Paul Westover on What Transatlantic Author Love Reveals about the English (that is, Anglophone) Canon

At a Humanities Center lecture, English professor Paul Westover discussed his contribution as coeditor to the book Transatlantic Literature and Author Love in the Nineteenth Century, a collection of essays that explore how transatlantic devotion to British and American authors evolved into a shared English literary canon and culture. 

PROVO, Utah (Aug. 24, 2017)—In 1872, a large group of American Anglophiles gathered in Manhattan’s Central Park to erect a monument to a Scottish author on American soil. Their idol? The famed Sir Walter Scott. At a Humanities Center lecture, English professor Paul Westover discussed his research on author love in America and Britain, as well as how material and regional manifestations of author love have shaped the Anglo-American literary canon.

Is it weird that Americans would go to so much trouble to put up a monument for an author, or that some 5,000 people would be there, or that along with the obligatory bagpipe music there would be performances of ‘Hail Columbia?’” Westover asked.

The answer, Westover said, was an unequivocal “no.” Such extravagant public expressions of author love on both sides of the Atlantic were not strange at all. In fact, according to Westover, these celebrations might even offer a window into how the transatlantic, shared cultural and literary heritage of England and America was formed. 

In his coedited book, Transatlantic Literature and Author Love in the Nineteenth Century, Westover and coeditor Ann Wierda Rowland, associate professor at the University of Kansas, address this shared, Anglo-American literary culture in a series of essays that explore how the concept of English literature came into being.

“I was trained in American literature in a really traditional mode, which is to say that the history of American literature [was] the history of. . . a distinctive body of literature that was [becoming] commensurate with the great democratic experiment,” Westover explained. “It was all about differentiation from British culture. But I came through my own research to realize that that was an incredibly incomplete story.”

Westover continued, “I wanted to demonstrate how important readers’ affective investments in books and authors were, how fervently readers longed to commune with authors through their books and how that longing was shaping the contours of a whole literary field internationally.”

Westover said that the agenda of this book is in large part to challenge the idea that manifestations of “love” for books and authors are not worthy scholarly pursuits. Westover believes that there is value in researching how people interacted with literature—in other words, how it became part of their lives, how it affected them.

Such study requires a conception of the literary that accounts for both social practices and material culture, Westover explained. To demonstrate this conception of the literary as material and social, Westover cited his own contribution to the volume, a chapter entitled “The Transatlantic Home Network: Discovering Sir Walter Scott in American Authors’ Houses.”

Using two iconic literary sites, Sir Walter Scott’s Abbotsford and Washington Irving’s Sunnyside in the Hudson Valley, Westover offered visible examples of author love’s material manifestation in Irving’s own home.

Westover said that Sir Walter Scott’s Abbotsford was consciously built as a display of his role as author. Individuals made pilgrimages to Scott’s home while Scott was still alive, and Washington Irving was one of them.

“Irving comes back to the U.S. and he sets up his own Abbotsford. If you look at the way author-home-museums echo each other, I think you can look at several orders of influence. . . . Even in terms of architectural features, Irving incorporates elements of his own literary career and mythology in the house in the same way that Scott did.”

Westover, brandishing an ivy leaf that he took from Irving’s home on one of his own literary pilgrimages, said that Irving arranged for this ivy to be brought overseas from Scott’s neighborhood so that he could incorporate it into Sunnyside. “He’s literally transplanting British literary heritage and making alive and concrete the relationship between the two homes,” Westover said.

Westover added that this suggests that authors’ homes were not merely reflections of one single author’s biography, but rather a collective biography of other admired authors.

“If you think about love, this is a hard thing to quantify. How does love leave records? One of our answers is it potentially leaves things, things that are ‘literary’ that survive and are preserved,” Westover said.

Concluding, Westover left the audience with an important question: “Were houses in the 19th century full of this kind of stuff, and is there a kind of archive that’s mostly illegible to us now, but which could be uncovered if we understood the literary ecosystem and the social ecosystem in which it emerged?”

—Sylvia Cutler 

Sylvia covers events for the Humanities Center for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a double major in English and French and a minor in women’s studies.