Home  »  Volume XV: English COLONIAL AND REVOLUTIONARY LITERATURE EARLY NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART I  »  § 11. The Literary Wars between England and America

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

I. Travellers and Observers, 1763–1846

§ 11. The Literary Wars between England and America

When the strife of arms was settled by Treaty of Ghent in 1814, a literary war between Great Britain and America burst into flame. It had long been smouldering. In the Travels of the Rev. Andrew Burnaby, of the Church of England, there was little to effend the jealous or sensitive American. This genial clergyman went through the “Middle Settlements,” beginning with Virginia, in 1759 and 1760. His slender volume, published in 1775, had reached a third edition by 1798, being revised and enlarged, and was still valued in 1812 when Pinkerton chose it for his collection of travels in all parts of the world. Burnaby’s affection for the colonies is only second to his love of England. He balances the advantages and disadvantages of North and South, and of Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. At “Prince-town” he finds “a handsome school and college for the education of dissenters, erected upon the plan of those in Scotland,” with “about twenty boys in the grammar-school, and sixty in the college.’ There are “only two professors, besides the provost.” He sees beautiful homes along the Raritan River, and handsome ladies at “Brunswick”; but the people of Rhode Island “are cunning, deceitful, and selfish”—though he adds: “After having said so much to the disadvantage of this colony, I should be guilty of injustice and ingratitude, were I not to declare that there are many worthy gentlemen in it, who see the misfortunes of their country, and lament them.” The lower classes at Boston are insufferably inquisitive; yet “Arts and Sciences seem to have made a greater progress here than in any other part of America.” By 1798 Burnaby might well have revised his prediction that “America is formed for happiness, but not for empire.” Before this there had been critics more hostile, like J.F.D. Smyth; but in British travellers who really belong to the period about 1800, there is a new and characteristic note of displeasure. Weld remarks that the Pennsylvania farmers “live in a penurious style”; they are “greatly inferior to the English.” The roads are “execrable,” and the Americans in general are prying. In Ashe, who had expected too much, the reaction against both people and customs is violent; he grieves because at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, he “did not meet with a man of decent literature”; and this is the mildest of his abuse. Weld, Parkinson, Ashe, and Bradbury, in a line, raise and re-echo the note of censure. Before Bradbury’s work was published, there was a dismal chorus from the great British periodicals. As early as 1814 The Quarterly Review was chiming in, to be duly followed by the Edinburgh and the British, and by Blackwood’s Magazine. Both Gifford and Sydney Smith lent their voices, and Southey was supposed by the Americans to have produced one of the bitterest attacks upon them. Various causes exasperated the discussion—discontented emigrants, discontent in England at the emigration, vainglory in America, especially over the outcome of the second war, the sensitiveness of Americans to the charge of inquisitiveness and lack of reserve, and, by no means least, the pirating of English books by American publishers.

The strife was at its height from 1814 to 1825. “In the four quarters of the globe, who reads and American book? or goes to an American play? or looks at an American picture or statue?” Such were the cordial questions put by Sydney Smith in The Edinburgh Review for January, 1820. The sourness of the reviewers, great and small, reacted upon new books of travel, and prospective observers when they crossed the ocean came with the prepossission that democratic institutions in America had corrupted good manners. There was a recrudescence of the old theory, once formulated by Pauw, that everything deteriorated when transplanted from Europe. Fearon (1818)—“no lover of America,” said Sydney Smith,—Harris (1821), Welby (1821), and Faux (1823) gave the English public the reading it enjoyed, and the publishers welcomed fresh manuscript. “Have a passage ready taken for ’Merriker,” whispers Mr. Pickwick’s friend Weller to Sam. “Let the gov’ner stop there till Mrs. Bardell’s dead… and then let him come back and write a book about the ’Merrikins as ’ll pay all his expenses, and more, if he blows ’em up enough.” Evidently the painful animadversions had not ceased in 1837; they were perhaps generally mitigated after 1825. Captain Basil Hall in 1829, Fidler in 1833, Thomas Hamilton in 1833, Captain Marryat in 1839, and Thomas Brothers in 1840, keep up the unlucky strain, sometimes with more, and sometimes with less good humour. Brothers is of opinion that “there is in the United States more taxation, poverty, and general oppression than ever known in any other country.” And in January, 1844, The Foreign Quarterly asserts that “As yet the American is horn-handed and pig-headed, hard, persevering, unscrupulous, carnivorous,… with an incredible genius for lying.” Ere this, however, better sense was prevailing. Basil Hall, though preferring the manners of aristocratic England, was not unkindly, nor was Mrs. Trollope (1832) unsympathetic. Dickens himself, having followed the Ohio and the Mississippi to St. Louis, and having visited Looking-Glass Prairie, in 1842 published his American Notes, in which he “blows” em up” with moderation. The courteous Sir Charles Lyell (1845) was unfortunately justified in a dislike of American boasting.

Meanwhile the Americans, sensitive as well as vainglorious or patriotic, on their part had not been idle, whether in the magazines or in books. Niles’ Weekly Register, and The North American Review, with Edward Everett as editor, hurried to the defence, and Timothy Dwight, Irving, Fenimore Cooper, and Paulding were among those who, with or without finesse, parried the foreign thrusts. Robert Walsh wrote An Appeal from the Judgments of Great Britain respecting the United States (1819), while John Neal of Portland carried the fight into the enemy’s camp by contributing to Blackwood’s Magazine from 1823 until 1826. After Dwight’s death his Travels in New England and New York were published, four substantial volumes, representing vacation journeys which he had taken for reasons of health from 1796 on. They are full of exact information on every conceivable subject—on the prevailing winds, on the “excellencies of the colonists of New England,” “their enterprise and industry, their love of science and learning, their love of liberty, their morality, their piety,” on the superiority of soil and climate, etc. But the serious vein was not only one for such a contest, as Paulding was aware when he wrote the anonymous John Bull in America, or the New Munchausen (1825), which for its time was effective as an allegorical satire upon English opinion in relation to travellers. It is now less amusing than the strictures that called it forth. But there is something trivial about the whole episode.