John Bull & Uncle Sam - Four Centuries of British-American Relations
excerpt entitled dissertation ii

When the seventeenth-century settlers brought the English language to America, they immediately and necessarily began to adapt it to their new environment. These changes were noted early and criticized by purists on both sides of the Atlantic. However, after the Revolution, Americans began to take pride in their own form of English. Noah Webster (1758-1843) was the major early proponent of American meanings and spellings over British ones and published the earliest American dictionary, An American Dictionary of the English Language (1806). During the years since Webster, language differences have continued to develop, demonstrating the truth of George Bernard Shaw's oft-repeated observation that the two nations are "divided by a common language."

Like the American language, the earliest American literature copied English models. However, after the Revolution and the War of 1812, writers were eager to create a distinctly American literature. British critics belittled their earliest efforts, and in 1820, in the Edinburgh Review, Sydney Smith posed the famous question "Who reads an American book?'

Responding to this and similar taunts with creative anger, American writers soon produced works that plenty of British people read. Works by Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Walt Whitman, and Mark Twain had been acclaimed in Britain by the end of the nineteenth century. Many American authors have lived and traveled in Britain, and some, including Henry James, T.S. Eliot, and Sylvia Plath settled there permanently.

Even as American writers gained respect in Britain, British writers continued to have great influence in America. Charles Dickens was lionized on his two trips to America, in 1842 and 1867-68. Other major British writers who traveled and lived in the United States include Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, D.H. Lawrence, and Aldous Huxley. British classics continue to be widely read, and until the 1970s dominated the literary curriculum. Recently the works of William Shakespeare and Jane Austen became popular films.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, a steady stream of books and authors continues to cross the Atlantic in both directions -- made possible by the proud heritage of the shared language.

Early Advocate of Separate American English

American lexicographer and educator Noah Webster (1758-1843) published the first dictionary of American English in 1806. His earlier lectures on language and education, published as Dissertations on the English Language, were full of linguistic patriotism and espoused divergence from British English in terms of spelling and word usage.

Noah Webster. Dissertations on the English Language. Boston: Isaiah Thomas and Company, 1789, title page. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (167)

First Published Collection of Americanisms, 1816

John Pickering (1777-1846) was a lawyer, philologist, and linguist, born in Massachusetts, and educated at Harvard. His lasting fame is based on his A Vocabulary, or Collection of Words and Phrases Which Have Been Supposed to Be Peculiar to the United States of America, the first published collection of Americanisms.

John Pickering. A Vocabulary, or Collection of Words and Phrases Which Have Been Supposed to Be Peculiar to the United States of America. Boston: Cummings and Hilliard, 1816, title page. General Collections, Library of Congress (168)

Children's Books Illustrating Language Differences

Children's books published in both Britain and the United States are sometimes altered to reflect language differences between the two countries. The story line and illustrations are the same in both, but some of the words of the British original have been altered for an American audience. For example, the British term "pram" has been changed to "carriage," and "pavement" to"sidewalk."

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  • Shirley Hughes. Moving Molly. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1988, pp. 2-3. General Collections, Library of Congress (169)

  • Shirley Hughes. Moving Molly. London: The Bodley Head, 1978, pp. 2-3. General Collections, Library of Congress (170)

Explaining Military Slang

During World War II, both the British and American military issued dictionaries to help bridge the language difference. It's a Piece of Cake! suggests that the term used as the title originated in British slang during the war. Presented as unfamiliar, the phrase is defined in the booklet as "it's easy" and equivalent to the World War I term "It's got jam on it."

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  • This image is not available online. United States War Department. A Short Guide to Great Britain. Washington, D.C.: 1942. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (171)


  • C. H. Ward-Jackson. "It's a Piece of Cake! RAF Slang Made Easy." London: Nicholson and Watson, [1943?], cover. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (172)

Language-Related Misadventures

In two related articles from The Washington Post, an American living in Britain and a Briton living in America chronicle amusing misadventures caused by language differences between the two countries.

This Library does not have permission to display this image online. "A Look at . . . English v. English." The Washington Post, May 10, 1998, p. C3. Serials and Government Publications Division, Library of Congress (173)

A Literary Map of Britain

A literary map records the location of places associated with authors and their literary works or serves as a guide to their imaginative worlds. A large number of the Library of Congress's collection of literary maps relate to British literature. Most of the Library's British literary maps are American-produced, showing the high status that has traditionally been given to British literature in the American educational system.

Ethel Earle Wylie, compiler, and Ella Wall Van Leer, illustrator. "A Pictorial Chart of English Literature." [Chicago?]: Rand McNally, 1929. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (174)

First American Edition of Shakespeare's Plays

The first printed reference to a performance of a Shakespeare play in what became the United States is an advertisement for an amateur production of Romeo and Juliet in New York in 1730; an English troupe came to America in 1752 and gave the earliest recorded professional performances.

William Shakespeare. Shakespeare's Plays. First American edition. Philadelphia: Bioren and Madan, 1795. Frontispiece - Title Page Batchelder Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (175)

Tobacco Label with Romeo and Juliet

The appearance of Shakespeare's characters on chewing tobacco labels demonstrates the popularity of the play among all social levels in the nineteenth century, when the tragedy entertained audiences in the rough mining camps of the West as well as the elegant theaters of the East.

"Juliet: Fine Cut Chewing Tobacco." St. Louis: James Moran and Co., 1873. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (176)

Costume for Shakespeare Production

Robert Byrne's elegant costume design shows the Countess Olivia, a character from Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. The costume was intended for a performance sponsored by the Federal Theatre Project on September 19, 1935.

Robert Byrne. Olivia, costume design for a WPA Federal Theatre Project production of Twelfth Night, September 19, 1935. Music Division, Library of Congress (178)

Costume Design for a Federal Theatre Project Shakespeare Production

This costume is for the foolish knight Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a character from Twelfth Night, by William Shakespeare. One of the New Deal programs of the Depression era, the Federal Theatre Project attempted to sustain the American theater by employing actors, producers, designers, and other personnel. It nurtured new talent and made stage performances available at low cost to millions of Americans who had never seen live theater.

Robert Byrne. Costume design for WPA Federal Theatre Project production of Twelfth Night, September 19, 1935. Music Division, Library of Congress (179)

Sir Walter Scott

The works of Scottish novelist and poet Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) were immensely popular in America during the early and middle nineteenth century. Mark Twain asserted that Scott's works had promoted a deluded romanticism in the American South that may have been "in great measure responsible for the Civil War."

Sir Walter Scott, after Sir Henry Raeburn. Detroit: Detroit Publishing Co., ca. [1900-1920]. Copyprint. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (180A)

Dramatic Adaptation of Scott's Work

Charlotte Cushman (1816-1876), the foremost American actress of the nineteenth century, played in Britain as well as America. One of her most popular roles was the gypsy witch woman Meg Merrilies in a stage adaptation of Sir Walter Scott's novel Guy Mannering (1815). The critic William Winter wrote that her voice "had in it an unearthly music that made the nerves thrill and the brain tremble."

Cushman's Prompt Book

As the leading player in the Broadway Theater's 1850 production of a play based on Scott's Guy Mannering, Charlotte Cushman assumed directorial duties. Her notes in the prompt book orchestrate entrances and exits, list props, technical cues, and actors' cues. For stars like Cushman who toured extensively, such detailed books were indispensable in mounting productions with short rehearsal times and companies who had not worked with her or the play.

Annotated prompt book for Guy Mannering, 1850, facing p. 54. Page 2, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (183)

First American Writer to Win British Praise

Washington Irving (1783-1859) was the earliest internationally successful American writer. The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gentleman (1819) was first published in England, where Irving was living, on the recommendation of Sir Walter Scott. It was the first American book to win the acclaim of British critics accustomed to patronizing American writers as barely civilized or literate.

Washington Irving. The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gentleman. Inside front cover, Page 1 - Page 2 New York: C. S. Van Winkle, 1819. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (186)

Dickens's Harsh Picture of America

Angered about American publication of his work without payment, Dickens portrayed America negatively in Martin Chuzzlewit (1843) through the adventures of Martin and his companion. Dickens attacked American newspapers, politics, commercialism, and deficiencies in manners, conversation, and the arts. In this illustration, the characters are sold land in the city of Eden, which turns out to be a malarial swamp. Americans bitterly resented the attack.

Charles Dickens. "The Thriving City of Eden, as it appeared on paper," in Martin Chuzzlewit. London: Chapman & Hall, September 1843, Volume 9, p.189. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (189)

Dickens's Second American Visit

During his 1867-1868 lecture tour, Charles Dickens was the subject of a number of cartoons. While some celebrated his fame, others satirically commented on the fact that Dickens had been guaranteed a minimum profit of $70,000 for the lecture tour after his complaints about the greed of Americans who pirated his books.

William Glyde Wilkins. Dickens in Cartoon and Caricature. Boston: Bibliophile Society, 1924. Page 2; Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (190A)

Charles Dickens's Walking Stick

During the period of his second tour to America, Charles Dickens used this walking stick. Dickens's ownership of the items is authenticated by accompanying notes from his sister-in-law Georgina Hogarth.

Charles Dickens's walking stick. Wood with ivory head. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (191)

Charles Dickens's Traveling Kit

Charles Dickens made two trips to America. The 1842 trip resulted in his travel book American Notes (1842) and the novel Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-1844), both of which outraged Americans with their unfavorable views of the United States. His second visit, from December 1867 to April 1868, was a highly successful reading tour of his works. His traveling kit from that time has his initials.

Charles Dickens's traveling cutlery kit. Ivory and metal. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (192)

Draft Page from Leaves of Grass

This is a rare page from the draft of the first edition (1855) of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman (1819-1892). Whitman has had many British admirers ever since his publication of this work.

Walt Whitman. Draft page from Leaves of Grass, 1855, section 14, p. 41. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (193)

Elizabeth Barrett Browning Manuscript

In her lifetime, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) was widely considered England's greatest female poet. Her poetry has been popular in America since her own day. Active in the cultural life of her day, she was a friend of American artists, in particular the great American actress Charlotte Cushman.

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Frost's First Book

From 1913 to 1915 Robert Frost lived in England, where he met many well-known British poets, as well as American Ezra Pound. Frost's talent was recognized in Britain before it was in America. His first two books, A Boy's Will (shown) and North of Boston (1914) were published in London by a British company. One of Frost's best-known poems is shown in his own handwriting.

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Jane Austen in America

The American-produced Jane Austen Map of England reflects the popularity of the author's novels in the United States. Recent film versions of Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Emma (1816), and Persuasion (1818) have been box office hits.

Molly MaGuire, designer, and Carol Kieffer Police, illustrator. "The Jane Austen Map of England." Los Angeles: Aaron Blake, 1987. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (195D)

British First Edition of Huckleberry Finn

Like Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, or Samuel Langhorne Clemens, (1835-1910) suffered from the lack of an international copyright law. British and Canadians published unauthorized editions of his popular works without paying royalties. To stop these infringements, Twain began publishing his works in England before issuing them in the United States, thus gaining British as well as American copyright protection.

Mark Twain. Huckleberry Finn. Page 2 London: Chatto and Windus, 1884. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (197)

Oxford Honors Mark Twain

On June 23, 1907, Oxford University presented Mark Twain with an honorary doctorate. At the news of his selection, Twain remarked, "I am well aware -- and so is the rest of Christendom -- that an Oxford decoration is a loftier distinction than is conferrable by any other university on either side of the ocean, and is worth twenty-five of any other, whether foreign or domestic."

Henry James

In 1905 Henry James (1843-1916) collected under the title English Hours his travel sketches of places in the British isles. Most of them were articles published in American periodicals between 1872 and 1890, revised with additional sketches. James lived in England most of his life and became a British citizen.

Henry James. English Hours. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1905. Page 2 Henry James Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (200)

Rudyard Kipling Letter

It is not clear who was the lady to whom Rudyard Kipling addressed this letter, but the text indicates she was American. Kipling demonstrated his talent as an artist in his sketches, including one of a gruff English gentleman who complains about Americans to his companion.

This image is not available online. Rudyard Kipling. Letter to "Dear Lady," January 6, 1891. Holograph letter. Carpenter Collection of Rudyard Kipling, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (202)

Jungle Book First Draft

"Mowgli's Brother" is the first story in The Jungle Book (1895) by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936). On the first page is an inscription to Susan Bishop. Miss Bishop was a childhood friend of Kipling's wife, an American, and attended her at the birth of her first child during the winter of 1892, when the Kiplings were living in Brattleboro, Vermont.

Rudyard Kipling. "Mowgli's Brothers" from The Jungle Book, February 1893, p.1. Holograph manuscript. Carpenter Collection of Rudyard Kipling, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (203A)

Thomas Hardy Manuscript

Although best known for his novels, Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) considered fiction inferior to poetry. From the age of 58, he wrote only poetry. He was a major influence on Robert Frost, who, like Hardy, responded intensely to nature and had an extraordinary ability to describe his regional landscape. "The Forsaking of the Nest," a poem of nine stanzas first published in 1912, was later revised to a poem of five stanzas entitled "The Third Kissing-Gate."

Thomas Hardy. "The Forsaking of the Nest." Page 2 - Page 3 Holograph manuscript. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (206A)

Poem by T.S. Eliot

American-born poet, playwright and critic Thomas Sterns Eliot (1888-1965) was one of the major poets of the twentieth century, best known for The Waste Land (1922). In 1915, Eliot moved to England, where he spent the rest of his life, becoming a British citizen in 1927. He received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1948

T.S. Eliot. "Virginia."   Holograph manuscript, 1959. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (207A)

British Poet Who Settled in America

Wynstan Hugh Auden (1907-1973) was one of the dominant voices in twentieth century verse. Born in York, England, and educated at Oxford University, he came to the United States in 1939 and became a citizen in 1945. The poetry he wrote in Britain confronted social issues, but in America he turned to religious themes. In 1948 Auden received the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for The Age of Anxiety (1947).

W. H. Auden. Draft of "Musée des Beaux Arts," n.d.. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (209)

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