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Chapter 7: the corner stone laid

That the young professor rose very early for literary work, even in November, we know by his own letters, and we also know that he then as always took this work very seriously and earnestly. What his favorite employment was, we learn by a letter to his friend George W. Greene (March 9, 1833) about a book which he proposes to publish in parts, and concerning which he adds, ‘I find that it requires little courage to publish grammars and school-books; but in the department of fine writing—or attempts at fine writing—it requires vastly more.’ As a matter of fact, he had already published preliminary sketches of ‘Outre-Mer’ in the ‘New England Magazine,’ a Boston periodical just undertaken, putting them under the rather inappropriate title of ‘The Schoolmaster,’ the first appearing in the number for July 18, 1831,1 and the sixth and last in the number for February, 1833.2 He writes to his sister (July 17, 1831), ‘I hereby send you [68] a magazine for your amusement. I wrote “The schoolmaster” and the translation from Luis de Gorgora.’3 It is worth mentioning that he adds, ‘Read “The late Joseph Natterstrom.” It is good.’ This was a story by William Austin, whose ‘Peter Rugg, the Missing Man,’ has just been mentioned as an early landmark of the period.4 It is fair to say, however, that the critic of to-day can hardly see in these youthful pages any promise of the Longfellow of the future. The opening chapter, describing the author as a country schoolmaster, who plays with his boys in the afternoon, is only a bit of Irving diluted,—the later papers, ‘A Walk in Normandy,’ ‘The Village of Auteuil,’ etc., carrying the thing somewhat farther, but always in the same rather thin vein. Their quality of crudeness was altogether characteristic of the period, and although Holmes and Whittier tried their 'prentice hands with the best intentions in the same number of the ‘New England Magazine,’ they could not raise its level. We see in these compositions, as in the ‘Annuals’ of that day, that although Hawthorne had begun with his style already formed, yet that of Longfellow was still immature. This remark does not, indeed, apply to a version of a French [69] drinking song,5 which exhibits something of his later knack at such renderings. There was at any rate some distinct maturity in the first number of ‘Outre-Mer,’ which appeared in 1835. A notice of this book in the London ‘Spectator’ closed with this expression of judgment: ‘Either the author of the Sketch book has received a warning, or there are two Richmonds in the field.’

Literary history hardly affords a better instance of the direct following of a model by a younger author than one can inspect by laying side by side a page of the first number of ‘Outre-Mer’ and a page of the ‘Sketch Book,’ taking in each case the first American editions. Irving's books were printed by C. S. Van Winkle, New York, and Longfellow's by J. Griffin, Brunswick, Maine; the latter bearing the imprint of Hilliard, Gray & Co., Boston, and the former of the printer only. Yet the physical appearance of the two sets of books is almost identical; the typography, distribution into chapters, the interleaved titles of these chapters, and the prefix to each chapter of a little motto, often in a foreign language. It must be remembered that the ‘Sketch Book,’ like ‘Outre-Mer,’ was originally published in numbers; and besides all this the literary style of Longfellow's work was at this [70] time so much like that of Irving that it is very hard at first to convince the eye that Irving is not responsible for all. Yet for some reason or other the early copies of the Sketch Book command no high price at auction, while at the recent sale of Mr. Arnold's collection in New York the two parts of ‘Outre-Mer’ brought $310. The work is now so rare that the library of Harvard University has no copy of the second part, and only an imperfect copy of the first with several pages mutilated, but originally presented to Professor Felton by the author and bearing his autograph. As to style, it is unquestionable that in ‘Outre-Mer’ we find Washington Irving frankly reproduced, while in ‘Hyperion’ we are soon to see the development of a new literary ambition and of a more imaginative touch.

The early notices of ‘Outre-Mer’ are written in real or assumed ignorance of the author's name and almost always with some reference to Irving. Thus there is a paper in the North American Review for October, 1834, by the Rev. O. W. B. Peabody, who says of the book that it is ‘obviously the production of a writer of talent and of cultivated taste, who has chosen to give to the public the results of his observation in foreign countries in the form of a series of tales and sketches.’ He continues, ‘It is a form which, as every reader knows, had been recommended [71] by the high example and success of Mr. Irving. . . . It is not to be supposed that in adopting the form of Mr. Irving, the author has been guilty of any other imitation.’6 This may in some sense be true, and yet it is impossible to compare the two books without seeing that kind of assimilation which is only made more thorough by being unconscious. Longfellow, even thus early, brought out more picturesquely and vividly than Irving the charm exerted by the continent of Europe over the few Americans who were exploring it. What Irving did in this respect for England, Longfellow did for the continental nations. None of the first German students from America, Ticknor, Cogswell, Everett, or Bancroft, had been of imaginative temperament, and although their letters, as since printed,7 revealed Germany to America as the land of learning, it yet remained for Longfellow to portray all Europe from the point of view of the pilgrim. When he went to England in 1835, as we shall see, he carried with him for English publication the two volumes of one of the earliest literary tributes paid by the New World to the Old, ‘Outre-Mer.’

It is a curious fact that Mr. Samuel Longfellow, in his admirable memoir of his brother, [72] omits all attempt to identify the stories by the latter which are mentioned as appearing in the annual called ‘The Token,’ published in Boston and edited by S. G. Goodrich. This annual was the first of a series undertaken in America, on the plan of similar volumes published under many names in England. It has a permanent value for literary historians in this country as containing many of Hawthorne's ‘Twice-Told Tales’ in their original form, but often left anonymous, and sometimes signed only by his initial (H.). In the list of his own early publications given by Longfellow to George W. Greene under date of March 9, 1833, he includes, ‘7. In “The Token” for 1832, a story. . . . 8. In the same, for 1833, a story.’ To identify the contributions thus affords a curious literary puzzle. The first named volume—‘The Token’ for 1832—contains the tale of a domestic bereavement under the name of ‘The Indian Summer;’ this has for a motto a passage from ‘The Maid's Tragedy,’ and the whole story is signed with the initial ‘L.’ This would seem naturally to suggest Longfellow, and is indeed almost conclusive. Yet curiously enough there is in the same volume a short poem called ‘La Doncella,’ translated from the Spanish and signed ‘L. . . .,’ which is quite in the line of the Spanish versions he was then writing, although not included in Mr. [73] Scudder's list of his juvenile or unacknowledged poems. To complicate the matter still farther, there is also a story called ‘David Whicher,’ dated Bowdoin College, June 1, 1831, this being a period when Longfellow was at work there, and yet this story is wholly remote in style from ‘The Indian Summer,’ being a rather rough and vernacular woodman's tale. Of the two, ‘The Indian Summer’ seems altogether the more likely to be his work, and indeed bears a distinct likeness to the equally tragic tale of ‘Jacqueline’ in ‘Outre-Mer,’ —the one describing the funeral of a young girl in America, the other in Europe, both of them having been suggested, possibly, by the recent death of his own sister.

In the second volume of ‘The Token’ (1833) the puzzle is yet greater, for though there are half a dozen stories without initials, or other clue to authorship, yet not one of them suggests Longfellow at all, or affords the slightest clue by which it can be connected with him, while on the other hand there is a poem occupying three pages and signed H. W. L., called ‘An Evening in Autumn.’ This was never included by him among his works, nor does it appear in the list of his juvenile poems and translations in the Appendix to Mr. Scudder's edition of his ‘Complete Poetical Works,’ yet the initials leave hardly a doubt [74] that it was written by him. Why, then, was it not mentioned in this list sent to Mr. George W. Greene, or did he by a slip of the pen record it as a story and not as a poem? Perhaps no solution of this conundrum will ever be given, but it would form a valuable contribution to the record of his literary dawning. Judging from the evidence now given, the most probable hypothesis would seem to be that the two contributions which Longfellow meant to enumerate were the story called ‘An Indian Summer’ in ‘The Token’ for 1832, and a poem, not a story, in ‘The Token’ for 1833. Even against this theory there is the objection to be made that the editor of ‘The Token,’ Samuel G. Goodrich, in his ‘Recollections of a Lifetime’ (New York, 1856), after mentioning Longfellow casually, at the very end of his list of writers, says of him, ‘It is a curious fact that the latter, Longfellow, wrote prose, and at that period had shown neither a strong bias nor a particular talent for poetry.’ It is farther noticeable that in his index to this book, Mr. Goodrich does not find room for Longfellow's name at all.8

It is to be borne in mind that at the very time when Longfellow was writing these somewhat trivial contributions for ‘The Token,’ he was also engaged on an extended article for ‘The [75] North American Review,’ which was a great advance upon all that he had before published. His previous papers had all been scholarly, but essentially academic. They had all lain in the same general direction with Ticknor's ‘History of Spanish Literature,’ and had shared its dryness. But when he wrote, at twenty-four, an article for ‘The North American Review’ of January, 1832,9 called ‘The Defence of Poetry,’ taking for his theme Sir Philip Sidney's ‘Defence of Poesy,’ just then republished in the ‘Library of the Old English Prose Writers,’ at Cambridge, Mass., it was in a manner a prediction of Emerson's oration, ‘The American Scholar,’ five years later. So truly stated were his premises that they are still valid and most important for consideration to-day, after seventy years have passed. It is thus that his appeal begins—

. . ‘With us, the spirit of the age is clamorous for utility,—for visible, tangible utility, —for bare, brawny, muscular utility. We would be roused to action by the voice of the populace, and the sounds of the crowded mart, and not “lulled to sleep in shady idleness with poet's pastimes.” We are swallowed up in schemes for gain, and engrossed with contrivances for bodily enjoyments, as if this particle of dust [76] were immortal,—as if the soul needed no aliment, and the mind no raiment. We glory in the extent of our territory, in our rapidly increasing population, in our agricultural privileges, and our commercial advantages. . . . We boast of the increase and extent of our physical strength, the sound of populous cities, breaking the silence and solitude of our Western territories,—plantations conquered from the forest, and gardens springing up in the wilderness. Yet the true glory of a nation consists not in the extent of its territory, the pomp of its forests, the majesty of its rivers, the height of its mountains and the beauty of its sky; but in the extent of its mental power,—the majesty of its intellect,—the height and depth and purity of its moral nature. . . . True greatness is the greatness of the mind;— the true glory of a nation is moral and intellectual preeminence.’10

‘Not he alone,’ the poet boldly goes on, ‘does service to the State, whose wisdom guides her councils at home, nor he whose voice asserts her dignity abroad. A thousand little rills, springing up in the retired walks of life, go to swell the rushing tide of national glory and prosperity; and whoever in the solitude of his chamber, and by even a single effort of his mind, has added to the intellectual preeminence of his [77] country, has not lived in vain, nor to himself alone.’11

He goes on to argue, perhaps needlessly, in vindication of poetry for its own sake and for the way in which it combines itself with the history of the nation, and expresses the spirit of that nation. He then proceeds to a direct appeal in behalf of that very spirit. Addressing the poets of America he says, ‘To those of them who may honor us by reading our article, we would whisper this request,—that they should be more original, and withal more national. It seems every way important, that now, whilst we are forming our literature, we should make it as original, characteristic, and national as possible. To effect this, it is not necessary that the war-whoop should ring in every line, and every page be rife with scalps, tomahawks, and wampum. Shade of Tecumseh forbid!—The whole secret lies in Sidney's maxim,— “Look in thy heart and write.” ’12

He then points out that while a national literature strictly includes ‘every mental effort made by the inhabitants of a country through the medium of the press,’ yet no literature can be national in the highest sense unless it ‘bears upon it the stamp of national character.’ This he illustrates by calling attention to certain local [78] peculiarities of English poetry as compared with that of the southern nations of Europe. He gives examples to show that the English poets excel their rivals in their descriptions of morning and evening, this being due, he thinks, to their longer twilights in both directions. On the other hand, the greater dreaminess and more abundant figurative language of southern nations are qualities which he attributes to their soft, voluptuous climate, where the body lies at ease and suffers the dream fancy ‘to lose itself in idle reverie and give a form to the wind and a spirit to the shadow and the leaf.’ He then sums up his argument.

We repeat, then, that we wish our native poets would give a more national character to their writings. In order to effect this, they have only to write more naturally, to write from their own feelings and impressions, from the influence of what they see around them, and not from any preconceived notions of what poetry ought to be, caught by reading many books and imitating many models. This is peculiarly true in descriptions of natural scenery. In these, let us have no more sky-larks and nightingales. For us they only warble in books. A painter might as well introduce an elephant or a rhinoceros into a New England landscape. [This comes, we must remember, from the young poet who [79] had written in his ‘Angler's Song’ six years before,—

Upward speeds the morning lark
To its silver cloud.]

We would not restrict our poets in the choice of their subjects, or the scenes of their story; but when they sing under an American sky, and describe a native landscape, let the description be graphic, as if it had been seen and not imagined. We wish, too, to see the figures and imagery of poetry a little more characteristic, as if drawn from nature and not from books. Of this we have constantly recurring examples in the language of our North American Indians. Our readers will all recollect the last words of Pushmataha, the Choctaw chief, who died at Washington in the year 1824: ‘I shall die, but you will return to your brethren. As you go along the paths, you will see the flowers and hear the birds; but Pushmataha will see them and hear them no more. When you come to your home, they will ask you, where is Pushmataha? and you will say to them, He is no more. They will hear the tidings like the sound of the fall of a mighty oak in the stillness of the wood. More attention on the part of our writers to these particulars would give a new and delightful expression to the face of our poetry. But the difficulty is, that instead of coming forward [80] as bold, original thinkers, they have imbibed the degenerate spirit of modern English poetry.’

North American Review, XXXIV. 74,75.

What is meant by this last passage is seen when he goes on to point out that each little village then had ‘its little Byron, its self-tormenting scoffer at morality, its gloomy misanthropist in song,’ and that even Wordsworth, in some respects an antidote to Byron, was as yet ‘a very unsafe model for imitation;’ and he farther points out ‘how invariably those who have imitated him have fallen into tedious mannerisms.’ He ends with a moral, perhaps rather tamely stated: ‘We hope, however, that ere long some one of our most gifted bards will throw his fetters off, and relying on himself alone, fathom the recesses of his own mind, and bring up rich pearls from the secret depths of thought.’13

‘The true glory of a nation’—this is his final attitude—‘is moral and intellectual preeminence;’ thus distinctly foreshadowing the title of his friend Charles Sumner's later oration, ‘The True Grandeur of Nations.’ American literature had undoubtedly begun to exist before this claim was made, as in the prose of Irving and Cooper, the poetry of Dana and Bryant. But it had awaited the arrival of some one to formulate its claims, and this it found in Longfellow.

1 New England Magazine, i. 27.

2 Ibid. IV. 131.

3 Ms. letter.

4 See Writings of William Austin, Boston, 1890.

5 New England Magazine, II. 188.

6 North American Review, XXIX. 459.

7 Harvard Graduates' Magazine, VI. 6.

8 Goodrich's Recollections of a Lifetime, II. 263, 560.

9 North American Review, XXXIV. 56.

10 North American Review, XXXIV. 59.

11 North American Review, XXXIV. 61.

12 Ib. 69.

13 lb. 78.

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