Introduction to American Literature; Recurring Themes and Issues
The only characteristic that is common throughout American Literature is variety. Lots of scholars and critics have attempted to boil American Literature down to a few main themes, issues, and ideas, but each time you look at one idea, you can easily find an example of its opposite in another work of American Literature.
William Dean Howells identified in 1889 what seemed to him American Literature's most distinctive characteristic: "That in us which more than anything else we can distinctively call Americanism--our faith in humanity, our love of equality" (Howells, qtd. in Stedman). But the Puritans would not have agreed with that assessment: they believed in the idea that humans were born in Original Sin and were inherently evil; and despite the fact that they established the foundation for democratic rule in what later became the United States, they did not believe in social, religious, or political equality.
Frederick Jackson Turner, one of the most influential historians of the early 20th century, argued that "the greatest single factor in determining the character of American life has been the democratizing effect of a continually expanding frontier. The prospect of opportunity for all caused the United States to drive westward, and this expansion brought the pioneer into contact with a primitive environment which, while encouraging individualism, at the same time had a levelling effect which tended to erase distinctions of birth, social status, and education" (Seiferth).
Charles Beard, an equally respected historian, on the other hand "stresses the almost inexorable pressure of economic self-interest in determining the course of our history from its inception. To Beard, the motives of the original colonists, of the Revolutionary leaders, and even the framers of the Constitution were predominantly those of economic opportunism rather than of religious and democratic conviction, and he believed that this spirit of self-seeking perpetuated itself through all the subsequent problems of the young nation" (Seiferth).
Charles Frederick Johnson, a literary scholar of the same period, emphasizes that the American mind is marked more by moral than aesthetic emotion. "A beautiful angel like Raphael or Michael never appeared in the imagination of our Puritan forefathers, and if he had, they would have considered him bad because he was beautiful." Johnson argues that American literature does not attempt to produce beauty; instead, "it aims at truth divested of ornament or exaggeration" (Johnson).
Diverse populations often face conflicts because people are afraid of those who are different from them. Some writers have focused on this conflict as a central characteristic of American literature. In Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Toni Morrison argues that living in a racially divided society has had a huge and unacknowledged impact on American literature. She sees the "central characteristics of American literature--individualism, masculinity, the insistence upon innocence coupled to an obsession with figurations of death and hell--[as] responses to a dark and abiding Africanist presence" (Morrison).
Sheila Hones has a different perspective: she sees American Literature as a literature of "connectedness" rather than separation. "I like to teach Toshio Mori's Yokohama, California...When the narrator drops in to visit a woman he calls 'Mama,' he understands that even though she is uniquely the Mama of Yokohama, California, still there must be 'in every block of every city in America a woman who can be called Mama by her friends and the strangers meeting her' (23)." Hones says, "...American Literature as a whole--and not just one part of it--is characteristically to be found in the folded spaces of crossed oceans" (Hones).
Many of these disagreements arise from the fact that, at different times, and different places, and among different populations, there have been different experiences, perspectives, and goals. Given the diverse origins of the United States, that's inevitable. As George and Barbara Perkins write in The American Tradition in Literature,
Virginia began with Anglican settlers who within a dozen years acquired their first African slaves from Dutch traders. The Plymouth Pilgrims were separatists from the Church of England, but the Massachussetts Bay Puritans who arrived ten years later wanted only to purify the English church, not separate themselves from it. In Maryland, Catholics mingled with Protestants. New York was first settled by the Dutch, Florida by the Spanish, Canada by the French. Rhode Island built on the religious freedom claimed by Roger Williams. Pennsylvania was established by William Penn as a haven of Quaker tolerance. The Carolinas were settled by the English, Scots, French Huguenots, and Barbadians--the latter, English colonists who had established a thriving black slave economy on the uninhabited island of Barbados after 1627 and gave impetus to a similar economy in the Carolinas from the 1700s on. Georgia, especially, is often remembered as a primary destination of English convicts, until the American Revolution forced the British to shift much of their penal transportation to Australia, but the English also sent felons and debtors from England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland to all the other colonies, beginning with Virginia in 1618. In the sixty years immediately before the Revolution, some four thousand men and women of this kind arrived to work out their seven to fourteen years of servitude. By the eighteenth century, the Middle Colonies, especially, had become home to Jews from Germany and Portugal, and by 1776 a number of Italian and Swiss colonists could also call themselves Americans.
With people of so many different origins, who had so many different reasons for immigrating to the colonies, it's not surprising that diversity is really the only common characteristic of American Literature. There are, however, a few themes which recur frequently.
The Puritans wrote in their journals about their fear of evil. To them, Satan was very real, and he could lurk in the bodies of Indians or witches, or in the forest. He could even worm his way into their hearts if they didn't constantly guard against him. Their distrust of outsiders, of those who were "different," can be found, in different form, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby and much of the literature written by recent immigrants. So can their courage and their adventurousness, which comes across loud and clear in their sermons, speeches, and journals. The Puritans set out on a perilous journey into the unknown, and had the persistence to survive and thrive in a hostile environment. Much of American literature is about characters who have the same qualities: Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, Ishmael in Moby Dick, Prior in Angels in America. So on the one hand, the unknown is dangerous, and on the other hand, it calls to one.
The same ambiguity is evident in attitudes toward Nature. The Puritans saw the forest as the place where one was most likely to encounter evil and danger. It also provided resources they desperately needed. Later, the Transcendentalists romanticized Nature, believing that it reflected God. Thoreau even left his home in town and lived at Walden Pond, to get closer to Nature and thus to God. But it was awfully lonely out there, and he frequently made trips to town to get some human company. Nature is beautiful, bountiful, deadly, and inhuman, and that conflict appears over and over again in American Literature.
Another theme which arises is the conflict between the individualism we so extol as a virtue in America, and the need to work together as a community, socially, politically, and economically. The conflict between one's individual needs and the pressures of society are not unique to American Literature, of course, but the inherent contradiction of democracy--which recognizes the individual's basic civil rights as more important than the needs of the community, and on the other hand rewards us for being part of the majority--makes the theme especially interesting to many Americans. It is a central theme of many American classics: Cooper's Leatherstocking series, Emerson's "Self Reliance," Huck Finn, Daisy Miller, and many others.
A related theme is the pressure to choose between competing social, political, and moral systems. As a country of immigrants, we are presented with numerous alternatives, and the conflict between tradition and the new is a subject of countless stories and novels--as is the conflict between two cultures' ways of doing things. The Puritans defended themselves against religious Dissenters and Quakers; the explorers and pioneers imposed their ways of doing things on those they met, but they also learned to adapt to the ways of those they met, for survival and profit; and the Founding Fathers took philosophy and political theory from many sources to create their new government.
All of this adaptation creates a climate of change. People are uncomfortable with change, and yet they are attracted to it. This, too, is a recurring theme in American Literature. Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter chafes against the traditions and the penalty they require, but submits to them; Rip Van Winkle manages to sleep through his country's greatest changes and to remain unchanged by them; Harriet Jacobs, Olaudah Equiano, and Frederick Douglass are willing to risk everything to achieve change.
As you'll see, these are just a few of the ideas, themes, and issues that arise in American Literature. As we read through the material of the class, you'll notice many more. Feel free to discuss them on the Message Boards as we go along.
Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.
2. Seiferth, Michael S. American Literature Lectures, Part 1.
3. Johnson, Charles Frederick. Outline History of English and American Literature.
4. Hones, Sheila. "Reading a Foreign Place: Geography and American Literature," in Crossing Oceans: Reconfiguring American Literary Studies in the Pacific Rim. Eds. Noella Brada-Williams and Karen Chow.
5. Eds. Edmund Clarence Stedman, et al. A Library of American Literature from the Earliest Settlement to the Present.
6. Eds. George and Barbara Perkins. The American Tradition in Literature.
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