Stedman's Library of American Literature

THIS work,1 in the opening volumes of which we found such unusual interest, has increased in usefulness with each successive issue, and now in its total of eleven large volumes opens as complete a survey of the history and character of the American mind as is possible by the method followed. Its value is principally historical, and only in a secondary degree literary. The reputation of a nation for letters must depend upon its eminent authors, and arises rather from quality than quantity ; but the entire intellectual life of a people is something larger than its literary activity, and cannot be represented by great poets and romancers alone. It is this larger life, this working of intelligence in the mass of writers, that the compilers of the Library have set themselves to show forth ; and the success of their work may well have surprised themselves. The result certainly has exceeded our own expectation. The greater part of the twelve hundred authors whose works have been laid under contribution are of course obscure, and as one turns over the thousands of closely packed pages he may think the individual selections in many cases of trifling note ; but he soon perceives that he is receiving an impression of the mental action of the period, of the common trend of style and matter, which differs from the idea arrived at by reading the more famous authors only. In particular, he observes that while in Longfellow or Irving he has accustomed himself to the presence of foreign interests and the European tradition of literature, in this Library as a whole such influences are but little felt ; he is dealing with an American product, is close to the national life, and holds in his hand a true record of our own people. The degree to which this Americanism occupies the field is unlooked for, and the great value of the work is, in our judgment, due to its presence.

On examination, reasons will not be found lacking for this peculiarity. The scope of the collection was so comprehensive that it took in, besides literature in the restricted and proper sense, every part of the national life which is expressed by speech, and all notable men who have figured in the history of the country and left any words of their own behind them. The consequence is that those considerable portions of our national life which found no outlet in literature, or only a feeble and intermittent expression, have not gone unrepresented, but stand in their place, under their historical forms of oratory, sermon, or disquisition. The revolutionary and constitutional periods, the antislavery agitation, the argument of secession, and the events and emotions of the civil war, in all of which a large part of the moral force, the intense patriotism, the intellectual power of the nation was absorbed, contribute speeches and essays and words great because of the occasion that called them forth; and the leaders in these successive struggles, who stamped their words in history rather than in letters, lend fervor of feeling and weight of meaning to fill up the gaps and support the weaker utterances of literature in its poets and other more acknowledged members. The literature of our politics is thus necessarily American, both in its original papers by actors in the scene, and in its narration by later historians and biographers, of whom there has been a swarm. The editors, too, in selecting passages to illustrate the less known authors, seem often to have chosen consciously such as would have a special interest to the reader because of their bearing upon American history, or illustration of American life, habits, and thought. This was a principle of selection most fit in itself and happy in its results ; to it, in connection with the large mass of our politics, oratory, and history, is due the important value of the entire collection as a broad survey of that portion of our written or spoken thought which depended more or less closely upon the always vigorous public life and patriotic feeling of the nation.

The American quality, however, though conspicuously exhibited in these branches of the subject-matter, is not limited to them. In the novels and tales, and in the minor poetry also, there is to be seen a community of intellectual traits and of interest. One is struck especially by the general absence of affectation, by the straightforward and simple expression of what is to be said, by a predominant plainness of speech. It would not be unjust to designate this as a prevailing homeliness, in the sense in which that characteristic belongs to the people. There may be little refinement, an unexacting taste, perhaps little dignity of external style ; but there are, on the other hand, genuine if modest feeling, much sympathy with the common life of men, a democratic sentiment, true if low-flying thought, and real if uninspired emotion. The substance is more than the form; the sense exceeds the style. Sincerity, humanity, and reality are pervading elements. These are not the only qualities which are requisite in literature, but it is a good sign to find them widely spread through the books of a nation, as noticeable in one department of mental activity as in another. In the better writers we should find the same traits with something superadded, and in general we do ; but in the literary culture of these more famous authors there intrudes an element not native to our soil, an imitation of literary models, a striving after remembered graces of style, mocking-bird cadences, a tradition not yet acclimated and absorbed into our own national life. The less relief, therefore, given to our literary men, in consequence of the relatively small space they occupy, is a gain to the general effect, which is much simpler than would otherwise have been the case. The inclusion of anonymous and single poems, and particularly of the popular songs of the war, of negro melodies, and of noted sayings, also tends to make the collection more truly and explicitly a summary and expression of the general tone, habits of thought and feeling, and prevailing interests of the people’s mental life.

The temptation is great to make reflections upon the worth of the national qualities thus revealed, the changes from period to period, and the reasons why our general literature has been what it is; but these, for the most part, are obvious enough, and would lead too far if followed too closely. The Library itself is superficially misleading in one respect, and the editors take pains to set the reader right in their preface. The earlier volumes show a preponderance of theology, and in the later theology is a constantly vanishing quantity. So, too, politics occupies a larger space in the middle periods. The common reason for this is the increase of literature proper in the growth of the nation, which has made necessary a certain disregard of the works of the more learned professions, and especially of the clergy. Another reason may be found in the fact that the authors of the later volumes are either in early manhood, or have run but half their course. They are naturally persons who have succeeded in the literature of poetry or story-telling, which belongs to their years ; distinction in the learned professions or in public life is the fruit of a riper age. It would be pleasing if some other notable characteristics of the Library as a whole could be explained with as little injury to national pride. The strength of the nation seems to lie, so far as it has gone, in its political life, and the oratory, the political philosophy, and the history which are the gift of that life to literature. Literary production itself, in the narrow meaning of the fine art of expression, has been a secondary matter; and within these limits, even (not to speak of the epic, which has ever been regarded as the highest form of man’s creative power), the drama and criticism have been the weakest in vigor. The former, indeed, may be disregarded, and the latter, though it showed some vitality a generation ago, seems to have died away. The close connection between the feebleness of criticism and the low degree of literary taste cannot escape notice ; but the failure of the drama implies more serious defects in the national genius. The decline of oratory may also afford a text to the pessimistic observer, and the rise of the dialect tale and the poetry of the bagatelle, which are the only novel forms we discern at the end, may not console him.

Before drawing to an end, it is our duty to direct attention to the remarkably admirable execution of the work by its editors, the soundness of their judgment in selection, the extraordinary breadth and variety of their acquaintance with forgotten books, and the impartiality and justice of their choice of authors. The labor was arduous, and the multitude of details must have been harassing. It is a proof of thoroughness and painstaking that they find so little to correct at the end of their task. They have left nothing to be desired for the completeness of their work. The last volume contains an excellent index, and short but full biographies of every author represented in the volumes. The portraits are in general very good, and they are numerous. The text has been most carefully compiled. The work as a whole is, we believe, without a parallel among literary compilations. Its usefulness for purposes of reference is very great; but it is meant for entertaining and valuable reading page by page, — for popular reading, not merely for libraries and schools. It fulfills this end with equal success, and is the more to be commended and urged upon the public because of that comprehensive view of American life and history, and of the common action of the American mind for the past three centuries, of which we have mainly spoken. Our literary names of note are not so many but what the works which bear them may easily be obtained and read ; but in this collection hundreds of authors and thousands of books are brought within the reader’s survey, and in them he will find more of the national life than in the select few that are known and supposed to be read of all men.

  1. A Library of American Literature. From the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time. Compiled and edited by EDMUND CLARENCE STEDMAN and ELLEN MACKAY HUTCHINSON. Vol. IV.-XI. New York: Charles L. Webster & Co. 1888-90.