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Chapter 10: forecast

In preparing the foregoing narrative, the attempt has been made from the outset to concentrate attention upon the few prominent writers and forces which have determined the development of American letters. It may be that some names have been wrongly subordinated or ignored; but the critic must, after all, discriminate according to his own judgment. There is a wise old Persian saying, “They came to shoe the Pasha's horses, and the beetle stretched out his leg to be shod.” The fundamental difficulty for fallible critics is to determine which is the Pasha's horse and which is the beetle.

The Fallibility of Criticim.

Even in dealing with the past, it is possible to go hopelessly wrong in one's judgment of individuals, books or writers. For instance, Addison still stands, traditionally, at the head of English prose writers, in respect to style; but from [258] his account of the greatest English poets he omits the names of Shakespeare, Beaumont, Fletcher, Massinger, Webster and Marlowe; a tolerably correct list of the leading dramatic poets in the English tongue. One might almost say that he wrote his list through time's telescope reversed. In the same way Ruskin rules out from his list of English poets Shelley and Coleridge. One might hope that the good taste or vanity of the great poets themselves would restore the balance of their own fame, at least, but Tennyson wrote in his later years, “I feel as if my life had been a useless life;” and Longfellow said, a few years before his death, to a young author who shrank from seeing his name in print, that he himself had never got over that feeling.

“Would it please you very much,” asks Thackeray's Warrington of Pendennis, “to have been the author of Hayley's verses?” Yet Hayley was, in his day, as Southey testifies, “by popular election the king of the English poets;” and he was held so important a personage that he received, what probably no other author ever has won, a large income for the last twelve years of his life [259] in return for the prospective copyright of his posthumous memoirs. Miss Anna Seward, writing to Sir Walter Scott in 1786, ranks him and the equally forgotten Mason as “the two foremost poets of the day;” she calls Hayley's poems “magnolias, roses, and amaranths,” and pronounces his esteem a distinction greater than monarchs hold it in their power to bestow. Yet probably nine out of ten who shall read these lines will have to consult a biographical dictionary to find out who Hayley was; while his odd protege, William Blake, whom the fine ladies of his day wondered at Hayley for patronizing, is now a favorite with lovers of literature and art.

It makes indeed a part of the magic of new books that no man can guess securely at their future. I remember vividly the surprise of my old friend and guide, Professor Edward Tyrrell Channing, then the highest literary authority in America, when I inserted in my Commencement oration at Harvard in 1841, a boyish compliment to Tennyson; only two or three copies of whose first thin volumes had as yet crossed the Atlantic, though these had been read with enthusiasm [260] by young people at Concord and at Cambridge. I, exhorting young poets with the mature enthusiasm of seventeen, bade them “lay down their Spenser and their Tennyson” and look within, and Professor Channing let it pass in the understanding that by Spenser I meant the highest authority, and by Tennyson, the lowest. This construction I refused with some indignation, for it was a capital passage of which I was quite proud and which had been written by my elder sister. When I explained my real views — as to Tennyson, the kindly professor said, “Ah, that is a different thing. I wish you to say what you think. I regard Tennyson as a great calf, but you are entitled to your own opinion.” Such instances show us that forecast in literature is not easy even for those whose opportunities for forming a sound judgment are exceptional.

The American verdict.

It is interesting to note in this connection that in estimating contemporary English writers during the nineteenth century, America was more just than England. The successive leaders of English literature, such as Lamb, Carlyle, Tennyson and Browning, were apt to be recognized first in [261] America. Shelley tells us how utterly ignored Charles Lamb was in his prime by the English public, and Willis tells us that it was not so in America. He says in his Letters from under a Bridge--his only thoroughly attractive book--“How profoundly dull was England to the merits of Charles Lamb until he died. . . . America was posterity to him. The writings of all our young authors were tinctured with imitation of his style, when in England (as I personally know) it was difficult to light upon a person who had read Elia.” It was an American, Charles Stearns Wheeler, one of Emerson's early disciples, who collected in the Athenaeum library the scattered numbers of Fraser's magazine, thus bringing together the fragments of Sartor Resartus, which was published in a volume in Boston before it appeared in that form in England. The same Charles Wheeler went to England soon after and bore to Tennyson the urgent request of his American admirers that he would reprint his early volumes; which he did in the two-volume edition which appeared in 1842. The cheap, early, double-columned [1841] edition of Browning's Bells and Pomegranates found subscribers [262] in Boston at a time when, as Browning himself told me, it attracted no attention in London; and Margaret Fuller wrote a notice of Paracelsus and Pippa Passes in the Dial, at a time when no such notice had yet appeared in Europe. If there was such a thing as literary foresight during the past century, its fountain was to be found in the New World, not the Old.

In speaking of the soundness of the judgment of the American public, one cannot, of The Popular course, include the vast number of Verdict. people who read some sort of books. In this country the authors who have achieved the most astounding popular successes, are, as a rule, absolutely forgotten. I can remember when Sylvanus Cobb, Jr., received by far the largest salary yet paid to any American writer, and Dr. J. H. Robinson spent his life in trying to rival him. The vast evangelical constituency which now reads Ben Hur then read Ingraham's Prince of the house of David; the boys who now pore over Henty would then have had Mayne Reid. Those who enjoy Gunter would have then read, it is to be presumed, the writings of Mr. J. W. Buel, whose very name will be, to most [263] readers of to-day, unknown. His Beautiful story reached a sale of nearly three hundred thousand copies in two years; his Living world and The story of man were sold to the number of nearly two hundred and fifty thousand each, and were endorsed by Gladstone and Bismarck. This was only fifteen years ago, for in 1888 he received for copyright $33,000 and in 1889 $50,000; yet one rarely finds any book of reference or library catalogue that contains his name. Is it not better to be unknown in one's lifetime, and yet live forever by one poem, like Blanco White with his sonnet called Life and light, or by one saying, like Fletcher of Saltoun, with his “I care not who makes the laws of a people, so I can make its ballads,” than to achieve such evanescent splendors as this?

One thing the larger public is likely to do. It is a fortunate fact that popular judgment, even at the time, is apt to fix upon some one poem by each poet, for instance, and connect the author with that poem inseparably thenceforward. Fate appears to assign to each some one boat, however small, on which his fame may float down towards immortality, even if it never attains it. This is the case, [264] for instance, with Longfellow's Hiawatha, Lowell's Commemoration Ode, Holmes's Chambered Nautilus, Whittier's Snow-bound, Mrs. Howe's Battle Hymn, Whitman's My Captain, Aldrich's Fredericksburg sonnet, Helen Jackson's Spinning, Thoreau's Smoke, Bayard Taylor's Song of the Camp, Emerson's Daughters of time, Burroughs's Serene I Fold my hands, Piatt's The morning Street, Mrs. Hooper's I slept and dreamed that life was beauty, Stedman's Thou art mine, Thou hast given thy word, Wasson's All's well, Brownlee Brown's Thalatta, Ellery Channing's To-morrow, Harriet Spofford's In a summer evening, Lanier's Marshes of Glynn, Mrs. Moulton's The closed gate, Eugene Field's Little boy Blue, John Hay's The Stirrup Cup, Forceythe Willson's Old Sergeant, Emily Dickinson's Vanished, Celia Thaxter's Sandpiper, and so on. All of these may not be immortal poems, but they are at least the boats which seem likely to bear the authors' names into the future.

If it is hard to make individual predictions, when we turn to the collective forecast for a nation we enter upon a larger and [265] doubtless more difficult subject, which the infinite possibilities of war or other The Collecnational complication make harder tive Forestill. No such forecast can ever cast. go very far for a nation which has not yet clearly worked out its own destiny, does not even comprehend itself, has not decided whether it is to be a self-governing republic from end to end, or a benevolent despotism to govern whole outlying races and generations. The last generation made the discovery that American literature has a quality and a flavor of its own; and it is not likely to discredit that discovery merely because literature itself, in the leading nations of the world, has just now held back a little to make room for commerce. The temporary disappearance of Emersons and Hawthornes in America is not more marked than that of Tennysons and Brownings in England, or of Goethes and Schillers in Germany. During the interval when great books have not multiplied, the great fortunes which are to buy books will have been accumulating; perhaps the next race of authors will be a little better fed than those who have passed off the stage; and yet it may be found that their work will [266] not really suffer, though endangered. Meantime every nation must try the experiment in its own way and under its own conditions; some of the minor nations of the world have tried their hands at authorship during the past few years, while their more powerful neighbors have been making money; and presently England and Germany and America may take their turn again at the gray goose quill now turned into a golden pen.

Three dangers.

So far as the collective future of American literature is concerned, it may be said, that there are three leading obstacles commonly alleged, which it must overcome. These are :

1. The alleged influence of the so-called Puritan tradition.

2. The alleged materialism of the age.

3. The mainly scientific tendency of education and thought.

Let us consider these in order:

The alleged obstacle of Puritanism.

1. It was Matthew Arnold who maintained that the Puritan spirit in America was utterly hostile to literature and art. As to the Puritan period, it is needless to say that the forest pioneer did not compose orchestral symphonies or the founders of a nation carve [267] statues of one another. Thoughtful and scholarly men created Massachusetts Colony, at least, and could at most bring hither the traditions of their universities and leave them embodied in a college. Their life was only historically inconsistent with what we now call culture; there was no logical antagonism; indeed, that life had in it much of the material of art in its sturdiness, its enthusiasm, and its truthfulness. To deny this is to see in art only something frivolous and insincere. Major John Hathorne put his offenders on trial and convicted and hanged them all. Nathaniel Hawthorne held his more spiritual tribunal two centuries later, and his keener scrutiny found some ground of vindication for each one. The fidelity, the thoroughness, the conscientious purpose, were the same in each. Each sought to rest his work, as all art must in the end rest, upon the absolute truth. The writer kept, no doubt, something of the sombreness of the magistrate; each nevertheless suffered in the woes he studied; and as Nathaniel Hawthorne “had a knot of pain in his forehead all winter” while meditating the doom of Arthur Dimmesdale, [268] so may the other have borne upon his brow the trace of Martha Corey's grief.

A real obstacle.

No, it does not seem that the obstacle to a new birth of literature and art in America lies in blind adherence to the Puritan tradition, but rather in the timid and faithless spirit that lurks in the circles of culture, and still holds something of literary and academic leadership in the homes of the Puritans. What are the ghosts of a myriad Blue Laws compared with the transplanted cynicism of one Saturday Review? How can any noble literature germinate where young men are constantly told by some of our professors that there is no such thing as originality, and that nothing remains for us in this effete epoch of history but the mere re-combining of thoughts which sprang first from braver brains? It is melancholy to see young men come forth from college walls with less enthusiasm than they carried in; trained in a spirit which is in this respect worse than English toryism, -that it does not even retain a hearty faith in the past. It is better that a man should have eyes in the back of his head than that he should be taught to sneer at even a retrospective [269] vision. One may believe that the golden age is behind us, or before us, but alas for the forlorn wisdom of him who rejects it altogether! It is not the climax of culture that a college graduate should emulate the obituary praise bestowed by Cotton Mather on the Rev. John Mitchell of Cambridge, “a truly aged young man.” Better a thousand times train a boy on Scott's novels or the Border ballads than educate him to believe, on the one side, that chivalry was a cheat and the troubadours imbeciles, and on the other hand, that universal suffrage is an absurdity and the one real need is to get rid of our voters.

The alleged obstacle of material prosperity.

2. It is further alleged that there is serious danger to literature in a period of overwhelming material prosperity. It is a thing not to be forgotten, that for a long series of years the plain people — in Sumner's phrase — of our Northern states, at least, were habitually in advance of their institutions of learning, in courage and comprehensiveness of thought. There were long years during which the most cultivated scholar, so soon as he embraced an unpopular opinion, was apt to find [270] the college doors closed against him, and only the country lyceum — the people's collegeleft open. Slavery had to be abolished before the most accomplished orator of the nation could be invited to address the graduates of his own university. The first among American scholars was nominated year after year, only to be rejected, before the academic societies of his own neighborhood. Yet during all that time the rural lecture associations showered their invitations on Parker and Phillips; culture shunned them, but the plain people heard them gladly. The home of real thought was outside, not inside, the college walls.

That time is past, and the literary class has now come more into sympathy with the popular heart. Even the apparent indifference of a popular audience to culture and high finish may be in the end a wholesome influence, recalling us to those more important things, compared to which these are secondary qualities. The indifference is only comparative; our public prefers good writing, as it prefers good elocution; but it values energy, heartiness, and active service more. The public is right; it is the business [271] of the writer, as of the speaker, to perfect the finer graces without sacrificing things more vital. “She was not a good singer,” says some novelist of his heroine, “but she sang with an inspiration such as good singers rarely indulge in.” Given those positive qualities, and it may be justly claimed that a fine execution does not hinder acceptance in America, but rather aids it. Where there is beauty of execution alone, a popular audience, even in America, very easily goes to sleep. And in such matters, as the French actor, Samson, said to the young dramatist, after snoring during the reading of his new play, “Sleep is an opinion.”

And this brings us to the conclusion, that while the enormous material and business life now developing is sometimes feared as a substitute for literature, it may yet prove its ultimate friend and promoter. Perhaps it may be found that the men who are contributing most to raise the tone of American literature are the men who have never yet written a book, and have scarcely time to read one, but by their heroic energies in other spheres are.providing materials from which a national literature shall one day be [272] built. The man who constructs a great mechanical work helps literature, for he gives a model which shall one day inspire us to construct literary works as great. We do not wish to be forever outdone by the iron machinery of Pittsburg or the grain elevators of Chicago. We have hardly yet arrived at our literature,--other things must come first; we are busy with our railroads, perfecting the vast alimentary canal by which the nation assimilates raw immigrants at the rate of a million a year. We are not yet producing, we are digesting; food now, literary composition by-and-by; Shakespeare did not write Hamlet at the dinner table. It is of course impossible to explain this to foreigners, and they still talk of composing, while we talk of dining.

Transatlantic opinion.

If the judgment of another nation is, as it has been called, that of a “contemporary posterity,” it is worth while to consider what sort of American literary product has excited the widest interest abroad. The greatest transatlantic successes of this kind which American novelists have yet attained-those won by Cooper and Mrs. Stowe--have come through a daring Americanism [273] of subject, which introduced in each case a new figure to the European world,first the Indian, then the negro. Whatever the merit of the work, it was plainly the theme which conquered. Bret Harte's popularity in England is due to the same cause; and there are other instances which come readily to mind. Such successes are little likely to be repeated, for they were based on temporary situations, never to recur. The mere oddities or exceptions of American life have now been pretty fully presented to the world. A far higher task remains to be fully accomplished, the presentation in literature, not of American types alone, but of the American spirit.

To analyze combinations of character that only our national life produces, to portray dramatic situations that belong to a clearer social atmosphere,--this is the higher Americanism. Of course, to cope with such things in such a spirit is less easy than to describe a foray or a tournament, or indefinitely to multiply such still-life pictures as the stereotyped English or French society affords; but the thing when once done is an incomparably nobler achievement for the American artist. [274] It may be centuries before it is done. No matter; it will be done.

It is a satisfaction to observe that the instinctive movement which is establishing American fiction, not in one locality alone, but on a field broad as the continent, unconsciously recognizes this one principle,--the essential dignity and worth of the individual man. This is what enables it to dispense with the mechanism of separate classes, and to reach human nature itself. When we look at the masters of English fiction, Scott and Jane Austen, we notice that in scarcely one of their novels does one person ever swerve on the closing page from the precise social position he has held from the beginning. Society in their hands is fixed, not fluid. Of course, there are a few concealed heirs, a few revealed strawberry leaves, but never any essential change. I can recall no real social promotion in all the Waverley novels except where Halbert Glendenning weds the maid of Avenel, and there the tutelary genius disappears singing,--

The churl is lord, the maid is bride ;

and it proved necessary for Scott to write a [275] sequel, explaining that the marriage was on the whole a rather unhappy one, and that luckily the pair had no children. Not that Scott did not appreciate with the keenest zest his own Jeannie Deanses and Dandie Dinmonts, but they must keep their place; it is not human nature they vindicate, but only peasant virtue. Such virtue vanishes from the foreground when the peasant is a possible president; and what takes its place is the study of individual manhood and womanhood.

The alleged obstacle of science.

3. There remains the fear, even among cultivated lovers of literature, that American intellect is pledged too firmly to science. Literature represents a world outside of science, and one which competes with it, in due modesty, for the rule of the human mind. It is commonly claimed that the balance at present is inclining in favor of science and away from literature. It is, indeed, claimed for science that it is exclusively to rule the world. An accomplished German savant, long resident in this country, Baron Osten Sacken, once remarked that in his opinion poetry was already quite superseded, and music and art must soon follow. Literature, he thought, [276] would only endure, if at all, as a means of preserving the results of science, probably in the shape of chemical formulae. He was a most agreeable man, who always complained that he had made a fatal mistake in his career, through rashly taking the whole of the Diptera, or two-winged insects, for his scientific task; whereas to take charge of a single genus of insects would have been enough, he thought, for the life-work of a judicious man. Personally he should have selected the mosquito.

We smile at this as an extravagance, to be classed with the repining of that German professor who reproached himself, on his death bed, with having wasted his life by attempting too much in studying both the aorists, or indefinite tenses, of the Greek verb, whereas if he had concentrated himself wholly on the second aorist he might have been of some real use in the world. But we have by the direct confession of the great leader of modern science, the noble and large-minded Darwin, an instance of almost complete atrophy of one whole side of the mind at the very time when its scientific action was at its highest point. Up to the age of thirty, [277] Darwin tells us, he took intense delight in poetry — Milton, Byron, Scott, Wordsworth, and Shelley-while he read Shakespeare with supreme enjoyment. Pictures and music also gave him much pleasure. But at sixtyseven he writes that “for many years he cannot endure to read a line of poetry ;” that he has lately tried Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated him; and that he has lost almost all taste for pictures and music. This he records, not with satisfaction, but with “great regret;” 1 he would gladly have it otherwise, but cannot. It is simply that one whole side of his intellectual being was paralyzed; a loss which all the healthy enjoyment of the other side of nature could scarcely repay. Yet it is possible that the lesson of Darwin's limitations may be scarcely less valuable than that of his achievements. By his strength he revolutionized the world of science. By his weakness he gave evidence that there is a world outside of science.

It is easy to cite the testimony of other high scientific authorities to the essential onesidedness of the exclusively scientific mind. [278] The late Clarence King, formerly Director of the United States Geological Survey, wrote thus, shortly before his death:2 “With all its novel powers and practical sense, I am obliged to admit that the purely scientific brain is miserably mechanical; it seems to have become a splendid sort of self-directed machine, an incredible automaton, grinding on with its analyses or constructions. But for pure sentiment, for all that spontaneous, joyous Greek waywardness of fancy, for the temperature of passion and the subtle thrill of ideality, you might as well look to a castiron derrick.” For all these, then, we must come back, by the very testimony of those scientific leaders who would seek to be whole men also, to the more flexible point of view, to the works of creative imagination,--to literature, in short.

Literature and science.

Literature is, as Wordsworth said of poetry in particular, not science, but “the antithesis of science.” If there be an intellectual world outside of science, where is the boundary-line of that world? We pass this line, it would seem, whenever we enter the realm usually [279] called intuitive or inspirational; a realm whose characteristic it is that it is not subject to processes or measurable by tests. The yield of this .outer world may be as real as that of the scientific world, but its methods are not traceable, nor are its achievements capable of being duplicated by the mere force of patient will. Keats, in one of his fine letters, classifies the universe, and begins boldly with “things real, as sun, moon, and passages of Shakespeare.” Sun and moon lie within the domain of science; not long since, to speak of one instance, came that extraordinary discovery which has revealed in the bright star Algol a system of three and perhaps four stellar bodies, revolving round each other and influencing each other's motions, and this at a distance so great that the rays of light which reveal them left their home fifty years ago. The imagination is paralyzed before a step so vast; yet it all lies within the domain of science, while science can no more tell us how Macbeth or Hamlet came into existence than if the new astronomy had never been born. It is as true of the poem as of the poet--Nascitur, nonfit. We cannot even define what poetry [280] is; and Thoreau remarks that there never yet was a definition of it so good but the poet would proceed to disregard it by setting aside all its requisitions.

Shelley says that a man cannot say, “ ‘ I will compose poetry.’ The greatest poet even cannot say it, for the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within, like the color of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our nature are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure.” 3 In a like vein Schiller wrote to K6rner that what impressed him when he sat down to write was usually some single impulse or harmonious tone, and not any clear notion of what he proposed writing. “These observations,” he says, “arise from an Ode to light with which I am now busy. I have as yet no idea what the poem will be, but a presentiment; and yet I can promise beforehand that it will be successful.” 4 We have self-revelations [281] from Mozart, altogether parallel to these, in regard to the process of composing music.

Such manifestations of genius are necessarily rare, and are, in the long run, the outcome, even more than the impelling force, of a firm and wholesome way of life. Libraries, galleries, museums, and fine buildings, with all their importance, are all secondary to that great human life of which they are, indeed, only the secretions or appendages. “My Madonnas” --thus wrote that recluse woman of genius, Emily Dickinson--“are the women who pass my house to their work, bearing Saviours in their arms.” Words wait on thoughts, thoughts on life; and after these, technical training is an easy thing. “The art of composition,” wrote Thoreau, “is as simple as the discharge of a bullet from a rifle, and its masterpieces imply an infinitely greater force behind them.”

The conclusion.

Out of our strong forward-bearing American life, with its apparent complications, and its essential simplicity, is to come, some day, a purer national expression than we have yet known. We are still in allegiance to Europe for a thousand things, for traditions, for art, for scholarship. For [282] many years we must yet go thither, as did Robinson Crusoe to his wreck, for many of the very materials of living. But materials take their value from him who uses them, and that wreck would have long since passed from memory had there not been a Robinson Crusoe.

The brilliant and somewhat worldly Bishop Wilberforce was once pointed out to me, riding in the Park at London, as I walked with Carlyle and Froude thirty years ago; and it was perhaps they who told me a story which the Bishop loved to tell of himself, as to the rebuke he once received from a curate whom he had reproved. The curate was given to fox-hunting, and when the bishop once reproved him and said it had a worldly appearance, “Not more worldly,” the curate replied, “than a certain ball at Blenheim Palace” at which the bishop had been present. The bishop explained that he was staying in the house, to be sure, but was never within three rooms of the dancing. “Oh! If it comes to that, your lordship,” said the curate, “I never am within three fields of the hounds.”

Grant that nowhere in America have we yet got within those three fields,--we will [283] not say of Shakespeare, but of Goethe, of Voltaire, even of Heine,--the hunt has at least been interesting, and we know not what to-morrow may bring forth. Matthew Arnold indignantly protested against regarding Emerson as another Plato, but thought that if he were to be classed with Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus, a better case might be made out; and certainly that is something, while we wait for the duplicate Plato to be born. Our new literature must express the spirit of the New World. We need some repression, no doubt, as the Old World has never been backward in reminding us; but what we need still more is expression. Spenser's Britomart, when she entered the enchanted hall, found over door after door the inscription, “Be bold!” “Be bold!” “Be bold!” “Be bold!” and only upon the last door was the inscription, needful, but utterly subordinate, “Be not too bold!”

1 Life, by his son. Am. ed. pp. 30, 81.

2 See Book and heart, p. 32.

3 Defense of Poetry in Essays and letters (Am. ed.), i.56.

4 Correspondence of Schiller and Korner.

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