One of the courses I’m teaching this fall is American Literature, Beginnings to 1865. I have been a bit nervous about this one, given that early-American literature is not my forte. It does mean I can’t pull from my old teaching files or even classes I took as a student, but I’m armed with a good Norton edition (I hate anthologies, but for early periods they really do work best) and a handful of authors I know reasonably well amidst a sea of others I do not.
Today I decided to include the Englishman Sydney Smith’s 1820 rebuke to Americans who were already claiming America to be at the forefront of art and literature, despite the U. S. having been a country for less than 50 years. Smith’s challenge is both famous and galling: “In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book? or goes to an American play? or looks at an American picture or statue?” He concludes with a potent challenge: “Finally, under which of the old tyrannical governments of Europe is every sixth man a slave, whom his fellow creatures may buy and sell and torture?” Yes, slavery made us look bad even on the literary front. How could we consider ourselves a nation of culture with such an embarrassing smear on our understanding of humanity?
Set Smith’s essay against a piece I just read today, announcing that the Man Booker Prize, the most prestigious literature prize for the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, is going to be opening its doors to literature worldwide. Apparently there’s some backlash, since everyone’s afraid that the Americans will take the prize every year. Times, apparently, have changed.