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Unnecessary apologies

the newspaper critics seem to me mistaken in attributing the favorable reception of Mr. Bryce's admirable book on the ‘American Commonwealth’ to a diminished national sensitiveness. It is certain that this sensitiveness has greatly diminished, and certain also that Mr. Bryce gives us plenty of praise. But the main difference seems to lie in this, that Mr. Bryce treats us as a subject for serious study, and not as a primary class for instruction in the rudiments of morals and grammar. The usual complaint made by us against English writers is the same now as in the days of Dickens, that they come here chiefly to teach and not to inquire. No man had so many foreign visitors in his time as the late Professor Longfellow, and there never lived a man in whom the element of kindly charity more prevailed; [121] yet he records in his diary1 his surprise that so few foreigners apparently desire any information about this country, while all have much to communicate on the subject. The reason why every one reads with pleasure even the censures of Mr. Bryce is because he has really taken the pains to learn something about us. There is probably no American author who has traversed this continent so widely and repeatedly; there is perhaps no one who has made so careful a comparative study of the State governments; and there is certainly no one who could re-enforce this comparison by so careful a study of popular government in other times and places. To say that his book will supersede De Tocqueville is to say little; it is better for the present period than was De Tocqueville for any period; because it is as clear, as candid, and incomparably more thorough.

All this refers to the main theme of Mr. Bryce's book; but there is one criticism yet to be made upon it. It is to be regretted that he was ever tempted from his main ground, where he is so strong, to a collateral ground, where [122] he is weaker. It was not, perhaps, necessary that he should treat of American literature at all; at any rate, it is safe to say that his chapter on this subject has a perfunctory air; it seems like the work of a tired man, who feels that he ought to say something on that point, yet does not care to grapple with it as with his main question; and so puts us off with vague and needless, though kindly apologies. He is so ready to find good reasons for our doing no more, that he takes no pains to analyze or weigh what we have done; and unfortunately the habit of colonial deference is still so strong among us, that we are more disposed to be grateful to such a kindly apologist than to question his words. It has been a lifelong conviction with me that the injury done to American literature by the absence of a copyright law is a trivial thing compared with the depressing influence of this prolonged attitude of dependence: an attitude which has disappeared from our political institutions, but still exists in regard to books. To test it we have only to reverse in imagination the nationality of a few authors and critics, and consider what a change of estimate [123] such an altered origin would involve. Let us make, for instance, the great effort of supposing Emerson an English author and Matthew Arnold an American; does any one suppose that Arnold's criticisms on Emerson would in that case have attracted very serious attention in either country? Had Mr. Gosse been a New Yorker, writing in a London magazine, would any one on either side of the Atlantic have seriously cared whether Mr. Gosse thought that contemporary England had produced a poet? The reason why the criticisms of these two Englishmen have attracted such widespread notice among us is that they have the accumulated literary weight—the ex oriente lux—of London behind them. We accept them meekly and almost reverently; just as we even accept the criticisms made on Grant and Sheridan by Lord Wolseley, who is, compared to either of these generals, but a carpet knight. It is in some such way that we must explain the meek gratitude with which our press receives it, when Mr. Bryce apologizes for our deficiencies in the way of literature.

Mr. Bryce—whom, it is needless to say, I [124] regard with hearty admiration, and I can add with personal affection, since he has been my guest and I have been his—Mr. Bryce has a chapter on ‘Creative Intellectual Power,’ in which he has some capital remarks on the impossibility of saying why great men appear in one time or place and not in another—in Florence, for instance, and not in Naples or Milan. Then he goes on to say that there is ‘no reason why the absence of brilliant genius among the sixty millions in the United States should excite any surprise,’ and adds soon after, ‘It is not to be made a reproach against America that men like Tennyson or Darwin have not been born there.’ Surely not; nor is it a reproach against England that men like Emerson or Hawthorne have not been born there. But if this last is true, why did it not occur to Mr. Bryce to say it; and had he said it, is it not plain that the whole tone and statement of his proposition would have been different? It occurs to him to specify Darwin and Tennyson, but the two men who above all others represent creative intellectual power, up to this time, in America, are not so much as named in his whole chapter of thirteen pages. [125]

Of course it is too early for comparison, but it is undoubtedly the belief of many Americans —at any rate, it is one which I venture to entertain—that the place in the history of intellect held a hundred years hence by the two Americans he forgets to mention will be greater than that of the two Englishmen he names. Greater than Darwin's, from the more lasting quality of literary than of scientific eminence. Darwin was great, as he was certainly noble and lovable; but he was not greater, or at least held greater, than Newton:—

Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night,
God said, “Let Newton be,” and all was light.

More than this could surely not be said for Darwin; and yet how vague and dim is now the knowledge, even among educated men, of precisely what it was that Newton accomplished, compared with the continued knowledge held by every school-boy as to Pope, who wrote the lines just quoted. The mere record of Darwin's own life shows how large a part of man's highest mental action became inert in him. He ceased to care for the spheres of thought in [126] which Emerson chiefly lived; while, on the other hand, the tendencies and results of Darwin's thought were always an object of interest to Emerson.

When we turn to Tennyson the comparison must proceed on different grounds, and takes us back to Coleridge's fine definition of inspiration, given half a century ago in his ‘Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit.’ ‘Whatever finds me,’ he wrote, ‘at a greater depth than usual, that is inspired.’ It is because Emerson in his way and Hawthorne in his way touch us at greater depths than Tennyson that their chance for immortality is stronger. Form is doubtless needed in the expression; but in Hawthorne there is no defect of form, and the frequent defects of this kind in Emerson are balanced by tones and cadences so noble that the exquisite lyre of Tennyson, taken at its best, has never reached them. I do not object to the details of treatment in Mr. Bryce's chapter, and it contains many admirable suggestions; but it seems to me that he might well preface it, in a second edition, by some such remark—addressed to some fancied personification [127] of American Literature—as Enobarbus, in ‘Antony and Cleopatra,’ makes to Pompey:—

I never loved you much: but I have praised you
When you have well deserved ten times as much
As I have said you did.

1 January 16, 185.

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