[on American Literature]

September 24th, 1943

Professor Oscar Halecki, Director
Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences in America
37 East 36th Street
New York, N.Y.

Dear Professor Halecki:

I send you a running summary of my remarks at the Institute, as well as I can remember them.  I think it might be advisable to run a prefatory note saying that it is a summary and that all explanatory and illustrative material has necessarily been left out of it.  I hope that in its present form it will not be too discouraging.

Sincerely yours,

Bernard  DeVoto


Until toward the end of the 19th century American history is primarily the story of the differentiation of an American way of life from the various strains of European culture and the development of a native culture in terms of the environment of the new world.  From the earliest plantations the Impact of that environment on Europeans had been making them over, altering their consciousness and changing both their experience and the interpretations that they put on experience.  The American Revolution was the political expression of a fact already achieved, the establishment on the American continent of a new nation.

In some degree the history of American literature is also the story of a differentiation, the establishment of a national consciousness and the achievement of an existence independent of European literature.  The two histories do not, however, coincide.

During the first century of the English colonies there was little artistic expression of any kind.  Only in the tidewater society of the South and in the small provincial capitals of Philadelphia, New York and Boston was there sufficient wealth to afford anyone reprieve from the struggle for existence in the wilderness and permit the cultivation of the arts.  The educated classes thought of themselves as Englishmen and insofar as they read or tried to write literature, they conformed to the fashions and traditions of the mother country.  Such slight literary expression as exists is frankly imitative, and not only that, but imitative of modes and manners already obsolescent or even obsolete in Great Britain.  This specific kind of lag, the reproduction in America of literary fashions already waning In England, has been a recurrent phenomenon of American literature almost down to the present era.  Apart from this sparse and feeble dilettante literature, there was no belles lettres at all.  The characteristic literary expression of the period is to be found In theological exegesis and controversy, sermons, and hymns.

Nevertheless there was going on a sub-literary activity out of which were eventually to come the earliest beginnings of a native literature.  At the level of folk art, legends, tales, proverbs and the common experiences of common people in the wilderness were creating an oral literature.  In part this literature represented an adaptation of the immemorial folk literature transported from Europe.  In part it recorded and expressed experiences of the new world.  It first found print perhaps in disregarded broadsides and almanacs, or as unconscious interpolations in more polite literature, but its tales and ballads enormously enriched the nation’s consciousness and in due time would fertilize a finer literature.
The 18th  century was the second century of American experience.  During this century the nation grew to political consciousness and finally independence.  Polite literature remained provincial, a minor and usually antiquarian department of English literature.  The fashionable essayists and poets of twenty-five years earlier in London were the models accepted and usually accepted unthinkingly by the wits and. literati of the colonies.   One sees a still greater cultural lag than in the preceding century.  What was truly American was political literature.  As agitation and conflict sharpened, whole schools of political theorists arose to rationalize, explain, and implement the tremendous changes that were occurring. In the formal arguments of such men as Jefferson and Hamilton, the only less formal exegeses of such a man as Franklin, or the more nearly literary interpretations of such a man as Hector St. John Crèvecoeur, the experience of the differentiated American way of life finds a genuine expression.

The steady development and enrichment of folk literature continued. It is certainly true that the popular consciousness found native expression in music and even in painting before it did in literature. Nevertheless, by the middle of the 18th century there was something faintly recognizable as an American theater, if not an American drama, and there was abundant evidence of a humble popular literature almost ready for mature expression. One is aware of sharply characteristic rhythms and imagery in American speech, which in turn had already created a characteristic American humor, and it was through humor that the American consciousness was first to find expression in formal literature. Franklin writing essays on manners or education is almost altogether a late imitator of Addison. Franklin’s familiar correspondence, however, his Poor Richard aphorisms, and his rowdier editorials and addresses frequently employ rhythms and imagery and above all the characteristic turns of thought of the life immediately around him. They frequently rise to the level of a native expression of autochthonous experience. They tremble on the verge of an independent literature corresponding to the political independence agitated for in political literature and achieved in the Revolution.

It is certain that by Franklin’s time that independence had been achieved in speech, in oral literature and in folk literature. Franklin may not have said, “We must all hang together or we shall all hang separately,” but if he did not, then one of his contemporary Americans did say it. We are told that after Franklin became famous in Philadelphia it was remarked of him in New England that his keel had been laid in Nantucket but his mother had had to come to Boston to launch him. In either of those expressions one may discern an instinctive use of the language quite inconceivable in England. Crèvecoeur’s “this new man, this American” was speaking in a new way. It remained for literature to adopt that way of speaking.

For many decades the conflict in the American literary consciousness was between the native way of thought and the form and traditions of English literature. The conflict has never been wholly resolved, perhaps never can be, perhaps never ought to be. In the sense that western civilization is one and that all cultures have some international expression in common, American  literature is properly a phase, if an independent phase, of European literature. Nevertheless for generations the American writer was oppressed by a feeling of provinciality and a conviction  that he had to struggle with a lesser medium, inferior subject matter, at a great distance from the true sources and meeting places of literature. Emerson’s “The American Scholar” was a summons to writers to cease to feed a minor stream of a foreign culture, to cast off conventions, fashions and literary ideals not native to  them and to compose out of purely American experiences a purely American literature. At intervals throughout our literary history  it has been necessary to repeat Emerson’s challenge, and in fact one continuing and easily recognizable activity of American criticism has been the rewriting of “The American Scholar” in terms of the changing generations.  In the period since the First World War American literature has matured so widely and on so many levels, and has exercised of its own right so important an influence in world literature, that we may too easily forget the long labors and the innumerable and heart-breaking failures which American writers suffered on the way.

I have already alluded to the early development of an indigenous popular literature and pointed out that it was chiefly characterized by humor and even by vulgar humor. Struggling to be born in the United States was a literature of democracy corresponding to the democratic society which had already developed. Such a literature lagged far behind the society itself, and the lag was considerably increased by the provincialism of writers and their adherence to forms and traditions of English literature, many of which, as I have said, were already obsolete in England when they became fashionable here. In the first thirty or forty years of the 19th century one may frequently find the indigenous strain embedded in the lifelessness of primarily imitative polite literature. This indigenous strain, which is always the only part of the literature that seems to have any life today, is encountered in the humorous presentation of humble characters, usually bucolic and frequently backwoodsmen. A stiff and empty Gothic novel, for example, or an equally preposterous romantic drama will center about principal characters, heroes, heroines, and villains who are altogether lifeless and who are taken over from the conventions of second-rate English novels and plays.  Yet in that same novel or play there may be a shrewd countryman or a rambunctious frontiersman whose emotions, behavior and speech are unmistakably observed from the life. The small farming communities and the westward-making frontier thus came to have in American ltierature precisely the same function of democratization that they had in the development of American society.  This strain begins as humor but continues as realism, and if American literature as a whole has made any characteristic contribution to world literature it may be generalized as democratic realism.  It must be so generalized here,  since a detailed discussion of it would supply matter for an entire course of lectures.

An indigenous and truly national American literature first found mature expression in the 1840’s and 1850’s and was demonstrated by a group of New England writers of whom at least two, Emerson and Thoreau, have become the possession of international literature.  It is characteristic of our history that this literature represented something of a cultural lag, in that the dominance of New England was already waning and that the nation was expanding socially, politically and geographically far beyond its consciousness.  The United States of Emerson and Thoreau is the last stage of the society of the founding fathers, the society of a small republic whose centers of power were still east of the Allegheny Mountains, and for which the Atlantic was far less of a boundary than the great wastes of land to the westward.  Nevertheless, this is a mature and permanent literature, absolutely expressive of the way of life from which it arises, a purely American literature in terms of American life and therefore of equal citizenship in world literature.

The second great age of American literature began some ten years after the end of the Civil War and may be said to extend for a quarter of a century thereafter.  Its great names are those of such men as Mark Twain, Howells, Whitman and Henry James, although Whitman really represents the bridge between this and the earlier period.  I have elsewhere called this the literature of the American empire, as distinguished from the first republic represented by Emerson and Thoreau.  It is significant that none of the four men I have mentioned was a New Englander by birth but it may also be significant that three of them lived for a long time In New England.  The effective centers of power and of national vigor had crossed the Alleghenies, and there had grown up in the great valley of the Mississippi a new and vigorous phase of American culture, destined eventually to become the dominant phase.  The same lag that we have encountered earlier is encountered here in the fact that whereas this new phase of American life found its highest political embodiment in Lincoln, it had to wait many years for Its finest literary embodiment in the work of Mark Twain.  The same way of life shaped the minds of Lincoln and Mark Twain, yet it had been unable to get literary expression before Mark Twain.  It is, of course, a far more spacious and far less genteel America, as robust and as rude as the lines of Lincoln’s face, or the technique of a Mark Twain novel.  It is a continental America turned inward from the oceans rather than outward toward them, immensely less aware of Europe, and already tinged with a sorrow and pessimism foreign to Emerson and Thoreau and based on an instinctive realization of the boundaries and limits alike of democracy and progress, which the America of the earlier period had not known.  It is, however, an enormously vigorous prolongation and widening of the democratic realism which had produced them.

These two major periods before our own are distinct but nevertheless continuous.  Between them they defined the channel in which American literature has flowed ever since and seems likely to continue.  There has been a third principal period in American literature, the one in which we are now living.  Its achievements have been various and large.  If it has produced no single writer of unquestioned genius and comparable to the great names of either of the two preceding periods, it has nevertheless maintained a far higher average of excellence than either of the others.  The commonly accepted statement that American literature came of age with this period is flatly untrue, for it came of age nearly a century before with Emerson and Thoreau. But in the period following the first World War the labors of generations of American writers came into harvest. By that I mean that American writers achieved a higher stature in public estimation and the freedom to determine their literary conduct as a matter of course, a freedom for which their predecessors had had to fight. The literature of this period has been more various, more nervously alive, more concerned with the immediate experience of men than the average of any period of American literature before it. It has also been more immediately influential abroad. The product of a confused time, however, it has had far less unity and far less sense of being a proud continuance of an American tradition. That it has continued a proud tradition is evident in the fact that it also may be most justly generalized as a literature of democratic realism.