Sarah Kemble Knight and Calls for a Distinctly American Literature

sarah20kemble20knightDuring our discussion of Sarah Kemble Knight’s Journal, I asked students to think about a broad topic regarding the first publication of Knight’s text in 1825 in relation to calls for a distinctly American literature during the early part of the nineteenth century. I have written about this before in regards to the turn towards Native American characters and more specifically King Phillip; however, I think that the publication of Knight’s Journal does something different. It does not focus on interactions between Native Americans and colonialists, the Vanishing American, or the idea of a prelapsarian Native American community. Instead, it shows an “American” literature well before the formation of the United States as an independent nation.

After providing some background, I asked students the following question: “Thinking about when Knight’s Journal finally appeared to the public (1825), how does it play into and relate to the contemporary calls for a distinctly American literary voice during the early part of the nineteenth century?” In a survey course, especially one where I consciously scheduled text out of chronological order, a brief introduction to the calls for a distinctly American literature were  not enough to allow them to provide an in-depth response. Thinking about this question with them, I think we came to an answer that is worth discussing in some detail.

Sydney Smith, in his 1820 review of Adam Seybert’s Statistical Annals of the United States of America (1818), famously questioned what America had given the world.

In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book? or goes to an American play? or looks at an American picture or statue? What does the world yet owe to American physicians or surgeons? What new substances have their chemists discovered? or what old ones have they  analyzed? What new constellations have been discovered by the telescopes of Americans? — what have they done in the mathematics? Who drinks out of American glasses? or eats from American plates? or wears American coats or gowns? or sleeps in American blankets?

6656348-mThis was a question that authors such as Charles Brockeden Brown, Royal Tyler, Susanna Rowson, and others sought to answer with their works during the latter part of the eighteenth and early part of the nineteenth century in regards to literature. However,  a truly distinct American literature did not arise till Washington Irving’s The Sketchbook of Geoffery Crayon, Gent (1819-1820) and beyond. While Irving may have started to usher in a distinct national literature, there was still work to be done. We have to remember that Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The American Scholar” (1837) still tackled this question.

In 1825, Theodore Dwight brought Knight’s Journal to the public. Writing in the introduction, he argues that we should pay attention to Knight’s text because it provide us with a distinctly American voice that chronicles her experiences during her trip from Boston to New York and back in 1704-1705. He writes,

The object proposed in printing this little work is not only to please those who have particularly studied the progressive history of our country, but to direct the attention of others to subjects of that description, unfashionable as they still are; and also to remind the public that documents, even as unpretending as the following, may possess real value, if they contain facts which will be hereafter sought for to illustrate periods in our history. (85)

Here, Dwight drives home the point that Knight’s Journal shows the full history of America, even though when Knight wrote Britain still controlled New England. Through this move, Dwight calls upon his audience to think about literature from before the Revolutionary War as American, something we do now in our literature courses. As well, even though he does not mention that Knight was born in Boston, he does say she was a resident of Boston. This fact points to the argument that Dwight puts forward: Sarah Kemble Knight is a distinctly American voice because she was born, resided in, and wrote about America before it was a nation.

Following this line of thought, Dwight continues by stating, “Subjects so closely connected with ourselves ought to excite a degree of curiosity and interest, while we are generally so ready to open our minds and our libraries to the most minute details of foreign governments, and the modes of men of distant countries, with which we have a collateral connection” (85). Through this statement that readers should focus on what is close as compared to what appears across the pond, Dwight espouses the thoughts of other critics and authors during the same period such as James Fenimore Cooper, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, and Lydia Maria Child.

What makes Dwight’s “Introduction” interesting to me, at least in regards to calls for a distinctly American literature, hinges on the fact that he proposes Knight’s travelogue/journal from 1704-1705 as a distinct voice rather than texts  deal with the struggles that settlers faced with Native American cultures and just to survive. As well, Dwight’s positing of Knight’s Journal as American, while espousing a national identity, challenges the idea of nationhood because when Knight composed her journal, she was a British subject, not an American, yet Dwight claims her as American. This is not a thought I have fully fleshed out, but I think it is something worth thinking about.

What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below.

Bush, Sargant, Jr. . “Introduction.” Journeys in New Worlds: Early American Women’s Narratives. Eds. William L. Andrews, Sargent Bush, Jr., Annette Kolodny, Amy Schrager Lang, and Daniel B. Shea. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996. 69-83.

 

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