The Cambridge History of American Literature/Preface
IT was a hard saying of a Spanish aphorist of the seventeenth century that “to equal a predecessor one must have twice his worth.” We should deprecate the application of that standard to The Cambridge History of American Literature, yet we are not without hope that the work, of which we here present the first volume, will be found to mark some progress in the right direction. We would call attention to the following as perhaps its chief distinctive features: (1) It is on a larger scale than any of its predecessors which have carried the story from colonial times to the present generation; (2) It is the first history of American literature composed with the collaboration of a numerous body of scholars from every section of the United States and from Canada; (3) It will provide for the first time an extensive bibliography for all periods and subjects treated; (4) It will be a survey of the life of the American people as expressed in their writings rather than a history of belles-lettres alone. The significance of these features may be emphasized by some reference to the characteristic merits and defects of previous works in this field, to which we are under obligations too extensive for detailed mention.
The earliest and the latest historians of a literature have great advantages: the earliest, that he has no predecessors; the latest, that he has many. It is a pleasure to remember Samuel L. Knapp, who in the preface to his Lectures on American Literature, published in 1829, easily justified the publication of that interesting and patriotic overture: “We have very good histories—narrative, political, military, and constitutional; but I know none, as yet, that can be called literary—meaning by the term, a history of our literature, and of our literary men.” “You are aware,” he continues, “that it has been said by foreigners, and often repeated, that there was no such thing as American literature; that it would be vain for anyone to seek for proofs of taste, mind, or information, worth possessing, in our early records; and some of our citizens, who have never examined these matters, have rested so quietly after these declarations, or so fondly denied them, that the bold asserters of these libels have gained confidence in tauntingly repeating them. The great epoch in our history—the revolution of 1775—seemed sufficient, alone, to many of the present generation, to give us, as a people, all the celebrity and rank, among the nations of the earth, we ought to aspire to, without taking the trouble to go back to the previous ages of heroick virtue and gigantick labours. Many of the present generation are willing to think that our ancestors were a pious and persevering race of men, who really did possess some strength of character, but, without further reflection, they are ready to allow that a few pages are ‘ample room and verge enough’ to trace their character and their history together: I have ventured to think differently”;—and the editors of the present work are at this point in accord with Knapp.
Knapp, however, illustrates a temptation which has beset investigators of American literature from his day to ours, namely, the temptation to relinquish the unremunerative project of adequate scholarly publication and to compensate oneself by producing a text-book adapted to the means and the minds of school-boys. “My plan,” he says, in a passage which throws an illuminating beam down the whole pathway of American literary scholarship—“My plan when I commenced my researches was an extensive one, and I gathered copious materials to carry it into effect. For several years past I have had access to libraries rich in American literature; but when I sat down to work up the mass I had collected, the thought suggested itself to my mind, that no adequate compensation could ever be reasonably expected for my pains…. Still I could not be persuaded to relinquish altogether my design, and I therefore set about abridging my outlines, dispensing with many of my remarks, and giving up many elaborate finishings I had promised myself to make in the course of my work. And another thought struck me most forcibly, that a heavy publication would not be readily within the reach of all classes of youth in our country, but that a single volume of common size, in a cheap edition, might find its way into some of our schools, and be of service in giving our children a wish to pursue the subject of our literary history as they advanced in years and knowledge.” The philosophic observer may here remark that our historian, like his innumerable successors, follows the way of all flesh in that when he has abandoned his ideal immediately there bolts into his mind an excellent reason for abandoning it.
A second temptation of the American historian, which appeared long before Knapp and persisted long after him, is to magnify the achievements of one’s own parish at the expense of the rest of the country. In Governor Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation there is hardly a trace of inflation; throughout that grave and noble narrative the Governor cleaves to his purpose to write “in a plain style, with singular regard unto the simple truth in all things.” But in Cotton Mather one finds already a local pride that looks disdainfully upon the neighbour colonies and deigns only to compare the New England worthies with the prophets and apostles of Palestine. In the more temperate passages of the Magnalia Christi Americana he cultivates the just self-esteem of his section with considerations like these: “I will make no odious comparisons between Harvard College and other universities for the proportion of worthy men therein educated; but New England, compared with other parts of America, may certainly boast of having brought forth very many eminent men, in proportion more than any of them; and of Harvard College (herein truly a Sion College) it may be said, this and that man were bred there; of whom not the least was Mr. Thomas Shepard.” The local pride, more or less justifiable, which renders tumid the periods of this energetic old Puritan, was a useful passion at a time when literature was obliged to develop independently in widely separated colonies. It is a useful passion still in a country of a hundred million inhabitants separated by such spatial and spiritual intervals as lie between Boston, New York, Richmond, Chicago, New Orleans, and San Francisco. It has stimulated the production of our innumerable “local-colorists” in poetry and prose fiction. It underlies many entertaining books and articles on the New England School, the Knickerbocker School, the Southern School, the Hoosier School, and the rest; but it is not conducive to the production of a quite unbiassed history of American literature.
Many of our historians who escaped from the colonial or provincial illusion succumbed, especially in the period before the Civil War, to the temptation of national pride. There was much provocation and incitement both at home and abroad. Transatlantic critics enquired tauntingly, “Who reads an American book?” and challenged the American authors to show reasons why sentence of death should not be pronounced against them. It no longer sufficed to say with the colonial divines of New England: We have created in the wilderness of the western world a commonwealth for Christ, a spiritual New Jerusalem. It no longer served to declare with the Revolutionary Fathers: We have established the political Promised Land, and have set up the lamp of Liberty for a beacon light to all nations. What was demanded early in the nineteenth century of the adolescent nation was an indigenous independent national literature. The wrong answer to this demand was given by the enthusiastic patriots who, after the Revolution, advocated the abrogation of English in “these States” and the invention and adoption of a new language; or compiled, to silence their skeptical English cousins, pretentious anthologies of all our village elegists; or offered Dwight’s Conquest of Canaan as an equivalent to Milton’s Paradise Lost, Barlow’s Columbiad as an imposing national epic, Lathrop’s poem on the sachem of the Narragansett Indians, The Speech of Caunonicus, as heralding the dawn of a genuinely native school of poetry. Our pioneer historian Knapp discreetly hesitates to say “whether she of “the banks of the Connecticut” [Mrs. Sigourney], whose strains of poetic thought are as pure and lovely as the adjacent wave touched by the sanctity of a Sabbath’s morn, be equal to her tuneful sisters, Hemans and Landon, on the other side of the water.” But Knapp, who is a forward-looking man, anticipates the spirit of most of our ante-bellum critics and historians by doing what in him lies to give to his fellow countrymen a profound bias in favor of the autochthonous. “What are the Tibers and Scamanders,” he cries, “measured by the Missouri and the Amazon? Or what the loveliness of Illysus or Avon by the Connecticut or the Potomack?—Whenever a nation wills it, prodigies are born. Admiration and patronage create myriads who struggle for the mastery, and for the olympick crown. Encourage the game and the victors will come.” In some measure, no doubt, Rip Van Winkle, the Indian romances of Cooper, the philosophy of Emerson and Thoreau, the novels of Hawthorne, Longfellow’s Evangeline, Miles Standish, and Hiawatha were responses to this encouragement of the game—to the nation’s willing an expression of its new American consciousness.
Against the full rigour of the demand for an independent national literature there was, by the middle of the last century, a wholesome reaction represented in Rufus Wilmot Griswold’s introduction to his Prose Writers of America (1847). Since this old demand is still reasserted from year to year, it may not be amiss to reprint here Griswold’s admirable reply to it. “Some critics in England,” he says, “expect us who write the same language, profess the same religion, and have in our intellectual firmament the same Bacon, Sidney, and Locke, the same Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton, to differ more from themselves than they differ from the Greeks and Romans, or from any of the moderns. This would be harmless, but that many persons in this country, whose thinking is done abroad, are constantly echoing it, and wasting their little productive energy in efforts to comply with the demand. But there never was and never can be an exclusively national literature. All nations are indebted to each other and to preceding ages for the means of advancement; and our own, which from our various origin may be said to be at the confluence of the rivers of time which have swept through every country, can with less justice than any other be looked to for mere novelties in art and fancy. The question between us and other nations is not who shall most completely discard the Past, but who shall make best use of it. It cannot be studied too deeply, for unless men know what has been accomplished, they will exhaust themselves in unfolding enigmas that have been solved, or in pursuing ignes fatui that have already disappointed a thousand expectations.” With more intelligent conceptions than many of his predecessors possessed of what constitutes a national literature, Griswold was still a proud nationalist. His valuable collections of American prose and poetry are mainly illustrative of writers who flourished in the first half of the nineteenth century. Of the work of that period he forms in general estimates tempered by his confidence that something better is yet to come.
In 1855 something better came in the shape of the two large volumes of the Cyclopædia of American Literature by Evert A. and George L. Duyckinck, a work of extensive research, designed, in the words of the authors, “to bring together as far as possible in one book convenient for perusal and reference, memorials and records of the writers of the country and their works, from the earliest period to the present day.” Here for the first time were presented, in something like adequate measure and proportion, materials for the study of our literature in what the compilers recognized as three great periods: “the Colonial Era,” “the Revolutionary Period,” and “the Present Century.” Disclaiming any severe critical pretentions, they exhibited the breadth of their historical interests in the declaration that “it is important to know what books have been produced, and by whom; whatever the books may have been or whoever the men.” A similar breadth of historical interest animated Moses Coit Tyler in the production of his notable and still unsurpassed history of American literature from 1607 to 1783. Free from the embarrassment of the early historians who had advanced to their task with a somewhat inflamed consciousness that they were defending the Stars and Stripes, Tyler had still a clear sense that he was engaged upon a great and rewarding enterprise. In his opening sentence he strikes the note which every historian of a national literature should have in his ear: “There is but one thing more interesting than the intellectual history of a man, and that is the intellectual history of a nation.” If Tyler had been able to carry his narrative down to the present day in the spirit and manner of the portion of his work which he brought to completion, the need for our present undertaking would have been less obvious.
Unhappily the next noteworthy historian, Charles F. Richardson, whose American Literature 1607–1885 was published in 1886–8, is rather a protest against the work of Tyler than a supplement to it. His leading purpose is not historical enquiry and elucidation but æsthetic judgment. “We have had enough description,” he declares; “we want analysis.” He opens his account with a definition of literature well framed to exclude from his consideration most of the important writing in America before the nineteenth century: “Literature is the written record of valuable thought, having other than merely practical purpose.” Under this definition he is justified in asserting that “if a certain space be devoted to the colonial literature of America, then, on the same perspective ten times as much is needed to bring the record down to our day…. I believe that the time has come for the student to consider American literature as calmly as he would consider the literature of another country.” Under this calm consideration the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries dwindle into a sombre little vestibule before the wide edifice which contains the writers who flourished through the middle years of the nineteenth century—Hawthorne is the latest novelist who receives extended notice. Richardson was not immune from the influence of the Zeitgeist of the “eighties. What he does is, in short, to create the idea of what we may call the American Victorian Age, before and after which there is little that merits the attention of the dispassionate critic.
Professor Barrett Wendell in his interesting Literary History of America, published in 1900, presents with even sharper emphasis than Professor Richardson his similar conception of a closed “classical” period existing through the middle years of the last century. As we view the Americans from the beginning of their history, “we can instantly perceive,” he declares, “that only the last, the Americans of the nineteenth century, have produced literature of any importance. The novelists and the historians, the essayists and the poets, whose names come to mind when American literature is mentioned, have all flourished since 1800.” This is the somewhat restricted point of view established in the Introduction. In the composition of the history, the survey of the field, one suspects, was still further restricted by the descent upon Professor Wendell of the spirit of Cotton Mather; for the total effect of the narrative is an impression that the literary history of America is essentially a history of the birth, the renaissance, and the decline of New England.
The Cambridge History marks a partial reversion to the position of the earlier historians who looked into the past with interest and into the present and future not without hope. Following in general the plan of The Cambridge History of English Literature and of our encyclopædic Duyckinck, we have made it our primary purpose to represent as adequately as space allowed all the periods of our national past, and to restore the memory of writers who are neglected because they are forgotten and because they are no longer sympathetically understood. To write the intellectual history of America from the modern æsthetic standpoint is to miss precisely what makes it significant among modern literatures, namely, that for two centuries the main energy of Americans went into exploration, settlement, labour for subsistence, religion, and statecraft. For nearly two hundred years a people with the same traditions and with the same intellectual capacities as their contemporaries across the sea found themselves obliged to dispense for the most part with art for art. But the long inhibition and belated expansion of their purely æsthetic impulses, unfavourable as it was to the development of poetry and fiction, was no serious handicap to the production of a prose competently recording their practical activities and expressing their moral, religious, and political ideas. Acquaintance with the written record of these two centuries should enlarge the spirit of American literary criticism and render it more energetic and masculine. To a taste and judgment unperverted by the current finical and transitory definitions of literature, there is something absurd in a critical sifting process which preserves a Restoration comedy and rejects Bradford’s History of Plymouth; which prizes a didactic poem in the heroic couplets and despises the work of Jonathan Edwards; which relishes the letters of some third rate English poet, but finds no gusto in the correspondence of Benjamin Franklin; which sends a student to the novels of William Godwin, but never thinks of directing him to The Federalist. When our American criticism treats its facile novelists and poetasters as they deserve, and heartily recognizes and values the works in which the maturest and wisest Americans have expressed themselves, its references to the period prior to 1800 will be less apologetic.
For the nineteenth century, too, without neglecting the writers of imaginative literature who have been most emphasized by our literary historians, we have attempted to do a new service by giving a place in our record to departments of literature, such as travels, oratory, memoirs, which have lain somewhat out of the main tradition of literary history but which may be, as they are in the United States, highly significant of the national temper. In this task we have been much aided by the increasing number of monographs produced within the past quarter of a century upon aspects of American literary history. Such collections as A Library of American Literature, edited by Edmund Clarence Stedman and Ellen M. Hutchinson in 1889–90, and the Library of Southern Literature (1908–13), compiled by various Southern men of letters, have been indispensable.
We regret that ill health has deprived us of the collaboration of Professor George E. Woodberry, to whose taste and judgment all students of American literature are deeply indebted; and that the pressure of his military duties keeps M. Lèon Bazalgette from appearing among our contributors, as was originally planned. For many details for the work we owe much to the unsparing assistance of Mrs. Carl Van Doren, who has prepared the index.
W. P. T.: J. E.
S. P. S.
C. V. D.
1 June, 1917. 12