As an American literary nationalist, John Neal (1793-1876) used four characteristic motifs which he perceived as uniquely indigenous: a caustic tone or attitude, the literary use of the Indian, the interest in and narrative exploration of our history and national past, and the dedication to a colloquial style in tandem with rendering of distinctly American character types. After an overview of Neal's life and work, this study examines first Neal's belligerent tone as a device in the systematic repudiation of British literary models. As found in his essays for Blackwood's Magazine and in his quirky prefaces to the novels, Neal's tone is anything but subtle. It is, instead, a caustic assault on the British literary establishment, particularly those British travellers who visit America and publish books derogatory of the American scene. Neal's vituperation is aimed also at those American magazines and their editors who curry British favor and hold editorial policies of distinctly British stamp. Finally, Neal's tone seeks to subvert the reputation of the literary gods, from the moderns like Johnson, Wordsworth and Byron, to the classics like Milton and Shakespeare. A second motif in Neal's work is his literary use of the Indian. From his earliest delineation of Indian character in Keep Cool (1817) to a more fully-drawn characterization in such works as Logan (1822) and two Indian short stories, Neal's treatment betrays contradictory views of the Indian. There is an ambivalence in the portrayals, by which the redman is presented as both Gothic fiend and Romantic noble savage, a creature both morally corrupt and morally innocent. Neal's use of history and the national past as a third motif was direct and uncomplicated. His reliance on the historical events of the Revolution--a popular subject of the era--was literal, resulting in a faithful recording of historical fact, but often handled in a fashion which disrupted the narrative flow. Novels like Seventy-Six (1823) and Brother Jonathan (1825) are marred by historical matter poorly integrated into the logic of plot. History was mechanically tacked on to the narrative, bearing little real significance to the development of character or motivation. In Rachel Dyer (1828), however, Neal learned to portray historical events in an effective cause and effect relationship with character and action. Events surrounding the witchcraft frenzy at Salem in the late 1690s are handled here with skill and honesty; plot becomes a logical result of both the physical and psychological forces of history. The last part of this study examines Neal's deliberate use of the vernacular, a vigorous, often effective colloquialism that is not only put into the mouths of Yankee types, as in Seventy-Six (1823), Errata (1823), and Brother Jonathan (1825), but which sometimes "takes over" the narrator himself. Such a narrative method resulted in self-consciously daring experiments which, though often successful, sometimes distract, even irritate the reader. Of particular interest is Neal's early use of the tall tale, a comic device usually associated with Mark Twain and the Southwestern humorists. Neal clearly adumbrates them in his awareness of the ironic element as a source of indigenous humor. The study concludes with an appreciation of Neal as one of the more interesting and illuminating writers during the period when American nationalism was at its zenith as a catalyst for literature.

Subject Area

American literature

Recommended Citation

FIORELLI, EDWARD ALFRED, "LITERARY NATIONALISM IN THE WORKS OF JOHN NEAL (1793-1876)" (1980). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI8020060.