Cant in Criticism


THERE are many forms of cant in criticism; and the anti-critic would do a good turn to both art and literature who should zealously set himself to work at the pleasant task of exposing them. But what I wish to signalize just now for especial reprobation is the cant of American chauvinism, which affects to decry all literature produced in this country that does not portray American characters and paint American life in what it is pleased to call the American manner. It has laid the ban upon even so exquisite a writer as Irving, because forsooth his style is English and his taste cosmopolitan.

The very term “ American literature ” is an amusing misnomer. What the zealots for Americanism mean by the phrase is simply the English literature of the United States. But the term they have chosen to use would logically include not only the work of Canadian writers, but also the Spanish literature of the states sprung from Spanish colonies on this continent and the Portuguese literature of Brazil.

What would the ancients have thought of the expression “ Sicilian literature ” or “ Alexandrian literature,” as something separate and distinct from Greek literature at large? Yet Pindar wrote a goodly number of his odes in Sicily, and for the glory of a tyrant of Syracuse ; and Bion and Theocritus were Sicilians, writing on Sicilian themes, and patronized by the Ptolemies of Egypt; to say nothing of the scientists and philosophers who belonged wholly to the university life of Alexandria. What would Apuleius and Augustine and Synesius have said to the men who should propose to place them apart from the general list of Latin authors, and call their literature “ African ” ? What would the French say, to-day, if Switzerland should claim as a classic of hers Rousseau, who lived so little in France, or Voltaire, who lived so long in Switzerland ? Must English literature forfeit the name and fame of Burns, Scott, and Stevenson, because their genius was so markedly Scottish, or of Maria Edgeworth and Tom Moore, because theirs was Irish ?

The truth is, the whole claim is born of a besotted chauvinism, unworthy of a great people. We are English — not Anglo-Saxon, thank Heaven ! — in historic continuity of language, literature, and institutions ; largely English in blood ; and we should be silly indeed to renounce the glorious heritage that runs back to Chaucer in literature and to Caxton in language.

There is something painfully small in the spectacle of men, able to boast of writers like Irving, Hawthorne, Legaré, Holmes, and Poe, perpetually on the lookout for that elusive phantasm “the great American novel,” utterly unaware that a great novel written by an American, no matter where the scene is laid or of what nationality the characters may be, is a triumph for our country.

The evil involved in the delusion, besides the disreputableness of what is after all nothing but a silly Anglophobia, lies in the fact that false estimates are continually made in consequence of it. A recent example is the quite disproportioned value that has been attached to a book like David Harum, — pleasant enough, but certainly not of the highest merit, — solely because the characters and the local color are distinctively American.