The Influence of British Literature on the Birth of American Artistry

The idea that our American literary culture has been influenced since its inception by Britain’s is not a new one; after all, the two countries are rather like two branches of the same tree. Even though the mindsets are of distinctly different beliefs, they still share centuries of history that is not easy to overwrite. At the same time, however, America has been pushing to create its own breed of auteur distinct from their overseas contemporaries. The first real push to create an ‘American flavor’ of literature began after the Revolutionary War. Demand for something to show off the nation’s independence reached a fervor, and James Fenimore Cooper answered the call. Furthering the cause was the poet William Cullet Bryant, who romanticized the American wilderness much like Wordsworth and Coleridge had done of their own countryside. With the addition of Hawthorne’s international success with The Scarlet Letter and Herman Melville’s popularity for his nautical narratives, America could at last claim to have some sort of presence in the literary market, no matter how feeble the quantitative representation was. But it would still be an uphill battle for quite some time. Thanks to the lack of any international copyright laws, stateside publishers found it much cheaper and profitable to pirate editions of British works by the likes of Byron, Scott, and Carlyle than to take a risk on untested properties coming from Cooper, Hawthorne, and the like. This proliferation of foreign material managed neatly to set up a singular force of influence upon the American readers. Part of this trend was also due to a general interest in Britain itself, with several thousand Americans going abroad every year. After all, if the only thing to be read involves the history and manners of another country, then what else is there to think about but to travel and find out the truth first hand? This is not to say that England had a monopoly over American libraries; they may have had more books being published (and thus, pirated), but the newborn nation still nursed a lasting desire for something to show the world markets as worthwhile. For a while, though, the only thing emerging stateside was a series of American imitations of British literature. Several poems from Nathaniel Evans’s Poems on Small Occasions were direct rip-offs of Milton’s work, and nearly every entry in Boston Prize Poems was heavily influenced by Pope. Byronic heroes were a recurring element in early works by Richard Dana and Edgar Allen Poe. It wouldn’t be until 1835 that Poe himself took up the charge of exposing this blatant plagiarism, calling attention to Robert Bird, Mattson, Disraeli, and Longfellow (Peach). Whether this “epidemic” was the result of a nation-wide lack of imagination or a fear of not being profitable is irrelevant; either way, it was more than a step back for the nation’s literary development. At the same time, one would be remiss to write this episode off entirely as a loss. As Stephen King once wrote, “Imitation preceded creation.” With time, American authors began to take the ideas presented to them by their contemporaries and mold them into something distinctly American. They no longer stringently followed the British ideals for “modeling” after the historic greats. There was still an undeniable overseas influence, to be sure, but it was now being seen through glasses of a different, American tint. A good example of this development comes from Wordsworth’s many admirers. William Cullen Bryant strived for many years to achieve the sort of oneness with nature that the great romantic had. He first read a copy of Lyrical Ballads at age 16 and professed its influence on his works on several occasions. Despite his studious efforts at imitating Wordsworth’s stylistic offerings, however, he could never quite find himself truly intimate with the natural world. Instead, Bryant’s writings settled for a decidedly more panoramic view of his subjects. For example, Bryant’s “Lines on Revisiting the Country” – which is clearly inspired by Wordsworth’s “Lines: Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798” – opens with the following stanza: I stand upon my native hills again, Broad, round, and green, that in the summer sky With garniture of waving grass and grain, Orchards, and beechen forests, basking lie, While deep the sunless glens are scooped between, Where brawl o’er shallow beds the streams unseen.Wordsworth’s, in comparison, begins: Five years have past; five summers, with the length Of five long winters! and again I hear These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs With a soft inland murmur. -Once again Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs, That on a wild secluded scene impress Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect The landscape with the quiet of the sky. (Norton)The similarities between these two pieces are immediately obvious; although Bryant lacks the specificity that comes with Wordsworth’s intimacy with nature, he is still taking the same general emotion and placing it in the context of the American wilderness which is, by and far, a much more open and vast place than the Lake District of England. In fact, it is this distinction that perhaps justifies his generality in describing the natural world. In England, such an openness would be a rare and delightful treat in comparison to the industrialized cities that enveloped the people like a whirling fog. America, on the other hand, was almost entirely wide open plains and gorgeous vistas due to its short existence as a ‘colonized’ land and its massive size. It may have been difficult for anyone to pick a particular landscape and see it as more ‘special’ than any of the infinitely many others. This may also explain why several of his poems dealt with the darker sides of nature – of death, as in “The Murdered Traveller,” and of sexuality, as in “The West Wind” – subjects which Wordsworth avoided (Peach). Still, though, it can be seen as a definite failing that Bryant failed to fully adapt Wordsworth’s style and beliefs to his own climate, thus condemning himself to being labeled a cheap knock-off. Wordsworth also served as an influence to a promising artist by the name of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had long dreamed of meeting him as well as Coleridge, Landor, Carlyle, and De Quincey. Emerson got his chance in 1833, when he met all five of his heroes and found all but Carlyle to be older and less exuberant than he had imagined them to be. He saw Wordsworth as a man who could only be a genius in his own element; once removed, he was just another tame conformist. Despite his trampled expectations, he still admired the man’s work, but unlike Bryant, he never attempted to model himself after Wordsworth, nor did he attempt an intimacy with nature that had eluded his contemporary’s grasp. He did, however, find in Wordsworth an inspiring enlargement of man’s sense of nature; it led him toward a basic idea of what the poet should be, ‘one who understands and articulates the relationship between man and the cosmos; a relationship of which all men have at least a vague appreciation” (Peach). So, instead of trying to follow directly in the master’s footsteps, Emerson opted to borrow certain ideas from him and rediscover them as his own. Like Wordsworth, he deplored man’s disconnection with the natural world. In “Self-Reliance,” he wrote “. . . man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present . . . He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature, in the present, above time.” Like Bryant, however, his perceptions were colored by the vast size of America, and through this he developed an advanced sense of transcendental mysticism that further distanced himself from nature because he saw that mere physical contact could not sate his spiritual hunger to be one with the natural world. In the end, despite their great efforts, neither Bryant nor Emerson could rightfully be considered Wordsworth’s American equivalent. It would be more accurate to suggest that the British romantic’s sensibilities sent them off on their own little tangents to carve a new path that would help give rise to the American Literary Revolution. Another major contributor to the scene was Sir Walter Scott, who was for a time the most popular British author in America. So, it should come as no surprise that he was a major source of inspiration among the state’s developing sense of literary brilliance. In particular, Nathaniel Hawthorne took a fancy to Scott’s offerings. Fanshawe, his first novel (of four completed), continuously confessed the Waverley novels as his inspirations, although its obvious imitative nature should have decried the necessity of any admittances. Scott’s own immense popularity in America saw many authors attempting to duplicate his success with historical novels. These efforts were by definition doomed to failure; what America wanted was something to call its own, not another Old World European entry. The sad fact was that America simply didn’t have a history comparable to its overseas brethren. (Peach) Hawthorne, as stated previously, had taken quite an affection for Scott. He had read all but The Abbot by age 16, and his infatuation would continue till much later in life. Hawthorne even considered him to be a soul-mate of sorts because of the many similarities the two shared, especially in their Puritan ancestors who had all engaged in witch hunts. The severity of their morality disgusted Hawthorne. He latched onto Scott’s similar distaste for this inflexibility, and it is this bond which would encourage him to decry those “outdated” ways that arose from a belief in the innate depravity of man (as seen in the “guilty until proven innocent” Salem Trials). The fight for redemption against this set of laws forms the central theme of Hawthorne’s most prominent novel, The Scarlet Letter, in which an adulterous woman tries to resume a normal life whilst keeping her lover’s identity a secret from the unsympathetic authorities. This novel was particularly inspired by Scott’s The Heart of Mid-Lothian which, aside from some minor differences, was basically used as a carbon copy blueprint for The Scarlet Letter. Both novels use the exploits of an adulterous woman as the means of reminding us that, as Scott’s character Middlesburgh dictates: “We are ourselves all sinners; and the errors of our offspring, as they ought not to surprise us, being the portion which they derive of a common portion of corruption inherited through us, so they do not entitle us to cast them off because they have lost themselves.” Still, Hawthorne had created something for the American literary world to hoist upon its shoulders as a true example of American ingenuity. (Peach) As was the case with Emerson, it would be a mistake to label Hawthorne as one of Scott’s disciples. As Emerson molded the romantic ideal into an American sensibility, so too did Hawthorne utilize Scott’s search for the basic human nature. And, though these are but a few examples of the effects of British literature upon American works, the effects should be more than obvious. The two nations evolved from the same heritage, and despite a war and an ocean dividing them, the ideals remained largely interchangeable. So long as it was done subjectively, with the American experience held close to the heart and soul of the words being laid down on the page.Works CitedKing, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Scribner, New York, NY. 2000. p. 27 The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th ed., Vol. 2 Ed. M. H. Abrams. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. New York, NY. 2000 Peach, Linden. British Influence on the Birth of American Literature. Macmillan Press, London. 1982. Scott, Sir Walter. The Heart of the Mid-Lothian (Penguin Classics). Ed. Tony Inglis. Penguin USA, 1994. ch. 18

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