Literary Nationalism's Role in the Formation of American Literature and National Identity
Walt Whitman and Washington Irving contributed to the formation of American literature through the very use of language. This language, then, served as a positive influence in placing America on its own literary map. Irving, for example, was one of the most popular and leading names who believed that we should model a new American identity in fiction. Later, of course, others followed his notion, i.e., the form of satire. Whitman is commonly accepted to be the first indisputable American poet. His use of free verse, different from European traditions, was used to symbolize America in its expansion, in its freedom, and its refusal to be confined to rank, custom, power structures, etc.
Both Irving and Whitman, in their own rights, contributed towards the making of literature which was essentially part of a historical movement overall in America in regard to literature nationalism.
In literary circles, Irving will always be remembered for having created the character of Rip Van Winkle. His "Rip Van Winkle, A Posthumous Writing of Diedrich Knickerbocker" carved the path for the influence of the short story in becoming an American literary art form. It was the humor in the form of satire with which Irving reached his audience. As such, he became the first American writer to acquire international literary fame. "Rip Van Winkle" is set in New York and encompasses the Dutch colonizing New York. As the reader digests the language, attempts to visualize the milieu of the tale are combined with the effects of early society in New York.
Irving's writing form of satire may have offset other forms of writing during his time towards literary nationalism. "Rip Van Winkle" is also representative of the beginnings of folklore, which is something Irving is credited with in bringing to America. Allegedly, too, at that period of time, America was the leading participant with the short story form. Irving managed to take a simple story blending the nature of romance and fantasy and his writing technique only to arrive with such a well-written piece of literature. I say well-written denoting the popularity and praise of the story. The story is not, however, pronounced with the passion for this or that matter requiring the depth of analysis as can be with Whitman's works. Irving comes across as being very harmonious and somewhat balanced in his form of prose and Whitman is quite serious and emotional.
Forty-six yeares later after Irving's publication of "Rip Van Winkle," Whitman delivers his "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." This poem depicts a specific event as well as the aftermath of the Civil War. The speaker in this poem is very much agonizing over Lincoln's death as well as over the country's involvement with the Civil War. While Irving's piece is one of sweet humor and graceful style, Whitman's is of sorrow and concern. Irving is the lesser serious with his ability to create humorous visuals, whereas Whitman uses symbols--the star in "O powerful western fallen star!" representing Abraham Lincoln and "the lilac-bush tall-growing with the heart-shaped leaves of rich green" representing the token for the deceased.
I would not say with certainty that "Rip Van Winkle" served the political needs of America, but culturally, it illuminated literary circles because of its uniqueness and use of imagination. It was through Irving's experiences, then, that he was enabled to improve his craft and entertain the public, both in America and abroad which gave him international recognition. His transfer of American literature to Europe announced to the reading public that America could make its own efforts towards establishing its own form of literary nationalism independent of European traditions. This has a ring of truth to it aside from the fact it also sounds contradictory in light of the fact that the source he used as a guideline was material from an old German folklore.
Diedrich Knickerbocker, a pen name of Irving's, was a humorous creation of his and his form of satire just explored more imaginative avenues of writing. He took bits and pieces of reality and made them funny. The very idea that Rip Van Winkle slept during the whole entire Revolutionary War is creative in itself. Prior to falling asleep, he was incessantly nagged by his wife and he didn't want to work (some things never change, even throughout history).
In observing the growth of America, Irving wanted to create a new form of literature with his use of satire taken from experiences as opposed to making use of those experiences by following current trends. This helped to establish a balance with the commonalities of literatre of his time, i.e., entertain the reader with history.
Whitman, too, was observing America as a growing nation. With his "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," the reader might be quick to realize that it is a poem representative to a well-known event, and that the effects of the experience are put into the reader's mindset of emotions. Whitman is writing to the people, and for the people, of his own experience of emotion in such a way that they, too, will experience. Whitman doesn't deploy fantasy like Irving did and rather than entertain his reader, he pulls on the sympathetic nature of the reader. The fact that Whitman lived during the Civil War and Lincoln's assassination was such that he was enabled to represent his historical event in a form of literature. This should convince his readers that it is a piece that serves as a contribution towards nationalism in literature.
With the prose of Irving, humorous literature was introduced into a fictionalized account of a memorable character within the confines of a short story. Historical circumstances were linked into Irving's tale and Irving's style and form were linked into a piece of national identity in America.
With the poetry of Whitman, a new form of serious literature came alive with thought provoking language--genuine emotional language. If Whitman's poem was published shortly after Lincoln's assassination, surely he would have readers with comparable emotions who would greatly feel his pain. They would also see, too, that it was not all about the death of one individual, but too many. More than one major historical event was the basis for Whitman's language and they both work together to comprise American literature as well as uphold an American nation.
Finally, Irving gave America a lovable, yet fictional, hero of the community. Whitman reminds America about one hero who helped to shape it, and other heroes who helped to make it. One is born out of fantasy and imagination and one is born out of reality and emotion. Both contributed to the makings of literary nationalism in America and continue to be influential to the present day.
When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd (in its entirety)
- When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd by Walt Whitman : The Poetry Foundation
1 / When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d, / And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night, / I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.