ABSTRACT

Transatlanticism, and particularly transatlantic approaches to American literature, is in itself a very old phenomenon. The so-called Fireside Poets in the nineteenth century – Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell and others – chose, because of their own genteel predisposition, to emphasize British dimensions of American culture, leading Walt Whitman in 1883 to complain: ‘Thus far, impress’d by New England writers and schoolmasters, we tacitly abandon ourselves to the notion that our United States have been fashion’d from the British Islands only, and essentially form a second England only – which is a very great mistake’.1 Whitman was taking issue here with the institutional culture of ‘anglophilia’ well described in Elisa Tamarkin’s book on this subject, a culture of deference centred primarily around Boston and Harvard that continued well into the modern era.2 This led to conflicts at the turn of the twentieth century between American modernists, who wanted to develop an autonomous conception of their national literature, and the anglophile traditionalists, who continued to regard the American strand as a relatively minor branch of literature in English. In his 1901 review of Barrett Wendell’s Literary History of America, William Dean Howells savaged the Harvard professor by saying Wendell’s book should more properly have been called ‘A Study of New England Authorship in its Rise and Decline, with Some Glances at American Literature’.3 Similarly, in his 1919 review of the first Cambridge History of American Literature, T.S. Eliot, himself a native not of New England but of the American Midwest, suggested the most important American writers were Poe, Whitman and Hawthorne, only one of whom (Hawthorne) was a New Englander. Consequently, claimed Eliot, a history merely of Puritan and Transcendental writing would be ‘a history not of American but of Boston literature’;4 like Whitman, Eliot wanted rather to emphasize the much broader range of the American cultural heritage.