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Imagining Language in America

Imagining Language in America: From the Revolution to the Civil War

Michael P. Kramer
Copyright Date: 1992
Pages: 260
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    Imagining Language in America
    Book Description:

    In this study of the rhetoric of American writings on language, Michael Kramer argues that the prevalent critical distinction between imaginative and nonimaginative writing is of limited theoretical use. Breaking down the artificial, disciplinary barriers between two areas of scholarly inquiry--the literature of the American Renaissance and the study of language in the United States between the Revolution and the Civil War--Kramer finds in various walks of intellectual life a broad range of writers who "imagined language" for the new experiment in self-government. Each of these men combined ideas about language with ideas about America so as to form cultural fictions, or creative renderings of the nation--its meaning, its character, and how it worked. In order to reassess American linguistic and literary nationalism, Kramer allows Noah Webster, whose influential grammatical and lexicographic works have been considered only marginal to literary history, to share the stage with more conventionally literary figures--the neglected Longfellow and the canonical Whitman. Then an essay on The Federalist and the pragmatic language-related problems faced by the founding fathers introduces revisionary analyses of two New England writers who confronted American culture and society through their Romantic critiques of language: the minister and theologian Horace Bushnell and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

    Originally published in 1991.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6226-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  5. List of Abbreviations of Frequently Cited Works
    (pp. xvii-2)
  6. INTRODUCTION: The Study of Language and the American Renaissance
    (pp. 3-32)

    The rebirth of American literary studies that begins withAmerican Renaissanceis based upon the disciplinary assumption that the proper study of the literary critic is words and not ideas.¹ Matthiessen set out to convince us, first of all, that we ought to take antebellum literature seriously asliterature, not as documentary sources for intellectual or social history. Under the aegis of Eliot, Richards, and the New Critics, he rescued antebellum literature from writers like V. L. Parrington and V. F. Calverton, underscoring the critic’s “obligation . . . to examine an author’s resources of language and of genres, in...


    • CHAPTER ONE “NOW is the Time, and This is the Country”: How Noah Webster Invented American English
      (pp. 35-63)

      Strictly speaking, Noah Webster didnotinvent American English. The language spoken in the United States, shaped by the host of diverse factors that constitute American culture in a complex and ongoing process of change and development—this language cannot in good conscience be joined syntactically to the subjectNoah Webster, nor to the verbinvent.¹ To be sure, Webster did try to have an impact upon the development of American English—and to an extent he did succeed: the enormous popularity and influence of theBlue-Back Speller(originally published as the first part ofA Grammatical Institute of the...

    • CHAPTER TWO “A Fine Ambiguity”: Longfellow, Language, and Literary History
      (pp. 64-89)

      We may not think ofambiguity—the term of tribute usually reserved for Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville—as the proper adjective for describing a poet and scholar like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. On the contrary, reviewers and critics since the nineteenth century have remarked upon the clarity, ease, and polish—the gentleness and gentility—of both his life and his verse; the word used over and again to characterize him has always beensimplicity, notambiguity.“He seems to have been always a man who felt very, very Simply,” wrote William Dean Howells, “and he spoke as simply as he felt.”...

    • CHAPTER THREE “A Tongue According”: Whitman and the Literature of Language Study
      (pp. 90-116)

      In the foreword to his edition of Whitman’sAn American Primer,Horace Traubel records a comment by the author on the subject of language, a comment invoked over and again by scholars ever since it became the starting point for Matthiessen’s account of Whitman’s poetry inAmerican Renaissance.“This subject of language interests me—interests me: I never quite get it out of my head,” the poet is reported to have said. “I sometimes think the Leaves is only a language experiment—that it is an attempt to give the spirit, the body, the man, new words, new potentialities of...


    • CHAPTER FOUR Consensus through Ambiguity: Why Language Matters to The Federalist
      (pp. 119-136)

      When John Adams urged Congress in 1780 to form “the American Academy for refining, improving, and ascertaining the English language,” it was evident to him, as it was to many of the Revolutionary fathers, that language was the indispensable medium of a government whose authority rested on the consent of the governed. In practical terms, this meant for Adams himself that, along with the academy’s formation, serious attention should be paid to the art of eloquence, “the instrument for recommending men to their fellow citizens, and the principal means of advancement through the various ranks and offices of society.”¹ For...

    • CHAPTER FIVE Language in a “Christian Commonwealth”: Horace Bushnell’s Cultural Criticism
      (pp. 137-161)

      Ever since Charles Feidelson classified Horace Bushnell as a “version of Emerson,” a growing number of scholars have sought to secure Bushnell’s place in American intellectual history by revaluating his contributions to the development of American education, theology, philosophy, literature, and sociology, and a major focus of this “rediscovery” has been the controversial minister’s views on language.¹ The work that most engaged Feidelson and continues to attract sustained critical interest is the same work that achieved its author’s notoriety in his own century—God in Christ(1849), a radical reassessment of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity with an extended...

    • CHAPTER SIX Beyond Symbolism: Philosophy of Language in The Scarlet Letter
      (pp. 162-197)

      Critics have been telling us for some time thatThe Scarlet Letteris about language. The tradition begins with the New Critics, and the classic statement of the argument belongs to Charles Feidelson, who identified the romance as a quasi-tract in American symbolism, arguing that Hawthorne’s “subject is not only the meaning of adultery, but also meaning in general; not onlywhatthe focal symbol [of the redA] means but alsohowit gains significance.” Feidelson explained that “since the very focus of the book is a written sign,” i.e., a single letter of the alphabet and so necessarily...

  9. CONCLUSION: From Logocracy to Renaissance
    (pp. 198-202)

    I will bring this study to a close by returning to the twin assertions with which Matthiessen defined and delimited his method and scope inAmerican Renaissance: first, that his five writers “felt that it was incumbent upon their generation to give fulfilment to the potentialities freed by the Revolution, to provide a culture commensurate with America’s political opportunity”: and, second, that we can learn much about the period when we observe these writers “discovering the fresh resources of words” (AR, xv, 30). Although my intention has been to challenge the authority of Matthiessen’s canon and the literary-historical assumptions that...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 203-234)
  11. Index
    (pp. 235-239)