Why Have We No Satire?
A CLEVEK English writer, with his eye on Aristophanes and Lowell, recently suggested that Americans would do well to cultivate satire. The advice is not new. It was an early surmise of Americans themselves that this form of literature was agreeable to their temper. Freneau chose it with deliberation in Revolutionary times, and defended his choice critically. Poe, in one of his book reviews, maintained a similar opinion, though the book of which he wrote had scarcely any fame except what he gave it. The success of Lowell, who attained a moral accuracy of thE judgment which was unknown to Aristophanes and to Juvenal, might seem conclusive. But satire of the kind praised by Poe failed, and Freneau long ago ceased to be read by the many. So there must be something in this matter besides national aptitude.
It may be that the moods of an age have somewhat to do with the development of satiric power. The satirist must have that which arouses his ire and his wit, and of this mankind gives him a superfluity in every age. But he may need also a background of earnest feeling in the people who group themselves, with all their peculiarities, around him.
The question is whether we are in earnest now to the degree required. Of course we are full of ideas, good, bad, and indifferent. Nothing is too trivial for our pursuit. On the other hand, nothing is powerful enough to centralize all our thoughts. Our conduct shows that we are looking for a thought capable of dominating us. We have a downright mania for organization and experiment. We start new kinds of societies every hour in the day. We are interested in religions, and genealogies, and social hobbies, and literary will-o’the-wisps. Half the crowd of persons who gain what is called distinction do so by starting a so-called “ movement,” and getting a constituency that will sneeze every time they take snuff. We are very much like that flying multitude which Dante found this side of the Styx, chasing every banner that rose. We are so nearly conscious of this fatuous vagrancy of intellect that we have coined words to mark its absurd effects. Ours is the age of " fads.”
Naturally we overflow with satirical suggestion. The poet who can gather up the odds and ends of our reflections upon one another, and can combine them in one view striking enough to fix our vagabond mentality, will be read long after the journals with jokes on Jews and Irish and tramps and politicians and mothers-in-law, which furnish him with mnch of bis material, shall have gathered the dust of oblivion. His readers will know nothing of his sources. They will wonder at his keenness of vision which sees so many peculiarities of human nature beneath the general uniformity. For the uniformity is going to be hard to penetrate. The tendency of modern life is to reduce all mankind, externally, to rigid similarity. In this process the eccentricities of life must be sacrificed, or at least concealed. People would then be conscious of traits as hidden which are now public and salient, just as we are conscious of the characteristics which would have made us in another age knights and squires and serving men, but which are now hidden in clothes all of one pattern.
It is certain that life will have to become strenuous instead of merely busy, before such a poet can gain an audience. He will not be able to rely on caricature. The day for describing Hudibras with one spur or Quixote with a pasteboard helmet, or even for outlining such a starveling figure as Ichabod Crane, is long past. The exaggerated Hebrew features of contemporary prints have already ceased to be humorous. The presages of future satire are seen in those glimpses of inner nature, which, rare as they are, show that the genius of satire is not dead. It is the poet’s audienco that is dead, — dead to everything but its “ fads.”