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The New world and the New book

[an address Delivered before the ‘Nineteenth century Club,’ January 15, 1891.]

it is a remarkable fact that the man who has, among all American authors, made the most daring and almost revolutionary claims in behalf of American literature should yet have been, among all these authors, the most equable ill temperament and the most cosmopolitan in training.

Washington Irving was, as one may say, born a citizen of the world, for he was born in New York City. He was not a rustic nor a Puritan, nor even, in the American sense, a Yankee. He spent twenty-one years of his life in foreign countries. He was mistaken in England for an English writer. He was accepted as an adopted Spaniard in Spain. He [2] died before the outbreak of the great Civil War, which did so much to convince us, for a time at least, that we were a nation. Yet it was Washington Irving who wrote to John Lothrop Motley, in 1857, two years before his own death:—

‘You are properly sensible of the high calling of the American press, that rising tribunal before which the history of all nations is to be revised and rewritten, and the judgment of past ages to be corrected or confirmed.’1

The utmost claim of the most impassioned Fourth of July orator has never involved any declaration of literary independence to be compared with this deliberate utterance of the placid and world-experienced Irving. It was the fashion of earlier critics to pity him for having been born into a country without a past. This passage showed him to have rejoiced in being born into a country with a future. His ‘broad and eclectic genius,’ as Warner well calls it, was surely not given to bragging or to vagueness. He must have meant something by this daring statement. What did he mean? [3]

There are some things which it is very certain that he did not mean. He certainly did not accept the Matthew Arnold attitude, that to talk of a distinctive American press at all is an absurdity. Arnold finds material for profound ridicule in the fact that there exists a ‘Primer of American Literature;’ this poor little Cinderella, cut off from all schooling, must not even have a primer of her own. Irving certainly did not assume the (Goldwin Smith attitude, that this nation is itself but a schism, and should be viewed accordingly; as if one should talk of there being only a schism between an oak-tree and its seedling, and should try to correct the unhappy separation by trowel and gardener's wax. He certainly did not accept the theory sometimes so earnestly advocated among us, of a ‘cosmopolitan tribunal,’ which always turns out to mean a tribunal where all other nations are to be admitted to the jury-box, while America is to get no farther than the prisoners' dock. Irving would have made as short work with such a cosmopolitan tribunal as did Alice in Wonderland with the jury-box of small quadrupeds, when she refused to obey [4] the king's order that all persons over a mile high should leave the court-room. In truth, the tone of Irving's remark carries us back, by its audacious self-reliance, to the answer said to have been given by the Delphic oracle to Cicero in his youth. It told him, according to Plutarch, to live for himself, and not to take the opinions of others for his guide; and the German Niebuhr thinks that ‘if the answer was really given, it might well tempt us to believe in the actual inspiration of the priestess.’2

At any rate, Irving must have meant something by the remark. What could he have meant? What is this touchstone that the American press must apply to the history and the thought of the world? The touchstone, I should unhesitatingly reply, of the Declaration of Independence; or rather, perhaps, of those five opening words into which the essence of the Declaration of Independence was concentrated; the five words within which, as Lincoln said, Jefferson embodied an eternal truth. ‘All men are created equal;’ —that is, equally men, and each entitled to be counted and considered as an individual. [5]

From this simple assumption flowed all that is distinctive in American society. From it resulted, as a political inference, universal suffrage; that is, a suffrage constantly tending to be universal, although it still leaves out one-half the human race. This universal suffrage is inevitably based on the doctrine of human equality, as further interpreted by Franklin's remark that the poor man has an equal right to the suffrage with the rich man, ‘and more need,’ because he has fewer ways in which to protect himself. But it is not true, as even such acute European observers as M. Scherer and Sir Henry Maine assume, that ‘democracy is but a form of government;’ for democracy has just as distinct a place in society, and, above all, in the realm of literature. The touchstone there applied is just the same, and it consists in the essential dignity and value of the individual man. The distinctive attitude of the American press must lie, if anywhere, in its recognition of this individual importance and worth.

The five words of Jefferson—words, which Matthew Arnold pronounced ‘not solid,’ thus [6] prove themselves solid enough to sustain not merely the government of sixty-three million people, but their literature. Instead of avoiding, with Goethe, the common, das Gemeinde, American literature must freely seek the common; its fiction must record not queens and Cleopatras alone, but the emotion in the heart of the schoolgirl and the sempstress; its history must record, not great generals alone, but the nameless boys whose graves people with undying memories every soldiers' cemetery from Arlington to Chattanooga.

And Motley the pupil was not unworthy of Irving from whom the suggestion came. His ‘Dutch Republic’ was written in this American spirit. William the Silent remains in our memory as no more essentially a hero than John Haring, who held single-handed his submerged dike against an army; and Philip of Burgundy and his knights of the Golden Fleece are painted as far less important than John Coster, the Antwerp apothecary, printing his little grammar with movable types. Motley wrote from England, in the midst of an intoxicating social success, that he never should wish America [7] ‘to be Anglicized in the aristocratic sense’ of the term;3 and he described the beautiful English country-seats as ‘paradises very perverting to the moral and politico-economical sense,’ and sure to ‘pass away, one of these centuries, in the general progress of humanity.’4 And he afterwards said the profoundest thing ever uttered in regard to our Civil War, when he said that it was not, in the ordinary sense, ‘a military war,’ but a contest of two principles.5 Wendell Phillips once told me that as the antislavery contest made him an American, so Europe made Motley one; and when the two young aristocrats met after years of absence, they both found that they had thus experienced religion.

When we pass to other great American authors, we see that Emerson lifted his voice and spoke even to the humblest of the people of the intrinsic dignity of man:—

God said, I am tired of kings,
     I suffer them no more;
Up to my ear each morning brings
     The outrage of the poor.

[8] I will have never a noble,
     No lineage counted great;
Fishers and choppers and ploughmen
     Shall constitute a State.

To-day unbind the captive,
     So only are ye unbound:
Lift up a people from the dust,
     Trump of their freedom, sound!

Pay ransom to the owner,
     And fill the bag to the brim:
Who is the owner? The slave is owner,
     And ever was. Pay him.

That poem was not written for a few cultivated people only. I heard it read to an armed regiment of freed slaves, standing silent with dusky faces, with the solemn arches of the live oaks above them, each tree draped with long festoons of gray moss across its hundred feet of shade. And never reader had an audience more serious, more thoughtful. The words which to others are literature, to them were life.

And all of that early transcendental school which did so much to emancipate and nationalize American literature, did it by recognizing this same fact. From the depth of their so-called idealism they recognized the infinite value of [9] the individual man. Thoreau, who has been so incorrectly and even cruelly described as a man who spurned his fellows, wrote that noble sentence, forever refuting such critics, ‘What is nature, without a human life passing within her? Many joys and many sorrows are the lights and shadows in which she shines most beautiful.’ Hawthorne came nearest to a portrayal of himself in that exquisite prose-poem of ‘The Threefold Destiny,’ in which the world-weary man returns to his native village and finds all his early dreams fulfilled in the life beside his own hearthstone. Margaret Fuller Ossoli wrote the profoundest phrase of criticism which has yet proceeded from any American critic, when she said that in a work of fiction we need to hear the excuses that men make to themselves for their worthlessness.

And now that this early ideal movement has passed by, the far wider 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 [10] with the toy of royalty and 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 Glendinning 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 sequel, explaining that the marriage was on the whole a rather unhappy one, and that luckily they 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 peasant virtues. [11]

But from the moment American fiction came upon the scene, it brought a change. Peasant virtue vanishes when the peasant is a possible president, and what takes its place is individual manhood, irrespective of social position. The heroes who successively conquered Europe in the hands of American authors were of low estate,—a backwoodsman, a pilot, a negro slave, a lamplighter; to which gallery Bret Harte added the gambler, and the authors of ‘Democracy’ and the ‘Bread-Winners’ flung in the politician. In all these figures social distinctions disappear: ‘a man's a man for a‘ that.’ And so of our later writers, Miss Wilkins in New England, Miss Murfree in Tennessee, Mr. Cable in Louisiana, Mr. Howe in Kansas, Dr. Eggleston in Indiana, Julien Gordon in New York, all represent the same impulse; all recognize that ‘all men are created equal’ in Jefferson's sense, because all recognize the essential and inalienable value of the individual man.

It would be, of course, absurd to claim that America represents the whole of this tendency, for the tendency is a part of that wave of democratic feeling which is overflowing the world. [12] But Dickens, who initiated the movement in English fiction, was unquestionably influenced by that very American life which he disliked and caricatured, and we have since seen a similar impulse spread through other countries. In the Russian, the Norwegian, the Spanish, the Italian fiction, we now rarely find a plot turning on some merely conventional difference between the social positions of hero and heroine. In England the change has been made more slowly than elsewhere, so incongruous is it in the midst of a society which still, in the phrase of Brander Matthews, accepts dukes. Indeed, it is curious to observe that for a time it was still found necessary, in the earlier stages of the transition, to label the hero with his precise social position;—as, ‘Steven Lawrence, Yeoman,’ ‘John Halifax, Gentleman,’ —whereas in America it would have been left for the reader to find out whether John Halifax was or was not a gentleman, and no label would have been thought needful.

And I hasten to add, what I should not always have felt justified in saying, that this American tendency comes to its highest point and is [13] best indicated in the later work of Mr. Howells. Happy is that author whose final admirers are, as heroes used to say, ‘the captives of his bow and spear,’ the men from whom he met his earlier criticism. Happy is that man who has the patience to follow, like Cicero, his own genius, and not to take the opinions of others for his guide. And the earlier work of Mr. Howells —that is, everything before ‘The Rise of Silas Lapham,’ ‘Annie Kilburn,’ and ‘The Hazard of New Fortunes’—falls now into its right place; its alleged thinness becomes merely that of the painter's sketches and studies before his maturer work begins. As the Emperor Alaric felt always an unseen power drawing him on to Rome, so Howells has evidently felt a magnet drawing him on to New York, and it was not until he set up his canvas there that it had due proportions. My friend Mr. James Parton used to say that students must live in New England, where there were better libraries, but that ‘loafers and men of genius’ should live in New York. To me personally it seems a high price to pay for the privileges either of genius or of loafing, but it is well that Howells has at last [14] paid it for the sake of the results. It is impossible to deny that he as a critic has proved himself sometimes narrow, and has rejected with too great vehemence that which lay outside of his especial domain. It is not necessary, because one prefers apples, to condemn oranges; and he has sometimes needed the caution of the old judge to the young one: ‘Beware how you give reasons for your decisions; for, while your decisions will usually be right, your reasons will very often be wrong.’But as he has become touched more and more with the enthusiasm of humanity, he has grown better than his reasons, far better than his criticisms; and it is with him and with the school he represents that the hope of American literature just now rests. The reason why he finds no delicate shading or gradation of character unimportant is that he represents the dignity and importance of the individual man.

When the future literary historian of the English-speaking world looks back to this period he will be compelled to say,

While England hailed as great writing and significant additions to literature the brutalities of Haggard [15] and the garlic flavors of Kipling, there was in America a student of life, who painted with the skill that Scott revered in Miss Austen, but not on the two inches of ivory that Miss Austen chose. He painted on a canvas large enough for the tragedies of New York, large enough for the future of America. Rich and luminous as George Eliot, he had the sense of form and symmetry which she had not; graphic in his characterization as Hardy, he did not stop, like Hardy, with a single circle of villagers. What the future critic will say, we too should be ready to perceive. If England finds him tiresome, so much the worse for England; if England prefers dime novels and cut-and-thrust Christmas melodramas, and finds in what Howells writes only ‘transatlantic kickshaws’ because he paints character and life, we must say, as our fathers did, ‘Farewell, dear England,’ and seek what is our own. Emerson set free our poetry, our prose; Howell is setting free our fiction; he himself is as yet only half out of the chrysalis, but the wings are there.

It must always be remembered that in literature, alone of all arts, place is of secondary importance, [16] for its masterpieces can be carried round the world in one's pockets. We need to go to Europe to see the great galleries, to hear the music of Wagner, but the boy who reads Aeschylus and Horace and Shakespeare by his pine-knot fire has at his command the essence of all universities, so far as literary training goes. But were this otherwise, we must remember that libraries, galleries, and buildings are all secondary to that great human life of which they are only the secretions or appendages. ‘My Madonnas’—thus wrote to me 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.’ What are the two unmistakable rifle-shots in American literature thus far? John Brown's speech in the court-room and Lincoln's Gettysburg address.

Yielding to no one in the desire to see our [17] land filled with libraries, with galleries, with museums, with fine buildings, I must still maintain that all those things are secondary to that vigorous American life, which is destined to assimilate and digest them all. We are still in allegiance to Europe for a thousand things; —clothes, art, scholarship. For many years we must yet go to Europe as did Robinson Crusoe to his wreck, for 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. I am willing to be censured for too much national self-confidence, for it is still true that we, like the young Cicero, need that quality. Goethe's world-literature is, no doubt, the ultimate aim, but a strong national literature must come first. The new book must express the spirit of the New World. We need some repressing, no doubt, and every European newspaper is free to apply it; we listen with exemplary meekness to every little European lecturer who comes to enlighten us, in words of one syllable, as to what we knew very well before. We need something of repression, but [18] much more of stimulus. So Spenser's Britomart, when she entered the enchanted hall, found above four doors in succession the inscription, ‘Be bold! be bold! be bold! be bold!’ and only over the fifth door was the inscription, needful but wholly subordinate, ‘Be not too bold!’

1 July 17, 1857. Motley Correspondence, i. 203.

2 Hist. of Rome, tr. by Schmitz, v. 35.

3 Corresp. II. 294.

4 Ibid. II. 280.

5 Ibid. II. 82.

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