Digital American Literature Anthology
Dr. Michael O'Conner
Millikin University, Decatur, IL

Unit Six: The New Nation and Its Literature

Up until the creation of the United States of America, there was, in one sense, no true American literature written by actual citizens of this country. As we have discussed previously, however, our definition of what constitutes American literature is more expansive than simply literature created by a citizen. The birth of the United States is recognized as July 4, 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress, creating 13 "united" states. Interestingly, John Adams thought the day the Declaration was "signed" on July 2 would be this country's day of celebration.

With the creation of this new nation there soon came calls from its citizenry for a national literature, that was uniquely American. The Norton Anthology of American Literature states it would take nearly half a century after the Declaration for such literature to come into existence.

While the 1830s through 1850s is usually identified as the period when American literature came into its own, the 1820s were actually the years when critics first agreed that the United States had produced writers who wrote distinctively American works worthy of a great nation. This interest in producing identifiably American works, and celebrating those works, can be called “literary nationalism.” ("Overview")

Robert Spiller lays out the conditions of the creation of a new national literature in Chapter Two of his book, The Cycle of American Literature.

One proof that there was a new nation in the making would be the appearance of a new and characteristic literature. No sooner was political independence from the Old World assured than the hue and cry for an independent literature set in. The problem was a simple one; the answer not easy. Here, far from the sophistication and corruption of Europe, were unspoiled nature waiting to be described and regenerated man eager to express his ideas. The materials of a new civilization and a new literature were at hand; but art is form, and new form does not suddenly appear. The colonists from long habit looked to British poetry, fiction, drama, and essay for their standards of literary expression. The eighteenth century had been a time of formal art. Somehow the new wine must be put into old bottles. Somehow American literature must equal or surpass its British models in perfection of expression and at the same time be faithful to its native ideas and experience. Caught between the urge of youth to break all ties with the past and the need of art for a tradition and a model by which to bend the raw materials of life to formal expression, our earliest men of letters were at once naive, experimental, conformist, self-conscious, and imitative.

The first need was for the instruments of culture: the institutions and the equipment for creating and producing books and for training writers to write them and a public to read them. This process was well advanced by 1760, when the public attention was first drawn to the disturbing issues of the Revolution; it was somewhat delayed by the war itself; and it was greatly stimulated by the peace.

By 1764 seven colleges, of student age level not much above that of the modern high school, were established in the colonies. All but Pennsylvania were sectarian in their foundations, and religious training took its place with Latin, Greek, philosophy, mathematics, and other branches of learning. There was little study of English or modern literatures, almost none of history or geography, and comparatively little of natural science. But these struggling little colleges brought inquiring young minds together to read and think and talk, and education followed. In the 1790s the literary groups of Boston, Hartford, New York, and Philadelphia were composed chiefly of college students.

These young men turned to the circulating libraries for their books. The libraries of Harvard and Yale were large enough to issue catalogues by the middle of the century, but much richer collections were to be found in the library societies of Philadelphia, Newport, Charleston, and New York, the first of which was founded in 1731. Theological, political, historical, and scientific books predominated in these collections, but they also offered a generous selection of English and Continental authors, both classic and contemporary, and, as the century progressed, more and more books by American writers. As women gained leisure and influence, novels increased in numbers, as did poetry and drama.

Perhaps the most serious handicap that our early writers had to contend with was the lack of regular publishers. Colonial books by Americans were usually issued in London, although Franklin was printing books by 1740. Other provincial printers did the same thing, but most of these books were by British authors because of the absence or inequality of the American copyright laws. Usually an American author had to pay the costs of his own work and publish it through a local bookseller. The copyright law of 1790 made it illegal to reprint a book by a native American author, whereas foreign books had no such protection.

The first newspaper, published in Boston in 1690, was suppressed, but by 1800 most of the seaboard towns had at least one paper each; and in addition to news most of them printed an occasional poem or essay. Between 1741 and the end of the century, eighty magazines had been started, but only a few survived one or two issues. As we turn the pages of these earlier journals, we may wonder how they could have encouraged literature. Even in their own day, the small type in double columns and the lack of vitality in their borrowed contents must have done little to stimulate reading.

The American theater had a slightly later but parallel growth. Plays had been written or acted in the colonies, chiefly by college students, before 1767, when Thomas Godfrey's sanguinary and conventional tragedy The Prince of Parthia was offered by a the American Company at the New Theatre in Southwark," Philadelphia, on the twenty-fourth of April. The "American" company was composed of British actors and had been producing British and Continental plays in American towns since 1752 in such makeshift halls as it could command. The real history of the American drama began in 1787, when a reorganized American Company presented Royall Tyler's The Contrast, a study of New York society which was the first dramatic treatment of an American subject by an American writer.

When the Peace of 1783 put a premium on native writing, a small group of young men was ready to answer the call. Most of them planned to go into law, politics, or the ministry, but many would have preferred a career in literature. Only a few, like Joseph Dennie, Charles Brockden Brown, Royall Tyler, and Philip Freneau, had anything resembling a literary career.

The accepted way of declaring literary independence of Britain was to write something on an American theme as nearly as possible in the manner of a favorite British author. Joel Barlow sang the eternal glories of Columbia in the measured couplets of Pope; Royall Tyler's "piece, which we may fairly call our own," had an American theme, but most of the characters and the situation suggested a comedy of Sheridan; Brockden Brown wrote Gothic novels that transplanted Horace Walpole's horrors from crumbling castles and dark dungeons to the haunted minds and the open forests of his imagination; and Philip Freneau had to pay lyric homage to the death of death before celebrating American heroism and the beauties of nature. It was too soon to have an American way of writing as well as American things to say.

Fortunately for American enthusiasm, British writing was by then becoming more and more romantic. In the distant background were the masters of the past, notably Shakespeare, Milton, and Dryden. In the near distance were the masters of the formal essay and poem, of criticism and satire, Defoe, Pope, Addison, and Swift. Among elder contemporaries were Samuel Johnson and Goldsmith, the novelists Richardson, Fielding, and Sterne, and the bluestocking ladies. The romantic impulse had already been felt in the poetry of Thomson, Gray, and Cowper, and was becoming more pronounced in that of Blake, Burns, Wordsworth, and Coleridge. In the novel, just barely established as a reputable literary form, new experiments were already being tried in the Gothic horror of Walpole and Lewis, and in the ironic domestic comedy of manners of the gentle company of Jane Austen, while the short story was just beginning to emerge from emphasis on character rather than incident in the periodical essay. The era of Byron, Shelley, Scott, Lamb, and Bulwer was yet to come.

In spite of the growing spirit of nationalism, competition with British literature was too acute for the American writers. By 1800 most of the first group had turned from the frivolities of literature to more serious pursuits, and no new group had appeared to take their places. Brown, Freneau, and many others had turned to journalism; and Irving, Bryant, and Cooper did not publish their most characteristic work until about 1821. There were books published in the interval, but the contrast is sufficiently striking to draw a sharp line between the two generations. The first impulse had failed.

Most of the reasons for this failure are obscure, but two are fairly obvious. The first generation had overreached itself in its effort to create both a literature and an audience. It was forced ultimately to follow Freneau's advice: "Graft your authorship upon some other calling as the helpless ivy takes hold of the vigorous oak." The printers, the booksellers, the reviewers, the librarians, and the readers would require time to create the necessary conditions for a grass-roots literary movement; and the romantic movement in Western European literature, which was to give the United States its first real literary impulse, was still in its infancy in 1800.

The essence of romanticism is the ability to wonder and to reflect. In searching the meaning of the known, the human spirit reaches for the unknown; in trying to understand the present, it looks to the past and to the future. Faith and hope lead to a positive romanticism, fear and doubt to a negative; but when both reason and authority have failed, man has a further refuge in the larger emotions which are always his. Only when these are fully awakened is a really great literature born. Shakespeare lived in one such era, Goethe in another.

In Europe, at the close of the eighteenth century, the revolt against political and religious authority was followed by a revolt against reason, and the romantic movement swept through its peoples. Coming to the United States at the moment of an awakening national consciousness, it assumed an even more ardent nationalism than it had in the older countries abroad. This attitude was expressed in the denial of tradition and of the European cultural inheritance, a delight in the grand scale and the infinite mysteries of nature on the unexplored western continent, and a pride in the "American ideas" which had so successfully created the Republic. Later it was to move into the abstractions of philosophy, but for the present the creation of an American myth out of the new materials was its first and greatest task.

In this task, the American writers Washington Irving, William Cullen Bryant, and James Fenimore Cooper had an advantage over their European contemporaries, for they had almost nothing to revolt against. Like them, European writers were also straining at traditions and conventions and seeking in nature and in forgotten corners of the past, and the far-away, for the "originality" which was the mark of the romantic temper, but the Americans had novelty at their doorstep. It was fortunate for them that the Old World was also going through a period of literary experimentation just at the moment when American writers most needed flexibility in the models they must use for their art. Irving still looked to Goldsmith, but Bryant had Wordsworth as well as Cowper, and Cooper had Walter Scott.

The rest of this important chapter is available in print or online at

Today, we like to identify a number of "firsts" in the literature of the United States. Although the list of these "firsts" have evolved over time, with new research and emerging theoretical points of view, here is a current listing, and one not without differences of opinion.

All of the above writers, however, were "made" citizens at the creation of the United States, though their works were published in this country. The first writers of fame actually born as United States citizens after 1776, and benefitting from the influences of European romanticism include:

A group of New England poets and writers were also quite famous in the 19th and early 20th centuries, sometimes known as the Fireside Poets. Their popularity has waned in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Some of the romantic writers in these lists were considered part of a literary period sometimes called the American Renaissance, greatly popularized by critics and scholars from the middle of the 20th century, such as F.O. Matthiessen and Howard Mumford Jones. F.O. Matthiessen's book, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941) became representative of the thinking of this period of criticism, identifying east coast, white male authors like Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman as America's greatest early writers.

Yet, starting in the 1980s, and over the next few decades, the absence of women writers and writers of color become more and more obvious to critics and scholars, in the listing of those considered important writers of this period. Eventually, adjustments were made to address these oversights. Now we enjoy the study of works by more diverse writers from this time frame such as William Apess, Black Hawk, Susanna Rowson, Hannah Foster, Lydia Child, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Fanny Fern, Harriet Jacobs, Harriet Wilson, and Frederick Douglass.

Questions and Considerations

Questions of Fact (often the stuff that quizzes are made of)

For each assigned piece of writing, try to record any relevant information related to reporting the facts: who, what, when, where, why, and how?

Also, for each assigned piece of writing, consider these broader questions:


When did the author write and what are his or her key works?
What overall subject, concept or question is the work about?
Does the writing fall within a particular genre or subgenre and, if so, which elements of that genre are being utilized or ignored?

Considering the Craft of Writing

What is the time/place of the setting?
Who are the major characters? Is there a clear protagonist and antagonist?
Is there clear narrator? Is the narrator/speaker understood to be reliable?
Is the narrator/speaker an intentionally crafted persona?
How are plot expectations met, challenged, or exceeded?
Are there repeated images/concepts/symbols in the work?
If verse, how are the elements of poetry utilized and illustrated?

Reflection and Application

What is the theme, point, or moral of the writing?
How does the author wish readers to consider the subject?

Specific Questions:
How do the poems in this unit fall within the tradition of literary romanticism?
What aspects of the poems in this unit are specifically American?

Do a quick internet search on the seduction novel. Is the tradition of Rowson's 'seduction novel' Charlotte still alive today?

What dominant impressions are you left with after reading Irving's works? Gothicism? Humor? Plot development? Character development?

Discuss Cooper's use of Native American characters in the context of our previous studies of native-white interactions.
Can Cooper be considered one of America's first 'naturalist' writers?
Consider how vestiges of Cooper's stories survive in the popular culture we consume today.

Works Cited

"Overview: 1820-1865." Norton Anthology of American Literature. 8th edition. Volume B. 2012.

Spiller, Robert E. The Cycle of American Literature: An Essay in Historical Criticism. The Macmillan Company, 1955.

Other Resources

Harrell, Jr., Willie J. "'Sons of the Forest': The Native American Jeremiad Materialized in the Social Protest Rhetoric of William Apess, 1829-1836."
Americana EJournal Volume VII, Number 2, Fall 2011.

"Paradise of Bachelors: The Social World of Men in Nineteenth-Century America." Masculine Heroes. American Passages. 2003.

"Picturing America: The Hudson River School Painters. Masculine Heroes. American Passages. 2003.











Dr.Michael O'Conner, Millikin University