hand, Cooper grew up in a Frontier community, believed in the ideal of success through progress: his imagination was influenced by the beauty of Nature and by the hopes of building a civilization.

On the other hand, for he grew up in a Frontier community, he knew more than anyone else about the ecological and ethnic disasters that the Frontier communities created. So, his fiction can be considered as the product of his contradiction.

The Crater

Cooper placed the settlement setting on a fantasy island in the Pacific. The Crater is perhaps America’s first really allegorical novel. It offers a symbolic representation of America’s evolution from a hopeful past to a chaotic present to an apocalyptic future.

As in Cooper’s other settlement novels, the settlement on his imaginary island is confronted with the outside dangers of Indian tribes.

Eventually, the community succeeds only to realize that the most serious danger to the development of the settlement comes from the community itself.

Cooper’s change from the ambiguous optimism of The Pioneers to The Crater‘s vision of disorder is also a personal change. This change marks his move toward an increasing position with social order.

Cooper’s later novels show how deeply he felt the necessity to put a sense of order into his social vision, the vision of a society developing beyond control. Despite his conservatism, Cooper was no extreme conservative but moderate.

However, his positions were misinterpreted: his argument for a reconsideration of the principles of American democracy, his critic of mad development, and ecological irresponsibility were considered as conservative.

His opinions were seen as an expression of unhappiness with the very existence of democracy as a system. In fact, the negative things that Cooper associated with Jacksonian Democracy were not just the negative aspects of a political system but of an entire philosophy, of an entire society.

Through his novels and political writings, Cooper wanted to expose several social and economic symptoms:

  • Explosion of cities aligncenter upon the accumulation of capital.
  • Superficial press.
  • Disintegration of civility and social coherence.
  • Generalized materialism and the collapse of small communities.

In the final analysis, Cooper’s greatest accomplishment as a novelist does not reside in his critic of the abuses of Jacksonian Democracy but in his transformation of his personal contradictions into an imaginary scene of truly mythical dimension.

His works remained as essential models for an American literary sensibility and its mystique of Nature.

They also represent the first model for a sensibility committed to ecological responsibility and cultural tolerance.

Sommaire de la série History of American Literature

  1. An authentically American Literature
  2. Puritanism : a New World Vision
  3. American Literature: Declaration of Literary Independence
  4. The American Renaissance
  5. American Modernism in literature
Puritanism : a New World Vision photo

Puritanism : a New World Vision

The Puritan New World vision in the longer schemes of things

English Puritans can be divided into several groups. Most of the Puritans remained in England. They accepted the principle of Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth, with the Separatists (no affiliation with authority and the English protestant church). They were persecuted and many of them had to run away and come to the New World.

To many Puritans, Christopher Columbus’s passage in America was one of the most important historical events as the sign of a bigger historical destiny, as well as Gutemberg’s printing press (1456) and the Protestant reformation: 3 events, at the same time geographical, textual and religious, marking the beginning of a New World.

Gutenberg’s invention was particularly important for the New -England Protestants for their frequent use of texts (major means of communication). The Puritan society was a unique form of society in the sense that they defined their identity essentially by means of texts.

Throughout the 17th century, colonial identity was the product of two things:

  • Literature or texts
  • And concrete movement in social and geographical space.

This particular form of identity can be seen through different aspects of literary expression: the Puritans used these aspects as sermons, declarations, covenants, controversies and statements of purpose.

Therefore, the lasting effect of the printing press on colonial America is to be found in its contribution to the emergence of a national identity based first and foremost on language and writing.

It was first by means of publication that America declared to the world its identity as a nation and through an effect of discourse that she defined proclaimed and projected its past, its present, and its future.

Realizing the vision: the image of the future played out in the New World

As far as the Puritan world vision is concerned, the conception of their role in the discovery of America is profoundly religious: it’s inseparable from the biblical metaphors of the Apocalypse and the coming of the millennium.

Indeed, their historical and geographical position in America is closely related to their biblical definition of themselves and of America. In the bigger divine plan, the Puritans are God’s chosen people.

Their destination, both spiritual and geographical is America, the new Israel that marks the beginning of the millennium. In this context, it’s also important to add that the millennium utopianism of the Puritans goes hand in hand with their political and religious beliefs.

Through a characteristic synthesis, the Puritans defined their system as a church-state. They believed this religious political system should be a model for the Christian world.

The Puritans considered their historical role in the New World as that of a universal community organized under a “federal” or “national” contract, called a covenant.

Therefore, in John Winthrop’s words, the new church-state was supposed to be “a city upon a hill”, a universal “model of Christian charity” (taken from the sermon he made abroad the ship The Arbella in 1630).

But, with the beginning of the Restoration in 1660, the Puritans lost all hope of spreading their universal vision through England.

The realization of the Puritans’ vision was turned fully toward America and, consciously or unconsciously, the second or third generation of Puritans adopted European metaphors of America, those that they used in their futuristic vision of both land and history.

Thus, the imaginary visions of America as a utopia became synonymous with the New Heaven promised by the Revelation (the Apocalypse). In this apocalyptic vision, geographical and literary exploration, textuality, and religious imagery are inseparable.

These three aspects of the Puritan New World vision represent their most lasting contribution to the American sense of community and identity.

From the Declaration of Independence to the notion of the Manifest Destiny (John L. O’Sullivan) to the New Frontier (John F. Kennedy), the USA has always seen its confrontation with the future as a sort of battle of the wilderness: the nation’s representation of itself reminds us of the Puritans and their imaginary vision of the New World: the vision of a nation in danger, of a plantation facing a complex and hostile environment, of a unified community gaining strength from the challenges of its environment.

Throughout this vision, we found three fundamental elements of American identity:

  • The imaginary projection of nature as the scene of an especially American self.
  • The representation of a self that uses such a scene to enact a specifically American model of self-realization (in the future).
  • The conscious or unconscious references to biblical imagery and the biblical conception of history: American identity as a necessary self-fulfilling promise.
An authentically American Literature photo

An authentically American Literature

Writing the territory: the literature of discovery and exploration

Started as a vision in Europe: it is a product of literary imagination. America existed only as a literary object that was represented in the writings of Europeans who first visited America. They brought back their own visions, written in Spanish or French and not in English.

16th century: the English knew about America through outside texts, not from English texts.

The 1670s: English mariners started exploring the North American coast.

The creation of American literature goes hand in hand with the first permanent colonies at Jamestown, Plymouth, Boston, Charleston or Philadelphia.

In the language, American in temperament and in tone, the literature of the colonists was different from the exotic narratives of the explorers (i.e. “land of miracles”, “eldorado”).

The literature of the colonists shows a contradictory mixture of terror and exaltation before the magnitude of the land.

However, more often than not, the literature of the first settlers shows that it was difficult to maintain a positive attitude toward America. George Percy’s Discourse on the Plantation (1607) shows that the writers saw America as a land of “meadows and goodly tall trees” and people as “miserable distressed”.

So there are full of ambivalence and contradictions. America is the land of the new beginning and opportunities but also a beautiful land of difficulties (sacrifices, isolation, and hard work). Ambivalence is an important factor of American literature.

This first contradictory experience will mark American literature with its most nasty and characteristic voice, created out of actions rather than imagery or contemplation.

The narratives of Captain Smith are big examples of the American new character: the narration of the internal life of the individuals goes hand in hand with the external description of the land.

There’s a constant dialogue between the mind of the individual and Nature. It’s always Nature that has a strong effect on the mind of the individuals. Human minds only change with confrontations with Nature.

European literature was more based on contemplation whereas American literature was a concrete experience with Nature: that makes a huge philosophical difference. Captain Smith wrote:

  • A true relation (1608)
  • A map of Virginia (1612)
  • The general Historie of Virginia, New England and
    the Summer Isles

The work of Capt. Smith is representative of a specific literary character in the sense that they show a deeply American theme: the theme of the relations between geographical exploration and individual exploration: by discovering the land, the individual also discovers himself. Self-exploration and geographical exploration came together.

With the change of the colonies and their social needs, there was also a change in writings. The writer’s role now consisted of more than observing and depicting the land.

At the end of the 17th century, American literature still showed the discovery of literature: same themes, same lyricism, poetic quality and sense of actions but despite this influence, a more abstract type of literature was now emerging.

For instance, William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation (1630-1650) concentrates on the complexity and difficulties of colonial administration as well as the social organization of the community.

In the final analysis, the ambivalence of exploration and discovery in American literature reveals another kind of ambivalence. It is the ambivalent relationship but also the ambivalent contrast between the positive and the negative, good and evil, utopia and tragedy.

This type of ambivalence remains the most characteristic territory explored by the first writers of America. Emerging from the magnitude and the complexity of the land itself, this ambivalent vision would determine the American literary and popular imagination.

Even today, it still represents a very important aspect of the American literary sensibility.

An authentically American literature? Textual appropriations, generic influences and innovations

To many observers, the idea of an authentically American literature seems to be a paradox. Many would think American literature emerged and developed in the shadow of the English literary tradition. However, this paradox is only apparent: the authentically American literature is like every literary innovation, it always needs some influences for inspiration.

At the same time, those influences are little by little changed through authentic innovations (first they borrowed, then they changed). In this sense, literary texts of the New World are both an extension of English literature and a new creative body of literature.

The relationship of continuity between English and American literature comes from a common cultural and national heritage: religious, ethnic, historical, and linguistic relationships.

There are some similarities between English and American education: in both countries, the major subjects like Latin, Philosophy and History are very important (as well as Greek and Roman literature).

Concerning the common heritage, both people and colonists shred the memory of the English Reformation and thought of themselves as elect nations.

With the Reformation, we see the myth of England as an elect nation divided by the Puritan Saints. They were a special nation from the start: “God owns the country”.

The colonists and the English people identified with the myth of the elect nation by means of religion: the most important and legitimate text was the Vernacular Bible (Geneva version) in 1560 written by Calvin. Other texts:

  • John Foxe, Book of Martyrs (1563)
  • Edmund Spencer, Faerie Queen (1590)

More important: what happened from the heritage is a common vision of the individual reflected in two major aspects of the protestant literary and existential experience:

  • The strict application of every event in the Bible to the individual (develop their own ideas in relation to the Bible, the standard for the right personal behavior and code for the Puritans).
  • The perception of historical events as the predestined fulfillment of biblical events as they apply to the elect nation.

These two common aspects of colonial and English experience made many English writers to consider America as a special and elect land. Many thought that an English/American Reformation was going to happen in America.

The English religious poet George Herbert expressed this historical and religious continuity between England and America:

“Religion stands on tiptoe in our
Readie to pass the American
Strand” ….The Temple, 1633

No surprise that the sense of a shared heritage came from a common imaginary perception of the New World: religion shaped perceptions. One of imaginary vision of America is the myth of Arcadia that shows a contrast between peaceful, simple life in nature and corruption in city life. [Nature is always seen as positive].

The myth of arcadia is found in many pastoral poems and romances and in Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1590). America is not a secular utopia and is inseparable from the biblical visions of the continent as a new Eden or a new Israel (parallel between the Puritan’s crossing of the ocean and the exodus of Moses’s people).

The myth of America as a new Eden is finally restored to its innocence. It was also reinforced by the English literary tradition of utopia:

  • Thomas More, Utopia (1516)
  • Francis Bacon, New Atlantis (1626)

The conception of America also finds its way into Puritanism for the notion of the holy community was also a kind of utopia. The prose forms that appeared during the English Reformation had a tremendous influence on American literature.

The most important of those prose forms is the sermon, influenced by the religious community, which became a biblical sensibility. In poetry as well as in prose, the writers of New England appropriated biblical references, imagery, and themes.

They used biblical imagery and themes in order to represent historical events as a realization of the Protestant world vision. The other forms of literary production existed in colonial America: poetry and prose about the analysis and the exploration of the individual (mind, body, and soul): introduction of the meditation, journal, diary, (auto) biography, and lyric poetry. Purpose: self-improvement and self-help.

The world vision of Protestantism is presented as a central element in judging individual human experience. The most important criteria of self-judgment derived from the Bible: literature of introspection and self-exploration:

The narrative of the Exodus: very beginning of America and hope to reach a better land.

Paul’s metaphors on Christian pilgrimages and warfare: must go to a better place.

The conception of the Christian life as “a progress of the soul” (Hebrews, 8). Progress = work.

The psalms as an account of David’s sins and repentance.


From the beginning, American literature simultaneously assimilated and transformed English culture and literature. During the colonial period, the writers of the New World were obsessed with the same themes as English writers.

They used the same literary forms and biblical metaphors that predominated in English literature during the Reformation.

However, American literature must not be reduced to a simple transplant of English literature for in the process of this American transplantation, American literature emerged metamorphosed in innovative and fascinating ways.

American Literature

History of American Literature

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Arthur Miller : Death of a Salesman