previous next

XLIV. parochialism.

We are gradually clearing ourselves, in America, from the lingering spirit of colonialism. The change is fortunate, but even the civil war has not yet rid us of what may be called parochialism, or what would be called in Germany particularism--the impression that we are citizens of this or that commonwealth, or region, or city, instead of claiming allegiance to the Great Republic. The habit proceeds largely, no doubt, front the vast size of our land, which even railroads and migratory habits cannot easily compass. It is also strengthened, perhaps, by the absence of any satisfactory name for this great nation. Chad it been called Columbia or Washington the word would have been uncouth enough, but it would have carried with it a sense of unquestionable unity, which the collective phrase “United States” has seemed rather to deprecate. If something of this disadvantage has been felt all over the nation, it was still worse in those parts of it where the parochialism was thought to be an advantage, and was christened “State rights.” No doubt one reason [223] for the paucity of Southern literature before the civil war was the fact that the most gifted writer in that region was apt to feel that he had nothing larger than a State behind him ; and it is a curious fact that the poet Hayne, in speaking of the Confederacy after its formation, still described its members only as “sister nations,” as if disclaiming all thought of national unity, even there. In general, however, the war may be said to have put an end to this feeling, in a political sense, and to have substituted the nation for the individual State as the unit of loyalty. Hayne and Lanier, Simms and Kennedy, are now included, even against their will, in the literature of a nation.

This being the case, we should live up to it in all ways. We are Americans, not merely residents of Meddibemps at one extremity or Seattle at the other. We have to hold our own, in the way of self-respect, against the other populations of the earth's surface, and we certainly must make common cause, and not fritter away our strength in the petty jealousies of a thousand little parishes. When we see Americans in Europe we are proud of them, if they deserve our pride, or ashamed of them, if they cause us shame, and this without the slightest reference to the part of our country from which they came. Why should it be otherwise when we are at home again? But in fact the mutual criticism of Eastern [224] and Western, Northern and Southern, is often very much like that between Englishmen and Americans; it is not fraternal, but critical, almost satirical--“a little more than kin and less than kind.” In England the very compliments given to an American are apt to sting. If he does not speak through his nose or talk like Bret Harte's heroes, he is regarded as exceptional. “You an American!-I give you my word of honor I never should have suspected it.” These words, which he is equally liable to hear from his host, his tailor, and the waiting-maid at his inn, are more annoying than any personal censure, and make him long for a moment to tilt his chair, to put his feet on the table, to do anything that shall free him from being thus complimented at the expense of his race.

And yet this class of remarks may be constantly heard in our own cities as regards strangers from some other city. When a lady visiting Boston from Chicago is kindly assured that no one would suppose her to be Western, or one visiting Chicago from Boston is gently vindicated from the charge of being Eastern, it is as insulting as the unconscious insolence of these English remarks. We are all Americans; the honors of one are the honors of all; the discredit of one is the discredit of everybody. If in various parts of the country we have a variety of gestures, intonations, phrases, manners, it is that we [225] may compare these different methods candidly, generously, and with mutual respect, and thus gradually eliminate what is undesirable, and select the best. What we desire, or should desire, is to have the American type the best type that the world has ever seen. Nothing short of this is an aim worthy the effort.

If this is true of society and manners, it is still truer of literature. What can be less profitable than all this talk about a literary centre, this foolish struggle between rival cities? What we want is a literature; given that, and the centre will take care of itself. It is not even important that there should be a centre; a hundred nodal points, each sending forth its germinating and vital influence, will do just as well, and will be more befitting for a nation that includes the breadth of a continent, and may yet include its length also. What we need is to produce good books; this once done, it makes no more difference in what part of the country they are produced than in what part of a man's farm — the northeast or south-west corner-he raises those fine apples. Where there is a good author, there is the beginning of a literary centre; where MacGregor sits, there is the head of the table. We are all enriched when Miss Murfree suddenly reveals to us a new literary centre in Tennessee, or Miss Edith Thomas in Ohio, or Hubert Bancroft in San Francisco. The concentration [226] of literature into a new London or Paris is not to be expected among us, perhaps not to be desired. That implies a small and highly centralized civilization, whose outskirts shall be as little given to literature as the English colonies or the French provinces; whereas what we need is the development of a high literary life through a number of different fountain-heads. The nation should produce its fair share of the recognized masterpieces of the world's literature-or, if you please, of the works which are still masterpieces, though unrecognized-or else, at least, of the writings that influence their time, and then become a part of the “choir invisible.” There is promise of all this, but it can only be fulfilled by dismissing all the petty parochialism of local rivalries. The Arabs, before Mohammed's time, used to hold high festival over two things — the advent of a new poet and the birth of a colt of eminent breed. The former festival at least we Americans should celebrate, even if the advent of the bard should occur on the utmost border of the Aleutian Islands.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
Sort people alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a person to search for him/her in this document.
Americans (5)
Edith Thomas (1)
W. G. Simms (1)
Mary N. Murfree (1)
MacGregor (1)
Sidney Lanier (1)
W. P. Kennedy (1)
P. H. Hayne (1)
Bret Harte (1)
Hubert Bancroft (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: