Susan Scott Parrish
The Importance of Feeling English: American Literature and the British Diaspora, 1750-1850by Leonard Tennenhouse
"This book challenges the very notion of 'American Literature'what it is and how we date itby daring not to assume 'that different national governments mean different national literatures.' It does so from a transatlantic perspective that, in Tennenhouse's hands, achieves a new maturity and power. In reconceiving American literature, The Importance
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"This book challenges the very notion of 'American Literature'what it is and how we date itby daring not to assume 'that different national governments mean different national literatures.' It does so from a transatlantic perspective that, in Tennenhouse's hands, achieves a new maturity and power. In reconceiving American literature, The Importance of Feeling English also points the way to a new understanding of British literary history."Clifford Siskin, New York University
"This book advances a bold and compelling new paradigm for understanding early American literature. Tennenhouse unsettles the long-standing premise that literature and culture are best understood within the framework of the nation; in so doing, he offers a fundamentally novel and revealing new account of early American literature."Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, Yale University
Susan Scott Parrish
John D. Baird
"In revisiting the landscape of early American literature, The Importance of Feeling English radically revises its features. Tennenhouse focuses on the concept of transatlantic circulation and shows how some of the first American authors applied their perspective to existing British literary models."Times Higher Education
"This important book has implications for a far wider account of cultural exchange than Tennenhouse himself focuses on here. . . . The Importance of Feeling English encourages additional consideration about the relationships among diasporic cultures, including Spanish and African, in frontiers far away from the Northeast, which might be more sensitive to spatial and regional differences in an expanding United States."Spencer Snow, Common-place
"[T]here can be no doubt that Tennenhouse is correct in insisting that the American Revolution did not produce a clean break in some Americans' Anglophilia and that he offers an interesting and provocative account of American literary origins that are bound to generate further discussion."Ralph Bauer, American Literary History
"[T]he true genius of this book lies in its careful and elegantly parsed readings of generic shifts and accommodations."Susan Scott Parrish, Eighteenth Century Studies
"The Importance of Feeling English asks important questions not only about the literature of the early United States but also about the pliability of diaspora theory. . . . Tennenhouse's book offers an important rethinking of American literary history that opens new avenues of inquiry and enables us to see the early republic with new eyes. It fundamentally shifts the ground of the conversation in ways that will almost certainly lead to the emergence of new models for thinking about both the movements of peoples through space and time and the specific case of the United States."Edward Larkin, Diaspora
"What is greatly satisfying about The Importance of Feeling English is that it is a book that knows what it wants to do, and does it with uncommon adroitness; it articulates its goals clearly and briskly and then carries out its agenda with dispatch."Christopher Looby, Early American Literature
"[T]he importance of becoming English can scarcely be overestimated, and The Importance of Feeling English gives us a conceptual model for understanding and estimating that importance accurately."Christopher Looby, Early American Literature
"Tennenhouse's book makes an important contribution to expanding the circumference of the subject."Paul Giles, Modern Philology
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Read an ExcerptThe Importance of Feeling English American Literature and the British Diaspora, 1750-1850
By Leonard Tennenhouse Princeton University Press
Copyright © 2007 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One DIASPORA AND EMPIRE
AT THE RISK of stating the obvious, let me begin by asserting that any discussion of American literature will at some point have to address the questions of how soon and in what respects British Americans began to think of themselves as American rather than British. Instead of assuming that different national governments mean different national literatures, I come to this problem from the contrary perspective: that the separation of American from British literatures is still at issue and was therefore nothing like the clean break that we tend to project backward onto the late eighteenth century. I plan to look at a wide body of Anglophone literature from the late seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries for the purpose of discovering when it began to divide internally into recognizable British and American traditions. With this material, I move back and forth across the Atlantic, explaining how the American tradition defined itself in an ongoing and yet changing relation to the British. In this respect, my project participates in the growing body of scholarship concerned with transatlantic literary relations.
My argument begins with the proposition that during the period from 1750-1850 American authorsand readers were more interested in producing and consuming English literature than in creating, to borrow Elaine Showalter's phrase, "a literature of their own." The literary evidence indeed suggests that during this period, most writers and readers in America considered themselves to be members of the generic English culture that we generally mean by "British culture," and they thought of their literature as products of such a culture. But this hardly means that anything written before political independence was British. Nor can we assume that a drive for cultural autonomy must have accompanied political independence. Such a view regards American literature as a coherent body of writing whose colonial-era production sounded themes that resonated with the writers of the American Renaissance. Hence the continuous search within a field constituted solely by American texts to find "profound continuities between early American literary expression and the classic literature of the United States in the mid-nineteenth century." An alternative view argued most forcefully by William Spengemann claims that literary history should not be confused with the history of the national culture. Writing in the English language, particularly when writers in British America lacked political autonomy, should in his view be read as British since it is of a piece with other British writings. To my way of thinking, both views are only half true.
During the period leading up to the Revolutionary War, British America was indeed composed of British colonies. On the other hand, most colonists from the British Isles were all too aware of the fact that they no longer lived there. Even though, and perhaps because, they had to do so under conditions that differed sharply from those that fostered literature back in England, from captivity narratives through the earliest sentimental fiction produced on this side of the Atlantic, colonial authors generally wanted to write as Englishmen. In the face of the French threat during the Seven Years War, they indeed felt especially inspired to reaffirm their British identification. Benjamin Franklin confessed to Lord Kames in 1760 that "no one can rejoice more sincerely than I do, on the Reduction of Canada; and this not merely as I am a Colonist, but as I am a Briton." In 1765 John Adams felt the need to ask, "Is there not something extremely fallacious in the common-place images of mother country and children colonies? Are we the children of Great Britain any more than the cities of London, Exeter, and Bath? Are we not brethren and fellow subjects with those in Britain, only under a somewhat different method of legislation, and a totally different method of taxation?" For a colonist in America to declare himself a Briton was evidently to make a reasonable claim to national identity. Although they were called "Americans," that term did not in any way cancel out the more fundamental British identity that tied them to their nation of origin. Indeed, until the decade of the Revolution, each colony observed separate lines of economic and cultural ties to the metropolitan center. As a result, Michael Zuckerman notes, "Americans were still very far from being a people bonded by a shared sense of purpose and identity." What self-awareness we see is that of people who, he contends, have "come to think of themselves as Pennsylvanians or Virginians rather than as Americans."
After the War of Independence, there is every reason to believe that citizens of the new United States knew-and felt keenly-that they were no longer subjects of Great Britain. But it does not necessarily follow from this that the colonists renounced their British identity in other respects simply because they rejected British government. Political separation did not in fact cancel out the importance of one's having come to America from Great Britain. Indeed, the literary evidence indicates that the newly liberated colonists became if anything more intent on keeping the new homeland as much as possible like the old one in terms of its language, literature, and any number of cultural practices. To the degree that it subjected Englishness to circumstances that could not be imagined back in England, literature written by, for, or about British America was never really British. But to the degree that those who authored and read such literature not only tried to maintain an English cultural identity but also sought to put the stamp of Englishness on the new nation, neither can that literature be called American in any pure and simple way. I take issue, in other words, with the critical practice that for a hundred years has used
J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur's "What is an American" (Letter III, Letters From an American Farmer) as the delineation of a new national culture. Despite the many helpful insights to be gained from recent attempts to compare the literature of the new republic to modern postcolonial literature written in South Asian, Caribbean, or African countries, there was no oppressed or colonized English-language culture of British North America waiting to emerge as soon as decolonization began. Literature produced under the conditions I am describing requires an explanatory model that acknowledges a perplexed but continuing relationship between nation-state and national culture. With some important adjustments, I propose, the cultural logic of diaspora offers such a model.
A Culturalist View of Diaspora
It is common to think of diasporic communities as made up of a homogeneous people who have fled war, hunger, religious persecution, or economic hardships in the mother country and so exist as distinct minorities in an adopted homeland. For many years, the term diaspora was applied to four great dispersions of this kind: Jewish, Greek, Armenian, and African. Recently, as many as eighty other groups have either taken on the term to describe their status or have been classified as a diaspora by social scientists. In addition to the dispersion itself, members of a diaspora share some collective memory of the motherland as the diasporic group is scattered across more than one geographical location. This memory affords the motive and basis for maintaining a relationship to the nation of origin, and its consciousness of that relationship becomes central to the identity of the diasporic group. We might think of Franklin's claim that he is a Briton as an example of just this kind of identification. There are several other points on which most scholars of diaspora agree: despite their various dislocations, members of a diaspora maintain cultural ties to their nation of origin and believe someday they will return there. Members of one diasporic group may also maintain ties to other such groups, provided they share the same attachment to their nation of origin. When this double tie breaks down, we can say that the group ceases to be a diaspora and becomes a subculture of the host nation.
The prevailing critical tendency, as I see it, has been to understand diaspora as something on the order of a refusal to assimilate that preserves the ways of the mother country in defiance of the host culture. I want to extend the concept to the situation in British North America, where the culture of one diasporic group-namely the British-assumed hegemony over several others. We have every reason to think that many of the British men and women in North America held onto the idea that they could return to Great Britain. At the very least, they imagined that they were sufficiently English to fit in among their kinsmen back in England. Certainly throughout the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the pattern of immigration and emigration had its ebbs and flows. As political conditions changed, some immigrants to New England did in fact return home-as happened, most notably, during King Philip's War. In other cases, sermons and writings imagined New England as a haven for the reformers of the church who would return to England either in person or as an example to continue the reformation of the church in England. Cotton Mather predicted as much, when he compared "the English Christians" cast in "the Dark Regions of America" to "the Light, which from the midst of this Outer Darkeness, is now to be Darted over unto the other side of the Atlantick Ocean." Even those destined never to return to England, many of whom wrote in America, first published their sermons and their poetry in England and for an English readership. As Michael Warner observes, "Virtually every colonial writer looks both homeward to the seat of imperial culture and outward to the localities that would remain for them subordinate." The other side of the same cultural coin was the colonists' fear of going native in the wilderness of America and so losing the cultural alternatives that made one recognizably English. The possibility of permanent separation from the English community is especially evident in captivity narratives that portray death as far preferable to either assimilating to Indian ways or undergoing conversion to Catholicism should the captive be turned over to the French.
It may seem a stretch to equate colonial Americans with such classic diasporic groups as Jews or Armenians, not to mention Africans violently ripped from their natal lands and shipped to the Americas in chains. It is more common to assume that once the colonists achieved political and economic independence from England, they became a nation in their own right and were no longer concerned with returning to the nation of their origin. Were I actually committed to the classic definition of "diaspora," I would have to agree that the term does not apply to British Americans. To understand how the cultural logic of diaspora might indeed hold true for the colonists in America, especially in the years leading up to and immediately following the War for Independence, one must develop a somewhat looser concept. This second notion of "diaspora" neither depends on the dispersed group's direct memory of a single place of origin nor does it require members to remain intent on returning there. Quite the contrary, in order for this second model of diaspora to prove useful, the homeland has to disappear as a geopolitical site to which the diasporic group can entertain the possibility of actually returning.
There are several reasons why a site of national origin might vanish. It could be displaced several times over by the migrations of the dispersed groups. As the Jews were removed from ancient Israel to Babylon, Assyria, then Persia, the Roman Empire, and, later, to the Abbasid and Ottoman Empires, they developed centers of learning dedicated to remembering the homeland. Jonathan and Daniel Boyarim remind us that the place remembered as Zion underwent significant revision as it was reimagined and reproduced through ritual practices over time and in different places throughout the world. The same principle holds true, even more so perhaps, for the African diaspora. Dispersed by the international commerce in slaves during the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, Africans had little opportunity to develop commemorative institutions over four centuries and a series of removals. With successive generations, the memory of Africa was displaced by cultural practices designed perhaps at first to commemorate the place of origin but soon enough to recall subsequent displacements-Brazil, the Caribbean, the rural American South, northern urban ghettoes, and so forth.
As the actual memory of the motherland undergoes successive displacements, the members of the diaspora pursue a narrative trajectory that is less a departure and return and more of an extended detour. That is to say, the members of the diaspora move farther from the homeland with each attempt to return or recapture it. Moreover no two branches of a given diaspora undergo precisely the same sequence of displacements or detours; each hangs onto some features of the mother culture and abandons others as these features succeed or fail to accommodate to the new cultural milieu. Over the course of time, the various acts of commemoration that make each group cohere and give it a distinctive identity within a host culture produce a purely imaginary construct that replaces the sense of home grounded on experience and perpetuated by actual memory. In many instances the place of origin no longer exists as a geopolitical reality. Thus, for example, the notion of Zion serves as a kind of placeholder for the original homeland for many Jews with quite different points of origins. So, too, a generic pan-Africa represents the place of origin for many African Americans.
Let us assume there is an implicit cultural limit to the centrifugal dynamic whereby a diasporic culture develops internal differences through the process of dispersal. If the diaspora is going to maintain its foreignness rather than turn into one of so many subcultures within a host nation, horizontal affiliations must develop among its various branches; this happens as together various groups exchange commemorative practices and generalize the homeland, performing acts of community held in common by all Jews or Africans, even at the expense of local practices that serve as relics of actual memory. As various groups of a particular diaspora produce such a purely cultural common ground, a kind of centripetal cultural force begins to counter their geopolitical dispersal. The centripetal force, I must hasten to add, pulls the dispersed groups not back to the place of origin but toward an imagined cultural source that has in fact displaced that origin. This centripetal force is generated by the production of a generic homeland and results in a new sense of collectivity. In The Black Atlantic, Paul Gilroy develops a model along precisely these lines to explain how "Africa" became an imaginary homeland for many groups belonging to the African diaspora. His model offers what I regard as the best way to date to understand most modern diasporas, because it bases a group's ability to maintain a semblance of autonomy and collective identity over time on its cultural practices, not on its ability to trace its genealogy back to some point of origin.
Excerpted from The Importance of Feeling English by Leonard Tennenhouse
Copyright © 2007 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, Yale University
Clifford Siskin, New York University
Meet the Author
Leonard Tennenhouse is professor of English, comparative literature, and modern culture and media at Brown University. He is the author of Power on Display: The Politics of Shakespeare's Genres.
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