Literature as an art.
As one looks forward to the America
of fifty years hence, the main source of anxiety appears to be in a probable excess of prosperity, and in the want of a good grievance.
We seem nearly at the end of those great public wrongs which require a special moral earthquake to end them.
Except to secure the ballot for woman,a contest which is thus far advancing very peaceably,there seems nothing left which need be absolutely fought for; no great influence to keep us from a commonplace and perhaps debasing success.
There will, no doubt, be still need of the statesman to adjust the details of government, and of the clergyman to keep an eye on private morals, including his own. There will also be social and religious changes, perhaps great ones; but there are no omens of any very fierce upheaval.
And seeing the educational value to this generation of the reforms for which it has contended, and especially of the antislavery enterprise, one must feel an impulse of pity for our successors, who seem likely to have no convictions for which they can honestly be mobbed.
Can we spare these great tonics?
It is the experience of history that all religious bodies are purified by persecution, and materialized by peace.
No amount of hereditary
virtue has thus far saved the merely devout communities from deteriorating, when let alone, into comfort and good dinners.
This is most noticeable in detached organizations, --Moravians, Shakers, Quakers, Roman Catholics,they all go the same way at last; when persecution and missionary toil are over, they enter on a tiresome millennium of meat and pudding.
To guard against this spiritual obesity, this carnal Eden
, what has the next age in reserve for us?
Suppose forty million perfectly healthy and virtuous Americans
, what is to keep them from being as uninteresting as so many Chinese
I know of nothing but that aim which is the climax and flower of all civilization, without which purity itself grows dull and devotion tedious,--the pursuit of Science and Art. Give to all this nation peace, freedom, prosperity, and even virtue, still there must be some absorbing interest, some career.
That career can be sought only in two directions,--more and yet more material prosperity on the one side, Science and Art on the other.
Every man's aim must either be riches, or something better than riches.
Now the wealth is to be respected and desired, nor need anything be said against it. And certainly nothing need be said in its behalf, there is such a vast chorus of voices steadily occupied in proclaiming it. The instincts of the American
mind will take care of that; but to advocate the alternative career, the striving of the whole nature after something utterly apart from this world's wealth,--it is for this end that a stray voice is needed.
It will not take long; the clamor of the market will reabsorb us to-morrow.
It can scarcely be said that Science and Art have as yet any place in America
; or if they have, it is by virtue of their prospective value, as with the bonds of a Pacific
I use the ordinary classification, Science and Art, though it is literature only of which I now aim to speak.
For under one of these two heads all literature must fall; it may be either a contribution to science through its matter, or to art through its form.
The form of literature is usually called style; and of the highest kind of literature, called poetry or belles-lettres, the style is an essential, and almost the essential part It is in this aspect that the matter is now to be considered,--literature as an art.
The latest French traveller, Ernest Duvergier de Hauranne
, says well, that, for what he calls the academic class — or class devoted to pure literature — there is as yet no place in America
Such a class must as yet conceal itself, he says, beneath the politician's garb, or the clergyman's cravat.
We may observe that, when our people speak of literature, they are very apt to mean a newspaper article, or perhaps a sermon, or a legal plea.
One editor said that it could no longer be asserted that literature was ill paid in America
, since Governor Andrew
had received ten thousand dollars for an argument against the prohibitory liquor law. Even in our largest cities, there are scarcely the rudiments of a literary class, apart from the newspapers.
Now, journalism is an invaluable outlet for the leisure time of a literary man but his main work must be given to something else, or his vocation must change its name.
He needs the experience of journalism, as he needs that of the lyceum and the caucus,--nay, as he needs the gymnasium and the wherry,--to keep himself healthy and sound.
But when he gives the main energy of his life to either, though he may not cease to be useful, he ceases to be a literary man.
It is useless to complain that, in America
, Science is preceding Art; that is inevitable.
As yet there is a shrinking even from pure science,--that is, from all science which is not directly marketable; and while this is so, art must be still further postponed.
We have hitherto valued science for its applications, natural history as a branch of agriculture, mathematics for the sake of life-assurance tables, and even a college education as a training for members of Congress.
Just so far as any of these departments have failed of these ends, there is a tendency to disparage them.
We are a little like the President Dupaty
of the French Assembly
, who told the astronomer Laplace
that he considered the discovery of a new planet to be far less important than that of a new pudding, since we had already more planets than we knew what to do with, while we never could have puddings enough.
We are now outgrowing this limited view of science, but in regard to literature the delusion still remains; if it is to be anything more than an amusement, it must afford solid information; it is not yet owned that it has value for itself, as an art. Of course, all true instruction, however conveyed, is palatable; to a healthy mind the Mecanique Celeste is good reading; so is Mill
's , “Political economy,” or De Morgan
's “Formal logic.”
But words are available for something which is more than knowledge.
Words afford a more delicious music than the chords of any instrument; they are susceptible of richer colors than any painter's palette; and that they should be used merely for the transportation of intelligence, as a wheel-barrow carries brick, is not enough.
The highest aspect of literature assimilates it to painting and music.
Beyond and above all the domain of use lies beauty, and to aim at this makes literature an art.
A book without art is simply a commodity; it may be exceedingly valuable to the consumer, very profitable to the producer, but it does not come within the domain of pure literature.
It is said that some high legal authority on copyright thus cites a case: “One Moore
had written a book which he called ‘Irish Melodies,’ ” and so on. Now, as Aristotle defined the shipbuilder's art to be all of the ship but the wood, so the literary art displayed in Moore
's Melodies was precisely the thing ignored in this citation.
To pursue literature as an art is not therefore to be a mathematician nor a political economist; still less to be a successful journalist, like Greeley
, or a lecturer with a thousand annual invitations, like Gough
These careers have really no more to do with literature than has the stage or the bar. Indeed, a man may earn twenty thousand dollars a year by writing “sensation stories,” and have nothing to do with literature in any high sense.
But to devote one's life to perfecting the manner, as well as the matter, of one's work; to expatriate one's self long years for it, like Motley
; to overcome vast physical obstacles for it, like Prescott
; to live and die only to transfuse external nature into human words, like Thoreau
; to chase dreams for a lifetime, like Hawthorne
; to labor tranquilly and see a nation imbued with one's thoughts, like Emerson
,--this it is to pursue literature as an art.
There is apparently something in the Anglo-Saxon
mind which causes a slight shrinking from art as such, perhaps associating it with deception or frivolity,--which tolerates it, and, strange to say, even produces it in verse, but really shrinks from it in prose.
Across the water, this tendency seems to increase.
Just as an Englishman
often seems ashamed to speak well, and pooh-poohs all oratory, so he is beginning to show the same slipshod manner on paper.
What stands between Americans
and good writing is usually want of culture; we write as well as we know how, while in England
the obstacle seems to be merely a boorish whim.
The style of many English books and magazines is less careful than ours, --less finished, less harmonious, more inelegant, more slangy.
What second-rate American writer would see any wit in describing himself, like Dean Alford
in his recent book on language, as “an old party in a shovel” ? These bad examples are to be regretted; for doubtless ten times as many original works are annually published in England
as in America
, and we have an hereditary right to seek from that nation those models of culture for which we must now turn to France
In a late English magazine, there is an elaborate attempt to prove the inferiority in manliness of the French
mind as compared with the English
“Frenchmen are less manly, and French-women less womanly, than English men and women.”
And one of the illustrations seriously offered is this: “In literature they think much of the method, style, and what they themselves call the art of making a book.”
The charge is true.
alone among living nations is literature habitually pursued as an art; and, in consequence of this, despite the seeds of decay which imperialism sowed, French prose-writing has no rival in contemporary literature.
We cannot fully recognize this fact through translations, because only the most sensational French books
appear to be translated.
But as French painters and actors now habitually surpass all others even in what are claimed as the English
qualities,simplicity and truth,--so do French prose-writers excel.
To be set against the brutality of Carlyle
and the shrill screams of Ruskin
, there is to be seen across the Channel
the extraordinary fact of an actual organization of good writers, the French Academy, whose influence all nations feel.
Under their authority we see introduced into literary work an habitual grace and perfection, a clearness and directness, a light and pliable strength, and a fine shading of expression, such as no other tongue can even define.
We see the same high standard in their criticism, in their works of research, in the Revue des Deux Mondes, and, in short, throughout literature.
What is there in any other language, for instance, to be compared with the voluminous writings of Sainte
, ranging over all history and literature, and carrying into all that incomparable style, so delicate, so brilliant, so equable, so strong,--touching all themes, not with the blacksmith's hand of iron, but with the surgeon's hand of steel?
In the average type of French novels, one feels the superiority to the English
in quiet power, in the absence of the sensational and exaggerated, and in keeping close to the level of real human life.
They rely for success upon perfection of style and the most subtile analysis of human character; and therefore they are often painful,--just as Thackeray
is painful,--because they look at artificial society, and paint what they see. Thus they dwell often on unhappy marriages, because such things grow naturally from the false social system in France
On the other hand, in France
there is very little house-breaking, and bigamy is almost impossible, so that we hear delightfully little about them; whereas, if you subtract these from the current English novels, what is there left?
furnishes at present no models of prose style; and all her past models, except perhaps Goethe
, seem to be already losing their charm.
Yet for knowledge we go to Germany
, more than ever, and there is a certain exuberant wealth that can even impart fascination to a bad style, as to that of Jean Paul
Such an author may therefore be very useful to a student who can withstand him, which poor Carlyle
could not. There was a time, it is said, when English and American literature seemed to be expiring of conventionalism.
was the Jenner who inoculated and saved us all by this virus from Germany
, and then died of his own disease.
It is an exciting thing to remember the time when all literature was in the inflammatory stage of this superinduced disorder; but does any one now read Carlyle
's French Revolution
without a sense of pain?
Every year now shows that the whole trick of style with which it was written was false from beginning to end. For surely no style can be permanently attractive that is not simple.
must be the first element of literary art. This assertion will no doubt run counter to the common belief.
Most persons have an impression of something called style in writing,--as they have an impression of something called architecture in building,--that is external and superadded, instead of being the very basis and law of the whole.
There is the house, they think, and, if you can afford it, you put on some architecture; there is the writing, and a college-bred man is expected to put on some style.
The implied assumption is, that he is less likely than another to write simply.
This shows our school-boy notions of culture.
A really cultivated person is less likely to waste words on mere ornamentation, just as he is less likely to have gingerbread-work on his house.
Good taste simplifies.
Men whose early culture was deficient are far more apt to be permanently sophomoric than those who lived through the sophomore at the proper time and place.
The reason is, that the habit of expression, in a cultivated person, matures with his life; but when a man has had much life and very little expression, he is confused by his own thoughts, and does not know how much to attempt or how to discriminate.
When such a person falls on honest slang, it is usually a relief, for then he uses language which is fresh and real to him; whereas such phrases in a cultivated person usually indicate mere laziness and mental undress.
Indeed, almost all slang is like parched corn, and should be served up hot, or else not at all.
But it is evident that mere simplicity of style is not enough, for there is a manner of writing which does not satisfy us, though it may be simple and also carefully done.
Such, for instance, is the prose style of Southey
, which was apparently the model for all American writing in its day. We see the result in the early volumes of the North American Review, whose traditions of rather tame correctness were what enabled us to live through the Carlyle epoch with safety.
The aim of this style was to avoid all impulse, brilliancy, or surprise, and to be perfectly colorless; it was a highly polished smoothness, on which the thoughts rolled like balls.
But style is capable of something more than smoothness and clearness; you see this something more when you turn from Prescott
, for instance; there is a new quality in the page, --it has become alive.
is perhaps the best word to describe this additional element; it is a style that has blood in it. This may come from various sources,good health, animal spirits, outdoor habits, or simply an
It is hard to describe this quality, or to give rules for it; the most obvious way to acquire it is to keep one's life fresh and vigorous, to write only what presses to be said, and to utter that as if the world waited for the saying.
Where lies the extraordinary power of “Jane Eyre
,” for instance?
In the intense earnestness which vitalizes every line; each atom of the author's life appears to come throbbing and surging through it; every sentence seems endowed with a soul of its own, and looks up at you with human eyes.
The next element of literary art may be said to be structure
. So strong in the American
mind is the demand for organization, that the logical element of style, which is its skeleton, is not rare among us. But this is only the basis; besides the philosophical structure of a statement, which comes by thought, there is an artistic structure, which implies the education of the taste.
So, in the human body, there is a symmetry of the bony frame, and there is a further symmetry of the rounded flesh which should cover it; and in literature it is not enough to have a perfectly framed logical skeleton,there should be also a well-proportioned beauty of utterance, which is the flesh.
Unless this inward and outward structure exist, although a book may be never so valuable, it hardly comes within the domain of literary art.
These different types of structure may perhaps be illustrated by three different books, all belonging to the intermediate ground between science and art. I should say that Buckle's “History of civilization,” with all its wealth and vigor, is exceedingly loose-jointed in all its logical structure, and also very defective in its literary structure, although it happens to have an element of freshness which is rare in such a work, and carries the reader along.
's “Origin of species” is better; that has at the bottom a strong logic, whether conclusive or otherwise, but is so rambling and confused in its merely literary statement, that it does itself no justice.
A third book, Huxley
's “Lectures,” combines with its logic a power of clear and symmetrical statement that gives it a rare charm, and makes it a contribution, not to science alone, but to literature.
In what is called poetry, belles-lettres, or pure literature, the osseous structure is of course hidden; and the symmetry suggested is always that of taste rather than of logic, though logic must be always implied, or at least never violated.
In some of the greatest modern authors, however, there are limitations or drawbacks to this symmetry.
said admirably of her favorite Goethe
, that he had the artist's hand, but not the artist's love of structure; and in all his prose writings one sees a certain divergent and centrifugal habit, which completely overpowers him before the end of “Wilhelm Meister
,” and shows itself even in the “Elective affinities,” which is, so far as I know, his most perfect prose work.
, again, one observes a similar defect; his unit of structure is the sentence, and the periods seem combined merely by the accident of juxtaposition.
Each sentence is a pearl, and the whole essay is so much clipped from the necklace; but it is fastened at neither end, and the beads slip off; when you try to replace them, you find that they belong in one place as well as in another.
Yet it is not enough for human beauty to possess symmetry of structure, within and without: there must be a beautiful coloring also, wealth of complexion, fineness
So the next element of literary art lies in the choice of words
. Style must have richness and felicity.
Words in a master's hands seem more than words; he can double or quadruple their power by skill in using; and this is a result so delightful as to give to certain authors a value out of all proportion to their thought.
There are books which are luxuries, livres de luxe, whose pages seem builded of materials more precious than those of common life.
, for example, in poetry, and Landor
in prose, give illustrations of this; and perhaps the representative instance, in all English literature, of the prismatic resources of mere words is the poem of “The Eve of St. Agnes.”
But thus to be crowned monarch of the sunset, to trust one's self with full daring in these realms of glory, demands such a balance of endowments as no one in English literature save Shakespeare
In choosing words, it is to be remembered that there is not a really poor one in any language; each had originally some vivid meaning, but most of them have been worn smooth by passing from hand to hand, and hence the infinite care required in their use. “Language,” says Max Muller
, “is a dictionary of faded metaphors” ; and every writer who creates a new image, or even reproduces an old one by passing it through a fresh mind, enlarges this vast treasure-house.
And this applies not only to words of beauty, but to words of wit. “All wit,” said Mr. Pitt
, “is true reasoning” ; and Rogers
, who preserved this saying, added, that he himself had lived long before making the discovery that wit was truth.
A final condition of literary art is thoroughness
, which must be shown both in the preparation and in the revision of one's work.
The most brilliant mind needs a large accumulated capital of facts and images, before it can safely
enter on its business.
, before beginning the Spectator, had accumulated three folio volumes of notes.
“The greater part of an author's time,” said Dr. Johnson
, “is spent in reading in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.”
Unhappily, with these riches comes the chance of being crushed by them, of which the agreeable Roman Catholic
, is a striking recent example.
There is no satisfaction in being told, as Charles Lamb
, that “you have read more books that are not worth reading than any other man” ; nor in being described, as was Southey
, as “a talking album, filled with long extracts from forgotten books on unimportant subjects.”
One must not have more knowledge than one can keep in subjection; but every literary man needs to accumulate a whole tool-chest in his memory, and another in his study, before he can be more than a journeyman at his trade.
Yet the labor of preparation is not, after all, more important than that of final revision.
The feature of literary art which is always least appreciated by the public, and even by young authors, is the amount of toil it costs.
But all the standards, all the precedents of every art, show that the greatest gifts do not supersede the necessity of work.
The most astonishing development of native genius in any-direction, so far as I know, is that of Mozart
in music; yet it is he who has left the remark, that, if few equalled him in his vocation, few had studied it with such persevering labor and such unremitting zeal.
There is still preserved at Ferrara
the piece of paper on which Ariosto
wrote in sixteen different ways one of his most famous stanzas.
The novel which Hawthorne
left unfinished — and whose opening chapters when published proved so admirable — had been begun by him, as it
appeared, in five different ways.
Yet how many young collegians have at this moment in their desks the manuscript of a first novel, and have considered it a piece of heroic toil if they have once revised it!
It is to rebuke this literary indolence, and to afford a perpetual standard of high art, that the study of Greek
ought to be retained in our schools.
The whole future of our literature may depend upon it; to abandon it is deliberately to forego the very highest models.
There is no other literature which so steadily reproaches a young writer,--nothing else by which he may sustain himself till he forms a high standard of his own. Not that he should attempt direct imitations, which are almost always failures as such, however attractive in other respects; witness Swinburne
But the true use of Greek
literature is perpetually to remind us what a wondrous thing literary art may be,--capable of what range of resources, of what thoroughness in structure, of what perfection in detail.
It is a remarkable fact, that the most penetrating and fearless of all our writers, Thoreau
, -he who made Nature his sole mistress, and shook himself utterly free from human tradition,--yet clung to Greek
literature as the one achievement of man that seemed worthy to take rank with Nature, pronouncing it “as refined, as solidly done, and as beautiful almost as the morning itself.”
These are the qualities of style that seem most obviously important,--simplicity, freshness, structure, choice of words, and thoroughness both of preparation and of finish.
Yet, in aiming at literary art, it must be remembered that all the cardinal virtues go into a good style, while each of the seven deadly sins tends to vitiate a bad one.
What a charm in the merit of humility, for instance,
as it is sometimes seen in style, leading to a certain self-restraint and moderation of tone, however weighty the argument!
How great the power of an habitual understatement, on which in due season one strong thought rises, like an ocean-crest, and breaks, and sweeps onward, lavishing itself in splendor!
What a glorious gift of heaven would have been the style of Ruskin
, for instance, could he but have contained himself, and put forth only half his strength, instead of always planting, in the words of old Fuller
, “a piece of ordnance to batter down an aspen-leaf” !
It would be hardly safe to illustrate what has been said by any multiplication of examples from our own literature.
Yet perhaps there will be no danger in saying that America
has as yet produced but two authors of whom we may claim that their style is in all respects adequate to their wants, and the perfect vehicle of their thought.
It is not always the greatest writers of whom this is true, for one's demands upon the vehicle of thought are in proportion to his thoughts, and great ideas strain language more than small ones.
We cannot say of either Emerson
, for instance, that his style is adequate to his needs, because the needs are immense, and Thoreau
, at least, sometimes disdains effort.
But the only American authors, perhaps, whose style is an elastic garment that fits all the uses of the body, are Irving
This has no reference to the quality of their thought, as to which in Irving
we feel a slight mediocrity; no matter, there is the agreeable style, and it does him all the service he needs.
By its aid he reached his limit of execution, and we can hardly imagine him, with his organization, as accomplishing more.
But in Hawthorne
we see astonishing power, always easily expressed, and capable of indefinite expansion within certain lateral limits.
His early solitude narrowed his affinities, and gave a kind of bloodlessness to his style; clear in hue, fine in texture, it is apt to want the mellow tinge which indicates a robust and copious life.
Even such a criticism seems daring, in respect to anything so beautiful; and I can conceive of no other defect in the style of Hawthorne
Perhaps the conclusion of the whole matter may seem to be that literary art is so lofty a thing as to be beyond the reach of any of us; as the sage in Rasselas, discoursing on poetry, only convinces his hearers that no one ever can be a poet.
After so much in the way of discouragement, it should be added,--what the most limited experience may teach us all,--that there is no other pursuit so unceasingly delightful.
As some one said of love, “all other pleasures are not worth its pains.”
But the literary man must love his art, as the painter must love painting, out of all proportion to its rewards; or rather, the delight of the work must be its own reward.
Any praise or guerdon hurts him, if it bring any other pleasure to eclipse this.
The reward of a good sentence is to have written it; if it bring fame or fortune, very well, so long as this recompense does not intoxicate.
The peril is, that all temporary applause is vitiated by uncertainty, and may be leading you right or wrong.
wrote to Schiller
, “We make money by our poor books.”
The impression is somehow conveyed to the young, that there exists somewhere a circle of cultivated minds, gifted with discernment, who can distinguish at a glance between Shakespeare
One may doubt the existence of any such contemporary tribunal.
there is none such in America
Provided an author says something noticeable, and obeys the ordinary rules of grammar and spelling, his immediate public asks little more; and if he attempts more, it is an even chance that it leads him away from favor.
Indeed, within the last few years, it has come to be a sign of infinite humor to dispense with even these few rules, and spell as badly as possible.
Yet even if you went to London
or to Paris
in search of this imaginary body of critics, you would not find them; there also you would find the transient and the immortal confounded together, and the transient often uppermost.
Even a foreign country is not always, as has been said, a contemporaneous posterity.
It is said that no American writer was ever so warmly received in England
as Artemus Ward It is only the slow alembic of the years that finally extracts from this vast mass of literature its few immortal drops, and leaves the rest to perish.
I know of no tonic more useful for a young writer than to read carefully, in the English Reviews
of seventy or eighty years ago, the crushing criticisms on nearly every author of that epoch who has achieved lasting fame.
What cannot there be read, however, is the sterner history of those who were simply neglected.
Look, for instance, at the career of Charles Lamb
, who now seems to us a writer who must have disarmed opposition, and have been a favorite from the first.
's “Rosamond gray” was published in 1798, and for two years was not even reviewed.
His poems appeared during the same year.
In 1815 he introduced Talfourd
as his own “only admirer.”
In 1819 the series of “Essays of Elia” was begun, and Shelley
wrote to Leigh Hunt
that year: “When I think of such a mind as Lamb
's, when I see
how unnoticed remain things of such exquisite and complete perfection, what should I hope for myself, if I had not higher objects in view than fame?”
These Essays were published in a volume in 1823; and Willis
records that when he was in Europe
, ten years later, and just before Lamb
's death, “it was difficult to light upon a person who had read Elia.”
This brings us to a contemporary instance.
wrote early, side by side, in “The token,” about 1827, forty years ago. Willis
rose at once to notoriety, but Mr. S. G. Goodrich
, the editor of the work, states in his autobiography, that Hawthorne
's contributions “did not attract the slightest attention.”
Ten years later, in 1837, these same sketches were collected in a volume, as “Twice-told Tales” ; but it was almost impossible to find a publisher for them, and when published they had no success.
I well remember the apathy with which even the enlarged edition of 1842 was received, in spite of the warm admiration of a few; nor was it until the publication of “The scarlet letter,” in 1850, that its author could fairly be termed famous.
For twenty years he was, in his own words, “the obscurest man of letters in America
” ; and it is the thought to which the mind must constantly recur, in thinking of Hawthorne
,--How could any combination of physical and mental vigor enable a man to go on producing works of such a quality in an atmosphere so chilling?
Probably the truth is, that art precedes criticism, and that every great writer creates or revives the taste by which he is appreciated.
True, we are wont to claim that “one touch of nature makes the whole world kin” ; but it sometimes takes the world a good while to acknowledge its poor relations.
It seems hard for most persons
to recognize a touch of nature when they see it. The trees have formed their buds in autumn every year since trees first waved; yet you will find that the great majority of persons have never made that discovery, but suppose that Nature gets up those ornaments in spring.
And if we are thus blind to what hangs conspicuously before our eyes for the whole long winter of every year, how unobservant must we be of the rarer phases of earthly beauty and of human life!
Keep to the conventional, and you have something which all have seen, even if they disapprove; copy Nature, and her colors make art appear incredible.
If you could paint the sunset before your window as gorgeous as it is, your picture would be hooted from the walls of the exhibition.
If you were to write into fiction the true story of the man or woman you met yesterday, it would be scouted as too wildly unreal.
Indeed, the literary artist may almost say, as did the Duke
when urged to write his memoirs, “I should like to speak the truth; but if I did, I should be torn in pieces.”
Therefore the writer, when he adopts a high aim, must be a law to himself, bide his time, and take the risk of discovering, at last, that his life has been a failure.
His task is one in which failure is easy, when he must not only depict the truths of Nature, but must do this with such verisimilitude as to vindicate its truth to other eyes.
And since this recognition may not even begin till after his death, we can see what Rivarol meant by his fine saying, that “genius is only great patience,” and Buffon
, by his more guarded definition of genius as the aptitude for patience.
Of all literary qualities, this patience has thus far been rarest in America
Therefore, there has been in our
literature scarcely any quiet power; if effects are produced, they must, in literature as in painting, be sensational, and cover acres of canvas.
As yet, the mass of our writers seek originality in mere externals; we think, because we live in a new country, we are unworthy of ourselves if we do not Americanize the grammar and spelling-book.
In a republic, must the objective case be governed by a verb?
We shall yet learn that it is not new literary forms we need, but only fresh inspiration, combined with cultivated taste.
The standard of good art is always much the same; modifications are trifling.
Otherwise we could not enjoy any foreign literature.
A fine phrase in Aeschylus
affects us as if we had read it in Emerson
A structural completeness in a work of art seems the same in the Oedipus Tyrannus
as in “The scarlet letter.”
Art has therefore its law; and eccentricity, though often promising as a mere trait of youth, is only a disfigurement to maturer years.
It is no discredit to Walt Whitman
that he wrote “Leaves of grass,” only that he did not burn it afterwards and reserve himself for something better.
A young writer must commonly plough in his first crop, as the farmer does, to enrich the soil.
Is it luxuriant, astonishing, the wonder of the neighborhood; so much the better,--in let it go!
said, in 1818, “There does not appear to be in America
, at this moment, one man of any considerable talents.”
Though this might not now be said, we still stand before the world with something of the Swiss reputation, as a race of thrifty republicans, patriotic and courageous, with a decided turn for mechanical invention.
What we are actually producing, even to-day, in any domain of pure art, is very little; it is only the broad average intelligence of the masses that does us any
And even this is easily exaggerated.
The majority of members of Congress talk bad grammar; so do the majority of public-school teachers.
I do not mean merely that they speak without elegance, but that in moments of confidence they say “We was,” and “Them things,” and “I done it.”
With the present predominance of merely scientific studies, and the increasing distaste for the study of language, this will not soon diminish.
For all that, there are already visible, in the American
temperament, two points of great promise in respect to art in general, and literary art above all.
First, there is in this temperament a certain pliability and impressibility, as compared with the rest of the Anglo-Saxon
race; it shows a finer grain and a nicer touch.
If this is not yet brought to bear on literature, it is only because the time has not come.
It is visible everywhere else.
The aim which Bonaparte
avowed as his highest ambition for France
, to convert all trades into arts, is being rapidly fulfilled all around us. There is a constant tendency to supersede brute muscle by the fibres of the brain, and thus to assimilate the rudest toil to what Bacon
calls “sedentary and within-door arts, that require rather the finger than the arm.”
It is clear that this same impulse, in higher and higher applications, must culminate in the artistic creation of beauty.
And to fortify this fine instinct, we may trust, secondly, in the profound earnestness which still marks our people.
With all this flexibility, there is yet a solidity of principle beneath, that makes the subtile American mind as real and controlling as that of the robust race from which it sprang.
Though the present tendency of our art is towards foreign models, this is but a temporary thing.
We must look at these till we have learned what they can
teach, but a race in which the moral nature is strongest will be its own guide at last.
And it is a comfort thus to end in the faith that, as the foundation of all true greatness is in the conscience, so we are safe if we can but carry into science and art the same earnestness of spirit which has fought through the great civil war and slain slavery.
As “the Puritan
has triumphed” in this stern contest, so must the. Puritan
triumph in the more graceful emulations that are to come; but it must be the Puritanism of Milton
, not of Cromwell
The invigorating air of great moral principles must breathe through all our literature; it is the expanding spirit of the seventeenth century by which we must conquer now.
It is worth all that has been sacrificed in New England
to vindicate this one fact, the supremacy of the moral nature.
All culture, all art, without this, must be but rootless flowers, such as flaunt round a nation's decay.
All the long, stern reign of Plymouth Rock
and Salem Meeting-House was well spent, since it had this for an end,to plough into the American
race the tradition of absolute righteousness, as the immutable foundation of all. This was the purpose of our fathers.
There should be here no European
frivolity, even if European
grace disappeared with it. For the sake of this great purpose, history will pardon all their excesses,--overwork, grim Sabbaths, prohibition of innocent amusements, all were better than to be frivolous.
And so, in these later years, the arduous reforms into which the life-blood of Puritanism has passed have all helped to train us for art, because they have trained us in earnestness, even while they seemed to run counter to that spirit of joy in which art has its being.
For no joy is joyous which has not its root in
In what awful lines of light has this truth been lately written against the sky!
What graces might there not have been in that Southern society before the war?
Here and there in its midst were to be found ease, affluence, leisure, polished manners, European
culture,--all worthless; it produced not a book, not a painting, not a statue; it concentrated itself on politics, and failed; then on war, and failed; it is dead and vanished, leaving only memories of wrong behind.
Let us not be too exultant; the hasty wealth of New York may do as little.
Intellect in this age is not to be found in the circles of fashion; it is not found in such society in Europe
, it is not here.
Even in Paris
, the world's capital, imperialism tainted all it touched; and art survived in spite of it. We, a younger and cruder race, need still to go abroad for our standard of execution, but our ideal and our faith must be our own.