When I think of books and some of the greatest writers, I rarely note if the author is American or how his or her works contribute to our nation’s literary experience. But one book, Our Literary Heritage: A Pictorial History of the Writer in America, is a nice attempt to capture the writers of the United States from 1800-1915. The book authored by Van Wyck Brooks and Otto Bettmann, was published in 1956 by E.P. Dutton & Co.
I came across this book at Here’s A Book Store, Inc. located in the heart of the Brooklyn neighborhood I grew up in. This used bookstore has been serving the community for over four decades. I used to come there as a teenager, sometimes selling books to them, other times, snatching up old books that interested me, usually about baseball and later on, philosophy.
The book presents itself as “a history of American life seen through the literary window.”
It opens up discussing how Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography “was the first American book that was certainly a classic.” Washington Irving is labeled as “the first literary talent that the country had known,” and Edgar Allan Poe was viewed as “a literary genius without a parallel on the American scene.”
The book’s strength is that it offers over 500 photographs and drawings that reflect upon our nation’s rich literary history from several centuries.
Many authors are featured or mentioned, including ones we still talk about today, including Noah Webster, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Henry Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Henry Adams, Stephen Crane, Jack London, Ellen Glasgow, Gertrude Stein, Sinclair Lewis, and Eugene O’Neill.
These writers wrote under such different eras and conditions than anything today’s writer confronts. It’s almost impossible to compare the works of the 19th and early 20th century with life and literature in 2017.
Though many creative works, whether from 1817 or 2017 cover issues that every generation must confront – life, death, love, war, politics, and the pursuit of our dreams, there is little correlation between America’s earlier days and today’s times. Technology, globalization, and mass communications dramatically alter today’s landscape.
The earlier books of our country’s days seem more serious, profound, and urgent than today’s books. Of course that’s just a generality, but the works from say 150 years ago just sound more sophisticated, saying so much with so few utterances. More books back then revolved around issues of life and death. Talking about the Civil War seems far more important than 50 Shades of Grey. But we can’t put down today’s books. Many of them reflect struggles and important matters but most of them involve individuals rather than a nation or planet under attack. Even books on terrorism don’t feel the same way as when reading about World War I. Even the level of vocabulary and word-selection used by writers from a century or two ago seems to reflect a more serious tone and representative of a more thoughtful and insightful era.
Brooks, who won a Pulitzer Prize, and Bettman, one of the world’s most noted experts in the field of the graphic arts, team up to put together an intriguing book that peers into lost times.
Twain, Melville, and Whitman noticeably got more ink than any other writer shown in this 242-page book. Perhaps that tribute is the testament to the impact those writers had on scholars back in 1956.
Our American literary heritage has plenty of great writers and books. I consider any book sold in America to be American, regardless of where an author was born or a work originally published. Shakespeare is as American to me as anyone else, as his works continue to influence and inspire our culture here, despite the fact this playwright from England died several centuries before America was even founded and colonized.
So whether you loved Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, Melville’s Moby-Dick, Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter, or Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow, you’ll find a stroll down memory lane as you turn the yellowed pages of Our Literary Heritage. It’s a beautiful view.
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