previous next


A contemporaneous posterity

there is an American novel, now pretty effectually forgotten, which yet had the rare honor of contributing one permanent phrase to English literature. I remember well the surprise produced, in my boyhood, by the appearance of ‘Stanley; or, The Recollections of a Man of the World.’ It was so crammed with miscellaneous literary allusion and criticism, after the fashion of those days, that it was attributed by some critics to Edward Everett, then the standing representative of omniscience in our Eastern States. This literary material was strung loosely upon a plot wild and improbable enough for Brockden Brown, and yet vivid enough to retain a certain charm, for me at least, even until this day. It was this plot, perhaps, which led the late James T. Fields to maintain that Maturin was the author of the novel in question; but it is now known to have been the production of Horace Binney Wallace [52] of Philadelphia, then a youth of twenty-one. In this book occurs the sentence: ‘Byron's European fame is the best earnest of his immortality, for a foreign nation is a kind of contemporaneous posterity.’1

Few widely quoted phrases have had, I fancy, less foundation. It is convenient to imagine that an ocean or a mountain barrier, or even a line of custom houses, may furnish a sieve that shall sift all true reputations from the chaff; but in fact, I suspect, whatever whims may vary or unsettle immediate reputations on the spot, these disturbing influences are only redistributed, not abolished, by distance. Whether we look to popular preference or to the judgment of high authorities, the result is equally baffling. Napoleon Bonaparte preferred Ossian, it is said, to Shakespeare; and Voltaire placed the latter among the minor poets, viewing him at best as we now view Marlowe, as the author of an occasional mighty line. It was after Mrs. Elizabeth Montagu had been asked to hear Voltaire demolish Shakespeare at an evening party in Paris that she made her celebrated answer, [53] when the host expressed the hope that she had not been pained by the criticism: ‘Why should I be pained? I have not the honor to be among the intimate friends of M. de Voltaire.’ Even at this day the French journalists are quite bewildered by the Pall Mall Gazette's lists of English immortals; and ask who Tennyson is, and what plays Ruskin has written. Those who happened, like myself, to be in Paris during the Exposition of 1878 remember well the astonishment produced in the French mind by the discovery that any pictures were painted in England; and the French Millet was at that time almost as little known in London as was his almost namesake, the English Millais, in Paris. If a foreign nation represented posterity, neither of these eminent artists appeared then to have a chance of lasting fame.

When we see the intellectual separation thus maintained between England and France, with only the width of the Channel between them, we can understand the separation achieved by the Atlantic, even where there is no essential difference of language. M. Taine tries to convince Frenchmen that the forty English ‘immortals’ [54] selected by the readers of the Pall Mall Gazette are equal, taken together, to the French Academicians. ‘You do not know them, you say?’he goes on. ‘That is not a sufficient reason. The English, and all who speak English, know them well, but, on the other hand, know little of our men of letters.’ After this a French paper, reprinting a similar English list, added comments on the names, like this: ‘Robert Browning, the Scotch poet.’ There is probably no better manual of universal knowledge than the great French dictionary of Larousse. When people come with miscellaneous questions to the Harvard College librarians, they often say in return, ‘Have you looked in Larousse?’Now, when one looks in Larousse to see who Robert Browning was, one finds the statement that the genius of Browning is more analogous to that of his American contemporaries ‘Emerton, Wendell Holmes, and Bigelow’ than to that of any English poet (celle de n'importe quel poete anglais.) This transformation of Emerson into Emerton, and of Lowell, probably, to Bigelow, is hardly more extraordinary than to link together three such [55] dissimilar poets, and compare Browning to all three of them, or, indeed, to either of the three. Yet it gives us the high-water mark of what ‘contemporaneous posterity’ has to offer. The criticism of another nation can, no doubt, offer some advantages of its own—a fresh pair of eyes and freedom from cliques; but a foreigner can be no judge of local coloring, whether in nature or manners. The mere knowledge of the history of a nation may be essential to a knowledge of its art.

So far as literature goes, the largest element of foreign popularity lies naturally in some kinship of language. Reputation follows the line of least resistance. The Germanic races take naturally to the literature of their own congeners, and so with the Latin. As these last have had precedence in organizing the social life of the world, so they still retain it in their literary sway. The French tongue, in particular, while ceasing to be the vehicle of all travelling intercourse, is still the second language of all the world. A Portuguese gentleman said once to a friend of mine that he was studying French ‘in order to have something [56] to read.’ All the empire of Great Britain, circling the globe, affords to her poets or novelists but a petty and insular audience compared with that addressed by George Sand or Victor Hugo. A Roman Catholic convert from America, going from Paris to Rome, and having audience with a former pope, is said to have been a little dismayed when his Holiness instantly inquired, with eager solicitude, as to the rumored illness of Paul de Kock—the milder Zola of the last generation. In contemporaneous fame, then, the mere accident of nationality and language plays an enormous part; but this accident will clearly have nothing to do with the judgment of posterity.

If any foreign country could stand for a contemporaneous posterity, one would think it might be a younger nation judging an older one. Yet how little did the American reputations of fifty years ago afford any sure prediction of permanent fame in respect to English writers! True, we gave early recognition to Carlyle and Tennyson, but scarcely greater than to authors now faded or fading into obscurity,—Milnes (Lord Houghton), Sterling, [57] Trench, Alford, and Bailey. No English poem, it was said, ever sold through so many American editions as ‘Festus;’ nor was Tupper's ‘Proverbial Philosophy’ far behind it. Translators and publishers quarrelled bitterly for the privilege of translating Frederika Bremer's novels; but our young people, who already stand for posterity, hardly recall her name. I asked a Swedish commissioner at our Centennial Exhibition in 1876, ‘Is Miss Bremer still read in Sweden?’ He shook his head; and when I asked, ‘Who has replaced her?’ he said, ‘Bret Harte and Mark Twain.’ It seemed the irony of fame; and there is no guaranty that this reversed national compliment will, any more than our recognition of her, predict the judgment of the future.

If this uncertainty exists when the New World judges the Old, of which it knows something, the insecurity must be greater when the Old World judges the New, of which it knows next to nothing. If the multiplicity of translations be any test, Mrs. Stowe's contemporary fame, the world over, has been unequalled in literature; but will any one now say that it [58] surely predicts the judgment of posterity? Consider the companion instances. Next to ‘Uncle Tom's Cabin’ ranked for a season, doubtless, in European favor, that exceedingly commonplace novel ‘The Lamplighter,’ whose very name is now almost forgotten at home. It is impossible to say what law enters into such successes as this last; but one of the most obvious demands made by all foreign contemporary judgment is, that an American book should supply to a jaded public the element of the unexpected. Europe demands from America not so much a new thought and purpose, as some new dramatis personoe; that an author should exhibit a wholly untried type,—an Indian, as Cooper; a negro, as Mrs. Stowe; a mountaineer, as Miss Murfree; a California gambler, as Bret Harte; a rough or roustabout, as Whitman.

There are commonly two ways to eminent social success for an American in foreign society,—to be more European than Europeans themselves, or else to surpass all other Americans in some amusing peculiarity which foreigners suppose to be American. It is much [59] the same in literature. Lady Morgan, describing the high society of Dublin in her day, speaks of one man as a great favorite who always entered every drawing-room by turning a somersault. This is one way of success for an American book; but the other way, which is at least more dignified, is rarely successful except when combined with personal residence and private acquaintance. Down to the year 1880 Lowell was known in England, almost exclusively, as the author of the ‘Biglow Papers,’ and was habitually classed with Artemus Ward and Josh Billings, except that his audience was smaller. The unusual experience of a diplomatic appointment first unveiled to the English mind the all-accomplished Lowell whom we mourn. In other cases, as with Prescott and Motley, there was the mingled attraction of European manners and a European subject. But a simple and home-loving American, who writes upon the themes furnished by his own nation, without pyrotechnics or fantastic spelling, is apt to seem to the English mind quite uninteresting. There is nothing which ordinarily interests Europeans less than an [60] Americanism unaccompanied by a war-whoop. The Saturday Review, wishing to emphasize its contempt for Henry Ward Beecher, finally declares that one would turn from him with relief even to the poems of Whittier.

There could hardly have been a more exhaustive proof of this local limitation or chauvinisme than I myself noticed at a London dinner-party some years ago. Our host was an Oxford professor, and the company was an eminent one. Being hard pressed about American literature, I had said incidentally that a great deal of intellectual activity in America was occupied, and rightly, by the elucidation of our own history,—a thing, I added, which inspired almost no interest in England. This fact being disputed, I said, ‘Let us take a test case. We have in America an historian superior to Motley in labors, in originality of treatment, and in style. If he had, like Motley, first gone abroad for a subject, and then for a residence, his European fame would have equalled Motley's. As it is, probably not a person present except our host will recognize his name.’ When I mentioned Francis Parkman, the prediction [61] was fulfilled. All, save the host—a man better acquainted with the United States, perhaps, than any living Englishman—confessed utter ignorance: an ignorance shared, it seems, by the only English historian of American literature, Professor Nichol, who actually does not allude to Parkman. It seems to me that we had better, in view of such facts, dismiss the theory that a foreign nation is a kind of contemporaneous posterity.

1 II. 89.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Places (automatically extracted)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
1880 AD (1)
1878 AD (1)
1876 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: