Seen as a branch of this kind of race thinking, the academic study of American literature arose, at least in part, as a defensive maneuver by Anglophile gentlemen who felt their country slipping out of their control into the hands of inferiors. With the continued decline of philology and of Latin and Greek as college pre- requisites in the 1930s and 1940s, the study of American literature finally attained a certain academic respectability.
Visiting in 1831, Tocqueville could still remark on “the small number of men in the United States who are engaged in the composition of literary works,” and he added justifiably that most of these are “English in substance and still more so in form.” Yet in every settled region of the new nation voices were raised to make the case that a distinctive national literature was desirable and, indeed, essential to the prospects of American civilization. is bread and covering.” By 1837, the most notable of the many calls for literary nationalism, Emerson’s Phi Beta Kappa oration at Harvard, with its famous charge that “we have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe,” was already a stock statement.
Literary production and learning were conceived as an antidote to, or at least a moderating influence on, the utilitarian values of a young society where, as Jefferson put the matter in 1825, “the first object . By 1850, when Herman Melville weighed in against “literary flunkeyism toward England,” the complaint was a hackneyed one.
Perhaps the only disinterested critic still worth reading from this period is John Jay Chapman (1862–1933), whose work belongs to the genre of the moral essay in the tradition of Hazlitt and Arnold.
But even such minor novelists as the Norwegian-born H. Boyesen (1848–1895) contributed occasional criticism that helped to enlarge the literary horizon.