- Literature, American Style: The Originality of Imitation in the Early Republic by Ezra Tawil
by Ezra Tawil
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019.
pp. 272. Cloth, $75.00, ISBN 978-0812250374.
Critical conversations about the birth, development, or zenith of American literature often begin with the vexing question J. Hector St. John de Crèveouer posed in his Letters from an American Farmer (1782): What is an American? Remove the “an” and the question takes on a different tenor: What is American about American literature? What are American letters, if not sad derivations of their English and European superiors? The very term “American” is often in quotations to signal its invented, parodic, or even ironic status. Indeed, Ezra Tawil writes in a clarifying note, “American Literature” refers less to a “set of cultural objects than to the manner in which they wrapped themselves in the mantle of Americanness.”1 And early American style, in turn, is both “national” and “notional,” an idea advanced rhetorically in order to actualize the as-yet-undetermined style of the new nation.2
In Literature, American Style, Tawil’s subject matter is, itself, a crucial intervention in the field of American literary studies because it foregrounds something—the “choice of words and the manner of arranging them”— that is often ignored. By choosing “style” as the focal [End Page 109] point, Tawil’s work responds to recent calls in the field to attend to literary aesthetics. In a 2016 special issue of Early American Literature on the topic, to which Tawil contributed, the editors begin with the blunt observation, “Our field has always had a vexed relationship to aesthetics.”3 The vexation, they argue, lies in the field’s heavy historicist and archival bent; reading texts for the ideological work they perform or the evidence they contain. We instrumentalize the text, thinking of it as a lens, a light, a clue; the text is only meaningful when it points to other phenomena outside of it. Tawil’s book instead aims to recover “the particularity of the literary,” as the journal editors put it, and its aesthetic, affective, and rhetorical registers. “I believe that the question of linguistic style takes on a gravity and seriousness all its own, particularly in the literature of the early United States—or at least that it rewards semiautonomous treatment as a cultural question unto itself,” he writes toward the end of his study.4
What are some of these rewards? Tawil helps us see them in his intricate readings of the linguistic and literary styles of several canonical works of the early national period, but also in their authors’ metacritical commentary on style. It is in these authors’ insistence on their style being pure or plain or American or artless or indigenous or absent that we find the American style struggling to emerge. American style, Tawil submits, is deeply self- conscious and conflicted. But it is not enough to state this and move on. How this style emerges discursively and dialectically has wide-ranging implications for how we understand the early national period’s political and literary preoccupations and their legacies in twentieth-century criticism. The impulse toward “reflexive romanticism” has meant only tacitly treating late eighteenth-century literary style on its own terms and presuming that it was naturally more cosmopolitan simply because the nation hadn’t yet severed its European ties. Tawil’s book places a check on the field’s anachronistic leanings toward the nineteenth century when making claims about literary style, claims first advanced in the work of Perry Miller and Sacvan Bercovitch in the field’s nascence.
Tawil takes issue with the two competing claims that have been critically reworked over the last century of American literary criticism: American literature is derivative; American literature is distinctive. In the introduction, Tawil reorients the debate by advancing a both/and thesis about European influence [End Page 110] on late eighteenth-century American writing. Embracing the paradoxical notion of American style as an “original imitation,” Tawil poses more compelling analytical questions than whether American style is exceptional or not: What did late eighteenth...