Literature, American Style: The Originality of Imitation in the Early Republic.
American culture in the early national period is often defined by absence, rather than presence: eighteenth-century Americans would reject not just the British government, but the British social structure, their culture of politeness, and even their extraneous letters in spelling common words. Ezra Tawil turns this well-known antipathy around, joining scholars such as Leonard Tennenhouse in The Importance of Feeling English (2007) and Elise Tamarkin in Anglophilia (2008) in arguing that American literary culture is more Anglophilic than Anglophobic. While Tamarkin's Anglophilia focuses on the antebellum era, Tawil's project tracks more closely on Tennenhouse's work. Like Tennenhouse, Tawil looks at Noah Webster's revisions to the English language via the dictionary and sentimental and gothic fiction, although Literature, American Style emphasizes different texts and topics within those genres.
Tawil begins by asking, "by what logic do we carve out a particular slice of Anglophone literary production and then proceed to treat it as a distinct national tradition with special characteristics?" (3). None of the genres discussed here--the dictionary, transatlantic correspondence collections, and the novel--originated in British America. If originality does not rest in the creation/development of a genre, where does it originate? The answer for Tawil is in the somewhat elusive category of "style." Tawil explains that his project "is more historical and genealogical than it is polemical; my question is not whether it is true or false that U.S. literature has distinct and identifiable qualities, but when that notional aspiration first arose, why it did, and most important, how it came to be lodged in style" (3). Although this multigenre monograph might initially seem like an odd choice to be reviewed in a journal focused on the novel, it's impossible to talk about novelistic style without parsing larger questions of style; further, Tawil argues that it was through style, more so than genre, that early American writers sought to make their mark. He sums up this developmental phase as "a kind of dialectical struggle between foreign emulation and national originality" (86). Tawil asks us to set aside nineteenth-century American verdicts about originality and imitation, such as Emerson's famous claim that "imitation is suicide." Instead, he asks us to hearken back to a Franklin-esque mode of imitation, where the objective was to master an elite circum-Atlantic style. The goal was "not to produce new literary forms but to put a local stamp on borrowed ones" (6); "literary genius," he tells us, "could consist in the exemplary performance of an existing form" (7).
The American dilemma over "newness" in the late eighteenth century was not, in fact, new. In an interesting discussion, Tawil traces anxieties over literary influence back to Greek influence on Roman culture, a tension that would be replicated over the centuries in European cultures. Given the constant references to the classical republics in the post-Revolutionary US, this is a particularly apt model for discussing American anxiety over British cultural influence. Tawil argues that "[t]hrough a similar dialectic of adoption and adaptation, U.S. literary culture would have to come to terms with a set of models it regarded as indispensable, yet problematically foreign" (26). What made the US rendition of this drama different? For one thing, "[t]he late eighteenth-century American version of this cultural process was marked by the linguistic situation specific to a settler nation, which is to say, a culture marked by all the discursive formations of 'vernacular anxiety,' yet strangely lacking its own vernacular" (32). American literary style would remain intertwined with British literature style, for what is American can only be American by contrast with what is British, a literary skirmish over style reminiscent of Dr. Doolitfle's pushmi-pullyu.
In the first of four chapters, Tawil examines Noah Webster's modifications of the English language to make it "American." Whereas most scholars have seen Webster as declaring literary independence, Tawil sees him as a moderate figure, "far less Anglophobic and far more deferential to transatlantic cultural authority than is commonly acknowledged" (42). Tawil points out that early US authors could have made a more radical break by choosing indigenous models; they could, for example, have begun writing "trickster tales as a way of asserting the indigeneity of their tradition.... Instead, these authors began with the established forms of English letters and then set out to alter those forms in ways that would render them uniquely 'American'" (10-11). Although Webster is renowned for simplifying the spelling of English, we adopted few of his more drastic suggestions, such as the addition of diacritical marks to indicate new sounds from familiar letters. Webster also wanted to rid us of silent letters and "foreign" spellings of words imported from other languages, such as "chaise," which Webster's plan would have rendered as "shaze." Tawil sums up the changes that were instantiated as "ensuring that U.S. culture would remain English though not British" (85).
The title of the second chapter, "Transatlantic Correspondence: Crevecoeur and the Incorrect Style," is somewhat misleading, because it elides the equal weight given to Crevecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer and Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia. Both draw upon the genre of transatlantic correspondence, while orienting their literary conversations along Franco-American lines, rather than Anglo-American. Transplantation and transformation, rather than imitation, are the focus of these texts. Both texts illustrate that animals, humans, and human ideas, rather than being diminished in the new world, instead thrive through transplantation. Tawil explains, "In narrative terms... the transplantation of English culture results in a more vigorous and vital form of that culture" (118). The nonfiction Letters from an American Farmer is framed by a fictional persona, James, the unassuming farmer of English extraction, who was at odds with the educated French Crevecoeur and the imagined recipient of his letters. This humble farmer, defined by the self-consciously simple style of his letters, is the basis of Crevecoeur's claim to being a literary founding father.
Chapters Three and Four focus on the novel, with Chapter Three exploring the transportation of the gothic to the early US in Charles Brockden Brown's novels, especially Edgar Huntly. Brown borrowed the gothic genre and the sublime from British and European literature, but he transforms both modes by welding them to an American landscape. Where British gothic fiction was often located in decaying buildings elsewhere--especially France, Italy, or Germany--Brown brought the gothic mode home to the US, locating it in the irregular landscape of North America. Tawil suggests that most literary critics have succumbed to Brown's own marketing of himself as inventing the American gothic, when in fact, "even Brown's strongest arguments for literary indigeneity paradoxically relied on European representations of the New World and its aesthetic possibilities" (148). While I don't disagree with Tawil's conclusion, I am resistant to the scholarly obsession with Brown's novels. Brown spent just a few short years writing fiction before dedicating a decade to the possibilities presented by writing for and editing literary periodicals. Brown's editorial work, and periodicals in general, might have been an even better site for Tawil's analysis, given their iterative borrowing, modeling, and revision of British periodicals. One could extend Tawil's claims about Brown's use of the sublime, for example, by examining his periodical writings, especially travel narratives such as his two-part "Memorandums Made on a Journey through Pennsylvania" (1803-04).
Chapter Four continues to look at American fiction, but in this case focuses on sentimental seduction novels. The characters of these novels--especially Charlotte Temple and The Coquette--emphasize simplicity, authenticity, and virtue--paralleling the literary style adopted by many early US writers, leading Tawil to suggest that the oft-repeated "courtship plot actually gave rise to an aesthetic argument about literary style" (165). This style did not originate with the eighteenth century or the novel, Tawil argues, but was first celebrated by settlers as the Puritan plain style. I'm skeptical of the lengthy gap between novels of the early republic era and the fiction-hating Puritans, who destroyed the first novel printed in the English colonies (Henry Neville's 1668 The Isle of the Pines) because the printer had neglected to obtain permission to publish it. Tawil's point, however, is that even New England's beloved plain style was brought to the New World by the British rather than emerging as an autochthonous development: American style was always part of a dialectic.
Literature, American Style relies on many of the usual suspects of the Early Republic: Webster, Brockden Brown, Susanna Rowson, and Hannah Foster. Given Tawil's command of the era, I would have welcomed explorations of some lesser-known texts or genres. Even so, for readers interested in this dialectic and in parsing the tangled literary relationship between Britain and the United States, Tawil's book is essential reading. His own lucid style makes Literature, American Style a pleasure to read.
KAREN A. WEYLER, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
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|Author:||Weyler, Karen A.|
|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2019|
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