Introduction to American Literature Pre-Reading Thoughts

Introduction to American Literature Pre-Reading Thoughts


American Literature is an especially interesting
and exciting branch of our worldwide literary heritage. In the 21st century the United States of America
is the dominant power politically, culturally, and militarily, and that fact alone explains
some of today’s interest in American literature. People try to account for America and understand
America by studying its literature. Nevertheless, as successful as the American
experiment has been, most people, even college-educated people, have a shallow and superficial knowledge
of the American literary patrimony. America’s widespread ignorance of its past
feeds popular misunderstanding. In this American literature course, we will
confront some of the popular myths and misconceptions about Americans and their literature. Consider a few commonplace ideas about America. Many people believe that the American settlers
introduced slavery to the new world. Another popular belief is that America was
largely uninhabited and presented vast empty space and plentiful untouched resources ready
for the picking by 17th century European settlers. Another often-repeated view is that American
Indians in pre-Columbian times were living harmoniously: in peace with each other and
one with nature. The concept of the American Indians’ veneration
of nature was clearly depicted in a long-running public service media campaign, launched in
1971, depicting a man in Indian dress crying over litter. More recently, many people in the 21st century,
following anti-colonialist theory, see European settlers as capitalists and colonizers who
came to America on a mission to expand European influence. Were America’s founding fathers, such as
George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, supporters of slavery
and morally ambivalent about its continuation in America? This is a wildly popular thesis in 21st century
America. These and other questions will intrigue us
as we complete the course, and our view of our heritage—both its literature and its
history—will evolve. If you read and contemplate the implications
of our assigned texts, you will be surprised, enlightened, and perhaps transformed by what
you will learn. That’s a pretty bold promise, but if you
engage these materials with a sincere desire to learn, this course will not disappoint. But before we begin our journey, let me make
a few introductory remarks about our subject, American literature. What do we mean by American literature? What is literature, and what makes some literature
American while other literature is not? Literature can be defined as any text of significant
or lasting artistic value. By this definition a cake recipe or an account
ledger would likely not make the cut as literature. But even a political document or speech, such
as The Declaration of Independence or Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, would qualify. As a practical matter, American Literature
is usually confined to texts written or produced in the United States, including its preceding
colonies prior to the American declaration of independence. But some literary critics, philosophers, and
historians have restricted the subject matter even further. For example, the 19th century author and philosopher
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that American literature needed to be uniquely American. In his speeches and writings he complained
that American literature did not really yet exist in his time. Emerson claimed that literature in America
had no unique or even distinctive features. He thought that contemporary literature from
America could—in fact—be written by anybody in Europe—anywhere in Europe. Emerson was uneasy because he believed that
American writers were merely carrying on European traditions. In response, Emerson famously called for the creation of a new type of literature, a distinctly “American” literature. In his now-famous address to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard, Emerson proclaimed, “[o]ur day of dependence, our long apprenticeship
to the learning of other lands, draws to a close. The millions that around us are rushing into
life cannot always be fed on the sere remains of foreign harvests.” Emerson believed that America needed a break
from the past and a new and noble project to remake America in a totally American image. Is the only thing different about American
literature the simple fact that it is being scribbled to paper on American soil? No, claimed The Sage of Concord. Still, by his highly-restrictive definition,
one might argue that Walt Whitman is the first to write text that qualifies as real “American
literature.” In our course, we will examine some of Emerson’s
arguments. Nevertheless, I do not consider valid Emerson’s
restrictive argument about what makes literature “American.” By his definition, The Declaration of Independence
would not qualify as American literature because its inspiration came from European authors
such as John Locke and Thomas Reid. In fact, the traditional definition of American
literature is also too restrictive. Written on American soil? Should we exclude The Mayflower Compact from
American Lit because it was written aboard ship and agreed to before the pilgrims landed? Must we exclude Christopher Columbus’s journal
of his first voyage because it was partly penned during the Atlantic crossing and he
missed mainland America? Is Herman Cortes written out of American Lit
because he sailed from what we know as Cuba and landed in what we now call Mexico? Are John Adams’s writings from France or
England something other than American literature? What about those foreign-born texts of Benjamin
Franklin or Thomas Jefferson? When pilgrims, settlers, explorers, or adventurers
came to The New World, they knew nothing about our later political divisions, such as The
United States, Canada, Mexico, Cuba, and The Bahamas. They came to The New World and their journeys
and experiences—their many individual stories—are part of a single story, Europe’s discovery,
exploration, and settlement of that world. Breaking up these stories in some artificial
division based on political events hundreds of years later makes little sense. There is simply no reason to forfeit the story
of the French settlement of—say—Quebec in 1608 because that French settlement eventually
became a part of an English colony, now the independent nation of Canada. Moreover, if we exclude such sources there
is often little likelihood that anyone else—anywhere else—will take up the study of many of these
American texts. Consequently, I submit that the best definition
of American Literature is the broadest definition. While it might be practical to limit the number
of pages that students must read in a short course, the breath of the available material
should be as broad as the course demands. This means that we should look at the words
American literature and concede that America is more than one nation in the northern hemisphere. America consists of two continents. There is ample justification to consider all
of the texts in the Americas—North America, Central America, and South America—as potential
material for study in a course called American Lit. Otherwise, we should follow another naming
convention for our course. The distinction between English Lit and British
Lit is instructive. English Lit consists of texts in the English
language, while British Lit consists of texts from the British Isles. So, those who teach American Lit should acknowledge
that all of the literary texts written in the Americas, by Americans, or about the land,
plants, animals, or people of America are legitimately within our course’s literary
canon—the American literary canon.

local_offerevent_note October 11, 2019

account_box Matthew Anderson


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