Karen L. Kilcup, “Feeling American in the Poetic Republic” (pp. 299–335)

Recent scholarship concerning nineteenth-century American poetry has challenged petrified attitudes that depict it as almost exclusively sentimental, unoriginal, and meritless. Yet, absent a historicized conceptual framework for assessing the considerable achievements of these poets, we still undervalue and oversimplify their work. Poetry reviews published between 1820 and 1840 show how properly calibrated emotion shaped readers’ tastes and identities, individual and national, in what I call the poetic republic: a country in which nearly everyone read, wrote, or heard verse. Critics’ appraisals intimate their anxious investment in creating authentic American poetry. Given British contentions that Americans were uncivilized, this anxiety coalesced around several related questions: How should writers approach the subject of Indians? What affective stances should poets assume? Was sentimental discourse, especially on Native Americans, inherently “savage”? This essay illuminates the period’s genre norms, concurrently questioning two current critical conventions. Demonstrating how poetry—including its producers and its publics—participated energetically in American nation-building, the essay complicates Benedict Anderson’s assumption that newspapers and novels singularly shaped national self-concepts. It also establishes how sentimentalism was attacked much earlier than today’s scholarship asserts. Simultaneously accommodating and disciplining wilderness (whether formulated as untamed nature and its wild inhabitants, or as uncontrolled, feminized sentimentality), reviewers collectively endorsed dispassionate, elevated nature poetry—often inhabited by Native Americans—as prototypically American, while they disparaged affective excess that they typically gendered as feminine. These verse norms strongly impacted the reception and reputations of the period’s two principal poets, William Cullen Bryant and Lydia Sigourney.

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