Skip to main content

The Search for an Independent American Literature

Following the American Revolution of 1776 American literary culture underwent a considerable period of identity crisis. What is American literature? Is there any such thing? If there is, is it anything more than simply an imitation of European literary culture? This cultural crisis lead to the development of an array of different kinds of fiction in the 19th century, from Washington Irving’s politically skewed Gothicism’s, to Poe’s psych-analytical Gothicism, to Hawthorne’s critique of socially constructed morality, and Melville’s application of an imagination of Homeric scale to the industrial existence of a nation living in self-imposed exile from the polluted main-lands of Old World Europe. In effect, this new nation was trying to find ways of defining itself as more than simply another version of 'English'. One of the most immediate ways in which they began this search was by looking at the very language they used.

Washington Irving
This painting shows the writer Washington Irving at his house 'Sunnyside', surrounded by the best-known American writers of the period

Americans spoke English. They were derived from English colonialists, so it was really all they had to work with. However, since the new Americans were interested in defining themselves as outside of the traditions of England, the langauge needed to be refined. Actually, this process had already begun with the first 'pilgrims' to America. When the seventeenth-century settlers brought the English language to America, they immediately and necessarily began to adapt it to their new environment - the influences of Indian dialects, and the evolution of their own regional dialects began to shape pronunciation in new ways. These changes were noted early and criticized by purists on both sides of the Atlantic. It was rather like the response some people have today when meet someone with a excessively broad Essex accent - it was seen as something of a corruption of language. A sign of linguistic inadequacy rather than of cultural idiosyncracy.
However, after the Revolution, Americans began to take pride in their own form of English. Indeed, they began to self-consciously develop it. Noah Webster (1758-1843) wrote:

As an independent nation, our honor requires us to have a system of our own, in language as well as government. Great Britain, whose children we are, and whose language we speak, should no longer be our standard; for the taste of her writers is already corrupted, and her language on the decline. But if it were not so, she is // at too great a distance to be our model, and to instruct us in the principles of our own tongue. (Webster, 1789. pp. 20-21)


Webster was the major early proponent of an American style of language as opposed a British style, and he published the earliest American dictionary, An American Dictionary of the English Language, in 1806. In it, he argued that Americans had an opporunuty to make their language as independent of England as their governance had become:

We have therefore the fairest opportunity of establishing a national language, and of giving it uniformity and perspicuity, in North America, that ever presented itself to mankind. Now is the time to begin the plan. The minds of Americans are roused by the events of a revolution; the necessity of organizing the political body and of forming constitutions of government that shall secure freedom and property, has called all the faculties of the mind into exertion; and the danger of losing the benefits of independence, has disposed every man to embrace any scheme that shall tend, in its future operation, to reconcile the people of American to each other, and weaken the prejudices which oppose a cordial union. (Webster, 1789. p. 39)


Webster used American spellings like "color" instead of the English "colour" and "music" instead " of "musick". He also added American words that weren't in English dictionaries like "skunk" and "squash". It took him over 27 years to write his book. When finished in 1828, at the age of 70, Noah's dictionary had 70,000 words in it - and he began to shift his emphasis away from language itself, to the uses which Americans were putting it to. For him, the revolution was a 'golden period', and the evolution of language now required people who could use it to create a literary heritage to equal to golden age of English literature:

But when a language has arrived at a certain stage of improvement, it must be stationary or become retrograde; for improvements in science either cease, or become slow and too inconsiderable to affect materially the tone of a language. This stage of improvement is the period when a nation abounds with writers of the first class, both for abilities and taste. This period in England commenced with the age of Queen Elizabeth and ended with the reign of George II. It would have been fortunate for the language, had the stile of writing and the pronunciation of words been fixed, as they stood in the reign of Queen Ann and her successor. Few improvements have been made since that time; but innumerable corruptions in pronunciation have been introduced by Garrick, and in stile, by Johnson, Gibbon and their imitators. // The great Sidney wrote in a pure stile; yet the best models of purity and elegance, are the works of Sir William Temple, Dr. // Middleton, Lord Bolingbroke, Mr. Addison and Dean Swift. But a little inferior to these, are the writings of Mr. Pope, Sir Richard Steele, Dr. Arbuthnot, with some of their contemporaries. (Webster, 1789. pp.30-2)4
Up to this point, it was difficult to identify which might be called 'American literature'. Like the American language, the earliest American literature copied English models. The Revolution had made Americans desire something which was more their own though. This feeling was exacerbated by renewed fighting with the British in the War of 1812 - sometimes referred to as 'the second war of independence'. An effect of this was was a swelling sense of national pride in America, and writers were eager to create a distinctly American literature that reflected the growing confidence in their own cultural identity. As Richard Bridgeman notes:

The linguistic situation in the United States was historically unique. Romantic, nationalistic, and practical pressures impelled American writers to evolve a new means of expression out of the casual discourse of the nation. There, if anywhere, “American” was to be heard. Not that American language was a new language, distinct from English ... There was a spoken language in the United States with a natural way of using it (American), and there was a literary language with an accepted way of using it (English). In many respects they overlapped, and yet they were far from identical. (Bridgman, 1966. P.8)

The 'Americanisation' of literature, Bridgeman argues, began with the incorporation of accents and regional speech patterns into narrative dialogue: in other words, characters in American novels started to have an American accent. Well into the nineteenth century though, many Americans continued to look to England for a stylistic guidance. “Our best writers are English writers, not American writers" wrote one critic. "They are English in everything they do ... in their dialogue, speech, and pronunciation.” The first novel by James Fenimore Cooper, Precaution (which he published anonymously), was so 'English' in its style that it was assumed to be the work of a British citizen. Reviewers also concluded that the author was a woman because the novel centred on domestic scenes and social manners. Linguistic guidance on the 'correct' way to write literature was copiously supplied by the ranks of snobbish British critics whose first rule was that “American idioms flaw prose”: ““We wish, if possible,” said the Annual Review in 1808, “to stem that torrent of barbarous phraseology, with which the American writers threaten to destroy the purity of the English language.” Occasional grudging acceptance was offered, but rarely refrained from making snide comment about the innate inferiority of anything 'too' American. The Eclectic Review assessed one American author by noting: “For an American the composition is tolerable; but [he] has a good share of those words and phrases, which his literary countrymen must, however reluctantly, relinquish before they will rank with good writers.

In other words, for American literature to be any good, it had to be more English. In 1820, in the Edinburgh Review, Sydney Smith posed the question: "In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?" Edinburgh Review (volume 33, January 1820).

Against such attacks, American writers and literary figures began eventually to respond. “I shall never write what is now worshipped under the name classical English,” declared John Neal in 1828. “It is no natural language - it never was.” This ‘classical English’ was a dialect which was becoming increasingly associated with the upper classes of a British bourgeoisie who enjoyed the kind of leisure and wealth an average American could not possibly dream of. To speak with an English accent was to 'talk posh'. This association of language with social values developed a nationalistic edge to the conflict between English and American literary dialects. “The country is tired of being be-Britished” wrote the American Review. “[Tired of] having our thinking done in London, our imagination fed only with food that is Londonish, and out matters of feeling illustrated and described only by London associations, tropes and similitudes.


The focus for many American writers in the nineteenth century then, was to create a mode of writing which belonged distinctively to its homeland. This task was taken on largely by prose writers. People like Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain all had backgrounds as journalists, and shaped a form of literature which was rooted in a specifically American culture - a culture which included a large degree of uncertainty about its own love-hate relationship with the 'homeland' of England. In his Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain "established at a stroke the colloquial style which has swept American literature, and indeed spilled over into world literature" (Wouk, 1953. p. 20) and "established for written prose the virtues of American colloquial speech" (Trilling, 1948. p. xvi). This American style of language is clear from the opening page of the novel:
Huck Finn

YOU don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly -- Tom's Aunt Polly, she is -- and Mary, and the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn)
The story has as its hero a low born boy - a child of America, filled with American values of common sense and an innate sense of morality. Throughout his journey he encounters different types of characters - the Grangerford family are American, but filled with a European-type class sensibility, and therefore are caught up in a cylce of self-destruction. Huck's guardians are American, but caught up in 'old fashioned' moralities which are constricting. Later in the story he encounters 'The King' and 'The Duke' - characters whose names directly refer to old English class systems of bourgeousie and aristocrasy. In Twain's novel though, both are simply con-men. Indeed, the only other character which shares Huck's own innate virtues, and simplicity of a life uninfluenced by old European values, is Jim - an escaped negro slave. The message Twain is giving is clear: American values are those of the common man. They are instinctive and humanely moral, and can be found in the uneducated boy and the slave more readily than in Kings, Dukes and the elites of a more 'English' social structure.

Radical stuff indeed.

As the nineteenth century progressed, writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James would forge new modes of writing - forms of naturalism which would become characteristic of American prose, and which would eventually come to be imitated by European writers. During this same period in America, the theatre certainly had a lively and flourishing existence, but unlike prose fictions drama was seen as predominantly a centre for light entertainment: comedies and popular revisions, bolstered by re-fashionings of European plays and (of course) Shakespeare. “Shabby in structure and shambling in action” was drama critic Brander Matthews summary of American drama in Harpers in 1889 .

American theatre

This is not necessarily entirely to be wondered at. Even in Britain, the early to mid nineteenth century produced little drama which had a significant impact upon the development of the genre, and less still that continues to capture audiences imaginations today. In addition, the American audiences preference for spectacle on a stage made matters difficult for stage managers, whose financial outlay for any production became so extortionate that a plays failure could prove catastrophic. As William Dean Howell’s wrote in 1886:

There has been so little that is fresh, native, and true on the stage for so long that the managers might not know what to make of [an innovative] piece; and it is to the manager, not the public, that the playwright appeals … It costs so much to “stage” a play in these days of a material theatre but no drama, that [a manager] can only risk giving the old rubbish in some novel disguise … With the present expensiveness of setting, a failure is ruinous, and nothing really new can be risked. So much money has to be put into the frame of the picture that only the well-known chromo-effects in sentiment, character, and situation can be afforded in the picture (Howells, 1886)

However, just as in Britain the theatrical experimentations of European dramatists such Ibsen and Strindberg began to slowly make its mark on the stage, so those same influences began to stir American drama into a movement towards what has since become a national drama which is exciting, challenging, and very much distinctive of the nation. In Norway in the 1850s and 60s, Heinrick Ibsen was re-making the traditional closet melodrama into a dramatic tool to bring into the open questions of morality and social responsibility in a way which had never been done before – and was deemed at the time to be both revolutionary and shocking.

In 1890, as Gerald M. Berkowitz has noted, that same instinct to bring into drama a moral questioning can be seen echoed in the American James Herne’s play Margaret Fleming (Berkowitz, 1992. p. 1).

The title character, wife of a factory owner, discovers her husband’s working-class mistress has died giving birth to his child. She adopts the baby and, while leaving open the question of whether she will ever fully forgive him. Like other problem plays of the period, Margaret Fleming thus raises a number of moral and ethical issues; unlike the others, it quite consciously leaves many of them unresolved. Foremost among these is a significant question of received definitions of marital morality. In the early part of // the play Fleming shows no remorse about his infidelity, only an annoyance at the inconvenience of his mistress’s pregnancy, and later he apologizes to his wife with the evident expectation of being quickly forgiven … Margaret Fleming also raises questions about sexual and economic exploitation, the relationship between class and moral obligation, and the nature of the maternal instinct; and it poses new answers, or at least partial dissatisfaction with the old answers, to some of these while leaving others unanswered (Berkowitz, p. 14).

In spite of such developments, though, American drama of the nineteenth century can – and has, by Mark Evans Bryan – be summed up by the 1899 production of Ben Hur in New York:

Adapted by the William Young from the best-selling novel by Lew Wallace, the six-act religious melodrama was a popular and critical success and the grandest stage spectacle that New York audiences had yet seen. Incorporating eight horses and two chariots running at a gallop on massive treadmills, a moving cyclorama background painting, and wind machines, the climactic chariot race of Ben-Hur is far more representative of the American stage at the beginning of the twentieth century than, for instance, the Boston premiere, nine years before, of the realist drama Margaret Fleming (Bryan, 2005)

Ben Hur

It is, perhaps, interesting to consider the extent to which this preference in the American public for spectacle has at all abated. Many years later, the cinematic adaptation of Ben-Hur relied equally on the epic, and even today a modern Hollywood film’s success can be more reliably predicted by taking account of the special effects budget, than by looking to see who write the screenplay.

Citation: Tulloch, J. (2013) The Search for an Independent American Literature [Internet]. Available from: <>


Bucks, D, & Nethercot, A (1946), 'IBSEN AND HERNE'S MARGARET FLEMING: A STUDY OF THE EARLY IBSEN MOVEMENT IN AMERICA', American Literature, 17, 4, p. 311, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 16 February 2012.

Wineapple, B (2010), 'Voices of a Nation: In the 19th century, American writers struggled to discover who they were and who we are', American Scholar, 79, 3, pp. 54-61, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 16 February 2012

Popular posts from this blog

2) Introduction to morphemes

So does language begin with words?

No. Language begins with sounds. It is important to understand this first and foremost. We have already raised this point, but it is worth raising again – language begins with sounds!

If I appear to be emphasizing this with a rather bizarre desperation, it is because it would be easy to think that since we are beginning our exploration of language and linguistics with words that this is where language begins. When you think about it logically though, all words are composed of various sounds grouped together. The word ‘cat’ is composed of three distinct sounds - /c/, /a/ and /t/.

So why aren’t we starting with looking at how sounds create language?

Well, in the not-too-distant past, when European football used to be free on the telly, Manchester United or Arsenal would jet off to Spain for a titanic contest with Barcelona. When the commentators referred to Barcelona, they would pronounce it ‘Bar-se-low-nah’ (bɑ:sɜ:ləʊnæ). After a few years th…

6) Places and Manners of Articulation

Place of Articulation
The place of articulation refers to “the point in the vocal tract where the speech organs restrict the passage of air in some way so pro¬ducing distinctive speech sounds” (Finch, 1999). As with manner of articulation, places of articulation are more frequently used to describe consonants than vowels. The following are the principal terms used in linguistics to describe these:

Bilabial.Sounds formed by both lips coming together” (Finch, 1999).Examples include /b/, /p/ and /m/.

'It's owned by Elsevier': Why this is relevant when choosing referencing software

At my University we are currently discussing how to provide support for software that can help students and staff manage their references and sources.  There are of course many different options available on the market - some free, and some not.  During discussions I have made no secret of my preference for Zotero - which I believe offers the most intuitive and comprehensive functionality.  To this end, I have done some showcases of Zotero for various academics - which appear to illicit one of three responses from them:

Oh, brave new world that has such software in it!  I had no idea - and I want it now!We already use it.  Have been for years.  So why are you telling us about it now?But don't we already have Mendeley in our official software catalogue?

I fully expected the first response - but was surprised at the number of people who came back with the second and third.  It is really rather nice to be able to tell academics who fight tirelessly each year to teach academic referen…