America in Literature

THE series of essays which Mr. Woodberry here assembles 1 constitutes a fairly complete though extremely compact summary of American literary activity and achievement. The activity has been considerable, he decides, the achievement in pure literature small. American readers who have been brought up to a theory of patriotism which holds that one can hardly be loyal to the flag without exaggerating, among other things, the feats of American authorship, will not be pleased with these papers. The writer does not scruple to assert that our production of work which possesses some absolute literary value begins with Irving. He professes no reverence for “ the received tradition of our colonial literature which has so swelled in bulk by the labors of our literary historians.” He has no mercy even upon those few colonial relics in which, many of us think, a true spark is to be discerned. “ What of the Day of Doom, The New England Primer, and Poor Richard’s Almanack, and the other wooden worthies of our Noah’s Ark, survivors from the Flood, archaic idols ? These are relics of a literary fetichism, together with Franklin’s Autobiography and Edwards’s On the Freedom of the Will, except that the great character of Franklin still pleads for one, and the great intellect of Edwards for the other, with a few. They do not belong with the books that become the classics of a nation.” Here Mr. Woodberry is speaking of literature in the polite sense ; elsewhere he more commonly uses the word to mean any utterance in print of any human activity. So in speaking of New York he says: “ In no other city is the power of the printed word more impressive. The true literature of the city is, in reality, and long has been, its great dailies ; they are for the later time what the sermons of the old clergy were in New England,—the mental sphere of the community ; and in them are to be found all the elements of literature except the qualities that secure permanence.”

The paper on the Knickerbocker Era is the most finished and adequate of the four chapters which deal with special periods. The power of Mr. Woodberry’s style is in general cumulative rather than episodical; yet there are pithy phrases of his which stick in the memory : “ It is hard in any case to localize Bryant. . . . That something Druidical which there is in his aspect sets him apart.” . . . “ Drake and Halleck stand for our boyish precocity ; death nipped the one, trade sterilized the other; there is a mortuary suggestion in the memory of both.” . . . “ Every metropolis, however, breeds its own race of local writers, like mites in a cheese, numerous and active, the literary coteries of the moment. To name one of them, there was Willis ; he was gigantic in his contemporaneousness.”

Mr. Woodberry’s treatment of the New England period, or, as he has it, the Literary Age of Boston, is far slighter ; it reminds us that the present book is a collection of separately published essays, and not a composition of chapters. For the book, it is unfortunate that the scale of the Knickerbocker paper should not have been maintained. The material at the critic’s disposal here (he includes the Cambridge and Concord writers and Whittier) would seem to be quite equal in importance to all the rest of his subject matter. His discussion of Emerson, Hawthorne, and Longfellow, the three in whom “ the genius of the people, working out in the place and among the things of its New England nativity, reached its height,” is full and satisfying. But we are not quite prepared to find Thoreau disposed of with a bare mention, and Holmes, Whittier, and Lowell each hit off in a brief paragraph. We should have liked some qualification, or expansion of some of his judgments, as this of Holmes: “ Such a writer is seldom understood except by the generation with which he is in social touch; magnetism leaves him ; he amuses his own time with a brilliant mental vivacity, but there it ends.” There should end, by this same token, one reflects, your Horace, your Pepys, your Lamb, all your blessed provincials, whether rural or town-made, who have made shift to keep their audiences thus far.

He has much to say of Southern writers, and little to say for them. Simms composed “ facile and feeble poems ; ” Timrod had, “ like the whippoorwill, a thin, pathetic, twilight note ; ” Hayne, “ one would rather liken to the mockingbird, except that it does no kind of justice to the bird ; ” Lanier, with his “ emotional phases . . . seems like Ixion, embracing the cloud.” Poe, finally, is “ the one genius of the highest American rank who belongs to the South.”

The tone of these judgments would seem less severe if it did not chance that in the ensuing essay on the West, the author places much stress upon the agreeable wild notes of Joaquin Miller, and upon the “ pietistic ” romancer, Lew Wallace. The moods of the two essays seem to be somewhat different. The Southern writers are attacked upon the stern ground of literary merit; the Western writers are forgiven much because they seem to embody the Western spirit. The volume is, we may repeat, a collection of essays, not a treatise. The final chapter, in which the discussion of general “ results and conditions ” is no longer hampered by the necessity for personal estimates, conveys an impression of entire consistency. In it the author’s mysticism, his profound faith, are seen to mellow and ennoble the sobriety of his attitude toward what has been and what is : “ Special cultures arise . . . and mingle with currents from above and under, and with crossing circles in the present; and the best that man has found in any quarter, nationalized in many peoples, takes the race and shapes it to itself after its own image, and especially with power in those who live the soul’s life. . . . But now in our own time, and in this halt of our literary genius, it is plain that our nobler literature, with its little Western afterglow, belonged to an heredity and environment, and a spirit of local culture whose place, in the East, was before the great passion of the Civil War, and, in the West, has also passed away. It all lies a generation, and more, behind us. The field is open, and calls loudly for new champions.” H. W. B.

  1. America in Literature. By GEORGE E. WOODBERRY. New York: Harper & Brothers. 1903.