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CONCERNING THE LACK OF AN AMERICAN LITERATURE

“Writers who have no past are pretty sure of having no future.” — LOWELL.

IT is an old story that the people of the United States have been slow in achieving their intellectual independence. The British yoke has remained upon our minds, though we have cast it off our necks. Our literary men, especially, have deferred to English models and English ideas. So we have been told till the tale has become monotonous.

What everybody says must be true — perhaps; but even so, there may be something to offer on the other side, or by way of extenuation, although the man who should venture to offer it — such is the peculiarity of the case and the perversity of human nature — might find himself accounted unpatriotic for coming to the defense of his own countrymen.

In times past, assuredly, whatever may be true now, the condition of things so much complained of was little reprehensible. Good or bad, it was nothing more than was to have been expected as circumstances then were. We had been English to begin with, and, for better or worse, the English nature is not of a sort to be put off with a turn of the hand, at the signing of a political document. It is self-evident, also, that in the world of ideas every people, whether it will or no, must live largely upon its ancestry. The utmost that any generation can hope to do is to contribute its mite to the intellectual tradition. The better part of its reading must be out of books that its predecessors have sifted from the mass and handed down. If it adds a few of its own — two or three, by good luck — to the permanent literature of the race, it does all that can reasonably be demanded of it. And even so much as this was hardly to be looked for from the American people during its colonial period and for some decades afterwards, with a wilderness to be subdued, savage neighbors to be held in check, and all the machinery of civilization to be newly set up. Books are a record and criticism of life, and those to whom life itself is an absorbing occupation are not likely, unless they are almost insanely intellectual, to spend any very considerable share of their days in work of a secondary and postponable character. Life is more than criticism, and the best and greatest people are those whose deeds give other people something to write about. It is not to be wondered at, therefore, if American books of a kind to be called literature were slow in coming; and we may confess without shame that up to the year 1820 or thereabouts — say till the advent of Irving and Cooper — the people of this country, if they read anything better than sermons and almanacs, were obliged to depend chiefly upon foreign authors. To which confession it may be added, equally without shame, that even the works of Cooper and Irving were scarcely sufficient of themselves to satisfy for many years together the cravings of eager and serious minds. At all times and in all countries, such minds, with the best will in the world to be loyal to their own day, have been obliged to look mainly to old books.

About the past, then, we need not spend time in mourning. If we play our part as well as the fathers played theirs, we shall have no great cause to blush. Since their day, what with Irving and Cooper and their contemporaries and successors, there has been no dearth of books written on this side of the water; but the complaint is still rife that we have little or nothing in the way of a national literature: by which it is meant, apparently, that our writers are not yet Americans, or do not succeed in expressing the national spirit. Only the other day, a critic, discoursing on “the conservatism and timidity of our literature,” charged it against Lowell that “in his habits of writing he continued English tradition,” whatever that may mean. “Our best scholar” allowed his real self to speak but twice, we are given to understand; then he spoke in dialect. His “Commemoration Ode” was a splendid failure, because it was “imitative and secondary.” Whether it, too, should have been written in dialect, we are not informed; but it appears to be taken for granted that its failure, if it was a failure, came, not from lack of genius or inspiration, but from deference to foreign models. One cannot help wondering what Lowell himself would have said to such a criticism: that he wrote in English and like an Englishman because he dared not write in his own tongue and in his own way. When a Scotchman complimented him upon his English, — “so like a native’s,” — and asked him bluntly where he got it, he answered with equal bluntness, in the words of the old song,   

“‘I got it in my mither’s wame.’”

Yet Lowell, who spoke but twice in his own character, seems to have done better than most of his fellows; for he and Curtis are the only men of letters to find a place in a recent “Calendar of Great Americans.” All their contemporaries and predecessors were either not great, or else were something other than American, — cosmopolitan, provincial, or English. Irving, Cooper, Poe, Bryant, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Emerson, Whittier, Holmes, Prescott, Motley, Bancroft, Parkman, — not one of these will bear the test. As for Emerson, he is ruled out by name, because he was the “author of such thought as might have been native to any clime.” He is of the world, and therefore not American. It seems a hard judgment that the man who wrote “The Fortune of the Republic,” “The Young American,” and the “Concord Hymn,” — the man of whom it was recently said, so finely and so truly, that “he sent ten thousand sons to the war,” — should find himself at this late hour a man without a country. On such terms it is doubtful praise to be called a cosmopolitan; and in view of such a ruling it becomes evident that the exact nature of Americanism as a literary quality is yet to be defined. Lowell’s attempt in that direction, by-the-bye, is probably among the best. An American, according to Lowell’s idea of him, — so Mr. James says, — was a man at once fresh and ripe.

When it comes to practice, however, there is one American poet whose literary patriotism was never called in question. The reference is of course to Whitman. Listen to him, as he appeals to whoever “would assume a place to teach or be a poet here in the States:” —


“Who are you indeed who would talk or sing to America?
Have you studied out the land, its idioms and men?
Have you learned the physiology, phrenology, politics,
        geography, pride, freedom, friendship of the land?
        its substratums and objects?
Have you considered the organic compact of the first day
        of the first year of Independence, signed by the
        Commissioners, ratified by the States, and read
   by Washington at the head of the army?
Have you possessed yourself of the Federal Constitution?
Do you see who have left all feudal processes and poems
        behind them, and assumed the poems and processes of Democracy?”

“Conservatism and timidity”! Here is one man, at all events, who is not to be accused of “continuing English tradition.” He, if nobody else, breathes a “haughty defiance of the Year One.” He may or may not be “ripe;” he certainly is “fresh.” If there be some who fail to enjoy his verse, there can be none who do not admire his courage.

But surely it was not to be insisted upon, nor even expected, that all American authors should break away thus suddenly and completely from the past. Perhaps it was not even to be desired: partly because variety is better than the best of sameness, and partly because so abrupt a change might in the long run have hindered our emancipation. Some readers would have been puzzled, others would have been offended. Here and there one, at least, would have been ready to say, with Wordsworth, —

“Me this unchartered freedom tires.”

Little by little a reaction would have been produced, the “substratums and objects” of the land would have suffered disastrous eclipse, “feudal processes and poems” would have come in like a flood, and the last state of the national mind would have been worse than the first.

Nor can this extreme of revolt, or any approach to it, be thought necessary to constitute an American writer. “American” and “rebel” are not synonymous at this hour of the day. American literature, if we may assert our American right to speak a truism roundly, is literature written by Americans; that is to say, by the people of the United States. In its subject it may be old or new, domestic or foreign; it may be written in dialect, — sometimes called American, — or in English; in any case, if it is literature at all, it is American literature. And since there is already a body of such writing, we may venture upon another capital letter, by the compositor’s leave, and speak of it — still modestly, and remembering its youth — as American Literature. For youthful it is, in the nature of the case, with its character but imperfectly formed, and its full share of juvenile foibles; still showing, as is inevitable and not discreditable, abundant traces of its English origin.

Thus far, it must be owned, it can boast little or no representation among the supremely great of the earth. The genius of a new country produces men of action rather than poets and philosophers. Washington and Lincoln are names to shine in any company, but as yet the roll of American authors contains few Homers and Shakespeares, and no great number of Dantes and Miltons. Such as they are, however, they are our own, and though in some cases we might have wished them more “distinctively American,” we need not be in haste on that account to tag them with a foreign label. Neither need we delude ourselves with the notion that they might have been transcendent geniuses, all of them, had they but stood up resolutely against the English tradition. How to become a genius is one of the hard problems. There is no likelihood that it can be solved by any process of intellectual jingoism. The secret may consist partly in being one’s self; pretty certainly it does not consist in being different from somebody else. Between imitation and a set attempt to avoid imitation there is not so very much to choose. Either of them stamps the work as secondary. As for Homers and Shakespeares, we may remember for our comfort that names like these are not to be found, in any country, among the living: they never have been.1

For our comfort, too, though not in the every-day sense of that word, we do well to remind ourselves that as the greatness of our American authors is but relative, so is the newness of our American spirit. All that is called new is born of the old, and is itself in part old. The movement of history is not by successive creations of something out of nothing, but by the development of one thing from another; and whether we like to believe it or not, this that we call the American idea stands within the general law: it has been evolved, or rather it is being evolved, out of what was before it. The public mind, stirred by patriotic impulses and restive under criticism, may clamor for originality, meaning by that absolute novelty, and North, South, East, and West may exhaust themselves to answer the appeal: we shall never see an absolutely new book, be it the “great American novel” or anything else. As time goes on, we shall have, by the slow processes of nature, a literature more and more distinctive, more and more independent, and more and more unlike the English, more and more American; but to the end its originality, like that of all literature, will be but relative. Though men cross the sea, they can never escape the spirit of their forerunners. Our very rebelliousness against English domination is an English trait. The great American book, when it comes, will not spring from virgin soil, but from seed, and the seed will have had an age-long ancestry. “Works proceed from works,” says a learned French critic; and the most searching of American critics had something of the same thought in mind when he wrote, fifty years ago, in response to inquiries “in Cambridge orations and elsewhere” for “that great absentee,” an American literature, “A literature is no man’s private concern, but a secular and generic result.”

What then? Shall we cease effort, and leave it to blind law to work out for us our intellectual salvation? That would be childish. Because one thing is true, it does not follow that another and seemingly contradictory thing may not be true likewise. The same Emerson who spoke of literature as a “generic result,” — a word so anticipatory of later thought as to seem like a flash of genius, — and therefore “no man’s private concern,” was never done of the evolution of literary forms, gives the first place in that evolution, not to changed conditions, nor to the germinal force of great models, nor to the “moment,” a word on which he greatly insists, but to the power of the individual.

And where ought this power of the individual to be quickly and strongly felt, if not in a democracy and in a new world?

Like many other good things, nevertheless, individuality, though it may properly be sought, is not to be gone after too directly, — as if it could be carried by assault. Originality has often suffered violence, it is true, but the violent have never taken it by force. We are not to hope for intellectual life by any process of spontaneous generation; nor are we to dread abjectly the influence of other minds over our own. Individuality is a gift rarely lost, except by those who lose it before they are born. Franklin, it is universally agreed, was an American of the most pronounced type, one of our greatest and most original men. His style, as Mr. James says of Lowell’s, was “an indefeasible part of him;” yet all the world knows that he formed it, or believed that he formed it, by a studious imitation of Addison. Originality is theirs to whom it is given. With it a man may drench himself in the wisdom of the ages, and take no harm; without it he may eschew books never so jealously, and look into his own heart with never so complete a faith, and come to no good.

All of which is not to say that a scholar may not occupy himself too much with the thoughts of others to the neglect of his own, or that Americans as a people may not defer unreasonably to foreign standards. Between the two extremes, excessive dependence upon tradition and a too exclusive confidence in one’s own genius, there is a middle course. If we cannot find it, then we are not yet ripe for a great national literature, which must be the result of the old culture bestowed upon new soil in a new time and under new conditions.

_____________________________

1 According to an eminent French critic, M. de Wyzewa, the United States still has (since Whitman’s death, he means to say) two poets, — Mr. Merril and Mr. Griffin. “Only two” is the critic’s phrase, but the adverb need not disturb us. A busy people who have two poets at once may count themselves rich. 


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