On July 3rd, 1776, the inhabitants of the American colonies were British. The next day, they were American. Their writing, however—what we now call “American literature”—did not appear quite so suddenly. English Professor Ezra Tawil tackled the issue last night in a lecture entitled “American Exceptionalism and the Question of Style,” along with Department bigwigs Andrew Delbanco and Ross Posnock. Bwog All Things American Specialist Sam Schube sat in on the fun.
The title, “American Exceptionalism and the Question of Style,” makes Tawil’s point of view pretty clear. The phrase conjures images of flag-waving, democracy-touting capital-p Patriots. As Tawil duly noted, the mere mention of American exceptionalism in academia is “cause for disciplinary embarrassment.” Nationalist literature is at best passé, and at worst offensive. Is it possible that our national literature is no longer relevant?
We’ll get to that. First, Tawil, whose forthcoming book addresses the issue, explained the conditions, stakes, and process of Amerilit’s birth. Early citizens, Tawil said, were saddled with a cultural imperative: the creation of a national character, an established way of being American. Usually, this works the other way around. The British, having spent a good deal of time being British, over time came to write in a distinctly British manner. Americans, however, had no clear identity on Independence Day #1, except one of opposition to their former king.
Early America, Tawil noted, was technically post-colonial. And most post-colonial work, he said, is self-consciously different from that which preceded it—it’s written in a different language, say, or takes a new people for its subject. American literature didn’t quite work like that, mostly because it was still written in the King’s English. How, then, were early Americans to differentiate their writing from a British literature so darn similar?
Tawil held up Noah Webster as an early problem-solver. The reason we don’t spell “color” with that pesky “u”, it seems, is because Noah Webster didn’t want us to. If American expression was to be distinctly not-British, he reasoned, then why not start at the simplest level?
Webster’s American dictionary, Tawil said, was an early attempt to define American culture through American literature, and in contrast to the British version. The “exceptionalism” in the talk’s title comes from what Tawil called the American writer’s curious “difference in repetition”—the difference in its style. Truly American literature, he noted, came from doing something British with an American accent, literal or metaphorical. Early attempts—tough, short prose about farmers, mostly—were a bit off the mark, but soon enough, we were writing American literature, figuring out on the fly what exactly it meant to be American.
Posnock and Delbanco wrapped up the lecture with their own responses. True to Posnock-form, Posnock pointed out the danger in describing the American style, as we so often do, as natural and organic. Eager Delbanco was oh-so-eager to detail the history of early American lit’s difficulty in finding an audience, as well as the genre’s tendency to bloat English Department budgets around the country. Since that day in 1776, he said, we’ve been in a sort of “literary campaign to ‘Buy Local!’” Perhaps we need a few more farmers’ markets.