XXIV. a half-century of American literature (1857-1907)

The brilliant French author, Stendhal, used to describe his ideal of a happy life as dwelling in a Paris garret and writing endless plays and novels. This might seem to any Anglo-American a fantastic wish; and no doubt the early colonists on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, after fighting through the Revolution by the aid of Rochambeau and his Frenchmen, might have felt quite out of place had they followed their triumphant allies back to Europe, in 1781, and inspected their way of living. We can hardly wonder, on the other hand, that the accomplished French traveler, Philarbte Chasles, on visiting this country in 1851, looked through the land in despair at not finding a humorist, although the very boy of sixteen who stood near him at the rudder of a Mississippi steamboat may have been he who was destined to amuse the civilized world under the name of Mark Twain.1 [370]

That which was, however, to astonish most seriously all European observers who were watching the dawn of the young American republic, was its presuming to develop itself in its own original way, and not conventionally. It was destined, as Cicero said of ancient Rome, to produce its statesmen and orators first, and its poets later. Literature was not inclined to show itself with much promptness, during and after long years of conflict, first with the Indians, then with the mother country. There were individual instances of good writing: Judge Sewall's private diaries, sometimes simple and noble, sometimes unconsciously eloquent, often infinitely amusing; William Byrd's and Sarah Knight's piquant glimpses of early Virginia travel; Cotton Mather's quaint and sometimes eloquent passages; Freneau's poetry, from which Scott and Campbell borrowed phrases. Behind all, there was the stately figure of Jonathan Edwards standing gravely in the background, like a monk at the cloister door, with his treatise on the “Freedom of the will.”

Thus much for the scanty literary product; but when we turn to look for a new-born statesmanship in a nation equally new-born, the fact suddenly strikes us that the intellectual strength of the colonists lay there. The same discovery astonished England through the pamphlet works [371] of Jay, Lee, and Dickinson; destined to be soon followed up with a long series of equally strong productions, to which Lord Chatham paid that fine tribute in his speech before the House of Lords on January 20, 1775. “I must declare and avow,” he said, “that in all my reading and observation — and it has been my favorite study — I have read Thucydides and have studied and admired the master-states of the world — for solidity of reasoning, force of sagacity, and wisdom of conclusion, under such a complication of difficult circumstances, no nation, or body of men, can stand in preference to the general Congress of Philadelphia.” Yet it is to be noticed further that here, as in other instances, the literary foresight in British criticism had already gone in advance of even the statesman's judgment, for Horace Walpole, the most brilliant of the literary men of his time, had predicted to his friend Mason, two years before the Declaration of Independence, that there would one day be a Thucydides in Boston and a Xenophon in New York.

It is interesting to know that such predictions were by degrees shadowed forth even among children in America, as they certainly were among those of us who, living in Cambridge as boys, were permitted the privilege of looking over whole boxes of Washington's yet unprinted [372] letters in the hands of our kind neighbor, Jared Sparks (1834-37); manuscripts whose curved and varied signatures we had the inexhaustible boyish pleasure of studying and comparing; as we had also that of enjoying the pithy wisdom of Franklin in his own handwriting a few years later (1840), in the hands of the same kind and neighborly editor. But it was not always recognized by those who grew up in the new-born nation that in the mother country itself a period of literary ebb tide was then prevailing. When Fisher Ames, being laid on the shelf as a Federalist statesman, wrote the first really important essay on American Literature,--an essay published in 1809, after his death,--he frankly treated literature itself as merely one of the ornaments of despotism. He wrote of it, “The time seems to be near, and, perhaps, is already arrived, when poetry, at least poetry of transcendent merit, will be considered among the lost arts. It is a long time since England has produced a first-rate poet. If America had not to boast at all what our parent country boasts no longer, it will not be thought a proof of the deficiency of our genius.” Believing as he did, that human freedom could never last long in a democracy, Ames thought that perhaps, when liberty had given place to an emperor, this monarch might desire to see splendor in his [373] court, and to occupy his subjects with the cultivation of the arts and sciences. At any rate, he maintained, “After some ages we shall have many poor and a few rich, many grossly ignorant, a considerable number learned, and a few eminently learned. Nature, never prodigal of her gifts, will produce some men of genius, who will be admired and imitated.” The first part of this prophecy failed, but the latter part fulfilled itself in a manner quite unexpected.


The point unconsciously ignored by Fisher Ames, and by the whole Federalist party of his day, was that there was already being created on this side of the ocean, not merely a new nation, but a new temperament. How far this temperament was to arise from a change of climate, and how far from a new political organization, no one could then foresee, nor is its origin yet fully analyzed; but the fact itself is now coming to be more and more recognized. It may be that Nature said, at about that time, “ ‘Thus far the English is my best race; but we have had Englishmen enough; now for another turning of the globe, and a further novelty. We need something with a little more buoyancy than the Englishman: let us lighten the structure, even at some peril in the process. Put in [374] one drop more of nervous fluid and make the American.’ With that drop, a new range of promise opened on the human race, and a lighter, finer, more highly organized type of mankind was born.” This remark, which appeared first in the “Atlantic Monthly,” called down the wrath of Matthew Arnold, who missed the point entirely in calling it “tall talk” or a species of brag, overlooking the fact that it was written as a physiological caution addressed to this nervous race against overworking its children in school. In reality, it was a point of the greatest importance. If Americans are to be merely duplicate Englishmen, Nature might have said, the experiment is not so very interesting, but if they are to represent a new human type, the sooner we know it, the better. No one finally did more toward recognizing this new type than did Matthew Arnold himself, when he afterwards wrote, in 1887, “Our countrymen [namely, the English], with a thousand good qualities, are really, perhaps, a good deal wanting in lucidity and flexibility” ; and again in the same essay, “The whole American nation may be called ‘intelligent,’ that is to say, ‘quick.’ ” 2 This would seem to yield the whole point between himself and the American writer whom he had criticised, [375] and who happened to be the author of this present volume.

One of the best indications of this very difference of temperament, even to this day, is the way in which American journalists and magazinists are received in England, and their English compeers among ourselves. An American author connected with the “St. Nicholas magazine” was told by a London publisher, within my recollection, that the plan of the periodical was essentially wrong. “The pages of riddles at the end, for instance,” he said, “no child would ever guess them” ; and although the American assured him that they were guessed regularly every month in twenty thousand families or more, the publisher still shook his head. As to the element of humor itself, it used to be the claim of a brilliant New York talker that he had dined through three English counties on the strength of the jokes which he had found in the corners of an old American Farmer's Almanac which he had happened to put into his trunk when packing for his European trip.

From Brissot and Volney, Chastellux and Crevecoeur, down to Ampere and De Tocqueville, there was a French appreciation, denied to the English, of this lighter quality; and this certainly seems to indicate that the change in the Anglo-American temperament had already [376] begun to show itself. Ampere especially notices what he calls “une veine europeenne” among the educated classes. Many years after, when Mrs. Frances Anne Kemble, writing in reference to the dramatic stage, pointed out that the theatrical instinct of Americans created in them an affinity for the French which the English, hating exhibitions of emotion and self-display, did not share, she recognized in our nation this tinge of the French temperament, while perhaps giving to it an inadequate explanation.


The local literary prominence given, first to Philadelphia by Franklin and Brockden Brown, and then to New York by Cooper and Irving, was in each case too detached and fragmentary to create more than these individual fames, however marked or lasting these may be. It required time and a concentrated influence to constitute a literary group in America. Bryant and Channing, with all their marked powers, served only as a transition to it. Yet the group was surely coming, and its creation has perhaps never been put in so compact a summary as that made by that clear-minded ex-editor of the “Atlantic Monthly,” the late Horace Scudder. He said, “It is too early to make a full survey of the immense importance to American [377] letters of the work done by half-a-dozen great men in the middle of this century. The body of prose and verse created by them is constituting the solid foundation upon which other structures are to rise; the humanity which it holds is entering into the life of the country, and no material invention, or scientific discovery, or institutional prosperity, or accumulation of wealth will so powerfully affect the spiritual well-being of the nation for generations to come.”

The geographical headquarters of this particular group was Boston, of which Cambridge and Concord may be regarded for this purpose as suburbs. Such a circle of authors as Emerson, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Lowell, Whittier, Alcott, Thoreau, Parkman, and others had never before met in America; and now that they have passed away, no such local group anywhere remains: nor has the most marked individual genius elsewhere — such, for instance, as that of Poe or Whitman — been the centre of so conspicuous a combination. The best literary representative of this group of men in bulk was undoubtedly the “Atlantic Monthly,” to which almost every one of them contributed, and of which they made up the substantial opening strength.

With these there was, undoubtedly, a secondary [378] force developed at that period in a remarkable lecture system, which spread itself rapidly over the country, and in which most of the above authors took some part and several took leading parts, these lectures having much formative power over the intellect of the nation. Conspicuous among the lecturers also were such men as Gough, Beecher, Chapin, Whipple, Holland, Curtis, and lesser men who are now collectively beginning to fade into oblivion. With these may be added the kindred force of Abolitionists, headed by Wendell Phillips and Frederick Douglass, whose remarkable powers drew to their audiences many who did not agree with them. Women like Lucretia Mott, Anna Dickinson, and Lucy Stone joined the force. These lectures were inseparably linked with literature as a kindred source of popular education; they were subject, however, to the limitation of being rather suggestive than instructive, because they always came in a detached way and so did not favor coherent thinking. The much larger influence now exerted by courses of lectures in the leading cities does more to strengthen the habit of consecutive thought than did the earlier system; and such courses, joined with the great improvement in public schools, are assisting vastly in the progress of public education. The leader who most distinguished [379] himself in this last direction was, doubtless, Horace Mann, who died in 1859. The influence of American colleges, while steadily maturing into universities all over the country, has made itself felt more and more obviously, especially as these colleges have with startling suddenness and comprehensiveness extended their privileges to women also, whether in the form of coeducation or of institutions for women only.

For many years, the higher intellectual training of Americans was obtained almost entirely through periods of study in Europe, especially in Germany. Men, of whom Everett, Ticknor, Cogswell, and Bancroft were the pioneers, beginning in 1818 or thereabouts, discovered that Germany and not England must be made our national model in this higher education; and this discovery was strengthened by the number of German refugees, often highly trained men, who sought this country for political safety. The influence of German literature on the American mind was undoubtedly at its highest point half a century ago, and the passing away of the great group of German authors then visible was even more striking than have been the corresponding changes in England and America; but the leadership of Germany in purely scientific thought and invention has kept [380] on increasing, so that the mental tie between that nation and our own was perhaps never stronger than now.

In respect to literature, the increased tendency to fiction, everywhere visible, has nowhere been more marked than in America. Since the days of Cooper and Mrs. Stowe, the recognized leader in this department has been Mr. Howells; that is, if we base leadership on higher standards than that of mere comparison of sales. The actual sale of copies in this department of literature has been greater in certain cases than the world has before seen; but it has rarely occurred that books thus copiously multiplied have taken very high rank under more deliberate criticism. In some cases, as in that of Bret Harte, an author has won fame in early life by the creation of a few striking characters, and has then gone on reproducing them without visible progress; and this result has been most apt to occur wherever British praise has come in strongly, that being often more easily won by a few interesting novelties than by anything deeper in the way of local coloring or permanent delineation.


It is sometimes said that there was never yet a great migration which did not result in some [381] new form of national genius; and this should be true in America, if anywhere. He who lands from Europe on our shores perceives a difference in the sky above his head; the height seems greater, the zenith farther off, the horizon wall steeper. With this result on the one side, and the vast and constant mixture of races on the other, there must inevitably be a change. No portion of our immigrant body desires to retain its national tongue; all races wish their children to learn the English language as soon as possible, yet no imported race wishes its children to take the British race, as such, for models. Our newcomers unconsciously say with that keen thinker, David Wasson, “The Englishman is undoubtedly a wholesome figure to the mental eye; but will not twenty million copies of him do, for the present?” The Englishman's strong point is his vigorous insularity; that of the American his power of adaptation. Each of these attitudes has its perils. The Englishman stands firmly on his feet, but he who merely does this never advances. The American's disposition is to step forward even at the risk of a fall. Washington Irving, who seemed at first to so acute a French observer as Chasles a mere reproduction of Pope and Addison, wrote to John Lothrop Motley two years before his own death, “You are properly [382] sensible of the high calling of the American press,--that rising tribunal before which the whole world is to be summoned, its history to be revised and rewritten, and the judgment of past ages to be canceled or confirmed.” For one who can look back sixty years to a time when the best literary periodical in America was called “The Albion,” it is difficult to realize how the intellectual relations of the two nations are now changed. M. D. Conway once pointed out that the English magazines, such as the “Contemporary Review” and the “Fortnightly,” were simply circular letters addressed by a few cultivated gentlemen to the fellow members of their respective London clubs. Where there is an American periodical, on the other hand, the most striking contribution may proceed from a previously unknown author, and may turn out to have been addressed practically to all the world.

So far as the intellectual life of a nation exhibits itself in literature, England may always have one advantage over us,--if advantage it be,--that of possessing in London a recognized publishing centre, where authors, editors, and publishers are all brought together. In America, the conditions of our early political activity have supplied us with a series of such centres, in a smaller way, beginning, doubtless, [383] with Philadelphia, then changing to New York, then to Boston, and again reverting, in some degree, to New York. I say “in some degree” because Washington has long been the political centre of the nation, and tends more and more to occupy the same central position in respect to science, at least; while Western cities, notably Chicago and San Francisco, tend steadily to become literary centres for the wide regions they represent. Meanwhile the vast activities of journalism, the readiness of communication everywhere, the detached position of colleges, with many other influences, decentralize literature more and more. Emerson used to say that Europe stretched to the Alleghanies, but this at least has been corrected, and the national spirit is coming to claim the whole continent for its own.

There is undoubtedly a tendency in the United States to transfer intellectual allegiance, for a time, to science rather than to literature. This may be only a swing of the pendulum; but its temporary influence has nowhere been better defined or characterized than by the late Clarence King, formerly director of the United States Geological Survey, who wrote thus a little before his death: “With all its novel modern powers and practical sense, I am forced to admit that the purely scientific brain is miserably [384] mechanical; it seems to have become a splendid sort of self-directed machine, an incredible automaton, grinding on with its analyses or constructions. But for pure sentiment, for all that spontaneous, joyous Greek waywardness of fancy, for the temperature of passion and the subtler thrill of ideality, you might as well look to a wrought-iron derrick.”

Whatever charges can be brought against the American people, no one has yet attributed to them any want of self-confidence or self-esteem; and though this trait may be sometimes unattractive, the philosophers agree that it is the only path to greatness. “The only nations which ever come to be called historic,” says Tolstoi in his “Anna Karenina,” “are those which recognize the importance and worth of their own institutions.” Emerson, putting the thing more tersely, as is his wont, says that “no man can do anything well who does not think that what he does is the centre of the visible universe.” The history of the American republic was really the most interesting in the world, from the outset, were it only from the mere fact that however small its scale, it yet showed a self-governing people in a condition never before witnessed on the globe; and so to this is now added the vaster contemplation of it as a nation of seventy millions rapidly growing more and [385] more. If there is no interest in the spectacle of such a nation, laboring with all its might to build up an advanced civilization, then there is nothing interesting on earth. The time will come when all men will wonder, not that Americans attached so much importance to their national development at this period, but that they appreciated it so little. Canon Zincke has computed that in 1980 the English-speaking population of the globe will number, at the present rate of progress, one thousand millions, and that of this number eight hundred millions will dwell in the United States. No plans can be too far-seeing, no toils and sacrifices too great, in establishing this vast future civilization. It is in this light, for instance, that we must view the immense endowments of Mr. Carnegie, which more than fulfill the generalization of the acute author of a late Scotch novel, “The house with Green Shutters,” who says that while a Scotchman has all the great essentials for commercial success, “his combinations are rarely Napoleonic until he becomes an American.”

When one looks at the apparently uncertain, but really tentative steps taken by the trustees of the Carnegie Institution at Washington, one sees how much must yet lie before us in our provisions for intellectual progress. The numerical increase of our common schools and universities [386] is perhaps as rapid as is best, and the number of merely scientific societies is large, but the provision for the publication of works of real thought and literature is still far too small. The endowment of the Smithsonian Institution now extends most comprehensively over all the vast historical work in American history, now so widely undertaken, and the Carnegie Institution bids fair to provide well for purely scientific work and the publication of its results. But the far more difficult task of developing and directing pure literature is as yet hardly attempted. Our magazines tend more and more to become mainly picture-books, and our really creative authors are geographically scattered and, for the most part, wholesomely poor. We should always remember, moreover, what is true especially in these works of fiction, that not only individual books, but whole schools of them, emerge and disappear, like the flash of a revolving light; you must make the most of it while you have it. “The highways of literature are spread over,” said Holmes, “with the shells of dead novels, each of which has been swallowed at a mouthful by the public, and is done with.”

In America, as in England, the leading literary groups are just now to be found less among the poets than among the writers of [387] prose fiction. Of these younger authors, we have in America such men as Winston Churchill, Robert Grant, Hamlin Garland, Owen Wister, Arthur S. Pier, and George Wasson; any one of whom may at any moment surprise us by doing something better than the best he has before achieved. The same promise of a high standard is visible in women, among whom may be named not merely those of maturer standing, as Harriet Prescott Spofford, who is the leader, but her younger sisters, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Edith Wharton, and Josephine Preston Peabody. The drama also is advancing with rapid steps, and is likely to be still more successful in such hands as those of William Vaughn Moody, Ridgely Torrence, and Percy McKaye. The leader of English dramatic criticism, William Archer, found within the last year, as he tells us, no less than eight or nine notable American dramas in active representation on the stage, whereas eight years earlier there was but one.

Similar signs of promise are showing themselves in the direction of literature, social science, and higher education generally, all of which have an honored representative, still in middle life, in Professor George E. Woodberry. Professor Newcomb has just boldly pointed out that we have intellectually grown, as a nation, “from the high school of our Revolutionary ancestors to [388] the college; from the college we have grown to the university stage. Now we have grown to a point where we need something beyond the university.” What he claims for science is yet more needed in the walks of pure literature, and is there incomparably harder to attain, since it has there to deal with that more subtle and vaster form of mental action which culminates in Shakespeare instead of Newton. This higher effort, which the French Academy alone even attempts,--however it may fail in the accomplished results,--may at least be kept before us as an ideal for American students and writers, even should its demands be reduced to something as simple as those laid down by Coleridge when he announced his ability to “inform the dullest writer how he might write an interesting book.” “Let him,” says Coleridge, “relate the events of his own life with honesty, not disguising the feeling that accompanied them.” 3 Thus simple, it would seem, are the requirements for a really good book; but, alas! who is to fulfill them? Yet if anywhere, why not in America?

1 “Toute l'amerique ne possede pas un humoriste.” Études sur la Litterature et les Moeurs des Anglo-Americains, Paris, 1851.

2 Nineteenth Century, XXII, 324, 319.

3 Quarterly Review, XCVIII, 456.

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