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American Literary Centers by William Dean Howells

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This etext was produced by David Widger

[NOTE: There is a short list of bookmarks, or pointers, at the end of the
file for those who may wish to sample the author's ideas before making an
entire meal of them. D.W.]

LITERATURE AND LIFE--American Literary Centers

by William Dean Howells


One of the facts which we Americans have a difficulty in making clear to
a rather inattentive world outside is that, while we have apparently a
literature of our own, we have no literary centre. We have so much
literature that from time to time it seems even to us we must have a
literary centre. We say to ourselves, with a good deal of logic, Where
there is so much smoke there must be some fire, or at least a fireplace.
But it is just here that, misled by tradition, and even by history, we
deceive ourselves. Really, we have no fireplace for such fire as we have
kindled; or, if any one is disposed to deny this, then I say, we have a
dozen fireplaces; which is quite as bad, so far as the notion of a
literary centre is concerned, if it is not worse.

I once proved this fact to my own satisfaction in some papers which I
wrote several years ago; but it appears, from a question which has lately
come to me from England, that I did not carry conviction quite so far as
that island; and I still have my work all before me, if I understand the
London friend who wishes "a comparative view of the centres of literary
production" among us; "how and why they change; how they stand at
present; and what is the relation, for instance, of Boston to other such


Here, if I cut my coat according to my cloth, t should have a garment
which this whole volume would hardly stuff out with its form; and I have
a fancy that if I begin by answering, as I have sometimes rather too
succinctly done, that we have no more a single literary centre than Italy
or than Germany has (or had before their unification), I shall not be
taken at my word. I shall be right, all the same, and if I am told that
in those countries there is now a tendency to such a centre, I can only
say that there is none in this, and that, so far as I can see, we get
further every day from having such a centre. The fault, if it is a
fault, grows upon us, for the whole present tendency of American life is
centrifugal, and just so far as literature is the language of our life,
it shares this tendency. I do not attempt to say how it will be when, in
order to spread ourselves over the earth, and convincingly to preach the
blessings of our deeply incorporated civilization by the mouths of our
eight-inch guns, the mind of the nation shall be politically centred at
some capital; that is the function of prophecy, and I am only writing
literary history, on a very small scale, with a somewhat crushing sense
of limits.

Once, twice, thrice there was apparently an American literary centre: at
Philadelphia, from the time Franklin went to live there until the death
of Charles Brockden Brown, our first romancer; then at New York, during
the period which may be roughly described as that of Irving, Poe, Willis,
and Bryant; then at Boston, for the thirty or forty years illumined by
the presence of Longfellow, Lowell, Whittier, Hawthorne, Emerson, Holmes,
Prescott, Parkman, and many lesser lights. These are all still great
publishing centres. If it were not that the house with the largest list
of American authors was still at Boston, I should say New York was now
the chief publishing centre; but in the sense that London and Paris, or
even Madrid and Petersburg, are literary centres, with a controlling
influence throughout England and France, Spain and Russia, neither New
York nor Boston is now our literary centre, whatever they may once have
been. Not to take Philadelphia too seriously, I may note that when New
York seemed our literary centre Irving alone among those who gave it
lustre was a New-Yorker, and he mainly lived abroad; Bryant, who was a
New Englander, was alone constant to the city of his adoption; Willis, a
Bostonian, and Poe, a Marylander, went and came as their poverty or their
prosperity compelled or invited; neither dwelt here unbrokenly, and Poe
did not even die here, though he often came near starving. One cannot
then strictly speak of any early American literary centre except Boston,
and Boston, strictly speaking, was the New England literary centre.

However, we had really no use for an American literary centre before the
Civil War, for it was only after the Civil War that we really began to
have an American literature. Up to that time we had a Colonial
literature, a Knickerbocker literature, and a New England literature.
But as soon as the country began to feel its life in every limb with the
coming of peace, it began to speak in the varying accents of all the
different sections--North, East, South, West, and Farthest West; but not
before that time.


Perhaps the first note of this national concord, or discord, was sounded
from California, in the voices of Mr. Bret Harte, of Mark Twain, of Mr.
Charles Warren Stoddard (I am sorry for those who do not know his
beautiful Idyls of the South Seas), and others of the remarkable group of
poets and humorists whom these names must stand for. The San Francisco
school briefly flourished from 1867 till 1872 or so, and while it endured
it made San Francisco the first national literary centre we ever had, for
its writers were of every American origin except Californian.

After the Pacific Slope, the great Middle West found utterance in the
dialect verse of Mr. John Hay, and after that began the exploitation of
all the local parlances, which has sometimes seemed to stop, and then has
begun again. It went on in the South in the fables of Mr. Joel Chandler
Harris's Uncle Remus, and in the fiction of Miss Murfree, who so long
masqueraded as Charles Egbert Craddock. Louisiana found expression in
the Creole stories of Mr. G. W. Cable, Indiana in the Hoosier poems of
Mr. James Whitcomb Riley, and central New York in the novels of Mr.
Harold Frederic; but nowhere was the new impulse so firmly and finely
directed as in New England, where Miss Sarah Orne Jewett's studies of
country life antedated Miss Mary Wilkins's work. To be sure, the
portrayal of Yankee character began before either of these artists was
known; Lowell's Bigelow Papers first reflected it; Mrs. Stowe's Old Town
Stories caught it again and again; Mrs. Harriet Prescott Spofford, in her
unromantic moods, was of an excellent fidelity to it; and Mrs. Rose Terry
Cooke was even truer to the New England of Connecticut. With the later
group Mrs. Lily Chase Wyman has pictured Rhode Island work-life with
truth pitiless to the beholder, and full of that tender humanity for the
material which characterizes Russian fiction.

Mr. James Lane Allen has let in the light upon Kentucky; the Red Men and
White of the great plains have found their interpreter in Mr. Owen
Wister, a young Philadelphian witness of their dramatic conditions and
characteristics; Mr. Hamlin Garlafid had already expressed the sad
circumstances of the rural Northwest in his pathetic idyls, colored from
the experience of one who had been part of what he saw. Later came Mr.
Henry B. Fuller, and gave us what was hardest and most sordid, as well as
something of what was most touching and most amusing, in the burly-burly
of Chicago.


A survey of this sort imparts no just sense of the facts, and I own that
I am impatient of merely naming authors and books that each tempt me to
an expansion far beyond the limits of this essay; for, if I may be so
personal, I have watched the growth of our literature in Americanism with
intense sympathy. In my poor way I have always liked the truth, and in
times past I am afraid that I have helped to make it odious to those who
believed beauty was something different; but I hope that I shall not now
be doing our decentralized literature a disservice by saying that its
chief value is its honesty, its fidelity to our decentralized life.
Sometimes I wish this were a little more constant; but upon the whole I
have no reason to complain; and I think that as a very interested
spectator of New York I have reason to be content with the veracity with
which some phases of it have been rendered. The lightning-or the flash-
light, to speak more accurately--has been rather late in striking this
ungainly metropolis, but it has already got in its work with notable
effect at some points. This began, I believe, with the local dramas of
Mr. Edward Harrigan, a species of farces, or sketches of character,
loosely hung together, with little sequence or relevancy, upon the thread
of a plot which would keep the stage for two or three hours. It was very
rough magic, as a whole, but in parts it was exquisite, and it held the
mirror up towards politics on their social and political side, and gave
us East-Side types--Irish, German, negro, and Italian--which were
instantly recognizable and deliciously satisfying. I never could
understand why Mr. Harrigan did not go further, but perhaps he had gone
far enough; and, at any rate, he left the field open for others. The
next to appear noticeably in it was Mr. Stephen Crane, whose Red Badge of
Courage wronged the finer art which he showed in such New York studies as
Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, and George's Mother. He has been followed
by Abraham Cahan, a Russian Hebrew, who has done portraits of his race
and nation with uncommon power. They are the very Russian Hebrews of
Hester Street translated from their native Yiddish into English, which
the author mastered after coming here in his early manhood. He brought
to his work the artistic qualities of both the Slav and the Jew, and in
his 'Jekl: A Story of the Ghetto', he gave proof of talent which his more
recent book of sketches--'The Imported Bride groom'--confirms. He sees
his people humorously, and he is as unsparing of their sordidness as he
is compassionate of their hard circumstance and the somewhat frowsy
pathos of their lives. He is a Socialist, but his fiction is wholly
without "tendentiousness."

A good many years ago--ten or twelve, at least--Mr. Harry Harland had
shown us some politer New York Jews, with a romantic coloring, though
with genuine feeling for the novelty and picturesqueness of his material;
but I do not think of any one who has adequately dealt with our Gentile
society. Mr. James has treated it historically in Washington Square, and
more modernly in some passages of The Bostonians, as well as in some of
his shorter stories; Mr. Edgar Fawcett has dealt with it intelligently
and authoritatively in a novel or two; and Mr. Brander Matthews has
sketched it, in this aspect, and that with his Gallic cleverness,
neatness, and point. In the novel, 'His Father's Son', he in fact faces
it squarely and renders certain forms of it with masterly skill. He has
done something more distinctive still in 'The Action and the Word', one
of the best American stories I know. But except for these writers, our
literature has hardly taken to New York society.


It is an even thing: New York society has not taken to our literature.
New York publishes it, criticises it, and circulates it, but I doubt if
New York society much reads it or cares for it, and New York is therefore
by no means the literary centre that Boston once was, though a large
number of our literary men live in or about New York. Boston, in my time
at least, had distinctly a literary atmosphere, which more or less
pervaded society; but New York has distinctly nothing of the kind, in any
pervasive sense. It is a vast mart, and literature is one of the things
marketed here; but our good society cares no more for it than for some
other products bought and sold here; it does not care nearly so much for
books as for horses or for stocks, and I suppose it is not unlike the
good society of any other metropolis in this. To the general, here,
journalism is a far more appreciable thing than literature, and has
greater recognition, for some very good reasons; but in Boston literature
had vastly more honor, and even more popular recognition, than
journalism. There journalism desired to be literary, and here literature
has to try hard not to be journalistic. If New York is a literary centre
on the business side, as London is, Boston was a literary centre, as
Weimar was, and as Edinburgh was. It felt literature, as those capitals
felt it, and if it did not love it quite so much as might seem, it always
respected it.

To be quite clear in what I wish to say of the present relation of Boston
to our other literary centres, I must repeat that we have now no such
literary centre as Boston was. Boston itself has perhaps outgrown the
literary consciousness which formerly distinguished it from all our other
large towns. In a place of nearly a million people (I count in the
outlying places) newspapers must be more than books; and that alone says

Mr. Aldrich once noticed that whenever an author died in Boston, the New-
Yorkers thought they had a literary centre; and it is by some such means
that the primacy has passed from Boston, even if it has not passed to New
York. But still there is enough literature left in the body at Boston to
keep her first among equals in some things, if not easily first in all.

Mr. Aldrich himself lives in Boston, and he is, with Mr. Stedman, the
foremost of our poets. At Cambridge live Colonel T. W. Higginson, an
essayist in a certain sort without rival among us; and Mr. William James,
the most interesting and the most literary of psychologists, whose repute
is European as well as American. Mr. Charles Eliot Norton alone survives
of the earlier Cambridge group--Longfellow, Lowell, Richard Henry Dana,
Louis Agassiz, Francis J. Child, and Henry James, the father of the
novelist and the psychologist.

To Boston Mr. James Ford Rhodes, the latest of our abler historians, has
gone from Ohio; and there Mr. Henry Cabot Lodge, the Massachusetts
Senator, whose work in literature is making itself more and more known,
was born and belongs, politically, socially, and intellectually. Mrs.
Julia Ward Howe, a poet of wide fame in an elder generation, lives there;
Mr. T. B. Aldrich lives there; and thereabouts live Mrs. Elizabeth Stuart
Phelps Ward and Mrs. Harriet Prescott Spofford, the first of a fame
beyond the last, who was known to us so long before her. Then at Boston,
or near Boston, live those artists supreme in the kind of short story
which we have carried so far: Miss Jewett, Miss Wilkins, Miss Alice
Brown, Mrs. Chase-Wyman, and Miss Gertrude Smith, who comes from Kansas,
and writes of the prairie farm-life, though she leaves Mr. E. W. Howe
(of 'The Story of a Country Town' and presently of the Atchison Daily
Globe) to constitute, with the humorous poet Ironquill, a frontier
literary centre at Topeka. Of Boston, too, though she is of western
Pennsylvania origin, is Mrs. Margaret Deland, one of our most successful
novelists. Miss Wilkins has married out of Massachusetts into New
Jersey, and is the neighbor of Mr. H. M. Alden at Metuchen.

All these are more or less embodied and represented in the Atlantic
Monthly, still the most literary, and in many things still the first of
our magazines. Finally, after the chief publishing house in New York,
the greatest American publishing house is in Boston, with by far the
largest list of the best American books. Recently several firms of
younger vigor and valor have recruited the wasted ranks of the Boston
publishers, and are especially to be noted for the number of rather nice
new poets they give to the light.


Dealing with the question geographically, in the right American way, we
descend to Hartford obliquely by way of Springfield, Massachusetts,
where, in a little city of fifty thousand, a newspaper of metropolitan
influence and of distinctly literary tone is published. At Hartford
while Charles Dudley Warner lived, there was an indisputable literary
centre; Mark Twain lives there no longer, and now we can scarcely count
Hartford among our literary centres, though it is a publishing centre of
much activity in subscription books.

At New Haven, Yale University has latterly attracted Mr. William H.
Bishop, whose novels I always liked for the best reasons, and has long
held Professor J. T. Lounsbury, who is, since Professor Child's death at
Cambridge, our best Chaucer scholar. Mr. Donald G. Mitchell, once
endeared to the whole fickle American public by his Reveries of a
Bachelor and his Dream Life, dwells on the borders of the pleasant town,
which is also the home of Mr. J. W. De Forest, the earliest real American
novelist, and for certain gifts in seeing and telling our life also one
of the greatest.

As to New York (where the imagination may arrive daily from New Haven,
either by a Sound boat or by eight or ten of the swiftest express trains
in the world), I confess I am more and more puzzled. Here abide the
poets, Mr. R. H. Stoddard, Mr. E. C. Stedman, Mr. R. W. Gilder, and many
whom an envious etcetera must hide from view; the fictionists, Mr. R. H.
Davis, Mrs. Kate Douglas Wiggin, Mr. Brander Matthews, Mr. Frank
Hopkinson Smith, Mr. Abraham Cahan, Mr. Frank Norris, and Mr. James Lane
Allen, who has left Kentucky to join the large Southern contingent, which
includes Mrs. Burton Harrison and Mrs. McEnery Stuart; the historians,
Professor William M. Sloane and Dr. Eggleston (reformed from a novelist);
the literary and religious and economic essayists, Mr. Hamilton W.
Mabie, Mr. H. M. Alden, Mr. J. J. Chapman, and Mr. E. L. Godkin, with
critics, dramatists, satirists, magazinists, and journalists of literary
stamp in number to convince the wavering reason against itself that here
beyond all question is the great literary centre of these States. There
is an Authors' Club, which alone includes a hundred and fifty authors,
and, if you come to editors, there is simply no end. Magazines are
published here and circulated hence throughout the land by millions; and
books by the ton are the daily output of our publishers, who are the
largest in the country.

If these things do not mean a great literary centre, it would be hard to
say what does; and I am not going to try for a reason against such facts.
It is not quality that is wanting, but perhaps it is the quantity of the
quality; there is leaven, but not for so large a lump. It may be that
New York is going to be our literary centre, as London is the literary
centre of England, by gathering into itself all our writing talent, but
it has by no means done this yet. What we can say is that more authors
come here from the West and South than go elsewhere; but they often stay
at home, and I fancy very wisely. Mr. Joel Chandler Harris stays at
Atlanta, in Georgia; Mr. James Whitcomb Riley stays at Indianapolis; Mr.
Maurice Thompson spent his whole literary life, and General Lew. Wallace
still lives at Crawfordsville, Indiana; Mr. Madison Cawein stays at
Louisville, Kentucky; Miss Murfree stays at St. Louis, Missouri; Francis
R. Stockton spent the greater part of the year at his place in West
Virginia, and came only for the winter months to New York; Mr. Edward
Bellamy, until his failing health exiled him to the Far West, remained at
Chicopee, Massachusetts; and I cannot think of one of these writers whom
it would have advantaged in any literary wise to dwell in New York. He
would not have found greater incentive than at home; and in society he
would not have found that literary tone which all society had, or wished
to have, in Boston when Boston was a great town and not yet a big town.

In fact, I doubt if anywhere in the world there was ever so much taste
and feeling for literature as there was in that Boston. At Edinburgh (as
I imagine it) there was a large and distinguished literary class, and at
Weimar there was a cultivated court circle; but in Boston there was not
only such a group of authors as we shall hardly see here again for
hundreds of years, but there was such regard for them and their calling,
not only in good society, but among the extremely well-read people of the
whole intelligent city, as hardly another community has shown. New York,
I am quite sure, never was such a centre, and I see no signs that it ever
will be. It does not influence the literature of the whole country as
Boston once did through writers whom all the young writers wished to
resemble; it does not give the law, and it does not inspire the love that
literary Boston inspired. There is no ideal that it represents.

A glance at the map of the Union will show how very widely our smaller
literary centres are scattered; and perhaps it will be useful in
following me to other more populous literary centres. Dropping southward
from New York, now, we find ourselves in a literary centre of importance
at Philadelphia, since that is the home of Mr. J. B. McMasters, the
historian of the American people; of Mr. Owen Wister, whose fresh and
vigorous work I have mentioned; and of Dr. Weir Mitchell, a novelist of
power long known to the better public, and now recognized by the larger
in the immense success of his historical romance, Hugh Wynne.

If I skip Baltimore, I may ignore a literary centre of great promise, but
while I do not forget the excellent work of Johns Hopkins University in
training men for the solider literature of the future, no Baltimore names
to conjure with occur to me at the moment; and we must really get on to
Washington. This, till he became ambassador at the Court of St. James,
was the home of Mr. John Hay, a poet whose biography of Lincoln must rank
him with the historians, and whose public service as Secretary of State
classes him high among statesmen. He blotted out one literary centre at
Cleveland, Ohio, when he removed to Washington, and Mr. Thomas Nelson
Page another at Richmond, Virginia, when he came to the national capital.
Mr. Paul Dunbar, the first negro poet to divine and utter his race,
carried with him the literary centre of Dayton, Ohio, when he came to be
an employee in the Congressional Library; and Mr. Charles Warren
Stoddard, in settling at Washington as Professor of Literature in the
Catholic University, brought somewhat indirectly away with him the last
traces of the old literary centre at San Francisco.

A more recent literary centre in the Californian metropolis went to
pieces when Mr. Gelett Burgess came to New York and silenced the 'Lark',
a bird of as new and rare a note as ever made itself heard in this air;
but since he has returned to California, there is hope that the literary
centre may form itself there again. I do not know whether Mrs. Charlotte
Perkins Stetson wrecked a literary centre in leaving Los Angeles or not.
I am sure only that she has enriched the literary centre of New York by
the addition of a talent in sociological satire which would be
extraordinary even if it were not altogether unrivalled among us.

Could one say too much of the literary centre at Chicago? I fancy, yes;
or too much, at least, for the taste of the notable people who constitute
it. In Mr. Henry B. Fuller we have reason to hope, from what he has
already done, an American novelist of such greatness that he may well
leave being the great American novelist to any one who likes taking that
role. Mr. Hamlin Garland is another writer of genuine and original gift
who centres at Chicago; and Mrs. Mary Catherwood has made her name well
known in romantic fiction. Miss Edith Wyatt is a talent, newly known, of
the finest quality in minor fiction; Mr. Robert Herrick, Mr. Will Payne
in their novels, and Mr. George Ade and Mr. Peter Dump in their satires
form with those named a group not to be matched elsewhere in the country.
It would be hard to match among our critical journals the 'Dial' of
Chicago; and with a fair amount of publishing in a sort of books often as
good within as they are uncommonly pretty without, Chicago has a claim to
rank with our first literary centres.

It is certainly to be reckoned not so very far below London, which, with
Mr. Henry James, Mr. Harry Harland, and Mr. Bret Harte, seems to me an
American literary centre worthy to be named with contemporary Boston.
Which is our chief literary centre, however, I am not, after all, ready
to say. When I remember Mr. G. W. Cable, at Northampton, Massachusetts,
I am shaken in all my preoccupations; when I think of Mark Twain, it
seems to me that our greatest literary centre is just now at Riverdale-


Leaven, but not for so large a lump
Mark Twain
Not lack of quality but quantity of the quality
Our deeply incorporated civilization

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