The True American Spirit in Literature

I HATE been seeking for two years for an expression of the American spirit, as it manifests itself in literature as well as in life, in words as well as in works. For it is evident that if the spirit of a people be genuinely creative, it will come out at all points, and will build itself not only into the houses and churches, but also into the poems and dramas, which that people produces. If there be neither church nor poem, or no sign of original life in either, then that lack is an outcome of the nation’s spirit, and is as capable of expression as any other characteristic. I think I have found at least a tentative expression for the American spirit, though no one will suppose it is in any way final, or more than a mere indicative word for the future. It falls into two parts, — one positive, the other negative. The negative characteristic of American literature is a total absence of atmosphere ; the positive characteristic is the presence of power.

In all the traditional life of Europe, where the Middle Ages yet linger in every field and village, in every palace and cathedral, atmosphere is almost all of life. Let me illustrate this, first for the natural world, then for the human world. The most striking thing about America, taking one part with another, one season with another, is the presence everywhere of floods of sunlight. Though the East is abundantly blessed with rich and glowing sunshine, this is something quite unlike the East. It is a question of light with hardly any shadow ; while in the East it is a matter of color rather than of light. The results, too, are quite different. When you come to notice this, you will find the effect of it everywhere through the writings of Americans. Take one of the most genuinely native of them, Bret Harte. What floods of sunlight are everywhere through his books, — the “staring sunlight,”as he himself calls it. Yet at the same time, what a poverty of color ! I have just gone through a volume of his works, containing some of the best short stories, in search of color, with this result: there are gray granite hills, green pines, red rocks, and blue sky, and that is all. Once he goes so far as to mention an azalea bush in full bloom ; but either his sense of color is so rudimentary, or the color itself was so inconspicuous, that he has not even told us what the color of the azaleas was. One could get a hundred stage settings for his stories without going much beyond these four colors; but, on the other hand, no artificial light could bring things into the clear eye of day as does his staring sunlight; it is over everything he writes. Light everywhere, but very little color ; and of atmosphere, in the artistic sense, not a trace. So far I speak of Bret Harte only as a landscape painter ; but we shall see presently that light without color, and definition without atmosphere, go deeper, and follow him in his portraits and interiors as well.

This is also true when we go from California to Louisiana, from Bret Harte to G. W. Cable. There are white roads lined with dusty willows, sunlit plantations bordered by sunbleached swamp, streets that glare and blink at you in the brightness, but of broad and definite coloring very little. Grant Allen has made a list of the color words in Homer ; I should be curious to see this method applied to Bret Harte and Cable. I think the old Greek would come out first, even though Grant Allen quotes him only to show how much more we see of color in these modern days.

If we leave New Orleans, and go up the river, piloted by the greatest writer of them all, the greatest that this New World has yet seen, we shall still find ourselves sailing on through abundant sunlight. Everything comes out clear and definite, so that we feel we too shall soon learn the river,—every cape and island, every snag and dead tree on the bank, every swirl and swish and ripple of the water ; and human things are not less definite. The one brace that held up Huck Finn’s continuations, — you can see it a mile away; and the tuft of hair that comes through the rip in his hat, and Sid Sawyer’s Sunday garments, and the broken stump where they went for punk water, and the streaky whitewash on the fence. Everything is defined, as clear as pure sunlight can make it; there is no mistaking anything, even to the smallest detail, no supposing anything to be other than it really is. But the two most definite pieces of color in three volumes are the blue jeans which cover the shanks of fallen royalty, and the pink overspreading the state of Indiana — on the map. Mark Twain has made an attempt to pull one of his books through without weather. He is only following the lead of his land. All books are here pulled through without weather, so far as the quality of the air through which you look at everything is concerned.

Take a writer strongly contrasted with these three, yet very genuinely American for all that,—Miss Mary E. Wilkins. She has, it is true, many symphonies in lilac, many pale purple pictures, as a setting to withered and sentimental old maids who had never discovered the purpose of leap year, — never dreamed that, for an adventurous sex, every year may be a leap year ; but these lilacs and pink hollyhocks are used for their moral value, to signify a chastened and contrite spirit, and not for their coloring in the landscape. I remember that she somewhere speaks of a patch of scarlet cardinal weed, and again of the yellow fingers of the goldenrod and the purple eyes of the wild asters. But what meek and subdued colors are these, after all, if you set them against the blaze of red in the Indian forests ; the silk - cotton trees lighting up their torches among the green ; or the scarlet coral trees with their fingers pointing skywards ; or the burning blush that comes over all the hills when the rhododendrons burst into sudden blossom. That is color, while Miss Wilkins has light, — light and east wind, if one must be quite truthful; a very different atmosphere from the broad and generous air that Bret Harte and his free and lusty miners revel in. In her last book, Miss Wilkins speaks of a marsh where all the grass was bent in one direction, from the perpetual blowing of the east winds. I think she has given us an unconscious criticism of her characters : they too are all bent in one direction by the prevailing wind, — bent and chilled, and somewhat gnarled and withered. Yet the achievement of Miss Wilkins is a very notable one, and has this distinctive merit, that it is really true to the soil throughout; it is almost stuff of the conscience to write what may seem an unkind criticism. All the same, one heartily desires to pour some warm air over her people, and have them thaw right through. Bret Harte has so much to spare of that very thing ; it seems that Providence had designs in this matter which were never carried out. Yet I suppose New England is not California; and both are true to the atmosphere, or the lack of it, which belongs to the setting of their pictures. The important thing is that Miss Wilkins, like the other writers, comes under the American spirit; floods of light that bring the whole landscape close up to one’s eyes, making every detail stand forth strong and definite, with no great richness of color, and no atmosphere at all.

Now, I think, we have got far enough to apply this idea to the human world, which, after all, is the theme of literature rather than mere landscape painting.

In the human world we shall find exactly the same characteristic of the American spirit: a perfect absence of atmosphere ; clear ether, through which pour floods of sunlight, making all things clear and lucid, leaving nothing for fancy to play round, interpreting it this way and that way with the changes of varying moods.

Every age and every land has its own quality of moral atmosphere : of the enfolding veils which wrap up the actual and change it into the imaginary, which come between the stark and open pictures of the senses and the emotional world of feeling and hope and fear. Moral atmosphere includes everything in people and their life beyond what the eye sees ; and as life has been infinitely varied for endless ages, so the qualities of moral atmosphere are infinitely varied, too. But for the modern European world, we need only take into account two qualities of moral atmosphere, to illustrate again two things which the American spirit conspicuously has not. These two are the religious and the aristocratic sense, — two things, by the way, which are explicitly ruled out of court by the Constitution.

Let me make clear what I mean here by the religious atmosphere of modern Europe. It is not the atmosphere of the Gospels, or anything like that. To get a visible expression of the spirit of the Gospels, we should have to go to Ireland, — to Ireland, with her pensive and poignant sweetness, her unworldliness and sense of failure ; where veils of soft mists shimmer with pale rainbow colors, where the hills are covered with the silvery grayness of doves’ wings. There is a subdued coloring about the roses ; their leaves have a moist freshness, a gentle greenery, like the colors of old stained glass. There is a faint opalescent lustre about the mists ; the damp bark of the trees passes through endless shades and soft half tones. There is a wistfulness in the face of the natural world, speaking of the springs of hidden tears. There are a hundred faint gradations in the grayness of a single valley, a softness and tenderness in the growing buds, when the dawning days are silvered with dew.

This is something like the moral atmosphere of the Gospels. But the spirit of the Church, as it breathes through modern European literature, is an entirely different thing. The atmosphere of the Church is something wholly apart from questions of dogma or morals ; it is rather an emotional sense of hidden things which quite alter the outward and visible values of life. It wraps to-day round with a sense of past ages, full of divine dealings with the world, taking us back to the sunlit lands of bygone years, to dim old races that lived in the dawning of the earth. The Church fills life with a sense of the past ; it fills life with a sense of the other world, — a brooding-divinity, hovering within this world, yet high above it; softening the firm outlines of the actual with the presence of the ideal, just as the shimmering mist softens the outlines of the hills and rocks into something as soft and impalpable as the mist itself.

In its services, the Church brings a sense of solemn music ringing through all life, melting and dissolving the actual world, to show the gleaming apparition of the world invisible to the listening soul. There is the magic of colored light through painted windows, and the added glamour of incense, — all to suggest another sensuous life hidden within the visible world of sense. The Church fills the air with ghosts.

These ghosts throng the whole of European literature, from the Divina Commedia to In Memoriam. Of Dante it may well be said that he is so full of the ghostly world that he paints a hell, a purgatory, a heaven, but no earth; that he depicts demons and half-purged souls and angels, but no natural men and women. This is the atmosphere of the Church. It is everywhere present in European books, tacitly or explicitly.

It even comes into the English novel, which is less in earnest than anything else in the whole literary cycle of the eastern hemisphere. Fancy an English novel ending in a civil marriage, with the bridal veil, the orange blossoms, the white-robed vicar, the wedding march, and all the rest of it left out: the thing is as impossible as an English village without a parsonage. Yet there have been notable examples of the religious atmosphere in English novels : John Inglesant, Yeast, and Robert Elsmere have, each in its own way, a certain value, though they are studies of the lifting of the mist rather than of the mist itself.

It is enough to speak of the religious sentiment, the great tradition and mystery of the Church, to make evident how wholly these elements of moral atmosphere are absent from the American spirit, and therefore from all genuine American books ; and to try to import them is like importing Strassburg Cathedral.

To go back again to the authors we have mentioned, what has Bret Harte to do with the tradition and mystery of the Church ? I remember a story of a Western service where the congregation sang Whoa, Emma. In this atmosphere the miners and cowboys of the Californian plains are more at home. In fact, one has a sense of the grotesque in speaking of the tradition and mystery of the Church in the presence of Bret Harte’s millionaires of Rough - and - Ready, his unwashed barbarians, his Achilles and Agamemnon of Red Gulch, his Jack Hamlins and Mr. Oakhursts, and bis almost unmentionable ladies, who certainly are not prejudiced about the marriage service. So that the moral atmosphere which depends on the tradition and mystery of the Church fades away in his staring sunlight, and leaves us instead a set of red-shirted pagans and unprejudiced barbarians, — whom we find, nevertheless, to be very good company and full of purely human kindliness.

When we go South, it is just the same. In Cable’s books we have, it is true, a good deal about the Church, and what is at least by courtesy a Catholic coloring. But set beside them some genuinely Catholic work, like, let us say. the Imitation, and how impassable is the chasm between ! One is haunted with a suspicion of parody. Posson Jone’s religion is simply an additional comic element, and it is hardly otherwise with the Curé in Madame Delphine; they are not to be taken seriously. And when tradition and mystery are not taken seriously, how much of them is left ? One may say of Cable’s best books that they show the religious atmosphere of old French America lifting and fading away before the modern spirit of the North ; the mists are already so thin that we can see clearly through them, — can see, in fact, that in a moment they will be gone.

To follow the same order as before, let us pass on to Mark Twain. One shudders to write his name in the same line with the words “ the tradition and mystery of the Church.” The hiatus is awful. Here is a sheer heathen, if ever there was one, whatever may be his opinions in theology. Here, again, there is a suspicion of parody in the use of religion ; sometimes a great deal more than suspicion. “ Air you the duck that runs the gospel mill next door ? ” It is almost blasphemy to speak in the same breath of St. Francis of Assisi, yet for the sake of contrast I must do it. Let any one go over all Mark Twain’s works, in memory, and see how absolutely devoid they are of the tradition and mystery of the Church, of the endless shades and gradations of religious atmosphere.

I am afraid Miss Wilkins will be greatly shocked at being numbered among the heathen, yet truth will out. Her characters have a good deal of theology, but you do not find them in a Catholic cathedral. I think, if they were given a choice, they would prefer the singularly edifying smell of sulphur to the dangerous fascination of incense; and music, for them, means a psalm tune sung through the nose, or, at best, a cracked spinet played on the sly. They have, it is true, a sense of the other world ; but it is a world that is fitted only for comminatory purposes. It is the religion of the east wind, and it bends them all in one way. They tend to display themselves as “ odd, perverse, and splenetic,” in the words of the great satirist of the Protestant spirit.

One may notice, in passing, that Harold Frederic tried to write a novel of religious atmosphere and the higher culture ; just as he tried, later, to write a novel of the higher aristocracy. It seems unkind to say it, but in both he gives me the impression of a boy in a man’s hat. What has any free-born citizen to do with these things ? Can a genuine countryman of Scotty Briggs meddle with the higher culture ? Can Tom Sawyer talk plausibly of the higher aristocracy ? One would like to write a chapter on American novels " made in Europe.” I mention Harold Frederic’s name precisely because he has written one of the very best stories in the American spirit, which one could very well use, to show how new and how excellent that spirit is. But let the higher culture and the higher aristocracy alone ; they are not recognized by the American Constitution.

The American spirit is wholly devoid of the Old World atmosphere of religion, the tradition and mystery of the Church. This atmosphere is as out of place in the New World as a Gothic cathedral would be in Red Dog or Poker Flat. A visitor to a Lowland village in Scotland once remarked on the extreme religiousness of the natives, as shown by the presence of nine places of worship, of different denominations. Said his native friend, “ It’s no religion ava’; it’s jist cur-r-sedness of temper.” Will Miss Wilkins be offended if I say that the “ religion ” of many of her stories recalls that anecdote ? The American spirit has no religions atmosphere, and all genuine products of the American spirit will have the same character. All really American novelists will have to dispense with it.

There is another element of moral atmosphere, everywhere present in European literature ; everywhere absent in America, or present only as a bad imitation. This is the atmosphere of aristocracy. The divine right of kings does not stand alone : it falls, like the descending showers of a fountain, on all the lords of the nobility, endowing them, in the words of the liturgy, with a certain special measure of grace, wisdom, and understanding, beyond the reach of common clay. It is even extended, by a sense of its absence and by a reverence for it, to mere peasants and artisans. A man is not seen as an individual, in a clear light, but, as it were, surrounded with a shimmering haze, an aureole or glory, like the saints of old. There is a haze of shadow, where rank is not, which is not less positive in its atmospheric value. New powers are added to men and their belongings by the aristocratic atmosphere. It hovers over all the centuries of European history, from the days of Agamemnon, king of men. It embodies in the present a sense of an invisible past, but a past very different from the past of the Church. Its powers and accomplishments are quite other than those of the ecclesiastical world ; yet they are not less valid and fascinating, within their proper sphere. Aristocracy, also, of which the imperial crown is but the pinnacle, fills all the air with apparitions. But they are the apparitions of Valhalla, not of Golgotha ; of the heathen gods of battle, not of saints and martyrs. The Sabbath carries us to Palestine, but the week days are named after the Norse gods.

Europe has two religions: one avowed, drawn from Judea; the other tacitly held, and carried in unbroken continuity from the days of Asgard and the sagas. The Normans, who gave a nobility to every country in Europe, from Spain to Russia, from England to Italy, never really rendered up their religion. It is still the aristocratic faith, the atmosphere of nobility, which lingers in democratic England and republican France as obstinately as in imperial Germany and royal Spain. All Europe is still full of the Middle Ages, of the Norman conquests, though the days of these things are already numbered.

It is worth noting that the religious and the aristocratic atmosphere mingle and reinforce each other. They stand or fall together. England made a vigorous attempt to rid herself of the tradition of Rome. The result was that one English king lost his head, and another his throne. France made an attempt, not less vigorous, to sweep away the old aristocracy. And presently came the formal abolition of the Church, the secularization of the state.

France, indeed, made an attempt to get rid of these two things we are speaking of, the atmosphere of royalty and the atmosphere of religion. America, at about the same time, was busy tearing off these two veils. In the case of France the result is nudity. In the case of America it is nakedness, — the nakedness of aboriginal nature. Between nudity and nakedness, as Marion Crawford says, there is a startling difference. Nudity, in literature, will mean a school of realism after the fashion of Zola. The nakedness of nature will mean, for the America of the future, a school, not of realism, but of reality.

For it is so evident as to be not worth illustrating, that American literature will have to dispense with the element of atmosphere which depends on the aristocratic idea; and what an enormous part that idea has played in the literature of Europe one can easily realize by going over a few of the names of European masterpieces : Gerusalemme Liberata, Orlando, The Cid, the plays of Shakespeare, Racine, Corneille, Alfieri, down to the English novels published yesterday, — the aristocratic element is always to be felt. The “ county god ” is everywhere in English fiction, brooding like the day, a master o’er a slave, a presence that is not to be put by. A good contemporary example of this atmosphere of aristocracy is the historical series of Sienkiewicz ; his Pans and counts and princes, who go dashingly through four formidable volumes, are wrapt in this spirit; yet in the cold vision of political economy they are mere robbers, unproductive, living impudently on the bread of others, — idle, but not ashamed.

Of this quality the American spirit can inherit nothing. America has explicitly cut it adrift, and American literature must bear the consequences. We shall still have writers like Marion Crawford, who cannot get away from the Vatican and the Quirinal, with their cardinals and their princes, whether black or white or gray ; or writers like Henry James, with his Princess Casamassimas. But these are merely pathetic attempts to fight against fate. The aristocratic atmosphere has no place in American literature, and writers who cling to it are cutting themselves off from their nation. They also should have a place in that chapter on American literature “ manufactured abroad ; ” one wonders whether their work can be legitimately copyrighted here.

I have used the works of four writers as illustrations, not because they are the only examples of the American spirit, but because they are the most remarkable for the absence of what Mark Twain calls “weather.” They best illustrate the lack of atmosphere in the natural world. At the same time, it is noteworthy that each of these four writers has written a story explicitly intended to strip off the two elements of moral atmosphere, the religious and the aristocratic idea. In The Luck of Roaring Camp, one of the very best of his stories, Bret Harte has deliberately set before himself the task of exhibiting the spiritual element in birth, marriage, and death, without the benefit of clergy: these three occurrences are the Church’s great opportunity, the incidents of mortality which she seizes and makes peculiarly her own. And Bret Harte never tires of showing the sterling manhood of his clay-begrimed miners, who have not even legitimate surnames, much less titles. “ The man ’s the man for a’ that ” might be taken as the motto of all his tales.

In The Grandissimes Mr. Cable has shown the aristocratic atmosphere of old French America drawn away like the lifting of a veil. The point of the whole story is the human character and force of the white Honoré Grandissime triumphing over his aristocratic birth. In Posson Jone’ we have the religious atmosphere deliberately used as an additional element of humor, and quite legitimately so used. And this is also true of Madame Delphine. The novelist has set himself in both cases to show the mere and aboriginal humanity breaking through the religious atmosphere, and giving it whatever real value it has ; and there is this rending of veils in everything he has written.

Mark Twain, in his narrative of Buck Fanshaw’s funeral, which is, in its own sphere, the finest thing ever written, has used the religious atmosphere much in the same way. It adds to the humor of the story, and merely illustrates once more the fact that spirituality and a truly spiritual way of viewing death are something wholly apart from the tradition and mystery of the Church. In The Yankee at the Court of King Arthur he has set himself to make game of the aristocratic idea ; but in this work there is something of the unfitness which attends all parody ; every parody, however funny, is in questionable taste. But the really racy and delightful treatment of the aristocratic idea is the story of the two “ beats,” the episode of royalty on the Mississippi, in Huckleberry Finn. Those kings and dukes, the lost dauphins and Bridgewaters, are inimitable : “ Your grace will take the shucks.” That is the real American treatment of the feudal idea.

In one of her last books Miss Wilkins too has boldly taken the side of the iconoclasts. Her story A New England Prophet is genuinely humorous, and how terribly severe is its satire ! One wonders whether the change of heart and the contrast with Cotton Mather’s days therein manifested are personal to the writer, or general and universal among her New England friends. In The Buckley Lady she makes gentle fun of the aristocratic spirit; and one is heartily glad to find any character of hers who gets naturally and comfortably married, and does not go halting down the path of old-maidenhood, with constricted heart and modestly sealed lips. The institution of the go-between would be invaluable to her people, and would save them from many pale tragedies.

We have reached this result, then, in our analysis of the American spirit in literature: floods of light, meagre coloring, no atmosphere at all. The writers of the future must give up everything which depends on the atmosphere of the Church, with its mystery and tradition, and the atmosphere of the palace, the castle, and the court. All these things will be stripped off, as the mist vanishes before the noonday sun ; and we shall have plain humanity, standing in the daylight, talking prose. American writers will have to pull their books through without weather, in a larger sense than that meant by Mark Twain. Some of them have already tried to do so, with very notable results.

Charles Johnston.