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Chapter 5: the New England period — Preliminary

The New England impulse.

Some time before the impulse toward a graceful if shallow “polite” literature exhausted itself in New York, a new kind of impulse had begun to make itself felt in New England. Up to the time of the Revolution an extraordinary ignorance of contemporary European literature and art had prevailed throughout the colonies. It is even said that America did not possess a copy of Shakespeare till a hundred years after his death. In the eighteenth century the colonists were by no means slow in getting the latest fashions and the latest delicacies from London; yet they displayed a surprising apathy toward the books which were then to be found on every London table. In 1723 the best college library in America contained nothing by Addison, Pope, Dryden, Swift, Gay, Congreve, or Defoe. Ten years later Franklin founded the first public [109] library in America by an importation of some forty-five pounds' worth of English books; among which the work of many of those authors was doubtless included. They were, in fact, the authors upon whom the taste of our best writers during the next century was to be formed. They were the fashionable English models for the cultivation of “polite letters.”

But whatever the pursuit of such a practical ideal might be able to do for the literary manners of a still provincial people, it could not lead to the production of an original and robust literature. What Americans needed toward the middle of the nineteenth century was to be given contact, not merely with the courtly pens of England and France, but with the great minds of all the world and of all times. It was this impulse toward wider contact, or culture, which was first apparent, not unnaturally, in serious New England. The intellectual movement which followed, Professor Wendell suggestively calls “the New England Renaissance.” “In a few years,” he says, “New England developed a considerable political literature, of which the height was reached in formal oratory; it developed [110] a new kind of scholarship, of which the height was reached in admirable works of history; in religion it developed Unitarianism; in philosophy, Transcendentalism; in general conduct, a tendency toward reform which deeply affected our national history; and meantime it developed the most mature school of pure letters which has yet appeared in this country.” 1

Period of transition.

The period at which Boston began to assert itself as a literary centre which in some sense rivaled New York may be set, perhaps, at the year (1830) when Webster and Channing were at the height of their reputation; when Webster's Reply to Hayne was delivered, and Channing was just entering upon that career of social and political reform which gave him both American and European fame. Boston was then a little city of some sixty thousand inhabitants, still a small peninsula hemmed in by creeks and mud banks, without water pipes or gas, but with plenty of foreign commerce and activity of brain. The area of the peninsula was then 783 acres; it is now 1829 acres. There was no Back Bay in the [111] present sense, but it was all a literal back bay, without capital letters. Water flowed or stagnated where the Public Garden now blooms; the Common still had room for militia drilling and carpet-beating and ball games for boys and even girls. Down by the wharves there were many ships, mainly of small tonnage, yet square-rigged. There, moreover, were foreign sailors sometimes, and rich Oriental odors always; and that family was eccentric or unfortunate which had not sent one of its sons as mate or supercargo to Rio Janeiro or Canton. This was, externally speaking, the Boston of Channing and of Webster.

The fact has been already noted that in America, as in Greece and Rome, the first really national impulse toward ex-The pression took the form of oratory. Orators. Naturally, then, we find the new spirit of culture in New England uttering itself first through the mouths of men like Edward Everett and Daniel Webster. When, in 1817 or thereabouts, Mr. Everett, Mr. Cogswell, Mr. Ticknor (they were followed somewhat later by Mr. Bancroft), went to study in German universities, they went not simply to [112] represent the nation, as they did so well, but to bring back to the nation the standard of intellectual training of those universities. When Edward Everett came back here, it was to exert a very great and beneficent influence. To the American oratory of that day he contributed the charm of training, of precision, of wide cultivation. He had not in a high degree the power of original thought, or of inspired feeling. He had not even the charm of simplicity, though, like Webster, and unlike the other of the great trio of New England orators, Rufus Choate, he strove in later life to rid his style of the florid rhetorical quality which belonged to his early speeches.

Daniel Webster.

The power of Everett and Choate is past, but Daniel Webster is still far more than the shadow of a name. His memory is yet armed with a certain awe even for the youngest generation. His very physical presence will not be forgotten, the strong, solid, majestic figure, the great luminous black eyes, the head of massive power. It is easy to see what an effect this magnificent physique must have had upon the orator's audiences; but the need remains for [113] some other explanation of the interest in his printed speeches which continues fifty years after his death. It is not altogether easy at first to discover the secret of their literary power. Many of his phrases became famous; but it is astonishing to find upon examination how large a proportion of them are statements of simple truth, such as one would think hardly needed to be made. Here are a few of those which are recorded in Bartlett's Dictionary of Quotations: “Mind is the great lever of all things;” “Knowledge is the great sun in the firmament;” “Thank God I also am an American;” “Independence now and Independence forever;” “Justice is the great interest of man on earth;” and so on. These are universal truths, but unfortunately they are a little too obviously true when we come to take them by themselves; they are too much what any of us might say. We do not really go on a great occasion to hear things said just as we might have said them, but to hear them said better than we might have said them.

On the other hand, a structure built upon a large scale cannot always be condemned for lack of saliency in detail. Webster's oratory, [114] like his physique, was impressive from its massiveness, not from its subtlety. More nearly than any other American he approached the fervor and the stately force of classical oratory. He was not a Demosthenes or a Cicero or even a Burke; but he did find spoken discourse so natural a medium for the expression of his powerful personality as to give the best of his work some security of permanence.

William Ellery Channing.

The first American clergyman, after Jonathan Edwards, to achieve a positive literary hold upon the English-speaking world was William Ellery Channing, who must not be confused with his son and two nephews, each bearing the William with a different middle name, and all men of marked intellectual activity. The hold taken at one time by Dr. Channing is seen in the fact that six different reprints of his little book on Self-culture were published in England by different publishers in a single year. During his whole life, it is said, Channing never knew a day of unimpaired health, yet during that life, which ended in 1842, he was the recognized leader of New England thought; known first as a [115] theologian in this country, but in Europe later as a writer on social questions. His books were published, either wholly or in part, in the German, French, Italian, Hungarian, Icelandic, and Russian tongues. For some reason, never fully explained, there has been some reaction in his popular fame. Probably the absence of any trace of humor in his work was one of the reasons why its hold has been more short-lived than that, for instance, of Emerson, from whom a delicate sense of humor was as inseparable as his shadow. Yet in the purely literary quality, in the power to sum up in words a profound or independent thought, a selection of maxims from Channing would be scarcely inferior to one from Emerson. The little volume, for instance, edited by his granddaughter from his unpublished manuscripts, is a book which bears comparison, in a minor degree, with the work of Rochefoucault or Joubert. Consider such phrases as this:--

Great wisdom of God is seen in limiting parental influence. The hope of the world is that parents can not make their children all they wish.

We are not to conquer with intellect any more than with arms. Conquest is not kindly, not friendly.

[116] Again:--

Avarice is foresight wasted.

He who, being insulted, loses self-possession, insults himself more.

It is one of the wretchednesses of the great that they have no approved friend. Kings are the most solitary beings on earth.

When I meet a being whom I cannot serve, I know my ignorance.

I am no leveler. I have no favors to gather of the poor. ... I have learned it not from demagogues, but from divine sages. A man who labors is fit for any society.

Habit not merely confirms, but freezes what we have gained. It gives a dead stability.

And this fine saying:--

Nothing which has entered into our experience is ever lost.

These are not merely examples of thought, but of expression; they prove their author to have been not only a speculative philosopher, but a man of letters.

The historians.

One remarkable outcome of the transfer to New England of the literary centre was the development of a school of historians. who for the first time took up the annals of the nation for serious treatment. It was Jared Sparks who first chose [117] the task of collecting and reprinting successively the correspondence of Washington and of Franklin. He was intimate at my mother's house and used to bring whole basketfuls of letters there; and I remember well studying over and comparing the separate signatures of Washington, as well as the variety of curves that he would extract from the letters Geo. of his baptismal name. Sparks was the honestest of men, and has been unfairly censured for revising and remodeling the letters of Washington as he did. His critics overlooked the fact that in the first place it was the habit of the time, and all editors in his day felt free to do it; and again that Washington did it freely himself, and often entered in his letter book something quite different from what he had originally written and sent out, which was in fact falsifying the whole correspondence.

Then followed George Bancroft, with a style in that day thought eloquent, but now felt to be overstrained and inflated; William H. Prescott, with attractive but colorless style and rather superficial interpretation; Ticknor, dull and accurate; Hildreth, extremely dry; Palfrey, more graceful, but one-sided; [118] John Lothrop Motley, laborious, but delightful; and Francis Parkman, more original in his work and probably more permanent in his fame than any of these.

History and literature.

But it must be remembered, as the drawback to historical writing, that very little work of that kind can, from the nature of things, be immortal. Just as the most solid building of marble or granite crumbles, while the invisible and wandering air around it remains unchanged for ages, so a narrative of great events is likely to last only until it is superseded by other narrative, while the creations of pure imagination, simply because they are built of air, can never be superseded. The intuitions of Emerson, the dream-children of Hawthorne and of Poe, remain untouched. Systems of philosophy may change and supersede one another, while that which is above all system has a life of its own. The most valuable part of historic work, as such, moreover, consists not in the style, but in the substance. It is the result of research. The books that sell and are quoted are those of the popularizer, those, for instance, of the late John Fiske, which no historical student would for a moment [119] think of placing beside those of the late Mr. Justin Winsor on grounds of historical knowledge, yet which greatly surpass them in attractiveness of style. But the applause thus won is short-lived in comparison, as is seen in the rapid fading of the fame of the late James Parton, who was as popular in his day as Mr. Fiske, and entitled to quite as much recognition, yet added in substance but little to the sum of actual knowledge. As Bacon wisely pointed out, however, historical work is to be ranked rather with science than with literature, though it obtains, like scientific writing, additional influence when possessing also a charm of utterance.

In his Life of Columbus Washington Irving had produced a narrative which has in the main stood the test of subse-Francis quent investigation, and which is Parkman. also, by virtue of his style, literature. But Irving was a literary man first, and his fame does not rest upon his work in history. America has, indeed, produced only one professional historian whose work is equally admirable for its accuracy and thoroughness and for its literary charm. Francis Parkman was the product of generations of New England [120] character and cultivation. He was born in Boston, Sept. 16, 1823, and died there, Nov. 8, 1893. Before his graduation at Harvard (1844) his mind had turned toward the long conflict between the French and the English in America; and thereafter for half a century, with a rare union of enthusiasm and constancy, he continued to study and to write upon this theme. The first of the eight volumes of his great work was published in 1851, the last in 1892.

His health was early impaired, and for many years he was practically forbidden to read or write. Fortunately his inherited wealth made it possible for him to employ the services of others; and the very slowness with which he was forced to proceed may have been to the advantage of his work. His style is at once vigorous and stately, as may be seen from the following fragments, the first a description of scenery in the Black Hills:

Wild as they were, these mountains were thickly peopled. As I climbed farther, I found the broad, dusty paths made by the elk, as they filed across the mountain side. The grass on all the terraces was trampled down by deer; there were numerous tracks of wolves, and in some of the rougher and more precipitous parts of the [121] ascent, I found foot-prints different from any that I had ever seen, and which I took to be those of the Rocky Mountain sheep. I sat down upon a rock; there was a perfect stillness. No wind was stirring, and not even an insect could be heard. I remembered the danger of becoming lost in such a place, and fixed my eye upon one of the tallest pinnacles of the opposite mountain. It rose sheer upright from the woods below, and, by an extraordinary freak of nature, sustained aloft on its very summit a large loose rock. Such a landmark could never be mistaken, and feeling once more secure, I began again to move forward. A white wolf jumped up from among some bushes, and leaped clumsily away; but he stopped for a moment, and turned back his keen eye and grim bristling muzzle. I longed to take his scalp and carry it back with me, as a trophy of the Black Hills, but before I could fire, he was gone among the rocks. Soon after I heard a rustling sound, with a cracking of twigs at a little distance, and saw moving above the tall bushes the branching antlers of an elk. I was in the midst of a hunter's paradise.

The Oregon Trail, chap. XVII.

The second passage is taken from Parkman's account of the capture of Quebec:--

It was nine o'clock, and the adverse armies stood motionless, each gazing on the other. The clouds hung low, and, at intervals, warm light showers descended, besprinkling both alike. The coppice and cornfields in front of the British troops were filled with French sharpshooters, who kept up a distant, spattering fire. [122] Here and there a soldier fell in the ranks, and the gap was filled in silence.

At a little before ten, the British could see that Montcalm was preparing to advance, and, in a few moments, all his troops appeared in rapid motion. They came on in three divisions, shouting after the manner of their nation, and firing heavily as soon as they came within range. In the British ranks, not a trigger was pulled, not a soldier stirred; and their ominous composure seemed to damp the spirits of the assailants. It was not till the French were within forty yards that the fatal word was given, and the British muskets blazed forth at once in one crashing explosion. Like a ship at full career, arrested with sudden ruin on a sunken rock, the ranks of Montcalm staggered, shivered, and broke before that wasting storm of lead. The smoke, rolling along the field, for a moment shut out the view: but when the white wreaths were scattered on the wind, a wretched spectacle was disclosed; men and officers tumbled in heaps, battalions resolved into a mob, order and obedience gone; and when the British muskets were leveled for a second volley, the masses of the militia were seen to cower and shrink with uncontrollable panic. For a few minutes, the French regulars stood their ground, returning a sharp and not ineffectual fire. But now, echoing cheer on cheer, redoubling volley on volley, trampling the dying and the dead and driving the fugitives in crowds, the British troops advanced and swept the field before them. The ardor of the men burst all restraint. They broke into a run, and with unsparing slaughter chased the flying multitudes to the gates of Quebec. Foremost of all, the light-footed Highlanders dashed along in furious pursuit, [123] hewing down the Frenchmen with their broadswords, and slaying many in the very ditch of the fortifications. Never was victory more quick or more decisive.

The Conspiracy of Pontiac, chap. IV.

Pure literature.

In pure literature the genius of New England.was now very soon to find its highest expression. During the third quarter of the century the two noted groups of literary men which had their respective centres in Cambridge and in Concord were to produce a literature which, even if not, so far as we can now see, of the very highest type, possessed genuine depth and power. Before actually engaging with this important subject, however, it may be as well to clear the decks by considering some of the minor figures which belong to that period.

Minor writers.

There are plenty of them; indeed, one who moved in the active literary society of the Boston of that day might well say, as the Duke of Wellington did when the Honorable Mrs. Norton, the poet, wished to be presented to him, that he had been “very much exposed to authors.” Nothing is more striking in history than the rapid concentration of fame upon a few leaders [124] and the way in which all who represent the second class in leadership fall into oblivion. Thus it is in public affairs. In the great liberal movement in England men remember only Cobden and Bright, and in the American anti-slavery movement, Garrison and Phillips, and forget all of that large class whom we may call the non-commissioned officers, whose self-devotion was quite as great. It is yet more strikingly true in literature. Walter Savage Landor states it as his aspiration to have a seat, however humble, upon the small bench that holds the really original authors of the world. It is a large demand on fate. The name of E. P. Whipple, for instance, or of Dr. J. G. Holland, or of R. H. Dana, scarcely appeals even to the memory of most young students, and yet these men were at the time potent on the lecture platform and in editorial chairs. We can already see the same shadow of oblivion overtaking the brilliant George William Curtis, and even a name so recent as that of Charles Dudley Warner.

Edwin Percy Whipple.

Whipple was peculiarly interesting as taking an essential part in the literary life of Boston at a time when he was almost the solitary instance of the [125] self-made man in American literature. He also constituted a link between the literary and commercial Boston of his day. At a time when almost all New England authors came from Harvard College, he stepped into the arena with only the merchants' powerful guild behind him. He was said to have modeled his style upon that of Macaulay, then a popular idol, and was also said to have been complimented by Macaulay himself. His memory was great, his reading constant, his acquaintance large, his perceptions ready and clear. What he wrote was so pithy, so candid, so neat, that you felt for the moment as if it were the final word. It was only on the second reading that you became conscious of a certain limitation; the thought never went very deep, there was no wide outlook, no ideal atmosphere. While, therefore, his work had a considerable and wholesome influence upon his immediate audience, and was well worth doing, it cannot be considered as a strong original contribution to American letters.

Women who wrote.

The same disappearance of secondary figures applied to the women of that period.

Lydia Maria child.

There was Lydia Maria Child, for instance, [126] whose Appeal for that class of Americans called Africans was the first anti-slavery appeal in book form; and had very marked influence on her younger contemporaries. Mrs. Child's Letters from New York were so brilliant as to be ranked with similar work of Lowell's for quality, but have now almost passed into oblivion. The same is true of Miss Sedgwick; and Miss Alcott's name, though still living and potent with children, no longer counts for much with their elders. Of wider power was the work of three other women, whose names are, for different reasons, still remembered: Harriet Beecher Stowe, Helen Jackson, and Emily Dickinson.

Harriett Beecher Stowe.

Mrs. Stowe was born in New England. If she had spent her life there she might prob-Harriet ably have been an abolitionist, but Beecher could hardly have written Uncle Tom's cabin. As it happened, she lived in Cincinnati from 1832 to 1850; and it was during this period that the materials were gathered for her famous book. Before her return to New England she had had plenty of opportunity for actual contact with slavery; she had frequently visited the slave [127] States, had sheltered fugitive slaves in her house, and had seen her husband and brothers aiding in their escape to Canada. She had lived there during the riots when James G. Birney's press was destroyed and free negroes were hunted through the streets; and Lane Seminary, where her husband taught, had repeatedly been threatened by mobs. Excitement in regard to the fugitive slave law was just then at its height. The book itself may therefore be regarded as in a sense a Western product, though it was written after Mrs. Stowe's return to the East.

Helen Jackson.

It is a curious fact that Mrs. Helen Jackson's Ramona, which takes rank with Uncle Tom's cabin, had a somewhat similar origin, since it was largely her life in Colorado which first influenced that brilliant Eastern woman to take the wrongs of the Indians for her theme. These two great novels, moreover, were written from the point of view of the moralist rather than of the literary artist. Ramona is in all points of literary finish far superior to Uncle Tom's cabin, of which Mrs. Stowe herself used to say that she left her verbs and nominative cases to be brought together by her publishers. [128] I well remember in the latter case the enthusiasm with which the story was read at the North, first appearing in chapters in the National era, then edited in part by Whittier; and that this feeling, beginning with those already convinced of the wrong of slavery, extended itself rapidly to others. The reception of Ramona was as decisively cordial, though on a scale less vast; it indeed reached foreign countries hardly at all.

So purely in the spirit of a tract was Uncle Tom conceived that it is hard for those who do not remember the absorbing interest which its theme at that time possessed, to understand the enthusiasm with which it was received, both here and abroad. It was the famous book of the century. There are now in the British Museum Library fifty-six different editions of Uncle Tom's cabin in English, including abridgments, editions for children, etc., with fifty-four in other languages, including more than twenty different tongues, in some of which there are eight or ten separate versions. Mr. Barwick, one of the leading librarians at the Museum, told me that Thomas a Kempis was perhaps the only author, apart from the Bible writers, [129] who has been translated so much, although Don Quixote came very near it; but that neither of these had been rendered into so great a variety of dialects, because neither reached ignorant readers so well, or created such a demand for itself. For this reason especial pains have been taken by the Museum to collect all versions.

It must be remembered that the tale had the immense advantage, as had Cooper's novels before it, of introducing to the world a race of human beings whom it had practically ignored. The book had also, as the writings of Cooper had not, the advantage of a distinctly evangelical flavor. How much weight has been carried in other cases by this last quality may be seen in the immense circulation of such tales as Ingraham's Prince of the house of David in the last generation, and Wallace's Ben Hur in the present, both marked by this attribute. Indeed, Mrs. Browning herself subsequently writes of so mediocre a book as Queechy, which partakes of this quality, that “Mrs. Beecher Stowe scarcely exceeds it, after all the trumpets.”

After all reservations have been made, after we have admitted that the method is too [130] plainly that of the preacher, and the verbal style sadly slipshod and commonplace, there is still this much to be said of the book; that it is the work of a writer with a genuine though uncultivated talent for novel-writing, and is therefore likely to outlive many books which, while more skillful, are also more artificial.

Emily Dickinson.

Among other New England women of that period perhaps the most remarkable of all was Emily Dickinson. Though a fellow-townswoman and schoolmate of Helen Jackson's, she had little else in common with her. She was, in fact, a woman of a far less easily intelligible type: a strange, solitary, morbidly sensitive, and pitifully childlike poetic genius. She shrank with something like terror from contact with the outer world. Her own chosen home was among the clouds, and the nearest point of approach to it was upon her father's estate at Amherst. She could hardly be tempted away from the spacious grounds upon which she knew every bird and bee as a friend. To a friend's remonstrance upon her unwillingness to meet people, she replied: “Of ‘shunning men and women,’ --they talk of hallowed things [131] aloud, and embarrass my dog. He and I don't object to them, if they'll exist their side.” The reply is indicative of her weakness and of her strength. The woman who could afford, in all simplicity, to fall back upon her own companionship, and the companionship of animals, without caring to grow in wisdom, was of no ordinary character. Emily Dickinson never quite succeeded in grasping the notion of the importance of poetic form. The crudeness which an Emerson could mourn over, she could only acknowledge. With all its irregularity, however, her poetry preserves a lyrical power almost unequaled in her generation. In remoteness of allusion, in boldness of phrase, it stands at the opposite remove from the verse of Longfellow, for example; but if it can never attain popularity --the last fate which its author could have wished for it-it is likely, in the end, to obtain the attention of the “audience fit, thoa few,” which a greater poet once desired of Fate.

The magazines.

A word should be said of the periodicals which had their origin in Boston, and which played, each in its different way, so important a part in the development of New England literature. The North [132] American Review was founded as early as 1815, and for more than half a century gave opportunity for the scholarship of New England to express itself. Eventually it went to New York, where, published under the same name but governed by a widely different policy, it is still a publication of influence. The Dial (1840-1844), as the organ of the Transcendentalists, was, in a sense, still more limited in range. But, however circumscribed the boundaries of its practical influence, Transcendentalism was, so far as it knew, quite unbounded in the field of speculation; and the pages of the Dial, like the pages of the Pre-Raphaelite organ, the Germ, are of undying interest as they indicate certain important forces which were at work in their respective periods.

The Atlantic monthly.

Scholarship and philosophy, however, can make contributions to pure literature only by inadvertence. The establishment of the Atlantic monthly in 1857 marks the attainment of a distinct standard of pure literature among the descendants of the Puritans. The Knickerbocker magazine was breathing its last in New York, and Harper's magazine (1850) was as yet producing [133] little literature of power. The Atlantic monthly, on the other hand, was able to depend at once upon an established constituency of writers. Lowell was its first editor, and his stipulation in accepting the position -that Holmes should be the first contributor engaged — suggests a range of choice upon which no American editor had hitherto been able to rely. In fiction and in verse it must be admitted that the early volumes of the Atlantic do not compare favorably with modern magazine work; but the essays and editorials were usually excellent. It is not too much to say that for more than forty years the literary standard of this magazine has been maintained upon a higher plane than that of any other American publication. This fact speaks much for the quality of the group of writers by whom its earlier success was won.

1 Wendell's Literary history of America, p. 245.

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