June 30, 2012

Mathews: a new generation

"We are a new generation, for good or evil," said Cornelius Mathews in a speech before the Eucleian Society at New York University on June 30, 1845. This new generation, according to him, was poised to create the defining culture of the still-young United States. In his speech, in fact, Mathews coined the term already floating in his circle for this movement: "Young America." As he said:

Whatever that past generation of statesmen, law-givers and writers was capable of, we know. What they attained, what they failed to attain, we also know. Our duty and our destiny is another from theirs. Liking not at all its borrowed sound, we are yet (there is no better way to name it,) the Young America of the people: a new generation; and it is for us now to inquire, what we may have it in our power to accomplish, and on what objects the world may reasonably ask that we should fix our regards.

In particular, novelist/editor Mathews believed the generation should fix upon literature and other cultural arts in order to create an American identity. "I therefore, in behalf of this young America of ours," he said, "insist on nationality and true Americanism in the books this country furnishes to itself and to the world."

Though the sentiment was not particularly unusual in this period, Mathews and others (including  anthologist Evert Augustus Duyckinck and John L. O'Sullivan, editor of the Democratic Review) gave a name to an idea: that America was young, but growing, and that it was ready to achieve maturity.

*Much of this information is owed to Edward L. Widmer's Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City (2000).

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