J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, November 25, 2006

Larkin on Loyalist Culture at Clark, 30 Nov

On Thursday, 30 November, at 4:30, Edward Larkin, professor at the University of Delaware, will speak at Clark University in Worcester under the auspices of the American Antiquarian Society on the topic of "The Loyalist Origins of United States Culture," or (depending on the website one looks at) "Cooper’s Loyalism and the Question of the American Nation."

That first title intrigued me, so I dug around the web for more information. When he was researching at the John Carter Brown Library, Larkin's topic was listed as “Tory America: Loyalists and the Creation of U.S. National Identity.” At a 2004 conference at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, his presentation was titled "American Loyalists and National Identity in the Early Republic."

In January 2006, Larkin spoke at the University of Texas on "Cooper's British Americans; or, Was Natty a Loyalist?" A cached description of that talk reads:

This paper is drawn from Professor Larkin's new book in progress, entitled The Loyalist Origins of American Culture, which begins from the observation that most of the canonical literature and art of the early United States was the work of loyalists or loyalist sympathizers.
Is that so? Certainly artists Benjamin West, John Singleton Copley, and Mather Brown were Loyalists, and Gilbert Stuart also sat out the war in London—but John Trumbull was a Continental Army officer, and Charles Willson Peale and Ralph Earl were enthusiastic Patriots. Among our canonical writers, Philip Freneau and Royall Tyler were in the Continental Army or state militia, and Benjamin Franklin was a Congress member and minister.

Of course, the American canon really starts rolling along in the next generation with Washington Irving and Larkin's focus, James Fenimore Cooper (above right). Since Cooper wasn't born until 1789, after the war, at best he could have been a Loyalist sympathizer. His father (above left) was apparently a Quaker neutral, and the family was Anglophile—like most Federalists. However, Cooper's first literary success was The Spy, a novel with an undercover Patriot as hero and Gen. George Washington making a cameo appearance to endorse his secret service.

Late in life, Cooper got into a vituperative dispute with his Cooperstown, New York, neighbors over picnics on an island in lovely Lake Otsego, and wrote many anti-democratic, anti-populist rants. Similarly, one of the first true giants of the American canon, Nathaniel Hawthorne, was also very suspicious of popular movements; some of his stories about colonial Boston, particularly "My Kinsman, Major Molineux," depicted crowds as dangerously out of control.

But that doesn't mean Cooper or Hawthorne aligned themselves with Loyalism. They didn't praise British officials of the Revolutionary period or criticize American icons like Washington. Among the luxuries of living after a revolution is that one doesn't have to choose sides, that one can criticize excesses while enjoying benefits. In Hegelian terms, "Loyalism" was the antithesis of the Revolutionary thesis, but Cooper and Hawthorne lived in the synthesis.

As for Prof. Larkin's seminar, the AAS "deeply appreciates" people making reservations in advance.

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