AMERICANS began dreaming of a distinctly American literature long before it came into its own. As the poet and patriot Philip Freneau, a veteran of the American Revolution, observed, "a political and a literary independence [are] two very different things - the first was accomplished in about seven years, the latter will not be completely effected, perhaps, in as many centuries."
Certainly, there were new things to write about. Americans had settled in the New World, where they experienced nature as a wilderness - demonic, to some minds, edenic to others - but in either case, very different from the mapped and cultivated nature of Europe. Americans were building a new kind of society, free from the constraints of hereditary aristocracy, state-established churches, and other European social forms.
But well into the 19th century, American literature - and the arts in general - still struck many observers, European and American alike, as underdeveloped: too derivative of European models on the one hand, or too rudely provincial and homespun on the other.
Americans writing in the English language could scarcely ignore the works of Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Pope, Bunyan, Scott, Byron, Wordsworth, and the King James Bible, but they also could not ignore the distance that separated the two countries. Insofar as literature is generated out of life (the time and place in which a writer lives) and out of the verbal matrix of language and previous literature, American literature took on the dual character of an English heritage and an American milieu.
In their jointly written history of American literature, "From Puritanism to Postmodernism," Richard Ruland, an American professor, and Malcolm Bradbury, a British professor and novelist, have combined the perspectives of their two nationalities in a concise and invitingly readable overview of American writing from the 17th century to the present. Ruland is credited with having contributed primarily to the sections on colonial and 19th-century literature and the discussion of poetry; Bradbury, with the m odern period and the novel, as well as with initiating the project.
Following in the footsteps of the critic Hugh Kenner, the authors of this book see Modernism as a profoundly, although not exclusively, American movement, with its emphasis on repudiating the past and inventing "A Homemade World" (the title of Kenner's study of American Modernism).
To the Modernists - a diverse, often contentious group that included romantics and classicists, abstractionists and social realists, cosmopolitan expatriates and sturdy celebrators of the "American grain Puritanism was the enemy. America's Puritan past was identified with sexual repression, social conformity, materialism, and anti-aestheticism. More recently, however, subtler critics have found in the Puritan heritage the roots of transcendentalism, self-reliance, belief in one's "inner voice," and a sen se of idealism.
Recognizing the elements of truth on both sides, the authors propose: "The Puritan imagination does not explain the extraordinary variousness American writing was to achieve, but it certainly does not deserve the status of an eternal negative adversary. Puritanism may have set certain limits on the American imagination; it was also one of its essential roots."
Beginning with the earliest true stories of adventure and accounts of Indian captivity - and, of course, the story of Pocahontas - the authors proceed through the 18th and 19th centuries, gracefully integrating discussion of important individual figures with the overall literary history of their times. Especially admirable is their sympathetic and intelligent treatment of writers like Longfellow, Whittier, Bryant, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes.
They were considered their country's finest in their lifetimes but later consigned to the "Genteel Tradition," replaced in the pantheon by the formerly neglected or marginal figures of Emerson, Whitman, Melville, and Dickenson.
But at the approach of the 20th century, the pace becomes rushed and the discussion of trends and influences soon degenerates into lists of various schools and factions.
Ruland and Bradbury are awfully keen on anything new: If Modernism was a good thing, Postmodernism strikes them as even more exciting. Indeed, as they approach contemporary - living - writers such as Mailer, Updike, Doctorow, and Didion, the tone shifts into a rather fawning, servile boosterism distinctly at odds with the more judicious outlook of the book's earlier sections.
Resolutely au courant, they pay lip service to the recent academic emphasis on acknowledging America's pre-Columbian past and the contributions of previously neglected groups.
But amid much talk about the "pluriverse" of diversity, there is actually very little discussion of the contributions of writers who were (or are) homosexual, no serious mention of Asian-American writers, and only the briefest reference to the influential feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
There is no mention whatsoever of Louisa May Alcott. Postwar Jewish and black writers - the familiar names of Mailer, Malamud, Bellow, Arthur Miller, Richard Wright, James Baldwin - are duly praised, but the praise sounds a little shopworn.
If the authors' attempts to track the course of Postmodernism are less successful than their discussion of Puritanism and other early movements, it only goes to show that it is harder to write insightfully about the literature of one's own time than about literature that has endured the test of time.