Shakespeare and the American Nation

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Overview

This book documents America's relationship with Shakespeare. It relates how and why Shakespeare became a hero of American popular culture and its first media superstar. Why do so many Americans celebrate Shakespeare, a long-dead English poet and playwright? America had already chosen to reject the British monarchy and Parliament, class structure and traditions, by the nineteenth century. Yet its citizens still consider William Shakespeare a naturalized American hero. In fact, the largest group of visitors to Stratford-upon-Avon and Shakespeare's Globe Theatre on Bankside currently comes from America.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
'Kim C. Sturgess's book is a valuable account of one of the ingredients that permitted America to stand up as a unified nation. ... The demonstration carried out by Kim C. Sturgess is interesting and convincing.' Revve Francaise d'Etudes Americaines

'... the felicitous blend of in-depth research and colourful anecdotes makes for a book that is highly entertaining as well as informative.' Cercles

'This is a readable and stimulating volume ...' Literature and History

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521035767
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 5/31/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 248
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 8.98 (h) x 0.55 (d)

Meet the Author

Kim C. Sturgess has studied in America and is now Assistant Professor of English and American Literature at Qatar University.

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Read an Excerpt


Cambridge University Press
0521835852 - Shakespeare and the American Nation - by Kim C. Sturgess
Excerpt



Prologue


In 1996 the chairman of the US House Policy Committee, Congressman Christopher Cox, stated that 'English, our common language, provides a shared foundation which . . . allowed people from every corner of the world to come together to build the American nation.'1 More recently, James Crawford suggested that Californians could explain their support for Proposition 227 (dismantling the state's bilingual education programme) by saying, 'If you live in America, you need to speak English.'2 For some Americans there is 'a patriotic subtext: one flag, one language'.3

These opinions reflect one side of the growing public debate about multilingualism and the changing ethnic make-up of the population of the United States. There is in America today an 'English Only' movement that is campaigning to have an amendment added to the United States Constitution that would, for the first time, make English the national language. While this proposal has, to date, been defeated, at least twenty-six states have declared English their official language.

Few people, either inside or outside of US politics, can ignore the changing ethnic mix of the population of the United States. On 18 September 2000, Newsweek magazine reported that in at least four US states, most notably California, ethnically 'white' Americans were now a minority and the suggested trend means that by the end of this decade two more states will record similar census results.4

Former president Bill Clinton affirmed the 'right' to bilingualism in Executive Order 13166. Today, US federal law ensures that funds are available to support education in languages other than English and for the production of multilingual government publications. While many Americans welcome this potential for greater cultural diversity, others are not so sure. What appears to concern Christopher Cox is that 'national policies [might] undermine the important role of a common language of national understanding'.5 The fear is that English, the language of cultural conditioning for the United States, might become marginalised, and with it, any single unifying national culture be lost.

The concerns now expressed in the twenty-first century on the floor of Congress, in the media and on the Internet are not new in American history. What today some fear for the future was reality during the nineteenth century, with politicians and newspaper editors frequently expressing the very same anxiety about 'foreign' values and the dilution of what some regarded as American tradition. Then, just as today, census data revealed what many Americans had observed for themselves on the streets of New York, Cincinnati or San Francisco. In 1850 the 'decennial' US population census clearly showed the increasing number of 'foreign-born' Americans and that for the majority of US residents (if not all of them actually US citizens) English was not a 'mother tongue'.6 Members of the then American Establishment regarded the growing numbers of immigrants, together with their 'imported' language and culture, a threat to the American nation. Their response was to promote the identification and usage of cultural symbols and traditions thought to represent Anglo-American monoculture. The key component to this promotion of the monoculture of national unity was to be the English language. Appropriated to this political and cultural project was the most recognised and respected playwright in America, an Englishman, one William Shakespeare.

NOTES

1. Christopher Cox, 'Welcoming Immigrants to a Diverse America: English as Our Common Language of Mutual Understanding', .
2. James Crawford, 'A Nation Divided by One Language', Guardian, 8 March 2001.
3. Ibid.
4. Jon Meacham, 'The New Face of Race', Newsweek, 18 September 2000, pp. 38-48.
5. Cox, 'Welcoming Immigrants to a Diverse America'.
6. Campbell J. Gibson and Emily Lennon, 'Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-Born Population of the United States: 1850-1990', Population Division Working Paper no. 29, US Bureau of the Census. Based upon data found in Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970 (Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 1975).



Introduction


The works of William Shakespeare and the cultural phenomenon that has materialised around the playwright's name now appear to be nowhere more at home or unconsciously accepted than in the United States of America. As Shakespeare is considered the pre-eminent writer in the English language, for many people it has been easy to accept his reception in America without question. However, there is much to suggest that if citizens of the United States in the nineteenth century had followed the rhetoric of the original leaders of the Revolution, Americans might have been expected to reject Shakespeare as an unwanted English anachronism. After all, for most native-born Americans, the plays and poetry of Shakespeare were theoretically a product of a foreign culture. Shakespeare utilised seemingly archaic elaborate language to tell the story of pre-American, European class-based society and hereditary aristocracy.

The thirteen original states had been unified by their rejection of the 'old world'. In the words of writer Thomas Paine, independence was to mean 'England to Europe: America to itself'.1 The leaders of the colonists appeared to preach a doctrine of rebellion against 'old world' politics and values. The traditional European social hierarchy, a key component in many of Shakespeare's plays, was seen as a manifestation of tyranny, and the leaders of the colonists, now proclaiming themselves Americans, united their people behind the twin slogans of Freedom and Equality. America was an idea conceived in binary opposition to the dominant monarchist British culture of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and, as Michael D. Bristol has suggested, 'In a sense America can be understood as a deliberate historical refusal of tradition.'2

Moreover, to better promote this American crusade for a 'new beginning' free from European influence, there was a need for, and indeed substantial evidence of, considerable anti-English fervour in American nationalist texts. This is clear from the tone and content of the Declaration of Independence,3 and again, though more subtly, in the lyrics of the American national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner.4 It echoed in public orations every Fourth of July practically unabated until America entered the First World War in 1917.

Yet despite all the above, the works of William Shakespeare, an English playwright, were embraced by citizens throughout the United States and the stories contained within the plays are today accepted as part of American cultural heritage. During the nineteenth century Americans learnt to use the possessive pronoun 'our' when referring to Shakespeare, something not done with other foreign writers. James Fenimore Cooper famously said that William Shakespeare was 'the great author of America',5 and there is indeed evidence that Shakespeare dominated the American stage while the numerous American editions of his plays became required reading for many patriotic Americans. The name Shakespeare could be found on almanacs, patent medicines, saloon signs and the deeds to gold mines. He was a subject to be found in American journals, poems, literature, burlesques, paintings and dime novels.

Many scholars have acknowledged the extent of Shakespeare's popularity in the USA. As early as 1927, Ashley Thorndike went so far as to suggest that 'Washington, Lincoln, Shakespeare . . . are the three whom Americans universally worship'.6 For Lawrence Levine, 'Shakespeare was popular entertainment in nineteenth-century America',7 while Simon Williams has insisted that 'Shakespeare was even more part of popular culture in the United States than he was in Britain.'8 Howsoever the extent of Shakespeare's popularity is emphasised, as Michael D. Bristol has acknowledged, this popularity was 'a kind of anomaly'.9 Sanford E. Marovitz has suggested that 'when treated focally rather than incidentally . . . Shakespeare may seem to constitute one of the most remarkable paradoxes in the social and intellectual history of the United States'.10 And as Frank Mott wrote, almost as a footnote to a book on American publishing,

Absurd as some of the efforts to make Shakespeare a full-fledged Yankee may seem, they must be recognised as a phase of the militant nationalism of a period which lasted for many years after political independence was won . . . Shakespeare was adopted by America, and that in spite of his British origins.11

Such comments about the cultural history of the United States, the world's only 'superpower' and perhaps 'superculture', need further explanation.

SCHOLARSHIP ON SHAKESPEARE AND AMERICA

While over many years writers have recognised America's keen appetite for Shakespeare, two key studies focused attention on Shakespeare's position within American culture. Lawrence Levine, in Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, explored how Shakespeare and other expressions of what is now often considered to be 'high art' were accepted by a nation that espoused equality and democracy. Levine maintained that the 'nineteenth century had harboured two Shakespeares; the humble, everyday poet who sprang from the people . . . and towering genius', but that ultimately Shakespeare was moved from 'popular culture to polite culture'.12 Levine suggested that although Shakespeare was a key part of American popular culture throughout much of the nineteenth century, by the start of the twentieth century America's 'elite' had claimed him for their own.

Michael D. Bristol, in Shakespeare's America, America's Shakespeare, suggested that Shakespeare served the 'interests of class domination' but admitted that this was not the whole story. Bristol maintained that the 'institution of Shakespeare has a quite specific history in Britain [but] a substantially different history as an institution in North America'.13 It is this 'different history' I will explore in this book. Bristol's work also first highlighted the political and cultural significance of the 'symbolic geography of the Folger building' and brought to far greater prominence the important oration of Joseph Quincy Adams.14 The valuable work of both Levine and Bristol should be recognised as central to my book. However, while Levine and Bristol (and others publishing on the subject at about the same time) would appear to have been affected by a media-driven political controversy over issues of the literary canon and education curriculum, hopefully it has now become possible to explore these issues in a freer or perhaps more judicious fashion. This has been my aim.

While many other eminent scholars have contributed to the current critical understanding of Shakespeare, it is significant that some Americans have chosen to go beyond literary criticism to overtly politicise the issue, proclaiming links between the plays and the founding and development of the American republic. In 1877 Joseph Watson did just this with an article 'Shakespeare in America' published in the New York Herald, informing the American readership of the importance of Shakespeare to American ethnogenesis.15 Several years later the politics of nation were again emphasised as Frank M. Bristol searched Shakespeare for quotations relevant to the 'New World'. In Shakespeare and America (1898) Bristol claimed that 'In no less than twelve plays does Shakespeare use expressions . . .inspired by America.'16 Other attempts to directly associate American ethnogenesis with Shakespeare were to follow.

In the period immediately preceding America's entry to the First World War, Charles Mills Gayley expressed patriotic sentiments together with his appreciation of Shakespeare. In Shakespeare and the Founders of Liberty in America (1917) Gayley maintained that William Shakespeare was a believer in the kind of political system later to be established in the American republic.17 The book ended with an appeal to America to join the European conflict on the side of the country that, along with America, shared the language and culture of Shakespeare. More than twenty years later, at the time of the American entry to the Second World War, Alwin Thaler presented similar arguments in Shakespeare and Democracy (1941), again speculating on the possible 'democratic sympathies' of a politically motivated playwright.18

American authors providing commentaries on America and Shakespeare have also, in varying ways, helped institutionalise the process of appropriation. In Shakespeare in America (1939) Esther Cloudman Dunn provided a very readable history of America's relationship with Shakespeare.19 Dunn's adoption of a journalistic style allowed her to freely interpret the evidence and express her belief in a longstanding widespread appreciation of Shakespeare as literature, seemingly by all American patriots whatever their cultural background.

Other writers have freely created links between the myth and symbol of America and the playwright. Helene Wickham Koon chose an evocative title for her How Shakespeare Won the West (1925), a book narrating the way Shakespeare's plays were embraced as popular culture in the West by pioneers, cowboys and miners.20 This 'Wild West' motif reappeared in 1998 when, writing for the Smithsonian, Jennifer Lee Carrell described 'How the Bard Won the West'.21

These are just a few of the many notable writings that over the years have helped confirm America's adoption of Shakespeare. However, within a few years of each other and by means of public oration rather than more orthodox academic activity, three American scholars publicly proclaimed America's nineteenth-century appropriation of Shakespeare. These orations became part of the very process of appropriation that they sought to describe. The first, Ashley Horace Thorndike, in an address before an invited audience at the British Academy in London in 1927, proclaimed that in the nineteenth century, during the process of American nation building, 'Shakespeare has been a symbol of unity, a moving force, almost a directing deity'.22 Four years later, William Adams Slade, speaking in his official capacity as librarian of the Library of Congress, delivered a eulogy for Henry Clay Folger and in the process reviewed America's relationship with Shakespeare, providing a similar message to that of Thorndike.23 Subsequently, Slade was to utilise much of the same text for a report presented to the elected members of the United States Seventieth Congress.

On an even more prominent stage and state occasion, Joseph Quincy Adams delivered an oration before the president of the United States and assembled dignitaries in 1932. In his address, Adams recounted the history of Shakespeare's appropriation to the cause of E Pluribus Unum. Adams's strong rhetoric was to clearly proclaim the significance of Washington DC as the chosen site for a Shakespeare memorial:

In its capital city a nation is accustomed to rear monuments to the persons who most have contributed to its well-being. And hence Washington has become a city of monuments. Varied in kind, and almost countless in number, they proclaim from every street, park and circle the affection of a grateful American people. Yet amid them all, three memorials stand out, in size, dignity and beauty, conspicuous above the rest: the memorials to Washington, Lincoln, Shakespeare.24

The pronouncements made by Thorndike, Slade and Adams, three American scholars, are similar in tone, and given their manifestly political nature I have considered all three part of a formal conclusion to the nineteenth-century appropriation process.

While it is clear that library shelves are well supplied with books on Shakespeare, the more recent orthodox hypothesis on America's nineteenth-century relationship with the plays has largely consisted of three broad generalisations. It has been frequently inferred that Americans, as civilised people, quite naturally recognised Shakespeare's universal appeal. It is reasoned that while Shakespeare constituted a significant part of American stage drama, the plays were performed primarily as a result of the presence in America of British actors and theatre managers. And finally, it has even been assumed that Americans celebrated Shakespeare because they were generally Anglophiles. The results of my own research, presented in this book, suggest that these orthodox assumptions are too simplistic and also, more importantly, misleading. Key questions have remained unanswered; for example, does American acceptance of Shakespeare during the nineteenth century really represent a paradox, and, if it does, how did acceptance occur and why? I will provide answers.

The results of my research, together with the reinterpretation of so much earlier work, offer an alternative, fuller commentary on America's energetic consumption of Shakespeare. With this book I confirm and explain the paradox of the appropriation of Shakespeare and its powerful presence within American popular culture during the nineteenth century. I highlight the importance of Fourth of July orations for the commonly expressed hostility to England and how the attendant popularity of oratory helped boost consumption of Shakespeare. I explain the broad American context, highlighting the importance of the twin concepts of manifest destiny and Anglo-Saxonism, which together facilitated increased consumption of Shakespeare by the populace. I reveal the presence and emphasise the significance of political elements within the preface to the 'First American Edition' of Shakespeare published in 1795, aspects that were to be mimicked in later publications. While revisiting the scholarship of previous writers on America and Shakespeare, this book supplies new material and creates a connection between the now familiar stories of the African Grove Theatre, the Astor Place riot, the actor Edwin Forrest and the establishment of Shakespeare libraries in America. I link nineteenth-century American interest in the Shakespeare authorship controversy with a wider objective of 'republicanising' the plays. Lastly, I reconnect the important pronouncements of Ashley Thorndike, William Adams Slade and Joseph Quincy Adams.

METHODOLOGY AND SCOPE

In preparing this cultural history I have embraced the philosophy of Joseph Hopkinson and his preface to the 1795 'First American Edition' of Shakespeare, in which he condemned British academics for attacking their predecessors (he appeared to regard this as largely a matter of 'point scoring').25 This is not a book about books; with the words of Hopkinson in mind, I have therefore chosen not to directly refute or challenge named former commentators in the field.

The subject of Shakespeare and nineteenth-century America provided a myriad of different academic issues. To avoid what could be termed 'mission creep', it has been necessary for me to be judicious and maintain a sharp focus on the book topic. I have concentrated on the apparent paradox of popular consumption and appropriation of Shakespeare to the cause of the American nation rather than on any appreciation of his plays by American literati. Equally, as this is a book on Shakespeare and America, I have chosen not to repeat familiar arguments about the possible universality of Shakespeare's plays.

I have resolved not to stray from the American topic to address the question of Shakespeare's reception and appreciation in England, Germany or any other country. While Shakespeare was, of course, embraced by non-English-speaking cultures, in such cases the plays were read and performed in another language, sometimes translated by a major literary figure. For example, when translated by Goethe, Schiller or Schlegel in Germany,26 Shakespeare not surprisingly became something rather different from the English original (as did the work of Edgar Allan Poe when translated by Baudelaire in France). It is also worth recalling that a number of European countries effectively came into existence only in the mid-nineteenth century, and, unlike America, did not owe their existence to a war against England, the essential paradox behind the American appropriation of Shakespeare.

This book represents an attempt to tell one story among many in relation to the construction of an American identity, problematic as that in turn is. America is hardly explained by the appropriation of Shakespeare any more than it is by emphasis on its immigrant nature, its frontier experience, its urban centres, its liberal constitution. But the slow and essentially unending business of cultural definition is not without its fascination and the appropriation of Shakespeare played a role, modest or otherwise, in that process.

I am aware that in recent years the question of American exceptionalism has been actively debated. In terms of this book, however, I am concerned precisely with a time when American politicians and writers and a heteroglot people were themselves declaring their exceptionalism and seeking both to find justification for that belief and mechanisms for facilitating it. The irony is that while calling for native writers with the capacity to create a literature commensurate with the country they also turned to a foreign author and, by accommodating him to their own necessities, claimed him as their own. There were those who opposed this process, including some of the more significant writers of the age, but in the end those voices did not prevail.

Key to my narrative is the fact that only in the city of Washington DC, symbolically sited close to the Capitol building housing the US Congress, is there a memorial library dedicated to the study of Shakespeare's texts, and I have included a detailed account of how this memorial came to be established. No comparable building or collection exists adjacent to the Houses of Parliament in London or the Reichstag in Berlin. The siting of the Washington DC library and its unprecedented collection of seventy-nine copies of the important First Folio help to confirm the special position of Shakespeare within the tradition of the American nation.

CHAPTER ORGANISATION AND CONTENTS

The book is divided into two main sections. In part 1 I explore the paradox of the American consumption of Shakespeare, the evidence that Americans did not simply watch and read but actively 'consumed' Shakespeare, and that this level of consumption was greater than that enjoyed by any native writer. Within this section I argue that the American state was conceived in direct opposition to England and that, throughout the following century, Americans created and celebrated an image of the 'English enemy' that helped to unite the population and, in the process, to define the American nation. Prior to the threats posed in the twentieth century by Communism and more recently 'terrorism', England, with her trade empire, was considered to be the primary danger to the continued success of the American 'revolution'. This is the paradox of the American consumption of Shakespeare.

In part 2 I comprehensively explore how and why Shakespeare was appropriated to the cause of creating a unifying American heritage. Finally, I include an account of the establishment of the Folger Shakespeare Memorial Library, a symbolic 'national monument' to Shakespeare on Capitol Hill, Washington DC. In appendices 1 and 2, I reproduce the full text of the rare 1795 preface to the 'First American Edition' and provide a location map for the Folger Shakespeare Memorial Library.

NOTES

1. Thomas Paine, Common Sense, ed. Isaac Kramnick (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976), p. 91. First published 1776.
2. Michael D. Bristol, Shakespeare's America, America's Shakespeare (New York: Routledge, 1990), p. 51.
3. Thomas Jefferson, 'The Declaration of Independence', in Cornerstones of American Democracy (Washington DC: National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1995).
4. Stephanie St. Pierre, Our National Anthem (Brookfield: Millbrock Press, 1992), p. 28.
5. James Fenimore Cooper, 'Notions of the Americans: Picked up by a Travelling Bachelor', in Robert E. Spiller, James Fenimore Cooper (New York: American Book Co., 1936), p. 20.
6. Ashley Horace Thorndike, Shakespeare in America (London: Oxford University Press, 1927), pp. 20 and 10.
7. Lawrence W. Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), p. 21.
8. Simon Williams, 'European Actors and the Star System, 1752-1870', in Don B. Wilmeth and Christopher Bigsby, eds., The Cambridge History of American Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 310.
9. Bristol, Shakespeare's America, p. 2.
10. Sanford E. Marovitz, 'America vs Shakespeare: From the Monroe Doctrine to the Civil War', Zeitschrift für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, 34 (1986), pp. 33-46.
11. Frank Luther Mott, Golden Multitudes: The Story of Best Sellers in the United States (New York: Macmillan Co., 1947), p. 55.
12. Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow, pp. 69 and 56.
13. Bristol, Shakespeare's America, p. 10.
14. Ibid., p. 75. For more on Henry Clay Folger and Joseph Quincy Adams, see ibid., chapter 3, 'The Function of the Archive'. See also Stephen J. Brown, 'The Uses of Shakespeare in America: A Study in Class Domination', in David Bevington and Jay L. Halio, eds., Shakespeare, Pattern of Excelling Nature (London: Associated University Press, 1978), pp. 230-1, and Alan Sinfield, 'Heritage and the Market, Regulation and Desublimation', in Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, eds., Political Shakespeare: Essays in Cultural Materialism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994), p. 256.
15. Joseph Watson, 'Shakespeare in America', New York Herald, 26 February 1877, p. 6.
16. Frank M. Bristol, Shakespeare and America (Chicago: Hollister & Bros., 1898), p. 8.
17. Charles Mills Gayley, Shakespeare and the Founders of Liberty in America (New York: Macmillan, 1917).
18. Alwin Thaler, Shakespeare and Democracy (Knoxville TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1941).
19. Esther Cloudman Dunn, Shakespeare in America (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1939).
20. Helene Wickham Koon, How Shakespeare Won the West (Jefferson WI: McFarland & Co., 1925).
21. Jennifer Lee Carrell, 'How the Bard Won the West', Smithsonian, 19/5 (August 1998), pp. 99-107.
22. Thorndike, Shakespeare in America, p. 10.
23. William Adams Slade, 'The Significance of the Folger Shakespeare Memorial: An Essay toward an Interpretation', in Henry C. Folger: 18 June 1857-11 June 1930 (New Haven, 1931).
24. Joseph Quincy Adams, 'The Folger Shakespeare Memorial Dedicated April 23, 1932, Shakespeare and American Culture', Spinning Wheel, 12/9-10 (June-July, 1932), p. 212.
25. The Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare: Corrected from the Latest and Best London Editions, with Notes, by Samuel Johnson, L.L.D. To Which Are Added, a Glossary and the Life of the Author . . . First American Edition (Philadelphia: Bioren & Madan, 1795). See appendix 1 below.
26. For more on German translations and adaptations of Shakespeare, see Roy Pascal, Shakespeare in Germany 1740-1815 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1937). Pascal suggests that 'German critics of Shakespeare [were] only a small section of the German people' and that 'the German theatre-going public appreciated the plays of Shakespeare as middle-class tragedies, i.e. as something non-Shakespearean' (p. 1).




© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements; Prologue; Introduction; Part I. The Paradox: 1. Manifest consumption of Shakespeare; 2. America: a proudly anti-English 'idea'; Part II. The Appropriation: 3. Beginning the appropriation of Shakespeare and the 'First American Edition' of his works; 4. Jacksonian energy - Shakespearean imagery; 5. Context for appropriation in nineteenth-century America; 6. The American heroic and ownership of Shakespeare; 7. Shakespeare as a fulcrum for American literature; 8. The American Scholar and the authorship controversy; 9. Last scenes in the final act of appropriation; Epilogue; Appendix I; Appendix II; Bibliography; Index.

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