The “Literary Delinquency” Debate in Nineteenth-Century America


SMITH Jeffrey Alan

Year of publication 2021
Type Appeared in Conference without Proceedings
MU Faculty or unit

Faculty of Arts

Description From the 1770s to the 1870s, American men and women of letters spent literally a century struggling with a question most famously (and tauntingly) put by a British critic in 1819: "In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book? or goes to an American play?" Numerous Americans themselves conceded America's "literary delinquency," agreed that "literature has no career in America" and that the US was a place "Where Fancy sickens, and where Genius dies." The very first meeting of the discussion group that became the Transcendentalist movement was devoted to the seeming failures of "American Genius," and for decades the issue preoccupied writers and critics both obscure and famous -- including William Ellery Channing, James Fenimore Cooper, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Herman Melville and Walt Whitman -- as well as prominent foreign observers like Alexis de Tocqueville and Harriet Martineau. This presentation takes a close look at this long debate to identify its different phases, arguments and counter-arguments, noting various theories of the ambitious young nation's supposed cultural backwardness and of how, or whether, it would finally be overcome.
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