Christopher Flynn

Americans in English Literature, 1770-1832: A Breed Apart

Christopher Flynn, Americans in English Literature, 1770-1832: A Breed Apart. Aldershot and Burlington: Ashgate, 2008. 162 pp. ISBN: 978-0-7546-6047-7 (hardback). £50 (UK), $99.95 (USA).


Reviewed by Nicholas Birns, Eugene Lang College (online, 2010)


Christopher Flynn’s book starts perspicaciously by comparing William Robertson’s History of America to Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, saying that the American Revolution ‘ruined’ (3) Robertson's implied counterbalancing of Britain’s imperial rise to Rome’s decline, as chronicled by Gibbon. Robertson, interestingly in the light of twenty-first century events, linked the British exploration to the Crusades as part of a larger European drama of expansion.

Flynn crisply argues that Robertson’s admitted disappointment in his 1784 interim report that the United States was forever ‘lost to the empire’ (4) was a symptom of how US independence led not to the dismantling of expansionist narratives but to the depiction of the ex-colonials as savages having much the same inferior relationship to British civilization as the pre-Columbian indigenous people—though necessarily far less ‘behind.’ Using Johannes Fabian on the denial of coevality, Flynn asserts that after the Revolution, British discourses of America turned spatial distance into temporal superiority. Britain was at the center of civilization, and therefore more advanced than its country bumpkin former dependents. Flynn’s focus on the temporal gives the book a theoretical slant that, as the author notes, differentiates his project from the narrower versions of New Historicism that sometimes operate within a more defined, quasi-Hegelian sense of a given period.

Flynn’s first chapter continues with the theme of temporality launched in the Introduction, adding Bakhtin and his theories on time and heteroglossia in the novel to Fabian’s concept of coevality. This chapter is notable for its theoretical daring, especially its willingness to see historical representations as contingent upon more theoretical theorizations of time. This makes Flynn’s discussion of how the American Revolution was represented in British novels more than archival or documentary. Appropriating the phrase ‘military fragment’ from the serialization of Samuel Jackson Pratt’s Emma Corbett (1780; thus written before the Revolutionary War even ended!), Flynn sketches how the representation of war disrupts lines of communication in the novel that, because of the gaps, latencies, and indirections of address virtually inherent in the epistolary form, complicate an already unsteady epistemic frame. The subject matter of American independence is, if anything, more destabilizing on the level of form than on that of content, as it requires long narration of battles and military encounters that trespass on the discursive norms of the letter with their emphasis on sociality and sympathy. What is of value about this chapter, which also analyzes such radical British writers of the 1780s and 1790s as Helen Maria Williams and Robert Bagg, is that it is useful not just in regard to the military fragment but also in regard to the norms of the epistolary novel themselves. Anybody teaching a survey of the eighteenth-century English novel will find this chapter instructive even if they are emphasizing Clarissa or Evelina. Notably, Flynn’s headlong dive into theory actually makes his book more accessible and adaptable to a variety of intellectual and pedagogic contexts; it is an audacity that is most welcome.

Flynn’s second chapter concerns romantic visions of America as a potential paradise for liberty from Blake to Coleridge through Wollstonecraft and Shelley. On the face of it, this is the obverse image of America from that found in novels such as Pratt’s: instead of creating a temporal inconvenience by its frustration of Robertson-style narratives of British national progress, America in the reformist visions of Blake and Coleridge would appear to offer a chiliastic fulfilment. But Flynn cogently demonstrates that assumptions and hierarchies remained, observing that ‘Blake saw Americans as too English to be universal…Coleridge saw them as not English enough’ (47) to participate in the national genius. This paradigm of exclusion foreshadows, for example, how Australians and Canadians have been treated more recently in the Anglophone canon, as neither sufficiently inside to be familiar nor sufficiently outside to be exotic. Blake also begrudges the Lockean rationalism of the American Revolution, but Flynn nonetheless gives a more political view of Blake than Blake criticism usually does and suggests that, like Mary Wollstonecraft, he was in fundamental sympathy with American revolutionary goals but did not have any interest in the Americans as a people. Gilbert Imlay, an American himself, had a far more concrete sense of the US, and this, argues Flynn, seeped into his then-partner Wollstonecraft’s representation of the country in The Emigrants (1793). Though Imlay no doubt played on the frisson of the frontier in claiming the Kentuckian identity Flynn also ascribes to him, at heart he was, like Shelley’s American ancestors, a far less glamorous New Jerseyan. But Imlay had lived in Kentucky and knew enough about the frontier to see it as something other than the tabula rasa Coleridge and Southey envisioned in their thwarted dream of establishing ‘Pantisocracy’ in north central Pennsylvania. For the poets, it might as well have been in the 1740s as in the 1790s; they planned in willed disregard of the fact that a constituted, flourishing people actually dwelled near enough that they would have to be dealt with, if the foolhardy scheme had ever indeed gotten off its feet. Flynn is gently satirical in his treatment here even as he realizes that at the core of the problem lie modalities of representation that simply would not permit a three-dimensional version of the US to be seen.

Flynn’s third chapter concerns savagery and civility, and explores how America was seen both as a Rousseauistic Eden and as a venue for future possibility. Although these categorizations are less prejudicial than the ones encountered earlier, they still separate the levels of time on which the Old and New Worlds reside. Charlotte Lennox, in her final novel, Euphemia (1790), takes the reader through a series of identities—Native American, Dutch, Scottish, even ancient British—in a way dazzlingly elucidated by Flynn. Flynn notes that Lennox had spent her youth in America, but does not mention her first novel, Harriott Stuart (1750), which is especially relevant as Flynn talks about the difficulty of establishing an authoritative first-person American voice in English fiction—a narratological feat Lennox at least attempted in Harriott Stuart. Lennox knew America too well to see it as a terra nullius, but Flynn suggests that less experienced writers such as Wordsworth saw America as a refuge from what Flynn, applying the terminology of Lévi-Strauss, calls a ‘hot’ chronology (as opposed to the cold chronology of the longue durée, of less event-filled history). Wordsworth posits America as the fulfillment of hopes for liberty, but liberty for a solitary individual, not a group identity for Americans. The Excursion (1814) was published during the War of 1812, and one wonders if part of the issue here was not only America fighting a war with Britain but the US being the enemy of Napoleon, who by this time was an overt dictator and imperialist. A relevant figure here is Anna Laetitia Barbauld, who Flynn does not discuss but who in ‘Eighteen Hundred and Eleven’ (1812) managed to sketch a redemptive western hemisphere in which Messrs. Madison, Monroe and the other really existing Americans did not have an onstage role.

Keats, for one, might have spoken less bluntly about Americans than he did in his letters to his brother had not the two countries been recently at war. But Flynn shows that by this time the image of Americans in British literature had passed beyond inflection by empirical events. That this absence is so similar to the absence of non-whites in romantic reveries about primitivism ballasts Flynn’s point that anti-Americanism was a more genteel and presentable version of racism. Indeed, it was as pervasive. One sees this again and again in nineteenth-century Britain—the reluctance of Britons to recognize American cultural achievement. These Britons were often neither jingoists nor Colonel Blimp Tories, but people fully cognizant of the desire of former and current British colonies for independence and national self-definition. Yet they refused to give up on cultural Englishness even as they had no wish to have Britain literally rule any of its colonies. Matthew Arnold did not believe American literature should be read apart from English; Anthony Trollope wanted Englishness to survive England. This attitude was the direct descendant of the cultural topoi Flynn excavates here: the denial that Americans could produce anything culturally valuable, partially out of simple prejudice, partially out of a desire not to concede that any other kind of cultural substrate of the English language could exist other than Englishness. Of all the figures Flynn discusses, only Byron significantly saw beyond this, and Byron’s vision of himself being read by people on the banks of the Ohio provides a charming grace note amid a welter of blinkered opinion.

The insistence on American rawness and otherness was not only a kind of Orientalism, but also a fixed set of attitudes so ingrained as to be unalterable. Flynn’s fourth chapter indeed shows British attitudes little affected by the diplomatic rapprochement of the early 1820s. Although Flynn suggests that American writers were aware of English attitudes and sought to counteract them—Joel Barlow’s Columbiad (1807) being an almost too-deliberate attempt to show the English that America was also a nation and could produce a national literature—when travelers such as Basil Hall and Frances Trollope came to the US they saw little culture. Hall was enthusiastic about America’s robust economic expansion in the 1820s; Trollope was famously grumpy about the country’s lack of manners in the early 1830s. But neither recognized that the American literature that would actually be part of world literature, such as the works of Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper, was being produced. These attitudes actually got in the way of reading, as when Cooper was misunderstood as more of a frontier novelist than a novelist of manners.

Flynn’s book is monographic in approach, and this shows in some limitations and omissions. That Thomas Campbell’s poem, Gertrude of Wyoming (1809; referring to the county in Pennsylvania, somewhat near Pantisocracy country, that was the scene of an Indian ‘massacre’ during the Revolutionary War), is not mentioned is a pity. Not only was Campbell’s poem arguably the most renowned work produced by a British writer about America in this period, it has also been the object of fruitful recent scholarly research by, among others, John Waters, whose work would have fit in well with Flynn’s general argument. Barbauld also should have been mentioned, as her cultural thematics in ‘Eighteen Hundred and Eleven’ play right into Flynn’s contentions. Flynn’s opening theoretical preface is so good that one wishes for an equivalent postlude that would give a concluding overview. Instead, the fourth chapter in particular seems content to ply largely furrowed ground—little of what Flynn says about Frances Trollope will surprise anybody—and also to muffle some theoretical implications. For instance, Flynn’s discussion of four-stages cultural evolution theories and their applicability to the Americas would have been helped by citing George Dekker’s discussion of ‘stadialism’ in The American Historical Romance (1987). But Flynn does clearly indicate a central point, namely that, whatever the inadequacies and hypocrisies of the United States then and now, which as Flynn says ‘people who teach in universities’ (6) are more than willing to admit, anti-Americanism as an uninflected attitude is as invidious as any other prejudice and prevented the British from understanding who their former colonials really were. Flynn’s book also makes a good pairing with Elisa Tamarkin’s treatment of continuing American deference to England in Anglophilia (2008). Long-established assumptions about Anglo-American relations in the long nineteenth century are being re-interrogated here, and Flynn’s book—especially in the theoretical boldness of its first half—makes a vigorous and compelling case for the deep-seated nature of British cultural prejudice against Americans in the earlier part of that period.


© Symbiosis, 2010