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A cosmopolitan standard

It has lately become the fashion in the United States to talk of the cosmopolitan standard as the one thing needful; to say that formerly American authors were judged by their own local tribunals, but henceforth they must be appraised by the world's estimate. The trouble is, that for most of those who reason in this way, cosmopolitanism does not really mean the world's estimate, but only the judgment of Europe—a judgment in which America itself is to have no voice. Like the trade-winds which so terrified the sailors of Columbus, it blows only from the eastward. There is no manner of objection to cosmopolitanism, if the word be taken in earnest. There is something fine in the thought of a federal republic of letters, a vast literary tribunal of nations, in which each nation has a seat; but this is just the kind of cosmopolitanism which these critics do not seek. They seek merely a far-off judgment, and this [44] is no better than a local tribunal; in some respects it is worse. The remotest standard of judgment that I ever encountered was that of the late Professor Ko-Kun-Hua, of Harvard University. There was something delicious in looking into his serene and inscrutable face, and in trying to guess at the operations of a highly trained mind, to which the laurels of Plato and Shakespeare were as absolutely unimportant as those of the Sweet Singer of Michigan; yet the tribunal which he afforded could hardly be called cosmopolitan. He undoubtedly stood, however, for the oldest civilization; and it seemed trivial to turn from his serene Chinese indifference, and attend to children of a day like the Revue des deux Mondes and the Saturday Review. If we are to recognize a remote tribunal, let us by all means prefer one that has some maturity about it.

But it is worth while to remember that, as a matter of fact, the men who created the American government gave themselves very little concern about cosmopolitanism, but simply went about their own work. They took hints from older nations, and especially from the mother [45] country, but they acknowledged no jurisdiction there. The consensus of the civilized world, then and for nearly a century after, viewed the American government as a mere experiment, and republican institutions as a bit of shortlived folly; yet the existence of the new nation gave it a voice henceforth in every tribunal calling itself cosmopolitan. Henceforth that word includes the judgment of the New World on the Old, as well as that of the Old World on the New; and when we construe literary cosmopolitanism in the same way, we shall be on as firm ground in literature as in government.

So long as we look merely outside of ourselves for a standard, we are as weak as if we looked merely inside of ourselves; probably weaker, for timidity is weaker than even the arrogance of strength. There is no danger that the foreign judgment will not duly assert itself; the danger is, that our own self-estimate will be too apologetic. What with courtesy and good-nature, and a lingering of the old colonialism, we are not yet beyond the cringing period in our literary judgment. The obeisance of all good society in London before a successful circus-manager [46] from America was only a shade more humiliating than the reverential attention visible in the American press when Matthew Arnold was kind enough to stand on tiptoe upon our lecture-platform and apply his little measuring-tape to the great shade of Emerson. I should like to see in our literature some of the honest self-assertion shown by Senator Tracy of Litchfield, Connecticut, during Washington's administration, in his reply to the British Minister's praises of Mrs. Oliver Wolcott's beauty. ‘Your countrywoman,’ said the Englishman, ‘would be admired at the Court of St. James.’ —‘Sir,’ said Tracy, ‘she is admired even on Litchfield Hill.’

In that recent book of aphorisms which has given a fresh impulse to the fading fame of Dr. Channing, he points out that the hope of the world lies in the fact that parents can not make of their children what they will. It is equally true of parent nations. How easily we accept the little illusions offered us by our elders in the world's literature, almost forgetting that two and two make four, in the innocent delight with which they inspire us! In re-reading Scott's [47] ‘Old Mortality’ the other day, I was pleased to find myself still carried away by the author's own grandiloquence, where he describes the approach of Claverhouse and his men to the castle of Tillietudlem. ‘The train was long and imposing, for there were about two hundred and fifty horse upon the march.’ Two hundred and fifty! Yet I read it for the moment with as little demur at these trivial statistics as if our own Sheridan had never ridden out of Winchester at the head of ten thousand cavalry. It is the same with all literature: we are asked to take Europe at Europe's own valuation, and then to take America at Europe's valuation also; and whenever we speak of putting an American valuation upon the four quarters of the globe, we are told that this will not do; this is not cosmopolitan.

We are too easily misled, in exhorting American authors to a proper humility, because we forget that the invention of printing has in a manner placed all nations on a level. Literature is the only art whose choicest works are easily transportable. Once secure a public library in every town—a condition now in process [48] of fulfilment in our older American States —and every bright boy or girl has a literary Louvre and Vatican at command. Given a taste for literature and there are at hand all the masters of the art—Plato and Homer, Cicero and Horace, Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe. Travel is still needed, but not for books—only for other forms of art, for variety of acquaintanceship, and for the habit of dealing with men and women of many nationalities. The most fastidious American in Europe should not look with shame, but with pride and hope, upon those throngs of his fellow-countrymen whom he sees crowding the art-galleries of Europe, looking about them as ignorantly, if you please, as the German barbarians when they entered Rome. It is not so hard to gain culture; the thing almost impossible to obtain, unless it be born in us, is the spirit of initiative, of self-confidence. That is the gift with which great nations begin; we now owe our chief knowledge of Roman literature and art to the descendants of those Northern barbarians.

And it must be kept in view, finally, that a cosmopolitan tribunal is at best but a court of [49] appeal, and is commonly valuable in proportion as the courts of preliminary jurisdiction have done their duty. The best preparation for going abroad is to know the worth of what one has seen at home. I remember to have been impressed with a little sense of dismay, on first nearing the shores of Europe, at the thought of what London and Paris might show me in the way of great human personalities; but I said to myself, ‘To one who has heard Emerson lecture, and Parker preach, and Garrison thunder, and Phillips persuade, there is no reason why Darwin or Victor Hugo should pass for more than mortal;’ and accordingly they did not. We shall not prepare ourselves for a cosmopolitan standard by ignoring our own great names or undervaluing the literary tradition that has produced them. When Stuart Newton, the artist, was asked, on first arriving in London from America, whether he did not enjoy the change, he answered honestly, ‘I here see such society occasionally, as I saw at home all the time.’ At this day the self-respecting American sometimes hears admissions in Europe which make him feel that we are already creating [50] a standard, not waiting to be judged by one. The most variously accomplished literary critic in England, the late Mark Pattison, said to me of certain American books then lately published, ‘Is such careful writing appreciated in the United States? It would not be in England.’ On the shores of a new continent, then, there was already a standard which was in one respect better than the cosmopolitan.

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