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Do we need A literary centre?

in the latter days of the last French Empire some stir was made by a book claiming that Paris was already the capital of the world-Paris capitale du monde. Mr. Lowell has lately made claims rather more moderate for London, suggesting that a time may come when the English-speaking race will practically control the planet, having London for its centre, with all roads leading to it, as they once led to Rome. But it is plain that in making this estimate Mr. Lowell overlooked some very essential factors—for instance, himself. If ancient Rome had borrowed for its most important literary addresses an orator from Paphlagonia, who was not even a Roman citizen, it would plainly have ceased to be the Rome of our reverence; and yet this is what has repeatedly been done in London by the selection of Mr. Lowell. Or if the province of Britain had furnished a periodical publication—an Acta [78] Eruditorum, let us say—which had been regularly reprinted in Rome with a wider circulation than any metropolitan issue, then Rome would again have ceased to be Rome; and yet this is what is done in London every month by the American illustrated magazines. It is clear, then, that London is not the exclusive intellectual centre of the English-speaking world, nor is there the slightest evidence that it is becoming more and more such a centre. On the contrary, one hears in England a prolonged groan over an imagined influence the other way. ‘I have long felt,’ wrote Sir Frederick Elliot to Sir Henry Taylor from London (December 20, 1877), ‘that the most certain of political tendencies in England is what, for want of a better name, I will call the Yankeeizing tendency.’ But apart from these suggestions as to London, Mr. Lowell has urged and urged strongly the need of a national capital. He has expressed the wish for ‘a focus of intellectual, moral, and material activity,’ ‘a common head, as well as a common body.’ In this he errs only, as it seems to me, in applying too readily to our vaster conditions [79] the standards and traditions of much smaller countries. If it be true, as was said the other day by our eloquent English-born clergyman in New York, Dr. Rainsford, that America is a branch which is rapidly becoming the main stem, then the fact may as well be recognized. As in our political system, so in literature, we may need a new plan of structure for that which is to embrace a continent—a system of coordi-nate states instead of a centralized empire. Our literature, like our laws, will probably proceed not from one focus, but from many. To one looking across from London or Paris this would seem impossible, for while living in a great city you come to feel as if that spot were all the world, and all else must be abandoned, as Cherbuliez's heroine says, to the indiscreet curiosity of geographers. But when you again look at that city from across the ocean, you perceive how easily it may cramp and confine those who live in it, and you are grateful for elbow-room and fresh air. Nothing smaller than a continent can really be large enough to give space for the literature of the future.

It is to be considered that in this age great [80] cities do not exhibit, beyond a certain point, the breadth of atmosphere that one expects from a world's capital. On the contrary, we find in Paris, in Berlin, in London, a certain curious narrowness, an immense exaggeration of its own petty and local interests. We meet there individual men of extraordinary knowledge in this or that direction, but the interchange of thought and feeling seems to lie within a ring-fence. A good test of this is in the recent books of ‘reminiscences’ or ‘remembrances’ by accomplished men who have lived for years in the most brilliant circles of London. Each day is depicted as a string of pearls, but with only the names of the pearls mentioned; the actual jewels are not forthcoming. A man breakfasts with one circle of wits and sages, lunches with another, dines with a third; and all this intellectual affluence yields him for his diary perhaps a single anecdote or repartee no better than are to be found by dozens in the corners of American country newspapers. It recalls what a clever American artist once told me, that he had dined triumphantly through three English counties, and [81] brought away a great social reputation, on the strength of the stories in one old ‘Farmer's Almanac’ which he had put in his trunk to protect some books on leaving home. The very excess or congestion of intellect in a great city seems to defeat itself; there is no time or strength left for anything beyond the most superficial touch-and-go intercourse; it is persiflage carried to the greatest perfection, but you get little more.

A great metropolis is moreover disappointing, because, although it may furnish great men, its literary daily bread is inevitably supplied by small men, who revolve round the larger ones, and who are even less interesting to the visitor than the same class at home. There is something amusing in the indifference of every special neighborhood to all literary gossip except its own. For instance, one might well have supposed that the admiration of Englishmen for Longfellow might inspire an intelligent desire to know something of his daily interests, of his friendships and pursuits; yet when his Memoirs appeared, all English critics pronounced these things exceedingly uninteresting; while much [82] smaller gossip about much smaller people, in the Hayward Memoirs, was found by these same critics to be an important addition to the history of the times. It is an absolute necessity for every nation, as for every age, to insist on setting its own standard, even to the resolute readjustment of well-established reputations. So long as it does not, it will find itself overawed and depressed, not as much by the greatness of some metropolis, as by its littleness. It is the calamity of a large city that its smallest men appear to themselves important simply because they dwell there; just as Travers, the New York wit, explained his stuttering more in that city than in Baltimore, on the ground that it was a larger place. The London literary journals seem to an American visitor to be largely filled with Epistoloe obscurorum virorum; and when I attended, some years since, the first meetings of the Association Litteraire Internationale in Paris, it was impossible not to be impressed by the multitude of minor literary personages, among whom a writer so mediocre as Edmond About towered as a giant. But no doubts of their own supreme [83] importance to the universe appeared to beset these young gentlemen:—

How many thousand never heard the name
     Of Sidney or of Spenser, or their books?
And yet brave fellows, and presume of fame,
     And think to bear down all the world with looks.

One was irresistibly reminded, in their society, of these lines of old Daniel; or of the comfortable self-classification of another Frenchman, M. Vestris, the dancer, who always maintained that there were but three really great men in Europe—Voltaire, Frederick II., and himself. We talk about small places as being Little Pedlingtons, but it sometimes seems as if the Great Pedlingtons were the smallest, after all, because there is nobody to teach them humility. Little Pedlington at least shows itself apologetic and even uneasy; that is what saves it to reason and common-sense. But fancy a Parisian apologizing for Paris!

The great fear of those who demand an intellectual metropolis is provincialism; but we must remember that the word is used in two wholly different senses, which have nothing in common. What an American understands by [84] provincialism is best to be seen in the little French town, some imaginary Tarascon or Carcassonne, where the notary and the physician and the rentiers sit and play dominoes and feebly disport themselves in a benumbed world of petty gossip. But what the Parisian or the Londoner would assume to be provincial among us is an American town, perhaps of the same size, but which has already its schools and its public library well established, and is now aiming at a gallery of art and a conservatory of music. To confound these opposite extremes of development under one name is like confounding childhood and second childhood; the one representing all promise, the other all despair. Mr. Henry James, who proves his innate kindness of heart by the constancy with which he is always pitying somebody, turns the full fervor of his condolence on Hawthorne for dwelling amid the narrowing influences of a Concord atmosphere. But if those influences gave us ‘The Scarlet Letter’ and Emerson's ‘Essays,’ does it not seem almost a pity that we cannot extend that same local atmosphere, as President Lincoln proposed to do with Grant's whiskey, to some of our other generals? [85]

The dweller in a metropolis has the advantage, if such it be, of writing immediately for a few thousand people, all whose prejudices he knows and perhaps shares. He writes to a picked audience; but he who dwells in a country without a metropolis has the immeasurably greater advantage of writing for an audience which is, so to speak, unpicked, and which, therefore, includes the picked one, as an apple includes its core. One does not need to be a very great author in America to find that his voice is heard across a continent—a thing more stimulating and more impressive to the imagination than the morning drum-beat of Great Britain. The whole vast nation, but a short time since, was simultaneously following the ‘Rise of Silas Lapham,’ or ‘The Casting Away of Mrs. Leeks and Mrs. Aleshine.’ In a few years the humblest of the next generation of writers will be appealing to a possible constituency of a hundred millions. He who writes for a metropolis may unconsciously share its pettiness; he who writes for a hundred millions must feel some expansion in his thoughts, even though his and theirs be still crude. Keats [86] asked his friend to throw a copy of ‘Endymion’ into the heart of the African desert; is it not better to cast your book into a vaster region that is alive with men?

Cliques lose their seeming importance where one has the human heart at his door. That calamity which Fontenelle mourned, the loss of so many good things by their being spoken only into the ear of some fool, can never happen to what is written for a whole continent. There will be a good auditor somewhere, and the farther off, the more encouraging. When your sister or your neighbor praises your work, they may be suspected of partiality; when the newspapers commend, the critic may be very friendly or very juvenile; but when the post brings you a complimentary letter from a new-born village in Colorado, you become conscious of an audience. Now, suppose the intellectual aspirations of that frontier village to be so built up by schools, libraries, and galleries that it shall be a centre of thought and civilization for the whole of Colorado,—a State which is in itself about the size of Great Britain or Italy, and half the size of Germany or France,—and we [87] shall have a glimpse at a state of things worth more than a national metropolis. The collective judgment of a series of smaller tribunals like this will ultimately be worth more to an author, or to a literature, than that of London or Paris. History gives us, in the Greek states, the Italian Republics, the German university towns, some examples of such a concurrent intellectual jurisdiction; but they missed the element of size, the element of democratic freedom, the element of an indefinite future. All these are ours.

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December 20th, 1877 AD (1)
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