The literary relationship between England and America has been a source of continuous tension since the era of colonial Puritanism. Until quite recently, nearly every American memoir, history, sermon, novel, poem, or play that came under the scrutiny of comparative English criticism tended to suffer by the comparison—if it came under English scrutiny at all. Two centuries after the original settlement of our country, the common English view was that provincial America had produced nothing of genuine importance. “The Americans have no national literature,” The British Critic observed in 1818, “and no learned men.” “In the four quarters of the globe,” Sydney Smith asked in 1820, “who reads an American book?” The Athenaeum predicted in 1831 that “this want of originality in American literature is, we think, likely long to continue.” Even as...


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