A contemporaneous posterity
there is an American novel, now pretty effectually forgotten, which yet had the rare honor of contributing one permanent phrase to English literature.
I remember well the surprise produced, in my boyhood, by the appearance of ‘Stanley
; or, The Recollections of a Man of the World.’
It was so crammed with miscellaneous literary allusion and criticism, after the fashion of those days, that it was attributed by some critics to Edward Everett
, then the standing representative of omniscience in our Eastern States.
This literary material was strung loosely upon a plot wild and improbable enough for Brockden Brown
, and yet vivid enough to retain a certain charm, for me at least, even until this day. It was this plot, perhaps, which led the late James T. Fields
to maintain that Maturin
was the author of the novel in question; but it is now known to have been the production of Horace Binney Wallace
, then a youth of twenty-one.
In this book occurs the sentence: ‘Byron
's European fame is the best earnest of his immortality, for a foreign nation is a kind of contemporaneous posterity.’1
Few widely quoted phrases have had, I fancy, less foundation.
It is convenient to imagine that an ocean or a mountain barrier, or even a line of custom houses, may furnish a sieve that shall sift all true reputations from the chaff; but in fact, I suspect, whatever whims may vary or unsettle immediate reputations on the spot, these disturbing influences are only redistributed, not abolished, by distance.
Whether we look to popular preference or to the judgment of high authorities, the result is equally baffling.
preferred Ossian, it is said, to Shakespeare
; and Voltaire
placed the latter among the minor poets, viewing him at best as we now view Marlowe
, as the author of an occasional mighty line.
It was after Mrs. Elizabeth Montagu
had been asked to hear Voltaire
at an evening party in Paris
that she made her celebrated answer,
when the host expressed the hope that she had not been pained by the criticism: ‘Why should I be pained?
I have not the honor to be among the intimate friends of M. de Voltaire
Even at this day the French
journalists are quite bewildered by the Pall Mall Gazette
's lists of English immortals; and ask who Tennyson
is, and what plays Ruskin
Those who happened, like myself, to be in Paris
during the Exposition of 1878 remember well the astonishment produced in the French
mind by the discovery that any pictures were painted in England
; and the French Millet
was at that time almost as little known in London
as was his almost namesake, the English Millais
, in Paris
If a foreign nation represented posterity, neither of these eminent artists appeared then to have a chance of lasting fame.
When we see the intellectual separation thus maintained between England
, with only the width of the Channel
between them, we can understand the separation achieved by the Atlantic
, even where there is no essential difference of language.
tries to convince Frenchmen that the forty English
selected by the readers of the Pall Mall Gazette
are equal, taken together, to the French Academicians
‘You do not know them, you say?’he goes on. ‘That is not a sufficient reason.
, and all who speak English
, know them well, but, on the other hand, know little of our men of letters.’
After this a French paper, reprinting a similar English list, added comments on the names, like this: ‘Robert Browning
, the Scotch poet.’
There is probably no better manual of universal knowledge than the great French dictionary of Larousse
When people come with miscellaneous questions to the Harvard College librarians, they often say in return, ‘Have you looked in Larousse
?’Now, when one looks in Larousse
to see who Robert Browning
was, one finds the statement that the genius of Browning
is more analogous to that of his American contemporaries ‘Emerton
, Wendell Holmes
, and Bigelow
’ than to that of any English poet (celle de n'importe quel poete anglais.) This transformation of Emerson
, and of Lowell
, probably, to Bigelow
, is hardly more extraordinary than to link together three such
dissimilar poets, and compare Browning
to all three of them, or, indeed, to either of the three.
Yet it gives us the high-water mark of what ‘contemporaneous posterity’ has to offer.
The criticism of another nation can, no doubt, offer some advantages of its own—a fresh pair of eyes and freedom from cliques; but a foreigner can be no judge of local coloring, whether in nature or manners.
The mere knowledge of the history of a nation may be essential to a knowledge of its art.
So far as literature goes, the largest element of foreign popularity lies naturally in some kinship of language.
Reputation follows the line of least resistance.
The Germanic races take naturally to the literature of their own congeners, and so with the Latin
As these last have had precedence in organizing the social life of the world, so they still retain it in their literary sway.
The French tongue, in particular, while ceasing to be the vehicle of all travelling intercourse, is still the second language of all the world.
A Portuguese gentleman said once to a friend of mine that he was studying French
‘in order to have something
All the empire of Great Britain
, circling the globe, affords to her poets or novelists but a petty and insular audience compared with that addressed by George Sand or Victor Hugo
A Roman Catholic
convert from America
, going from Paris
, and having audience with a former pope, is said to have been a little dismayed when his Holiness
instantly inquired, with eager solicitude, as to the rumored illness of Paul de Kock
—the milder Zola
of the last generation.
In contemporaneous fame, then, the mere accident of nationality and language plays an enormous part; but this accident will clearly have nothing to do with the judgment of posterity.
If any foreign country could stand for a contemporaneous posterity, one would think it might be a younger nation judging an older one.
Yet how little did the American
reputations of fifty years ago afford any sure prediction of permanent fame in respect to English writers!
True, we gave early recognition to Carlyle
, but scarcely greater than to authors now faded or fading into obscurity,—Milnes (Lord Houghton), Sterling
, and Bailey
No English poem, it was said, ever sold through so many American editions as ‘Festus
;’ nor was Tupper
's ‘Proverbial Philosophy’ far behind it. Translators and publishers quarrelled bitterly for the privilege of translating Frederika Bremer
's novels; but our young people, who already stand for posterity, hardly recall her name.
I asked a Swedish commissioner at our Centennial Exhibition
in 1876, ‘Is Miss Bremer
still read in Sweden
He shook his head; and when I asked, ‘Who has replaced her?’
he said, ‘Bret Harte
and Mark Twain
It seemed the irony of fame; and there is no guaranty that this reversed national compliment will, any more than our recognition of her, predict the judgment of the future.
If this uncertainty exists when the New World judges the Old
, of which it knows something, the insecurity must be greater when the Old World judges the New
, of which it knows next to nothing.
If the multiplicity of translations be any test, Mrs. Stowe
's contemporary fame, the world over, has been unequalled in literature; but will any one now say that it
surely predicts the judgment of posterity?
Consider the companion instances.
Next to ‘Uncle Tom's Cabin’ ranked for a season, doubtless, in European
favor, that exceedingly commonplace novel ‘The Lamplighter
,’ whose very name is now almost forgotten at home.
It is impossible to say what law enters into such successes as this last; but one of the most obvious demands made by all foreign contemporary judgment is, that an American book should supply to a jaded public the element of the unexpected.
demands from America
not so much a new thought and purpose, as some new dramatis personoe; that an author should exhibit a wholly untried type,—an Indian, as Cooper
; a negro, as Mrs. Stowe
; a mountaineer, as Miss Murfree
; a California gambler, as Bret Harte
; a rough or roustabout, as Whitman
There are commonly two ways to eminent social success for an American in foreign society,—to be more European
than Europeans themselves, or else to surpass all other Americans
in some amusing peculiarity which foreigners suppose to be American.
It is much
the same in literature.
, describing the high society of Dublin
in her day, speaks of one man as a great favorite who always entered every drawing-room by turning a somersault.
This is one way of success for an American book; but the other way, which is at least more dignified, is rarely successful except when combined with personal residence and private acquaintance.
Down to the year 1880 Lowell
was known in England
, almost exclusively, as the author of the ‘Biglow Papers
,’ and was habitually classed with Artemus Ward
and Josh Billings
, except that his audience was smaller.
The unusual experience of a diplomatic appointment first unveiled to the English
mind the all-accomplished Lowell
whom we mourn.
In other cases, as with Prescott
, there was the mingled attraction of European
manners and a European subject.
But a simple and home-loving American, who writes upon the themes furnished by his own nation, without pyrotechnics or fantastic spelling, is apt to seem to the English
mind quite uninteresting.
There is nothing which ordinarily interests Europeans less than an
Americanism unaccompanied by a war-whoop.
The Saturday Review, wishing to emphasize its contempt for Henry Ward Beecher
, finally declares that one would turn from him with relief even to the poems of Whittier
There could hardly have been a more exhaustive proof of this local limitation or chauvinisme than I myself noticed at a London dinner-party some years ago. Our host was an Oxford professor, and the company was an eminent one.
Being hard pressed about American literature, I had said incidentally that a great deal of intellectual activity in America
was occupied, and rightly, by the elucidation of our own history,—a thing, I added, which inspired almost no interest in England
This fact being disputed, I said, ‘Let us take a test case.
We have in America
an historian superior to Motley
in labors, in originality of treatment, and in style.
If he had, like Motley
, first gone abroad for a subject, and then for a residence, his European
fame would have equalled Motley
's. As it is, probably not a person present except our host will recognize his name.’
When I mentioned Francis Parkman, the prediction
All, save the host—a man better acquainted with the United States
, perhaps, than any living Englishman—confessed utter ignorance: an ignorance shared, it seems, by the only English historian of American literature, Professor Nichol
, who actually does not allude to Parkman
It seems to me that we had better, in view of such facts, dismiss the theory that a foreign nation is a kind of contemporaneous posterity.