Article body

Nations (particularly rival nations) are bad judges of one another’s literature and physiognomy.

William Hazlitt (1825)

The proverbial narrative of American literary renaissance relates a story, albeit somewhat simplified here, that nationalist America loves to tell about itself: American writers break free from British mimicry in an era of distinguished and autonomous literary production. A more recent revisionist study provided by Paul Giles retells the story of American Romanticism and navigates Anglo-American writings within a transnational context, highlighting the complex interaction between and the mutual dependence of nationalist texts that are always “on the verge of overturning” themselves (149). In Transatlantic Insurrections (2001), Giles persuasively argues for “transnational reflexivity” (148), insisting that transatlantic perspectives resulting from such interplay not only reveal a “series of reciprocal attractions and repulsions between opposing national situations,” but that a comparative examination of American and British texts demystifies attempts made by nationalists of the mid-nineteenth century and scholars of the twentieth century to demarcate and institutionalize the founding of an unique American literary tradition (1). A comparative critical look into American and British literature involves apprehending narratives of national style and disentangling its rhetoric, which often reveals the important and sometimes suppressed continuities between the national enterprise and the rival’s. Critics of British Romanticism have also recognized similar nationalist constructions in British literature shaped by “attractions and repulsions” to national adversaries, particularly France. R. A. Foakes, for instance, who describes Samuel Taylor Coleridge's encomium to Shakespeare in terms of nationalist tactics counteracting the charming charisma of Napoleon—a genius fatally polluted by the influence of absolute power.[1] Compelled to admire as well as vilify Napoleon, Coleridge’s ambivalence towards Napoleon and, by extension Napoleonic France, may point to a thorny problem of national identification, which complicates the British reception of France and its new politics. Cultural historian Marlon B. Ross notes that Britain was divided “by its own conflictual desire to mimic Napoleon and to silence him” (57). While Napoleon and the French Revolution represented a menacing threat to national harmony and security, France’s territorial expansion mirrored Britain’s own imperialistic and hegemonic ambitions. Coleridge’s essay exposes a conflict of feelings inherent in the shaping of nationalism, suggesting that nationalist texts necessarily implicate dual constructions of imagined communities—both within the nation and without—and that the rival nations may serve to externalize what is latent or atavistic in Britain. In the paper that follows, I expand upon the notion of transnational reflexivity by looking into aesthetic manifestations of Britain’s “conflictual desires” toward America. I explore how America’s democratic landscapes are illuminated in Britain’s national imaginary through case studies of two reviews published in the Tory Foreign Quarterly Review and the liberal Westminster Review.

My essay examines articulations of British nationalism in book reviews during the decade of the 1840s, during which both American and British nationalist movements were manifestly at their peak and discursively at odds. I am specifically concerned with a circuit of transatlantic exchange that has received relatively little close analysis in transatlantic studies: the British periodicals. In general, studies relating British periodicals and American literature have been descriptive and broad rather than critical and specific. Layne Neeper, for instance, maintains that American literary self-consciousness necessarily depends upon “voices of European high culture” to refute the “worthy literary productions in the young United States” (2). Neeper’s description of Britain’s monolithic dismissal of American literature, while mistaken, was a common complaint amongst ante-bellum American nationalists who focused on criticisms published in Tory-vehicles such as the Quarterly Review and Foreign Quarterly Review. [2] In contrast, David Paul Crook has shown that British responses to American literature and its republic were both more divided and various, ranging from conventional responses (Benthamite endorsement) to the unanticipated (Tory praise).[3] I take Crook’s point further by arguing that British evaluations of America and its literature in the Victorian period were profoundly self-reflexive, formed not only by political association, but also by self-serving campaigns invested in shaping conservative or liberal British identities. British debate on the aesthetic merit of American literature paralleled the debate on the validity and viability of democratic culture in England. Of course, the rhetoric of disdain for American literature cultivated by periodicals such as the Quarterly had become the ritualistic convention of Tory political order, but their histrionic belligerence against democratic ideas paradoxically strips away the writers’ mask of confidence and exposes the existing tensions between the opinions of Tory authority and those of their unconverted readers. Rather than focusing on the American anxiety of influence, I would like to tell a story of profound political apprehension on the other side of the Atlantic—a nationalist anxiety emanating from British reviews whose split and contradictory responses to American literature indicate both fascination and fear of democracy, and manifest the mutually dependent cultural consciousness of the two national identities.


American thoughts on their idealism, literature, science, and philosophy were known and influential on the other side of the Atlantic. Although American periodicals in Britain were widely available in the first two decades of the nineteenth century, the best American quarterlies like the North American Review were, by 1835, “taken in many of the clubs and reading rooms in England, and every man of any pretensions to literature or general information look[ed] them over” (“Lit.” Athenaeum 9). Articles from American newspapers dealing with politics in Washington, D.C., territories, science, and commercial trade were excerpted and republished in the Spectator and other magazines. While many in the British press ridiculed American poetry and fiction, American literature related to law, religion, and political science appeared regularly in British periodicals, indicating their value to British readers. Lauding the benefits of reading American transatlantic magazines, a British essayist wrote: “Theories of political economy and commercial intercourse are of indescribable importance to the civilized world; hence, it is of transcendent interest that the general principle of mercantile countries should harmonize in reciprocal equity, especially if they can be consolidated upon a mutually beneficial basis” (“Amer.”228). British periodicals, moreover, reprinted American short stories. Noting the signs of genius in American creative writing, the Athenaeum presented its audience with Hawthorne’s story “A Rill from the Town Pump,” which appeared, abridged and anonymous, in 1835.[4] The Athenaeum was known for its generous, if qualified, comments on American literature, listing James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving, Catharine Sedgwick, William Cullen Bryant, and William Ellery Channing as authors who were “very popular” in England before they were accepted in America (“Lit.” Atheneaum 9).

The Athenaeum, the periodical and the club, represented the diplomatic politics of Westminster Whigs. The club supplied American literature and periodicals along with Continental material to its readers in accordance with the cosmopolitan philosophy that the group held. Founded in 1824 for men of letters and scientists, the Athenaeum was perhaps the first English multinational periodical; the notice on the title page announced that it is “published every Saturday Morning, and is received, by early Coaches, at Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Dublin, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and all the other large towns; but for the convenience of persons residing in remote places, or abroad, the weekly numbers are issued in Monthly parts, stitched in a wrapper, and forwarded with the Magazines to all parts of the World.”[5] The periodical shared the universal goals of the Athenaeum club, whose official preamble stated that its journal was internationally “instituted for the association of individuals known for their scientific or literary attainments, artists of eminence in any class of the fine arts, and noblemen and gentlemen distinguished as liberal patrons of science, literature, or the arts.”[6] The Athenaeum club members were the political, scientific, and literary elite of its day, including prime ministers, Charles Darwin, and Charles Dickens, as well as American ambassadors such as Edward Everett, George Bancroft, and James Russell Lowell, who automatically enjoyed the hospitality of the club as extraordinary members. The political and international membership might explain the journal’s judicious approach toward American literature, especially as good will and understanding between America and Britain were encouraged for the sake of commercial and public relations. In typical diplomatic fashion, the Athenaeum’s review on the public speeches of American William Ellery Channing, for example, was pitched to please both sides of the Atlantic; the reviewer transformed a eulogy of the Unitarian minister’s oration into a flattery of British taste and influence (“Lit.” 9).

Nonetheless, the neutral position taken by the Athenaeum was exceptional. Political affiliations generally influenced how British reviewers judged American politics and its corresponding cultural products: fiction and poetry. As New Englander S. G. Ward argued: “The violence of party spirit, the universal interest in politics, have in England made the great Reviews into political organs”(5). Whether Whig, Tory, or Benthamite, examinations of American literature exemplified their fascination with American literary failure. Whigs themselves were divided regarding the role of American literature. While some progressive British Whigs praised political progress in American society, others expressed ambivalence toward democratic government and ideologies propagated in American text. Juxtaposed against British literature, American writings, in general, augmented and secured Whig views of their nation’s cultural superiority. Like Whigs, Tories also saw Britain improved by comparison to America; however, their versions of an anarchic America conveniently counterbalanced their idealization of Britain as a conservative nation that enjoyed its aristocratic heritage and practice. Radicalism at home was un-British, a part of an American contagion that needed the antidote of Tory patriotism.


If Westminster Whig politics underlined the Athenaeum’s friendly analyses of American literature, the aggressively dismissive criticisms of American literature produced by the Quarterly Review and the Foreign Quarterly Review belied their Tory position. For example, the Athenaeum’s review of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America elicited a response that Tocqueville’s criticism of America was prejudiced: “[Tocqueville] was a missionary of a somewhat conservative administration in France: hence he inclines less to the mouvement than to the resistance party”(“Rev.”375). But Basil Hall’s review in Lockhart’s Quarterly interprets Tocqueville’s book as a brutal revelation of a failed American experiment. Among the first in a long string of British travel writers to harshly evaluate America’s society and its political institutions, Hall stirred controversy in the United States with Travels in North America in the Years 1829 and 1828 (1829). In modest defense of American culture, Coleridge observes in April 10, 1833, “Captain Basil Hall’s book is certainly very entertaining and instructive; but, in my judgment, his sentiments upon many points and more especially his mode of expression, are unwise and uncharitable. After all, are not most of the things shown up with so much bitterness by him mere national foibles, parallels to which every people has and must of necessity have?”[7] For Hall the republic of America spouted empty rhetoric of civic virtue and he gleefully alluded to Mandeville’s popular piece on “wild Democracy”(133).[8] Tocqueville’s book suggested that America was ruled by despotic masses, which fast approached the irrational, if not the hysterical, level of the mobs during the French Revolution. Hall’s earlier review of Francis Trollope in the Quarterly closes with this reflection: “Whatever may be said as to particular points of this lady’s description of America, it must be allowed to be a remarkable fact, that almost every English liberal accustomed to the social habits of the upper classes in this country, who recently traveled to the United States, appears to have come back a convert to the old-fashioned doctrines of Toryism”(80). Interestingly, Tory conversion is not caused by America’s demonstrative failure as a democracy. Rather, the conversion takes place because of America’s lack of distinctive class hierarchy.

Hall’s aesthetic argument dovetails his pro-monarchist stance with Humean assertions that linked refined literary culture with aristocratic politics. For Hall, only a nation of aristocratic tradition produces an aristocracy of talent, because popular literature, like popular government, assimilates downward and adapts to the vulgar taste of the masses.[9] While Hall’s assessment of American culture and its contemporary literature were unoriginal, his confident assertions echoed of David Hume, who also concluded that artistic genius could not succeed in a republic. “The arts of luxury, and much more the liberal arts, which depend on a refined taste of sentiment, are easily lost,” Hume asserted, “because they are always relished by a few only, whose leisure, fortune, and genius fit them for such amusements” (208). Hume’s essays were familiar to both British and American reading audiences,[10] and Hall’s derivative criticism reminded readers, at the very least, of the critical tradition condemning democracy.

Tory criticism of America, especially the Quarterly’s “hostile and costly virulence,” was an attempt to undermine the “liberal” populist proclivities of the English Whigs and transform homespun British radicalism into an alien ideology—that is, American. It is no wonder that Tories paired “American” ideology with British liberalism. British historians have long noted that Tories criticized American democracy in order to invalidate British reform movements.[11] During the first two decades of the nineteenth century, a suspicious Tory administration, alarmed by popular agitation and unrest, criminalized democratic encouragement in the English press.[12] In response, the liberal factions, interested in passing the Reform Bill, defiantly propagated enthusiasm for democratic America. In succeeding decades, bitter Tories of the Quarterly Review inevitably associated positive acknowledgments of American society with liberal reform movements.

Although the Quarterly is famous for its anti-American fervor, another Tory periodical edited by J. G. Cochrane entitled the Foreign Quarterly Review outlines specific and “just ground[s]” for critiquing American society under the guise of reviewing Griswold’s anthology of American literature (“American Poetry” 291). Drawing a connection between the quality of American literature and its multi-ethnic, classless society, the reviewer’s attack on American literature prepares the ground for his fight against the potential Americanization, or democratization, of Britain.

If Rufus Wilmot Griswold had not become infamous for his defamatory biography on Poe, he might be better known as a prolific and prominent anthologizer. Called an “indefatigable collector,” Griswold produced a string of anthologies:[13]The Poets and Poetry of America (1842), Gems from Female American Poets With Brief Biographical Notices (1842), Readings in American Poetry for the Use in Schools (1843), Poetry of Love (1844), Poets and Poetry of England in the Nineteenth Century (1845), Prose Writers of America With a Survey of Intellectual History (1847), Female Poets of America (1849), The Sacred Poets of England and America (1849), Poetry of Flowers (1850), Poetry of Affections (1850), and Poetry and Poets of America to the Middle of the Nineteenth Century (1850). In an address to readers of The Poets and Poetry of America, Griswold humbly admits that America is only beginning to produce national literature. Most American poets, Griswold complains, were not free from “that vassalage of opinion and style which is produced by a constant study of the literature of that nation whose language we speak, whose manners we adopt, and which was the home of our ancestors” (iii). The purpose of his anthology is to root the American study of literature in American specimens, and not in British ones. While practically every “native inhabitant of Saxon origin” is literate, this group reads British works because of “the absence of a just system of copyright” and because “rewards of literary exertion are so precarious” in the United States (vi). For Griswold, the absence of American genius is due to social and legal conditions that permit pirated British copies to be sold cheaply and abundantly.

In response to Griswold, the reviewer in the Foreign Quarterly denies that copyright laws prohibit the growth of American genius. However, he claims to know what does. American government, institutions, and people preclude the favorable development of art. In his analysis of contemporary American literature, the reviewer insists that “there is not a poet of mark in the whole Union” and that Americans have “no national poetry” (“American Poetry” 299). While he cannot define the “national literature” of America, he catalogs what American literature does not include. American literature, the reviewer argues, cannot describe native soil or its indigenous people (300). Neither can it appeal to patriotism, politics, or the tastes and habits of the common people. In this respect, Griswold’s collection represents “little better than a far-off echo of the father-land” (291). The very characteristics that distinguish the nation from Britain are the ones that make American literature an inevitable failure. By this logic, American text can be successfully “American” only if it absorbs the qualities of British literature (299).

Art produced in America, however, indicates symptomatic degeneracy at the profoundest level of political institutions, national character, and population. The Tory reviewer argues that “the ground must be prepared before the seed is cast into it,” referring to American culture, “and tended and well-ordered, or it will become choked with weeds, as American literature, such as it is, is now choked in every one of its multifarious manifestations” (292). And the “weeds” in America are many. The reviewer cannot object to its democratic politics, he claims, for America has failed even that:

“[T]he case of America is no longer a safe example of the working republican institutions, or of the experiment of universal franchise” because republicanism had succumbed to mob rule (295). Echoing Tocqueville, the reviewer states that the mob is sinking the taste of the entire nation rather than raising it (cf. 294). Moreover, the elite class of letters requisite for the cultivation of intellect and the “formation of great and original minds” is absent from American society. While the reviewer admits that America has “educated and highly intelligent men,” he argues that “they form no class, and are not even numerous enough to produce any sensible effect upon the tone of the community” (296).

The Tory reviewer’s greatest hostility is reserved for the immigrants who comprise a growing portion of American’s population. The reviewer’s language reflects an uneasy attitude toward Britain’s own policy of immigration. In 1825, James Fenimore Cooper’s “Notions of the Americans” commented that America’s immigrant poor contributed to the enormous number of paupers in New York and counted one pauper to every two hundred eighty-eight inhabitants (306). Informed by works like Cooper’s of the swelling number of America’s poor immigrants, the Tory reviewer emphasizes that America’s very cultural problem of genius derives from a nation that admits the “needy and dissolute,” the “debased,” the “criminal,” and the “dregs and outcasts of all other countries” (293, 292). “Can poetry,” the reviewer inquired, “spring out of an amalgam so monstrous and revolting? Can its pure spirit breathe in an air so fetid and stifling? [...] The whole state of American society, from first to last, presents insuperable obstacles to the cultivation of letters, the expansion of intellect, the formation of great and original minds” (293).

The reviewer is not simply a paranoid persecutor of American immigrants. His frustration appears to be generated from fears of immigration at home. As historian V. G. Kiernan reminds us, Britain absorbed Europeans of mixed origins throughout its long history and the “British [were] clearly among the most ethnically composite of the Europeans” (Geipel qtd in Kiernan 23). Britain had been accepting continental immigrants since the fifteenth century, and multiple tides of European émigrés followed the rise and fall of Napoleon’s empire (Nicolson 83). However, with the rise of racial and class conflicts during the Victorian period, immigrants were “making their presence known and felt,” particularly as undesirable “other” races (West 4). For instance, poorer unskilled migrants from southern Italy contributed to what one British observer pointed out as a growing number of the “idle, the vicious, and the destitute” (Kiernan 51). Despite a failed Act in 1825, which attempted to curb immigration (Nicolson 83), the British government actually protected immigrants from being deported with the Alien Act of 1836. Conservatives and the working class activists found common ground in protesting Britain’s laxity on alien immigration. In 1844 when the tide of immigration seemed uncontrolled and unstoppable, conservatives such as the reviewer of the Foreign Quarterly not only envisioned the “monstrous and revolting” immigrant amalgam threatening the cultivation of literary genius, but also saw them endangering the “pure” British race (“American Poetry” 293).

Thus, implicit in the review of Griswold’s anthology is the argument to protect the rarified air of one British race. The reviewer’s unease stems from the fear that a successful example of America’s motley nation could undermine the Tory fantasy of Britain—an imaginary nation, whose stratified homogeneous society, unified by blood and culture, maintains its rules of social order.

In addition to drawing an image of a “pure” Britain against the foil of an amalgamated America, the reviewer’s language points to his own apprehension that “educated nations” like Britain might be seduced by the lure of “political immoralities and social vices of which a democracy may be rendered capable” (“American Poetry” 291). In other words, while the entire article asserts anarchic and amoral conditions in America, the reviewer is less concerned with the corruption of American society than with its potential influence on Britain. The reviewer is unusually worried by the retorts of Americans to British “reproach” (291). The offense of the Americans, he claims, is that they “should be eternally thrusting their pretensions to the poetical character in the face of educated nations” (291). Moreover, the reviewer is insulted that Americans would “challenge” British criticism “upon the things they have failed in attempting” like producing literary geniuses (292). In response, the reviewer attempts to “satisfy the [British] reader that [...] there is not a poet of mark in the whole Union” (291); and in doing so, he hints, that America is a nation unworthy of modeling after—in literature or in politics (291). But in such vigorous protest—through denunciation of American patriotism, failure, and vanity—the reviewer reveals a deep, underwritten fear that the British reading public is not satisfied with Tory claims of American depravity (cultural or political); that British readers do actually read and enjoy American literature.

American writers were, indeed, “thrusting” more than their “poetical character,” they were pushing their political system. “Why should not England be republican?” wrote an essayist on English Chartism in the Democratic Review. “Are her lower classes unfit for the burden of government? [...] Are her yeomen more feeble than her peers? Are the millions of her disfranchised another race from the thousands of her voters? [...] [W]e can without hesitation ascribe the political evils under which it labors to the aristocratical and monarchical institutions under which it exists; and we can as readily maintain that their prospective removal can only be effected by a substitution, gradual it must be, immediate if it can be, of a more republican economy.”(“English Chartism” 184-185) The difference between the artistic worth of American literature and British literature must be made vast and clear. The root of the Tory reviewer’s hatred of American culture is not found in its contradiction of Britain, but the very contradiction of his fantasy of Tory Britain itself. Opposing parties who, a decade earlier, mitigated the elite politics of the aristocrats with the Reform Bill had already undermined the reviewer’s ideal British nation, a “green spot enclosed in hedges.”[14] Furthermore, this Tory Britain is again threatened by the tide of uneducated, poor European immigrants, who may disturb the racial and hierarchical make-up of Britain. The fear, then, is that the Britons might emulate the Americans who, as Sedgwick noted, are “not fenced out with briar hedges, not trained to a proscriptive and unmeaning civility”(239).


Four years later, the liberal periodical Westminster Review defended American writings in a review of Griswold’s anthology, The Prose Writers of America.[15] Founded in 1837 and edited by John Bowring, the Westminster represented the radical voice of urban and liberal Utilitarians with contributions by James Mill and their ideological leader Jeremy Bentham (Turner 230). Before 1832, Benthamites were concerned with passing the Reform Bill and exposing political and social corruption. They regarded “‘Polite’ literature and belles lettres culture in England [...] as a form of aristocratic lotus-eating; the province of Somebodies, financed by the Nobodies, cultivating imagination at the expense of judgment and discouraging dangerous speculation”(Crook 34). Even after the furor of the Reform Bill, the circumstance of America’s cultural deficiencies was excused and deemed unrelated to its political principles and economic policies (“American Philosophy” 351). The editorship of the Westminster shifted several times, most notably to John Stuart Mills and John Chapman, during which the dogmatic Benthamite tone of the magazine diminished and literature rose in importance to Westminster contributors (Fader). Although the Westminster merged in October 1846 with the Foreign Quarterly, the opinions articulated in the 1848 review of Griswold’s anthology demonstrate the periodical’s strong commitment to reform. Unlike the reviewer of the Foreign Quarterly, whose disgust with the population of America belied hidden fears of Britain’s radical politics and lenient immigration policies, the Westminster reviewer predicts great prospects for America’s democratic government and advises American writers on the need to actively write national literature. The Westminster’s endorsement of America is, of course, predictable. But the crucial appeal of its topic of national literature is not directed to American readers, but rather to their British counterparts.

Before examining Westminster’s review of Griswold’s anthology, a brief overview of liberal politics in Britain will provide the essential cultural context that illuminates the varying responses to American literature. Despite their prickly and double-edged compliments of American literature, Whig reviewers at the Edinburgh Review, at least during the 1830s and 1840s, referred affectionately to “our American kinsman” (“Foreign” 523).[16] Cultural if not biological and linguistic fraternity between Anglo-Americans and the British served to cultivate a feeling of commonality, which justified the latter’s sympathetic analysis of American politics and society. America’s progress fuels British national pride, they argued. Even America’s westward expansionism was seen to credit Anglo-Saxon culture. “The possible destiny of the United States of America,—as a nation of hundred millions of freemen,” Coleridge mused on 30 April 1833, “—stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific, living under the laws of Alfred, and speaking the language of Shakspere [sic] and Milton, is an august concept. Why should we not wish to see it realised? America would then be England viewed through a solar microscope; Great Britain in a state of glorious magnification!” (208). Unlike the reviewer in the Foreign Quarterly, who found in America no equivalence to English culture, Coleridge celebrated the residual practice of ancient English law and the use of the English language of “Shakespere and Milton,” which American pioneers disseminated across the continent. America was better for being a conspicuous consumer of British books. In Coleridge’s view, America became a natural extension, the “glorious magnification,” of British cultural glory. But Whig praise seemed somewhat patronizing to American Charles Bristed, who wrote in Britain’s Fraser’s Magazine: “[I]f, through some Whiggish leaning, or large feeling of fraternity for all the Anglo-Saxon race, you are disposed to stand up for your Transatlantic brethren, you will panegyrize them much in the same way that Rousseau and others have maintained the superiority of the savage over civilized life. You will say, ‘These people are inferior to us in the graces and courtesies of civilization, but they are more frank, more natural; fashion exercises no capricious tyranny over them; there is no room there for servility or luxury’” ([Bristed] I: 261). The praise, then, is modified to highlight “inferiority” as a kind of superiority. If Americans lack graces, then they are more “natural.” If Americans lack cultured taste, then they forgo “servility.” But this, Bristed realized, was a backhanded compliment, since Rousseau’s European might admire the noble savage but would never want to be one.

While the Whigs’ eager advocacy of American democracy may have decreased in its rhetoric after 1832 with the passing of the Reform Bill, Whigs and (to a more qualified extent) reformers—the Benthamites, Dissenters, Chartists, and workingmen’s parties—continued to identify their goals in the political, religious, and social systems that were pursued by the United States.[17] Because the liberals sympathized with democratic principles, some English Whigs and radicals did subject the cultural achievements and defects of America to intense and rigorous scrutiny (Crook 70). Although Whiggish criticism of American literature was less censorious than Tory critique, William Hazlitt, for instance, surmised that “mechanical and modern” America lacks literary genius because “the map of America is not historical.” Hazlitt further argued, “[W]orks of fiction do not take root in [America]” (Hazlitt “American Poetry” 320). In general, however, close identification with American culture was imperative for liberal reformers, since the American experiment represented the degree to which they could expedite domestic reform. Moreover, the rhetoric of American democratic politics was familiar to Britons because the source could be traced to the language of dissenting British radicals like William Godwin. Confident in the rational model of the classical public sphere, Jacksonian Democrats pitched their “unwavering certainty” that “popular intelligence” could be seen through the “chaos of delusion, sophism, and mystification” over “great issues at stake” (“Sober” 278).[18] The people have, as one Democrat put it, “so nobly justified our confidence, and vindicated their own sagacity, integrity, justice, and full competency for self-government” (288). The sagacious and self-reliant “people” were, of course, the white working men, farmers, artisans, property-owners, and capitalists. In other words, the Democratic definition of “people” included the laboring and middle classes. While less confident in their underclass workers, the British Whigs and reformers also championed the masses, who were interpreted as the independent and rational bourgeois class. “The middle, not the upper class,” insisted Isaac Tomkins, “is the part of the nation which is entitled to command respect, and enabled to win esteem or challenge admiration. They read, they reflect, they reason, they think for themselves; they will neither let a pope, nor a prince, nor a minister, nor a newspaper, form their opinions for them; and they will neither from views of interest nor motives of fear be made the dupe or tool of others” (Tomkins 18).[19]

British reformers viewed their cause as mutually dependent with that of their American colleagues, since successful examples of reform conducted by brother Jonathan meant that John Bull could argue for the experiment at home. British reformers, for instance, were fascinated with the American public education system, which appeared to be an example of theory in action (Thistlethwaite 134). In order to propel a parallel project of national education in England, James Martineau at the Westminster and James Spedding at the Edinburgh Review publicly approved of Horace Mann, the Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, and his efforts to train “non-thinking, non-reflecting, non-speaking” children into “noble citizen[s].”[20] British reformers were attracted to Mann’s notion of a “universal, compulsory and free” school system, guided “under the forceful control by the State Government.” Historian Thistlethwaite stresses, “Horace Mann’s ‘Massachusetts System’ became a model for British reformers in their drive for a system of public education” (144-145).

In the 1848 issue of the Westminster, the review of Griswold’s anthology is essentially an apology for American literature. However, this review not only lends advice to struggling American writers, but also points to a general observation that the writing enterprise should appeal to a wider audience, resonating with more serious and useful national issues. Indeed, his declaration of the central role of national literature in all “great” nations appears to be directed both outward to Americans as well as inward to British writers themselves.

According to the reviewer of the Westminster, the lack of American genius cannot satisfactorily determine the degeneracy of American culture. “Great poets,” he states, “and great thinkers appear at long intervals, and make the times they live in memorable for generations: they are too few to constitute, at any one period, a current literature” (“Lit.” Westminster 336). In addition, he argues, America has not had enough time as an independent nation to accrue genius. These replies to critics who complain of America’s lack of literary talents were, by this time, too familiar not to be cliché. Without being specific, the reviewer admits that American literature is presently a blend of “strength and weakness, which characterize an immature age; together with a certain gigantic expansiveness, that seems to promise one day to outgrow everything European, and leave us far behind” (348). In this generous—if general—praise, which reminds one of Coleridge, the reviewer admires America’s “certain gigantic expansiveness,” alluding not only to America’s geographic “expansiveness,” but also to the “expansiveness” in America’s population, economy, and social philosophy (340). As if replying to the argument presented by the reviewer of the Foreign Quarterly who insisted that American soil is less barren than poisoned, the Westminster reviewer insists that America promises to “outgrow everything European” precisely because its “native soil” with all its “national peculiarities” provides rich sustenance for national literature (348).

However, the reviewer stresses his belief that America should not be an absolute model for his ideal Britain. After all, most British liberals did not advocate radical change of their class system, but rather couched their language of reform in terms of improving the moral and economic quality of British life. By criticizing what he perceives as American egalitarian politics, the reviewer seeks to waylay the fears of more conservative Britons that such reform would mean American-style democracy. Emerson is the American representative against whom English beliefs are contrasted. “Mr. Emerson,” the reviewer writes, “is so great a republican that he would make nature republican too. He maintains that all men, intellectually and morally, are by nature of equal capacity and altogether alike; that every man has within him the seeds of all genius, speculative or active, and only needs the ripening beam of circumstance to be a Shakespeare, a Newton, or a Cromwell. In this doctrine there is no doubt a considerable admixture of truth” (339). While admitting the truth of political equality, the reviewer asserts that the “soul and the intellect of man, is an aristocratic order” (340). In other words, the reviewer does not propose to change British social structure to follow America’s, which, he believes, is based on unrealistic principles of equality. The author preserves an idea of hierarchy based on the variable nature and talents of human beings according to intellectual or moral strength. Crucially, natural hierarchy does not preclude political justice. The reviewer adds, “[I]nferiority of intellect is not a reason for permitting the strong to oppress the weak, but a reason for securing the weak the protection of the law” (340). Keeping old Tory charges of Jacobinism in mind, the reviewer underlines his support for the existing structure of social aristocracy, as long as the “aristocracy” is precluded from abusing its power in the political and public spheres. The reviewer’s cautious praise of American literature and its representations of reform was typical of philanthropic-minded middle-class Benthamites, who attempted to improve the miserable conditions of the uneducated laboring poor, but who also strategically identified themselves with the social arguments of the aristocracy.

Benthamite nationalists believed that their moral, and even intellectual, superiority to the decadent upper class and depraved lower classes provided them with a pedagogic imperative to improve the minds of the unfortunates and reconcile the heterogeneous elements of British society through the works of writers. This didactic mission could only be achieved through “useful” literature that is read by all classes. For example, the universal popularity of American orator William Ellery Channing was particularly fascinating to James Martineau. He writes:

He [Channing] is the first purely moral writer who has acquired a popular power, and found his way, not only into the boudoir of the professed reader, but [also] into the pocket of the artisan. Essayists, never able to escape, as a class, the repute of dullness, have been content, from the time of Addison to that of Coleridge, to find acceptance in the library of the student, or at the breakfast-table of the man of letters. [...] His articles of review were snatched from the periodicals in which they first appeared, and, notwithstanding their grave and earnest character, spread with the rapidity of a revolutionary speech or an exciting fiction. His lectures and sermons, though perpetually trenching on the polemic ground of philosophy and divinity, could not be confined to the ordinary circle, but passed into the hands of thousands by whom the literature of the platform and the pulpit had been held in little respect. The numerous editions of his works, and the competition of popular publishers for their English sale, indicate a scope and direction of influence unexampled among writers of the same class.

“Life of Channing” 318

By the third decade of the nineteenth century, William Ellery Channing had established himself as a Unitarian thinker and a literary critic of Milton and Fénelon on both sides of the Atlantic (Brown). While William Hazlitt and Lord Brougham of the Edinburgh Review harshly reviewed Channing’s work, it was nonetheless well regarded throughout the thirties and forties by Whigs at the Athenaeum and Tories at Fraser’s Magazine. By the time Martineau reviewed his work in the Westminster, Channing was already famous in Britain as a profound moral thinker. Downplaying the radical elements of Channing’s “anti-property doctrines,” Martineau makes him a safe model for liberal Benthamites by limiting his position on suffrage and focusing on his advocacy of free thought and free speech, anti-slavery sentiments, and demand for education reform.

For Martineau, Channing’s style of writing has taken on an exemplary universal status crossing boundaries of class and state; it also shows what British literature fails to do, thus aiding in Channing’s Benthamite cause for national literature. While Channing’s moral message is anything but new, his “popular power” amazes and inspires Martineau. Channing’s popularity does not result from his status as an American, but, rather, from the precedent for any writer, British or not, to engage the interest of the broadest range of British readers from the artisan to the aristocratic man of letters. Thus, for liberal critics at the Westminster, Channing’s American writings are the supreme example of literature that adeptly insinuates its lessons to Britain’s nation of readers. The popular success of Channing’s writings has profound significance. His work gives morality greater title than mere middle-class self-interest. His writing also legitimizes the reform movement’s goal for a better, modern England. In addition, Channing’s pieces preserve the traditional idea of England’s organic society by unifying its diverse readership across the various social classes, even as it provides liberal justification for reformed society. While Martineau’s review expresses his admiration for the popular power of Channing’s texts, his review’s effectiveness depends upon the implicit comparative perspectives of American and British texts—and the reader’s ability to recognize and want the character seemingly lacking in British writing. Although profoundly shaped by New England Unitarianism, Channing’s texts lose their distinctive American locality to readers such as Martineau who perceive its “popular power.” Thus, paradoxically, the writings of an American become a model for British nationalist literature.

Like Martineau’s essays, the Griswold article in the Westminster also attempts to rally public interest in national literature, but its purpose is less obvious, cloaked beneath a critique whose apparent readers are imagined to be American. The reviewer argues that American writers need to cultivate literature that embodies the “national character of the United States” (“Lit.”Westminster 348), because nationalism needs to be promoted “if a nation is to be great” (337). While the reviewer does not challenge the advantages of “true genius” to modify culture by breaking its “fetters,” literature still carries an important function (338). In particular, national literature plays an integral role in how society develops its values and goals. The purpose and content of the literature are just as important as its ornamental form. The power of nationalist literature lies in the argument that politics are “interwoven with men’s lives [...] in this very portion of literature which we call ornamental” (337). Such subtle propaganda promotes civic character, morality, and political awareness under the guise of entertainment; the “insinuating lessons of lighter literature” are more “effectual than any other teaching” (337). Hence, there is more at stake than merely national pride, or aesthetics. In order to maintain or reform ideological beliefs or political practices, national literature must take root and teach its “lessons.”

The reviewer presents the topic of America’s need to write about the “national character of the United States” as if deploying new insights into the problem of contemporary writing; but in fact Emerson, also a subject of interest in this review, had proposed this topic seven years earlier in his essay “American Scholar.” Nationalism and its articulation in literature has been, by 1844, a commonplace discussion that had occupied American writers for over two decades in its numerous periodicals, newspapers, and books. Americans already understood and debated the characteristics of national literature.

The rationale for national literature articulated in the Westminster, while apparently directed to Americans, was probably aimed toward the British audience, who were less theoretically and methodologically familiar with (or interested in) national literature and its cultural implications. Earlier reviews such as those by Martineau indicate that British writers did not associate “popular” literature as potential vehicles for national literature. For the reviewer of the Westminster, “national” literature means writings that carry significant and useful lessons. His insistence on the balance between form and content specifically focused on rehabilitating the pedagogical value of “lighter literature”—associated with popular genres such as the novel—and, through it, educating the greater reading public to Britain’s values and culture.

With the emergence of print culture and technology in the eighteenth century, concerned English thinkers like Pope had argued that the “motley mixture” of writers of dubious backgrounds were the conveyors of vulgarity (Cf. Kernan 12). But if these new hack writers were viewed as the source of corruption in the older world of courtly letters, the discourse of writers in the following century shifted the grievance to a new audience—the middle-class reader whose vulgar taste encouraged the corruption of letters. The undisciplined leisure activity of the growing middle class and the half-educated working class, the so-called literate mob, in early nineteenth-century Britain induced numerous denunciations of literary fancy and bad taste.[21] While Tories denounced these new popular writings as degenerate literature, Benthamites such as the reviewer of Westminster used American literature and its nationalist movement as the means by which the argument for British national literature could be convincingly made. For the reviewer, the creative energies of lighter literature could be redirected for educational and moral purposes, thereby realizing a kind of intellectual suffrage and establishing a common British culture through “national” literature.


“Well, and to say the truth,” he resumed, “it is a fine country for the young, but it is not old England.”

“It is not our home, you should say,” replied his wife in an apologetic tone, and looking at me.

“We all allow,” I said, “there is no place like home.”

“True, ma’am, we all say it; but to feel it one must cross the seas.”

—Catharine Sedgwick (1841) (Sedgwick 240)

American response to British criticism in the 1820s and British response to American nationalism in the 1840s constituted an incredible moment in public discourse in which writers were conscious of the transatlantic impact of their writings. The prejudices and passions of transatlantic writers were calculated to awaken not only the nationalist feelings of their native readers, but, in some instances, to stir those same feelings in their readers across the Atlantic.

Despite the boisterous peal of nationalism, ante-bellum Americans were encouraged to read British magazines. Not surprisingly, American purveyors of British periodicals integrated nationalist arguments as selling points for their products. In an advertisement that appeared in the March 1844 issue of the Democratic Review, the American publishers of British periodical reprints gave various reasons why Americans should buy their reprints of British periodicals. Before describing the characteristics of the five periodicals that were sold together at eight dollars per year or three dollars separately, the publishers Leonard Scott & Co. stressed that these periodicals deserved patriotic patronage by American readers precisely because of the economic benefit they gave to American workers: “[T]he manufacture of the materials, such as paper, type, inck [sic], &c., and in the process of printing, binding, and publishing the American editions, employment is given to a hundred of our own people who, in the event of their discontinuance, would be driven to seek other pursuits of livelihood.”[22] If sympathy for American workers did not move the reader, the publisher added, these reprints contributed to “the circulation of money in our own country, instead of sending it abroad” and therefore encouraged the sound economic value to both the individual’s purse and to the nation. Moreover, the publishers warned against American “prejudice” toward foreign productions and insisted that even periodicals that are “deeply infused with Toryism” would not fail to “subserve the best interests of popular intelligence.”

The publisher’s argument for selling British magazines caters to nationalist strategies for absorbing foreign opinion hostile to America. In fact, the ideological identity of Americans is preserved, if not heightened, when it is antagonistically confronted with a contradictory identity, whether experienced by reading transatlantic material or by travelling abroad like Sedgwick. In Sedgwick’s “A Voyage Across the Sea” a dialogue between homesick Britons and the author reveals that national consciousness requires this very recognition of the alien “other” in the absence of a “home” experience. As the British elder succinctly replies to Sedgwick, “to feel [nationalism] one must cross the seas.”

However, as the anxieties of Tory reviews suggest, reading American literature does not necessarily encourage British nationalism or cultural separatism; rather American literature may promote the reverse: hermeneutic comparisons and (in Martineau’s case) stylistic mimicry. In constructing contrasting images of America to reflect a disturbing alien “Other”—a nation of rampant individualism, contingent elitism, and white male suffrage—the Tory contributor of the Foreign Quarterly attempts to remind readers of the horrific alternative to Britain’s cultural imperative, but instead prompts the specter of Britain’s own cultural incoherence. In the Foreign Quarterly, “Otherness” among the British citizenry, working class subjects, foreigners, Dissenters, and Catholics are silently acknowledged; but these British others lurking in the margins appear only as spectral images of the American mob, while Tory critics speculate on the possibility that the American democratic enterprise may one day be their own.