"Who Reads An American Book?"

I point you with amusement toward this interesting bit of literary playgrounding, courtesy of the Associated Press:

Nobel literature head: US too insular to compete

STOCKHOLM, Sweden—Bad news for American writers hoping for a Nobel Prize next week: the top member of the award jury believes the United States is too insular and ignorant to compete with Europe when it comes to great writing.

As the Swedish Academy enters final deliberations for this year’s award, permanent secretary Horace Engdahl said it’s no coincidence that most winners are European.

“Of course there is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can’t get away from the fact that Europe still is the center of the literary world … not the United States,” he told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview Tuesday.

Speaking generally about American literature, however, he said U.S. writers are “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture,” dragging down the quality of their work.

“The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature,” Engdahl said. “That ignorance is restraining.”

(Click here for the article in its entirety.)

Apart from the “I know you are, but what am I?” tone of the remarks, I got a kick out of this because it sounds remarkably similar to the condescending tones Europeans used when tut-tutting American writers in the 19th century.

At that time, of course, Americans had something to prove. Despite defeating the most powerful army in the world during the American Revolution — and even as a teeth-gnashing Thomas Jefferson provided foreign skeptics with skeletons to prove that American mammals were as large, or larger, than their counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic — Europeans were convinced that Americans, for the most part, had merely gotten lucky. As far as Europeans were concerned, Americans were mentally, physically, and culturally deficient.

While Horace Engdahl might sniff that American writers are “insular” or “too sensitive to trends,” his complaints are strictly amateur hour when compared to those of 19th century critic Sidney Smith, who blasted all things American in the January 1820 issue of the Edinburgh Review:

“The Americans are a brave, industrious, and acute people; but they have hitherto given no indications of genius, and made no approaches to the heroic, either in their morality or character. They are but a recent offset indeed from England; and should make it their chief boast, for many generations to come, that they are sprung from the same race with Bacon and Shakespeare and Newton. Considering their numbers, indeed, and the favorable circumstances in which they have been placed, they have yet done marvelously little to assert the honor of such a descent, or to show that their English blood has been exalted or refined by their republican training and institutions…

“…they have done absolutely nothing for the Sciences, for the Arts, for Literature, or even for the statesman-like studies of Politics or Political Economy…

“In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book? or goes to an American play? or looks at an American picture or statue? . . .

“When these questions are fairly and favorably answered, their laudatory epithets may be allowed: But, till that can be done, we would seriously advise them to keep clear of superlatives.”

Suffice it to say, Americans were not amused–and it was in this rather poisonous atmosphere that an upstart American writer named Washington Irving dared to publish The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon in London in the spring of 1820.

The Sketch Book had been well-received on its publication in the United States in 1819 — rightly so, as it’s the book that contains “Rip van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” — and now, in an effort to protect his copyright from European piracy, Irving nervously issued a version of his book in the English market, under the imprint of London’s most distinguished publisher, John Murray.

The Sketch Book not only sold spectacularly well — it can, in fact, rightly be called America’s first international bestseller — but it won over even refined British readers, who grudgingly conceded that this American upstart could write. “Everywhere I find in it the marks of a mind of the utmost elegance and refinement,” wrote a surprised William Godwin, “a thing as you know that I was not exactly prepared to look for in an American.”

So, there you go, Horace Engdahl. European disdain for American writers is as old as American publishing itself. American writers have heard it all before, and they’ve generally proven the critics wrong. I’m confident that American writers will continue to rise above such condescension and defy such expectations — for their ability to do so is also as old as American publishing itself.

Thanks to Brian D for bringing the AP article to my attention!

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One response to “"Who Reads An American Book?"

  1. “That ignorance is restraining.” We Americans might be ignorant, but we can learn. The S-weeds? Well, they still remain insignificant.

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