American Jeremiad

The generation of American writers that came of age around 1840—the men and women who initiated what we now think of as a national literature—aspired more to youthful vigor than to the “classic” status of ancient Greece and Rome, so dear to the generation of the Founding Fathers. A sense of expanding frontiers, buttressed by expansive ideas borrowed from European Romanticism, impelled them. They wrote enthusiastically of “Young America,” spelled nature with a capital “N” (and sometimes without an “e,” like some pagan divinity unleashed from the Black Forest), and refused to be, in Emerson’s pejorative word, “retrospective.”

The American Scholar,” Emerson’s Phi Beta Kappa address to Thoreau’s graduating class at Harvard College during the summer of 1837, is full of appeals to youth:

Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote these books.

The classics of Greece and Rome, the great books of Great Britain, were merely “the sere remains of foreign harvests.” Thoreau took the lesson to heart. “I have lived some thirty years on this planet,” he wrote in Walden, “and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors.” The hemlocks surrounding Walden Pond better represent these writers’ aspirations than the faux-Roman columns and obelisks on the Mall in Washington.

With regard to which of their own books might survive, becoming classics in their turn, nineteenth-century American critics were youthfully confident and, in our view, often wrong. Who now reads those bosky American epics “Evangeline” or “The Song of Hiawatha” except for laughs? Aside from The Scarlet Letter, recognized then and now as a masterpiece though for shifting reasons, it is remarkable that some of the books we treasure most survived oblivion. Walden and Moby-Dick were commercial failures, all but ending their authors’ careers. Emerson backed off from his initial enthusiasm for Leaves of Grass (“I should have enlarged the but,” he remarked, when he learned that Whitman had published his private letter of congratulation in the New York Tribune); Emily Dickinson, with pride or prudence, said she had not read Whitman but was “told that he was disgraceful.” Dickinson herself stowed her nearly two thousand poems, of which a mere eleven were published in her lifetime, in a drawer and instructed her sister to burn her papers at her death. Such messages entrusted to bottles eventually floated to shore, to join our confident (and probably wrong) judgments about our own contemporaries.

It is striking that so many of the nineteenth-century American works we now consider unquestionably important—including four of the five books (Walden, Leaves of Grass, The Scarlet Letter, and Moby-Dick) identified by Denis Donoghue as “the American classics”—were published during a scant five years, from 1850 to 1855. Other remarkable books, such as The House of the Seven …

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