Chapter 4: the New York period
A New centre.During the course of the Revolution, as we have seen, Philadelphia's position of authority in literary matters became gradually less firm. The best verse of the period had come from Connecticut and New Jersey, and the best prose from New York and Virginia. The removal of the first Congress to New York in 1783 was a sign of waning political prestige; and when six years later New York was chosen as the scene of the final organization of the American Republic, in April, 1789, the transfer of authority, political, social, and literary, was made sure.
Social conditions.At this date what is commonly called the National Period of American literature begins; but it will be seen that from this time political belief or practice had very little to do with the substance or quality of the best literature which was produced. Social  conditions, on the other hand, had much to do with the character of this work; and it is quite necessary to understand the composition of New York society after the Revolution in order to understand its literary product. It was probably both less refined and less provincial than that of Philadelphia had been during its precedence. In its lighter aspects it may be best judged, like all other social matters, by the testimony of women. The most brilliant belle of the period, Miss Vining of Philadelphia,--who was a correspondent of Lafayette and was so much admired by the French officers that Marie Antoinette invited her, through Mr. Jefferson, to the Tuileries,--complains in a letter to Governor Dickinson in 1783 that Philadelphia has lost all its gaiety with the removal of Congress from the city, but adds, “You know, however, that here alone [i. e., in Philadelphia] can be found a truly intellectual and refined society, such as one naturally expects in the capital of a great country.” Miss Franks, from whom we have already quoted, speaks in a similar tone: “Few ladies here [in New York] know how to  entertain company in their own houses, unless they introduce the card-table. Except the Van Homes, who are remarkable for their good sense and ease, I don't know a woman or girl who can chat above half an hour, and that on the form of a cap, the color of a ribbon or the set of a hoop, stay or jupon. . . . With what ease I have seen a Chew, a Penn, an Oswald, an Allen, and a thousand others, entertain a large circle of both sexes [in Philadelphia], the conversation, without the aid of cards, never flagging or seeming in the least strained or stupid!” We may reasonably suspect that this judgment is somewhat prejudiced. For the testimony of a more staid witness, with an eye chiefly for the masculine aspect of society, we may turn to a description from a volume called The Talisman purporting to be written by one Francis Herbert, and containing very graphic reminiscences of New York by Gulian C. Verplanck and William C. Bryant the poet. This passage, probably by Mr. Verplanck, gives a glimpse at the semi-official society of the city in those days.
It is worth while to lay so much stress upon the composite character of this new society because it helps to account for the sort of literature New York was to produce. These French exiles could not help imparting an additional lightness and vivacity and polish to the manners of their American hosts; and the most characteristic and genuine literary product of New York during the next half-century was to be urbane and elegant in character rather than profound or forcible — a “polite” literature in the narrower sense of the term.
Cedar street, since that day, has declined from its ancient consequence. I had the pleasure of seeing  Mr. Jefferson in an old two-story house in that street, unbending himself in the society of the learned and polite from the labors of the bureau. And there was Talleyrand, whom I used to meet at the houses of General Hamilton and of Noah Webster, with his club-foot and passionless immovable countenance, sarcastic and malicious even in his intercourse with children. He was disposed to amuse himself with gallantry too; but who does not know, or rather, who ever did know Talleyrand?--About the same time I met with Priestley — grave and placid in his manners, with a slight difficulty of utterance — dry, polite, learned and instructive in his conversation. At a period somewhat later, I saw here the deputy Billaud de Marennes, who had swayed the blood-thirsty mob of the Faubourg St. Antoine, turned the torrent of the multitude into the Hall of the Legislative Assembly, and reanimated France to a bolder and more vigorous resistance against her foreign enemies. I visited him in the garret of a poor tavern in the upper part of William Street, where he lived in obscurity. But why particularize further? We have had savants, litterateurs, and politicians by the score, all men of note, some good and some bad — and most of whom certainly thought that they attracted more attention than they did — Volney and Cobbett and Tom Moore, and the two Michaux, and the Abbe Correa, and Jeffrey, and others: the muster roll of whose names I might call over, if I had the memory of Baron Trenck, and my readers the taste of a catalogue-making librarian. Have we not jostled ex-kings and ex-empresses and ex-nobles in Broadway; trod on the toes of exotic naturalists, Waterloo marshals, and great foreign academicians, at the parties of young ladies; and seen  more heroes and generals all over town than would fill a new Iliad?Griswold's Republican Court, p. 448.
The Knickerbocker School: Irving.The father of the “Knickerbocker School,” as the most prominent group of New York authors came to be called, was Washington Irving. The one achievement of this “school” was a considerable body of light social satire in prose and verse, which is now of value to the student of past manners. It is an interesting fact that Irving's first work of merit was done in precisely this field, and that never thereafter, though he tried very hard, did he  succeed in producing anything which could be called deeply imaginative. This, however, is equally true of the great English writers to whom (without being in any proper sense their imitator) he was most nearly akin. John Trumbull had produced, just before the Revolution, a series of Addisonian essays of real elegance and acuteness. In the Salmagundi papers, written mainly by Irving and his friend James K. Paulding in 1807, the method of the eighteenth-century essayists is employed with a much freer hand. It pretends to be nothing but a humorous commentary upon town follies, though in the opening number the authors whimsically profess their intention to be “to instruct the young, reform the old, correct the town, and castigate the age.” Whatever we may now think of the limitations of this work — its exuberance not seldom degenerating into facetiousness, its inequality, its occasional lapses into banality, we must own that it did for the New York of that day precisely what Addison and Steele did for the London of a century before, and what nobody appears to be likely to do for the New York or London of a century later.
The Knickerbocker history.The Salmagundi papers amused the town for a time, and were suddenly discontinued. The Knickerbocker history of New York, published two years later, brought Irving his first real fame. He employed his theme, a burlesque history of the three Dutch governors of New York, as a stalking-horse for purposes of light satire. Everybody in New York enjoyed it except a few descendants of the old Dutch worthies with whose names he had made free; and it won high praise abroad, notably from Walter Scott. The book was a real success. Irving had proved himself master of a fluent humorous style which might have been employed indefinitely in the treatment of similar themes. But for many years he was, according to the New York standard, a man of fashion, with no need and no desire to write for a living.
The sketch book.Middle age was at hand, when, ten years later, the pinch of necessity forced him to begin his career as a professional man of letters. The sketch book was published in 1819. Two years later Bryant's first volume of poems was printed and Cooper's novels had begun to  appear; but at this time Irving had the field to himself. The sketch book was the best original piece of literature yet produced in America. It was followed during the next five years by Bracebridge hall and Tales of a Traveller. In May, 1815, Irving had embarked for Liverpool, with no very distinct plans, but without expectation of being long abroad. It was seventeen years before he saw America again. The qualified success of the Tales of a Traveller (1824) led him to feel that his vein was running out, and he began to turn toward the historical studies which were to occupy him mainly during the rest of his life. Not long after his return to America, in May, 1832, the Tales of the Alhambra were published. In the somewhat florid concert of critical praises which greeted the book, a simple theme was dominant. Everybody felt that in these stories Irving had come back to his own. The material was very different from that of The sketch book, yet it yielded to similar treatment. The grace, romance, humor, of this “beautiful Spanish Sketch Book,” as the historian  Prescott called it, appealed readily to an audience which had listened rather coldly to the less spontaneous Tales of a Traveller, and had given a formal approbation to the Life of Christopher Columbus without finding very much Irving in it.
Historical work.Thereafter, except for the Crayon Miscellanies (1835) and Wolfert's Roost (1855), Irving's work was to be almost entirely in biography and history. Of his historical work it is enough to say that he was not eminently fitted for it by nature. Of course he could not write dully; his historical narratives are just as readable as Goldsmith's, and rather more veracious. But he plainly lacked the scholar's training and methods which we now require in the historian; nor had he a large view of men and events in their perspective. He had, at least, a faculty of giving life and force to dim historic figures, which gained the praise of such men as Prescott and Bancroft and Motley. Washington, for example, had begun to loom vaguely and impersonally in the national memory, a mere great man, when Irving turned him from cold bronze to flesh and blood again. Irving's services to America in diplomacy  were not small. In spite of his long absences abroad, his true patriotism never wavered. The mere existence of such a figure, calm, simple, incorruptible, honored wherever he was known, and known prominently throughout Europe, was a valuable stay to the young republic in that perilous first half of the nineteenth century. But all his career in statesmanship and, perhaps we may add, the very books on which his fame seemed to himself to be founded, have now become a wholly secondary fact as regards the basis of his fame. They obtained for him his degree at Oxford, but Mr. Warner has well pointed out that the students were more far-seeing when they shouted, by way of applause, on that occasion, the names of Rip Van Winkle and Ichabod Crane. It is after all, in Edmund Quincy's phrase, not “specific gravity,” but “specific levity” which often serves to keep a reputation afloat. When Irving came back to New York he might be seen, as George Curtis describes him, about 1850, “on an autumnal afternoon, tripping with an elastic step along Broadway, with low-quartered shoes neatly tied, and a Talma cloak — a short garment  that hung from the shoulders like the cape of a coat. There was a chirping, cheery, oldschool air in his appearance which was undeniably Dutch, and most harmonious with the associations of his writings.” My only personal observation of Washington Irving was too much like his description of his only glimpse of “the Stout Gentleman,” after watching for him through a whole wet Sunday in a country inn, to be of much real value. He came to Cambridge for a hurried visit at the house of his kinsman Henry Van Wart, a singularly handsome young Englishman who had married an American wife, a relative of my own. I remember that he called briefly at my mother's house and that I saw him getting in and out of the chaise. I remember the general testimony of the ladies of the house that he was a nice, kindly, elderly gentleman — perhaps about sixtyand did not seem a bit like a man of genius.
Irving's originality.It is common to criticise Washington Irving as being a mere copyist of Goldsmith, which is as idle as if we were to call Lowell a copyist of Longfellow. They belonged to the same period, that of the eighteenth-century essay. Irving equaled  Goldsmith in simplicity and surpassed him in variety, for the very first number of The sketch book had half a dozen papers each of a different type. He struck out paths for himself; thus Sir Walter Scott, for instance, in his paper on Supernatural and fictitious composition, praised Irving's sketch of The bold Dragoon as the only instance of the fantastic then to be found in the English language. Irving did not create the legends of the Hudson, for as Mrs. Josiah Quincy tells us, writing when Irving was a little boy, the captains on the Hudson had even then a tradition for every hillside; but he immortalized them. Longfellow, Hawthorne, and even Poe, in their short stories, often showed glimpses of his influence, and we see in the Dingley Dell scenes in The Pickwick papers how much Dickens owed to them. The style is a little too deliberate and measured for these days, but perhaps it never wholly loses its charm. The fact that its character varies little whether his theme be derived from America, or England, or Spain, shows how genuine it is. To this day the American finds himself at home in the Alhambra, from his early reading of this one writer. The  hotels are there named after him, “Washington Irving” or more frequently “Washington,” evidently meaning the same thing; and Spanish gratitude has furnished him with what all America could never give him, a wife. In the reading room of the chief hotel, opposite the Alhambra, there is a portrait of Irving hanging on one side and one of “Mrs. Irving” on the other. No opinion of Irving's was more remarkable and perhaps less to be expected than that which he expressed toward the end of his life as the sum of his judgment in regard to the prospects of American letters. After spending the greater part of his mature life in Europe, he wrote to Motley as his conclusion: “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 This was written on July 17, 1857, before the Civil War, and this was the opinion of a man the greater part of whose working life, like Motley's, had been passed in Europe; and who had thus a right  to hazard a guess as to which tribunal was likely to be the tribunal of the future.
Some popular novels.As marked in its triumph over European criticism, though as stormy as Irving's was peaceful, was the career of James Fenimore Cooper. He was not, of course, our earliest novelist, inasmuch as Charles Brockden Brown had preceded him and a series of minor works of fiction had intervened; novels commonly of small size but of wide circulation and written usually by women. First of these was The coquette, or the history of Eliza Wharton, a novel founded on fact by a lady of Massachusetts, this being published in Boston in 1797. It was the work of Hannah Webster of Boston, who married the Rev. John Foster, D. D., and who also wrote The Lessons of a Preceptress in 1]798, perhaps to excuse herself for the daring deed of writing fiction about a coquette. Many editions of her novel were published, the thirteenth appearing so lately as 1833, in Boston. Another book of similar popularity was Charlotte Temple, a tale of truth, by Mrs. Rowson of the New Theatre, Philadelphia, 1794. It was a little book containing  one hundred and seventy-five pages of unmixed tragedy for the benefit of the young and thoughtless. If you took the headlines of a modern “yellow journal” and bound them up in a volume of one hundred and seventy-five pages you could scarcely equal their horrors. Yet Mr. Joseph T. Buckingham, the leading Boston editor of that period, describes it as a book “over which thousands have sighed and wept and sighed again, and which had the most extensive sale of any work of the kind that had been published in this country, twenty-five thousand copies having been sold in a few years.” Mrs. Rawson's biographer, the Rev. Elias Nason, says of it that “editions almost innumerable have appeared of it, both in England and America.” Up to the time of Scott, he says, no fiction had compared to it in England, and he claims that even in America, up to the time at which his memoir was written (in 1870), a greater number of persons could be found who had read it than who had read any one of the Waverley novels. It was with her and her alone, that Cooper at the outset had to compete.
James Fenimore Cooper was born in 1789,  the year of Washington's inauguration and the establishment of the new republic. Irving's first book appeared just twenty years afterward, and Cooper's eleven years later still. It took that much time, not unreasonably, for the long-expected child, literature, to be born. The immediate literary descendants of these two writers were, as is not uncommon, of less merit than their ancestors; though many of them had their period of popularity and died celebrities before the American public awoke to the fact of their essential triviality. Such transitions belong to the literary history of the world; in no department is it truer than in literature that, as our racy old American proverb says, “It takes but three generations from shirt-sleeves to shirt-sleeves.” In temperament, Irving and Cooper were as different as possible, except in their common sensitiveness to criticism. Cooper was impatient, opinionated, suspicious of offense, and was in consequence never on very good terms with the world, or the world with him. He was the obnoxious kind of reformer who is disposed to build everything over on theoretical principles, but seldom gets beyond  the stage of tearing down. He belabored his fellow-Americans for having ceased to be English, and scolded the English for having remained as they were. As a result, he became equally unpopular in both countries. The London times called him “affected, offensive, curious, and ill-conditioned,” and Fraser's magazine, with a preference for the forcible substantive, pronounced him “a liar, a bilious braggart, a full jackass, an insect, a grub, and a reptile.” These tributes might have seemed to take the burden of reproof from American shoulders; yet it remained for an American, Park Benjamin, to do the best, or the worst, possible under the circumstances. In Greeley's New Yorker he called Cooper, with sweeping conclusiveness, “a superlative dolt, and a common mark of scorn and contempt of every wellinformed American.” Such criticism may safely be left to itself: Cooper was foolish enough to bring it into the courts and to spend much time and money in advertising his traducers. A far keener thrust, touching the very quick of Cooper's weakness, was Lowell's quiet remark: “Cooper has written six volumes to show he's as good as a lord.”  With all his irascibility and his injudicious zeal about trifles, Cooper undoubtedly possessed disinterestedness and nobility of purpose. He never puffed his own work, or depreciated the work of others for personal reasons. At a time when Americans were disposed to confound hyperbole with patriotism, he spoke his mind with a truly patriotic candor. He knew honor and he wished to know justice. His faults were faults of temperament, and perhaps inevitable; for invention has never yet devised an inexplosive gunpowder. Cooper's personal unpopularity did not prevent his novels from acquiring immediate success in America and England, and a permanent fame far beyond the limits of the English tongue. It is said that his tales have been translated into thirty-four languages. His first success was made at the height of Scott's fame, and his novels have held their own in popularity beside Scott's, ever since. Indeed, the lists of German booksellers show a greater number of editions and versions to the credit of the American romancer.
Cooper's novels.Cooper's childhood was spent at Cooperstown, N. Y., then on the frontier. After  some years in Yale College, and a dismissal for insubordination, he spent nearly five years at sea, became a midshipman, and intended to enter the navy for life. In 1811, however, he married, resigned from the navy, and became a man of leisure. His first strictly American novel appeared ten years later, and in the thirty years following he produced more than thirty novels, of which eight or ten are still widely read. Of these the Leather-Stocking tales are of course the most famous. Like Scott, Cooper was less successful with his heroes and heroines than with his minor characters. The conversation of his civilian worthies is, as Professor Lounsbury has said, in his admirable biography of Cooper, “of a kind not known to human society.” His women are particularly uninteresting, though in uniformly describing them as “females” he is simply conforming to the usage of his day. When he says of one heroine that “her very nature is made up of religion and female decorum,” and of another that “on one occasion her little foot moved,” in spite of the fact that “she had been carefully taught too that even this beautiful portion  of the female frame should be quiet and unobtrusive” --he is hardly extending the bounds of “decorum” which Scott laid down for his insipid heroines. On the other hand, it must be admitted that he never created a living, breathing woman of any sort; while Scott, once rid of considerations of etiquette, could create such heroic figures as Jeanie Deans, Meg Merrilies, and Madge Wildfire. Many of Cooper's subordinate masculine characters, on the contrary, are entirely unconventional, strong, fresh, characteristic, human. Harvey Birch the spy, Leather-Stocking the woodsman, Long Tom Coffin the sailor, Chingachgook the Indian, are direct and vital creations of genius. In his interpretation of Indian character, moreover, Cooper discerned the presence of a poetic element which was ignored later even by such an historian as Parkman, but which has since been recognized as actual fact. His long introductions and his loose-jointed plots he had in common with Scott; but, like Scott, he found it easy to hold his readers when once he had gained their attention. He had, too, Scott's faculty of realism in the treatment of minor incidents and characters;  and where they led the way, the best literary practice has followed. The Edinburgh Review was severe upon him for his accurate descriptions of costume and localities, declared that they were “an epilepsy of the fancy” and maintained that a vague general account would have been far better. “Why describe the dress and appearance of an Indian chief, down to his tobacco-stopper and button-holes?” It now turns out that this very habit has made Cooper's Indian a permanent and distinct figure in literature, while the so — called Indians of his predecessor, Charles Brockden Brown, were merely shadowy and unreal. “Poetry or romance,” continued the Edinburgh Review, “does not descend into the particulars.” Yet Balzac, a far higher authority, and one who handled the details of buttons and tobacco pipes as fearlessly as Cooper, said of The Pathfinder, “Never did the art of writing tread closer upon the art of the pencil. This is the school of study for literary landscape painters.” He says elsewhere: “If Cooper had succeeded in the painting of character to the same extent that he did in the painting of the phenomena of nature, he would  have uttered the last word of our art.” Upon such praise as this the reputation of James Fenimore Cooper may well rest.
Bryant. There was never a more curious illustration of the unexpected channels by which literature creates itself in a new country than was offered by the fact that the first recognized American poet should be by personal temperament and bearing one of the last men to whom the poetic function would at first be attributed. Quiet, prim, grave, reticent, slender, he seemed more like an old-fashioned lawyer or conveyancer, than one through whom a new world of song should come into being. In his actual pursuits, moreover, even as an editor, he was among the more formal and staid of his class, held all his assistants to the greatest accuracy and hung lists of correct spellings in his counting room, whereas most newspaper editors are chiefly anxious to accumulate words and trust Providence with the spelling. This was his daily life, and it resulted in founding what must to this  day be called, all things considered, the best newspaper in the United States, the New York evening post. But it is maintained by those who knew him best, that from beginning to end he loved to be known as a poet, rather than in any sense a business man. That was the impression made on me when I saw him occasionally, in his later years, in Newport; especially on one occasion where at some public reception I saw him and General Sherman meet. General Sherman, the antipode of General Grant, was the heartiest and most outspoken among noted men, and he stretched out his hand to Mr. Bryant with the most exuberant cordiality. “What,” said he, “Mr. Bryant? Why, I have heard of him all my life. He is one of the regular old stagers. Why, he edited a paper as long ago as when I was a boy at West Point,” and shook his hand violently. Mr. Bryant drew away his hand quietly with a rather wounded expression, I fancied, as if the pioneer American poet might perhaps have enjoyed some other recognition. Perhaps it was this life-long and rather prosaic atmosphere which left him less personally impressed upon the public as a poet than those who came just  after him. But I, who grew up on his poetry as a boy, just before Longfellow stepped into his tracks, can testify that the diet he afforded, though sparing, was uplifting, and, though it did not perhaps enrich the blood, elevated the ideal of a whole generation. He first set our American landscape to music, naming the birds and flowers by familiar names. He first described the beauty of the “Painted Cup,” for instance, without calling it Castilleia, and he sang the snowy blossoms of the “Shad-Bush” which even Whittier called the Aronia--
When the Aronia by the riverProfessor Woodberry finely says of the Puritans, “Their very hymns had lost the sense of poetic form. They had in truth forgotten poetry; the perception of it as a noble and exquisite form of language had gone from them, nor did it come back until Bryant recaptured for the first time its grander lines at the same time that he gave landscape to the virgin horizons of the country.” 2 He alone, of all the poets, reached far enough  into the zenith to touch the annual wonder of migrating wild fowl — what the fine old Transcendentalist, Daniel Ricketson, well calls “the sublime chant of wild geese” --and to bring it into human song. His merely boyish poems sent by his kindred for publication,--the Thanatopsis in particular, written at seventeen,--have perhaps never been equaled in literature by any boy of that age; his blank verse was beyond that of any American poet. His fame has not quite held its own, and the latest edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica does not mention him at all, but his collected poems, which appeared in 1821,--in the same year with Cooper's Spy and two years after the Sketch book,--form the true beginning of our literary annals. In 1825 his verses brought him an invitation to New York which he accepted, and he became thenceforth a part of the New York influence. It was said of Mr. Bryant by an accomplished English critic that “he partook, in an eminent degree, of that curious and almost rarefied refinement, in which, oddly enough, American literature seems to surpass even the literature of the old world.” He  disliked long poems, pronouncing them with much truth to be, almost without exception, “unspeakably tiresome.” “The better the poem is,” he said, “the less it is understood, as a general rule, by a promiscuous assembly.” His translation of the Odyssey, on the whole one of the least valuable of his works, was the only breach of this principle of brevity that he himself formulated. This he began on a voyage to Europe, which he made with a copy of Homer in his pocket and a fixed purpose of rendering at least forty lines out of Greek into English every day. It is a curious fact that he had, like Longfellow, a special gift for foreign languages and liked to translate, and, also like Longfellow, had an occasional impulse toward humor, though the result was never very happy.
Lighted up the swarming shad.