In: KulturPoetik 2002, Heft 1


Larry H. Peer


Arnim Paul Frank/Kurt Mueller-Vollmer, The Internationality of National Literatures in Either America: Transfer and Transformation. Vol. 1.2: British America and the United States, 1770s-1850s. Göttingen: Wallstein 2000




This is an ambitious book. One of its fundamental assumptions, even assertions, is that interpretations of literary texts can be stripped neither from historical configurations nor from intertextuality. This is, no literary text exists in a vacuum and, although its discrete aesthetic valence is clearly highly individuated, its meaning and significance are part of both a polyphony of events, trends, traditions, and individual talents, a »literary historiography«, and are impregnated with alterity, are sites of heteroglossia, making the text an inevitable intertext or even heterotext. The complexity of any individual literary (con)text gives rise to the questions »Is literary history possible?« and »Is detailed literary criticism possible?« Frank and Mueller-Vollmer forge ahead in an attempt to answer these questions affirmatively. Their attempt to provide a large-scale synthesis of the literary history of the Americas is remarkably coherent and persuasive.

Their broad purpose is to demonstrate that the literatures produced in the Americas are exceptionally interliterary, not only among themselves but also, and more importantly, among the former hegemonial literatures of the English, French, Spanish and, to some degree, Portuguese languages. This particular volume limits itself to the period from the 1770s to the 1850s and to the intersection of textual surfaces from English and German linguistic traditions. Showing that, in general, Anglo-American authors in this period had a strong desire to write themselves away from British literature, Frank and Mueller-Vollmer detail the literary strategies as well as the complex moral and aesthetic deviating responses employed in creating new styles and modes of expression. Of particular interest for its strong evidence is the book’s argument that this period of American literature reveals a large-scale orientation towards German philosophical and poetic discourses.

Chapters on how American literature severed and yet maintained a connection to British literature and culture, as well as an examination of the configuration of German-American cultural transfer, are followed by well-argued chapters on aspects of the international history of Anglo-American literature. The book deals with the interculturalism of American humor, the Anglo-American pastoral tradition, the idea of literary nationalism in the early republic, the transfer of historical fiction into a distinctive American mode, and the complex, even vexed, mediation to European Romanticism, particularly in the German-speaking lands, in American transcendentalism.

It is this last aspect of American literary history that constitutes the most important contribution of Frank and Mueller-Vollmer’s book. Arguing that it is necessary to avoid segmenting American transcendentalism into groups of texts in favor of recognizing the movement’s discursive unity, they assert that key rhetorical topoi from the works of Schelling, the Schlegels, Schleiermacher, Goethe, Novalis, and others, are found transferred into the entire textual corpus. Understanding clearly that the success or failure of any cultural transfer cannot be measured by merely listing alleged influences, Frank and Mueller-Vollmer are careful to establish the exact conditions governing such sources and influences, so that specific features of American transcendentalism can be brought to the fore in an attempt to reconstruct the whole system of cultural transfer. As they unpack transcendentalism in this way, they discover, for example, that when Emerson and his friends began to explore and to appropriate the rhetorical posture of German Romanticism (in the 1830s), they were already well within a process of distinct transatlantic cultural transfer that had been proceeding for at least a generation, a process that included such important events as the first American publication of de Staël’s Germany in 1814.

In fact, this book’s discovery and demonstration that James Marsh played the fundamental role in the cultural transfer of German Romanticism to American transcendentalism during the 1820s and 1830s represents a breakthrough in the comparative study of Romanticism. It is known that Marsh’s deep influence on American philosophy is key to understanding the history of the early nineteenth century (he was John Dewey’s mentor), but his role as mediator of Romanticism has been at best neglected, at worst unknown. His translation of Herder for the American public had a wider effect than hitherto has been recognized, and his landmark essay Ancient and Modern Poetry (published in the North American Review) almost single-handedly introduced Romantic aesthetics to America. Too, the deep influence of Romanticism on American higher education is due primarily to his presidency of Dartmouth College, his professorship in philosophy there, and his establishment of the liberal arts curriculum at the University of Vermont.

It is not often that one can warmly praise a detailed study that represents the best of what real Comparative Literature is all about, but this book deserves high accolades. And kudos to the Wallstein press for producing a technically – and mechanically – accurate volume.

Prof. Dr. Larry H. Peer, Comparative Literature Department, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT 84602-6047, USA