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In the companion volume of this series, “Men of Action, “ theattempt was made to give the essential facts of American history bysketching in broad outline the men who made that history—thediscoverers, pioneers, presidents, statesmen, soldiers, and sailors—and describing the part which each of them played.It was almost like watching a great building grow under the handsof the workmen, this one adding a stone and that one addinganother; but there was one great difference. For a building, the plansare made carefully beforehand, worked out to the smallest detail,and followed to the letter, so that every stone goes exactly where itbelongs, and the work of all the men fits together into a completeand perfect whole. But when America was started, no one had morethan the vaguest idea of what the finished result was to be; indeed,many questioned whether any enduring structure could be reared ona foundation such as ours. So there was much useless labor, oneworkman tearing down what another had built, and only a few ofthem working with any clear vision of the future.
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In the companion volume of this series, “Men of Action, “ the attempt was made to give the essential facts of American history by sketching in broad outline the men who made that history—the discoverers, pioneers, presidents, statesmen, soldiers, and sailors— and describing the part which each of them played.
It was almost like watching a great building grow under the hands of the workmen, this one adding a stone and that one adding another; but there was one great difference. For a building, the plans are made carefully beforehand, worked out to the smallest detail, and followed to the letter, so that every stone goes exactly where it belongs, and the work of all the men fits together into a complete and perfect whole. But when America was started, no one had more than the vaguest idea of what the finished result was to be; indeed, many questioned whether any enduring structure could be reared on a foundation such as ours. So there was much useless labor, one workman tearing down what another had built, and only a few of them working with any clear vision of the future.
The convention which adopted the Constitution of the United States may fairly be said to have furnished the first plan, and George Washington was the master-builder who laid the foundations in accordance with it. He did more than that, for the plan was only a mere outline; so Washington added such details as he found necessary, taking care always that they accorded with the plan of the founders. He lived long enough to see the building complete in all essential details, and to be assured that the foundation was a firm one and that the structure, which is called a Republic, would endure.
All that has been done since his time has been to build on an addition now and then, as need arose, and to change the ornamentation to suit the taste of the day. At one time, it seemed that the whole structure might be rent asunder and topple into ruins; but again there came a master-builder named Abraham Lincoln, and with the aid of a million devoted workmen who rallied to his call, he saved it. There have been men, and there are men to-day, who would attack the foundation were they permitted; but never yet have they got within effective striking distance. Others there are who have marred the simple and classic beauty of the building with strange excrescences. But these are only temporary, and the hand of time will sweep them all away. For the work of tearing down and building up is going forward to-day just as it has always done; and the changes are sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse; but, on the whole, the building grows more stately and more beautiful as the generations pass.
It was the work of the principal laborers on this mighty edifice which we attempted to judge in “Men of Action, “ and this was a comparatively easy task, because the work stands out concretely for all to see, and, as far as essentials go, at least, we are all agreed as to what is good work and what is bad. But the task which is attempted in the present volume is a much more difficult one, for here we are called upon to judge not deeds but thoughts—thoughts, that is, as translated into a novel, or a poem, or a statue, or a painting, or a theory of the universe.
Nobody has ever yet been able to devise a universal scale by which thoughts may be measured, nor any acid test to distinguish gold from dross in art and literature. So each person has to devise a scale of his own and do his measuring for himself; he has to apply to the things he sees and reads the acid test of his own intellect. And however imperfect this measuring and testing may be, it is the only sort which has any value for that particular person. In other words, unless you yourself find a poem or a painting great, it isn’t great for you, however critics may extol it. So all the books about art and literature and music are of value only as they improve the scale and perfect the acid test of the individual, so that the former measures more and more correctly, and the latter bites more and more surely through the glittering veneer which seeks to disguise the dross beneath.
It follows from all this that, since there are nearly as many scales as there are individuals, very few of them will agree exactly. Time, however, has a wonderful way of testing thoughts, of preserving those that are worthy, and of discarding those that are unworthy. Just how this is done nobody has ever been able to explain; but the fact remains that, somehow, a really great poem or painting or statue or theory lives on from age to age, long after the other products of its time have been forgotten. And if it is really great, the older it grows, the greater it seems. Shakespeare, to his contemporaries, was merely an actor and playwright like any one of a score of others; but, with the passing of years, he has become the most wonderful figure in the world’s literature. Rembrandt could scarcely make a living with his brush, industriously as he used it, and passed his days in misery, haunted by his creditors and neglected by the public; to-day we recognize in him one of the greatest artists who ever lived. Such instances are common enough, for genius often goes unrecognized until its possessor is dead; just as many men are hailed as geniuses by their contemporaries, and promptly forgotten by the succeeding generation. The touchstone of time infallibly separates the false and the true.
Unfortunately, to American literature and art no such test can be applied, for they are less than a century old—scarcely out of swaddling clothes. The greater portion of the product of our early years has long since been forgotten; but whether any of that which remains is really immortal will take another century or two to determine. So the only tests we can apply at present are those of taste and judgment, and these are anything but infallible.
Especially is this true of literature. Somebody announced, not long ago, that “the foremost poet of a nation is that poet most widely read and truly loved by it, “ and added that, in this respect, Longfellow was easily first in America. No doubt many people will agree with this dictum; and, indeed, the test of popularity is difficult to disregard. But it is not at all a true test, as we can see easily enough if we attempt to apply it to art, or to music, or to public affairs. Popularity is no more a test of genius in a poet than in a statesman, and when we remember how far astray the popular will has sometimes led us in regard to politics, we may be inclined to regard with suspicion its judgments in regard to literature.
The test of merit in literature is not so much wide appeal as intelligent appeal; the literature which satisfies the taste and judgment of cultured people is pretty certain to rank higher than that which is current among the uncultured. And so with art. Consequently, for want of something better, the general verdict of cultured people upon our literature and art has been followed in these pages. Two or three other classes of achievers have been grouped, for convenience, in this volume—scientists and educators, philanthropists and reformers, men of affairs, actors and inventors— and it may be truly argued concerning some of them that they were more “men of action, “ and less “men of mind” than many who were included in the former volume. But all distinctions and divisions and classifications are more or less arbitrary; and there is no intention, in this one, to intimate that the “men of action” were not also “men of mind, “ or vice versa. The division has been made simply for convenience.
These thumb-nail sketches are in no sense the result of original research. The material needed has been gathered from such sources as are available in any well-equipped public library. An attempt has been made, however, to color the narrative with human interest, and to give it consecutiveness, though this has sometimes been very hard to do. But, even at the best, this is only a first book in the study of American art and letters, and is designed to serve only as a steppingstone to more elaborate and comprehensive ones.
There are several short histories of American literature which will prove profitable and pleasant reading. Mr. W. P. Trent’s is written with a refreshing humor and insight. The “American Men of Letters” series gives carefully written biographies of about twenty-five of our most famous authors—all that anyone need know about in detail. There is a great mass of other material on the shelves of every public library, which will take one as far as one may care to go.
But the important thing in literature is to know the man’s work rather than his life. If his work is sound and helpful and inspiring, his life needn’t bother us, however hopeless it may have been. The striking example of this, in American literature, is Edgar Allan Poe, whose fame, in this country, is just emerging from the cloud which his unfortunate career cast over it. The life of the man is of importance only as it helps you to understand his work. Most important of all is to create within yourself a liking for good books and a power of telling good from bad. This is one of the most important things in life, indeed; and Mr. John Macy points the way to it in his “Child’s Guide to Reading. “
Only second to the power to appreciate good literature is the power to appreciate good art. For the material in this volume the author is indebted largely to the excellent monographs by Mr. Samuel Isham and Mr. Lorado Taft on “American Painting, “ and “American Sculpture. “ There are many, guides to the study of art, among the best of them being Mr. Charles C. Caffin’s “Child’s Guide to Pictures, “ “American Masters of Painting, “ “American Masters of Sculpture, “ and “How to Study Pictures”; Mr. John C. VanDyke’s “How to Judge of a Picture, “ and “The Meaning of Pictures, “ and Mr. John LaFarge’s “Great Masters. “ In the study of art, as of literature, you will soon find that America’s place is as yet comparatively unimportant.
For the chapter on “The Stage, “ Mr. William Winter’s various volumes of biography and criticism have been drawn upon, more especially with reference to the actors of the “old school, “ which Mr. Winter admires so deeply. There are a number of books, besides these, which make capital reading—Clara Morris’s “Life on the Stage, “ Joseph Jefferson’s autobiography, Stoddart’s “Recollections of a Player, “ and Henry Austin Clapp’s “Reminiscences of a Dramatic Critic, “ among them.
The material for the other chapters has been gathered from many sources, none of which is important enough to be mentioned here. Appleton’s “Cyclopedia of American Biography” is a mine from which most of the facts concerning any American, prominent twenty years or more ago, may be dug; but it gives only the dry bones, so to speak. For more than that you must go to the individual biographies in your public library.
If you live in a small town, the librarian will very probably be glad to permit you to look over the shelves yourself, as well as to give you such advice and direction as you may need. In the larger cities, this is, of course, impossible, to say nothing of the fact that you would be lost among the thousands of books on the shelves. But you will find a children’s librarian whose business and pleasure it is to help children to the right books. If this book helps you to form the library habit, and gives you an incentive to the further study of art and literature, it will more than fulfill its mission. CHAPTER IIWRITERS OF PROSE
It is true of American literature that it can boast no name of commanding genius—no dramatist to rank with Shakespeare, no poet to rank with Keats, no novelist to rank with Thackeray, to take names only from our cousins oversea—and yet it displays a high level of talent and a notable richness of achievement. Literature requires a background of history and tradition; more than that, it requires leisure. A new nation spends its energies in the struggle for existence, and not until that existence is assured do its finer minds need to turn to literature for self-expression. As Poor Richard put it, “Well done is better than well said, “ and so long as great things are pressing to be done, great men will do their writing on the page of history, and not on papyrus, or parchment, or paper.
So, in the early history of America, the settlers in the new country were too busily employed in fighting for a foothold, in getting food and clothing, in keeping body and soul together, to have any time for the fine arts. Most of the New England divines tried their hands at limping and hob-nail verse, but prior to the Revolution, American literature is remarkable only for its aridity, its lack of inspiration and its portentous dulness. In these respects it may proudly claim never to have been surpassed in the history of mankind. In fact, American literature, as such, may be said to date from 1809, when Washington Irving gave to the world his inimitable “History of New York. “ It struck a new and wholly original note, with a sureness bespeaking a master’s touch.
Where did Irving get that touch? That is a question which one asks vainly concerning any master of literature, for genius is a thing which no theory can explain. It appears in the most unexpected places. An obscure Corsican lieutenant becomes Emperor of France, arbiter of Europe, and one of the three or four really great commanders of history; a tinker in Bedford County jail writes the greatest allegory in literature; and the son of two mediocre players develops into the first figure in American letters. Conversely, genius seldom appears where one would naturally look for it. Seldom indeed does genius beget genius. It expends itself in its work. Certainly there was no reason to suppose that any child of William Irving and Sarah Sanders would develop genius even of the second order, more especially since they had already ten who were just average boys and girls. Nor did the eleventh, who was christened Washington, show, in his youth, any glimpse of the eagle’s feather.
Born in 1783, in New York City, a delicate child and one whose life was more than once despaired of, Washington Irving received little formal schooling, but was allowed to amuse himself as he pleased by wandering up and down the Hudson and keeping as much as possible in the open air. It was during these years that he gained that intimate knowledge of the Hudson River Valley of which he was to make such good use later on. He still remained delicate, however, and at the age of twenty was sent to Europe. The air of France and Italy proved to be just what he needed, and he soon developed into a fairly robust man.
With health regained, he returned, two years later, to America, and got himself admitted to the bar. Why he should have gone to this trouble is a mystery, for he never really seriously tried to practise law. Instead, he was occupying himself with a serio-comic history of New York, which grew under his pen into as successful an example of true and sustained humor as our literature possesses. The subject was one exactly suited to Irving’s genius, and he allowed his fancy to have free play about the picturesque personalities of Wouter Van Twiller, and Wandle Schoonhovon, and General Van Poffenburgh, in whose very names there is a comic suggestion. When it appeared, in 1809, it took the town by storm.
Irving, indeed, had created a legend. The history, supposed to have been written by one Diedrich Knickerbocker, gives to the story of New York just the touch of fancy and symbolism it needed. For all time, New York will remain the Knickerbocker City. The book revealed a genuine master of kindly satire, and established its author’s reputation beyond possibility of question. Perhaps the surest proof of its worth is the fact that it is read to-day as widely and enjoyed as thoroughly as it ever was.
It is strange that Irving did not at once adopt letters as a profession; but instead of that, he entered his brothers’ business house, which was in a decaying condition, and to which he devoted nine harassed and anxious years, before it finally failed. That failure decided him, and he cast in his lot finally with the fortunes of literature. He was at that time thirty-five years of age—an age at which most men are settled in life, with an established profession, and a complacent readiness to drift on into middle age.
Rarely has any such choice as Irving’s received so prompt and triumphant a vindication, for a year later appeared the “Sketch Book, “ with its “Rip Van Winkle, “ its “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “The Spectre Bridegroom”—to mention only three of the thirty-three items of its table of contents—which proved the author to be not only a humorist of the first order, but an accomplished critic, essayist and short-story writer. The publication of this book marked the culmination of his literary career. It is his most characteristic and important work, and on it and his “History, “ his fame rests.
He lived for forty years thereafter, a number of which were spent in Spain, first as secretary of legation, and afterwards as United States minister to that country. It was during these years that he gathered the materials for his “Life of Columbus, “ his “Conquest of Granada, “ and his “Alhambra, “ which has been called with some justice, “The Spanish Sketch Book. “ A tour of the western portion of the United States resulted also in three books, “The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, “ “Astoria, “ and “A Tour on the Prairies. “ His last years were spent at “Sunnyside, “ his home at Tarrytown, on the Hudson, where he amused himself by writing biographies of Mahomet, of Goldsmith, and of George Washington.
All of this was, for the most part, what is called “hack work, “ and his turning to it proves that he himself was aware that his fount of inspiration had run dry. This very fact marks his genius as of the second order, for your real genius—your Shakespeare or Browning or Thackeray or Tolstoi—never runs dry, but finds welling up within him a perpetual and self-renewing stream of inspiration, fed by thought and observation and every-day contact with the world.
Irving’s closing years were rich in honor and affection, and found him unspoiled and uncorrupted. He was always a shy man, to whom publicity of any kind was most embarrassing; and yet he managed to be on the most intimate of terms with his time, and to possess a wide circle of friends who were devoted to him.
Such was the career of America’s first successful man of letters. For, strangely enough, he had succeeded in making a good living with his pen. More than that, his natural and lambent humor, his charm and grace of style, and a literary power at once broad and genuine, had won him a place, if not among the crowned heads, at least mong the princes of literature, side by side with Goldsmith and Addison. Thackeray called him “the first ambassador whom the New World of letters sent to the Old, “ and from the very first he identified American literature with purity of life and elevation of character, with kindly humor and grace of manner—qualities which it has never lost.
Two years after the appearance of the “Sketch Book, “ another star suddenly flamed out upon the literary horizon, and for a time quite eclipsed Irving in brilliancy. It waned somewhat in later years, but, though we have come to see that it lacks the purity and gentle beauty of its rival, it has still found a place among the brightest in our literary heaven—where, indeed, only one or two of the first magnitude shine. J. Fenimore Cooper was, like Irving, a product of New York state, his father laying out the site of Cooperstown, on Lake Otsego, and moving there from New Jersey in 1790, when his son was only a year old. James, as the boy was known, was the eleventh of twelve children—another instance of a single swan amid a flock of ducklings.
Cooperstown was at that time a mere outpost of civilization in the wilderness, and it was in this wilderness that Cooper’s boyhood was passed. And just as Irving’s boyhood left its impress on his work, so did Cooper’s in even greater degree. Mighty woods, broken only here and there by tiny clearings, stretched around the little settlement; Indians and frontiersmen, hunters, traders, trappers—all these were a part of the boy’s daily life. He grew learned in the lore of the woods, and laid up unconsciously the stores from which he was afterwards to draw.
At the age of eleven, he was sent to a private school at Albany, and three years later entered Yale. But he had the true woodland spirit; he preferred the open air to the lecture-room, and was so careless in his attendance at classes that, in his third year, he was dismissed from college. There is some question whether this was a blessing or the reverse. No doubt a thorough college training would have made Cooper incapable of the loose and turgid style which characterizes all his novels; but, on the other hand, he left college to enter the navy, and there gained that knowledge of seamanship and of the ocean which make his sea stories the best of their kind that have ever been written. His sea career was cut short, just before the opening of the war of 1812, by his marriage into an old Tory family, who insisted that he resign from the service. He did so, and entered upon the quiet life of a well-to-do country gentleman.
For seven or eight years, he showed no desire nor aptitude to be anything else. He had never written anything for publication, had never felt any impulse to do so, and perhaps never would have felt such an impulse but for an odd accident. Tossing aside a dull British novel, one day, he remarked to his wife that he could easily write a better story himself, and she laughingly dared him to try. The result was “Precaution, “ than which no British novel could be duller. But Cooper, finding the work of writing congenial, kept at it, and the next year saw the publication of “The Spy, “ the first American novel worthy of the name. By mere accident, Cooper had found his true vein, the story of adventure, and his true field in the scenes with which he was himself familiar. In Harvey Birch, the spy, he added to the world’s gallery of fiction the first of his three great characters, the other two being, of course, Long Tom Coffin and Leatherstocking.
The book was an immediate success, and was followed by “The Pioneers” and “The Pilot, “ both remarkable stories, the former visualizing for the first time the life of the forest, the latter for the first time the life of the sea. Let us not forget that Cooper was himself a pioneer and blazed the trails which so many of his successors have tried to follow. If the trail he made was rough and difficult, it at least possesses the merits of vigor and pristine achievement. “The Spy, “ “The Pioneers, “ and “The Pilot” established Cooper’s reputation not only in this country, but in England and France. He became a literary lion, with the result that his head, never very firmly set upon his shoulders, was completely turned; he set himself up as a mentor and critic of both continents, and while his successive novels continued to be popular, he himself became involved in numberless personal controversies, which embittered his later years.
The result of these quarrels was apparent in his work, which steadily decreased in merit, so that, of the thirty-three novels that he wrote, not over twelve are, at this day, worth reading. But those twelve paint, as no other novelist has ever painted, life in the forest and on the ocean, and however we may quarrel with his wooden men and women, his faults of taste and dreary wastes of description, there is about them some intangible quality which compels the interest and grips the imagination of school-boy and gray-beard alike. He splashed his paint on a great canvas with a whitewash brush, so to speak; it will not bear minute examination; but at a distance, with the right perspective, it fairly glows with life. No other American novelist has added to fiction three such characters as those we have mentioned; into those he breathed the breath of life—the supreme achievement of the novelist.
For seventeen years after the publication of “The Spy, “ Cooper had no considerable American rival. Then, in 1837, the publication of a little volume called “Twice-Told Tales” marked the advent of a greater than he. No one to-day seriously questions Nathaniel Hawthorne’s right to first place among American novelists, and in the realm of the short story he has only one equal, Edgar Allan Poe.
We shall speak of Poe more at length as a poet; but it is curious and interesting to contrast these two men, contemporaries, and the most significant figures in the literature of their country—Poe, an actor’s child, an outcast, fighting in the dark with the balance against him, living a tragic life and dying a tragic death, leaving to America the purest lyrics and most compelling tales ever produced within her borders; Hawthorne, a direct descendant of the Puritans, a recluse and a dreamer, his delicate genius developing gradually, marrying most happily, leading an idyllic family life, winning success and substantial recognition, which grew steadily until the end of his career, and which has, at least, not diminished—could any contrast be more complete?
Nathaniel Hawthorne was a direct descendant of that William Hawthorne who came from England in 1630 with John Winthrop in the “Arabella, “ and was born at Salem, Massachusetts, the family’s ancestral home, in 1804. He was a classmate of Longfellow at Bowdoin College, graduating without especial distinction, and spending the twelve succeeding years at Salem, living a secluded life in accordance with his abnormally shy and sensitive disposition. He was already resolved on the literary life, and spent those years in solitary writing. The result was a morbid novel, “Fanshawe, “ and a series of short stories, none of which attracted especial attention or gave indication of more than average talent. Not until 1837 did he win any measure of success, but that year saw the publication of the first series of “Twice-Told Tales, “ which, by their charm and delicacy, won him many readers.
Even at that, he found the profession of letters so unprofitable that he was glad to accept a position as weigher and gauger at the Boston custom-house, but he lost the place two years later by a change in administration; tried, for a while, living with the Transcendentalists at Brook Farm, and finally, taking a leap into the unknown, married and settled down in the old manse at Concord. It was a most fortunate step; his wife proved a real inspiration, and in the months that followed, he wrote the second series of “Twice-Told Tales, “ and “Mosses from an Old Manse, “ which mark the culmination of his genius as a teller of tales.
Four years later, the political pendulum swung back again, and Hawthorne was offered the surveyor-ship of the custom-house at Salem, accepted it, and moved his family back to his old home. He held the position for four years, completed his first great romance, and in 1850 gave to the world “The Scarlet Letter, “ perhaps the most significant and vital novel produced by any American. Hawthorne had, at last, “found himself. “ A year later came “The House of the Seven Gables, “ and then, in quick succession, “Grandfather’s Chair, “ “The Wonder Book, “ “The Snow-Image, “ “The Blithedale Romance, “ and “Tanglewood Tales. “
A queer product of his pen, at this time, was a life of Franklin Pierce, the Democratic candidate for the Presidency; and when Pierce was elected, he showed his gratitude by offering Hawthorne the consulship at Liverpool, a lucrative position which Hawthorne accepted and which he held for four years. Two years on the continent followed, and in 1860, he returned home, his health breaking and his mind unsettled, largely by the prospect of the Civil War into which the country was drifting. He found himself unable to write, failed rapidly, and the end came in the spring of 1864.
Of American novelists, Hawthorne alone shows that sustained power and high artistry belonging to the masters of fiction; and yet his novels have not that universal appeal which belongs to the few really great ones of the world. Hawthorne was supremely the interpreter of old New England, a subject of comparatively little interest to other peoples, since old New England was distinguished principally by a narrow spiritual conflict which other peoples find difficult to understand. The subject of “The Scarlet Letter” is, indeed, one of universal appeal, and is, in some form, the theme of nearly all great novels; but its setting narrowed this appeal, and Hawthorne’s treatment of his theme, symbolical rather than simple and concrete, narrowed it still further. Yet with all that, it possesses that individual charm and subtlety which is apparent, in greater or less degree, in all of his imaginative work.
Contemporary with Hawthorne, and surviving him by a few years, was another novelist who had, in his day, a tremendous reputation, but who is now almost forgotten, William Gilmore Simms. We shall consider him—for he was also a maker of verse—in the next chapter, in connection with his fellow-townsmen, Henry Timrod and Paul Hamilton Hayne. So we pause here only to remark that the obscurity which enfolds him is more dense than he deserves, and that anyone who likes frontier fiction, somewhat in the manner of Cooper, will enjoy reading “The Yemassee, “ the best of Simms’s books.
Hawthorne stands so far above the novelists who come after him that one rather hesitates to mention them at all. With one, or possibly two, exceptions, the work of none of them gives promise of permanency—so far as can be judged, at least, in looking at work so near that it has no perspective. Prophesying has always been a risky business, and will not be attempted here. But, whether immortal or not, there are some five or six novelists whose work is in some degree significant, and who deserve at least passing study.
Harriet Beecher Stowe is one of these. Born in 1811, the daughter of Lyman Beecher, and perhaps the most brilliant member of a brilliant family, beginning to write while still a child, and continuing to do so until the end of her long life, Mrs. Stowe’s name is nevertheless connected in the public mind with a single book, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “ a book which has probably been read by more people than any other ever written by an American author. Mrs. Stowe had lived for some years in Cincinnati and had visited in Kentucky, so that she had some surface knowledge of slavery; she was, of course, by birth and breeding, an abolitionist, and so when, early in 1851, an antislavery paper called the “National Era” was started at Washington, she agreed to furnish a “continued story. “
The first chapter appeared in April, and the story ran through the year, attracting little attention. But its publication in book form marked the beginning of an immense popularity and an influence probably greater than that of any other novel ever written. It crystallized anti-slavery sentiment, it was read all over the world, it was dramatized and gave countless thousands their first visualization of the slave traffic. That her presentation of it was in many respects untrue has long since been admitted, but she was writing a tract and naturally made her case as strong as she could. From a literary standpoint, too, the book is full of faults; but it is alive with an emotional sincerity which sweeps everything before it. She wrote other books, but none of them is read to-day, except as a matter of duty or curiosity. And let us pause here to point out that the underlying principle of every great work of art, whether a novel or poem or painting or statue, is sincerity. Without sincerity it cannot be great, no matter how well it is done, with what care and fidelity; and with sincerity it may often attain greatness without perfection of form, just as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” did. But to lack sincerity is to lack soul; it is a body without a spirit.
We must refer, too, to the most distinctive American humorist of the last half century, Samuel Langhorne Clemens—”Mark Twain. “ Born in Missouri, knocking about from pillar to post in his early years, serving as pilot’s boy and afterwards as pilot on a Mississippi steamboat, as printer, editor, and what not, but finally “finding himself” and making an immense reputation by the publication of a burlesque book of European travel, “Innocents Abroad, “ he followed it up with such widely popular stories as “Tom Sawyer, “ “Huckleberry Finn, “ “The Prince and the Pauper, “ and many others, in some of which, at least, there seems to be an element of permanency. “Huckleberry Finn, “ indeed, has been hailed as the most distinctive work produced in America—an estimate which must be accepted with reservations.
Three living novelists have contributed to American letters books of insight and dignity—William Dean Howells, George W. Cable and Henry James. Mr. Howells has devoted himself to careful and painstaking studies of American life, and has occasionally struck a note so true that it has found wide appreciation. The same thing may be said of Mr. Cable’s stories of the South, and especially of the Creoles of Louisiana; while Mr. James, perhaps as the result of his long residence abroad, has ranged over a wider field, and has chosen to depict the evolution of character by thought rather than by deed, in his early work showing a rare insight. Of the three, he seems most certain of a lasting reputation.
Others of less importance have made some special corner of the country theirs, and possess a sort of squatter-right over it. To Bret Harte belongs mid-century California; to Mary Noailles Murfree, the Tennessee mountains; to James Lane Allen and John Fox, presentday Kentucky; to Mary Johnston, colonial Virginia; to Ellen Glasgow, present-day Virginia; to Stewart Edward White, the great northwest. Others cultivate a field peculiar to themselves. Frank R. Stockton is whimsically humorous, Edith Wharton cynically dissective; Mary Wilkins Freeman is most at home with rural New England character; and Thomas Nelson Page has done his best work in the South of reconstruction days.
But of the great mass of fiction being written in America to-day, little is of value as literature. It is designed for the most part as an amusing occupation for idle hours. Read some of it, by all means, if you enjoy it, since “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”; but remember that it is only the sweetmeat that comes at the end of the meal, and for sustenance, for the bread and butter of the literary diet, you must read the older books that are worth while.* * * * *
It may be questioned whether America has produced any poet or novelist or essayist of the very first rank, but, in another branch of letters, four names appear, which stand as high as any on the scroll. The writing of history is not, of course, pure literature; it is semicreative rather than creative; and yet, at its best, it demands a high degree of imaginative insight. It appears at its best in the works of Prescott, Motley, Bancroft and Parkman.
George Bancroft was, of this quartette, the most widely known half a century ago, because he chose as his theme the history of America, and because he was himself for many years prominent in the political life of the country. Born in Massachusetts in 1800, graduating from Harvard, and, after a course of study in Germany, resolving to be a historian, he returned to America and began work on his history, the first volume of which appeared in 1834. Three years later, came the second volume, and in 1840, the third.
Glowing with national spirit as they did, they attracted public attention to him, and he was soon drawn into politics. During the next twelve years he held several government positions, among them Secretary of the Navy and Minister to England, which gave him access to great masses of historical documents. It was not until 1852 that his fourth volume appeared, then five more followed at comparatively frequent intervals. Again politics interrupted. He was sent as Minister to Prussia and later to the German Empire, again largely increasing his store of original documents, with which, toward the last, he seems to have been fairly overburdened. In 1874, he published his tenth volume, bringing his narrative through the Revolution, and eight years later, the last two dealing with the adoption of the Constitution. His last years were spent in revising and correcting this monumental work.
It is an inspiring record—a life devoted consistently to one great work, and that work the service of one’s country, for such Bancroft’s really was. Every student of colonial and revolutionary America must turn to him, and while his history has long since ceased to be generally read, it maintains an honored place among every collection of books dealing with America. It is easily first among the old-school histories as produced by such men as Hildreth. Tucker, Palfrey and Sparks.
At the head of the other school, which has been called cosmopolitan because it sought its subjects abroad rather than at home, stands William Hickling Prescott. Of this school, Washington Irving may fairly be said to have been the pioneer. We have seen how his residence in Spain turned his attention to the history of that country and resulted in three notable works. Prescott, however, was a historian by forethought and not by accident. Before his graduation from Harvard, he had determined to lead a literary life modelled upon that of Edward Gibbon. His career was almost wrecked at the outset by an unfortunate accident which so impaired his sight that he was unable to read or to write except with the assistance of a cumbrous machine. That any man, laboring under such a disability, should yet persevere in pursuing the rocky road of the historian seems almost unbelievable; yet that is just what Prescott did.
Let us tell the story of that accident. It was while he was at Harvard, in his junior year. One day after dinner, in the Commons Hall, some of the boys started a rude frolic. Prescott took no part in it, but just as he was leaving, a great commotion behind him caused him to turn quickly, and a hard piece of bread, thrown undoubtedly at random, struck him squarely and with great force in the left eye. He fell unconscious, and never saw out of that eye again. Worse than that, his other eye soon grew inflamed, and became almost useless to him, besides causing him, from time to time, the most acute suffering. But in spite of all this, he persisted in his determination to be a historian.
After careful thought, he chose for his theme that period of Spanish history dominated by Ferdinand and Isabella, and went to work. Documents were collected, an assistant read to him for hours at a time, notes were taken, and the history painfully pushed forward. The result was a picturesque narrative which was at once successful both in Europe and America; and, thus encouraged, Prescott selected another romantic theme, the conquest of Mexico, for his next work. Following this came the history of the conquest of Peru, and finally a history of the reign of Philip II, upon which he was at work, when a paralytic stroke ended his career.
Prescott was fortunate not only in his choice of subjects, but in the possession of a picturesque and fascinating style, which has given his histories a remarkable vogue. Fault has been found with him on the ground of historical inaccuracy, but such criticism is, for the most part, unjustified. His thoroughness, his judgment, and his critical faculty stand unimpeached, and place him very near the head of American historians.
Prescott’s successor, in more than one sense, was John Lothrop Motley. A Bostonian and Harvard man, well-trained, after one or two unsuccessful ventures in fiction, he turned his attention to history, and in 1856 completed his “Rise of the Dutch Republic, “ for which he could not find a publisher. He finally issued it at his own expense, with no little inward trembling, but it was at once successful and seventeen thousand copies of it were sold in England alone during the first year. It received unstinted praise, and Motley at once proceeded with his “History of the United Netherlands. “ The opening of the Civil War, however, recalled his attention to his native land, he was drawn into politics, and did not complete his history until 1868. Six years later appeared his “John of Barneveld”; but his health was giving way and the end came in 1877.
In brilliancy, dramatic instinct and power of picturesque narration, Motley was Prescott’s equal, if not his superior. The glow and fervor of his narrative have never been surpassed; his characters live and breathe; he was thoroughly in sympathy with his subject and found a personal pleasure in exalting his heroes and unmasking his villains. But there was his weakness; for often, instead of the impartial historian, he became a partisan of this cause or that, and painted his heroes whiter and his villains blacker than they really were. In spite of that, or perhaps because of it—because of the individual and intensely earnest personal point of view—his histories are as absorbing and fascinating as any in the world.
The last of this noteworthy group of historians, Francis Parkman, is also, in many respects, the greatest. He combined the virtues of all of them, and added for himself methods of research which have never been surpassed. Through it all, too, he battled against a persistent illhealth, which unfitted him for work for months on end, and, even at the best, would permit his reading or writing only a few minutes at a time.
Like the others, Parkman was born in Boston, and, as a boy, was so delicate that he was allowed to run wild in the country, acquiring a love of nature which is apparent in all his books. In search of health, he journeyed westward from St. Louis, in 1846, living with Indians and trappers and gaining a minute knowledge of their ways. The results of this journey were embodied in a modest little volume called “The Oregon Trail, “ which remains the classic source of information concerning the far West at that period.
Upon his return to the East, he settled down in earnest to the task which he had set himself—a history, in every phase, of the struggle between France and England for the possession of the North American continent. Years were spent in the collection of material— and in 1865 appeared his “Pioneers of France in the New World, “ followed at periods of a few years by the other books completing the series, which ends with the story of Montcalm and Wolfe.
The series is a masterpiece of interpretative history. Every phase of the struggle for the continent is described in minute detail and with the intimate touch of perfect knowledge; every actor in the great drama is presented with incomparable vividness, and its scenes are painted with a color and atmosphere worthy of Prescott or Motley, and with absolute accuracy. His work satisfies at once the student and the lover of literature, standing almost unique in this regard. His flexible and charming style is a constant joy; his power of analysis and presentment a constant wonder; and throughout his work there is a freshness of feeling, an air of the open, at once delightful and stimulating. He said the last word concerning the period which his histories cover, and has lent to it a fascination and absorbing interest which no historian has surpassed. The boy or girl who has not read Parkman’s histories has missed one of the greatest treats which literature has to offer.
Other historians there are who have done good service to American letters and whose work is outranked only by the men we have already mentioned—John Bach McMaster, whose “History of the People of the United States” is still uncompleted; James Ford Rhodes, who has portrayed the Civil War period with admirable exhaustiveness and accuracy; Justin Winsor, Woodrow Wilson, William M. Sloane, and John Fiske. John Fiske’s work, which deals wholly with the different periods of American history, is especially suited to young people because of its simplicity and directness, and because, while accurate, it is not overburdened with detail.
We have said that, during the Colonial period of American history, most of the New England divines devoted a certain amount of attention to the composition of creaking verse. More than that, they composed histories, biographies and numberless works of a theological character, which probably constitute the dullest mass of reading ever produced upon this earth. The Revolution stopped this flood—if anything so dry can be called a flood—and when the Revolution ended, public thought was for many years occupied with the formation of the new nation. But in the second quarter of the nineteenth century there arose in New England a group of writers who are known as Transcendentalists, and who produced one of the most important sections of American literature.
Transcendentalism is a long word, and it is rather difficult to define, but, to put it as briefly as possible, it was a protest against narrowness in intellectual life, a movement for broader culture and for a freer spiritual life. It took a tremendous grip on New England, beginning about 1830, and kept it for nearly forty years; for New England has always been more or less provincial—provincialism being the habit of measuring everything by one inadequate standard.
The high priest of the Transcendental movement was Amos Bronson Alcott, born on a Connecticut farm in 1799, successively in youth a clockmaker, peddler and book-agent, and finally driven by dire necessity to teaching school. But there could be no success at schoolteaching for a man the most eccentric of his day—a mystic, a follower of Oriental philosophy, a non-resistant, an advocate of woman suffrage, an abolitionist, a vegetarian, and heaven knows what besides. So in the end, he was sold out, and removed with his family to Concord, where he developed into a sort of impractical idealist, holding Orphic conversations and writing scraps of speculation and criticism, and living in the clouds generally.
Life would have been far less easy for him but for the development of an unexpected talent in one of his daughters, Louisa May Alcott. From her sixteenth year, Louisa Alcott had been writing for publication, but with little success, although every dollar she earned was welcome to a family so poor that the girls sometimes thought of selling their hair to get a little money. She also tried to teach, and finally, in 1862, went to Washington as a volunteer nurse and labored for many months in the military hospitals. The letters she wrote to her mother and sisters were afterwards collected in a book called “Hospital Sketches. “ At last, at the suggestion of her publishers, she undertook to write a girls’ story. The result was “Little Women, “ which sprang almost instantly into a tremendous popularity, and which at once put its author out of reach of want.
Other children’s stories, scarcely less famous, followed in quick succession, forming a series which has never been equalled for longcontinued vogue. Few children who read at all have failed to read “Little Men, “ “Little Women, “ “An Old-Fashioned Girl, “ “Eight Cousins, “ and “Rose in Bloom, “ to mention only five of them, and edition after edition has been necessary to supply a demand which shows no sign of lessening. The stories are, one and all, sweet and sincere and helpful, and while they are not in any sense literature, they are, at least, an interesting contribution to American letters.But to return to the Transcendentalists.
The most picturesque figure of the group was Margaret Fuller. Starting as a morbid and sentimental girl, her father’s death seems suddenly to have changed her, at the age of twenty-five, into a talented and thoughtful woman. Her career need not be considered in detail here, since it was significant more from the inspiration she gave others than from any achievement of her own. She proved herself a sympathetic critic, if not a catholic and authoritative one, and a pleasing and suggestive essayist.
What she might have become no one can tell, for her life was cut short at the fortieth year. She had spent some years in Italy, in an epoch of revolutions, into which she entered heart and soul. A romantic marriage, in 1847, with the Marquis Ossoli, served further to identify her with the revolutionary cause, and when it tumbled into ruins, she and her husband escaped from Rome and started for America. Their ship encountered a terrific storm off Long Island, was driven ashore, broken to pieces by the waves, and both she and her husband were drowned.
By far the greatest of the Transcendental group and one of the most original figures in American literature was Ralph Waldo Emerson—a figure, indeed, in many ways unique in all literature. Born in Boston in 1803, the son of a Unitarian clergyman and a member of a large and sickly family, he followed the predestined path through Harvard College, graduating with no especial honors, entered the ministry, and served as pastor of the Second Church of Boston until 1832. Then, finding himself ill at ease in the position, he resigned, and, settling at Concord, turned to lecturing, first on scientific subjects and then on manners and morals. His reputation grew steadily, and, especially in the generation younger than himself, he awakened the deepest enthusiasm.
In 1836, the publication of a little volume called “Nature” gave conclusive evidence of his talent, and, followed as it was by his “Essays, “ “Representative Men, “ and “Conduct of Life, “ established his reputation as seer, interpreter of nature, poet and moralist—a reputation which has held its own against the assaults of time.
And yet no personality could be more puzzling or elusive. He was at once attractive and repulsive—there was a certain line which no one crossed, a charmed circle in which he dwelt alone. There was about him a certain coldness and detachment, a self-sufficiency, and a prudence which held him back from giving himself unreservedly to any cause. He lacked heart and temperament. He was a homely, shrewd and cold-blooded Yankee, to put it plainly. Yet, with all that, he was a serene and benignant figure, of an inspiring optimism, a fine patriotism, and profound intellect—a stimulator of the best in man. Upon this basis, probably, his final claim to memory will rest.
Another Transcendental eccentric with more than a touch of genius was Henry David Thoreau, and it is noteworthy that his fame, which burned dimly enough during his life, has flamed ever brighter and brighter since his death. This increase of reputation is no doubt due, in some degree, to the “return to nature, “ which has recently been so prominent in American life and which has gained a wide hearing for so noteworthy a “poet-naturalist”; but it is also due in part to a growing recognition of the fact that as a writer of delightful, suggestive and inspiring prose he has had few equals.
Thoreau is easily our most extraordinary man of letters. Born in Concord of a poor family, but managing to work his way through Harvard, he spent some years teaching; but an innate love of nature and of freedom led him to seek some form of livelihood which would leave him as much his own master as it was possible for a poor man to be. To earn money for any other purpose than to provide for one’s bare necessities was to Thoreau a grievous waste of time, so it came about that for many years he was a sort of itinerant tinker, a doer of odd jobs. Another characteristic, partly innate and party cultivated, was a distrust of society and a dislike of cities. “I find it as ever very unprofitable to have much to do with men, “ he wrote; and finally, in pursuance of this idea, he built himself a little cabin on the shore of Walden pond, where he lived for some two years and a half.
It was there that his best work was done, for, at bottom, Thoreau was a man of letters rather than a naturalist, with the most seeing eye man ever had. “Walden, or Life in the Woods, “ and “A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers” contain the best of Thoreau, and any boy or girl who is interested in the great outdoors, as every boy and girl ought to be, will enjoy reading them.
The last of the Transcendental group worthy of mention here is George William Curtis, a versatile and charming personality, not a genius in any sense, but a writer of pleasant and amusing prose, an orator of no small ability, and one of the truest patriots who ever loved and labored for his country. It is in this latter aspect, rather than as the author of “Nile Notes” and “The Potiphar Papers, “ that Curtis is best remembered to-day. The books that he produced have, to a large extent, lost their appeal; but the work he did during the dark days of reconstruction and after entitles him to admiring and grateful remembrance.* * * * *
It is scarcely possible to close a chapter upon American prose writers without referring to at least one of the great editors who have done so much to mould American public opinion. To James Gordon Bennett and Charles A. Dana only passing reference need be made; but Horace Greeley deserves more extended treatment.
Early in the last century, on a rocky little farm in New Hampshire, lived a man by the name of Zaccheus Greeley, a good neighbor, but a bad manager—so bad that, in 1820, when his son Horace was nine years old, the farm was seized by the sheriff and sold for debt. The proceeds of the sale did not pay the debt, and so, in order to escape arrest, for they imprisoned people for debt in those days, Zaccheus Greeley fled across the border into Vermont, where his family soon joined him. He managed to make a precarious living by working at odd jobs, in which, of course, the boy joined him whenever he could be of any use.
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