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On literary tonics

some minor English critic wrote lately of Dr. Holmes's ‘Life of Emerson:’ ‘The Boston of his day does not seem to have been a very strong place; we lack performance.’ This is doubtless to be attributed rather to ignorance than to that want of seriousness which Mr. Stedman so justly points out among the younger Englishmen. The Boston of which he speaks was the Boston of Garrison and Phillips, of Whittier and Theodore Parker; it was the headquarters of those old-time abolitionists of whom the English Earl of Carlisle wrote that they were ‘fighting a battle without a parallel in the history of ancient or modern heroism.’ It was also the place which nurtured those young Harvard students who are chronicled in the ‘Harvard Memorial Biographies’—those who fell in the war of the Rebellion; those of whom Lord Houghton once wrote tersely to me: ‘They are men whom Europe has learned to [63] honor and would do well to imitate.’ The service of all these men, and its results, give a measure of the tonic afforded in the Boston of that day. Nay, Emerson himself was directly responsible for much of their strength. ‘To him more than to all other causes together,’ says Lowell, ‘did the young martyrs of our Civil War owe the sustaining strength of moral heroism that is so touching in every record of their lives.’ And when the force thus developed in Boston and elsewhere came to do its perfect work, that work turned out to be the fighting of a gigantic war and the freeing of four millions of slaves; and this in the teeth of every sympathy and desire of all that appeared influential in England. This is what is meant, in American history at least, by ‘performance.’

Indeed, as the War of 1812 has been called, following a suggestion of Franklin's, ‘the second War for Independence,’ so the Civil War might be called in the same sense the third war of the same kind; and the evolution of the American as a type wholly new and distinct from the Englishman, dates largely from that event. We are sometimes misled by a few [64] imitations in respect to visiting cards and servants' liveries, to be solicitous about a revival of Anglomania, forgetting that the very word Anglomania implies separation and weaning. I can recall when there was no more room for Anglomania in New York than in Piccadilly, for the simple reason that all was still English; when the one cultivated newspaper in the country was the New York Albion, conducted for British residents; when the scene of every child's story was laid abroad and not at home; when Irving was read in America because he wrote of England, and Cooper's novels were regarded as a sort of daring eccentricity of the frontier. Fifty years ago Anglomania could scarcely be said to exist in this country; for the nation was still, for all purposes of art and literature, a mere province of England. Now all is changed; the literary tone of the United States is more serious, more original, and, in its regard for external forms, more cultivated than that now prevailing on the other side. Untravelled Americans still feel a sense of awe before the English press, which vanishes when they visit London and talk with the young fellows who write for its journals; [65] and when these youths visit us, what lightweights they are apt to seem!

Emerson said of our former literary allegiance to England that it was the tax we paid for the priceless gift of English literature; but this tax should surely not be now a heavy one; a few ballades and villanelles seem the chief recent importations. The current American criticism on the latest English literature is that it is brutal or trivial. The London correspondent of the Critic quoted some Englishmen the other day as saying that the principal results of our Civil War had been ‘the development of Henry James, and the adoption of Mr. Robert Stevenson.’ Mr. Stevenson, if adopted, can hardly be brought into the discussion. Mr. James has no doubt placed himself as far as possible beyond reach of the Civil War by keeping the Atlantic Ocean between him and the scene where it occurred; but when I recall that I myself saw his youngest brother, still almost a boy, lying near to death, as it then seemed, in a hospital at Beaufort, S. C., after the charge on Fort Wagner, I can easily imagine that the Civil War may really leave done something [66] for Mr. James's development, after all. Mr. Howells has scarcely yet given up taking the heroes of his books from among those who had gone through a similar ordeal, and it will be many years before the force of that great impulse is spent. For one thing, the results of the war have liberated the Southern literary genius, and that part of the nation, so strangely unprolific till within twenty-five years, is now arresting its full share of attention, and perhaps even more than its share.

It is difficult to say just how far the influence of a literary tonic extends, and Goethe might doubtless be cited as an instance where art was its own sufficient stimulus. In the cases of a writer like Poe, we trace no tonic element. The great anti-slavery agitation and the general reformatory mood of half a century ago undoubtedly gave us Channing, Emerson, Whittier, Longfellow, and Lowell; not that they would not have been conspicuous in any case, but that the moral attribute in their natures might have been far less marked. The great temporary fame of Mrs. Stowe was identified with the same influence. Hawthorne and [67] Holmes were utterly untouched by the antislavery agitation, yet both yielded to the excitement of the war, and felt in some degree its glow. It elicited from Aldrich his noble Fredericksburg sonnet. Stedman, Stoddard, and Bayard Taylor wrote war songs, as did Julia Ward Howe conspicuously. Whitman's poem on the death of Lincoln is, in my judgment, one of the few among his compositions which will live. Wallace, who must be regarded as on the whole our most popular novelist—whatever may be thought of the quality of his work—won his first distinction in the Civil War. Cable, Lanier, Thompson, and other strong writers were also engaged in it, on the Confederate side. It is absolutely impossible to disentangle from the work of any but the very youngest of our living American authors that fibre of iron which came from our great Civil War and the stormy agitation that led up to it.

What is to succeed that great tonic?—for we can hardly suppose that the human race is to be kept forever at war for the sake of supplying a series of heroic crises. It is evident that no particular source of moral stimulus is [68] essential; the Woman Suffrage movement has made a dozen and more women into orators and authors; and Helen Jackson was as thoroughly thrilled and inspired by the wrongs of the American Indians, as was Mrs. Stowe by those of the Negroes. The American writers who signed the petition for the pardon of the Chicago Anarchists, had at least the wholesome experience of standing firmly, whether they were right or wrong, against the current opinion of those around them. The contributions toward the discussion of social questions which have of late flowed so freely from clergymen and other nonexperts, must undoubtedly do good to those from whom they proceed, if to no others. The essential thing is that the literary man should be interested in something which he feels to be of incomparably more importance to the universe than the development of his own pretty talent. We see the same thing across the ocean, when Swinburne writes his ‘Song in Time of Order,’ and Morris marches in a Socialist procession. Here lies the power of the Russian writers, of Victor Hugo. Probably no man who ever lived had an egotism more colossal than [69] that of Hugo, yet he was large enough to subordinate even that egotism to the aims that absorbed him—to abhorrence of Napoleon the Little—to enthusiasm for the golden age of man. I like to think of him as I saw him at the Voltaire Centenary in 1876, pleading for Universal Peace amid the alternate hush and roar of thousands of excitable Parisians—his lion-like head erect, his strong hand uplifted, his voice still powerful at nearly eighty years. So vast was the crowd, so deserted the neighboring streets, that it all recalled the words put by Landor into the lips of Demosthenes: ‘I have seen the day when the most august of cities had but one voice within her walls; and when the stranger on entering them stopped at the silence of the gateway, and said, “Demosthenes is speaking in the assembly of the people.” ’

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