Richardson's American Literature

AN eminent authority has recently warned us, as a nation, against writing manuals of American literature. Mr. Arnold advises us rather to breed more Grants and feed our presses with Poor Richard’s Almanacs. He implies that it lies in our choice to produce great men or little manuals : a handbook made, in this view, is a Washington, or a maxim, lost; but the practical analysis of this deliverance of the world’s Mentor is too bewildering a matter. One silently queries, with the traditional inquisitiveness of Poor Richard’s young hopeful, whether we should be any the more likely to have an Old Hickory in due time if Mr. Richardson had refrained from putting our literary achievements into a manual ; or, at the other horn of our national destiny as Mr. Arnold discerns it, whether the author of this voluminous work would have generated a popular saying if lie had suppressed his desire to become a useful literary historian. It does not seem to us that pithy sentences are Mr. Richardson’s forte ; he shows no signs, either in style or thought, of being a Solomon gone astray ; there is no cause to lament his misdirected energy on the score of what he might have done as a maker of proverbs. The apostle of sweetness and light, doubtless, is innocent of any meaning in his late remarks beyond a covert sneer at our literature, and a reminder to us that our virtue, as he sees it, is Roman and plebeian ; in an early stage of development, moreover, with the Augustan age yet to come. In our time, he thinks, it would be best to fetch sticks, with what zeal we can, for our respective Sabine mothers, and, in a literary way, try to improve on the almanac.

This is interesting, as Mr. Arnold’s counsels of perfection always are. One may glean from it, too, the useful information, which he may not have been unfortunate enough to have acquired more directly, that manuals of our literature are not among our most entertaining and valuable books. They are needed, nevertheless, for use in schools, and are occasionally convenient for reference. Mr. Richardson, however, has attempted something above the ordinary. He applies to this first volume,1 which is limited to the consideration of our prose exclusive of fiction, the sub-title The Development of American Thought. He would be philosophical and critical, as well as descriptive, in his treatment; above all, he means to be comprehensive. He consequently begins with the beginning, — that is, the Mound-Builders ; but as they did not leave even a brick of literature among their potsherds, he is compelled to abandon them very soon. The Indians had more to say for themselves, and hence there is more to say of them ; but the author comes in very good breath to the Anglo-Saxons, their psychical inheritance and physical surroundings, and so arrives in the most approved style of evolutionary historiography at the diarists and theologians whose works constitute the night that preceded our literary dawn. It was a long night, and it is not shortened in the story. It is only right to say, however, that Mr. Richardson has deliberately put his worst foot forward by relegating to his second volume all our poetry and fiction ; he deals here only with unimaginative literature, such as sermons, state papers, political orations, essays, scientific works. There is little need to add that he has a hard and often unavailing struggle with the genius of dullness. His illustrative extracts serve to burden his pages still more heavily at times. But such drawbacks were inevitably implied in the plan he adopted, and are not to be found fault with unless that is condemned. It is not to be expected that there should be any relief except by varieties of dullness itself in the greater portion of such a field as he surveys : here it is the dullness of bibliography, there of theological history, and again of the cyclopædia, the book of elegant extracts, the list of recent scientific and metaphysical publications, and so on. It seems as if Mr. Richardson had not been very certain what sort of a book he would make, when he set out, and had ended by making a book of all sorts. This confusion or multiplicity of aim, whichever it may be, is the defect of his own work ; but the dullness was inherent in the subject as he conceived it, namely, not literature, but books of reputation.

What is really fresh and noteworthy in the volume is its spirit. The author’s critical duty weighs most heavily upon his conscience; and as he thinks the time has now come to tell the truth about our authors, without national prepossession or a provincial local pride, he enters on a crusade of critical sincerity. Let our geniuses and others be looked upon in the light of what other nations have accomplished, and shrink or grow great in the comparison: that is his plan of campaign. He proposes to apply this test to the living as well as the dead. Presumably he knows what he is preparing for himself. No one will contest the desirability of a critic’s judging all our writers on their merits and by the standards of the world’s common culture, — at least in theory. But wait until somebody’s withers are wrung. In the present volume there are some things to excite feeling, but the opportunities for retaliatory laceration will perhaps be more apparent to our author when he has had his say about the great subjects of our poetry and fiction. In this first part he is engaged principally in reading the funeral service over the remains of the fossilized dead of the former or the present age. The greater number of reputations, whose decadence the reader is once more reminded of, mean nothing to the world now ; they have passed into the limbo of biographical dictionaries and manuals of the kind which, possibly, Mr. Arnold has had little occasion to consult; or so it might seem to the disinterested, though we have a shrewd suspicion that Mr. Richardson may be surprised by the vitality of some of these ghosts about whom he has undertaken the task of “ telling the truth.” From the class of ghosts, however, Irving, Emerson, and a few others must be excepted. These reputations are still living, and it is by his success in dealing with these that Mr. Richardson’s critical powers must be judged.

It is a matter for regret that a critic of such excellent purposes should not be equally well endowed with abilities. There is no point which the iconoclast needs to question himself about more anxiously, next to the justice of his cause, which may be taken for granted, than whether he has the strength to lift the hammer. It is desirable, too, that he should not be over-nice, or attempt to graduate his blows so as to occasion only degrees of fracture. The safest plan, by all odds, is to break everything. But in respect both to his critical equipment and to his practice Mr. Richardson falls short. He is aware, in a general way, that our literature, like many a young settlement in a new country, has a flourishing graveyard; but he is too apt to content himself until the sepulchral declaration mortuus est. Now, however, true the statement may be as a matter of fact, it is not a critical dictum. Often he appears to the reader to be merely reading the names, with affixed dates, off the tombstones, without commentary ; and one asks whether this is a dictionary of American books or a critical survey of our literature that is in hand. If the former, it is well enough to play the rôle of Old Mortality; but if the latter, then let the iconoclast remember his calling. It is, in reality, both ; but the author necessarily suffers when he derogates from a distinguished name on one page, and mentions some noteless blot of printer’s ink with apparent respect on the next. It is a misfortune, too, that he exhibits some weakness for the cloth. Bavins, LL. D., ranks high in these pages. It is not quite consistent, in the view of the general, to reduce Irving to the dimensions of the Sketch-Book, and forthwith fill up the shelves with a manual on chemistry and half a dozen tomes on free will and the Scotch philosophy. Not that Mr. Richardson actually does this, but he gives the impression of doing it. The trouble arises from the confusion of Iris several aims, already mentioned.

But when one confines attention to those pages of the work which comprise the author’s criticism of literature in the strict sense, such as those on Irving, Emerson, the prose of Lowell, and the like, one cannot but acknowledge that he lacks originality and force. His paragraphs are diffuse, and in his evident conscientiousness he loses positiveness; there are valuable and true remarks, but they embody practically a received opinion ; the author does not contribute anything important of his own. Nor is the case different in those passages in which he sets down his reservations of praise and circumscribes established reputations, or even when he disturbs the renown of some who have had their day. What he has to say is, so far as we have observed, the unspoken opinion of the time among the discreet. To venture a bold metaphor, he merely gives voice to the silence of the tomb. It may be desirable to " tell the truth ” in a manual of this kind ; it undoubtedly is a duty, if any one is likely to be deceived to their injury by the exaggerations common to most literary reputations in their own time ; on the other hand, the dead past is a good sexton. For our own part, we prefer to have the truth told even about Margaret Fuller, which we take to be the typical case. Mr. Richardson’s effort to write a history of our literature which should be in the spirit of an enlightened criticism is to be praised. It is to be hoped he will continue it without any change of purpose, for his work looks in the right direction ; it aids to diffuse a better critical morale; and though its original value as criticism is not high, its usefulness as a manual is not to be questioned. It is at least an advance on its predecessors, it will popularize sounder general views, and with all its peculiarities it is a very honest piece of work.

  1. American Literature, 1607-1885, Vol. I. The Development of American Thought. By CHARLES F. RICHARDSON. New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1887.