American literature is typically seen as something that inspired its own conception and that sprang into being as a cultural offshoot of America’s desire for national identity. But what of the vast precedent established by English literature, which was a major American import between 1750 and 1850?
In The Importance of Feeling English, Leonard Tennenhouse revisits the landscape of early American literature and radically revises its features. Using the concept of transatlantic circulation, he shows how some of the first American authors — from poets such as Timothy Dwight and Philip Freneau to novelists like William Hill Brown and Charles Brockden Brown — applied their newfound perspective to pre-existing British literary models. These American “re-writings” would in turn inspire native British authors such as Jane Austen and Horace Walpole to reconsider their own ideas of subject, household, and nation.
The enduring nature of these literary exchanges dramatically recasts early American literature as a literature of diaspora, Tennenhouse argues — and what made the settlers’ writings distinctly and indelibly American was precisely their insistence on reproducing Englishness, on making English identity portable and adaptable. Written in an incisive and illuminating style, The Importance of Feeling English reveals the complex roots of American literature, and shows how its transatlantic movement aided and abetted the modernization of Anglophone culture at large.