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  • We’re All Anglo-Saxons Now: Alfred Tennyson and the United States

In 1862, one year into the American Civil War, Alfred Tennyson attempted to travel incognito while on holiday around Yorkshire and Derbyshire. Ever wary of public attention, the Poet Laureate refused to tell strangers his name. At a hotel in Buxton, his enigmatic appearance led one of the guests to mistake him for a member of the Confederate States of America (Monckton Milnes 81–82). It is apt that Tennyson was confused for a secessionist, since the American Civil War had marked a turning point in his relationship with the United States, particularly with the South. Having previously considered America to be an undifferentiated mass of money-grubbing “Yankees,” the war highlighted to Tennyson that there were, in fact, Americans like him: that is, men sceptical about the expanding capitalist world of finance and speculation, who retained “Old World” virtues of gentlemanly behaviour and a belief in traditional forms of authority.

This article will analyse Tennyson’s changing relationship to the United States, arguing that he mixed different forms of Anglo-Saxonism, cultural and racial, throughout his work. The poet first associated Americans with what he saw as the exploitative practices of the transatlantic literary marketplace, but the Civil War caused him to modify his opinion. After this conflict, he would maintain a personal preference for Southerners along with a distaste for “Yankees.” This discrimination paralleled an increased suspicion of the United States’ imperial ambitions, though his attitude to post-bellum America was mixed with admiration and feelings of Anglo-Saxon solidarity. As a result of what he understood as its superior federal system of political organization, he came to see the United States as the likely successor to a declining British Empire. He would eventually adopt an ideology akin to Manifest Destiny in “Kapiolani” (1892), a work that encapsulated his sense of a coming shift in global power.

The issue of copyright affected Tennyson’s early views on America. Due to the absence of an international copyright treaty, his work was reprinted in the United States without the need to pay royalties. This benefited Tennyson’s reputation, but not his bank balance (see Ledbetter). At the start of his career, he received a more favourable reception in the American than the British press, and by mid-century he had become the most imitated poet in America. Yet like many British writers, he was aghast at the apparent theft of his work in newspapers and pirate book editions. [End Page 87]

Significantly, Tennyson had felt bullied by the American editor Charles Wheeler into an early publication of his two-volume Poems (1842). Wheeler wrote to Tennyson to declare that if he did not allow Poems to come out, the firm of Little & Brown would produce an unauthorized version based on previously published works. The poet reluctantly agreed, correcting some of the earlier works for the new volume, while adding and abandoning others. Tennyson expressed his anger in an 1841 letter to Edward Fitzgerald, pointing out the civil-yet-threatening tone of Wheeler’s letter (Letters 1: 188).1 He would always associate Americans or, rather, the figure of the “Yankee,” with the commercially driven maltreatment that he had experienced in the early 1840s.2

Yet though it was no doubt important, copyright was not the main factor influencing his feelings about the United States. Of greater importance and complexity, as I will discuss below, were questions of Empire and the future of the Anglo-Saxon “race.” There has been a great deal of work on Tennyson and colonialism, but little on his association with Britain’s most powerful former colony.3 The only book-length study of Tennyson’s American reception is John Eidson’s Tennyson in America (1943). When scholars have read Tennyson transatlantically, the focus has been on his influence upon American writers.4 This has tended to obscure the fact that Tennyson was more popular in America than he was in Great Britain.5 Though his influence in the United States was, as the essayist Hamilton Wright Mabie wrote in 1892, “diffusive, pervasive, atmospheric” (553), the poet’s own relationship to...


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