August 22, 2014

Birth of Paulding: homebred feeling

James Kirke Paulding's main goal in literature was to promote the United States, its history, its people, and its ideals. "Mr. Paulding's writings are distinguished for a decided nationality," summed up one contemporary editor, who noted all his characters were distinctly American.

Born in Dutchess County in New York on August 22, 1778, he was the son of William Paulding, who had assisted financially with the American Revolution. Another family member was involved with the capture of John André. His first literary effort, however, was less lofty: "in a frolicsome mood" he joined with his friend Washington Irving to produce the satirical Salmagundi (beginning in 1807). That humorous periodical, however, laid the groundwork for his more purposeful satire, The Diverting History of John Bull and Brother Jonathan during a period in which English critics were particularly harsh in commenting on American culture (Paulding's personification of Great Britain had "a devilish, quarrelsome, overbearing disposition, which was always getting him into some scrape or other").

In fact, Paulding began experimenting with a variety of literary forms: satire, poetry, novels, drama, and biography. Perhaps because he was writing so early in American literary history, at a time without significant competition, he became fairly well known as a man of letters. He was also named Secretary of the Navy in 1838.

Nineteenth century critics seemed truly to admire Paulding, in part because of his connection to Irving. One contemporary noted "his affection for the democratical institutions of his country" was easily seen in his work and, further, his writing style was not "polished" but expressed "boldly and carelessly, without paying too nice a regard to the decrees of taste, and the canons of criticism." Some accounts suggest he never modified his rough drafts or preplanned his plots, preferring spontaneity in his work.

Perhaps that lack of polish explains the excessive length of his ambitious poem The Backwoodsman (1818), an early rallying cry for Americanism in literature. As he says in his preface, his hope was to invite young authors to focus their attentions to home and the United States. He cast away the legendary writers of the past like Homer, who represented an uncivilized age. Following this "humble theme" of nationalism, the poem evokes the landscape, history, and character of the United States as a source of literary inspiration. Further, though Paulding admits that art and poetry have not been the focus in this new country, he looks forward to the day when American culture overtakes European culture as superior:

Neglected Muse! of this our western clime,
How long in servile, imitative rhyme,
Wilt thou thy stifled energies impart,
And miss the path that leads to every heart?
How long repress the brave decisive flight,
Warm'd by thy native fires, led by thy native light?
Thrice happy he who first shall strike the lyre,
With homebred feeling, and with homebred fire;
He need not envy any favour'd bard,
Who Fame's bright meed, and Fortune's smiles reward;
Secure, that wheresoe'er this empire rolls,
Or east, or west, or tow'rd the firm fixed poles,
While Europe's ancient honours fade away,
And sink the glories of her better day,

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