America To-Day, Observations and Reflections/American Literature

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America To-Day, Observations & Reflections  (1900)  by William Archer
American Literature


AMERICAN LITERATURE

Great Britain and the United States are sister Commonwealths, enjoying the advantages and exposed to the dangers of sisterhood. The dangers are as real, though we trust not as great, as the advantages. Family quarrels are apt to be the bitterest; a chance word will seem unkind and unbearable from a near kinsman, which, coming from a stranger, would carry no sting at all. As Lowell very truly said, "The common blood, and still more the common language, are fatal instruments of misapprehension." But behind this statement there lies a far deeper though still obvious truth. We misunderstand because we understand; and it would be an extravagance of pessimism to doubt that, in the long run, understanding will carry the day. Light may dazzle here and bewilder there; but, after all, it is light and not darkness. We English and Americans hold a talisman that makes us at home over half, and more than half, the world; and we are not going to rob it of its virtue by renouncing our ties, and wantonly declaring ourselves aliens to each other.

Our unity of speech is such a commonplace that we scarcely notice it. But, rightly regarded, it is a thing to be rejoiced in with a great joy, and not without a certain sense of danger happily escaped. He would have been a bold man who should confidently have prophesied at the Revolution that American and English would remain the same tongue, and that at the end of the nineteenth century there would not be the slightest perceptible cleavage, or threat of ultimate divergence. No doubt there were forces obviously tending to preserve the linguistic unity of the two nations. There was the English Bible for one thing, and there was the whole body of English literature. The Americans, it might have been said, could scarcely be so foolish as deliberately to renounce their spiritual birthright, or let it drift little by little away from them. But, on the other hand, virulent and inveterate political emnity, had it arisen, might quite conceivably have led the Americans to make it a point of honour to differentiate their speech from ours, as many Norwegians are at this moment making it a point of honour to differentiate their language from the Danish, which was until of late years the generally accepted medium of literary expression. In the evolution of their literature, the Americans might purposely have rejected our classical tradition, making their effort rather to depart from than to adhere to it. Again, an observer in 1776 could not have foreseen the practical annihilation, by steam and electricity, of that barrier which then appeared so formidable—the Atlantic Ocean. He might have foreseen the immense influx of men of every race and tongue into the unpeopled West; but he could scarcely have anticipated with confidence the ready absorption of all these alien elements (save one!) into the dominant Anglo-Saxon polity. It was quite on the cards that a new American language might have developed from a fusion of all the diverse tongues of all the scattered races of the earth.

Nothing of the sort, as we know, has happened. The instinct of kinship from the first kept political enmity in check; the Atlantic has been practically wiped out; and English has easily absorbed, in America, all the other idioms which have been brought into contact, rather than competition, with it. The result is that the English language occupies a unique position among the tongues of the earth. It is unique in two dimensions—in altitude and in expanse. It soars to the highest heights of human utterance, and it covers an unequalled area of the earth's surface. Undoubtedly it is the most precious heirloom of our race, and as such we must reverence and guard it. Nor must we islanders talk as though we held it in fee-simple, and allowed our transatlantic kinsfolk merely a conditional usufruct of it. Their property in it is as complete and indefeasible as our own; and we should rejoice to accept their aid in the conservation and renovation (equally indispensable processes) of this superb and priceless heritage.

English critics of the beginning of the century so convincingly set forth the reasons why America, absorbed in the conquest of nature and in material progress, could not produce anything great in the way of literature, that their arguments remain embedded in many minds even to this day, when events have conclusively falsified them. It is a commonplace with some people that America has not developed a great American literature. If this merely means that, in casting off her allegiance to George III., America did not cast off her allegiance to Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Addison, Swift, Pope, the reproach, if it be one, must be accepted. If it be a humiliation to American authors to own the traditions and standards established by these men, and thereby to enrol themselves in their immortal fellowship, why, then it must be owned that they have deliberately incurred that humiliation. One American of vivid originality tried to escape it, and with what result? Simply that Whitman holds a place of his own, somewhat like that of Blake one might say, in the literature of the English language, and has produced at least as much effect in England as in America. If, on the other hand, it be implied that American literature feebly imitates English literature, and fails to present an original and adequate interpretation of American life, no reproach could well be more flagrantly unjust. It is not only the abstract merit of American literature, though that is very high, but precisely the Americanism of it, that gives it its value in the eyes of all thinking Englishmen. Only one American author of the first rank could possibly, at a superficial glance, appear—not so much English as—European, cosmopolitan. I mean, of course, Edgar Allen Poe, who has left perhaps a deeper impress upon literature outside the English-speaking countries than any other imaginative writer of the century, with the exception of Byron. Poe was a born idealist, a creature of pure intelligence. Whether in poetry or fiction, he was always solving problems; and it is hard to be distinctively national in an exercise of pure intelligence. We do not look for local colour in, for example, the agreeable essays of Euclid. But Poe's intelligence was, at bottom, of a characteristically American type. He was the Edison of romance.[1] As for the other great writers of America, what can be more patent than their Americanism? Speaking only, for the present, of those who have joined the majority, I would name two who seem to me to stand with Poe in the very front rank of original genius. They are Emerson, that starlike spirit, dwelling in a serener ether than ours, which, though we may never attain, it is yet a refreshment to look up to; and Hawthorne, not perhaps the greatest romancer in the English tongue, but certainly the purest artist in that sphere of fiction. Now, it is a mere truism to say that each of these men was, in his way, a typical product of New England, inconceivable as the offspring of any other soil in the world. Emerson, it has been said, not without truth, was the first of the American humourists, carrying into metaphysics that gift of realistic vision and inspired hyperbole which has somehow been grafted upon the Anglo-Saxon character by the conditions of American life. As for Hawthorne, though he has felt and reproduced the physical charm of Rome more subtly than any other artist, his genius drew at once its strength and its delicacy from his Puritan ancestry and environment. To realise how intimately he smacks of the soil, we have but to think of that marvellous scene in The Blithedale Romance, the search for Zenobia's body. From what does it derive its peculiar quality, its haunting savour? Simply from the presence of Silas Foster, that delightful incarnation of the New England yeoman. "If I thought anything had happened to Zenobia, I should feel kind o' sorrowful," said the grim Silas; and there never was a speech more dramatically true, or, in its context, more bitterly pathetic.

Even while English critics were proving that there could be no such thing as an American literature, Washington Irving and Fenimore Cooper were laying its foundations on a thoroughly American basis. Irving was none the less American for loving the picturesque traditions of his English ancestry; Cooper, a gallant and fertile genius, did his country and our language an inestimable service by adding a whole group of specifically American figures to the deathless aristocracy of the realms of romance. Then, in the generation which has just passed away, we have such men as Thoreau, racy of his native soil; Longfellow, in his day and way the chief interpreter of America to England; Whittier, so intensely local that, as Professor Matthews puts it, "he wrote for New England rather than for the whole of the United States"; Lowell, courtly, cultured, cosmopolitan, and yet the creator of Hosea Biglow; Holmes, as American in his humour as Lamb was English, who justly ranks with Lamb and Goldsmith among the personally best-beloved writers of the English tongue. Prescott, in the sphere of history, paralleled the achievement of Cooper in fiction, by giving literary form to the romance of the New World; while Motley was inspired (too ardently perhaps) by the spirit of free America in writing the great epic of religious and political freedom in Europe. Finally, it must not be forgotten that in Uncle Tom's Cabin, a tragically American production, Mrs. Beecher Stowe added to the literature of the English language the most potent, the most dynamic, pamphlet ever hurled into the arena of national life.

Of all that living Americans are doing for the literature of our common tongue it is as yet impossible to speak adequately. Since 1870 a new spirit of nationalism has entered into American literature, which has not yet been thoroughly studied in America or appreciated in England. So far from having no national literature, America has now, perhaps, the most intimately national body of fiction in the modern world. Before the Civil War there was practically no deliberate and systematic study of local and racial idiosyncrasies. Hosea Biglow was a mask, not a character, and Parson Wilbur was a literary device. Even Hawthorne thought primarily of the element of imagination in his romances—the universal, not the local, element. His leading characters are psychological creations, with nothing specifically American about them; his local colour and local character-study, though admirable, are incidental, or at any rate stand on a secondary plane. In the South there was no literature at all, local or otherwise, with the one startling exception of Uncle Tom's Cabin.[2] But since 1870, and mainly, indeed, within the past twenty years, a marvellous change has come over the scene. Not only the national but the local self-consciousness of America has sprung to literary life, until at the present day there is scarcely a corner of the country, scarcely an aspect of social life, that has not found its special, and, as a rule, very able interpreter through the medium of fiction. Pursuing technical methods partly borrowed from abroad (from France rather than from England), American writers have undertaken what one is tempted to call a sociological ordnance-survey of the Republic from Maine to Arizona, from Florida to Oregon. There is scarcely a human being in the United States, from the Newport society belle to the "greaser" of New Mexico, that has not his or her more or less faithful counterpart in fiction. No European country, so far as I know, has achieved anything like such comprehensive self-realisation. Comprehensive, I say—not necessarily profound. Perhaps France in Balzac, perhaps Russia in Turgueneff and Tolstoï, found more searching interpretation than America has found even in her host of novelists. But never, surely, was there a body of fiction that touched life at so many points, to mirror if not to probe it. And in many cases to probe it as well.

It would take a volume to criticise these writers in any detail. I can attempt no more than a bald and imperfect enumeration. Miss Mary Wilkins's studies of New England life are well known and appreciated in England, but the talent of Miss Sarah Orne Jewitt is not sufficiently recognised. In her Country of the Pointed Firs, for example, there are whole chapters that rise to a classical perfection of workmanship. The novelists of the Eastern cities, with Mr. Howells, a master craftsman, at their head, are of course numberless. For studies in the local colour of New York nothing could be better than Mr. Brander Matthews's Vignettes of Manhattan, and other stories. Mr. Paul Leicester Ford's Honorable Peter Stirling, though antiquated in style, gives a remarkable picture of political life in New York. The Bowery Boy is cleverly represented, so far as dialect at any rate is concerned, by Mr. E. W. Townsend in his Chimmie Fadden. Even the Jewish and the Italian quarters of New York have their portraitists in fiction. Life in Washington has been frequently and ably depicted; for instance, in Mrs. Burnett's Through one Administration. Of the many interpreters of the South I need mention only three: Mr. Cable, Mr. Thomas Nelson Page, and Mr. Chandler Harris. Miss Murfree ("Charles Egbert Craddock") has made the Mountains of Tennessee her special province. Chicago has several novelists of her own: for example, Mr. Henry Fuller, author of The Cliff Dwellers, Mr. Will Payne, and that close student of Chicago slang, Mr. George Ade, the author of Artie. The Middle West counts such novelists as Miss "Octave Thanet" and Mr. Hamlin Garland, whose Main Travelled Roads contains some very remarkable work. The Far West is best represented, perhaps, in the lively and graphic sketches of Mr. Owen Wister; while California has novelists of talent in Miss Gertrude Atherton and Mr. Frank Norris. At least two Americans living abroad have made noteworthy contributions to this sociological survey of their native land: the late Mr. Harold Frederic, who has dealt mainly with country life in New York State, and Miss Elizabeth Robins, whose picture, in The Open Question, of a Southern family impoverished by the war, is exceedingly vivid and bears all the marks of the utmost fidelity. Nor must I omit to mention that the stage has borne a modest but not insignificant part in this movement of national self-portraiture. Mr. Augustus Thomas's Alabama is a delightful picture of Southern life, while Mr. James A. Herne's Shore Acres takes a distinct place in the literature of New England, his Griffith Davenport[3] in the literature of Virginia.

There must, of course, be many gaps in this summary enumeration. It is very probable that many novelists of distinction have altogether escaped my notice; and I have made no attempt to include in my list the writers of short magazine stories, many of them artists of high accomplishment. One omission, however, I must at once repair. "Mark Twain's" contributions to the work of self-realisation have been in the main retrospective, but nevertheless of the first importance. He is the "sacred poet " of the Mississippi. If any work of incontestable genius, and plainly predestined to immortality, has been issued in the English language during the past quarter of a century, it is that brilliant romance of the Great Rivers, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Intensely American though he be, "Mark Twain" is one of the greatest living masters of the English language. To some Englishmen this may seem a paradox; but it is high time we should disabuse ourselves of the prejudice that residence on the European side of the Atlantic confers upon us an exclusive right to determine what is good English, and to write it correctly and vigorously. We are apt in England to class as an "Americanism" every unfamiliar, or too familiar, locution which we do not happen to like. As a matter of fact, there is a pretty lively interchange between the two countries of slipshod and vulgar "journalese"; and as the picturesque reporter is a greater power in America than he is with us, we perhaps import more than we export of this particular commodity. But there can be no rational doubt, I think, that the English language has gained, and is gaining, enormously by its expansion over the American continent. The prime function of a language, after all, is to interpret the "form and pressure" of life—the experience, knowledge, thought, emotion, and aspiration of the race which employs it. This being so, the more tap-roots a language sends down into the soil of life, and the more varied the strata of human experience from which it draws its nourishment, whether of vocabulary or idiom, the more perfect will be its potentialities as a medium of expression. We must be careful, it is true, to keep the organism healthy, to guard against disintegration of tissue; but to that duty American writers are quite as keenly alive as we. It is not a source of weakness but of power and vitality to the English language that it should embrace a greater variety of dialects than any other civilised tongue. A new language, says the proverb, is a new sense; but a multiplicity of dialects means, for the possessors of the main language, an enlargement of the pleasures of the linguistic sense without the fatigue of learning a totally new grammar and vocabulary. So long as there is a potent literary tradition keeping the core of the language one and indivisible, vernacular variations can only tend, in virtue of the survival of the fittest, to promote the abundance, suppleness, and nicety of adaptation of the language as a literary instrument. The English language is no mere historic monument, like Westminster Abby, to be religiously preserved as a relic of the past, and reverenced as the burial-place of a bygone breed of giants. It is a living organism, ceaselessly busied, like any other organism, in the processes of assimilation and excretion. It has before it, we may fairly hope, a future still greater than its glorious past. And the greatness of that future will largely depend on the harmonious interplay of spiritual forces throughout the American Republic and the British Empire.

  1. I went to see Poe's grave in Baltimore, marked by a mean and ugly monument, little more than a mere tombstone. It is surely time that a worthy memorial should be raised, at his burial-place or elsewhere, to this unique genius. England and the English-speaking world would gladly contribute. For a masterly criticism and vindication of Poe, let me refer the reader to Mr. John M. Robertson's New Essays towards a Critical Method. London and New York: J. Lane. 1897.
  2. For the reasons of this barrenness, see an essay on Two Studies in the South in Professor Brander Matthews's Aspects of Fiction. New York: Harper. 1896.
  3. Founded on a novel by Miss Helen H. Gardener.