What Makes American Literature American

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What makes american literature american

What makes American Literature American?


The period following the 1860s in America was one of conspicuous wealth and excess that has come to be known as the "Gilded Age". Immediately following the horrors of civil war, this was a time of renewed national confidence and social reconstruction, of world fairs and industrial innovation, of the growth of international travel and the leisure class. In fact, these were also the formative years of the transatlantic tourist industry, when genteel Bostonian families like the Jameses, the Lowells, the Holmeses, and the Adamses, would enjoy grand, leisurely tours of London, Paris, and Rome, Baedeker guides in hand. The complex interaction of American “innocents abroad” (like The Gilded Age, the title of a novel by Mark Twain ) with the longer-established societies and cultures they found in Europe became one of the defining features of American literature in the later nineteenth century.

What makes American Literature American?

One writer in particular bequeathed to the next generation a distinctively “transatlantic” form of fiction developed in response to his own anxious expatriate status. In novels like Daisy Miller (1878), The Portrait of a Lady (1881), The Ambassadors (1901), and The Wings of the Dove (1902), Henry James repeatedly explored the opposition of European and American values. Early on, his characters and plots tended to dramatise the conventional contrast between European experience and American innocence. Towards the end of his life, however, the author began to question this simple opposition, and replaced it with a much more nuanced play of perception and point-of-view. Although James ultimately resented being seen as an “American abroad” (he became a British citizen in 1915), his exile's perspective helped pare away the commonplaces and illusions of this first truly transatlantic era.

Some of these themes and tensions emerge from a letter—one of many in the Library's extensive holdings of James's correspondence and manuscripts—in which the novelist procrastinates to Frederick Macmillan, his future publisher, about the delay on a promised, but never-completed, volume entitled London Town:

Then came the immense distraction of my going to America—which raised an immense barrier, that of a different, an opposite association and interest; and from which I returned saddled, inevitably, with too portentous complications.

Henry James, to Frederick Macmillan, 5 April 1908; BL Ms. Add. 54931

One of these “complications” was to be his “publication of an elaborately revised and retouched and embellished and copiously prefaced and introduced Collected Edition of my productions”. The so-called 'New York Edition', was eventually published in 24 volumes on both sides of the Atlantic by Macmillan in 1907-1909. The British Library holds a full set of the New York Edition (012705.d.31), together with more than 130 letters between the author and his publisher in the extensive Macmillan Archive (Add. 54931), discussing arrangements for the publication of his work".

Another expatriate, Ezra Pound, perhaps came closest to the truth of James's enduring power and influence. In a memorial volume published after “The Master's” death, Pound paid tribute to James's “great labour… ...
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