Literature and the World-State

‘LIFE is greater than literature, no doubt,’ remarked somebody in those old days of the nineties, when few doubted (few, at least, of those who read the Yellow Book) that life went on so that Art might be made out of it; ‘but without literature, what were life?’ Well, what with foreign travel, and the Peace Movement, and a dawning consciousness of the selfishness of patriotism, it becomes conceivable that we are going to find out. It is true that, thanks to ‘Caxton, or the Phænicians, or whoever it was that invented books,’ no Alexandrian disaster could ever again sweep away what we have; but are we as sure as we once were that there is always going to be more? It seems to have been ever the small, sequestered, self-centred district which produced the great literary tradition,— England, Tuscany, Judæa, Greece, — and the forces at work to level national walls and create a ‘ world-state,’ will tend to prevent forevermore the little intensive, oblivious centre of culture that Athens was.

This rather sorrowful notion has come to mind in pondering the question why this Middle West of mine has not produced a Middle-Western literature. Writers we have, of distinction, but it is not, after all, the heart of the Middle West that speaks in them; it is the brain of the admirable observer presenting his results. There are several kinds of Middle-Western literature possible, although only one would be worth having. It might be written, for example, in the manner of the Classical Convention, which speaks of everything in terms of something else. Just as to our eighteenth-century classicists the sun was always Phæbus, the dawn Aurora, and poetry the Orphean lyre or the Pierian spring according to taste, so our familiar Middle West might be translated for us into the idiom of English literature. Like the ‘StepDaughter of the Prairie,’ we might be taught to think of the near-by ‘creek ’ as a ‘rill’ or a ‘burn’; to call the far, low hills ‘the downs,’ and our limitless prairies ‘steppes’ or ‘moors.’ Such translation was in fact unconsciously practiced by a little girl I knew, who, while growing up in a Middle-Western city (the city growing up the while with her) and fed upon English fiction, vaguely assumed that some day she would turn up her hair and lengthen her skirts, and step out through a French window upon a beautiful English lawn, covered with curates and afternoon tea. Although, as she looked about her upon her world, she beheld none of these things.

But the difficulty with the Classical Convention is that it always comes to an end. The Romantic Movement quenched the Pierian spring; the StepDaughter of the Prairie — and the little girl — have grown up. There is a more sophisticated literary method, however, of a character possibly less perishable, which consists in trading upon our deprivations. We are aware, now, that we have no mountains, no rocks, no brook-watered glens, no traditional society like those in the past of Louisiana and Carolina, no London drawing-rooms, no Pyramids, no Grand Canal; but we can make something out of our knowledge of this melancholy fact, and record the adventures of our souls when face to face with these things, or when sitting at home and regretting them. Yet this, after all, is but another convention, and has been worked as well as it could be, and as much, perhaps, as it ought to be, by Mr. Howells for the MiddleWesterner seen against a background of New York, and by Mr. James for the American-at-large silhouetted upon the map of Europe.

The third way, and the hardest, is to strike the ground beneath our feet with a divining-rod of love and feeling, and see whether literature will not gush forth. There would seem to be plenty to write of, in those early French comers and the poetic people they found here; yet we lack, in dealing with them, something that is fundamental to literature, the unbroken tradition. We are not the children of those French explorers, neither does the red man’s blood flow in our veins. We are New Englanders, most of us, and our imagination turns soonest to the rocky uplands and the heroic story of the Northeast states. Neither, then, is it ours to write from the heart, from the deeps, of those later arrivals, the foreign northern folk who are naturalizing their customs within our borders.

Still, there is the soil. We can feed or starve the world in this Mississippi Valley. Fertility and drought, times and seasons and weather, are our affair. We are an agricultural folk, though it is not often that we remember it. We have almost the same things to sing of that the Psalmist had — ‘ the mountains that are round about Jerusalem,’ ‘the east wind and the south wind,’ ‘the snow like wool and the hoar-frost like ashes,’ ‘rain upon the mown grass and showers that water the earth,’ ’the pastures clothed with flocks and the valleys covered with corn.' Save for the mountains that are round about Jerusalem, there are as many strings to our harp as to David’s. Only, alas! we cannot now forget what David never knew — how much there is outside. Those mountains shut the Psalmist in, but nothing but the zone of respirable air that wraps our globe, can shut the Middle-Westerner in!

As you go out from Florence to the Certosa’s battlemented height, and cross the little Ema, you remember that Dante wished that Buondelmonte had been drowned in it before ever he had entered Florence to call upon her head the bloody Guelf and Ghibelline; and you wonder whether the thin thread of water would even have wet the feet of that splendid, faithless, white-clad young cavalier. Yet six hundred years ago it had already a name and a fame, to be recognized of any Tuscan when set into a poem. What Middle-Westerner could place an allusion to a stream so small, supposing it to lie in the next state, or even in the next county? Our Middle West is too large for literature — voilà le grand mot lancé! Then America will be too large for literature, then surely the whole world will be too large for literature!

Shall we go on, then, extending the boundaries of our literary estate, until we shall have developed a ‘world literature’ which a Martian might find characteristic of Earth as distinguished from Mars; or shall we admit that in this gradual internationalizing process which we believe to be so good for man, there is something bad for literature, and therefore try here in America to be as local as we can? But when every state, and the Negro, and the Indian, and every kind of naturalized newcomer shall have evolved his own highly idiomatic form of expression, we may find such deliberate nurture of local literary tradition associating itself, as it has done in Ireland, with a separate political consciousness. Can it be that what seems to be the best social ideal is going to prove unpropitious for literature, and that we shall ever be called upon to make a choice?