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MODERN TENDENCIES IN AMERICAN LITERATURE.
Lack of perspective for characterizing this period of American literature — The four representative names of
the period — The changing conception of democracy in Lowell and Whitman — The still newer democracy of recent writers — Literary progress and retrogression - The democratization of recent literature The high average of literary technique — The dearth of truly great literary productions since Uncle Tom's Cabin - The “ uplift movement” reflected in our literature - General reflections.
It is not easy to say what word or our historian of the future might enwords the future historian of Ameri- title one of his chapters “ The Period can literature will employ in order to of True Democracy, 1901 – ", or that
– designate the period from the death of he might show his bias by employing Lincoln in 1865 to that of Mark Twain the less complimentary designation, in 1910. Perhaps, with his better per- “ The Day of the Muck-Rakers." spective, he will see that more years Fortunately, however, it does not must be added if he would obtain a fall to our lot to occupy the authoritaperiod based upon logical reasons tive, albeit somewhat uncomfortable, rather than upon mere expediency or
seat of the historian. We are on our convenience. On the other hand, he feet, and but a small part of the thick, may find that somewhere within these hurrying crowd. The best we can do, 45 years a new note is struck, a new and the most that can be expected of direction taken, and he may conclude us, is quietly to elbow our way out to begin a fresh period with the year
and to stand for a moment to one side, 1901 — the first of the Twentieth cen- recalling some impressions of the tury. The argument is certainly quite march we have been making and comconceivable that, with the begin- menting upon the salient features of ning of the new century, the “ civic the motley procession that is scurrynote,” which some authorities have ing past. held to be the chief characteristic of One impression — perhaps the most our literature from its inception, took important we shall receive — is borne
a deeper tone, vibrated more in upon us by the glimpse we have strenuously, sounded more insistently had, through their names, of three upon the ears of the Nation and of the striking figures — all of them imporworld. It is even conceivable that
tant contributors to American litera
ture, two of them Presidents of the Prepared for this History by William P.
United States, and one of them, in the Trent, Professor of English Literature, Columbia University.
opinion of many of his admirers, as
clearly the greatest author of the force. The period since the Civil War, epoch we are considering as he is whatever else it has done for our easily the most cosmopolitanly famous literature, has surely intensified its of modern American writers pure and national character. Precisely how it simple that is, of men whose fame has accomplished this result is somerests primarily upon the written word. thing for the future masters of critiLincoln, Mark Twain, Roosevelt - cism to ponder over; but we may be whatever else these three names may very certain that the great writers of stand for, they plainly stand for that the early years of the Republic, from subtle, indefinable something known as Franklin to Hawthorne, played an imAmericanism. Add to them a fourth portant part in bringing about the name, that of Walt Whitman, who in transformation. some senses (though not so completely The truth of this last statement beas Lincoln), belongs to what is often comes obvious after a moment's surregarded as the Golden Age of vey of the career of Lowell, who was our literature, the period from 1830 born the same year as Whitman and to 1865. His fame is a matter of died less than a year before him. The some forty years' standing and, like first series of the Biglow Papers could the fame of the three men to whom we not well be mistaken for anything but have added him, is racily American. an American product; yet, if the Set these four men over against the author's point of view had been that of chief representatives of our older the entire American people, the hisliterature and note the contrast. Ir- tory of the Nation as a whole might ving, Cooper, Poe, Hawthorne, Long- have been greatly changed. Right or fellow, Whittier, Emerson, Holmes, wrong, that point of view was comLowell — every one of them (including paratively sectional. A generation Poe), was truly American in heart and later, who was better capable of strikmind; yet is there not a raciness - a ing the true American note than tang — about the Americanism of Lowell? Witness the notable address Lincoln, Whitman, Mark Twain and on “ Democracy " delivered at ManRoosevelt that is either not distin- chester, England, in 1884. The great guishable or else less clearly discern- struggle of the 60's did more than ible in the Americanism of the elder liberate the slaves; it eventually libergroup? We are not surprised, for ex- ated the American mind from sectionample, to learn that in the original alism. The earlier struggle of the series of the English Men of Letters, 40's and the period of territorial deedited by John Morley, a volume on velopment that followed it expanded Hawthorne was included. The inclu- the American mind and more or less sion of a volume on Whitman in freed it from provincialism and colater series seems more of a tour de lonialism. Liberation and expansion
are the key-notes of the later prose of the people, emphasized the powers work of Lowell, and they are seen to
and duties of the chosen representasome extent in his poetry, although tives of the people — that is, were on the latter in the main is less significant the whole individualistic. The most in its Americanism. They are the key- conspicuous American of our own notes also of the entire work of Whit- day, on the other hand, although disman and, indeed, of the whole litera- playing in his every word and action ture of the period with which we are a marked individuality, is far from here concerned.
being an individualist in his political But while the phrase
a liberated theories and his public activities. For and expanded Americanism” may be him, as for most Americans, the voice of service in helping us to character- of the people is in a larger sense than ize the spirit of our latter-day litera- ever before the voice of God. The ture, a a moment's reflection may
may representative is much more the peocause us to ask whether it carries us ple's mouthpiece than a truly consufficiently far in our analysis and stituent part of an ideal system of whether it is adequate to our pur- government - a man of powers comwhen we
we attempt a char- mensurate with his responsibilities. acterization of the literature of the We may resolutely decline to use the entire period. All the names we have epithets“ socialistic” and “ collec
" cited are those of true Americans tivistic” in connection with the powhose genius has been increasingly litical, economic, and social evolution
, subject to liberation and expansion. that has taken place in America in Most of them have stood for democ- the last two decades; but we shall be racy and have sounded the “civic blind if we fail to recognize the fact note" in their writings. But is there that, with the breaking down of secnot a marked difference between the tionalism, with the enormous growth
a democracy of Lowell and that of of our population resulting in the ocRoosevelt, and is not the democracy cupation, more or less adequate, of of the latter particularly character- our continental domain, and with the istic of the literature produced dur- acquisition of insular possessions, the ing, let us say, the last ten years of American people has been welded into our period — that is, the first decade a more compact, articulate, and selfof the Twentieth century?
regulated mass of human beings with It seems almost certain that this approximately common thoughts and question must be answered in the af- purposes than any political observer firmative. Whatever else they were, of 1865, the year of Appomattox, the great Americans of the last cen- could have regarded as possible. The tury were individualists, and their day of the individual and the class is political ideas, while taking account far from over, but its sun has passed
the meridian. The day of the popu- and Hawthorne stood somewhat lar mass is not yet fully upon us, but apart from this development of “ citiits sun -- for in political astronomy zen literature,” and that it is prethe sight of two suns at one time is cisely these two writers in whom we not an unusual phenomenon - is well discover our two greatest literary artabove the horizon.
ists, does not vitiate the truth of the Are these reflections out of place contention that from the founding of in a sketch of the evolution of recent Jamestown to the outbreak of the American literature? It would seem Civil War our men of letters were, not, when we consider that from the first and foremost, truly democratic earliest colonial period our literature citizens utilizing their special gifts has faithfully reflected the political, for the welfare of the country as a economic and social ideals of our peo- whole, rather than artists shutting ple. The chief literary monuments themselves up with their dreams in of the Seventeenth and early Eigh- isolated, enchanted towers of their teenth centuries were those of a Con- own conceiving. gregational aristocracy in New Eng- en the war was well over and land and of an agricultural aristoc- the worst of the period of reconstrucracy in the South. The chief literary tion was behind the united Nation, monuments of the end of the Eigh- we celebrated worthily the centenary teenth and the beginning of the Nine- of our founding. Perhaps, since teenth centuries were the writings of many of our greatest authors were the founders of the Republic, of the still living and writing, we did not exponents of a representative de- clearly perceive that the generation mocracy organized into a federation which was born and had grown up in of States. With the advent of Irving, the midst of the dissensions that led Cooper and Bryant the æsthetic value to the war, did not count among its of our literature was greatly in- writers men equal to those who had creased, but its value as a stimulus to given America, or, speaking more the civic virtues was at least equally strictly, New England, the Golden augmented. With the next genera- Age of its literature. Bayard Taylor, tion this phenomenon was repeated for example, true poet and versatile on a larger scale, the poetry of Long- man of letters though he was, never fellow and Whittier and the ethical fully realized his ambition to secure essays of Emerson coöperating with a place beside Longfellow and Whitthe orations of Webster to develop tier and Lowell. His friends, Aldrich, throughout the North and West a ho- Stoddard, and Stedman, despite mogeneous population of clear intel- worthy achievements, were also hamligence, glowing patriotism, and act- pered in their race for their high arive civic spirit. The fact that Poe tistic goal. Yet there was progress
as well as retrogression, and, as for- classes of writers — that sees, for exmerly, our literature went hand in ample, in Mark Twain only our greathand with our National development. est humorist and in Mr. Howells only
Scarcely had the smoke of the bat- our chief writer of realistic fiction tlefields cleared away before an un- is misleading through its narrowness. wonted spirit of literary activity be- These authors and those they have incame manifest in the South. The fluenced are, above all, representative year 1867 saw the first book of Sid- of the attainment by our literature of ney Lanier, and in the few years that what may be called a continental qualremained to him he gave his native ity, so far as concerns its breadth, section and his country a small body and of a truly National or racial qualof true poetry, one of the few notable ity, so far as concerns its depth of contributions to the higher forms of spirit. literature made by the Nation in the The period from 1865 to 1900, durlast 50 years. Soon he was followed ing which all the writers just named by writers of prose fiction – John- did their most characteristic work, ston, Harris, Cable and their success- saw also the development of less dis
who interpreted to a sympa- tinctively American elements in our thetic public the spirit of their little literature than those represented by understood section, thus making for the exponents of the new South and National union and broad patriotism. West and of the old North and East, Meanwhile, marking both the growth as these regions were interpreted by of the West and the increasing pre- writers of local fiction using realistic dominance of prose over poetry as a methods. It used to be customary to literary medium for a newspaper and couple the names of Mr. Howells and magazine reading public, three new Mr. Henry James and also to speak of writers had begun careers destined to the latter as the chief representative be of great distinction - Samuel L. of international fiction; but the evoluClemens, better known as "Mark
tion of the author of Daisy Miller and Twain," Bret Harte, representing Washington Square seems to show the westward expansion of the Na- that, at bottom, he represents for tion, and William Dean Howells, rep- American literature that development resenting both an intensified interest of artistic self-consciousness and that in our National life and a cosmopoli- intensified interest in psychology tan absorption of the best theories which are characteristic of latter-day and methods of literary art then cur- literature throughout the world. It is rent in the world at large. Any view this that makes Mr. James really inof these men which confines itself to ternational or cosmopolitan rather their individual books or considers than the facts that America has long them only as representatives of since ceased to be his home and that