Literary Nationalism

4 April 2015
An examination of the debate over American literary nationalism which began in the early nineteenth century.

This essay examines the main issues that were involved in the contentious debate over American literary nationalism at the beginning of the 19th century in the United States. The English critic Sidney Smith’s biting comment Who reads an American book? is discussed, in terms of how it continued, and helped perpetuate, the debate about American literary nationalism. Further, this essay outlines how Washington Irving’s tales in “The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon” helped to fulfill the need for a unique, American literature that was noted by the Englishman Sidney Smith.
“There were several main issues that fired the contentious debate over American literary nationalism at the beginning of the 19th century, in the United States. The debate surrounded the apparent inability of American authors to produce quality literature. Certainly, America had received its political independence from Britain long before the 19th century, but in terms of art and literature, America had failed to produce works that were equal (of better) in quality to those produced in Great Britain. Certainly, and most importantly, the major point of this debate was that there was no clearly unique style of American literature. Equally important was the perception that the American literature produced was inferior in quality to that produced by British authors (Early). Interestingly, this inability to produce quality literature was reflected in the lacklustre sense of American cultural identity. In Adventures in American Literature: Classic Edition, James Early suggests that a strong sense of American cultural identity needed to be rooted in a “significant national literature”.”
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