Brahmin School of American Literature Flourishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A small group of writers and academics, located principally in Boston, set out to define the qualities that would make a distinctly American literature. The group, which came to be called the Brahmins, called for writers to treat American subjects but to do so using the literary forms of Europe, particularly England, as models for constructing fiction and poetry. Brahminism’s influence began diminishing with the rise of literary naturalism and realism in the United States.

Summary of Event

Through most of the nineteenth century, literary tastes in the United States were determined by a relatively small circle of men and women in and around Boston. Many were descendants of families who had settled in New England in the seventeenth or early eighteenth centuries. Most of the men had attended Harvard, where they were taught by professors such as Edward Everett Everett, Edward , William Ellery Channing Channing, William Ellery , and William’s brother Edward Channing Channing, Edward . These three men argued that the American man of letters should be cultivated, knowledgeable about art and literature, gentlemanly in deportment, and concerned with religion and morals. Literature;American Brahmin School of literature Holmes, Oliver Wendell Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth Lowell, James Russell Boston;Brahmin School of literature [kw]Brahmin School of American Literature Flourishes (1880’s) [kw]School of American Literature Flourishes, Brahmin (1880’s) [kw]American Literature Flourishes, Brahmin School of (1880’s) [kw]Literature Flourishes, Brahmin School of American (1880’s) [kw]Flourishes, Brahmin School of American Literature (1880’s) Literature;American Brahmin School of literature Holmes, Oliver Wendell Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth Lowell, James Russell Boston;Brahmin School of literature [g]United States;1880’s: Brahmin School of American Literature Flourishes[5080] [c]Literature;1880’s: Brahmin School of American Literature Flourishes[5080]

Educated at Harvard during the 1820’s, Oliver Wendell Holmes had readily adopted the prevailing ideas about the value and function of literature. Writing in 1859 for the newly established Atlantic Monthly Atlantic Monthly magazine, Holmes had described the Brahmins as the untitled aristocracy of America, the class that produces the true scholars whose aptitude for learning is both congenital and hereditary. He used the term “brahmin,” which refers to the highest caste of Hindu society (Brahman), to name the group. Bred for generations to appreciate the finer things in life, many believed that this class was well suited to determine what is best in American culture and society.

Holmes’s friend and a fellow professor, poet James Russell Lowell, became the principal spokesperson for the Brahmins’ philosophy of American literature. Lowell influenced the development of literary theory through numerous articles in publications such as the North American Review North American Review and, especially, the Atlantic Monthly Atlantic Monthly , which he had helped found in 1857 and for which he had served as the first editor. If there exists any document that can be considered a manifesto of the Brahmins’ ideology, it is Lowell’s essay “Nationality in Literature,” published in the North American Review (July, 1849). Intending to set the stage for future literary production in the United States, Lowell insisted that if American authors wish to distinguish themselves from English writers, they should choose American subjects. Lowell and other Brahmins believed, however, that the forms of English—and not American—poetry Poetry;American and fiction were most suitable for American writers, and they encouraged aspiring authors to model their work on the English tradition.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

(Library of Congress)

Lowell made it clear that first-rate literature was not “national” at all, but instead appealed to people of all nations and of all times. He and others associated with the Brahmins also spoke firmly about the dual purpose of literature—it could serve as entertainment, but it also must provide readers moral, spiritual, social, and civic instruction.

Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow most exemplified the qualities the Brahmins expected in the new American literature. From the time he joined the Harvard faculty in 1836, Longfellow had been a leading figure on the Boston literary scene. His poems, such as “The Song of Hiawatha,” “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” and “Evangeline,” used English meter and rhyme schemes to relate American tales. Longfellow was a staunch proponent of the idea that a poet needed to absorb the culture of other nations to be truly successful in his or her own land. While at Harvard, he instituted the study of comparative literature, and his efforts abroad to introduce European readers to American literature were matched by his work at home to champion the study of European writers.

Outside the immediate circle of the Brahmins, the writers whose works most closely approximated the criteria set by them were all from the northeast United States. The writers included poet Poetry;American William Cullen Bryant Bryant, William Cullen from Massachusetts and fiction writers Washington Irving Irving, Washington and James Fenimore Cooper Cooper, James Fenimore , both from New York. Bryant’s poems, written in a stately, cadenced language, were hardly distinguishable from those of the Augustan poets of eighteenth century Great Britain. Irving’s sketches had a certain regional flavor to them, but in almost every instance, he conveyed a genial underlying moral to his humorous tales that made his work acceptable to critics demanding that literature teach as well as delight.

Cooper chose American subjects as his themes. His series The Leatherstocking Tales introduced the reading public to the excitement of America’s early days, when early settlers clashed with American Indians. His “savages,” though, spoke with a diction and eloquence that would have made them at home in eighteenth century London drawing rooms. Nathaniel Hawthorne was admired by the Brahmins for his examination of the country’s Puritan heritage, but there was also a certain sense of discomfort with the Gothic quality of much of his work.

By the 1880’s the theories promoted by Lowell, Holmes, and Longfellow had taken hold of American literary production. Boston had become what Ralph Waldo Emerson Emerson, Ralph Waldo had predicted several decades earlier: the city whose appointed destiny was to lead the process of civilization in America. Young writers such as William Dean Howells Howells, William Dean and Henry James James, Henry accepted without question the idea that Boston was America’s cultural capital. Howells, a native Ohioan, moved to Boston to be closer to the city’s cultural life, eventually working as an editor at the Atlantic Monthly. Atlantic Monthly

Howells and James, however, were part of a generation that would eventually replace the Brahmins’ theories of literature and culture with ones that stressed concepts the Brahmins would have found uncomfortable. Realism, naturalism, and aestheticism gradually replaced the genteel tradition championed by the Brahmins, and new voices such as those of Mark Twain Twain, Mark and other regional writers were given equal status with the accepted icons of American poetry Poetry;American and fiction.

Significance

The influence of Lowell, Longfellow, Holmes and the other Brahmins on both the development and study of American literature extended well into the twentieth century, largely because the scholarly class, including college professors, had been familiar with the ideas promoted by the Boston-based intelligentsia whom these men represented. Lowell’s influence as a critic remained strong for decades; George Saintsbury, England’s most astute and influential critic of the late nineteenth century, called Lowell the best critic the United States had yet produced. Generations of schoolchildren have since read poetry by Longfellow and Bryant and fiction by Irving and Cooper as staples of the school curriculum.

The tide began to turn against the Brahmins after World War I. A new generation of scholars began to see in the writings of other nineteenth century figures a literature more distinctly American than that created by the Brahmins and their disciples. These new critics discovered that, parallel to the fiction and poetry of Brahminism, the United States had spawned another form of literature, which had been founded on Emersonian ideas about self-reliance and celebrations of the New Adam—a person whose character and values were shaped exclusively by the American experience.

The great revolution in literary studies elevated the work not only of Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne Hawthorne, Nathaniel but also Herman Melville Melville, Herman , Henry David Thoreau Thoreau, Henry David , Mark Twain, and Walt Whitman, as masterpieces of a truly American literature. People still read the Brahmins, but much of Brahminism is now considered a literature reflective of the cultural mores of the times in which they were composed.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Broaddus, Dorothy C. Genteel Rhetoric: Writing High Culture in Nineteenth-Century Boston. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999. Outlines the development of ideas about the role and characteristics of American literature and summarizes strategies used by Lowell, Holmes, and others to give legitimacy to their vision.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Buell, Lawrence. New England Literature Culture: From Revolution Through Renaissance. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Discusses developments of the middle decades of the nineteenth century, a time when leaders of the Brahmins formulated their ideas about the nature and function of American literature. Demonstrates the influence of class and class consciousness in shaping the work of individual authors.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Calhoun, Charles C. Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004. Thoughtful assessment of Longfellow’s career. Outlines his influence on Americans’ view of Europe and his efforts to serve as an unofficial ambassador of American culture to Europeans.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Duberman, Martin. James Russell Lowell. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966. Contains a chapter on Brahmin society, detailing the relationships among the men whose ideas influenced the formation of culture in Boston during the nineteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gibian, Peter. Oliver Wendell Holmes and the Culture of Conversation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Examines Holmes’s principal methods for promoting his theories of literature and culture. Includes commentary on Holmes’s development of the idea of the Brahmin caste in New England.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McGlinchee, Claire. James Russell Lowell. New York: Twayne, 1967. Reviews Lowell’s career and assesses his ideas about the requirements for the development of a distinctively American literature.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Small, Miriam R. Oliver Wendell Holmes. New York: Twayne, 1963. Outlines Holmes’s career as an author, highlighting his ideas about the importance of culture in shaping literature.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Story, Ronald. The Forging of an Aristocracy: Harvard and the Boston Upper Class, 1800-1870. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1980. Explains how Harvard served as a base for the writers whose work influenced the development of literary theory in Boston during the nineteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williams, Cecil B. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. New York: Twayne, 1964. Analyzes Longfellow’s career as a poet and discusses his relationship with literary and academic figures of his day.

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