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Creating a Distinctly American Culture Previous Next
Digital History ID 3550

 

In the early 19th century, a number of American authors began to create literature emphasizing native scenes and characters.

Washington Irving (1783-1859), who was probably the first American to support himself as a man of letters, demonstrated the possibility of creating art out of native elements in his classic tales ‘Rip Van Winkle’ (1818) and ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’(1820).

The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was even more successful in transforming American legends into the stuff of art and reaching a broad popular audience. His narrative poems dramatizing scenes from America’s past made such figures as Paul Revere, Miles Standish, John Alden, Priscilla Mullins, and Hiawatha household names. His simple evocative lines have been cherished by generations of American children:

Under the spreading chestnut tree The village smithy stands; I shot an arrow into the air, It fell to earth, I knew not where; There was a little girl Who had a little curl Right in the middle of her forehead.
Ironically, this popular poet was a ‘Boston Brahmin’ (a member of one of Boston’s leading families), an expert in linguistics, a professor of modern languages at Harvard, and a translator of the latest European poetry.

James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) was another successful mythmaker. His works gave us such staples of western fiction as the lone frontiersman, the faithful Indian companion, and the kidnap, chase, and rescue. He also made such words and phrases as ‘paleface’, ‘on the warpath’, and ‘war paint’ part of the American vocabulary. Born in Burlington, New Jersey, the son of a land speculator, Cooper grew up in the frontier community of Cooperstown in central New York. At 13, he enrolled at Yale but was expelled for blowing open a classmate’s door with a charge of gunpowder and roping a donkey onto a professor’s chair. He then went to sea as a common sailor. In 1819, following his return to Cooperstown, Cooper was reading a popular novel of the day aloud to his wife. He tossed the book aside and claimed that he could write a better one. His wife dared him to try, and during the remaining 32 years of his life he wrote 34 books.

In his second and third novels, The Spy (1821) and The Pioneers (1823), Cooper created one of the most enduring archetypes in American culture. His hero, the frontiersman Natty Bumppo (also known as Hawkeye, Leatherstocking, and Pathfinder) was an American knight at home in the wilderness. He became the prototype not only for future trappers and scouts, but also for countless cowboys, detectives, and superheroes found in popular American fiction and film. Part of Natty Bumppo’s appeal was that he gave expression to many of the misgivings early 19th century Americans had about the cost of progress (his last words were “Let me sleep where I have lived-beyond the din of settlements”). An acute social critic, Cooper railed against the destruction of the natural environment, the violence directed at Native Americans, and the rapaciousness and materialism of an expansive American society.

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