- The Importance of Feeling English: American Literature and the British Diaspora, 1750–1850
Where did all of Clarissa's letters go? Why were they excised from the American printings of Richardson's sentimental novel of seduction? How and why did Mackenzie's "man of feeling" become a successful candidate for marriage in his American incarnation? How did Jane Austen reincorporate the American "man of feeling" as a new English hero whose emotions got the better of his tongue? And then, why did James Fenimore Cooper take this man back again and put him in leather stockings? How was it that Pope's form of the couplet came to be used to revolutionary ends by American poets? How did the British Gothic "fantasy of a purified and renewed community" become, in American hands, a "fantasy of community made whole" (104)? Such questions represent the fascinating empirical leg work of Leonard Tennenhouse's new study, The Importance of Feeling English: American Literature and the British Diaspora, 1750–1850. They are the means by which Tennenhouse sets out to show that late colonial and early national British American culture was characterized by a diasporic mechanism, whereby "a displaced people, in imaginatively asserting their identity as if it were their culture of origin, transforms that culture into one capable of reproducing itself outside the mother culture" (17–18).
Let me put his endeavor in proper context. Early American studies used to be characterized by the hunt for an exceptional American "character" or "mind," one that germinated in the seventeenth century (preferably in New England) and saw its full flowering politically with national independence and culturally in the American Renaissance. Since at least the 1980s, scholars have been reading colonial American and early national U.S. literature in less teleological and nation-bound terms. By widening the lens to take in the whole of the Atlantic world, scholars have taken apart any unitary concept of "American" literature or culture and instead have sought to understand various Atlantically oriented subcultures (British American, Black Atlantic, Dutch-American, etc.); they have looked at imperial cultures comparatively and sought hemispheric patterns of creolity; and they have tracked not only how the Old World remade the "New," but also the cultural circuits by which the colonial spheres helped to constitute the seats of empire. The most recent wave of scholarship is uncovering that it was not only the colonial period that operated in an Atlantic orientation, but that even the United States in the nineteenth century created a national culture not out of its own sinews, as it were, but rather via its remembrances and reconstitutions of other places around the Atlantic. Paradoxically, national independence could make the cultural attachment to imagined European homelands all the stronger.
I would situate Tennenhouse's new book within the latest development of this transatlantic trend of scholarship. Along with Nancy Armstrong, he pioneered the method of attributing American origins to British eighteenth-century forms by sourcing the sentimental novel to colonial captivity narratives in The Imaginary Puritan: Literature, Intellectual Labor, and the Origins of Personal Life (1992). In his latest book, he continues to be interested in cross-Atlantic literary borrowings and remakings. This time, though, his readings build toward an argument about how diasporic cultures create themselves by usefully adjusting the received cultural [End Page 142] materials of their imaginary home to create a new identity most fit for their actual circumstances. Tennenhouse surveys in depth such British authors as Locke, Berkeley, Pope, Richardson, Mackenzie, Walpole, Radcliffe, and Austen; and, on the American side, John Witherspoon, Franklin, Rowson, Brockden Brown, Freneau, Brackenridge, Noah Webster, Stowe, Hawthorne, and Melville. His chapters encompass studies of how language and rhetoric, the sentimental novel, the man of feeling, and the Gothic are reconstituted to serve the ends of American communities in-formation. His interest is not so much in establishing the details of social transformation in the western Atlantic via an evidence-intensive historiography. Nor is he really exploring American feelings toward England and Englishness (for...