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Outlines of English and American Literature
by Long, William J.

The early part of the nineteenth century (sometimes called the First National period of American letters) was a time of unusual enthusiasm. The country had recently won its independence and taken its place among the free nations of the world; it had emerged triumphant from a period of doubt and struggle over the Constitution and the Union; it was increasing with amazing rapidity in territory, in population and in the wealth which followed a successful commerce; its people were united as never before by noble pride in the past and by a great hope for the future. It is not surprising, therefore, that our first really national literature (that is, a literature which was read by practically the whole country, and which represented America to foreign nations) should appear in this expansive age as an expression of the national enthusiasm.

Chief Writers

The four chief writers of the period are: Irving, the pleasant essayist, story-teller and historian; Bryant, the poet of primeval nature; Cooper, the novelist, who was the first American author to win world-wide fame; and Poe, the most cunning craftsman among our early writers, who wrote a few melodious poems and many tales of mystery or horror. Some critics would include also among the major writers William Gilmore Simms (sometimes called "the Cooper of the South"), author of many adventurous romances dealing with pioneer life and with Colonial and Revolutionary history.

The numerous minor writers of the age are commonly grouped in local schools. The Knickerbocker school, of New York, includes the poets Halleck and Drake, the novelist Paulding, and one writer of miscellaneous prose and verse, Nathaniel P. Willis, who was for a time more popular than any other American writer save Cooper. In the southern school (led by Poe and Simms) were Wilde, Kennedy and William Wirt. The West was represented by Timothy Flint and James Hall. In New England were the poets Percival and Maria Brooks, the novelists Sarah Morton and Catherine Sedgwick, and the historians Sparks and Bancroft. The writers we have named are merely typical; there were literally hundreds of others who were more or less widely known in the middle of the last century.

Foreign Influence

The first common characteristic of these writers was their patriotic enthusiasm; the second was their romantic spirit. The romantic movement in English poetry was well under way at this time, and practically all our writers were involved in it. They were strongly influenced, moreover, by English writers of the period or by settled English literary traditions. Thus, Irving modeled his style closely on that of Addison; the early poetry of Bryant shows the influence of Wordsworth; the weird tales of Poe and his critical essays were both alike influenced by Coleridge; and the quickening influence of Scott appears plainly in the romances of Cooper. The minor writers were even more subject to foreign influences, especially to German and English romanticism. There was, however, a sturdy independence in the work of most of these writers which stamps it as original and unmistakably American. The nature poetry of Bryant with its rugged strength and simplicity, the old Dutch legends and stories of Irving, the pioneer romances of Cooper and Simms, the effective short stories of Poe,--these have hardly a counterpart in foreign writings of the period. They are the first striking expressions of the new American spirit in literature.

Selections for Reading

Irving's Sketch Book, in Standard English Classics and various other school editions (see "Texts" in General Bibliography); The Alhambra, in Ginn and Company's Classics for Children; parts of Bracebridge Hall, in Riverside Literature; Conquest of Granada and other works, in Everyman's Library.

Selections from Bryant, in Riverside Literature and Pocket Classics.

Cooper's Last of the Mohicans, in Standard English Classics and other school editions; the five Leatherstocking tales, in Everyman's Library; The Spy, in Riverside Literature.

Selections from Poe, prose and verse, in Standard English Classics, Silver Classics, Johnson's English Classics, Lake English Classics.

Simms's The Yemassee, in Johnson's English Classics. Typical selections from minor authors of the period, in Readings from American Literature and other anthologies (see "Selections" in General Bibliography).


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