Snow-Storm,” “Days,” “Fable,” “Forbearance,” “The Titmouse” and “Wood-Notes.” In another class are his philosophical poems devoted to transcendental doctrines. The beginner will do well to skip these, since they are more of a puzzle than a source of pleasure. In a third class are poems of more personal interest, such as the noble “Threnody,” a poem of grief written after the death of Emerson’s little boy; “Good-Bye,” in which the poet bids farewell to fame as he hies him to the country; “To Ellen,” which half reveals his love story; “Written in Rome,” which speaks of the society he found in solitude; and the “Concord Hymn,” written at the dedication of Battle Monument, with its striking opening lines:
By the rude bridge that arched the flood, Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled, Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.
PROSE WORKS. Perhaps the most typical of Emerson’s prose works is his first book, to which he gave the name _Nature_ (1836). In this he records not his impressions of bird or beast or flower, as his neighbor Thoreau was doing in _Walden_, but rather his philosophy of the universe. “Nature always wears the colors of the spirit”; “Every animal function, from the sponge up to Hercules, shall hint or thunder to man the laws of right and wrong, and echo the ten commandments”; “The foundations of man are not in matter but in spirit, and the element of spirit is eternity,”–scores of such expressions indicate that Emerson deals with the soul of things, not with their outward appearance. Does a flower appeal to him? Its scientific name and classification are of no consequence; like Wordsworth, he would understand what thought of God the flower speaks. To him nature is a mirror in which the Almighty reflects his thought; again it is a parable, a little story written in trees or hills or stars; frequently it is a living presence, speaking melodiously in winds or waters; and always it is an inspiration to learn wisdom at first hand:
“Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, criticisms. The foregoing generations beheld God and Nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight, and not of tradition?”
The last quotation might well be an introduction to Emerson’s second work, _The American Scholar_ (1837), which was a plea for laying aside European models and fronting life as free men in a new world. Holmes called this work “our intellectual Declaration of Independence,” and it was followed by a succession of volumes–_Essays_, _Representative Men_, _Conduct of Life_, _Society and Solitude_ and several others–all devoted to the same two doctrines of idealism and individuality.
[Sidenote: REPRESENTATIVE MEN]
Among these prose works the reader must make his own selection. All are worth reading; none is easy to read; even the best of them is better appreciated in brief instalments, since few can follow Emerson long without wearying. _English Traits_ is a keen but kindly criticism of “our cousins” overseas, which an American can read with more pleasure than an Englishman. _Representative Men_ is a series of essays on Plato, Shakespeare, Napoleon and other world figures, which may well be read in connection with Carlyle’s _Heroes and Hero Worship_, since the two books reflect the same subject from widely different angles. Carlyle was in theory an aristocrat and a force-worshiper, Emerson a democrat and a believer in ideals. One author would relate us to his heroes in the attitude of slave to master, the other in the relation of brothers and equals.
[Sidenote: THE ESSAYS]
Of the shorter prose works, collected in various volumes of _Essays_, we shall name only a few in two main groups, which we may call the ideal and the practical. In the first group are such typical works as “The Over-Soul,” “Compensation,” “Spiritual Laws” and “History”; in the latter are “Heroism,” “Self-Reliance,” “Literary Ethics” (an address to young collegians), “Character” and “Manners.”
It is difficult to criticize such writings, which have a daring originality of thought and a springlike freshness of expression that set them apart from all other essays ancient or modern. They are the most quotable, the fittest to “point a moral or adorn a tale” that have ever appeared in our literature; but they are also disjointed, oracular, hard to follow; and the explanation is found in the manner of their production. When Emerson projected a new lecture or essay he never thought his subject out or ordered it from beginning to end. That would have been another man’s way of doing it. He collected from his notebooks such thoughts as seemed to bear upon his subject, strung them together, and made an end when he had enough. The connection or relation between his thoughts is always frail and often invisible; some compare it with the thread which holds the pearls of a necklace together; others quote with a smile the epigram of Goldwin Smith, who said that he found an Emersonian essay about as coherent as a bag of marbles. And that suggests a fair criticism of all Emerson’s prose; namely, that it is a series of expressions excellent in themselves but having so little logical sequence that a paragraph from one essay may be placed at the beginning, middle or end of any other, where it seems to be equally at home.
THE DOCTRINE OF EMERSON. Since we constantly hear of “idealism” in connection with Emerson, let us understand the word if we can; or rather the fact, for idealism is the most significant quality of humanity. The term will be better understood if we place it beside “materialism,” which expresses an opposite view of life. The difference may be summarized in the statement that the idealist is a man of spirit, or idea, in that he trusts the evidence of the soul; while the materialist is a man of flesh, or sense, in that he believes only what is evident to the senses. One judges the world by himself; the other judges himself by the world.
To illustrate our meaning: the materialist, looking outward, sees that the world is made up of force-driven matter, of gas, carbon and mineral; and he says, “Even so am I made up.” He studies an object, sees that it has its appointed cycle of growth and decay, and concludes, “Even so do I appear and vanish.” To him the world is the only reality, and the world perishes, and man is but a part of the world.
[Sidenote: THE IDEALIST]
The idealist, looking first within, perceives that self-consciousness is the great fact of life, and that consciousness expresses itself in words or deeds; then he looks outward, and is aware of another Consciousness that expresses itself in the lowly grass or in the stars of heaven. Looking inward he finds that he is governed by ideas of truth, beauty, goodness and duty; looking outward he everywhere finds evidence of truth and beauty and moral law in the world. He sees, moreover, that while his body changes constantly his self remains the same yesterday, to-day and forever; and again his discovery is a guide to the outer world, with its seedtime and harvest, which is but the symbol or garment of a Divine Self that abides without shadow of change in a constantly changing universe. To him the only reality is spirit, and spirit cannot be harmed by fire or flood; neither can it die or be buried, for it is immortal and imperishable.
Such, in simple words, was the idealism of Emerson, an idealism that was born in him and that governed him long before he became involved in transcendentalism, with its scraps of borrowed Hindu philosophy. It gave message or meaning to his first work, _Nature_, and to all the subsequent essays or poems in which he pictured the world as a symbol or visible expression of a spiritual reality. In other words, nature was to Emerson the Book of the Lord, and the chief thing of interest was not the book but the idea that was written therein.
[Sidenote: THE INDIVIDUALIST]
Having read the universe and determined its spiritual quality, Emerson turned his eyes on humanity. Presently he announced that a man’s chief glory is his individuality; that he is a free being, different from every other; that his business is to obey his individual genius; that he should, therefore, ignore the Past with its traditions, and learn directly “from the Divine Soul which inspires all men.” Having announced that doctrine, he spent the rest of his life in illustrating or enlarging it; and the sum of his teaching was, “Do not follow me or any other master; follow your own spirit. Never mind what history says, or philosophy or tradition or the saints and sages. The same inspiration which led the prophets is yours for the taking, and you have your work to do as they had theirs. Revere your own soul; trust your intuition; and whatever you find in your heart to do, do it without doubt or fear, though all the world thunder in your ears that you must do otherwise. As for the voice of authority, ‘Let not a man quit his belief that a popgun is a popgun, though the anointed and honorable of the earth affirm it to be the crack of doom.'”
[Illustration: EMERSON’S HOME, CONCORD]
Such was Emerson’s pet doctrine of individualism. It appeared with startling vigor in _The American Scholar_ at a time when our writers were prone to imitate English poetry, German sentimentality or some other imported product. It came also with good grace from one whose life was noble, but it had a weak or dangerous or grotesque side that Emerson overlooked. Thus, every crank or fanatic or rainbow-chaser is also an individualist, and most of them believe as strongly as Emerson in the Over-Soul. The only difference is that they do not have his sense or integrity or humor to balance their individualism. While Emerson exalted individual liberty he seemed to forget that America is a country devoted to “liberty under law,” and that at every period of her history she has had need to emphasize the law rather than the liberty. Moreover, individualism is a quality that takes care of itself, being finest in one who is least conscious of his own importance; and to study any strongly individual character, a Washington or a Lincoln for example, is to discover that he strove to be true to his race and traditions as well as to himself. Hence Emerson’s doctrine, to live in the Present and have entire confidence in yourself, needs to be supplemented by another: to revere the Past with its immortal heroes, who by their labor and triumph have established some truths that no sane man will ever question.
[Sidenote: A NEW WORLD WRITER]
There are other interesting qualities of Emerson, his splendid optimism, for instance, which came partly from his spiritual view of the universe and partly from his association with nature; for the writer who is in daily contact with sunshine or rain and who trusts his soul’s ideals of truth and beauty has no place for pessimism or despair; even in moments of darkness he looks upward and reads his lesson:
Teach me your mood, O patient stars, Who climb each night the ancient sky,
Leaving on space no shade, no scars, No trace of age, no fear to die!
Though he was and still is called a visionary, there is a practical quality in his writing which is better than anything you will find in _Poor Richard’s Almanac_. Thus the burden of Franklin’s teaching was the value of time, a lesson which the sage of Concord illuminates as with celestial light in his poem “Days,” and to which he brings earth’s candle in his prose essay “Work and Days.” [Footnote: The two works should be read in connection as an interesting example of Emerson’s use of prose and verse to reflect the same idea. Holmes selects the same two works to illustrate the essential difference between prose and poetry. See Holmes, _Ralph Waldo Emerson_, p. 310.] Indeed, the more one reads Emerson the more is one convinced that he is our typical New World writer, a rare genius who combines the best qualities of Franklin and Edwards, having the practical sense of the one and the spiritual insight of the other. [Footnote: In 1830 Channing published an essay, “National Literature,” in which he said that Benjamin Franklin and Jonathan Edwards were the only writers up to that time who had worthily presented the American mind, with its practical and ideal sides, to foreign readers.] With his idealism and individuality, his imagination that soars to heaven but is equally at home on solid earth, his sound judgment to balance his mysticism, his forceful style that runs from epigram to sustained eloquence, his straight-fibered manhood in which criticism finds nothing to pardon or regret,–with all these sterling qualities he is one of the most representative writers that America has ever produced.
* * * * *
NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE (1804-1864)
Some great writers belong to humanity, others to their own land or people. Hawthorne is in the latter class apparently, for ever since Lowell rashly characterized him as “the greatest imaginative genius since Shakespeare” our critics commonly speak of him in superlatives. Meanwhile most European critics (who acclaim such unequal writers as Cooper and Poe, Whitman and Mark Twain) either leave Hawthorne unread or else wonder what Americans find in him to stir their enthusiasm.
The explanation is that Hawthorne’s field was so intensely local that only those who are familiar with it can appreciate him. Almost any reader can enjoy Cooper, since he deals with adventurous men whom everybody understands; but Hawthorne deals with the New England Puritan of the seventeenth century, a very peculiar hero, and to enjoy the novelist one must have some personal or historic interest in his subject. Moreover, he alienates many readers by presenting only the darker side of Puritanism. He is a man who never laughs and seldom smiles in his work; he passes over a hundred normal and therefore cheerful homes to pitch upon some gloomy habitation of sin or remorse, and makes that the burden of his tale. In no other romancer do we find genius of such high order at work in so barren a field.
LIFE. There is an air of reserve about Hawthorne which no biography has ever penetrated. A schoolmate who met him daily once said, “I love Hawthorne; I admire him; but I do not know him. He lives in a mysterious world of thought and imagination which he never permits me to enter.” That characterization applies as well to-day as when it was first spoken, almost a century ago. To his family and to a very few friends Hawthorne was evidently a genial man, [Footnote: Intimate but hardly trustworthy pictures of Hawthorne and his family are presented by his son, Julian Hawthorne, in _Nathaniel Hawthorne and his Wife_. A dozen other memoirs have appeared; but Hawthorne did not want his biography written, and there are many unanswered questions in the story of his life.] but from the world and its affairs he always held aloof, wrapped in his mantle of mystery.
A study of his childhood may help us to understand the somber quality of all his work. He was descended from the Puritans who came to Boston with John Winthrop, and was born in the seaport of Salem, Massachusetts, in 1804. He was only four years old when his father, a sea captain, died in a foreign port; whereupon the mother draped herself in weeds, retired from the sight of neighbors, and for the next forty years made life as funereal as possible. Besides the little boy there were two sisters in the family, and the elder took her meals in her own room, as did the mother. The others went about the darkened house on tiptoe, or peeped out at the world through closed shutters.
[Illustration: NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE]
The shadow of that unnatural home was upon Hawthorne to the end of his life; it accounts in part for his shyness, his fear of society, his lack of interest in his own age or nation.
[Sidenote: SECLUSION AT SALEM]
At seventeen Hawthorne went to Bowdoin College, where Longfellow was his classmate and Franklin Pierce (later President of the United States) one of his friends. His college life seems to have been happy, even gay at times; but when he graduated (1825) and his classmates scattered to find work in the world he returned to his Salem home and secluded himself as if he had no interest in humanity. It was doubtful, he said afterwards, whether a dozen people knew of his existence in as many years.
All the while he was writing, gathering material for his romances or patiently cultivating his fine style. For days he would brood over a subject; then he would compose a story or parable for the magazines. The stamp of originality was on all these works, but they were seldom accepted. When they returned to him, having found no appreciative editor, he was apt to burn them and complain that he was neglected. Studying the man as he reveals himself at this time in his _Note-Books_ (published in a garbled edition by the Hawthorne family), one has the impression that he was a shy, sensitive genius, almost morbidly afraid of the world. From a distance he sent out his stories as “feelers”, when these were ignored he shrank into himself more deeply than before.
[Illustration: OLD CUSTOMHOUSE, BOSTON, Where Hawthorne worked.]
Love brought him out of his retreat, as it has accomplished many another miracle. When he became engaged his immediate thought was to find work, and one of his friends secured a position for him in the Boston customhouse, where he weighed coal until he was replaced by a party spoilsman. [Footnote: Hawthorne profited three times by the spoils system. When his Boston experience was repeated at Salem he took his revenge in the opening chapter of _The Scarlet Letter_, which ridicules those who received political jobs from the other party.] There were no civil-service rules in those days. Hoping to secure a home, he invested his savings in Brook Farm, worked there for a time with the reformers, detested them, lost his money and gained the experience which he used later in his _Blithedale Romance_. Then he married, and lived in poverty and great happiness for four years in the “Old Manse” at Concord. Another friend obtained for him political appointment as surveyor of the Salem customhouse; again he was replaced by a spoilsman, and again he complained bitterly. The loss proved a blessing, however, since it gave him leisure to write _The Scarlet Letter_, a novel which immediately placed Hawthorne in the front rank of American writers.
[Sidenote: FAREWELL GREATNESS]
He was now before an appreciative world, and in the flush of fine feeling that followed his triumph he wrote _The House of the Seven Gables, A Wonder Book_ and _The Snow Image_. Literature was calling him most hopefully when, at the very prime of life, he turned his back on fortune. His friend Pierce had been nominated by the Democrats (1852), and he was asked to write the candidate’s biography for campaign purposes. It was hardly a worthy task, but he accepted it and did it well. When Pierce was elected he “persuaded” Hawthorne to accept the office of consul at Liverpool. The emoluments, some seven thousand dollars a year, seemed enormous to one who had lived straitly, and in the four years of Pierce’s administration our novelist saved a sum which, with the income from his books, placed him above the fear of want. Then he went for a long vacation to Italy, where he collected the material for his _Marble Faun_. But he wrote nothing more of consequence.
[Sidenote: THE UNFINISHED STORY]
The remainder of his life was passed in a pleasant kind of hermitage in Emerson’s village of Concord. His habits of solitude and idleness (“cursed habits,” he called them) were again upon him; though he began several romances–_Dr. Grimshawe’s Secret_, _Septimius Felton_, _The Ancestral Footstep_ and _The Dolliver Romance_–he never made an end of them. In his work he was prone to use some symbol of human ambition, and the symbol of his own later years might well have been the unfinished manuscript which lay upon the coffin when his body was laid under the pines in the old Concord burying ground (1864). His friend Longfellow has described the scene in his beautiful poem “Hawthorne.”
SHORT STORIES AND SKETCHES. Many young people become familiar with Hawthorne as a teller of bedtime stories long before they meet him in the role of famous novelist. In his earlier days he wrote _Grandfather’s Chair_ (modeled on a similar work by Scott), dealing with Colonial legends, and broadened his field in _Biographical Stories for Children_. Other and better works belonging to the same juvenile class are _A Wonder Book_ (1851) and _Tanglewood Tales_ (1853), which are modern versions of the classic myths and stories that Greek mothers used to tell their children long ago.
[Sidenote: PICTURES OF THE PAST]
The best of Hawthorne’s original stories are collected in _Twice-Told Tales_, _Mosses from an Old Manse_ and _The Snow Image and Other Twice-Told Tales_. As the bulk of this work is rather depressing we select a few typical tales, arranging them in three groups. In the first are certain sketches, as Hawthorne called them, which aim not to tell a story but to give an impression of the past. “The Old Manse” (in _Mosses from an Old Manse_) is an excellent introduction to this group. Others in which the author comes out from the gloom to give his humor a glimpse of pale sunshine are “A Rill from the Town Pump,” “Main Street,” “Little Annie’s Ramble,” “Sights from a Steeple” and, as suggestive of Hawthorne’s solitary outings, “Footprints on the Seashore.”
In the second group are numerous allegories and symbolical stories. To understand Hawthorne’s method of allegory [Footnote: An allegory is a figure of speech (in rhetoric) or a story (in literature) in which an external object is described in such a way that we apply the description to our own inner experience. Many proverbs, such as “People who live in glass houses should not throw stones,” are condensed allegories. So also are fables and parables, such as the fable of the fox and the grapes, or the parable of the lost sheep. Bunyan’s famous allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress, describes a journey from one city to another, but in reading it we are supposed to think of a Christian’s experience in passing through this world to the next.] read “The Snow Image,” which is the story of a snowy figure that became warm, living and companionable to some children until it was spoiled by a hard-headed person, without imagination or real sense, who forgot that he was ever a child himself or that there is such a beautiful and precious thing as a child-view of the universe.
In his constant symbolism (that is, in his use of an outward sign or token to represent an idea) Hawthorne reflected a trait that is common to humanity in all ages. Thus, every nation has its concrete symbol, its flag or eagle or lion; a great religion is represented by a cross or a crescent; in art and poetry the sword stands for war and the dove for peace; an individual has his horseshoe or rabbit’s foot or “mascot” as the simple expression of an idea that may be too complex for words. Among primitive people such symbols were associated with charms, magic, baleful or benignant influences; and Hawthorne accepted this superstitious idea in many of his works, though he was apt to hint, as in “Lady Eleanor’s Mantle,” that the magic of his symbol might have a practical explanation. In this story the lady’s gorgeous mantle is a symbol of pride; its blighting influence _may_ be due to the fact that,–but to tell the secret is to spoil the story, and that is not fair to Hawthorne or the reader.
[Sidenote: THE BLACK VEIL]
Some of these symbolic tales are too vague or shadowy to be convincing; in others the author makes artistic use of some simple object, such as a flower or an ornament, to suggest the mystery that broods over every life. In “The Minister’s Black Veil,” for example, a clergyman startles his congregation by appearing with a dark veil over his face. The veil itself is a familiar object; on a woman or a bonnet it would pass unnoticed; but on the minister it becomes a portentous thing, at once fascinating and repellent. Yesterday they knew the man as a familiar friend; to-day he is a stranger, and they fear him with a vague, nameless fear. Forty years he wears the mysterious thing, dies and is buried with it, and in all that time they never have a glimpse of his face. Though there is a deal of nonsense in the story, and a hocus-pocus instead of a mystery, we must remember that veil as a striking symbol of the loneliness of life, of the gulf that separates a human soul from every other.
Another and better symbolic tale is “The Great Stone Face,” which appeals strongly to younger readers, especially to those who have lived much out of doors and who cherish the memory of some natural object, some noble tree or mossy cliff or singing brook, that is forever associated with their thoughts of childhood. To others the tale will have added interest in that it is supposed to portray the character of Emerson as Hawthorne knew him.
[Sidenote: LEGENDARY TALES]
In the third group are numerous stories dealing with Colonial history, and of these “The Gray Champion” and “The Gentle Boy” are fairly typical. Hawthorne has been highly praised in connection with these tales as “the artist who created the Puritan in literature.” Most readers will gladly recognize the “artist,” since every tale has its line or passage of beauty; but some will murmur at the “creation.” The trouble with Hawthorne was that in creating his Puritan he took scant heed of the man whom the Almighty created. He was not a scholar or even a reader; his custom was to brood over an incident of the past (often a grotesque incident, such as he found in Winthrop’s old _Journal_), and from his brooding he produced an imaginary character, some heartless fanatic or dismal wretch who had nothing of the Puritan except the label. Of the real Puritan, who knew the joy and courtesy as well as the stern discipline of life, our novelist had only the haziest notion. In consequence his “Gentle Boy” and parts also of his _Scarlet Letter_ leave an unwarranted stain on the memory of his ancestors. [Footnote: Occasionally, as in “The Gray Champion” and “Endicott and the Red Cross,” Hawthorne paints the stern courage of the Puritan, but never his gentle or humane qualities. His typical tale presents the Puritan in the most unlovely guise. In “The Maypole of Merrymount,” for example, Morton and his men are represented as inoffensive, art-loving people who were terrorized by the “dismal wretches” of a near-by colony of Puritans. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Morton’s crew were a lawless set and a scandal to New England; but they were tolerated until they put all the settlements in danger by debauching the Indians and selling them rum, muskets and gunpowder. The “dismal wretches” were the Pilgrims of Plymouth,–gentle, heroic men, lovers of learning and liberty, who profoundly influenced the whole subsequent history of America.]
THE FOUR ROMANCES. The romances of Hawthorne are all studies of the effects of sin on human development. If but one of these romances is to be read, let it be _The House of the Seven Gables_ (1851), which is a pleasanter story than Hawthorne commonly tells, and which portrays one character that he knew by experience rather than by imagination. Many of Hawthorne’s stories run to a text, and the text here is, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” The characters are represented as “under a curse”; [Foonote: This is a reflection of a family tradition. An ancestor of Hawthorne was judge at the Salem witch trials, in 1692. One of the poor creatures condemned to death is said to have left a curse on the judge’s family. In his _Note Books_ Hawthorne makes mention of the traditional curse, and analyzes its possible effect on his own character.] that is, they are bearing the burden and sorrow of some old iniquity committed before they were born; but the affliction is banished in a satisfactory way without leaving us in the haze of mystery that envelops so much of Hawthorne’s work. His humor is also in evidence, his interest in life overcomes for a time his absorption in shadowy symbols, and his whole story is brightened by his evident love of Phoebe Pyncheon, the most natural and winsome of all his characters.
[Illustration: “THE HOUSE OF SEVEN GABLES,” SALEM (BUILT IN 1669)]
The other romances deal with the same general theme, the blighting effect of sin, but vary greatly in their scenes and characters. The _Marble Faun_ (published in England as _Transformation_, 1860) is the most popular, possibly because its scene is laid in Rome, a city to which all travelers go, or aspire to go, before they die; but though it moves in “an atmosphere of art,” among the studios of “the eternal city,” it is the least artistic of all the author’s works. [Footnote: The _Marble Faun_ ends in a fog, as if the author did not know what to do with his characters. It has the amateurish fault of halting the narrative to talk with the reader; and it moralizes to such an extent that the heroine (who is pictured as of almost angelic virtue) eventually becomes a prig and a preacher,–two things that a woman must never be. Nevertheless, the romance has a host of enthusiastic readers, and to criticize it adversely is to bring a storm about one’s ears.] In _The Blithedale Romance_ (1852) Hawthorne deals with the present rather than the past and apparently makes use of his observation, since his scenes and characters are strongly suggestive of the Brook Farm community of reformers, among whom he spent one critical and unhappy year. _The Scarlet Letter_ (1850) is not only the most original and powerful of the romances but is commonly ranked by our critics at the head of American fiction. The scene is laid in Boston, in the old Puritan days; the main characters are vividly drawn, and the plot moves to its gloomy but impressive climax as if Wyrd or Fate were at the bottom of it.
CHARACTERISTICS OF HAWTHORNE. Almost the first thing we notice in Hawthorne is his style, a smooth, leisurely, “classic” style which moves along, like a meadow brook, without hurry or exertion. Gradually as we read we become conscious of the novelist’s characters, whom he introduces with a veil of mystery around them. They are interesting, as dreams and other mysterious things always are, but they are seldom real or natural or lifelike. At times we seem to be watching a pantomime of shadows, rather than a drama of living men and women.
[Sidenote: METHOD OF WORK]
The explanation of these shadowy characters is found in Hawthorne’s method of work, as revealed by the _Note-Books_ in which he stored his material. Here is a typical record, which was occasioned, no doubt, by the author’s meeting with some old nurse, whom he straightway changed from her real semblance to a walking allegory:
“Change from a gay young girl to an old woman. Melancholy events, the effects of which have clustered around her character…. Becomes a lover of sick chambers, taking pleasure in receiving dying breaths and laying out the dead. Having her mind full of funeral reminiscences, and possessing more acquaintances beneath the turf than above it.”
This is enough of a story in itself; we need not read “Edward Fane’s Rosebud” to see how Hawthorne filled in the details. The strange thing is that he never studied or questioned the poor woman to discover whether she was anything like what he imagined her to be. On another page we read:
“A snake taken into a man’s stomach and nourished there from fifteen to thirty five years, tormenting him most horribly.” [Then follows the inevitable moral.] “Type of envy or some other evil passion.”
[Illustration: HAWTHORNE’S BIRTHPLACE, SALEM, MASSACHUSETTS]
There are many such story-records in the _Note-Books_, but among them you will find no indication that the story-teller ever examined the facts with a purpose to discover whether a snake could survive thirty-five years, or minutes, in the acids of a human stomach, or how long a Puritan church would tolerate a minister who went about with a veil on his face, or whether any other of his symbols had any vital connection with human experience. In a word, Hawthorne was prone to make life conform to his imagination, instead of making his imagination conform to life. Living as he did in the twilight, between the day and the night, he seems to have missed the chief lesson of each, the urge of the one and the repose of the other; and especially did he miss the great fact of cheerfulness. The deathless courage of man, his invincible hope that springs to life under the most adverse circumstances, like the cyclamen abloom under the snows of winter,–this primal and blessed fact seems to have escaped his notice. At times he hints at it, but he never gives it its true place at the beginning, middle and end of human life.
[Sidenote: ARTIST AND MORALIST]
Thus far our analysis has been largely negative, and Hawthorne was a very positive character. He had the feeling of an artist for beauty; and he was one of the few romancers who combine a strong sense of art with a puritanic devotion to conscience and the moral law. Hence his stories all aim to be both artistic and ethical, to satisfy our sense of beauty and our sense of right. In his constant moralizing he was like George Eliot; or rather, to give the figure its proper sequence, George Eliot was so exclusively a moralist after the Hawthornesque manner that one suspects she must have been familiar with his work when she began to write. Both novelists worked on the assumption that the moral law is the basis of human life and that every sin brings its inevitable retribution. The chief difference was that Hawthorne started with a moral principle and invented characters to match it, while George Eliot started with a human character in whose experience she revealed the unfolding of a moral principle.
[Sidenote: A SOLITARY GENIUS]
The individuality of Hawthorne becomes apparent when we attempt to classify him,–a vain attempt, since there is no other like him in literature. In dealing with almost any other novelist we can name his models, or at least point out the story-tellers whose methods influenced his work; but Hawthorne seems to have had no predecessor. Subject, style and method were all his own, developed during his long seclusion at Salem, and from them he never varied. From his _Twice-Told Tales_ to his unfinished _Dolliver Romance_ he held steadily to the purpose of portraying the moral law against a background of Puritan history.
Such a field would have seemed very narrow to other American writers, who then, as now, were busy with things too many or things too new; but to Hawthorne it was a world in itself, a world that lured him as the Indies lured Columbus. In imagination he dwelt in that somber Puritan world, eating at its long-vanished tables or warming himself at its burnt-out fires, until the impulse came to reproduce it in literature. And he did reproduce it, powerfully, single-heartedly, as only genius could have done it. That his portrayal was inaccurate is perhaps a minor consideration; for one writer must depict life as he meets it on the street or in books, while another is confined to what Ezekiel calls “the chambers of imagery.” Hawthorne’s liberties with the facts may be pardoned on the ground that he was not an historian but an artist. The historian tells what life has accomplished, the artist what life means.
* * * * *
SECONDARY WRITERS OF PROSE OR VERSE
THE POETS. Among the fifty or more poets of the period of conflict Henry Timrod, Paul Hamilton Hayne and Abram J. Ryan are notable for this reason, that their fame, once local, seems to widen with the years. They are commonly grouped as southern poets because of the war lyrics in which they voiced the passionate devotion of the South to its leaders; but what makes them now interesting to a larger circle of readers are their poems of an entirely different kind,–poems that reflect in a tender and beautiful way the common emotions of men in all places and in all ages. Two other prominent singers of the southern school are Theodore O’Hara and James Ryder Randall.
[Illustration: HENRY TIMROD]
In another group are such varied singers as Richard Henry Stoddard, George H. Boker, Henry Howard Brownell, Thomas B. Read, John G. Saxe, J. G. Holland and Bayard Taylor. These were all famous poets in their own day, and some of them were prolific writers, Holland and Taylor especially. The latter produced thirty volumes of poems, essays, novels and sketches of travel; but, with the exception of his fine translation of Goethe’s _Faust_ and a few of his original lyrics, the works which he sent forth so abundantly are now neglected. He is typical of a hundred writers who answer the appeal of to-day and win its applause, and who are forgotten when to-morrow comes with its new interests and its new favorites.
[Illustration: PAUL HAMILTON HAYNE]
FICTION WRITERS. Comparatively few novels were written during this period, perhaps because the terrible shadow of war was over the country and readers were in no mood for fiction. The most popular romance of the age, and one of the most widely read books that America has ever produced, was _Uncle Tom’s Cabin_ (1852), which has been translated and dramatized into so many tongues that it is known all over the earth. The author, Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896), wrote several other stories, all characterized by humor, kindness and intense moral earnestness. Some of these, such as _Oldtown Folks_, _The Minister’s Wooing_, _The Pearl of Orr’s Island_ and _Oldtown Fireside Stories_ have decidedly more literary charm than her famous story of slavery.
[Illustration: HARRIET BEECHER STOWE]
[Sidenote: TALES OF THE SEA]
The mid-century produced some very good sea stories, and in these we see the influence of Cooper, who was the first to use the ocean successfully as a scene of romantic interest. Dana’s _Two Years before the Mast_ (1840) was immensely popular when our fathers were boys. It contained, moreover, such realistic pictures of sailor life that it was studied by aspirants for the British and American navies in the days when the flag rippled proudly over the beautiful old sailing ships. This excellent book is largely a record of personal experience; but in the tales of Herman Melville (1819-1891) we have the added elements of imagination and adventure. _Typee_, _White Jacket_, _Moby Dick_,–these are capital tales of the deep, the last-named especially.
_Typee_ (a story well known to Stevenson, evidently) is remarkable for its graphic pictures of sailor life afloat and ashore in the Marquesas Islands, a new field in those days. The narrative is continued in _White Jacket_, which tells of the return from the South Pacific aboard a man-of-war. In _Moby Dick_ we have the real experience of a sailorman and whaler (Melville himself) and the fictitious wanderings of a stout captain, a primeval kind of person, who is at times an interesting lunatic and again a ranting philosopher. In the latter we have an echo of Carlyle, who was making a stir in America in 1850, and who affected Melville so strongly that the latter soon lost his bluff, hearty, sailor fashion of writing, which everybody liked, and assumed a crotchety style that nobody cared to read.
[Sidenote: FROM ROMANCE TO REALISM]
A few other novels of the period are interesting as showing the sudden change from romance to realism, a change for which the war was partly responsible, and which will be examined more closely in the following chapter. John Esten Cooke (1830-1886) may serve as a concrete example of the two types of fiction. In his earlier romances, notably in _Leather Stocking and Silk_ and _The Virginia Comedians_ (1854), he aimed to do for the Cavalier society of the South what Hawthorne was doing for the old Puritan regime in New England; but his later stories, such as _Surrey of Eagle’s Nest_, are chiefly notable for their realistic pictures of the great war.
[Illustration: JOHN ESTEN COOKE]
The change from romance to realism is more openly apparent in Theodore Winthrop and Edward Eggleston, whose novels deal frankly with pioneers of the Middle West; not such pioneers as Cooper had imagined in _The Prairie_, but such plain men and women as one might meet anywhere beyond the Alleghenies in 1850. Winthrop’s _John Brent_ (1862) and Eggleston’s _The Hoosier Schoolmaster_ and _The Circuit Rider_ (1874) are so true to a real phase of American life that a thoughtful reader must wonder why they are not better known. They are certainly refreshing to one who tires of our present so-called realism with its abnormal or degenerate characters.
More widely read than any of the novelists just mentioned are certain others who appeared in answer to the increasing demand of young people for a good story. It is doubtful if any American writer great or small has given more pleasure to young readers than Louisa M. Alcott with her _Little Women_ (1868) and other stories for girls, or John T. Trowbridge, author of _Cudjo’s Cave_, _Jack Hazard_, _A Chance for Himself_ and several other juveniles that once numbered their boy readers by tens of thousands.
[Illustration: LOUISA M. ALCOTT]
THOREAU. Among the many secondary writers of the period the most original and most neglected was Henry D. Thoreau (1817-1862), a man who differed greatly from other mortals in almost every respect, but chiefly in this, that he never was known to “go with the crowd,” not even on the rare occasions when he believed the crowd to be right. He was one of the few persons who select their own way through life and follow it without the slightest regard for the world’s opinion.
Numerous examples of Thoreau’s oddity might be given, but we note here only his strange determination to view life with his own eyes. This may appear a simple matter until we reflect that most men measure life by what others have said or written concerning life’s values. They accept the standards of their ancestors or their neighbors; they conform themselves to a world in which governments and other long-established institutions claim their allegiance; they are trained to win success in such a world by doing one thing well, and to measure their success by the fame or money or office or social position which they achieve by a lifetime of labor and self-denial.
[Illustration: HENRY D. THOREAU]
[Sidenote: HIS ORIGINALITY]
Thoreau sharply challenged this whole conception of life, which, he said, was more a matter of habit than of reason or conviction. He saw in our social institutions as much of harm as of benefit to the individual. He looked with distrust on all traditions, saying that he had listened for thirty years without hearing one word of sound advice from his elders. He was a good workman and learned to do several things passing well; but he saw no reason why a free man should repeat himself daily in a world of infinite opportunities. Also he was a scholar, versed in classical lore and widely read in oriental literature; but unlike his friend Emerson he seldom quoted the ancients, being more concerned with his own thoughts of life than by the words of philosophers, and more fascinated by the wild birds that ate crumbs from his table than by all the fabled gods of mythology. As for success, the fame or money for which other men toiled seemed to him but empty bubbles; the only wealth he prized was his soul’s increase in love and understanding: “If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like sweet-scented herbs–is more elastic, starry and immortal–that is your success.”
There are other interesting matters in Thoreau’s philosophy, but these will appear plainly enough to one who reads his own record. His best-known work is _Walden_ (1854), a journal in which he recorded what he saw or thought or felt during the two years when he abandoned society to live in a hut on the shore of Walden Pond, near his native village of Concord. If there be any definite lesson in the book, it is the proof of Thoreau’s theory that simplicity is needed for happiness, that men would be better off with fewer possessions, and that earning one’s living should be a matter of pleasure rather than of endless toil and anxiety. What makes _Walden_ valuable, however, is not its theories but its revelation of an original mind fronting the facts of life, its gleams of poetry and philosophy, its startling paradoxes, its first-hand impressions of the world, its nuggets of sense or humor, and especially its intimate observation of the little wild neighbors in feathers or fur who shared Thoreau’s solitude. It is one of the few books in American literature that successive generations have read with profit to themselves and with increasing respect for the original genius who wrote it.
THE HISTORIANS. The honored names of Bancroft, Sparks, Prescott, Motley and Parkman are indicative of the importance attached to history-writing in America ever since Colonial days, and of the remarkably fine and sometimes heroic quality of American historians. Another matter suggested by these names is the changing standard or ideal of historical writing. In an earlier time history was a dry chronicle of important events, or of such events as seemed important to the chronicler; at the present day it threatens to degenerate into an equally dry chronicle of economic forces; and between these thirsty extremes are various highly colored records glorifying kings or conquerors or political parties as the chief things of history.
[Sidenote: THE EPIC OF HISTORY]
These American historians had a different standard. They first consulted all available records to be sure of the facts or events. Then they closely examined the scene in which the event had come to pass, knowing that environment is always a factor in human history. Finally they studied historical personages, not as others had described them but as they revealed themselves in letters, diaries, speeches,–personal records revealing human motives that all men understand, because man is everywhere the same. From such a combination of event, scene and characters our historians wrote a dramatic narrative, giving it the heroic cast without which history, the prose epic of liberty, is little better than a dull catalogue. Another very important matter was that they cultivated their style as well as their knowledge; they were literary men no less than historians, and in the conviction that the first object of literature is to give pleasure they produced works that have charmed as well as instructed a multitude of readers. There are chapters in Prescott’s _Conquest of Mexico_ and _Conquest of Peru_ over which one must sit up late, as over a novel of Scott; in Motley’s _Rise of the Dutch Republic_ and _History of the United Netherlands_ there are scores of glowing passages dealing with great characters or great events which stir the reader like a tale of gallant adventure.
Prescott deals with force in action, and the action at times seems to be an exaltation of violence and cruelty. Motley also delights in action; but he is at heart an apostle of liberty, or perhaps we should say, of the American ideal of liberty, and his narrative often assumes the character of a partisan chant of freedom.
To the native, at least, Francis Parkman (1823-1893) is probably the most interesting of our historians, partly because of his lucid style and partly because of his American theme. Early in life he selected his subject (the Old French Wars) and spent the best part of forty years in making himself familiar not only with what occurred during the struggle between France and England for possession of the New World, but also with the primeval scene and all the motley characters of the fateful drama. It is doubtful if any other historian ever had a more minute knowledge of his subject; and the astonishing, the heroic part of the matter is that he attained this vast knowledge in spite of the handicap of almost constant suffering and blindness. In a dozen volumes he tells his story, volumes crowded with action or adventure, and written in such a vividly convincing style that one has the impression that Parkman must have been an eye-witness of the events which he describes.
[Illustration: FRANCIS PARKMAN]
Among these volumes the second part of _Pioneers of France in the New World_ and _La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West_ are recommended to the beginner. The former deals with the career of Champlain, who opened the way for future settlements in the North; the latter with one of the most adventurous, lion-hearted men that ever cheerfully faced toil and endless danger. Standing apart from Parkman’s main theme is a single volume, _The California and Oregon Trail_ (1849), which recounts the picturesque incidents of the author’s trip through the Northwest, then an unknown country, with a tribe of unspoiled Indians. Those who like a tale of adventure need not go to fiction to find it, for it is here in Parkman’s narrative,–a tale of care-free wandering amid plains or mountains and, what is historically more important, a picture of a vanished life that will never be seen here again.
* * * * *
SUMMARY. The period of conflict has no definite limits on either side, but for convenience we may think of it as included between the years 1840 and 1876. Its earlier years were filled with an ever-increasing agitation of the questions of slavery and state rights; its center was the Civil War; its close was the Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia, which we have selected as an outward symbol of a reunited country.
The most noticeable feature of the age, apart from the great war, was its ceaseless political turmoil. Of deeper significance to the student of literature was the profound mental unrest which showed itself in reform movements, in various communistic societies like Brook Farm, in an eager interest in the poetry of other nations, in the establishment of college professorships of foreign literatures, in the philosophical doctrine of transcendentalism, and in many other efforts of mid-century Americans to enlarge their mental horizon.
A host of minor writings of the period reflect the sectional passions or interests that stirred our people deeply at the time, but that are now almost forgotten. The comparatively small body of major literature was concerned with the permanent ideals of America or with the simple human feelings that have no age or nationality. In general, it was a time of poetry rather than of prose, being distinguished above all other periods of American literature by the number and quality of its poets.
Our detailed study of the age includes: (1) The major or so-called elder poets, Longfellow, Whittier, Lowell, Holmes, Lanier and Whitman. (2) The life and work of Emerson, who was both poet and prose writer. (3) The career of Hawthorne, the novelist of Puritanism, who is commonly ranked at the head of American fiction-writers. (4) A brief review of the secondary writers of prose and verse. (5) An examination of the work of Thoreau, the most individualistic writer in an age of individualism, and of Parkman, whom we have selected as representative of the American historians.
SELECTIONS FOR READING. Typical selections from minor writers of the period in Calhoun and MacAlarney, Readings from American Literature; Stedman and Hutchinson, Library of American Literature, and various other collections. Important works of all major writers are published in inexpensive editions for school use, a few of which are named below. Longfellow’s short poems, Evangeline, parts of Hiawatha and of Tales of a Wayside Inn, in Riverside Literature; selections from the narrative poems in Lake English Classics; selected poems in various other school series.
Whittier’s Snow Bound and selected short poems, in Riverside Literature, Maynard’s English Classics, etc.
Lowell’s Sir Launfal, selected short poems and selected essays, in Riverside Literature, Maynard’s English Classics.
Holmes’s poems, selected, in Maynard’s English Classics; The Autocrat, in Everyman’s Library; selected prose and verse, in Riverside Literature.
Lanier’s poems, with selections from Timrod and Hayne, in Pocket Classics, Maynard’s English Classics, etc.
Whitman’s poems, brief selections, in Maynard’s English Classics; Triggs, Selections from the Prose and Poetry of Walt Whitman.
Emerson’s poems, in Riverside Literature; Representative Men and selected essays, in Pocket Classics; Nature and various essays, in Everyman’s Library.
Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables and selected short stories, in Pocket Classics; Twice-Told Tales and other selections, in Riverside Literature.
Thoreau’s Walden, in Everyman’s Library; Walden and selections from other works, in Riverside Literature.
BIBLIOGRAPHY. For extended works covering the field of American history and literature see the General Bibliography. The following works are useful in a special study of the period of conflict.
_HISTORY_. Rhodes, History of the United States 1850-1877, 7 vols.; Wilson, Division and Reunion; Stephens, War between the States; Paxson, the Civil War; Rhodes, Lectures on the Civil War; Hart, Romance of the Civil War (supplementary reading for young people). Lives of notable characters in American Statesmen, Great Commanders and other series. Grant, Personal Memoirs; Gordon, Reminiscences of the Civil War; Alexander Stephens, Recollections; Hoar, Autobiography; Blaine, Twenty Years in Congress; Greeley, Recollections; Booker Washington, Up from Slavery.
_LITERATURE,_. The great period of American letters is still awaiting its historian. Brief chapters are found in Richardson, Trent, Cairns, Wendell and other general histories of our literature. Good essays on individual authors of the period in Stedman, Poets of America; Brownell, American Prose Masters; Erskine, Leading American Novelists; Vincent, American Literary Masters; Burton, Literary Leaders of America.
Frothingham’s Transcendentalism in New England will throw light on the so-called Concord school. Howells’s Literary Friends and Acquaintance is a fine appreciation of the Cambridge writers. Wauchope’s Writers of South Carolina contains excellent studies of Timrod, Hayne, Simms and other writers of the Palmetto state. Moses’ Literature of the South and Henneman’s Literary and Intellectual Life of the South are among the best works devoted to southern authors exclusively.
_Longfellow._ Life, by Higginson, in American Men of Letters; by Carpenter (brief), in Beacon Biographies; by Robertson, in Great Writers; by S. Longfellow, 3 vols. (the standard biography). Essays by Stedman, in Poets of America; by Mrs. Fields, in Authors and Friends; by Curtis, in Literary and Social Essays; by Higginson, in Old Cambridge; by Howells, in Literary Friends and Acquaintance.
_Whittier._ Life, by Pickard, 2 vols.; by Carpenter, in American Men of Letters; by Higginson, in English Men of Letters; by Burton (brief), in Beacon Biographies; by Perry, by Underwood. Mrs. Claflin, Personal Recollections of Whittier; Hawkins, the Mind of Whittier; Fowler, Whittier: Prophet, Seer and Man; Pickard, Whittier Land. Essays, by Woodberry, in Makers of Literature; by Stedman, in Poets of America; by Higginson, in Contemporaries; by Hazeltine, in Chats about Books; by Mrs. Fields, in Authors and Friends.
_Lowell._ Life, by Greenslet; by Scudder, 2 vols.; by Hale (brief), in Beacon Biographies; by Underwood. Edward Everett Hale, James Russell Lowell and his Friends. Essays, by Higginson, in Old Cambridge; by Woodberry, in Makers of Literature; by Stedman, in Poets of America.
_Holmes._ Life, by Morse, 2 vols.; by Crothers, in American Men of Letters. Essays, by Stedman, in Poets of America; by Haweis, in American Humorists; by Noble, in Impressions and Memories; by Stearns, in Cambridge Sketches; by L. Stephen, in Studies of a Biographer.
_Lanier._ Life, by Mims, in American Men of Letters; by West; by Ward, in Preface to Lanier’s Poems (1884). Essays, by Baskerville, in Southern Writers; by Higginson, in Contemporaries; by Gilman, in South Atlantic Quarterly (1905); by Ward, in Century Magazine (1888); by Northrup, in Lippincott’s (1905).
_Whitman._ Life, by Perry; by Carpenter, in English Men of Letters; by Platt (brief), in Beacon Biographies; by Binns, by Bucke. Essays, by Stedman, in Poets of America; by Stevenson, in Familiar Studies of Men and Books; by Dowden, in Studies in Literature; by Santayana, in Interpretations of Poetry and Religion.
_Emerson._ Life, by Woodberry; by Cabot (Memoir of Emerson, 2 vols.); by O. W. Holmes, in American Men of Letters; by Garnett, in Great Writers; by Sanborn (brief), in Beacon Biographies. E. W. Emerson, Emerson in Concord; Conway, Emerson at Home. Essays, by Stedman, in Poets of America; by Mrs. Fields, in Authors and Friends; by Lowell, in Literary Essays; by Stearns, in Sketches from Concord and Appledore; by Everett, in Essays Theological and Literary; by Beers, in Points at Issue; by Chapman, in Emerson and Other Essays.
_Hawthorne._ Life, by Woodberry, in American Men of Letters; by Henry James, in English Men of Letters; by Fields (brief), in Beacon Biographies; by Conway, in Great Writers. A more intimate but doubtful biography is Julian Hawthorne’s Nathaniel Hawthorne and his Wife. Bridge, Personal Recollections of Hawthorne. Essays, by Brownell, in American Prose Masters; by Perry, in A Study of Prose Fiction; by Gates, in Studies and Appreciations; by L. Stephen, in Hours in a Library; by Higginson, in Short Studies of American Authors.
_Thoreau_. Life, by Salt, in Great Writers; by Sanborn, in American Men of Letters. Page, Thoreau: his Life and Aims. Essays by Higginson, in Short Studies of American Authors; by Stevenson, in Familiar Studies of Men and Books; by Lowell, in Literary Essays.
_Parkman_. Life, by Fiske; by Farnham; by Sedgwick. Essays, by Fiske, in introduction to Parkman’s works and in A Century of Science and Other Essays; by Vedder, in American Writers of To-day; by Whipple, in Recollections of Eminent Men.
THE ALL-AMERICA PERIOD
Thou Mother with thy equal brood,
Thou varied chain of different States, yet one identity only, A special song before I go I’d sing o’er all the rest: For thee, the Future.
Whitman, “Thou Mother”
Some critics find little or no American literature of a distinctly national spirit prior to 1876, and they explain the lack of it on the assumption that Americans were too far apart and too much occupied with local or sectional interests for any author to represent the nation. It was even said at the time of the Centennial Exposition that our countrymen had never met, save on the battlefields of the Civil War, until the common interest in Jubilee Year drew men and women from the four quarters of America “around the old family altar at Philadelphia.” Whatever exaggeration there may be in that fine poetic figure, it is certain that our literature, once confined to a few schools or centers, began in the decade after 1870 to be broadly representative of the whole country. Miller’s _Songs of the Sierras_, Hay’s _Pike-County Ballads_, Harte’s _Tales of the Argonauts_, Cable’s _Old Creole Days_, Mark Twain’s _Tom Sawyer_, Miss Jewett’s _Deephaven_, Stockton’s _Rudder Grange_, Harris’s _Uncle Remus_,–a host of surprising books suddenly appeared with the announcement that America was too large for any one man or literary school to be its spokesman. It is because of these new voices, coming from North, South, East or West and heard with delight by the whole nation, that we venture to call the years after 1876 the all-America period of our literature.
[Sidenote: CONTEMPORARY HISTORY]
We are still too near that period to make a history of it, for the simple reason that a true history implies distance and perspective. No historian could read, much less measure and compare, a tenth part of the books that have won recognition since 1876. In such works as he might select as typical he must be governed by his own taste or judgment; and the writer was never born who could by such personal standards forecast the judgment of time and of humanity. In a word, contemporary or “up-to-date” histories are vain attempts at the impossible; save in the unimportant matter of chronicling names or dates they are all alike untrustworthy. The student should bear in mind, therefore, that the following summary of our recent literature is based largely upon personal opinion; that it selects a few authors by way of illustration, omitting many others who may be of equal or greater importance. We are confronted by a host of books that serve the prime purpose of literature by giving pleasure; but what proportion of them are enduring books, or what few of them will be known to readers of the next century as the _Sketch Book_ and _Snow-Bound_ are known to us,–these are questions that only Father Time can answer.
THE SHORT STORY. The period after 1876 has been called the age of fiction, but “the short-story age” might be a better name for it, since the short story is apparently more popular than any other form of literature and since it has been developed here more abundantly than in any other land,–possibly because America offers such an immense and ever-surprising field to an author in search of a strange or picturesque tale. Readers of the short story demand life and variety, and here are all races and tribes and conditions of men, living in all kinds of “atmosphere” from the trapper’s hut to the steel skyscraper and from the crowded city slums to the vast open places where one’s companionship is with the hills or the stars. Hence a double tendency in our recent stories, to make them expressive of New World life and to make each story a reflection of some peculiar type of Americanism,–one of the many types that here meet in a common citizenship.
The truth of the above criticism may become evident by reviewing the history of the short story in America. Irving began with mere hints or outlines of stories (sketches he called them) and added a few legendary tales of the Dutch settlers on the Hudson. Then came Poe, dealing with the phantoms of his own brain rather than with human life or endeavor. Next appeared Hawthorne, who dealt largely in moral allegories and whose tales are always told in an atmosphere of mystery and twilight shadows. Finally, after the war, came a multitude of writers who insisted on dealing with our American life as it is, with miners, immigrants, money kings, mountaineers, planters, cowboys, woodsmen,–a host of varied characters, each speaking the speech and typifying the customs or ideals of his particular locality. It was these _post-bellum_ writers who invented the so-called story of local color (a story true to a certain place or a certain class of men), which is America’s most original contribution to the world’s literature.
[Illustration: BRET HARTE]
[Sidenote: BRET HARTE]
Francis Bret Harte (1839-1902) is generally credited with the invention of the local-color story; but he was probably indebted to earlier works of the same kind, notably to Longstreet’s _Georgia Scenes_ (1836) and Baldwin’s _Flush Times of Alabama and Mississippi_ (1853). He had followed the “forty-niners” to California in a headlong search for gold when, finding himself amid the picturesque scenes and characters of the early mining camps, it suddenly occurred to him that he had before his eyes a literary gold mine such as no other modern romancer had discovered. Thereupon he wrote “The Luck of Roaring Camp” (first published in _The Overland Monthly_, 1868), and followed it with “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” and “Tennessee’s Partner.”
These stories took the literary world by storm, and almost overnight Harte became a celebrity. Following up his advantage he proceeded to write some thirty volumes of the same general kind, which were widely read and promptly forgotten. Though he was plainly too sentimental and sensational, there was a sense of freshness or originality in his early stories and poems which made them wonderfully attractive. His first three tales were probably his best, and they are still worth reading,–not for their literary charm or truth but as interesting early examples of the local-color story.
[Illustration: GEORGE W. CABLE]
The interest aroused by the mining-camp tales influenced other American writers to discover the neglected literary wealth of their several localities; but they were fortunately on guard against Harte’s exaggerated sentimentality and related their stories with more art and more truth to nature. As a specific example read Cable’s _Old Creole Days_ and _Madame Delphine_ with their exquisite pictures of life in the old French city of New Orleans. These are romances or creations of fancy, to be sure; but in their lifelike characters, their natural scenes and soft Creole dialect they are as realistic (that is, as true to a real type of American life) as anything that can be found in literature. They are, in fact, studies as well as stories, such minute and affectionate studies of old people, old names and old customs as the great French novelist Balzac made in preparation for his work. Though time holds its own secrets, one can hardly avoid the conviction that _Old Creole Days_ and _Madame Delphine_ are not books of a day but permanent additions to American fiction.
[Sidenote: TYPICAL STORY-WRITERS]
Cable was accompanied by so many other good writers that it would require a volume to do them justice. We name only, by way of indicating the wide variety that awaits the reader, the charming stories of Grace King and writers Kate Chopin dealing with plantation life; the New England stories, powerful or brilliant or somber, of Sarah Orne Jewett, Rose Terry Cooke and Mary E. Wilkins; the tender and cheery southern stories of Thomas Nelson Page; the impressive stories of mountaineer life by Mary Noailles Murfree (Charles Egbert Craddock); the humorous, _Alice-in-Wonderland_ kind of stories told by Frank Stockton; and a bewildering miscellany of other works, of which the names Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Hamlin Garland, Alice French (Octave Thanet), Rowland Robinson, Frank Norris and Henry C. Bunner are as a brief but inviting index.
It would be unjust at the present time to discriminate among these writers or to compare them with others, perhaps equally good, whom we have not named. Occasionally in the flood of short stories appears one that compels attention. Aldrich’s “Marjorie Daw,” Edward Everett Hale’s “The Man without a Country,” Stockton’s “The Lady or the Tiger,”–each of these impresses us so forcibly by its delicate artistry or appeal to patriotism or whimsical ending that we hail it as a new classic, forgetting that the term “classic” carries with it the implication of something old and proved, safe from change or criticism. Undoubtedly a few of our recent stories deserve the name; they will be more widely known a century hence than they are now, and may finally rank above “Rip Van Winkle” or “The Gold Bug” or “The Snow Image”; but until the perfect tale is sifted from the thousand that are almost perfect, every ambitious critic is free to make his own prophecy.
[Illustration: MARY E. WILKINS-FREEMAN]
SOME RECENT NOVELISTS. There is a difference between our earlier and later fiction which becomes apparent when we compare specific examples. As a type of the earlier novel take Cooper’s _The Spy_ or Longfellow’s _Hyperion_ or Hawthorne’s _The House of the Seven Gables_ or Simms’s _Katherine Walton_ or Cooke’s _The Virginia Comedians_, and read it in connection with a recent novel, such as Howells’s _Annie Kilburn_ or Miss Jewett’s _Deephaven_ or Harold Frederick’s _Illumination_ or James Lane Allen’s _The Reign of Law_ or Frank Norris’s _The Octopus_. Disregarding the important element of style, we note that the earlier novels have a distant background in time or space; that their chief interest lies in the story they have to tell; that they take us far away from present reality into regions where people are more impressive and sentiments more exalted than in our familiar, prosaic world. The later novels interest us less by the story than by the analysis of character; they deal with human life as it is here and now, not as we imagine it to have been elsewhere or in a golden age. In a word, our later novels are realistic in purpose, and in this respect they are in marked contrast with our novels of an earlier age, which are nearly all of the romantic kind. [Footnote: In the above comparison we have ignored a large number of recent novels that are quite as romantic as any written before the war. Romance is still, as in all past ages, more popular than realism: witness the millions of readers of Lew Wallace, E. P. Roe and other modern romancers.]
The realistic movement in American fiction began, as we have noted, with the short-story writers; and presently the most talented of these writers, having learned the value of real scenes and characters, turned to the novel and produced works having the double interest of romance and realism; that is, they told an old romantic tale of love or heroism and set it amid scenes or characters that were typical of American life. Miss Jewett’s novels of northern village life, for example, are even finer than her short stories in the same field. The same criticism applies to Miss Murfree with her novels of mountaineer life in Tennessee, to James Lane Allen with his novels of his native Kentucky, and to many another recent novelist who tells a brave tale of his own people. We call these, in the conventional way, novels of New England or the South or the West; in reality they are novels of humanity, of the old unchanging tragedies or comedies of human life, which seem more true or real to us because they appear in a familiar setting.
There is another school of realism which subordinates the story element, which avoids as untrue all unusual or heroic incidents and deals with ordinary men or women; and of this school William Dean Howells is a conspicuous example. Judging him by his novels alone it would be difficult to determine his rank; but judging him by his high aim and distinguished style (a style remarkable for its charm and purity in an age too much influenced by newspaper slang and smartness) he is certainly one of the best of our recent prose writers. Since his first modest volume appeared in 1860 he has published many poems, sketches of travel, appreciations of literature, parlor comedies, novels,–an immense variety of writings; but whatever one reads of his sixty-odd books, whether _Venetian Life_ or _A Boys’ Town_, one has the impression of an author who lives for literature, who puts forth no hasty or unworthy work, and who aims steadily to be true to the best traditions of American letters.
[Illustration: WILLIAM DEAN HOWELLS]
In middle life Howells turned definitely to fiction and wrote, among various other novels, _A Woman’s Reason_, _The Minister’s Charge_, _A Modern Instance_ and _The Rise of Silas Lapham_. These are all realistic in that they deal frankly with contemporary life; but in their plots and conventional endings they differ but little from the typical romance. [Footnote: Several of Howells’s earlier novels deal with New England life, but superficially and without understanding. However minutely they depict its manners or mannerisms they seldom dip beneath the surface. If the reader wants not the body but the soul of New England, he must go to some other fiction writer, to Sarah Orne Jewett, for example, or to Rose Terry Cooke] Then Howells fell under the influence of Tolstoi and other European realists, and his later novels, such as _Annie Kilburn_, _A Hazard of New Fortunes_ and _The Quality of Mercy_, are rather aimless studies of the speech, dress, mannerisms and inanities of American life with precious little of its ideals,–which are the only things of consequence, since they alone endure. He appears here as the photographer rather than the painter of American life, and his work has the limited interest of another person’s family album.
[Illustration: MARK TWAIN]
Another realist of a very different kind is Samuel L. Clemens (1835-1910), who is more widely known by his pseudonym of Mark Twain. He grew up, he tells us, in “a loafing, down-at-the-heels town in Missouri”; he was educated “on the river,” and in most of his work he attempted to deal with the rough-and-ready life which he knew intimately at first hand. His _Life on the Mississippi_, a vivid delineation of river scenes and characters, is perhaps his best work, or at least the most true to his aim and his experience. _Roughing It_ is another volume from his store of personal observation, this time in the western mining camps; but here his realism goes as far astray from truth as any old romance in that it exaggerates even the sensational elements of frontier life.
The remaining works of Mark Twain are, with one or two exceptions, of very doubtful value. Their great popularity for a time was due largely to the author’s reputation as a humorist,–a strange reputation it begins to appear, for he was at heart a pessimist, an iconoclast, a thrower of stones, and with the exception of his earliest work, _The Celebrated Jumping Frog_ (1867), which reflected some rough fun or horseplay, it is questionable whether the term “humorous” can properly be applied to any of his books. Thus the blatant _Innocents Abroad_ is not a work of humor but of ridicule (a very different matter), which jeers at travelers who profess admiration for the scenery or institutions of Europe,–an admiration that was a sham to Mark Twain because he was incapable of understanding it. So with the grotesque capers of _A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court_, with the sneering spirit of _The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg_, with the labored attempts to be funny of _Adam’s Diary_ and with other alleged humorous works; readers of the next generation may ask not what we found to amuse us in such works but how we could tolerate such crudity or cynicism or bad taste in the name of American humor.
The most widely read of Mark Twain’s works are _Tom Sawyer_ and _Huckleberry Finn_. The former, a glorification of a liar and his dime-novel adventures, has enough descriptive power to make the story readable, but hardly enough to disguise its sensationalism, its lawlessness, its false standards of boy life and American life. In _Huckleberry Finn_, a much better book, the author depicts the life of the Middle West as seen by a homeless vagabond. With a runaway slave as a companion the hero, Huck Finn, drifts down the Mississippi on a raft, meeting with startling experiences at the hands of quacks and imposters of every kind. One might suppose, if one took this picaresque record seriously, that a large section of our country was peopled wholly by knaves and fools. The adventures are again of a sensational kind; but the characters are powerfully drawn, and the vivid pictures of the mighty river by day or night are among the best examples of descriptive writing in our literature.
[Sidenote: CRANE AND NORRIS]
Still another type of realism is suggested by the names Stephen Crane and Frank Norris. These young writers, influenced by the French novelist Zola, condemned the old romance as false and proclaimed, somewhat grandly at first, that they would tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Then they straightway forgot that health and moral sanity are the truth of life, and proceeded to deal with degraded or degenerate characters as if these were typical of humanity. Their earlier works are studies of brutality, miscalled realism; but later Crane wrote his _Red Badge of Courage_ (a rather wildly imaginative story of the Civil War), and Norris produced works of real power in _The Octopus_ and _The Pit_, one a prose epic of the railroad, the other of a grain of wheat from the time it is sown in the ground until it becomes a matter of good food or of crazy speculation. There is an impression of vastness, of continental breadth and sweep, in these two novels which sets them apart from all other fiction of the period.
The flood of dialect stories which appeared after 1876 may seem at first glance to be mere variations of Bret Harte’s local-color stories, but they are something more and better than that. The best of them–such, for example, as Page’s _In Ole Virginia_ or Rowland Robinson’s _Danvis Folk_–are written on the assumption that we can never understand a man, that is, the soul of a man, unless we know the very language in which he expresses his thought or feeling. These dialect stories, therefore, are intimate studies of American life rather than of local speech or manners.
Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908) is not our best writer of dialect stories but only the happy and most fortunate man who wrote _Uncle Remus_ (1880), and wrote it, by the way, as part of his day’s work as a newspaper man, without a thought that it was a masterpiece, a work of genius. The first charm of the book is that it fascinates children with its frolicsome adventures of Brer Rabbit, Brer Tarrypin, Brer B’ar, Brer Fox and the wonderful Tar Baby; the second, that it combines in a remarkable way a primitive or universal with a local and intensely human interest. Thus, almost everybody is interested in folklore, especially in the animal stories which are part of the tradition of every primitive tribe; but folklore, as commonly written, is not a branch of fiction but of science. Before it can enter the golden door of literature it must find or create some human character who interests us not by his stories but by his humanity; and Harris furnished this character in the person of Uncle Remus, a very lovable old plantation negro, drawn with absolute fidelity to life.
[Illustration: JOEL CHANDLER HARRIS]
Other novelists have portrayed a negro in fiction, but Harris did a more original work by creating his Brer Rabbit. In the adventures of this happy-go-lucky creature, with his childishness and humor, we have the symbol not of any one negro but of the whole race of negroes as the author knew them intimately in a condition of servitude. The creation of these two original characters, as real as Poor Richard or Natty Bumppo and far more fascinating, is one of the most notable achievements of American fiction.
[Sidenote: PROBLEM NOVELS]
Aside from the realistic movement, our recent fiction is like a river flowing sluggishly over hidden bowlders: the surface is so broken by whirlpools, eddies and aimless flotsam that it is difficult to determine the main current. Here our attention is attracted by clever stories of “society in the making,” there by somber problem-novels dealing with city slums, lonely farms, department stores, political rings, business corruption, religious creeds, social injustice,–with every conceivable matter that can furnish a novelist not with a story but with a cry for reform. The propaganda novel is evidently a favorite in America; but whether it has any real influence in reforming abuses, as the novels of Dickens led to better schools and prisons in England, is yet to be determined.
Occasionally appears a reform novel great enough to make us forget the reform, such as Helen Hunt Jackson’s _Ramona_ (1884). This famous story began as an attempt to plead the cause of the oppressed Indian, to do for him what _Uncle Tom’s Cabin_ was supposed to have done for the negro; it ended in an idyllic story so well told that readers forgot to cry, “Lo, the poor Indian,” as the author intended. At the present time _Ramona_ is not classed with the problem-novels but with the most readable of American romances.
[Sidenote: POPULAR ROMANCES]
While the new realistic novel occupied the attention of critics the old romance had, as usual, an immensely larger number of readers. Moral romances with a happy ending have always been popular, and of these E. P. Roe furnished an abundance. His _Barriers Burned Away_, _A Face Illumined_, _Opening of a Chestnut Burr_ and _Nature’s Serial Story_ depict American characters in an American landscape, and have a wholesome atmosphere of manliness and cleanness that makes them eminently “safe” reading. Unfortunately they are melodramatic and sentimental, and critics commonly sneer or jeer at them; but that is not a rational criticism. Romances that won instant welcome from a host of readers and that are still widely known after half a century have at least “the power to live”; and vitality, the quality that makes a character or a story endure, is always one of the marks of a good romance.
Another romancer untouched by the zeal for realism was Marion Crawford, who in a very interesting essay, _The Novel_, proclaimed with some show of reason that the novel was simply a “pocket theater,” a convenient stage whereon the reader could enjoy by himself any comedy or tragedy that pleased him. That Crawford lived abroad the greater part of his life and was familiar with society in a dozen countries may explain the fact that his forty-odd novels are nearly all of the social kind. His Roman novels, _Saracinesca_, _Sant’ Ilario_ and a dozen others, are perhaps his best work. They are good stories; they take us among cultured foreign people and give us glimpses of a life that is hidden from most travelers; but they are superficial and leave the impression that the author was a man without much heart, that he missed the deeper meanings of life because he had little interest in them. His characters are as puppets that are sent through a play for our amusement and for no other reason. In this, however, he remained steadily true to his own ideal of fiction as a convenient substitute for the theater. Moreover, he was a good workman; his stories were for the most part well composed and very well written.
More popular even than the romances of Roe and Crawford are the stories with a background of Colonial or Revolutionary history, a type to which America has ever given hearty welcome. Ford’s _Janice Meredith_, Mitchell’s _Hugh Wynne_, Mary Johnston’s _To Have and to Hold_, Maurice Thompson’s _Alice of Old Vincennes_, Churchill’s _Richard Carvel_,–the reader can add to the list of recent historical romances almost indefinitely; but no critic can now declare which shall be called great among them. To the same interesting group of writers belong Lew Wallace, whose enormously popular _Ben Hur_ has obscured his better story, _The Fair God_, and Mary Hartwell Catherwood, whose _Lady of Fort St. John_ and other stirring tales of the Northwest have the same savage wilderness background against which Parkman wrote his histories.
For other romances of the period we have no convenient term except to call them old-fashioned. Such, for instance, are Blanche Willis Howard’s _One Summer_ and Arthur Sherburne Hardy’s _Passe Rose_ and _But Yet a Woman_,–pleasant, leisurely, exquisitely finished romances, which belong to no particular time or place and which deserve the fine old name of romance, because they seem to grow young rather than old with the passing years.
POETRY SINCE 1876. It is commonly assumed that the last half century has been almost exclusively an age of prose. The student of literature knows, on the contrary, that one difficulty of judging our recent poetry lies in the amount and variety of it. Since 1876 more poetry has been published here than in all the previous years of our history; and the quality of it, if one dare judge it as a whole, is surprisingly good. The designation of “the prose age,” therefore, should not blind us to the fact that America never had so many poets as at present. Whether a future generation will rank any of these among our elder poets is another question. Of late years we have had no singer to compare with Longfellow, to be sure; but we have had a dozen singers who reflect the enlarging life of America in a way of which Longfellow never dreamed. He lived mostly in the past and was busy with legends, folklore, songs of the night; our later singers live in the present and write songs of the day. And this suggests the chief characteristic of recent poetry; namely, that it aims to be true to life as it is here and now rather than to life as it was romantically supposed to be in classic or medieval times. [Footnote: The above characterization applies only to the best, or to what most critics deem best, of our recent poetry. It takes no account of a large mass of verse which leaves an impression of faddishness in the matter of form or phrase or subject. Such verse appeals to the taste of the moment, but Time has an effective way of dealing with it and with all other insincerities in literature.]
This emancipation of our poetry from the past, with the loss and gain which such a change implies, was not easily accomplished, and the terrible reality of the great war was perhaps the decisive factor in the struggle. Before the war our poetry was largely conventional, imitative, sentimental; and even after the war, when Miller’s _Songs of the Sierras_ and John Hay’s _Pike-County Ballads_ began to sing, however crudely, of vigorous life, the acknowledged poets and critics of the time were scandalized. Thus, to read the letters of Bayard Taylor is to meet a poet who bewails the lack of poetic material in America and who “hungers,” as he says, for the romance and beauty of other lands. He writes _Songs of the Orient_, _Lars: a Pastoral of Norway_, _Prince Deukalion_ and many other volumes which seem to indicate that poetry is to be found everywhere save at home. Even his “Song of the Camp” is located in the Crimea, as if heroism and tenderness had not recently bloomed on a hundred southern battlefields. So also Stedman wrote his _Alectryon_ and _The Blameless Prince_, and Aldrich spent his best years in making artificial nosegays (as Holmes told him frankly) when he ought to have been making poems. These and many other poets said proudly that they belonged to the classic school; they all read Shelley and Keats, dreamed of medieval or classic beauty, and in unnumbered reviews condemned the crudity of those who were trying to find beauty at their own doors and to make poetry of the stuff of American life.
[Illustration: EDMUND CLARENCE STEDMAN]
[Sidenote: STEDMAN AND ALDRICH]
It was the war, or rather the new American spirit that issued from the war, which finally assured these poets and critics that mythology and legend were, so far as America was concerned, as dead as the mastodon, and that life itself was the only vitally interesting subject of poetry. Edmund Clarence Stedman (1833-1908), after writing many “finished” poems that were praised and forgotten, manfully acknowledged that he had been following the wrong trail and turned at last to the poetry of his own people. His _Alice of Monmouth_, an idyl of the war, and a few short pieces, such as “Wanted: a Man,” are the only parts of his poetical works that are now remembered. Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1836-1907) went through the same transformation. He had a love of formal beauty, and in the exquisite finish of his verse has had few rivals in American poetry; but he spent the great part of his life in making pretty trifles. Then he seemed to waken to the meaning of poetry as a noble expression of the truth or beauty of this present life, and his last little book of _Songs and Sonnets_ contains practically all that is worth remembering of his eight or nine volumes of verse.
[Illustration: THOMAS BAILEY ALDRICH]
[Sidenote: JOAQUIN MILLER]
One of the first in time of the new singers was Cincinnatus Heine Miller or, as he is commonly known, Joaquin Miller (1841-1912). His _Songs of the Sierras_ (1871) and other poems of the West have this advantage, that they come straight from the heart of a man who has shared the stirring life he describes and who loves it with an overmastering love. To read his _My Own Story_ or the preface to his _Ship in the Desert_ is to understand from what fullness of life came lines like these:
Room! room to turn round in, to breathe and be free, To grow to be giant, to sail as at sea
With the speed of the wind on a steed with his mane To the wind, without pathway or route or a rein. Room! room to be free, where the white-bordered sea Blows a kiss to a brother as boundless as he; Where the buffalo come like a cloud on the plain, Pouring on like the tide of a storm-driven main, And the lodge of the hunter to friend or to foe Offers rest, and unquestioned you come or you go. My plains of America! seas of wild lands!… I turn to you, lean to you, lift you my hands.
Indeed, there was a splendid promise in Miller, but the promise was never fulfilled. He wrote voluminously, feeling that he must express the lure and magic of the boundless West; but he wrote so carelessly that the crude bulk of his verse obscures the originality of his few inspired lines. To read the latter is to be convinced that he was a true poet who might have accomplished a greater work than Whitman, since he had more genius and manliness than the eastern poet possessed; but his personal oddities, his zeal for reforms, his love of solitude, his endless quest after some unnamed good which kept him living among the Indians or wandering between Mexico and the ends of Alaska,–all this hindered his poetic development. It may be that an Indian-driven arrow, which touched his brain in one of his numerous adventures, had something to do with his wanderings and his failure.
There is a poetry of thought that can be written down in words, and there is another poetry of glorious living, keenly felt in the winds of the wilderness or the rush of a splendid horse or the flight of a canoe through the rapids, for which there is no adequate expression. Miller could feel superbly this poetry of the mountaineer, the plainsman and the voyageur; that he could even suggest or half reveal it to others makes him worthy to be named among our most original singers.
[Sidenote: IRWIN RUSSELL]
The hundred other poets of the period are too near for criticism, too varied even for classification; but we may at least note two or three significant groupings. In one group are the dialect poets, who attempt to make poetry serve the same end as fiction of the local-color school. Irwin Russell, with his gay negro songs tossed off to the twanging accompaniment of his banjo, belongs in this group. His verses are notable not for their dialect (others have done that better) but for their fidelity to the negro character as Russell had observed it in the old plantation days. There is little of poetic beauty in his work; it is chiefly remarkable for its promise, for its opening of a new field of poesie; but unfortunately the promise was spoiled by the author’s fitful life and his untimely death.
[Illustration: JOAQUIN MILLER]
[Sidenote: CARLETON AND RILEY]
Closely akin to the dialect group in their effective use of the homely speech of country people are several popular poets, of whom Will Carleton and James Whitcomb Riley are the most conspicuous. Carleton’s “Over the Hills to the Poorhouse” and other early songs won him a wide circle of readers; whereupon he followed up his advantage with _Farm Ballads_ and other volumes filled with rather crude but sincere verses of home and childhood. For half a century these sentimental poems were as popular as the early works of Longfellow, and they are still widely read by people who like homely themes and plenty of homely sentiment in their poetry.
Riley won an even larger following with his _Old Swimmin’ Hole_, _Rhymes of Childhood Days_ and a dozen other volumes that aimed to reflect in rustic language the joys and sorrows of country people. Judged by the number of his readers he would be called the chief poet of the period; but judged by the quality of his work it would seem that he wrote too much, and wrote too often “with his eye on the gallery.” He was primarily an entertainer, a platform favorite, and in his impersonation of country folk was always in danger of giving his audience what he thought they would like, not what he sincerely felt to be true. Hence the impression of the stage and a “make-up” in a considerable part of his work. At times, however, Riley could forget the platform and speak from the heart as a plain man to plain men. His work at such moments has a deeper note, more simple and sincere, and a few of his poems will undoubtedly find a permanent place in American letters. The best feature of his work is that he felt no need to go far afield, to the Orient or to mythology, but found the beauty of fine feeling at his door and dared to call one of his collections _Poems Here at Home_.
[Sidenote: TYPICAL POETS]
In a third group of recent poets are those who try to reflect the feeling of some one type or race of the many that make up the sum total of American life. Such are Emma Lazarus, speaking finely for the Jewish race, and Paul Lawrence Dunbar, voicing the deeper life of the negro,–not the negro of the old plantation but the negro who was once a slave and must now prove himself a man. In the same group we are perhaps justified in placing Lucy Larcom, singing for the mill girls of New England, and Eugene Field, who shows what fun and sentiment may brighten the life of a busy newspaper man in a great city.
Finally come a larger number of poets who cannot be grouped, who sing each of what he knows or loves best: Celia Thaxter, of the storm-swept northern ocean; Madison Cawein, of nature in her more tender moods; Edward Rowland Sill, of the aspirations of a rare Puritan soul. More varied in their themes are Edith Thomas, Emily Dickinson, Henry C. Bunner, Richard Watson Gilder, George Edward Woodberry, William Vaughn Moody, Richard Hovey, and several others who are perhaps quite as notable as any of those whom we have too briefly reviewed. They all sing of American life in its wonderful complexity and have added poems of real merit to the book of recent American verse. And that is a very good book to read, more inspiring and perhaps more enduring than the popular book of prose fiction.
MISCELLANEOUS PROSE. The historian who is perplexed by our recent poetry or fiction must be overwhelmed by the flood of miscellaneous works covering every field of human endeavor. As one who wanders through a forest has no conception of the forest itself but only of individual trees, so the reader of latter-day literature can form no distinct impression of it as a whole but must linger over the individual authors who happen to attract his attention. Hence in all studies of contemporary literature we have the inevitable confusion of what is important with what merely seems so because of its nearness or newness or appeal to our personal interests. The reader is amused by a _David Harum_, or made thoughtful by a _Looking Backward_, or wonderstruck by a _Life of Lincoln_ as big as a ten-volume history; and he thinks, “This is surely a book to live.” But a year passes and _David Harum_ is eclipsed by a more popular hero of fiction, _Looking Backward_ is relegated to the shelf of forgotten tracts, and Nicolay and Hay’s “monumental” biography becomes a source book, which someone, it is to be hoped, will some day use in making a life of Lincoln that will be worthy of the subject and of the name of literature.
[Sidenote: NATURE WRITERS]
There is one feature in our recent literature, however, which attracts the attention of all critics; namely, the number of nature writers who have revealed to us the beauty of our natural environment, as Ruskin awakened his readers to the beauty of art and Joaquin Miller to the unsung glory of the pioneers. In this respect, of adding to our enjoyment of human life by a new valuation of all life, our nature literature has no parallel in any age or nation.
To be specific, one must search continental literatures carefully to find even a single book that belongs unmistakably to the outdoor school. In English literature we find several poets who sing occasionally of the charms of nature, but only two books in fourteen centuries of writing that deal frankly with the great outdoors for its own sake: one is Isaac Walton’s _Complete Angler_ (1653), the other Gilbert White’s _Natural History of Selborne_ (1789). [Footnote: There were other works of a scientific nature, and some of exploration, but no real nature books until the first notable work of Richard Jefferies (one of the best of nature writers) appeared in 1878. By that time the nature movement in America was well under way.] In American literature the story is shorter but of the same tenor until recent times. From the beginning we have had many journals of exploration; but though the joy of wild nature is apparent in such writings, they were written to increase our knowledge, not our pleasure in life. Josselyn’s _New England’s Rarities_ (1672), Alexander Wilson’s _American Ornithology_ (1801), Audubon’s _Birds of America_ (1827),–these were our nearest approach to nature books until Thoreau’s _Walden_ (1854) called attention to the immense and fascinating field which our writers had so long overlooked.
Thoreau, it will be remembered, was neglected by his own generation; but after the war, when writers began to use the picturesque characters of plantation or mining camp as the material for a new American literature, then the living world of nature seemed suddenly opened to their vision. Bradford Torrey, himself a charming nature writer, edited Thoreau’s journals, and lo! these neglected chronicles became precious because the eyes of America were at last opened. Maurice Thompson wrote as a poet and scholar in the presence of nature, John Muir as a reverent explorer, and William Hamilton Gibson as an artist with an eye single to beauty; then in rapid succession came Charles Abbott, Rowland Robinson, John Burroughs, Olive Thorne Miller, Florence Bailey, Frank Bolles, and a score more of a somewhat later generation. Most of these are frankly nature writers, not scientists; they aim not simply to observe the shy, fleeting life of the woods or fields but to reflect that life in such a way as to give us a new pleasure by awakening a new sense of beauty.
It is a remarkable spectacle, this rediscovery of nature in an age supposed to be given over to materialism, and its influence appears in every branch of our literature. The nature writers have evidently done a greater work than they knew; they have helped a multitude of people to enjoy the beauty of a flower without pulling it to pieces for a Latin name, to appreciate a living bird more than a stuffed skin, and to understand what Thoreau meant when he said that the _anima_ of an animal is the only interesting thing about him. Because they have given us a new valuation of life, a new sense of its sacredness and mystery, their work may appeal to a future generation as the most original contribution to recent literature.
[Sidenote: HISTORY AND BIOGRAPHY]
Another interesting feature of recent times is the importance attached to historical and biographical works, which have increased so rapidly since 1876 that there is now no period of American life and no important character or event that lacks its historian. The number of such works is astonishing, but their general lack of style and broad human interest places them outside of the field of literature. The tendency of recent historical writing, for example, is to collect facts _about_ persons or events rather than to reproduce the persons or events so vividly that the past lives again before our eyes. The result of such writing is to make history a puppet show in which dead figures are moved about by unseen economic forces; meanwhile the only record that lives in literature is the one that represents history as it really was in the making; that is, as a drama of living, self-directing men.
[Illustration: JOHN FISKE]
There is at least one recent historian, however, whose style gives distinction to his work and makes it worthy of especial notice. This is John Fiske (1842-1901), whose field and method are both unusual. He began as a student of law and philosophy, and his first notable book, _Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy_, attracted instant attention in England and America by its literary style and rare lucidity of statement. It was followed by a series of essays, such as _The Idea Of God_, _The Destiny Of Man_ and _The Origin of Evil_, which were so far above others of their kind that for a time they were in danger of becoming popular. Of a thousand works occasioned by the theory of evolution, when that theory was a nine days’ wonder, they are among the very few that stand the test of time by affording as much pleasure and surprise as when they were first written.
It was comparatively late in life that our philosopher turned historian, and his first work in this field, _American Political Ideals Viewed from the Standpoint of Universal History_, announced that here at last was a writer with broad horizons, who saw America not as an isolated nation making a strange experiment but as adding a vital chapter to the great world’s history. It was a surprising work, unlike any other in the field of American history, and it may fall to another generation to appreciate its originality. Finally Fiske took up the study of particular periods or epochs, viewed them with the same deep insight, the same broad sympathy, and reflected them in a series of brilliant narratives: _Old Virginia and her Neighbors_, _The Beginnings of New England_, _Dutch and Quaker Colonies in America_ and a few others, the series ending chronologically with _A Critical Period of American History_, the “critical” period being the time of doubt and struggle over the Constitution. These narratives, though not unified, form a fairly complete history from the Colonial period to the formation of the Union.
To read any of these books is to discover that Fiske is concerned not chiefly with events but with the meaning or philosophy of events; that he has a rare gift of delving below the surface, of seeing in the endeavors of a handful of men at Jamestown or Plymouth or Philadelphia a profoundly significant chapter of universal history. Hence we seem to read in his pages not the story of America but the story of Man. Moreover, he had enthusiasm; which means that his heart was young and that he could make even dull matters vital and interesting. Perhaps the best thing that can be said of his work is that it is a pleasure to read it,–a criticism which is spoken for mature or thoughtful readers rather than for those who read history for its dramatic or heroic interest.
[Sidenote: LITERARY HISTORY]
Another feature of our recent prose is the number of books devoted to the study of American letters; and that, like the study of nature, is a phenomenon which is without precedent. Notwithstanding Emerson’s plea for independence in _The American Scholar_ (1837), our critics were busy long after that date with the books of other lands, thinking that there was no American literature worthy of their attention. In the same year that Emerson made his famous address Royal Robbins made what was probably the first attempt at a history of American literature. [Footnote: _Chambers’ History of the English Language and Literature, to which is added A History of American Contributions to the English Language and Literature, by Royal Robbins (Hartford, 1837)_. It is interesting to note that the author complained of the difficulty of his task in view of the fact that there were at that time over two thousand living American authors.] It consisted of a few tag-ends attached to a dry catalogue of English writers, and the scholarly author declared that, as there was only one poor literary history then in existence (namely, Chambers’), he must depend largely on his own memory for correcting the English part of the book and creating a new American part. Nor were conditions improved during the next forty years.
[Illustration: EDWARD EVERETT HALE]
After the war, however, the viewpoint of our historians was changed. They began to regard American literature with increasing respect as an original product, as a true reflection of human life in a new field and under the stimulus of new incentives to play the fine old game of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” In 1878 appeared Tyler’s _History of American Literature 1607-1765_ in two bulky volumes that surprised readers by revealing a mass of important writings in a period supposed to be barren of literary interest; and the surprise increased when the same author produced two more volumes dealing with the literature of the Revolution. In 1885 came Stedman’s _Poets of America_, an excellent critical study of New World poetry; and two years later Richardson published the first of his two splendid volumes of _American Literature_. These good beginnings were followed by a host of biographies dealing with every important American author, until we now have choice of a large assortment of literary material where Royal Robbins had none at all.
Such formal works are for the student, but the reader who goes to books for recreation has also been remembered. Edward Everett Hale’s _James Russell Lowell and his Friends_, Higginson’s _Old Cambridge_, Howells’s _Literary Friends and Acquaintance_, Trowbridge’s _My Own Story_, Mrs. Field’s _Authors and Friends_, Stoddard’s _Homes and Haunts of our Elder Poets_, Curtis’s _Homes of American Authors_, Mitchell’s _American Lands and Letters_,–these are but few of many recent books of reminiscences, all bearing witness to the fact that American literature has a history and tradition of its own. It is no longer an appendix to English literature but an original record, to be cherished as we cherish any other precious national heritage, and to stand or fall among the literatures of the world as it shall be found true or false to the fundamental ideals of American life.
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BIBLIOGRAPHY. The best work on our recent literature is Pattee, A History of American Literature since 1870 (Century Co., 1915), which deals with two hundred or more writers. A more sketchy attempt at a contemporaneous history is Vedder, American Writers of To-day (Silver, 1894, revised 1910), devoted to nineteen writers whom the author regards as most important.
From a multitude of books dealing with individual authors or with special types of literature we have selected the following brief list, which is suggestive rather than critical.
_Study of Fiction_. Henry James, The Art of Fiction; Howells, Criticism in Fiction; Crawford, The Novel: What It Is; Smith, The American Short Story; Canby, The Short Story in English.
_Biography_. Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe, by C. E. Stowe. Life of Bret Harte, by Pemberton, or by Merwin, or by Boynton. Life of Bayard Taylor, by Marie Taylor and Horace Scudder; or by Smyth, in American Men of Letters. Life of Stedman, by Laura Stedman and G. M. Gould. Life of Thomas Bailey Aldrich, by Greenslet. Letters of Sarah Orne Jewett, edited by Annie Fields. Life of Edward Rowland Sill, by Parker. Thompson’s Eugene Field. Mrs. Field’s Charles Dudley Warner. Grady’s Joel Chandler Harris. Life of Mark Twain, by Paine, 3 vols.
_Historical and Reminiscent_. Page, The Old South; Nicholson, The Hoosiers; Howells, My Literary Passions; Henry James, Notes of a Son and Brother; Stoddard, Recollections Personal and Literary, edited by Hitchcock; Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Chapters from a Life; Trowbridge, My Own Story.
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Books dealing with individual writers and with limited periods are named elsewhere, in the special bibliographies that supplement each of the preceding chapters. The following works, selected from a much larger number, will be found useful for reference during the entire course of study.
AMERICAN LITERATURE. There is unfortunately no series of scholarly volumes covering the whole field, and nothing that approaches a standard history of the subject. One of the best general surveys is Richardson, American Literature, 2 vols. (Putnam, 1887). This is a critical work, containing no biographical material, and the historical sequence is broken by studying each type of literature (fiction, poetry, etc.) by itself. Other general surveys, containing a small amount of biography sadly interwoven with critical matter, are Trent, American Literature (Appleton); Cairn, History of American Literature (Oxford University Press); Wendell, Literary History of America (Scribner); and the Cambridge American Literature, 2 vols. (announced, 1916, Putnam). There are also a score of textbooks dealing briefly with the subject.
Among histories dealing with selected authors in groups or with the writers of some particular section of the country are National Studies in American Letters (Macmillan), which includes Higginson’s Old Cambridge, Nicholson’s The Hoosiers, Addison’s The Clergy in American Letters, etc.; Fulton, Southern Life in Southern Literature; Moses, Literature of the South; Holliday, History of Southern Literature; Wauchope, Writers of North Carolina; Lawton, The New England Poets; Painter, Poets of Virginia; Venable, Beginnings of Literary Culture in the Ohio Valley.
_POETRY_. Stedman, Poets of America; Onderdonck, History of American Verse; Collins, Poetry and Poets of America.
_FICTION_. Loshe, The Early American Novel; Erskine, Leading American Novelists; Smith, The American Short Story; Baldwin, American Short Stories; Perry, A Study of Prose Fiction; Howells, Criticism in Fiction; James, The Art of Fiction; Crawford, The Novel: What It Is.
_MISCELLANEOUS TYPES_. Jameson, History of Historical Writing in America; Payne, Leading American Essayists; Brownell, American Prose Masters; Haweis, American Humorists; Payne, American Literary Criticisms; Sears, History of Oratory; Fuller and Trueblood, British and American Eloquence; Seilhamer, History of the American Theater; Hudson, Journalism in the United States; Thomas, History of Printing in America.
A very useful little book is Whitcomb, Chronological Outlines of American Literature (Macmillan), in which all important works are arranged, first, in chronological order, year by year, and then according to authors.
_BIOGRAPHY_. The best series of literary biographies is American Men of Letters (Houghton). A few American authors are included in English Men of Letters, Great Writers, the brief Beacon Biographies and other series. Biographical collections are Adams, Dictionary of American Authors; Cyclopedia of American Biography, 6 vols. (Appleton); Allibone, Dictionary of English Literature and British and American Authors, 6 vols. (Lippincott); Howes, American Bookmen; Fields, Biographical Notes and Personal Sketches.
_SELECTIONS_. Calhoun and MacAlarney, Readings from American Literature, containing selections from all important authors in one volume (Ginn and Company); Stedman and Hutchinson, Library of American Literature, 11 vols. (Webster); Duyckinck, Cyclopedia of American Literature, 2 vols. (Scribner); Bronson, American Poems and American Prose, 2 vols. (University of Chicago Press); Lounsbury, American Poems (Yale University Press); Stedman, An American Anthology, supplementing the same author’s Poets of America (Houghton); Page, Chief American Poets, with very full selections from our nine elder poets (Houghton); The Humbler Poets, newspaper and magazine verse, 2 vols. (McClurg); Golden Treasury of American Songs and Lyrics (Macmillan); Rittenhouse, Little Book of Modern Verse (Houghton); Carpenter, American Prose (Macmillan); Johnson, American Orations, 3 vols. (Putnam); Harding, Select Orations (Macmillan).
Library of Southern Literature, 16 vols., a monumental work, edited under supervision of the University of Virginia (Martin and Holt Co., Atlanta); Trent, Southern Writers; Mims and Payne, Southern Poetry; Kent, Southern Poets.
_SCHOOL TEXTS_. For the works of minor writers some of the anthologies named above are necessary; but the major authors may be read to better advantage in various inexpensive texts edited for class use. Such, for example, are Standard English Classics (Ginn and Company); Riverside Literature (Houghton); Pocket Classics (Macmillan); Lake Classics (Scott); Maynard’s English Classics (Merrill); Silver Classics (Silver, Burdett); Johnson’s English Classics (Johnson); English Readings (Holt); Eclectic Classics (American Book Co.); Everyman’s Library (Dutton). There are nearly a score more of these handy little editions, lists of which may be obtained by writing to the various publishing houses, especially to those that make a specialty of schoolbooks.
AMERICAN HISTORY. In studying our literature a good textbook of history should always be at hand; such as Montgomery, Student’s American History, or Muzzey, American History, or Channing, Students’ History of the United States. More extended works are much better, if the student has time or inclination to consult them.
A useful reference work in connection with our early literature is American History Told by Contemporaries, edited by Hart, 4 vols. (Macmillan). The American History Series, 6 vols. (Scribner), tells the story of America by epochs, the different epochs being treated by different authors. Another good history of the same kind is Epochs of American History, 3 vols. (Longmans). The most complete history is The American Nation, 27 vols. (Harper).
Political and party history in Stanwood, History of the Presidency (Houghton), and Johnston, American Political History, 2 vols. (Putnam).
Biographies of notable characters in American Statesmen (Houghton), Makers of America (Dodd), Great Commanders (Appleton), True Biographies (Lippincott), and various other series. National Cyclopedia of American Biography, 15 vols. (White).
Bibliography of the subject in Channing, Hart and Turner, Guide to the Study and Reading of American History, revised to 1912 (Ginn and Company); and in Andrews, Gambrill and Tall, Bibliography of History (Longmans).