American Prose Style


AMERICAN literature, excellent as it is by way of its poetry, is excellent much more by way of its prose. Received opinion, however, stands for the converse. Conscious that in emotion, invention, and inspiration poetry naturally is higher than prose, the professional critics exalt American poetry. America, they say, has produced excellent poetry. America, they admit, has produced also good prose. But America, they insist, has not produced, æsthetically viewed, a first-rate prose “style.” The instructors in our American schools and colleges echo the opinions of the professional critics, either explicitly, or implicitly by confining, on the whole, critical appreciation of American literature to its poetry. Yet, despite professional and academic tradition, the right of American literature to an honorable place in the literature of the world is gained for it by way of its prose. American poetry is unoriginal, imitative, desultory, occasional ; except in theme, it has contributed to the poetry of the world nothing distinctly American. At its best, American poetry, too, ranks only somewhat higher than third-class. The poetry of Bryant, Poe, Emerson, Longfellow, Lowell, and Whittier falls below that of Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, and Browning, which in turn falls below that of Milton and Shakespeare. American prose, on the contrary, is in many respects definitively original. In the development of the modern ideal of prose style American prose writers certainly have had a share. They have sustained the ideal of staid and temperate thought and feeling in the form and substance of prose ; they have added to prose style the peculiar quality and temper of the American mood or spirit, — a quality which is the expression of vivid faith and splendid cheer, and for which I have no better name than “ manliness.”

Hitherto, such criticism as has been directed upon American prose has followed the conventional method applied to the criticism of poetry. It has aimed primarily at appreciation of the structural qualities of American prose style, — the niceties or peculiarities of its form, diction, and idiom,—or at appreciation of its emotional and moral values. It has worked as if style truly were structural, a matter of adroit management of diction, idiom, logic, and emotion, on the part of an individual who must, at all hazards, express his personal selfhood, and not rather, or at least as much, the characteristic utterance —through an individual as spokesman — of a people. Scientific criticism, on the other hand, — criticism historical and comparative, — will discover that American prose, from Franklin to Lowell, has many qualities which rank on a somewhat equal footing with the best prose of England and of France ; and that it has many expressive qualities which are unsurpassed by the prose of England, or of France, or of Germany. The diction, for example, of American prose, although plain, is pure ; its idiom is wholly modern; its sentence structure is simple, direct, coherent. American prose, again, even in its characteristic humor at its best, has a high seriousness; it is rich in ideas, devoid of mere visions and mysticism ; it has sometimes grace and ease, sometimes dignity and noble simplicity, sometimes sonority and exaltation ; it has self-reliance and a natural cheerfulness. American prose, in short, is thoroughly sane, human, social. In this respect, if it does not surpass the prose of England, of France, and of Germany, it is itself unsurpassed. But, indeed, just criticism will discover that in one quality American prose surpasses the prose of England, of France, and of Germany; a quality it is that appeals most to the sort of temper which it best expresses, — the temper, namely, for which, as I have said, I have no better name than “ manliness.” What invites us, then, most of all to an historical and comparative criticism of American prose style is the fact that in its prose rather than in its poetry the spirit of the American people, as a peculiar people, has expressed itself most originally and most characteristically.


We shall the better appreciate the genius of American prose style if we apply to it Pater’s distinction regarding style in general. The difference between “ good ” and “ great ” art, especially literary art, as the freest, most comprehensive, and most intimate instrument of expression, is, according to Pater, a difference due to the psychological faculties active or dominant in creating art,—a difference in quality corresponding to the difference between " mind ” and “ soul.” American prose style has not in an eminent degree the qualities of mind : it is not a highly intellectualized product, elaborate and finished in structure ; it does not intimate always, in the choice of a word, in the turn of a phrase, in the rhythm and harmony of a period, that an artist has been consciously at work ; it does not, by conscious æsthetic elaboration of the materials of style, deliberately aim, by thus obtrusively striking the personal note, to give only to the elect choice sensation. But while American prose at its best does not seek overæsthetic elaboration, yet the prose of Irving, Poe, and Hawthorne especially, and of Longfellow, and of Lowell, is somewhat æsthetically elaborated, — sometimes in structure, sometimes in music and color ; and the prose of Franklin, Irving, Poe, Hawthorne, Thoreau (later style), Emerson, Holmes, Lowell (later style), Parkman, and Lincoln is sane and well ordered. American prose, however, has eminently the qualities of soul, or the qualities which, to use Arnold’s phrase, spring from a “ noble and profound application of ideas to life,” — high-mindedness, cheerfulness, courage, faith, and tenacity of intuition, — all those qualities which fitted American prose to utter, as it did, the life of the common people, to enlarge that life and to sustain it.

But while we may apply to American prose Pater’s distinction, we have only half completed our description, and have as yet explained nothing. For the qualities of soul which belong to American prose belong also to the prose of England and of Germany, if not to that of France ; and while, indeed, a peculiar soul quality preëminently distinguishes American prose, we are not interested so much in describing this quality as in discovering its source and origin. Just criticism, therefore, will not merely note and describe the characteristic quality of American prose style, but also will seek the cause of it and explain it.

A prose writer who cares exceedingly for the æsthetic elaboration of style, either in respect to form in general or in respect to special effects by way of diction and phraseology, necessarily strikes the personal " note,” and appeals only to the cultivated few. His art, too, is greatly in danger of developing into æstheticism, a cult of art for art’s sake; or, if imagination and passion be lacking, into a craft which aims to secure, at the expense of all else, perfection in the mechanism of style. In either case, the art of prose style, becoming thus too highly intellectualized, specialized, and personal, becomes artificial, wayward, irresponsible, unsocial. But, on the other hand, the prose writer who cares exceedingly for the qualities of art which touch the heart, fire the imagination, and move the will may strike in another way the personal note — appeal only to the few, or to none — either through a too mystical romanticism which misses the value of the real, or through a too earthly realism which misses the value of the ideal. His utterance, in short, may stand for either an unreal optimism or an equally unreal pessimism, — for acquiescence or for despair, both of which are unnatural, irresponsible, unsocial.

Now, American prose has in it preeminently those very soul qualities which tend to develop into mere preaching or into mere dreaming, into a forlorn and negative criticism of life or into empty transcendentalism. Yet in virtue of the American national mood — incarnate, if anywhere, in America’s prose writers — American prose remained sane and effective. That supreme quality which it possesses as does no other prose style — the quality of manliness — springs naturally from men who, as Arnold said of Sophocles, saw life steadily and saw it whole; or who, to put it colloquially, could not be humbugged either by the real or by the ideal; and whose utterance had its origin, not in a cult or a craft, but in a common inward consciousness, first, of a right to speak, and secondly, of a duty and a privilege to speak, as if “ called ” by time and circumstance to guide and sustain the common life of the American people. The distinctly American prose writers, from Franklin to Whitman, were not — in fact, could not be — men of letters as such. They were not first and primarily authors, and secondarily citizens. They were, on the contrary, primarily citizens of a more or less real commonwealth, called by virtue of gift and importunity to the business of authorship. They were fundamentally “ citizen - authors ; ” in them citizenship and authorship possessed for the first time, at least in the history of modern literature, a real identity. So that from these American citizen-authors springs naturally a citizen-literature, — a literature in which, at all hazards, a message must be conveyed to the assembly of the people, but conveyed, if possible, in such form as to be clearly heard, profoundly felt, and well received. These citizen-authors, in fine, created the effectiveness and enduring quality of the distinctly American prose style, — a style of which the “ note ” is highly impersonal, but responsible, human, and social.


In order to complete our description and explanation of American prose style, we must discover the deeper social causes that created the citizen-authors of America and their literature. If, admittedly, the distinctly American prose writers are not men of letters as such, or “ stylists ” in the narrow æsthetic sense of the term, this is not to be explained, as it so often is, either by submitting that American prose writers have been too much influenced by the English prose stylists of the eighteenth century, or by asserting that the development of American literature in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has had the same general social causes as the development of British literature in these same centuries. The first alternative has the ready plausibility of a half truth ; the second alternative is wholly untrue to history. For what just criticism is called upon to explain is, first, the fact that American prose style has its own peculiar quality or temper over and above the quality which is easily apparent in the imitation of the mechanism of the eighteenth-century style, and which mere imitation of mechanism could not bring about; and secondly, the fact that the Americans have turned to prose rather than to poetry for an instrument of adequate and characteristic expression. The slightest reflection will show that the alleged causes are not the real ones.

Of the best distinctly American prose writers, which one, either in the content or in the form of his writings, has held slavishly to the English prosaists of the eighteenth century, adding nothing out of his own individuality? Certainly not Franklin, with whom American prose as such really begins. Certainly not Irving, despite the fact that some of his themes are English, and that his style and spirit are like the style of Addison and the spirit of Goldsmith. Irving’s charm and power were, in his own day, fresh in literature. Certainly not Emerson, whose American Scholar was, as Holmes happily says, the American “ intellectual declaration of independence,” and whose thought and method of composition were utterly unlike those of the eighteenth century. Certainly, too, not Poe, Hawthorne, and Longfellow: all three are in spirit romantic, and the first two care somewhat greatly for æsthetic elaboration of diction and structure. And certainly not Thoreau, Holmes, and Lowell: the first has the simplicity, plainness, and abruptness of one who is very near to Nature’s heart; Holmes writes as if conversing; while Lowell is so full of exuberant life and so broadly cultured as to care more for vigor and nobility of thought than for simple grace and ease.

The influence of the eighteenth-century English prose style on American prose style, we may not forget, is, as we shall see, accidental, and, although permanent, is superficial. The matter of American prose could not, indeed, be essentially English ; American life and its environment — highly un-English — would not permit it. And as for the structure of American prose, for style as such, American imitation of English models was confined merely to the simple mechanism of style. As regards diction and idiom, for example, American prose at its best is, on the whole, English only in purity and modernness, not in characteristic plainness and simplicity; not, as Franklin said in the first instance of his grandfather’s poetry, — not in “ decent plainness and manly freedom.” Except when the mighty issues involved necessarily create exaltation of style, as in the case of Webster, or when the thought as such, the message itself, literally weighs down upon the form of the thought, as in the case of Emerson “ enamored of moral perfection,” American prose writers, evidently with an eye on the plain truth and the value of their own utterance, are simply prudent enough to adopt a style which is clear, vigorous, and expressive, rather than elegant. That American prose writers “ adopted ” rather than “ imitated ” — except in its merest mechanism — the eighteenth-century ideal of English prose style, the ideal of staid and temperate thought and feeling, is too plain to need elaboration. Political and social antecedents, both in England and America, did not favor the invention of an original prose style. Political and social development in America demanded the readiest use of the most available and most flexible — as it were the “democratic ” — instrument of expression. And finally, when in America such an instrument was first (or most) in demand, in England, fortunately for American thought and life, a good prose style had been perfected. In American life and thought, in short, there was no necessity for inventing a new prose style, and there was every necessity for adopting a style ready to hand, a style — as, fortunately, it happened in the case of mechanism of the English prose style of the eighteenth century — facile, direct, simple, unsentimental, anti-mystical.

To explain why the distinctly American prose writers adopted or imitated the mechanism of the eighteenth - century English prose style, we have but to realize that from its very beginning the needs of American life, which were religious, political, and social, and not æsthetic as such, and which were immediately pressing, called for the ready use of the most available style. The style wanted actually existed ; and although it may seem fantastical to put it thus, there can be no doubt that, had it not existed when wanted, American prose writers would have invented a style suited to plain and vigorous expression. That American prose writers adopted the mechanism of the eighteenth-century English prose style must, from this point of view, appear wholly as an accidental matter.

There remains still unexplained the problem why prose rather than poetry is the natural or characteristic American medium of expression, and why American prose, from Franklin to Lowell, in quality or temper, is, as English prose from the death of Dryden to that of Arnold is not, highly impersonal, but responsible, human, and social. The explanation of these facts comes as an answer to the question, What state of society in general naturally creates, or assists in creating, prose rather than poetry, and what state of society — what political, social, and spiritual aspiration in particular — demands in what is written sanity, vivid faith, cheerfulness, courage, or manliness ?

Poetry is the work of the few and the gifted, — of those whose heart and imagination have fed on abstract ideals, on visionary gleams of nature and of life. Its office is to sing of life and love, of joy and sorrow, of noble passions and deeds, of “ the mighty hopes which make us men; ” to awaken in the heart of man a longing for the priceless goods of the spirit; to bequeath to men ideals of ineffable experience. Coming from the few and the gifted, the appeal of poetry, even if enthusiastic, is still special and exclusive. Poetry is winged, and flies far in advance of the ideals it bequeaths. Poetry, indeed, can only bequeath ideals; in due season men of the world may realize them. But both the existence of the poet, gifted as he is, and the making of poetry, imply freedom from the struggle for existence and from the practical conduct of life, — “leisure,”as Plato and Aristotle have it, in order that the poet may thereby be able to turn from the real and present to contemplate and brood on the ideal and remote; in order that he may sing out his passion for the ideal. But the state of American society from its very beginning was eminently such as to express itself in a passion for deeds ; the fit poetry of American life was the unimaginative poetry of action. So far, indeed, metaphor aside, as poetry was produced in America, either it was based on an accident of fortune which rendered it very poor in kind, or, if it were excellent, it was based on the necessary freedom and leisure which in the process of time had come to the gifted in America. But withal poetry could not be the natural and characteristic utterance of the American people ; leisure and freedom were never the characteristic mode of American life.

Prose, on the other hand, may easily become the natural mode of utterance of the many. So far as the mechanism of prose style is concerned, prose differs from conversation only in having a more orderly and formal, a more logical structureProse, too, is pedestrian in its movement, walks the earth, and is easily adapted to the practical conduct of life and its concrete ideals. For the writing of prose, if æsthetic demands are not in sight, special gift is not needed ; all that is required is fine good sense, or homely taste, in revising or reconstructing thought and feeling in terms of plainness or simplicity, coherency, and directness. But prose, like every other form of creation, must have an adequate incentive. In American life there was an adequate incentive, namely, a common, immediate, and vivid interest, amongst men of good average intelligence, in a social ideal.

Both poetry and prose equally may be the natural literature of social idealism. That prose rather than poetry became the natural and characteristic American mode of utterance was determined wholly by the quality of American idealism. From colonial days to the third quarter (inclusive) of the nineteenth century idealism was always in the religious, political, and social atmosphere of America; but it was an idealism wholly unlike that which in England and France, in the nineteenth century, was but irresponsible and wild-eyed enthusiasm. American idealism, occupied as it was with the present and with what was to be done immediately, was a very masculine idealism, — pedestrian, serious, but happy. American idealism, indeed, was based on a common and clear-headed apprehension of the opportunities in American life, on a tenacious faith in the possibility of realizing these opportunities, and on splendid cheer in actually doing so. This sort of spirit, — thoroughly human and social, but cheerful, self-reliant, and responsible, — seeking an instrument of adequate expression, simply as an instrument of ready, intimate, vigorous, but temperate speech, and not as an art form, naturally turned to prose. For prose, as the most common, impersonal, flexible, concrete, intimate, pedestrian, and weighty instrument of expression, is the natural art form of social democracy.


What caused prose rather than poetry to become the natural and characteristic American mode of utterance, and what gave to American prose its peculiar quality of manliness, was, as we have said, a common, immediate, and vivid interest, amongst men of fine good sense, — who saw life steadily and saw it whole, — in a very concrete social ideal. That ideal, as we may readily read from Lowell’s later political essays, was, what it still remains, one of equality of being and opportunity. In the history of American life, the form or outward phase of this ideal changed three times, but evolved clearly at last into what it meant to be, thoroughgoing social (and spiritual) democracy. It was an ideal latent in the Puritanism of England, and on reaching America became, as Lowell says in his powerful essay on the Independent in Politics, as it were by “ gift of the sky and of the forest,” a very concrete ideal of freedom and humane equality in men’s relations to God, that through this religious democracy men might have equal freedom and humanity in their political, social, and spiritual relations to one another.

The outward form of the American ideal changed, as we have said, three times. It began in New England as real religious freedom and equality : all men were, as the Puritans insisted, really “citizens ” of the kingdom of God ; and on earth such religious citizenship implied political and social citizenship. That which was in England still a very remote and wayward ideal was in New England an ideal real and present, — spiritual and social liberty, fraternity, and equality in actu. The idealism which in England, after the French Revolution, spent itself in very ineffective and irresponsible poetry, and in France in equally ineffective and irresponsible action, had been and remained in America, from colonial days, very real, concrete, and practical. The second phase of the American social ideal appeared during the Revolutionary struggle, when the early religious ideal with its social implications took on definitively the form of political freedom and equality, with, of course, added social implications. The “ AngloAmerican ” citizen became, under that struggle, almost the “ American ” citizen as such. Yet we have not complete social democracy. The American social ideal must take on a new phase before it becomes thoroughgoing democracy. In the third and last stage of its evolution, under the struggle of the Civil War, the ideal of religious freedom and equality, which had passed into the ideal of political freedom, now passed into the embodied ideal of social freedom and equality. In America, where the very sky and forest proclaimed the ideal of freedom and humanity, there could be no privileged classes. Whatever we may regard as the conscious aim of the Civil War in America, its unconscious end was to make, as it did at least in possibility, all, white and black, really “ citizens ” of a single republic, — of an “ America ” which, as Emerson felt, really should mean social and spiritual equality of being and opportunity.

The American mood or temper was wholly different from the English mood in the eighteenth century, on the one hand, and from the English and the French mood in the nineteenth century, on the other hand. The difference in spirit showed itself every where, but conspicuously in literature. The age of Addison and Swift, as Miss Scudder has so excellently brought out in her Social Ideals in English Letters, was an age of respectability, of conventionality, of finality ; it aimed primarily at sanity, and repressed all idealism and enthusiasm. And further, as Miss Scudder again has pointed out, we may only understand Swift’s social satire if we realize that his bitterness and sarcasm spring out of a consciousness that he writes in an age of acquiescence and self-satisfied optimism on the part of the English people in general, but for himself, as it appears, an age of despair. Social and political criticism, therefore, appeared abundantly in the England of the eighteenth century ; but it was criticism either acquiescent, self-complacent, or cynical, despairing, inhuman. Social and political criticism appeared also in the America of the eighteenth century; but, based as it was on sane, self-reliant, and responsible idealism, it was always practical, courageous, cheerful though serious, and thoroughly kindly and human. The England and France of the nineteenth century, on the other hand, were, to be sure, idealistic in the extreme; in England idealism appeared as but poetic frenzy, while in France it passed into a real madness in life. But American idealism remained as it was born, “ clear-headed and well-ordered aspiration.” The passion in American life was a passion for deeds ; the thought and aspiration of the American people centred in realizing concrete possibilities of being and opportunity. This passion for deeds on the part of the intelligent, self-reliant, and cheerful commonalty in America, expressing itself in literature, turned to prose primarily as an instrument for promoting high and noble deeds. For prose, indeed, rather than poetry, is the most available and powerful literary instrument in furthering sane, responsible social democracy.

It is, then, first of all, because this ideal of human equality of being and opportunity was in some form or other always controlling and assisting American life and thought that prose itself — the pedestrian, but free, flexible, and ready instrument of the common man in expressing effectively his ideas on matters of common welfare — was adopted by the American citizen as his characteristic mode of utterance. It is, too, in the second place, because this same ideal expressed itself in literature sanely, responsibly, effectively, that the distinctly American prose style is clear, sane, vigorous, but temperate; that its mood is always strenuous ; that its temper is always manly. The ideal of political, social, and spiritual citizenship, vividly realized, and in splendid cheer sought after, inevitably created in America a prose literature somewhat unæsthetic in charm, but still, by way of its real substance and generous spirit, powerful over the heart and imagination of “ the plain people.” And if I were asked, In the style of which of the distinctly American prose writers does the quality of “ manliness in art ” most appear ? I should answer, In the prose of the one American who is most typical of clear-headed, sane, and effective aspiration, — in the prose of Lincoln. As was the man himself, plain, responsible, human, so he spoke and wrote. His Gettysburg Address, for example, to my mind, must remain the American ideal of prose style, — simple thought thoroughly socialized by decent plainness and manly freedom.

J. D. Logan.