Sydney Smith and “Who Reads an American Book”: Some Remaining Questions

“The Americans are a brave, industrious, and acute people; but they have hitherto given no indications of genius, and made no approaches to the heroic, either in their morality or character….Where are their Foxes, their Burkes, their Sheridans, their Windhams, their Horners, their Wilberforces?—where their Arkwrights, their Watts, their Davys?—their Robertsons, Blairs, Smiths, Stewarts, Paleys and Malthuses?—their Porsons, Parts, Burneys, or Blomfields?—their Scotts, Campbells, Byrons, Moores, or Crabbes?—their Siddonses, Kembles, Keans, or ONeils—their Wilkies, Laurences, Chantrys?—or their parallels to the hundred other names that have spread themselves over the world from our little island in the course of’ the last thirty years, and blest or delighted mankind by their works, inventions, or examples?” – Sydney Smith

As we approach the end of the semester, I feel like it’s necessary that I grapple with one thing that has been perplexing me for the past few months. It is something that I think I should make sense of before the class is over. I’m not saying that a class that leaves questions unanswered constitutes a failed attempt; rather, I want to explore one item that has been floating around my head with no real explanation for most of the semester. I am referring to one of our course epigraphs, the one from Sydney Smith’s “Who Reads an American Book?”.

Implicit in this exploration is the assumption that each of our epigraphs have to make some direct connection to the literature and discussion of our class. Beyond guiding our thought and offering a life preserver, I have developed this feeling that each epigraph should “fit” in place, anticipate or respond to our reading, or produce its own “a-ha! moment.” Naive as this may be, I wanted to take some time to build some bridges between what I have found the most perplexing epigraph and my course work from this semester.

In a very broad sense, we have been reading American books all semester, but this doesn’t suffice for me. Why would Dr. McCoy have us read books simply to disprove the skeptic Smith? It seems unlikely that this is the connection.  Zooming in, I gave the larger speech a second read and still couldn’t find much. I thought about Parks’s The America Play, but this seemed tenuous at best, and, not to mention, pretty cheeky. What, then, could be the reason for this epigraph?

I considered the fact that America was a relatively new country when the Englishman made his remarks and felt tempted to fire back at the long dead Smith to remind him of how long his country had been around. How does this relate to African-American literature? Thomas Jefferson’s racist remarks in “Notes on the State of Virginia” cast African-American literature into the domain of “plain narration.” Like the American book, African-American literature hadn’t been given a fair shake and its merit was being questioned by someone who thought themselves superior. Now, this is putting things very lightly, but I think I am getting closer. This connection makes me think of the Morrison quote I chose to reflect on in the beginning of the semester about teaching black writing. The legacies of slavery and Jim Crow, it seems to me, have forced the academy to handle African-American literature as a recovery process, rather than as an aesthetic discourse. In this way, both the American book (in Smith’s day) and African-American literature have been pushed to the margins, begging the question “who reads them?”

Well, we do. The (Im)Possibilities blog has proven, time and time again, that we are wholly interested in African-American literature beyond the study of its history and historiography. Notably, the blog is subtitled “A blog for SUNY Geneseo students and faculty interested in American Studies.” I think this and the Smith quote work to push us towards another crucial both/and. The literature we read is both American and African-American. It both exceeds and fits in either definition. This situation, then, resembles the epigraph insofar as it seems to fit so perfectly while also being at odds with any concrete definition.

Again, what I don’t want to do is reduce this complex and confusing epigraph to a simple understanding for my own closure. However, as more and more connections fire like synapses in my brain, I have a hard time writing this off as coincidence or accident. I believe the act of writing has brought me closer to an understanding, but as Ricky Rice says, “it’s amazing what people don’t notice” (Lavalle 316). I took my confusion to the blog so as to get responses to my questions. Perhaps one of my readers has noticed something I haven’t about the epigraph; the blog is a great place for me to seek out other perspectives so that I don’t have to wrap up the semester totally confused.

So, ENGL 337, any thoughts?

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