Consider Irving Babbitt, who specialized at Harvard not in American but in French literature, and who became a public commentator on issues of the day by waging war in general-circulation magazines against what he considered the American tendency toward vulgarity and self-indulgence. James had told the tale as the story of Hawthorne liberating himself from the suppressive weight of his ancestors, but Babbitt tells it as a moral descent from self-knowledge into self-deception, as exemplified by Mencken: If the Protestant Church is at present threatened with bankruptcy, it is not because it has produced an occasional Elmer Gantry. Today, though some professors of American literature still feel outnumbered and even beleaguered, the field is populous.
In Boyesen’s slight book of 1893, , for example, he approved such now-forgotten writers as Edgar Fawcett and H. Bunner for portraying “the physiognomy of New York – the Bowery, Great Jones Street, and all the labyrinthine tangle of malodorous streets and lanes, inhabited by the tribes of Israel, the swarthy Italian, the wily Chinaman, and all the other alien hordes from all the corners of the earth.” Novelist-critics like Boyesen and James Gibbons Huneker (1860–1921), an advocate of impressionism in painting and music, were among many who tried, with a mixture of anxiety and approval, to come to terms with the impact of modernity on American life.
Their critical writing, like their fiction, was more descriptive than prescriptive, more inquiring than inquisitorial – and therefore incipiently modern.
It has failed above all to carry over in some modern and critical form the truth of a dogma that unfortunately received much support from these facts – the dogma of original sin. It is an unfortunate word for various reasons, not least because it obscures the fact that for many years after their subject achieved academic acceptance, Americanists were among the least professionalized of professors.
Especially at a time when English departments still devoted themselves mostly to philological research and to the recovery of reliable texts, the field of American literary studies was something of a misfit.
It attracted students with current political and cultural problems much on their minds and scholars who seemed unable to rid themselves of what detractors regarded as chronic presentism.
For example, the immensely influential (1927–1930), by V. Parrington, an English professor at the University of Washington, was an effort, as tendentious as it was ambitious, to trace the genealogy of democratic populism all the way back to dissident Puritans.Perhaps the only disinterested critic still worth reading from this period is John Jay Chapman (1862–1933), whose work belongs to the genre of the moral essay in the tradition of Hazlitt and Arnold.But even such minor novelists as the Norwegian-born H. Boyesen (1848–1895) contributed occasional criticism that helped to enlarge the literary horizon.As a more miscellaneous blend of students began passing through the universities, these gentlemen hoped that the study of American literature could be a means of sweetening and enlightening them before they presented themselves for positions of power no longer reserved exclusively for the Brahmins. Yet the Harvard English department, which preserves in its name, “Department of English and American Literature and Language,” a trace of its origins in philological studies, did not add the phrase ‘and American’ until the 1970s.Some professors went further, claiming for themselves the moral authority once reserved for the clergy. Mencken, with a nod to Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt writes his own version of how Americans had fallen away from the moral realism of their forebears. My own department at Columbia, the “Department of English and Comparative Literature,” to this day does not include in its official name the term ‘American’ – and, as far as I know, has no plans to add it.While a professor at the University of Michigan, he wrote the first serious history of colonial American writing, (1878), based on close study of virtually all published primary texts.In 1881, Tyler moved to Cornell, where he assumed the first university chair devoted wholly to American literature and produced his (1897).Once its legitimacy had been established, though, professors of American literature settled into defending the virtues of the (mainly New England) ancients against what Boyesen had called the “alien hordes.” In his (1900), Barrett Wendell, of Harvard, devoted virtually all of its first 450 pages to New England writers, followed by a closing chapter entitled “The Rest of the Story.” In a preface to his new anthology of American literature (1901), Brander Matthews, Columbia’s specialist in dramatic literature, followed Johann Gottfried Herder and Hipployte Taine in insisting that a national literature must be understood as the expression of the “race-characteristics” of the people who produce it. [as he] conceived of himself as a sort of morose and sardonic divinity surveying from some superior altitude an immeasurable expanse of “boobs.” Yet even as it served social ends, the study of American literature remained a secondary or even tertiary (after classics and English) part of the program for making boys into gentlemen.Writing nearly ten years after the death of Walt Whitman, Matthews confidently declared that the United States had “not yet produced any poet even of the second rank.” With the consent of such figures as Wendell at Harvard and Matthews at Columbia, the subject of American literature became an instrument by which the sons of the Anglo-Saxon ‘race’ could get better acquainted with their heritage and, presumably, protect it from the interloping hordes who were threatening to debase it. The Christian is conscious above all of the “old Adam” in himself: hence his humility. Mencken’s writing, on the other hand, is to produce pride rather than humility . To read through the first scholarly history, (1917) – a book more encyclopedic than discriminating – is to be reminded, as Richard Poirier has remarked, that into the third decade of the twentieth century, American literature “was still up for grabs.” As classics departments continued to shrink and English departments to grow, even books by the New England worthies were still treated with condescension.Andrew Delbanco, Julian Clarence Levi Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University, has been a Fellow of the American Academy since 2001.He has written extensively on American history and culture, including books such as Some fifty years after the political establishment of the United States, the concept of an American literature barely existed – an absence acknowledged with satisfaction in Sydney Smith’s famous question posed in 1820 in the : “Who in the four corners of the globe reads an American book? Another twenty years would pass before this question was seriously reopened, along with the more fundamental question that lay behind it: whether a provincial democracy that had inherited its language and institutions from the motherland did or should have a literature of its own.