Scene4 Magazine-inSight

December 2010

Scene4 Magazine-The Steiny Road  To Operadom
with Karren Alenier

19th Century American Writers on Writing

While Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) was born in the 19th Century and influenced by prominent writers of that century such as William James (1842-1910), Henry James (1843-1916) and Gustav Flaubert (1821-1880), her work, both by date of publication and by innovative style, puts her solidly in the 20th Century. Brenda Wineapple, who has published a biography focused on Stein and her brother Leo (Sister Brother: Gertrude and Leo Stein, 1997), has complied 19th Century American Writers on Writing (TX: Trinity University Press, 2010), a survey of 57 American writers organized by year of birth beginning with James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) and ending with Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906). In between, these two writers, who bridge by birth and death the 18th and 20th centuries, come time-tested literary durables as Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849), Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), Herman Melville (1819-1891), Walt Whitman (1819-1892), Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), Mark Twain (1835-1910), Bret Harte (1836-1902), William James, Henry James, and Stephen Crane (1871-1900).  


19th Century American Writers on Writing is part of The Writer's World 19thCenturyWriters-crseries developed by poet Edward Hirsch. Hirsch approached Wineapple with this project before the first volume Polish Writers on Writing edited by poet Adam Zagajewski was published in 2007. Wineapple said in a short email interview conducted by the Steiny Road Poet that she was delighted to participate in the project knowing that fine writers like Zagajewski and Eaven Boland (editor of Irish Writers on Writing) were editing other volumes for the series. With the 2010 publication of 19th Century American Writers on Writing, the series offers seven volumes, including Arthur Sze's Chinese Writers on Writing, which was also published in 2010. While other volumes in The Writer's World series are not specifically limited to a particular timeframe, Wineapple made it clear that she and Hirsch had discussed the possibility of including 18th century American writers.


Since she is no expert on 19th century American writers, what interests the Steiny Road Poet about this collection of writing is how it informs the work of Gertrude Stein and current day writers. Themes Wineapple follows among work of the writers she has selected for this anthology include: freedom/self-reliance, nationalism/politics, morality/realism, nature/exploration, money, and a writing style of unadorned, clear language. A particularly strong thrust of 19th century American writers was how to distinguish their work from British writing and how to earn just monetary recompense. James_Fenimore_Cooper_by_JaBy opening with a mercifully brief quotation from James Fenimore Cooper's Notions of the Americans: Picked up by a Travelling Bachelor, a two-volume set that was published in 1828 (two years after publication of Fenimore Cooper's novel The Last of the Mohicans), Wineapple establishes a base for the development of American literature. Responding to a request from the Marquis de Lafayette to indicate how the Marquis was received in the States during a visit there, Fenimore Cooper used the opportunity to broadly discuss the American literary scene of his day, which boiled down to a "poverty of original writers…owing to the circumstance that men are not yet driven to their wits for bread." The aside here, of course, is how many American writers, especially poets, have ever been able to support themselves on money earned from their writing?

More or less, the problem of distinguishing what is British versus American writing ceased being an issue after the dawn of the 20th century. However, writers like Gertrude Stein, who spent most of her adult life living in France, still asserted in their writing their Americanness and discussed the persisting-to-this-day problem of writers getting paid for their work. One lingering concern about American versus British writing can be seen in the inconsistent spelling of certain words in American writing like "theater" (American) versus "theatre" (British), "catalog" (American) versus "catalogue" (British), "aging" (American) versus "ageing" (British), "dreamed" (American) versus "dreamt" (British), and etc. In reading Wineapple's anthology, the S. R. Poet noticed instances of British spellings punctuating the work of various authors, including Henry James who wrote in "The Art of Fiction" (published first in Longman's Magazine 4 in September 1884), "Don't think to much about optimism and pessimism; try and catch the colour [sic] of life itself." While no American writer from the 20th century on would spell the word "color" with a "u," Gertrude Stein can be discovered in such writings as "What Is English Literature" (N.B. In this essay published in her Lectures in America, Stein means both British and American literature) spelling "realize" in the British way—"realise."  In referring to "English nineteenth century literature," Stein wrote, "Some day I would like to be able to realise [sic] everything I feel about sentimental writing…" Perhaps, dear Reader, you think the Poet is splitting hairs about this spelling difference but the break away from British influence comes hard, especially in matters of how English is spoken and the delight Americans take in a British accent and the prejudice non-native speakers have for learning British English over American English.

Certainly, employing unadorned clear language was a way for American writers to distinguish themselves from the British. While mentioning Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Thomas Wentworth Higginson (friend and confidant of Emily Dickinson), and runaway slave Harriet Jacobs, Wineapple touts the writing of General Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) as "best epitomizing the plain style" and provides a short excerpt from his personal memoir, which was encouraged and praised by Mark Twain. MarkTwain-crTwain, a master of clear language, commented that Grant's Memoirs, published in the year of the author's death, was "a model narrative that will last as long as the language lasts." Gertrude Stein, who used plain words— predominately Anglo-Saxon in origin and who made Grant a character in her opera The Mother of Us All, considered the ruthless general's memoir one of the greatest American books. Wineapple comments in her introduction of Grant, "To the extent that the nineteenth century was the age of nonfiction narrative, Grant's Memoirs holds its own with such masterworks as Emerson's Nature, Thoreau's Walden, [Frederick] Douglass's Narrative, and Alice James's Diary, to name just a few."



Wineapple uses Mark Twain as a measure of what the best writing of 19th century American writers included. In the first paragraph introducing James Fenimore Cooper, she allows Twain to enter her writerly landscape with both barrels blazing. The paragraph begins, "In 1895, in his hilarious essay 'Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences,' Mark Twain put the kibosh on the prolific novelist Cooper, who had been the best-known writer of his time: 'Now I feel sure, deep down in my heart, that Cooper wrote about the poorest English that exists in our language…'. Still, Wineapple states in her preface that Fenimore Cooper anticipates Twain (think Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn) in his success at commercially selling the anti-intellectual, rough-and-ready character Natty Bumppo who is the protagonist of Fenimore Cooper's five novels known as The Leatherstocking Tales.


Maybe the 19th century popularity of Natty Bumppo, who embodies most of the 19th century themes that Wineapple follows—i.e. freedom/self-reliance, morality/realism, nature/exploration, explains why the American public to this day revels in unpolished, anti-intellectual public figures like George W. Bush and Sarah Palin.


Not every piece of writing presented in this anthology offers something meaty to chew on—some selections, like those from Abraham Lincoln, Julia Ward Howe (author of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"), poet Celia Thaxter, William Wells Brown (author of Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave Written by Himself) stand in support of better developed selections from other authors. From 19th Century American Writers on Writing, the S. R. Poet found juicy and still vital in the current writer's world such lines as:

"Therefore we love the poet, the inventor, who in any form, whether in an ode, or an action, or in looks and behavior, has yielded us a new thought. He unlocks our chains, and admits us to a new scene." Ralph Waldo Emerson from "The Poet"

"…no American publisher will meddle with an American work,—seldom if by a known writer, and never if by a new one,—unless at the writer's risk." Nathaniel Hawthorne from "The Devil in Manuscript"

"No man of genius writes for money, mfuller1-crbut it is essential to the free use of his powers, that he should be able to disembarrass his life from and care and perplexity." Margaret Fuller from "American Literature"

"The sentences are verdurous and blooming as evergreen and flowers, because they are rooted in fact and experience, but our false and florid sentences have only the tints of flowers without their sap or roots." Henry David Thoreau from A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers

"A great poem is no finish to a man or woman but rather a beginning." Walt Whitman from Preface to Leaves of Grass

"Oftentimes a word shall speak what accumulated volumes have labored in vain to utter: there may be years of crowded passion in a word, and half a life in a sentence." Thomas Wentworth Higginson from "Letter to a Young Contributor"

"…what are our immediate chances for a 'great American novel'?" John de Forest from "The Great American Novel"

"In no country in which literature has ever flourished has an author obtained so limited an audience." Henry Timrod from "Literature in the South"

"Some authors overdo the stage directions…" Mark Twain from Mark Twain—Howells Letters (to William Dean Howells)

"While the American literary imagination was still under the influence of English tradition, an unexpected fact was developing to diminish its power. It was humour [sic]…first noticeable in the anecdote or 'story'…common in the bar-rooms, the gatherings of 'country stores,' …at public meetings in the mouths of 'stump orators.' Arguments were clinched and political principles illustrated by 'a funny story.' It invaded even the camp meetings and pulpit. … so distinctly original and novel, … that it was at once known and appreciated abroad as 'an American story.'" Bret Harte from "The Rise of the Short Story"

"…unless one or two biographers are assassinated, no considerable man can hope for peace in Heaven—or, for that matter, in Hell. … The moral seems to be that every man should write his own life, to prevent some other fellow from taking it." Henry Adams from Selected Letters (to Charles Milnes Gaskell)

"The multitude, I am more & more convinced, has absolutely no WilliamHenryJames-crtaste—none at least that a thinking man is bound to defer to. To write for the few who have is bound to lose money, but I am not afraid of starving. …I have a mortal horror of seeming to write thin…" Henry James from William and Henry James Selected Letters (to William James)


Predominately 19th century American writers were white men, but Wineapple, who worked on this collection for over two years, has done due diligence in representing women and African American writers in this collection. As she explains in her preface, her selection was constrained by the topic focused on the craft of writing. Therefore she says such writers as Washington Irving, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Rebecca Harding Davis, Charlotte Forten, and Richard Henry Dana were not included because they had little to say on the topic. The S. R. Poet supposes Edward Bellamy (1850-1898) who wrote the very quotable utopian novel Looking Backward also did not produce any writerly commentary that met Wineapple's criteria. However, Wineapple included Edith Wharton (1862-1937), Edward Arlington Robinson (1869-1935), and Jay Chapman (1862-1933) who all lived and wrote well into the 20th century but whom Wineapple considered "nineteenth-century writers burdened and blessed with the same self-consciousness, the same sense of vocation, and the same troublesome goal, the making of a national literature."

While the Steiny Road Poet found entry to this volume challenging and felt some of the selections required an editor's note to clarify or anchor the piece (Wineapple said Trinity University Press constrained inclusion of notes), persistence paid off giving new insights to familiar 19th century American writers, arousing curiosity about unfamiliar minor writers, and providing a base for American writing through the 20th century into current time. Although Gertrude Stein was anxious to leave the 19th century behind and to clear a path into the future, Brenda Wineapple, however unintentional, makes Stein's debt to 19th century American writers clear. While 19th Century American Writers on Writing verges toward being an academic reference only, the book in paperback edition is priced economically low to encourage the general reading population to buy and enjoy it.


View other readers' comments in the Readers Blog

©2010 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2010 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier
Karren LaLonde Alenier is the author of five collections of poetry and, recently, The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas
and she is a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
For Prior Columns In This Series Click Here
For her other commentary and articles, check the
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December 2010

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