The American Spirit in Literature
By Bliss Perry

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Chapter X. A New Nation

The changes that have come over the inner spirit and the outward expression of American life since Lincoln’s day are enough to startle the curiosity of the dullest observer. Yet they have been accomplished within the lifetime of a single man of letters. The author of one of the many campaign biographies of Lincoln in 1860 was William Dean Howells, then an Ohio journalist of twenty-three. In 1917, at the age of eighty, Mr. Howells is still adding to his long row of charming and memorable books. Every phase of American writing since the middle of the last century has fallen under the keen and kindly scrutiny of this loyal follower of the art of literature. As producer, editor, critic, and friend of the foremost writers of his epoch, Mr. Howells has known the books of our new national era as no one else could have known them. Some future historian of the period may piece together, from no other sources than Mr. Howells’s writings, an unrivaled picture of our book-making during more than sixty years. All that the present historian can attempt is to sketch with bungling fingers a few men and a few tendencies which seem to characterize the age.

One result of the Civil War was picturesquely set forth in Emerson’s “Journal.” The War had unrolled a map of the Union, he said, and hung it in every man’s house. There was a universal shifting of attention, if not always from the province or section to the image of the nation itself, at least a shift of focus from one section to another. The clash of arms had meant many other things besides the triumph of Union and the freedom of the slaves. It had brought men from every state into rude jostling contact with one another and had developed a new social and human curiosity. It may serve as another illustration of Professor Shaler’s law of tension and release. The one overshadowing issue which had absorbed so much thought and imagination and energy had suddenly disappeared. Other shadows were to gather, of course. Reconstruction of the South was one of them, and the vast economic and industrial changes that followed the opening of the New West were to bring fresh problems almost as intricate as the question of slavery had been. But for the moment no one thought of these things. The South accepted defeat as superbly as she had fought, and began to plough once more. The jubilant North went back to work–to build transcontinental railroads, to organize great industries, and to create new states.

The significant American literature of the first decade after the close of the War is not in the books dealing directly with themes involved in the War itself. It is rather the literature of this new release of energy, the new curiosity as to hitherto unknown sections, the new humor and romance. Fred Lewis Pattee, the author of an admirable “History of American Literature since 1870,” uses scarcely too strong a phrase when he entitles this period “The Second Discovery of America"; and he quotes effectively from Mark Twain, who was himself one of these discoverers: “The eight years in America from 1860 to 1868 uprooted institutions that were centuries old, changed the politics of a people, transformed the social life of half the country, and wrought so profoundly upon the entire national character that the influence cannot be measured short of two or three generations.”

Let us begin with the West, and with that joyous stage-coach journey of young Samuel L. Clemens across the plains to Nevada in 1861, which he describes in “Roughing It.” Who was this Argonaut of the new era, and what makes him representative of his countrymen in the epoch of release? Born in Missouri in 1835, the son of an impractical emigrant from Virginia, the youth had lived from his fourth until his eighteenth year on the banks of the Mississippi. He had learned the printer’s trade, had wandered east and back again, had served for four years as a river-pilot on the Mississippi, and had tried to enter the Confederate army. Then came the six crowded years, chiefly as newspaper reporter, in the boom times of Nevada and California. His fame began with the publication in New York in 1867 of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” A newspaper now sent him to Europe to record “what he sees with his own eyes.” He did so in “Innocents Abroad,” and his countrymen shouted with laughter. This, then, was “Europe” after all–another “fake” until this shrewd river pilot who signed himself “Mark Twain” took its soundings! Then came a series of far greater books–"Roughing It,” “Life on the Mississippi,” “The Gilded Age (in collaboration ), and “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn"–books that make our American “Odyssey”, rich in the spirit of romance and revealing the magic of the great river as no other pages can ever do again. Gradually Mark Twain became a public character; he retrieved on the lecture platform the loss of a fortune earned by his books; he enjoyed his honorary D. Litt. from Oxford University. Every reader of American periodicals came to recognize the photographs of that thick shock of hair, those heavy eyebrows, the gallant drooping little figure, the striking clothes, the inevitable cigar: all these things seemed to go with the part of professional humorist, to be like the caressing drawl of Mark’s voice. The force of advertisement could no further go. But at bottom he was far other than a mere maker of boisterous jokes for people with frontier preferences in humor. He was a passionate, chivalric lover of things fair and good, although too honest to pretend to see beauty and goodness where he could not personally detect them–and an equally passionate hater of evil. Read “The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg” and “The Mysterious Stranger.” In his last years, torn by private sorrows, he turned as black a philosophical pessimist as we have bred. He died at his new country seat in Connecticut in 1910. Mr. Paine has written his life in three great volumes, and there is a twenty-five volume edition of his “Works.”

All the evidence seems to be in. Yet the verdict of the public seems not quite made up. It is clear that Mark Twain the writer of romance is gaining upon Mark Twain the humorist. The inexhaustible American appetite for frontier types of humor seizes upon each new variety, crunches it with huge satisfaction, and then tosses it away. John Phoenix, Josh Billings, Jack Downing, Bill Arp, Petroleum V. Nasby, Artemus Ward, Bill Nye– these are already obsolescent names. If Clemens lacked something of Artemus Ward’s whimsical delicacy and of Josh Billings’s tested human wisdom, he surpassed all of his competitors in a certain rude, healthy masculinity, the humor of river and mining-camp and printing-office, where men speak without censorship. His country-men liked exaggeration, and he exaggerated; they liked irreverence, and he had turned iconoclast in “Innocents Abroad.” As a professional humorist, he has paid the obligatory tax for his extravagance, over-emphasis, and undisciplined taste, but such faults are swiftly forgotten when one turns to Huckleberry Finn and the negro Jim and Pudd’nhead Wilson, when one feels Mark Twain’s power in sheer description and episode, his magic in evoking landscape and atmosphere, his blazing scorn at injustice and cruelty, his contempt for quacks.

Bret Harte, another discoverer of the West, wears less well than Mark Twain as a personal figure, but has a sure place in the evolution of the American short story, and he did for the mining-camps of California what Clemens wrought for the Mississippi River: he became their profane poet. Yet he was never really of them. He was the clever outsider, with a prospector’s eye, looking for literary material, and finding a whole rich mine of it–a bigger and richer, in fact, than he was really qualified to work. But he located a golden vein of it with an instinct that did credit to his dash of Hebrew blood. Born in Albany, a teacher’s son, brought up on books and in many cities, Harte emigrated to California in 1854 at the age of sixteen. He became in turn a drug-clerk, teacher, type-setter, editor, and even Secretary of the California Mint–his nearest approach, apparently, to the actual work of the mines. In 1868, while editor of “The Overland Monthly,” he wrote the short story which was destined to make him famous in the East and to release him from California forever. It was “The Luck of Roaring Camp.” He had been writing romantic sketches in prose and verse for years; he had steeped himself in Dickens, like everybody else in the eighteen-sixties; and now he saw his pay-gravel shining back into his own shining eyes. It was a pocket, perhaps, rather than a lead, but Bret Harte worked to the end of his career this material furnished by the camps, this method of the short story. He never returned to California after his joyous exit in 1871. For a few years he tried living in New York, but from 1878 until his death in 1902 Bret Harte lived in Europe, still turning out California stories for an English and American public which insisted upon that particular pattern.

That the pattern was arbitrary, theatrical, sentimental, somewhat meretricious in design, in a word insincere like its inventor, has been repeated at due intervals ever since 1868. The charge is true; yet it is far from the whole truth concerning Bret Harte’s artistry. In mastery of the technique of the short story he is fairly comparable with Poe, though less original, for it was Poe who formulated, when Bret Harte was a child of six, the well-known theory of the unity of effect of the brief tale. This unity Harte secured through a simplification, often an insulation, of his theme, the omission of quarreling details, an atmosphere none the less novel for its occasional theatricality, and characters cunningly modulated to the one note they were intended to strike. “Tennessee’s Partner,” “The Outcast of Poker Flat,” and all the rest are triumphs of selective skill–as bright nuggets as ever glistened in the pan at the end of a hard day’s labor. That they do not adequately represent the actual California of the fifties, as old Californians obstinately insist, is doubtless true, but it is beside the point. Here is no Tolstoi painting the soul of his race in a few pages: Harte is simply a disciple of Poe and Dickens, turning the Poe construction trick gracefully, with Dickensy characters and consistently romantic action.

The West has been rediscovered many a time since that decade which witnessed the first literary bonanza of Mark Twain and Bret Harte. It will continue to be discovered, in its fresh sources of appeal to the imagination, as long as Plains and Rockies and Coast endure, as long as there is any glow upon a distant horizon. It is not places that lose romantic interest: the immemorial English counties and the Bay of Naples offer themselves freely to the artist, generation after generation. What is lost is the glamour of youth, the specific atmosphere of a given historical epoch. Colonel W. F. Cody ("Buffalo Bill”) has typified to millions of American boys the great period of the Plains, with its Indian fighting, its slaughter of buffaloes, its robbing of stage-coaches, its superb riders etched against the sky. But the Wild West was retreating, even in the days of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. The West of the cowboys, as Theodore Roosevelt and Owen Wister knew it and wrote of it in the eighties and nineties, has disappeared, though it lives on in fiction and on the screen.

Jack London, born in California in 1876, was forced to find his West in Alaska–and in alcohol. He was what he and his followers liked to call the virile or red-blooded type, responsive to the “Call of the Wild,” “living life naked and tensely.” In his talk Jack London was simple and boyish, with plenty of humor over his own literary and social foibles. His books are very uneven, but he wrote many a hard-muscled, clean-cut page. If the Bret Harte theory of the West was that each man is at bottom, a sentimentalist, Jack London’s formula was that at bottom every man is a brute. Each theory gave provender enough for a short-story writer to carry on his back, but is hardly adequate, by itself, for a very long voyage over human life.

“Joaquin” (Cincinnatus Heine) Miller, who was born in 1841 and died in 1918, had even less of a formula for the West than Jack London. He was a word-painter of its landscapes, a rider over its surfaces. Cradled “in a covered wagon pointing West,” mingling with wild frontier life from Alaska to Nicaragua, miner, Indian fighter, hermit, poseur in London and Washington, then hermit again in California, the author of “Songs of the Sierras” at least knew his material. Byron, whom he adored and imitated, could have invented nothing more romantic than Joaquin’s life; but though Joaquin inherited Scotch intensity, he had nothing of the close mental grip of the true Scot and nothing of his humor. Vast stretches of his poetry are empty; some of it is grandiose, elemental, and yet somehow artificial, as even the Grand Canyon itself looks at certain times.

John Muir, another immigrant Scot who reached California in 1868, had far more stuff in him than Joaquin Miller. He had studied geology, botany, and chemistry at the new University of Wisconsin, and then for years turned explorer of forests, peaks, and glaciers, not writing, at first, except in his “Journal,” but forever absorbing and worshiping sublimity and beauty with no thought of literary schemes. Yet his every-day talk about his favorite trees and glaciers had more of the glow of poetry in it than any talk I have ever heard from men of letters, and his books and “Journal” will long perpetuate this thrilling sense of personal contact with wild, clean, uplifted things–blossoms in giant tree-tops and snow-eddies blowing round the shoulders of Alaskan peaks. Here is a West as far above Jack London’s and Frank Norris’s as the snow-line is higher than the jungle.

The rediscovery of the South was not so much an exploration of fresh or forgotten geographical territory, as it was a new perception of the romantic human material offered by a peculiar civilization. Political and social causes had long kept the South in isolation. A few writers like Wirt, Kennedy, Longstreet, Simms, had described various aspects of its life with grace or vivacity, but the best picture of colonial Virginia had been drawn, after all, by Thackeray, who had merely read about it in books. Visitors like Fanny Kemble and Frederick Law Olmsted sketched the South of the mid-nineteenth century more vividly than did the sons of the soil. There was no real literary public in the South for a native writer like Simms. He was as dependent upon New York and the Northern market as a Virginian tobacco-planter of 1740 had been upon London. But within a dozen years after the close of the War and culminating in the eighteen-nineties, there came a rich and varied harvest of Southern writing, notably in the field of fiction. The public for these stories, it is true, was still largely in the North and West, and it was the magazines and publishing-houses of New York and Boston that gave the Southern authors their chief stimulus and support. It was one of the happy proofs of the solidarity of the new nation.

The romance of the Spanish and French civilization of New Orleans, as revealed in Mr. Cable’s fascinating “Old Creole Days,” was recognized, not as something merely provincial in its significance, but as contributing to the infinitely variegated pattern of our national life. Irwin Russell, Joel Chandler Harris, and Thomas Nelson Page portrayed in verse and prose the humorous, pathetic, unique traits of the Southern negro, a type hitherto chiefly sketched in caricature or by strangers. Page, Hopkinson Smith, Grace King, and a score of other artists began to draw affectionate pictures of the vanished Southern mansion of plantation days, when all the women were beautiful and all the men were brave, when the very horses were more spirited and the dogs lazier and the honeysuckles sweeter and the moonlight more entrancing than today. Miss Murfree ("C. E. Craddock”) charmed city-dwellers and country-folk alike by her novels of the Tennessee mountains. James Lane Allen painted lovingly the hemp-fields and pastures of Kentucky. American magazines of the decade from 1880 to 1890 show the complete triumph of dialect and local color, and this movement, so full of interest to students of the immense divergence of American types, owed much of its vitality to the talent of Southern writers.

But the impulse spread far beyond the South. Early in the seventies Edward Eggleston wrote “The Hoosier Schoolmaster” and “The Circuit Rider,” faithful and moving presentations of genuine pioneer types which were destined to pass with the frontier settlements. Soon James Whitcomb Riley was to sing of the next generation of Hoosiers, who frequented “The Old Swimmin’ Hole" and rejoiced “When the Frost is on the Punkin.” It was the era of Denman Thompson’s plays, “Joshua Whitcomb” and “The Old Homestead.” Both the homely and the exotic marched under this banner of local color: Hamlin Garland presented Iowa barnyards and cornfields, Helen Hunt Jackson dreamed the romance of the Mission Indian in “Ramona,” and Lafcadio Hearn, Irish and Greek by blood, resident of New Orleans and not yet an adopted citizen of Japan, tantalized American readers with his “Chinese Ghosts" and “Chita.” A fascinating period it seems, as one looks back upon it, and it lasted until about the end of the century, when the suddenly discovered commercial value of the historical novel and the ensuing competition in best sellers misled many a fine artistic talent and coarsened the public taste. The New South then played the literary market as recklessly as the New West.

Let us glance back to “the abandoned farm of literature,” as a witty New Yorker once characterized New England. The last quarter of the nineteenth century witnessed a decline in the direct influence of that province over the country as a whole. Its strength sapped by the emigration of its more vigorous sons, its typical institutions sagging under the weight of immense immigrations from Europe, its political importance growing more and more negligible, that ancient promontory of ideas has continued to lose its relative literary significance. In one field of literature only has New England maintained its rank since the Civil War, and that is in the local short story. Here women have distinguished themselves beyond the proved capacity of New England men. Mrs. Stowe and Rose Terry Cooke, women of democratic humor, were the pioneers; then came Harriet Prescott Spofford and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, women with nerves; and finally the three artists who have written, out of the material offered by a decadent New England, as perfect short stories as France or Russia can produce–Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary Wilkins Freeman, and Alice Brown. These gifted writers portrayed, with varying technique and with singular differences in their instinctive choice of material, the dominant qualities of an isolated, in-bred race, still proud in its decline; still inquisitive and acquisitive, versatile yet stubborn, with thrift passing over into avarice, and mental power degenerating into smartness; cold and hard under long repression of emotion, yet capable of passion and fanaticism; at worst, a mere trader, a crank, a grim recluse; at best, endowed with an austere physical and moral beauty. Miss Jewett preferred to touch graciously the sunnier slopes of this provincial temperament, to linger in its ancient dignities and serenities. Miss Brown has shown the pathos of its thwarted desires, its hunger for a beauty and a happiness denied. Mary Wilkins Freeman revealed its fundamental tragedies of will.

Two of the best known writers of New England fiction in this period were not natives of the soil, though they surpassed most native New Englanders in their understanding of the type. They were William Dean Howells and Henry James. Mr. Howells, who, in his own words, “can reasonably suppose that it is because of the mixture of Welsh, German, and Irish in me that I feel myself so typically American,” came to “the Holy Land at Boston” as a “passionate pilgrim from the West.” “A Boy’s Town,” “My Literary Passions,” and “Years of my Youth” make clear the image of the young poet-journalist who returned from his four years in Venice and became assistant editor of “The Atlantic Monthly” in 1866. In 1871 he succeeded Fields in the editorship, but it was not until after his resignation in 1881 that he could put his full strength into those realistic novels of contemporary New England which established his fame as a writer. “A Modern Instance” and “The Rise of Silas Lapham” are perhaps the finest stories of this group; and the latter novel may prove to be Mr. Howells’s chief “visiting-card to posterity.” We cannot here follow him to New York and to a new phase of novel writing, begun with “A Hazard of New Fortunes,” nor can we discuss the now antiquated debate upon realism which was waged in the eighteen-eighties over the books of Howells and James. We must content ourselves with saying that a knowledge of Mr. Howells’s work is essential to the student of the American provincial novel, as it is also to the student of our more generalized types of story-writing, and that he has never in his long career written an insincere, a slovenly, or an infelicitous page. “My Literary Friends and Acquaintance” gives the most charming picture ever drawn of the elder Cambridge, Concord, and Boston men who ruled over our literature when young Howells came out of the West, and “My Mark Twain” is his memorable portrait of another type of sovereign, perhaps the dynasty that will rule the future.

Although Henry James, like Mr. Howells, wrote at one time acute studies of New England character, he was never, in his relations to that section, or, for that matter, to any locality save possibly London, anything more than a “visiting mind.” His grandfather was an Irish merchant in Albany. His father, Henry James, was a philosopher and wit, a man of comfortable fortune, who lived at times in Newport, Concord, and Boston, but who was residing in New York when his son Henry was born in 1843. No child was ever made the subject of a more complete theory of deracination. Transplanted from city to city, from country to country, without a family or a voting-place, without college or church or creed or profession or responsibility of any kind save to his own exigent ideals of truth and beauty, Henry James came to be the very pattern of a cosmopolitan. Avoiding his native country for nearly thirty years and then returning for a few months to write some intricate pages about that “American Scene" which he understood far less truly than the average immigrant, he died in 1916 in London, having just renounced his American citizenship and become a British subject in order to show his sympathy with the Empire, then at war. It was the sole evidence of political emotion in a lifetime of seventy-three years. American writing men are justly proud, nevertheless, of this expatriated craftsman. The American is inclined to admire good workmanship of any kind, as far as he can understand the mechanism of it. The task of really understanding Henry James has been left chiefly to clever women and to a few critics, but ever since “A Passionate Pilgrim” and “Roderick Hudson” appeared in, 1875, it has been recognized that here was a master, in his own fashion. What that fashion is may now be known by anyone who will take the pains to read the author’s prefaces to the New York edition of his revised works. Never, not even in the Paris which James loved, has an artist put his intentions and his self-criticism more definitively upon paper. The secret of Henry James is told plainly enough here: a specially equipped intelligence, a freedom from normal responsibilities, a consuming desire to create beautiful things, and, as life unfolded its complexities and nuances before his vision, an increasing passion to seek the beauty which lies entangled and betrayed, a beauty often adumbrated rather than made plastic, stories that must be hinted at rather than told, raptures that exist for the initiated only. The much discussed early and middle and later manners of James are only various campaigns of this one questing spirit, changing his procedure as the elusive object of his search hid itself by this or that device of protective coloration or swift escape. It is as if a collector of rare butterflies had one method of capturing them in Madagascar, another for the Orinoco, and still another for Japan–though Henry James found his Japan–and Orinoco and Madagascar all in London town!

No one who ever had the pleasure of hearing him discourse about the art of fiction can forget the absolute seriousness of his professional devotion; it was as though a shy celebrant were to turn and explain, with mystical intensity and a mystic’s involution and reversal of all the values of vulgar speech, the ceremonial of some strange, high altar. His own power as a creative artist was not always commensurate with his intellectual endowment or with his desire after beauty, and his frank contempt for the masses of men made it difficult for him to write English. He preferred, as did Browning, who would have liked to reach the masses, a dialect of his own, and he used it increasingly after he was fifty. It was a dialect capable of infinite gradations of tone, endless refinements of expression. In his threescore books there are delicious poignant moments where the spirit of life itself flutters like a wild creature, half-caught, half-escaping. It is for the beauty and thrill of these moments that the pages of Henry James will continue to be cherished by a few thousand readers scattered throughout the Republic to which he was ever an alien.

No poet of the new era has won the national recognition enjoyed by the veterans. It will be recalled that Bryant survived until 1878, Longfellow and Emerson until 1882, Lowell until 1891, Whittier and Whitman until 1892, and Holmes until 1894. Compared with these men the younger writers of verse seemed overmatched. The “National Ode” for the Centennial celebration in 1876 was intrusted to Bayard Taylor, a hearty person, author of capital books of travel, plentiful verse, and a skilful translation of “Faust.” But an adequate “National Ode” was not in him. Sidney Lanier, who was writing in that year his “Psalm of the West” and was soon to compose “The Marshes of Glynn,” had far more of the divine fire. He was a bookish Georgia youth who had served with the Confederate army, and afterward, with broken health and in dire poverty, gave his brief life to music and poetry. He had rich capacities for both arts, but suffered in both from the lack of discipline and from an impetuous, restless imagination which drove him on to over-ambitious designs. Whatever the flaws in his affluent verse, it has grown constantly in popular favor, and he is, after Poe, the best known poet of the South. The late Edmund Clarence Stedman, whose “American Anthology” and critical articles upon American poets did so much to enhance the reputation of other men, was himself a maker of ringing lyrics and spirited narrative verse. His later days were given increasingly to criticism, and his “Life and Letters” is a storehouse of material bearing upon the growth of New York as a literary market-place during half a century. Richard Watson Gilder was another admirably fine figure, poet, editor, and leader of public opinion in many a noble cause. His “Letters," likewise, give an intimate picture of literary New York from the seventies to the present. Through his editorship of “Scribner’s Monthly” and “The Century Magazine” his sound influence made itself felt upon writers in every section. His own lyric vein had an opaline intensity of fire, but in spite of its glow his verse sometimes refused to sing.

The most perfect poetic craftsman of the period–and, many think, our one faultless worker in verse–was Thomas Bailey Aldrich. His first volume of juvenile verse had appeared in 1855, the year of Whittier’s “Barefoot Boy” and Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” By 1865 his poems were printed in the then well-known Blue and Gold edition, by Ticknor and Fields. In 1881 he succeeded Howells in the editorship of the “Atlantic.” Aldrich had a versatile talent that turned easily to adroit prose tales, but his heart was in the filing of his verses. Nothing so daintily perfect as his lighter pieces has been produced on this side of the Atlantic, and the deeper notes and occasional darker questionings of his later verse are embodied in lines of impeccable workmanship. Aloof from the social and political conflicts of his day, he gave himself to the fastidious creation of beautiful lines, believing that the beautiful line is the surest road to Arcady, and that Herrick, whom he idolized, had shown the way.

To some readers of these pages it may seem like profanation to pass over poets like Sill, George Woodberry, Edith Thomas, Richard Hovey, William Vaughn Moody, Madison Cawein–to mention but half a dozen distinguished names out of a larger company–and to suggest that James Whitcomb Riley, more completely than any American poet since Longfellow, succeeded in expressing the actual poetic feelings of the men and women who composed his immense audience. Riley, like Aldrich, went to school to Herrick, Keats, Tennyson, and Longfellow, but when he began writing newspaper verse in his native Indiana he was guided by two impulses which gave individuality to his work. “I was always trying to write of the kind of people I knew, and especially to write verse that I could read just as if it were spoken for the first time.” The first impulse kept him close to the wholesome Hoosier soil. The second is an anticipation of Robert Frost’s theory of speech tones as the basis of verse, as well as a revival of the bardic practice of reciting one’s own poems. For Riley had much of the actor and platform-artist in him, and comprehended that poetry might be made again a spoken art, directed to the ear rather than to the eye. His vogue, which at his death in 1915 far surpassed that of any living American poet, is inexplicable to those persons only who forget the sentimental traditions of our American literature and its frank appeal to the emotions of juvenility, actual and recollected. Riley’s best “holt” as a poet was his memory of his own boyhood and his perception that the child-mind lingers in every adult reader. Genius has often been called the gift of prolonged adolescence, and in this sense, surely, there was genius in the warm and gentle heart of this fortunate provincial who held that “old Indianapolis” was “high Heaven’s sole and only understudy.” No one has ever had the audacity to say that of New York.

We have had American drama for one hundred and fifty years,* but much of it, like our popular fiction and poetry, has been subliterary, more interesting to the student of social life and national character than to literary criticism in the narrow sense of that term. Few of our best known literary men have written for the stage. The public has preferred melodrama to poetic tragedy, although perhaps the greatest successes have been scored by plays which are comedies of manners rather than melodrama, and character studies of various American types, built up around the known capabilities of a particular actor. The twentieth century has witnessed a marked activity in play-writing, in the technical study of the drama, and in experiment with dramatic production, particularly with motion pictures and the out-of-doors pageant. At no time since “The Prince of Parthia” was first acted in Philadelphia in 1767 has such a large percentage of Americans been artistically and commercially interested in the drama, but as to the literary results of the new movement it is too soon to speak.

* “Representative American Plays,” edited by Arthur Hobson Quinn, N. Y., 1917.

Nor is it possible to forecast the effect of a still more striking movement of contemporary taste, the revival of interest in poetry and the experimentation with new poetical forms. Such revival and experiment have often, in the past, been the preludes of great epochs of poetical production. Living Americans have certainly never seen such a widespread demand for contemporary verse, such technical curiosity as to the possible forms of poetry, or such variety of bold innovation. Imagism itself is hardly as novel as its contemporary advocates appear to maintain; and free verse goes back far in our English speech and song. But the new generation believes that it has made a discovery in reverting to sensations rather than thought, to the naive reproduction of retinal and muscular impressions, as if this were the end of the matter.

The self-conscious, self-defending side of the new poetic impulse may soon pass, as it did in the case of Wordsworth and of Victor Hugo. Whatever happens, we have already had fresh and exquisite revelations of natural beauty, and, in volumes like “North of Boston” and “A Spoon River Anthology,” judgments of life that run very deep.

American fiction seems just now, on the contrary, to be marking time and not to be getting noticeably forward. Few names unknown ten years ago have won wide recognition in the domain of the novel. The short story has made little technical advance since the first successes of “O. Henry,” though the talent of many observers has dealt with new material offered by the racial characteristics of European immigrants and by new phases of commerce and industry. The enormous commercial demand of the five-cent weeklies for short stories of a few easily recognized patterns has resulted too often in a substitution of stencil-plate generalized types instead of delicately and powerfully imagined individual characters. Short stories have been assembled, like Ford cars, with amazing mechanical expertness, but with little artistic advance in design. The same temporary arrest of progress has been noted in France and England, however, where different causes have been at work. No one can tell, in truth, what makes some plants in the literary garden wither at the same moment that others are outgrowing their borders.

There is one plant in our own garden, however, whose flourishing state will be denied by nobody–namely, that kind of nature-writing identified with Thoreau and practised by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Starr King, John Burroughs, John Muir, Clarence King, Bradford Torrey, Theodore Roosevelt, William J. Long, Thompson-Seton, Stewart Edward White, and many others. Their books represent, Professor Canby* believes, the adventures of the American subconsciousness, the promptings of forgotten memories, a racial tradition of contact with the wilderness, and hence one of the most genuinely American traits of our literature.

* “Back to Nature,” by H. S. Canby, “Yale Review,” July, 1917.

Other forms of essay writing, surely, have seemed in our own generation less distinctive of our peculiar quality. While admirable biographical and critical studies appear from time to time, and here and there a whimsical or trenchant discursive essay like those of Miss Repplier or Dr. Crothers, no one would claim that we approach France or even England in the field of criticism, literary history, memoirs, the bookish essay, and biography. We may have race-memories of a pine-tree which help us to write vigorously and poetically about it, but we write less vitally as soon as we enter the library door. A Frenchman does not, for he is better trained to perceive the continuity and integrity of race-consciousness, in the whole field of its manifestation. He does not feel, as many Americans do, that they are turning their back on life when they turn to books.

Perhaps the truth is that although we are a reading people we are not yet a book-loving people. The American newspaper and magazine have been successful in making their readers fancy that newspaper and magazine are an equivalent for books. Popular orators and popular preachers confirm this impression, and colleges and universities have often emphasized a vocational choice of books–in other words, books that are not books at all, but treatises. It is not, of course, that American journalism, whether of the daily or monthly sort, has consciously set itself to supplant the habit of book-reading. A thousand social and economic factors enter into such a problem. But few observers will question the assertion that the influence of the American magazine, ever since its great period of national literary service in the eighties and nineties, has been more marked in the field of conduct and of artistic taste than in the stimulation of a critical literary judgment: An American schoolhouse of today owes its improvement in appearance over the schoolhouse of fifty years ago largely to the popular diffusion, through the illustrated magazines, of better standards of artistic taste. But–whether the judgment of school-teachers and schoolchildren upon a piece of literature is any better than it was in the red schoolhouse of fifty years ago is a disputable question.

But we must stop guessing, or we shall never have done. The fundamental problem of our literature, as this book has attempted to trace it, has been to obtain from a mixed population dwelling in sections as widely separated as the peoples of Northern and Southern Europe, an integral intellectual and spiritual activity which could express, in obedience to the laws of beauty and truth, the motions stimulated by our national life. It has been assumed in the preceding chapters that American literature is something different from English literature written in America. Canadian and Australian literatures have indigenous qualities of their own, but typically they belong to the colonial literature of Great Britain. This can scarcely be said of the writings of Franklin and Jefferson, and it certainly cannot be said of the writings of Cooper, Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Lowell, Lincoln, Mark Twain, and Mr. Howells. In the pages of these men and of hundreds of others less distinguished, there is a revelation of a new national type. That the full energies of this nation have been back of our books, giving them a range and vitality and unity commensurate with the national existence, no one would claim. There are other spheres of effort in which American character has been more adequately expressed than in words. Nevertheless the books are here, in spite of every defect in national discipline, every flaw in national character; and they deserve the closest attention from all those who are trying to understand the American mind.

If the effort toward an expression of a peculiarly complex national experience has been the problem of our literary past, the literary problem of the future is the expression of the adjustment of American ideals to the standards of civilization. “Patriotism,” said the martyred Edith Cavell just before her death, “is not enough.” Nationality and the instincts of national separatism now seem essential to the preservation of the political units of the world-state, precisely as a healthy individualism must be the basis of all enduring social fellowship. Yet it is clear that civilization is a larger, more ultimate term than nationality. Chauvinism is nowhere more repellent than in the things of the mind. It is difficult for some Americans to think internationally even in political affairs–to construe our national policy and duty in terms of obligation to civilization. Nevertheless the task must be faced, and we are slowly realizing it.

In the field of literature, likewise, Americanism is not a final word either of blame or praise. It is a word of useful characterization. Only American books, and not books written in English in America, can adequately represent our national contribution to the world’s thinking and feeling. So argued Emerson and Whitman, long ago. But the younger of these two poets came to realize in his old age that the New World and the Old World are fundamentally one. The literature of the New World will inevitably have an accent of its own, but it must speak the mother-language of civilization, share in its culture, accept its discipline.

It has been said disparagingly of Longfellow and his friends: “The houses of the Brahmins had only eastern windows. The souls of the whole school lived in the old lands of culture, and they visited these lands as often as they could, and, returning, brought back whole libraries of books which they eagerly translated.” But even if Longfellow and his friends had been nothing more than translators and diffusers of European culture, their task would have been justified. They kept the ideals of civilization from perishing in this new soil. Through those eastern windows came in, and still comes in, the sunlight to illumine the American spirit. To decry the literatures of the Orient and of Greece and Rome as something now outgrown by America, is simply to close the eastern windows, to narrow our conception of civilization to merely national and contemporaneous terms. It is as provincial to attempt this restriction in literature as it would be in world-politics. We must have all the windows open in our American writing, free access to ideas, knowledge of universal standards, perception of universal law.


Chapter I. The Pioneers  •  Chapter II. The First Colonial Literature  •  Chapter III. The Third and Fourth Generation  •  Chapter IV. The Revolution  •  Chapter V. The Knickerbocker Group  •  Chapter VI. The Transcendentalists  •  Chapter VII. Romance, Poetry, and History  •  Chapter VIII. Poe and Whitman  •  Chapter IX. Union and Liberty  •  Chapter X. A New Nation  •  Bibliographical Note

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The American Spirit in Literature
By Bliss Perry
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