[This is taken from Henry A. Beers' Initial Studies in American Letters.]
THE ERA OF NATIONAL EXPANSION.
The attempt to preserve a strictly chronological order must here be abandoned. About all the American literature in existence that is of any value as literature is the product of the past three quarters of a century, and the men who produced it, though older or younger, were still contemporaries. Irving’s Knickerbocker’s History of New York, 1809, was published within the recollection of some yet living, and the venerable poet Richard H. Dana—Irving’s junior by only four years—survived to 1879, when the youngest of the generation of writers that now occupy public attention had already won their spurs. Bryant, whose Thanatopsis was printed in 1816, lived down to 1878. He saw the beginnings of our national literature, and he saw almost as much of the latest phase of it as we see to-day in this year 1891. Still, even within the limits of a single life-time, there have been progress and change. And so, while it will happen that the consideration of writers, a part of whose work falls between the dates at the head of this chapter, may be postponed to subsequent chapters, we may in a general way follow the sequence of time.
The period between the close of the second war with England, in 1815, and the great financial crash of 1837, has been called, in language attributed to President Monroe, “the era of good feeling.” It was a time of peace and prosperity, of rapid growth in population and rapid extension of territory. The new nation was entering upon its vast estates and beginning to realize its manifest destiny. The peace with Great Britain, by calling off the Canadian Indians and the other tribes in alliance with England, had opened up the North-west to settlement. Ohio had been admitted as a State in 1802; but at the time of President Monroe’s tour, in 1817, Cincinnati had only seven thousand inhabitants, and half of the State was unsettled. The Ohio River flowed for most of its course through an unbroken wilderness. Chicago was merely a fort. Hitherto the emigration to the West had been sporadic; now it took on the dimensions of a general and almost a concerted exodus. This movement was stimulated in New England by the cold summer of 1816 and the late spring of 1817, which produced a scarcity of food that amounted in parts of the interior to a veritable famine. All through this period sounded the ax of the pioneer clearing the forest about his log-cabin, and the rumble of the canvas-covered emigrant-wagon over the primitive highways which crossed the Alleghanies or followed the valley of the Mohawk. S. G. Goodrich, known in letters as “Peter Parley,” in his Recollections of a Life-time, 1856, describes the part of the movement which he had witnessed as a boy in Fairfield County, Connecticut: “I remember very well the tide of emigration through Connecticut, on its way to the West, during the summer of 1817. Some persons went in covered wagons—frequently a family consisting of father, mother, and nine small children, with one at the breast—some on foot, and some crowded together under the cover, with kettles, gridirons, feather-beds, crockery, and the family Bible, Watts’s Psalms and Hymns, and Webster’s Spelling-book—the lares and penates of the household. Others started in ox-carts, and trudged on at the rate of ten miles a day. . . . Many of these persons were in a state of poverty, and begged their way as they went. Some died before they reached the expected Canaan; many perished after their arrival from fatigue and privation; and others from the fever and ague, which was then certain to attack the new settlers. It was, I think, in 1818 that I published a small tract entitled, ’Tother Side of Ohio--that is, the other view, in contrast to the popular notion that it was the paradise of the world. It was written by Dr. Hand—a talented young physician of Berlin—who had made a visit to the West about these days. It consisted mainly of vivid but painful pictures of the accidents and incidents attending this wholesale migration. The roads over the Alleghanies, between Philadelphia and Pittsburg, were then rude, steep, and dangerous, and some of the more precipitous slopes were consequently strewn with the carcasses of wagons, carts, horses, oxen, which had made shipwreck in their perilous descents.”
But in spite of the hardships of the settler’s life the spirit of that time, as reflected in its writings, was a hopeful and a light-hearted one.
“Westward the course of empire takes its way,”
runs the famous line from Berkeley’s poem on America. The New Englanders who removed to the Western Reserve went there to better themselves; and their children found themselves the owners of broad acres of virgin soil in place of the stony hill pastures of Berkshire and Litchfield. There was an attraction, too, about the wild, free life of the frontiersman, with all its perils and discomforts. The life of Daniel Boone, the pioneer of Kentucky—that “dark and bloody ground”—is a genuine romance. Hardly less picturesque was the old river life of the Ohio boatmen, before the coming of steam banished their queer craft from the water. Between 1810 and 1840 the center of population in the United States had moved from the Potomac to the neighborhood of Clarksburg, in West Virginia, and the population itself had increased from seven to seventeen millions. The gain was made partly in the East and South, but the general drift was westward. During the years now under review the following new States were admitted, in the order named: Indiana, Mississippi, Illinois, Alabama, Maine, Missouri, Arkansas, Michigan. Kentucky and Tennessee had been made States in the last years of the eighteenth century, and Louisiana—acquired by purchase from France—in 1812.
The settlers, in their westward march, left large tracts of wilderness behind them. They took up first the rich bottomlands along the river courses, the Ohio and Miami and Licking, and later the valleys of the Mississippi and Missouri and the shores of the great lakes. But there still remained backwoods in New York and Pennsylvania, though the cities of New York and Philadelphia had each a population of more than one hundred thousand in 1815. When the Erie Canal was opened, in 1825, it ran through a primitive forest. N. P. Willis, who went by canal to Buffalo and Niagara in 1827, describes the houses and stores at Rochester as standing among the burnt stumps left by the first settlers. In the same year that saw the opening of this great water-way, the Indian tribes, numbering now about one hundred and thirty thousand souls, were moved across the Mississippi. Their power had been broken by General Hamson’s victory over Tecumseh at the battle of Tippecanoe, in 1811, and they were in fact mere remnants and fragments of the race which had hung upon the skirts of civilization and disputed the advance of the white man for two centuries. It was not until some years later than this that railroads began to take an important share in opening up new country.
The restless energy, the love of adventure, the sanguine anticipation which characterized American thought at this time, the picturesque contrasts to be seen in each mushroom town where civilization was encroaching on the raw edge of the wilderness—all these found expression, not only in such well-known books as Cooper’s Pioneers, 1823, and Irving’s Tour on the Prairies, 1835, but in the minor literature which is read to-day, if at all, not for its own sake, but for the light that it throws on the history of national development: in such books as Paulding’s story of Westward-Ho! and his poem, The Backwoodsman, 1818; or as Timothy Flint’s Recollections, 1826, and his Geography and History of the Mississippi Valley, 1827. It was not an age of great books, but it was an age of large ideas and expanding prospects. The new consciousness of empire uttered itself hastily, crudely, ran into buncombe, “spread-eagleism,” and other noisy forms of patriotic exultation; but it was thoroughly democratic and American. Though literature—or at least the best literature of the time—was not yet emancipated from English models, thought and life, at any rate, were no longer in bondage—no longer provincial. And it is significant that the party in office during these years was the Democratic, the party which had broken most completely with conservative traditions. The famous “Monroe doctrine” was a pronunciamento of this aggressive democracy, and though the Federalists returned to power for a single term, under John Quincy Adams (1825-29), Andrew Jackson received the largest number of electoral votes, and Adams was only chosen by the House of Representatives in the absence of a majority vote for any one candidate. At the close of his term “Old Hickory,” the hero of the people, the most characteristically democratic of our presidents, and the first backwoodsman who entered the White House, was borne into office on a wave of popular enthusiasm. We have now arrived at the time when American literature, in the higher and stricter sense of the term, really began to have an existence. S. G. Goodrich, who settled at Hartford as a bookseller and publisher in 1818, says, in his Recollections: “About this time I began to think of trying to bring out original American works. . . . The general impression was that we had not, and could not have, a literature. It was the precise point at which Sidney Smith had uttered that bitter taunt in the Edinburgh Review, ‘Who reads an American book?’ . . . It was positively injurious to the commercial credit of a bookseller to undertake American works.” Washington Irving (1783-1859) was the first American author whose books, as books, obtained recognition abroad; whose name was thought worthy of mention beside the names of English contemporary authors, like Byron, Scott, and Coleridge. He was also the first American writer whose writings are still read for their own sake. We read Mather’s Magnalia, and Franklin’s Autobiography, and Trumbull’s McFingal--if we read them at all—as history, and to learn about the times or the men. But we read the Sketch Book, and Knickerbocker’s History of New York, and the Conquest of Granada for themselves and for the pleasure that they give as pieces of literary art.
We have arrived, too, at a time when we may apply a more cosmopolitan standard to the works of American writers, and may disregard many a minor author whose productions would have cut some figure had they come to light amid the poverty of our colonial age. Hundreds of these forgotten names, with specimens of their unread writings, are consigned to a limbo of immortality in the pages of Duyckinck’s Cyclopedia and of Griswold’s Poets of America and Prose Writers of America. We may select here for special mention, and as most representative of the thought of their time, the names of Irving, Cooper, Webster, and Channing.
A generation was now coming upon the stage who could recall no other government in this country than the government of the United States, and to whom the Revolutionary War was but a tradition. Born in the very year of the peace, it was a part of Irving’s mission, by the sympathetic charm of his writings and by the cordial recognition which he won in both countries, to allay the soreness which the second war, of 1812-15, had left between England and America. He was well fitted for the task of mediator. Conservative by nature, early drawn to the venerable worship of the Episcopal Church, retrospective in his tastes, with a preference for the past and its historic associations, which, even in young America, led him to invest the Hudson and the region about New York with a legendary interest, he wrote of American themes in an English fashion, and interpreted to an American public the mellow attractiveness that he found in the life and scenery of Old England. He lived in both countries, and loved them both; and it is hard to say whether Irving is more of an English or of an American writer. His first visit to Europe, in 1804-6, occupied nearly two years. From 1815 to 1832 he was abroad continuously, and his “domicile,” as the lawyers say, during these seventeen years was really in England, though a portion of his time was spent upon the Continent, and several successive years in Spain, where he engaged upon the Life of Columbus, the Conquest of Granada, the Companions of Columbus, and the Alhambra, all published between 1828 and 1832. From 1842 to 1846 he was again in Spain as American minister at Madrid.
Irving was the last and greatest of the Addisonians. His boyish letters, signed “Jonathan Oldstyle,” contributed in 1802 to his brother’s newspaper, the Morning Chronicle, were, like Franklin’s Busybody, close imitations of the Spectator. To the same family belonged his Salmagundi papers, 1807, a series of town-satires on New York society, written in conjunction with his brother William and with James K. Paulding. The little tales, essays, and sketches which compose the Sketch Book were written in England, and published in America, in periodical numbers, in 1819-20. In this, which is in some respects his best book, he still maintained that attitude of observation and spectatorship taught him by Addison. The volume had a motto taken from Burton: “I have no wife nor children, good or bad, to provide for—a mere spectator of other men’s fortunes,” etc.; and “The Author’s Account of Himself,” began in true Addisonian fashion: “I was always fond of visiting new scenes and observing strange characters and manners.”
But though never violently “American,” like some later writers who have consciously sought to throw off the trammels of English tradition, Irving was in a real way original. His most distinct addition to our national literature was in his creation of what has been called “the Knickerbocker legend.” He was the first to make use, for literary purposes, of the old Dutch traditions which clustered about the romantic scenery of the Hudson. Colonel T. W. Higginson, in his History of the United States, tells how “Mrs. Josiah Quincy, sailing up that river in 1786, when Irving was a child three years old, records that the captain of the sloop had a legend, either supernatural or traditional, for every scene, ‘and not a mountain reared its head unconnected with some marvelous story.’” The material thus at hand Irving shaped into his Knickerbocker’s History of New York, into the immortal story of Rip Van Winkle and the Legend of Sleepy Hollow (both published in the Sketch Book), and into later additions to the same realm of fiction, such as Dolph Heyliger in Bracebridge Hall, the Money Diggers, Wolfert Webber, and Kidd the Pirate, in the Tales of a Traveler, and some of the miscellanies from the Knickerbocker Magazine, collected into a volume, in 1855, under the title of Wolfert’s Roost.
The book which made Irving’s reputation was his Knickerbocker’s History of New York, 1809, a burlesque chronicle, making fun of the old Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam, and attributed, by a familiar and now somewhat threadbare device, to a little old gentleman named Diedrich Knickerbocker, whose manuscript had come into the editor’s hands. The book was gravely dedicated to the New York Historical Society, and it is said to have been quoted, as authentic history, by a certain German scholar named Goeller, in a note on a passage in Thucydides. This story, though well vouched, is hard of belief; for Knickerbocker, though excellent fooling, has nothing of the grave irony of Swift in his Modest Proposal or of Defoe in his Short Way with Dissenters. Its mock-heroic intention is as transparent as in Fielding’s parodies of Homer, which it somewhat resembles, particularly in the delightfully absurd description of the mustering of the clans under Peter Stuyvesant and the attack on the Swedish Fort Christina. Knickerbocker’s History of New York was a real addition to the comic literature of the world, a work of genuine humor, original and vital. Walter Scott said that it reminded him closely of Swift, and had touches resembling Sterne. It is not necessary to claim for Irving’s little masterpiece a place beside Gulliver’s Travels and Tristram Shandy. But it was, at least, the first American book in the lighter departments of literature which needed no apology and stood squarely on its own legs. It was written, too, at just the right time. Although New Amsterdam had become New York as early as 1664, the impress of its first settlers, with their quaint conservative ways, was still upon it when Irving was a boy. The descendants of the Dutch families formed a definite element not only in Manhattan, but all up along the kills of the Hudson, at Albany, at Schenectady, in Westchester County, at Hoboken, and Communipaw, localities made familiar to him in many a ramble and excursion. He lived to see the little provincial town of his birth grow into a great metropolis, in which all national characteristics were blended together, and a tide of immigration from Europe and New England flowed over the old landmarks and obliterated them utterly.
Although Irving was the first to reveal to his countrymen the literary possibilities of their early history it must be acknowledged that with modern American life he had little sympathy. He hated politics, and in the restless democratic movement of the time, as we have described it, he found no inspiration. This moderate and placid gentleman, with his distrust of all kinds of fanaticism, had no liking for the Puritans or for their descendants, the New England Yankees, if we may judge from his sketch of Ichabod Crane in the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. His genius was reminiscent, and his imagination, like Scott’s, was the historic imagination. In crude America his fancy took refuge in the picturesque aspects of the past, in “survivals” like the Knickerbocker Dutch and the Acadian peasants, whose isolated communities on the lower Mississippi he visited and described. He turned naturally to the ripe civilization of the Old World, He was our first picturesque tourist, the first “American in Europe.” He rediscovered England, whose ancient churches, quiet landscapes, memory-haunted cities, Christmas celebrations, and rural festivals had for him an unfailing attraction. With pictures of these, for the most part, he filled the pages of the Sketch Book and Bracebridge Hall, 1822. Delightful as are these English sketches, in which the author conducts his reader to Windsor Castle, or Stratford-on-Avon, or the Boar’s Head Tavern, or sits beside him on the box of the old English stage-coach, or shares with him the Yule-tide cheer at the ancient English country-house, their interest has somewhat faded. The pathos of the Broken Heart and the Pride of the Village, the mild satire of the Art of Book-Making, the rather obvious reflections in Westminster Abbey are not exactly to the taste of this generation. They are the literature of leisure and retrospection; and already Irving’s gentle elaboration, the refined and slightly artificial beauty of his style, and his persistently genial and sympathetic attitude have begun to pall upon readers who demand a more nervous and accentuated kind of writing. It is felt that a little roughness, a little harshness, even, would give relief to his pictures of life. There is, for instance, something a little irritating in the old-fashioned courtliness of his manner toward women; and one reads with a certain impatience smoothly punctuated passages like the following: “As the vine, which has long twined its graceful foliage about the oak, and been lifted by it into sunshine, will, when the hardy plant is rifted by the thunder-bolt, cling round it with its caressing tendrils, and bind up its shattered boughs, so is it beautifully ordered by Providence that woman, who is the mere dependent and ornament of man in his happier hours, should be his stay and solace when smitten with sudden calamity, winding herself into the rugged recesses of his nature, tenderly supporting the drooping head and binding up the broken heart.”
Irving’s gifts were sentiment and humor, with an imagination sufficiently fertile and an observation sufficiently acute to support those two main qualities, but inadequate to the service of strong passion or subtle thinking, though his pathos, indeed, sometimes reached intensity. His humor was always delicate and kindly; his sentiment never degenerated into sentimentality. His diction was graceful and elegant—too elegant, perhaps; and, in his modesty, he attributed the success of his books in England to the astonishment of Englishmen that an American could write good English.
In Spanish history and legend Irving found a still newer and richer field for his fancy to work upon. He had not the analytic and philosophical mind of a great historian, and the merits of his Conquest of Granada and Life of Columbus are rather belletristisch than scientific. But he brought to these undertakings the same eager love of the romantic past which had determined the character of his writings in America and England, and the result—whether we call it history or romance—is at all events charming as literature. His Life of Washington--completed in 1859--was his magnum opus, and is accepted as standard authority. Mahomet and His Successors, 1850, was comparatively a failure. But of all Irving’s biographies his Life of Oliver Goldsmith, 1849, was the most spontaneous and perhaps the best. He did not impose it upon himself as a task, but wrote it from a native and loving sympathy with his subject, and it is, therefore, one of the choicest literary memoirs in the language.
When Irving returned to America, in 1832, he was the recipient of almost national honors. He had received the medal of the Royal Society of Literature and the degree of D.C.L. from Oxford University, and had made American literature known and respected abroad. In his modest home at Sunnyside, on the banks of the river over which he had been the first to throw the witchery of poetry and romance, he was attended to the last by the admiring affection of his countrymen. He had the love and praises of the foremost English writers of his own generation and the generation which followed—of Scott, Byron, Coleridge, Thackeray, and Dickens, some of whom had been among his personal friends. He is not the greatest of American authors, but the influence of his writings is sweet and wholesome, and it is in many ways fortunate that the first American man of letters who made himself heard in Europe should have been in all particulars a gentleman.
Connected with Irving, at least by name and locality, were a number of authors who resided in the city of New York, and who are known as the Knickerbocker writers, perhaps because they were contributors to the Knickerbocker Magazine. One of these was James K. Paulding, a connection of Irving by marriage, and his partner in the Salmagundi papers. Paulding became Secretary of the Navy under Van Buren, and lived down to the year 1860. He was a voluminous author, but his writings had no power of continuance, and are already obsolete, with the possible exception of his novel, the Dutchman’s Fireside, 1831.
A finer spirit than Paulding was Joseph Rodman Drake, a young poet of great promise, who died in 1820, at the age of twenty-five. Drake’s patriotic lyric, the American Flag, is certainly the most spirited thing of the kind in our poetic literature, and greatly superior to such national anthems as Hail Columbia and the Star-Spangled Banner. His Culprit Fay, published in 1819, was the best poem that had yet appeared in America, if we except Bryant’s Thanatopsis, which was three years the elder. The Culprit Fay was a fairy story, in which, following Irving’s lead, Drake undertook to throw the glamour of poetry about the Highlands of the Hudson. Edgar Poe said that the poem was fanciful rather than imaginative; but it is prettily and even brilliantly fanciful, and has maintained its popularity to the present time. Such verse as the following—which seems to show that Drake had been reading Coleridge’s Christabel, published three years before—was something new in American poetry:
“The winds are whist and the owl is still,
The bat in the shelvy rock is hid,
And naught is heard on the lonely hill
But the cricket’s chirp and the answer shrill
Of the gauze-winged katydid,
And the plaint of the wailing whip-poor-will,
Who moans unseen, and ceaseless sings
Ever a note of wail and woe,
Till morning spreads her rosy wings,
And earth and sky in her glances glow.”
Here we have, at last, the whip-poor-will, an American bird, and not the conventional lark or nightingale, although the elves of the Old World seem scarcely at home on the banks of the Hudson. Drake’s memory has been kept fresh not only by his own poetry, but by the beautiful elegy written by his friend Fitz-Greene Halleck, the first stanza of which is universally known;
“Green be the turf above thee,
Friend of my better days;
None knew thee but to love thee,
Nor named thee but to praise.”
Halleck was born in Guilford, Connecticut, whither he retired in 1849, and resided there till his death in 1867. But his literary career is identified with New York. He was associated with Drake in writing the Croaker Papers, a series of humorous and satirical verses contributed in 1814 to the Evening Post. These were of a merely local and temporary interest; but Halleck’s fine ode, Marco Bozzaris--though declaimed until it has become hackneyed—gives him a sure title to remembrance; and his Alnwick Castle, a monody, half serious and half playful on the contrast between feudal associations and modern life, has much of that pensive lightness which characterizes Praed’s best vers de societé.
A friend of Drake and Halleck was James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851), the first American novelist of distinction, and, if a popularity which has endured for nearly three quarters of a century is any test, still the most successful of all American novelists. Cooper was far more intensely American than Irving, and his books reached an even wider public. “They are published as soon as he produces them,” said Morse, the electrician, in 1833, “in thirty-four different places in Europe. They have been seen by American travelers in the languages of Turkey and Persia, in Constantinople, in Egypt, at Jerusalem, at Ispahan.” Cooper wrote altogether too much; he published, besides his fictions, a Naval History of the United States, a series of naval biographies, works of travel, and a great deal of controversial matter. He wrote over thirty novels, the greater part of which are little better than trash, and tedious trash at that. This is especially true of his tendenz novels and his novels of society. He was a man of strongly marked individuality, fiery, pugnacious, sensitive to criticism, and abounding in prejudices. He was embittered by the scurrilous attacks made upon him by a portion of the American press, and spent a great deal of time and energy in conducting libel suits against the newspapers. In the same spirit he used fiction as a vehicle for attack upon the abuses and follies of American life. Nearly all of his novels, written with this design, are worthless. Nor was Cooper well equipped by nature and temperament for depicting character and passion in social life. Even in his best romances his heroines and his “leading juveniles”—to borrow a term from the amateur stage—are insipid and conventional. He was no satirist, and his humor was not of a high order. He was a rapid and uneven writer, and, unlike Irving, he had no style.
Where Cooper was great was in the story, in the invention of incidents and plots, in a power of narrative and description in tales of wild adventure which keeps the reader in breathless excitement to the end of the book. He originated the novel of the sea and the novel of the wilderness. He created the Indian of literature; and in this, his peculiar field, although he has had countless imitators, he has had no equals. Cooper’s experiences had prepared him well for the kingship of this new realm in the world of fiction. His childhood was passed on the borders of Otsego Lake, when central New York was still a wilderness, with boundless forests stretching westward, broken only here and there by the clearings of the pioneers. He was taken from college (Yale) when still a lad, and sent to sea in a merchant vessel, before the mast. Afterward he entered the navy and did duty on the high seas and upon Lake Ontario, then surrounded by virgin forests. He married and resigned his commission in 1811, just before the outbreak of the war with England, so that he missed the opportunity of seeing active service in any of those engagements on the ocean and our great lakes which were so glorious to American arms. But he always retained an active interest in naval affairs.
His first successful novel was The Spy, 1821, a tale of the Revolutionary War, the scene of which was laid in Westchester County, N. Y., where the author was then residing. The hero of this story, Harvey Birch, was one of the most skillfully drawn figures on his canvas. In 1833 he published the Pioneers, a work somewhat overladen with description, in which he drew for material upon his boyish recollections of frontier life at Cooperstown. This was the first of the series of five romances known as the Leatherstocking Tales. The others were the Last of the Mohicans, 1826; the Prairie, 1827; the Pathfinder, 1840; and the Deerslayer, 1841. The hero of this series, Natty Bumpo, or “Leatherstocking,” was Cooper’s one great creation in the sphere of character, his most original addition to the literature of the world in the way of a new human type. This backwoods philosopher—to the conception of whom the historic exploits of Daniel Boone perhaps supplied some hints; unschooled, but moved by noble impulses and a natural sense of piety and justice; passionately attached to the wilderness, and following its westering edge even unto the prairies—this man of the woods was the first real American in fiction. Hardly less individual and vital were the various types of Indian character, in Chingachgook, Uncas, Hist, and the Huron warriors. Inferior to these, but still vigorously though somewhat roughly drawn, were the waifs and strays of civilization, whom duty, or the hope of gain, or the love of adventure, or the outlawry of crime had driven to the wilderness—the solitary trapper, the reckless young frontiersman, the officers and men of out-post garrisons. Whether Cooper’s Indian was the real being, or an idealized and rather melodramatic version of the truth, has been a subject of dispute. However this be, he has taken his place in the domain of art, and it is safe to say that his standing there is secure. No boy will ever give him up.
Equally good with the Leatherstocking novels, and equally national, were Cooper’s tales of the sea, or at least the best two of them—the Pilot, 1833, founded upon the daring exploits of John Paul Jones, and the Red Rover, 1828. But here, though Cooper still holds the sea, he has had to admit competitors; and Britannia, who rules the waves in song, has put in some claim to a share in the domain of nautical fiction in the persons of Mr. W. Clark Russell and others. Though Cooper’s novels do not meet the deeper needs of the heart and the imagination, their appeal to the universal love of a story is perennial. We devour them when we are boys, and if we do not often return to them when we are men, that is perhaps only because we have read them before, and “know the ending.” They are good yarns for the forecastle and the camp-fire; and the scholar in his study, though he may put the Deerslayer or the Last of the Mohicans away on the top shelf, will take it down now and again, and sit up half the night over it.
Before dismissing the belles-lettres writings of this period, mention should be made of a few poems of the fugitive kind which seem to have taken a permanent place in popular regard. John Howard Payne, a native of Long Island, a wandering actor and playwright, who died American consul at Tunis in 1852, wrote about 1820 for Covent Garden Theater an opera, entitled Clari, the libretto of which included the now famous song of Home, Sweet Home. Its literary pretensions were of the humblest kind, but it spoke a true word which touched the Anglo-Saxon heart in its tenderest spot, and, being happily married to a plaintive air, was sold by the hundred thousand, and is evidently destined to be sung forever. A like success has attended the Old Oaken Bucket, composed by Samuel Woodworth, a printer and journalist from Massachusetts, whose other poems, of which two collections were issued in 1818 and 1826, were soon forgotten. Richard Henry Wilde, an Irishman by birth, a gentleman of scholarly tastes and accomplishments, who wrote a great deal on Italian literature, and sat for several terms in Congress as Representative of the State of Georgia, was the author of the favorite song, My Life is Like the Summer Rose. Another Southerner, and a member of a distinguished Southern family, was Edward Coate Pinkney, who served nine years in the navy, and died in 1828, at the age of twenty-six, having published in 1825 a small volume of lyrical poems which had a fire and a grace uncommon at that time in American verse. One of these, A Health, beginning,
“I fill this cup to one made up of loveliness alone.”
though perhaps somewhat overpraised by Edgar Poe, has rare beauty of thought and expression.
John Quincy Adams, sixth President of the United States (1825-29), was a man of culture and literary tastes. He published his lectures on rhetoric, delivered during his tenure of the Boylston Professorship at Harvard in 1806-9; he left a voluminous diary, which has been edited since his death in 1848; and among his experiments in poetry is one of considerable merit, entitled The Wants of Man, an ironical sermon on Goldsmith’s text:
“Man wants but little here below,
Nor wants that little long.”
As this poem is a curiously close anticipation of Dr. Holmes’s Contentment, so the very popular ballad, Old Grimes, written about 1818, by Albert Gorton Greene, an undergraduate of Brown University in Rhode Island, is in some respects an anticipation of Holmes’s quaintly pathetic Last Leaf.
The political literature and public oratory of the United States during this period, although not absolutely of less importance than that which preceded and followed the Declaration of Independence and the adoption of the Constitution, demands less relative attention in a history of literature by reason of the growth of other departments of thought. The age was a political one, but no longer exclusively political. The debates of the time centered about the question of “State Rights,” and the main forum of discussion was the old Senate chamber, then made illustrious by the presence of Clay, Webster, and Calhoun. The slavery question, which had threatened trouble, was put off for a while by the Missouri Compromise of 1820, only to break out more fiercely in the debates on the Wilmot Proviso and the Kansas and Nebraska Bill. Meanwhile the Abolition movement had been transferred to the press and the platform. Garrison started his Liberator in 1830, and the Antislavery Society was founded in 1833. The Whig party, which had inherited the constitutional principles of the old Federal party, advocated internal improvements at national expense and a high protective tariff. The State Rights party, which was strongest at the South, opposed these views, and in 1832 South Carolina claimed the right to “nullify” the tariff imposed by the general government. The leader of this party was John Caldwell Calhoun, a South Carolinian, who in his speech in the United States Senate, on February 13, 1832, on Nullification and the Force Bill, set forth most authoritatively the “Carolina doctrine.” Calhoun was a great debater, but hardly a great orator. His speeches are the arguments of a lawyer and a strict constitutionalist, severely logical, and with a sincere conviction in the soundness of his case. Their language is free from bad rhetoric; the reasoning is cogent, but there is an absence of emotion and imagination; they contain few quotable things, and no passages of commanding eloquence, such as strew the orations of Webster and Burke. They are not, in short, literature. Again, the speeches of Henry Clay, of Kentucky, the leader of the Whigs, whose persuasive oratory is a matter of tradition, disappoint in the reading. The fire has gone out of them.
Not so with Daniel Webster, the greatest of American forensic orators, if, indeed, he be not the greatest of all orators who have used the English tongue. Webster’s speeches are of the kind that have power to move after the voice of the speaker is still. The thought and the passion in them lay hold on feelings of patriotism more lasting than the issues of the moment. It is, indeed, true of Webster’s speeches, as of all speeches, that they are known to posterity more by single brilliant passages than as wholes. In oratory the occasion is of the essence of the thing, and only those parts of an address which are permanent and universal in their appeal take their place in literature. But of such detachable passages there are happily many in Webster’s orations. One great thought underlay all his public life, the thought of the Union—of American nationality. What in Hamilton had been a principle of political philosophy had become in Webster a passionate conviction. The Union was his idol, and he was intolerant of any faction which threatened it from any quarter, whether the Nullifiers of South Carolina or the Abolitionists of the North. It is this thought which gives grandeur and elevation to all his utterances, and especially to the wonderful peroration of his Reply to Hayne, on Mr. Foot’s resolution touching the sale of the public lands, delivered in the Senate on January 26, 1830, whose closing words, “Liberty and union, now and forever, one and inseparable,” became the rallying cry of a great cause. Similar in sentiment was his famous speech of March 7, 1850, On the Constitution and the Union, which gave so much offense to the extreme Antislavery party, who held with Garrison that a Constitution which protected slavery “was a league with death and a covenant with hell.” It is not claiming too much for Webster to assert that the sentences of these and other speeches, memorized and declaimed by thousands of school-boys throughout the North, did as much as any single influence to train up a generation in hatred of secession, and to send into the fields of the civil war armies of men animated with the stern resolution to fight till the last drop of blood was shed, rather than allow the Union to be dissolved.
The figure of this great senator is one of the most imposing in American annals. The masculine force of his personality impressed itself upon men of a very different stamp—upon the unworldly Emerson, and upon the captious Carlyle, whose respect was not willingly accorded to any contemporary, much less to a representative of American democracy. Webster’s looks and manner were characteristic. His form was massive; his skull and jaw solid, the under-lip projecting, and the mouth firmly and grimly shut; his complexion was swarthy, and his black, deep-set eyes, under shaggy brows, glowed with a smoldering fire. He was rather silent in society; his delivery in debate was grave and weighty, rather than fervid. His oratory was massive, and sometimes even ponderous. It may be questioned whether an American orator of to-day, with intellectual abilities equal to Webster’s—if such a one there were—would permit himself the use of sonorous and elaborate pictures like the famous period which follows: “On this question of principle, while actual suffering was yet afar off, they raised their flag against a power to which, for purposes of foreign conquest and subjugation, Rome, in the height of her glory, is not to be compared—a power which has dotted over the surface of the whole globe with her possessions and military posts, whose morning drum-beat, following the sun and keeping company with the hours, circles the earth with one continuous and unbroken strain of the martial airs of England.” The secret of this kind of oratory has been lost. The present generation distrusts rhetorical ornament and likes something swifter, simpler, and more familiar in its speakers. But every thing, in declamation of this sort, depends on the way in which it is done. Webster did it supremely well; a smaller man would merely have made buncombe of it.
Among the legal orators of the time the foremost was Rufus Choate, an eloquent pleader, and, like Webster, a United States senator from Massachusetts. Some of his speeches, though excessively rhetorical, have literary quality, and are nearly as effective in print as Webster’s own. Another Massachusetts orator, Edward Everett, who in his time was successively professor in Harvard College, Unitarian minister in Boston, editor of the North American Review, member of both houses of Congress, minister to England, governor of his State, and President of Harvard, was a speaker of great finish and elegance. His addresses were mainly of the memorial and anniversary kind, and were rather lectures and Phi. B. K. prolusions than speeches. Everett was an instance of careful culture bestowed on a soil of no very great natural richness. It is doubtful whether his classical orations on Washington, the Republic, Bunker Hill Monument, and kindred themes, have enough of the breath of life in them to preserve them much longer in recollection.
New England, during these years, did not take that leading part in the purely literary development of the country which it afterward assumed. It had no names to match against those of Irving and Cooper. Drake and Halleck—slender as was their performance in point of quantity—were better poets than the Boston bards, Charles Sprague, whose Shakespeare Ode, delivered at the Boston theater in 1833, was locally famous; and Richard Henry Dana, whose longish narrative poem, the Buccaneer, 1827, once had admirers. But Boston has at no time been without a serious intellectual life of its own, nor without a circle of highly educated men of literary pursuits, even in default of great geniuses. The North American Review, established in 1815, though it has been wittily described as “ponderously revolving through space” for a few years after its foundation, did not exist in an absolute vacuum, but was scholarly, if somewhat heavy. Webster, to be sure, was a Massachusetts man—as were Everett and Choate—but his triumphs were won in the wider field of national politics. There was, however, a movement at this time, in the intellectual life of Boston and eastern Massachusetts, which, though not immediately contributory to the finer kinds of literature, prepared the way, by its clarifying and stimulating influences, for the eminent writers of the next generation. This was the Unitarian revolt against Puritan orthodoxy, in which William Ellery Channing was the principal leader. In a community so intensely theological as New England, it was natural that any new movement in thought should find its point of departure in the churches. Accordingly, the progressive and democratic spirit of the age, which in other parts of the country took other shapes, assumed in Massachusetts the form of “liberal Christianity.” Arminianism, Socinianism, and other phases of anti-Trinitarian doctrine, had been latent in some of the Congregational churches of Massachusetts for a number of years. But about 1812 the heresy broke out openly, and within a few years from that date most of the oldest and wealthiest church societies of Boston and its vicinity had gone over to Unitarianism, and Harvard College had been captured too. In the controversy that ensued, and which was carried on in numerous books, pamphlets, sermons, and periodicals, there were eminent disputants on both sides. So far as this controversy was concerned with the theological doctrine of the Trinity it has no place in a history of literature. But the issue went far beyond that. Channing asserted the dignity of human nature against the Calvinistic doctrine of innate depravity, and affirmed the rights of human reason and man’s capacity to judge of God. “We must start in religion from our own souls,” he said. And in his Moral Argument against Calvinism, 1820, he wrote: “Nothing is gained to piety by degrading human nature, for in the competency of this nature to know and judge of God all piety has its foundation.” In opposition to Edwards’s doctrine of necessity he emphasized the freedom of the will. He maintained that the Calvinistic dogmas of original sin, fore-ordination, election by grace, and eternal punishment were inconsistent with the divine perfection, and made God a monster. In Channing’s view the great sanction of religious truth is the moral sanction, is its agreement with the laws of conscience. He was a passionate vindicator of the liberty of the individual, not only as against political oppression, but against the tyranny of public opinion over thought and conscience: “We were made for free action. This alone is life, and enters into all that is good and great.” This jealous love of freedom inspired all that he did and wrote. It led him to join the Antislavery party. It expressed itself in his elaborate arraignment of Napoleon in the Unitarian organ, the Christian Examiner, for 1827-28; in his Remarks on Associations, and his paper On the Character and Writings of John Milton, 1826. This was his most considerable contribution to literary criticism. It took for a text Milton’s recently discovered Treatise on Christian Doctrine--the tendency of which was anti-Trinitarian—but it began with a general defense of poetry against “those who are accustomed to speak of poetry as light reading.” This would now seem a somewhat superfluous introduction to an article in any American review. But it shows the nature of the milieu through which the liberal movement in Boston had to make its way. To re-assert the dignity and usefulness of the beautiful arts was, perhaps, the chief service which the Massachusetts Unitarians rendered to humanism. The traditional prejudice of the Puritans against the ornamental side of life had to be softened before polite literature could find a congenial atmosphere in New England. In Channing’s Remarks on National Literature, reviewing a work published in 1823, he asks the question, “Do we possess what may be called a national literature?” and answers it, by implication at least, in the negative. That we do now possess a national literature is in great part due to the influence of Channing and his associates, although his own writings, being in the main controversial, and, therefore, of temporary interest, may not themselves take rank among the permanent treasures of that literature.
1. Washington Irving. Knickerbocker’s History of New York. The Sketch Book. Bracebridge Hall. Tales of a Traveler. The Alhambra. Life of Oliver Goldsmith.
2. James Fenimore Cooper. The Spy. The Pilot. The Red Rover. The Leather-stocking Tales.
3. Daniel Webster. Great Speeches and Orations. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 1879.
4. William Ellery Channing. The Character and Writings of John Milton. The Life and Character of Napoleon Bonaparte. Slavery. [Vols. I and II of the Works of William E. Channing. Boston: James Munroe & Co. 1841.]
5. Joseph Rodman Drake. The Culprit Fay. The American Flag. [Selected Poems. New York. 1835.]
6. Fitz-Greene Halleck. Marco Bozzaris. Alnwick Castle. On the Death of Drake. [Poems. New York. 1827.]
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