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[27]

III

The shadow of Europe

when the first ocean steamers crossed the Atlantic, about 1838, Willis predicted that they would only make American literature more provincial, by bringing Europe so much nearer than before. Yet Emerson showed that there was an influence at work more potent than steamers, and the colonial spirit in our literature began to diminish from his time. In the days of those first ocean voyages, the favorite literary journal of cultivated Americans was the New York Albion, which was conducted expressly for English residents on this continent; and it was considered a piece of American audacity when Horace Greeley called Margaret Fuller to New York, that the Tribune might give to our literature an organ of its own. Later, on the establishment of Putnam's Magazine, in 1853, I remember that one of the most enlightened New York journalists predicted to me the absolute failure of the whole enterprise. ‘Either an [28] American magazine will command no respect,’ he said, ‘or it must be better than Blackwood or Fraser, which is an absurd supposition.’ But either of our great illustrated magazines has now more readers in England than Fraser or Blackwood had then in America; and to this extent Willis's prediction is unfulfilled, and the shadow of Europe is lifted, not deepened, over our literature. But in many ways the glamour of foreign superiority still holds; and we still see much of the old deferential attitude prevailing. Prince Albert said of Germany, in 1859, that its rock ahead was self-sufficiency. In our own country, as to literature and science, to say nothing of art, our rock ahead is not selfsuffi-ciency, but self-depreciation. Men still smile at the Congressman who said, ‘What have we to do with Europe?’but I sometimes wish, for the credit of the craft, that it had been a literary man who said it. After all, it was only a rougher paraphrase of Napoleon's equally trenchant words: ‘Cette vieille Europe m'ennuie.’

The, young American who goes to London, and finds there the most agreeable literary society in the world, because the most centralized [29] and compact, can hardly believe at first that the authors around him are made of the same clay with those whom he has often jostled on the sidewalk at home. He finds himself dividing his scanty hours between celebrated writers on the one side, and great historic remains on the other; as I can remember, one day, to have weighed a visit to Darwin against one to York Minster, and later to have postponed Stonehenge, which seemed likely to endure, for Tennyson, who perhaps might not. The young American sees in London, to quote Willis again, ‘whole shelves of his library walking about in coats and gowns,’ and they seem for the moment far more interesting than the similar shelves in home-made garments behind him. He is not cured until he is some day startled with the discovery that there are cultivated foreigners to whom his own world is foreign, and therefore fascinating; men who think the better of him for having known Mark Twain, and women who are unwearied in their curiosity about the personal ways of Longfellow. Nay, when I once mentioned to that fine old Irish gentleman, the late Richard D. Webb, [30] at his house in Dublin, that I had felt a thrill of pleasure on observing the street sign, denoting Fishamble Lane, at Cork, and recalling the ballad about ‘Misthress Judy McCarty, of Fishamble Lane,’ he pleased me by saying that he had felt just so in New York, when he saw the name of Madison Square, and thought of Miss Flora McFlimsey. So our modest continent had already its storied heroines and its hallowed ground!

There are, undoubtedly, points in which Europe, and especially England, has still the advantage of America; such, for instance, as weekly journalism. In regard to printed books there is also still an advantage in quantity, but not in quality; while in magazine literature the balance seems to incline just now the other way. I saw it claimed confidently, not long since, that the English magazines had ‘more solid value’ than our own; but this solidity now consists, I should say, more in the style than in the matter, and is a doubtful benefit, like solidity in a pudding. When the writer whom I quote went on to cite the saying of a young girl, that she could always understand an [31] American periodical, but never opened an English one without something unintelligible, it seemed to me a bit of evidence whose bearing was quite uncertain. It reminded me of a delightful old lady, well known to me, who, when taxed by her daughter with reading a book quite beyond her comprehension, replied: ‘But where is the use of reading a book that you can understand? It does you no good.’ As a matter of fact, the English magazines are commonly not magazines at all, in the American sense. Mr. M. D. Conway well said that the Contemporary Review and the Fortnightly were simply circular letters addressed by a few cultivated gentlemen to those belonging to the same club. It is not until a man knows himself to be writing for a hundred thousand readers that he is compelled to work out his abstrusest thought into clearness, just as a sufficient pressure transforms opaque snow into pellucid ice. In our great American magazines, history and science have commonly undergone this process, and the reader may be gratified, not ashamed, at comprehending them.

The best remedy for too profound a deference [32] toward European literary work is to test the author on some ground with which we in America cannot help being familiar. It is this which makes a book of travels among us, or even a lecturing trip, so perilous for a foreign reputation; and among the few who can bear this test —as De Tocqueville, Von Holst, the Comte de Paris—it is singularly rare to find an Englishman. If the travellers have been thus unfortunate, how much more those who have risked themselves on cis-Atlantic themes without travelling. No living English writer stood higher in America than Sir Henry Maine until we watched him as he made the perilous transition from ‘Ancient Law’ to modern ‘Popular Government,’ and saw him approaching what he himself admits to be the most important theme in modern history, with apparently but some halfdozen authorities to draw upon,—the United States Constitution, the Federalist, and two or three short biographies. Had an American written on the most unimportant period of the most insignificant German principality with a basis of reading no larger, we should have wished that his nationality had been kept a secret. It is [33] not strange, on such a method, that Maine should inform us that the majority of the present State governments were formed before the Union, and that only half the original thirteen colonies held slaves. So Mr. John A. Doyle, writing an extended history of American colonization, put into his first volume a map making the lines of all the early grants run north and south instead of east and west; and this having been received with polite incredulity, gave us another map depicting the New England colonies in 1700, with Plymouth still delineated as a separate government, although it had been united with Massachusetts eight years before.

When a lady in a London drawing-room sends, by a returning New Yorker, an urgent message to her cousin at Colorado Springs, we rather enjoy it, and call it only pretty Fanny's way; she is not more ignorant of North American geography than we ourselves may be of that of South America. But when we find that English scholars of established reputation betray, when on ground we know, defects of method that seem hopeless, what reverence is left for those who keep on ground that we do [34] not know? In time, the shadow of Europe must lose something of its impressiveness. Dr. Creighton, in his preface to the EnglishHistorical Review,’ counts in all Americans as merely so manly ‘outlying English;’ but it is time to recognize that American literature is not, and never again can be, merely an outlying portion of the literature of England.

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