Partridge Singapore continues with its comparisons of American and British literature, and today focuses on different approaches to morality and style.
Morality and Social Decency
The American sense of morality in literature is stern and religious. This stems from its early settlers, who were Puritans and whose Calvinistic doctrines permeate US culture to this very day. It can be seen most patently in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, as well as in a myriad of colonial writings, such as the “fire-and-brimstone” sermons of Jonathan Edwards. Melville’s Moby-Dick also echoes this puritanical mentality, with the main character, Captain Ahab, trying to destroy a whale that symbolises evil.
The British sense of morality is more tied up with what is socially “proper”. The subject matter in a great deal of BrLit, including Dickens and Oscar Wilde, demonstrates that high-born people are no more “noble” than their working-class countrymen, in sharing the same vices and human weaknesses. The illegitimate pregnancy of Tess in Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles is perceived as more of an violation of social propriety than of religion.
Stylistically, American literature divides itself into two main parts: pre- and post-Civil War, i.e. before and after 1860. Herman Melville can be seen as the last of the major older writers, whereas Mark Twain represents the start of a new style. The older American style bears a strong resemblance to British authors – especially the writings of US authors such as Washington Irving, Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe. Sentences are longer, with very formal diction and high-level words.
In contrast, the second half of the 19th century initiated a new style in the US, which differed from that of England, where the style continued to be rather formal (though losing some of the Victorian ornateness as the century ended). Beginning with Twain, novels became much less formal in their diction, and sought to capture more common forms of language, whether in dialogue or narrative. This culminated in the writings of Steinbeck and especially Ernest Hemingway. Naturally, there are exceptions to this generalisation.
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