Suggesting that there is a fundamental difference between American and European literature means much more than acknowledging that the culture produced by geographically distinct regions is similarly distinct, because it suggests that there are much deeper underlying symbols and tropes which mark these cultural productions as distinctly American or European regardless of the wide variety of genres and themes present in the literature of either region. While the claim of an identifiable distinction between American and European literature feels accurate due to the clear differences between American and European culture, this claim requires critical examination because of the potential for stereotype and condescension inherent in it. Examining some of the more important factors which might produce a recognizable difference between these two canons, as well as the processes responsible for the formation of literary canons in the first place, reveals that the differences between American and European literature is inextricable from the historical and cultural forces which shaped the development of either region's political and societal organizations.
The first step in identifying the differences between American and European literature is a recognition of the clear differences in the historical development of cultural production in either region, because one cannot attempt to describe any national or transnational literature without considering the political and historical forces which shaped these nations. In short, Europe has had a largely contiguous history, and as such, the production of literature and culture in general in Europe has steadily built upon everything that came before it, so that any literature produced in Europe cannot be considered outside of the context of the continent's long, recorded history. In contrast, for the most part the canon of American literature has only included those texts produced since the first white settlers first came to continent. This is because, as John Guillory notes in his book Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation:
In order to answer the question of what 'representation in the canon' means within the larger context of […] political culture, we must acknowledge at the outset that our concept of 'social identity' is a product of that culture, and that only within that culture can the category of an author's racial, ethnic, or gender identity found a politics of curricular revision. (Guillory 5)
Guillory recognizes that the defining features of a national literature are inextricable from the political and cultural forces of that nation, because the idea of a distinct national literature is dependent upon the distinct nature of any given nation. Briefly noting the political and cultural forces which went into the creation of America will serve to highlight this fact, and help to explain how America developed a distinct literary tradition even though it has been predominantly populated and ruled by people of European descent.
The arrival of European settlers over the course of the last six centuries precipitated a massive genocide of the indigenous population, such that the robust cultural productions of the Native American Indians were lost to history except for the fragments which survived the various genocides, forced relocations, and intentional cultural destruction. Recognizing this fact actually reveals one of the more important factors which has produced the visible differences between American and European literature, because the removal of indigenous populations coincided with the intentional construction of an American identity entirely distinct from its European roots. The American Revolution was not only a political separation from England and Europe in general, but also a cultural separation, and this cultural separation was dependent upon the utter decimation of any culture already present in the geographical area that would become America. Thus, while European literature draws upon a long history, American literature depends upon the assumption of a new, uninhibited political and cultural landscape. This becomes clear when one considers two authors considered exemplars of their respective national backgrounds who were also contemporaries, Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain.
These two authors present an ideal means of evaluating the difference between American and European literature, because they each embody their respective regions' literary traits while uncovering some of the ideological assumptions which underlie those traits. For instance, Mark Twain's work (and even the public image of Twain himself) embody "three complex figures who rose from regional folk origins to the level of national myth: the rural deadpan Yankee, the tall-tale telling backwoodsman, and the black-faced minstrel" (Messent & Budd 14). However, one must recognize that calling identifying these figures as being "from regional folk origins" is only partially correct, because "folk" in this context does not mean the same thing as when it is used in the context of European literature.
While European folk literature stems from a long history of oral tradition dating back as far as recorded history, American folk actually represents the intentional creation of an imaginary prehistory, as if the figures and tropes which inhabit it were somehow present before the relatively recent arrival of European settlers. Thus, the defining features of American literature stem from an imaginary American history, which helps to explain some of the ostensible simplicity of thought and writing that is considered a hallmark of American authors, from Mark Twain to Ernest Hemingway (it is pointless to consider more recent authors in the context of a national canon, because just as economies have become increasingly globalized, so too has cultural production, such that the segmenting of more contemporary authors or texts within strictly national categories is generally useless if one is attempting to consider the meaning of those works). Twain's work serves to reinforce the notion of this prefabricated folk history which has served to construct and confine American identity since, and once again, one can look to the political developments of the period to see why this is the case.
As Joseph Kronick notes in his essay "Writing American: Between Canon and Literature," "the tendency to fix and limit the number of texts that properly constitute a canon takes place when there is rivalry between groups and a perceived threat to tradition and authority," and this could not be more true than in the case of Twain's work, the majority of which was produced in the tumultuous years following the American Civil War, when the political and cultural identity of America was literally being fought over (Kronick 44). Twain's work served to present a contiguous image of American literature and identity that transcend the differences which led to the Civil War, thus generating and reiterating a notion of American literature dependent upon a kind of folksy, ostensibly simple interpretation of the world. This defining feature of American literature is actually celebrated and commented upon by one of Europe's greatest humorists, Oscar Wilde.
Oscar Wilde's short story "The Canterville Ghost" follows the story of an American family moving to England as a result of the father's job as the American minister to the British court, and Wilde's representation of the American family in contrast to the traditional European ghost serves to highlight some of the historical and cultural differences between American and European literature. After the British lord informs Mr. Otis, the new minister, that there is a ghost in the house, Otis replies by saying:
I will take the furniture and the ghost at a valuation. I have come from a modern country, where we have everything that money can buy; and with all our spry young fellows painting the Old World red, and carrying off your best actors and prima-donnas, I reckon that if there were such a thing as a ghost in Europe, we'd have it at home in a very short time in one of our public museums, or the road as a show. (Wilde 3)
This attitude continues throughout the story, so that even when Otis and his family finally do come to terms with the fact that there is a ghost in the house, they simply apply their simple American logic to him. For example, when Mr. Otis finally comes face-to-face with the ghost, who haunts the house with loud moans and the sound of his creaking chains, Otis simply says "I really must insist on your oiling those chains, and have brought you for that purpose a small bottle of the Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator. It is said to be completely efficacious upon one application, and there are several testimonials to that effect on the wrapper" (Wilde 23). Rather than be frightened, Otis simply presents the ghost with one the products created as a result of America's split from Europe nearly a century before, and thus embodies the kind of manufactured identity which characterizes American literature.
The image of the traditional European Gothic ghost is met by the new American identity, which renders it impotent, and serves to demonstrate the key difference between European and American literature discussed above; the ghost represents the long history of Europe which influences all of its cultural production, while Otis represents the new American identity created after the region's break from England and its European roots. Thus, Otis and…
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