[This is taken from Henry A. Beers' Initial Studies in American Letters.]
THE CAMBRIDGE SCHOLARS.
With few exceptions, the men who have made American literature what it is have been college graduates. And yet our colleges have not commonly been, in themselves, literary centers. Most of them have been small and poor, and situated in little towns or provincial cities. Their alumni scatter far and wide immediately after graduation, and even those of them who may feel drawn to a life of scholarship or letters find little to attract them at the home of their alma mater, and seek by preference the larger cities, where periodicals and publishing houses offer some hope of support in a literary career. Even in the older and better equipped universities the faculty is usually a corps of working scholars, each man intent upon his specialty and rather inclined to undervalue merely “literary” performance. In many cases the fastidious and hypercritical turn of mind which besets the scholar, the timid conservatism which naturally characterizes an ancient seat of learning, and the spirit of theological conformity which suppresses free discussion, have exerted their benumbing influence upon the originality and creative impulse of their inmates. Hence it happens that, while the contributions of American college teachers to the exact sciences, to theology and philology, metaphysics, political philosophy, and the severer branches of learning have been honorable and important, they have as a class made little mark upon the general literature of the country. The professors of literature in our colleges are usually persons who have made no additions to literature, and the professors of rhetoric seem ordinarily to have been selected to teach students how to write for the reason that they themselves have never written any thing that any one has ever read.
To these remarks the Harvard College of some fifty years ago offers some striking exceptions. It was not the large and fashionable university that it has lately grown to be, with its multiplied elective courses, its numerous faculty, and its somewhat motley collection of undergraduates; but a small school of the classics and mathematics, with something of ethics, natural science, and the modern languages added to its old-fashioned, scholastic curriculum, and with a very homogeneous clientèle, drawn mainly from the Unitarian families of eastern Massachusetts. Nevertheless a finer intellectual life, in many respects, was lived at old Cambridge within the years covered by this chapter than nowadays at the same place, or at any date in any other American university town. The neighborhood of Boston, where the commercial life has never so entirely overlain the intellectual as in New York and Philadelphia, has been a standing advantage to Harvard College. The recent upheaval in religious thought had secured toleration and made possible that free and even audacious interchange of ideas without which a literary atmosphere is impossible. From these, or from whatever causes, it happened that the old Harvard scholarship had an elegant and tasteful side to it, so that the dry erudition of the schools blossomed into a generous culture, and there were men in the professors’ chairs who were no less efficient as teachers because they were also poets, orators, wits, and men of the world. In the seventeen years from 1821 to 1839 there were graduated from Harvard College Emerson, Holmes, Sumner, Phillips, Motley, Thoreau, Lowell, and Edward Everett Hale; some of whom took up their residence at Cambridge, others at Boston, and others at Concord, which was quite as much a spiritual suburb of Boston as Cambridge was. In 1836, when Longfellow became professor of modern languages at Harvard, Sumner was lecturing in the Law School. The following year—in which Thoreau took his bachelor’s degree—witnessed the delivery of Emerson’s Phi Beta Kappa lecture on the American Scholar in the college chapel, and Wendell Phillips’s speech on the Murder of Lovejoy in Faneuil Hall. Lowell, whose description of the impression produced by the former of these famous addresses has been quoted in a previous chapter, was an under-graduate at the time. He took his degree in 1838, and in 1855 succeeded Longfellow in the chair of modern languages. Holmes had been chosen in 1847 professor of anatomy and physiology in the Medical School—a position which he held until 1882. The historians, Prescott and Bancroft, had been graduated in 1814 and 1817 respectively. The former’s first important publication, Ferdinand and Isabella, appeared in 1837. Bancroft had been a tutor in the college in 1822-23, and the initial volume of his History of the United States was issued in 1835. Another of the Massachusetts school of historical writers, Francis Parkman, took his first degree at Harvard in 1844. Cambridge was still hardly more than a village, a rural outskirt of Boston, such as Lowell described it in his article, Cambridge Thirty Years Ago, originally contributed to Putnam’s Monthly in 1853, and afterward reprinted in his Fireside Travels, 1864. The situation of a university scholar in old Cambridge was thus an almost ideal one. Within easy reach of a great city, with its literary and social clubs, its theaters, lecture courses, public meetings, dinner-parties, etc., he yet lived withdrawn in an academic retirement among elm-shaded avenues and leafy gardens, the dome of the Boston Statehouse looming distantly across the meadows where the Charles laid its “steel blue sickle” upon the variegated, plush-like ground of the wide marsh. There was thus, at all times during the quarter of a century embraced between 1837 and 1861, a group of brilliant men resident in or about Cambridge and Boston, meeting frequently and intimately, and exerting upon one another a most stimulating influence. Some of the closer circles—all concentric to the university—of which this group was loosely composed were laughed at by outsiders as “Mutual Admiration Societies.” Such was, for instance, the “Five of Clubs,” whose members were Longfellow, Sumner, C. C. Felton, professor of Greek at Harvard, and afterward president of the college; G. S. Hillard, a graceful lecturer, essayist, and poet, of a somewhat amateurish kind; and Henry R. Cleveland, of Jamaica Plain, a lover of books and a writer of them.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-82), the most widely read and loved of American poets—or, indeed, of all contemporary poets in England and America—though identified with Cambridge for nearly fifty years, was a native of Portland, Maine, and a graduate of Bowdoin College, in the same class with Hawthorne. Since leaving college, in 1825, he had studied and traveled for some years in Europe, and had held the professorship of modern languages at Bowdoin. He had published several text-books, a number of articles on the Romance languages and literatures in the North American Review, a thin volume of metrical translations from the Spanish, a few original poems in various periodicals, and the pleasant sketches of European travel entitled Outre-Mer. But Longfellow’s fame began with the appearance in 1839 of his Voices of the Night. Excepting an earlier collection by Bryant this was the first volume of real poetry published in New England, and it had more warmth and sweetness, a greater richness and variety, than Bryant’s work ever possessed.
Longfellow’s genius was almost feminine in its flexibility and its sympathetic quality. It readily took the color of its surroundings and opened itself eagerly to impressions of the beautiful from every quarter, but especially from books. This first volume contained a few things written during his student days at Bowdoin, one of which, a blank-verse piece on Autumn, clearly shows the influence of Bryant’s Thanatopsis. Most of these juvenilia had nature for their theme, but they were not so sternly true to the New England landscape as Thoreau or Bryant. The skylark and the ivy appear among their scenic properties, and in the best of them, Woods in Winter, it is the English “hawthorn” and not any American tree, through which the gale is made to blow, just as later Longfellow uses “rooks” instead of crows. The young poet’s fancy was instinctively putting out feelers toward the storied lands of the Old World, and in his Hymn of the Moravian Nuns of Bethlehem he transformed the rude church of the Moravian sisters to a cathedral with “glimmering tapers,” swinging censers, chancel, altar, cowls, and “dim mysterious aisle.” After his visit to Europe Longfellow returned deeply imbued with the spirit of romance. It was his mission to refine our national taste by opening to American readers, in their own vernacular, new springs of beauty in the literatures of foreign tongues. The fact that this mission was interpretive, rather than creative, hardly detracts from Longfellow’s true originality. It merely indicates that his inspiration came to him in the first instance from other sources than the common life about him. He naturally began as a translator, and this first volume contained, among other things, exquisite renderings from the German of Uhland, Salis, and Müller, from the Danish, French, Spanish, and Anglo-Saxon, and a few passages from Dante. Longfellow remained all his life a translator, and in subtler ways than by direct translation he infused the fine essence of European poetry into his own. He loved
“Tales that have the rime of age
And chronicles of eld.”
The golden light of romance is shed upon his page, and it is his habit to borrow mediaeval and Catholic imagery from his favorite Middle Ages, even when writing of American subjects. To him the clouds are hooded friars, that “tell their beads in drops of rain;” the midnight winds blowing through woods and mountain passes are chanting solemn masses for the repose of the dying year, and the strain ends with the prayer—
In his journal he wrote characteristically: “The black shadows lie upon the grass like engravings in a book. Autumn has written his rubric on the illuminated leaves, the wind turns them over and chants like a friar.” This in Cambridge, of a moonshiny night, on the first day of the American October! But several of the pieces in Voices of the Night sprang more immediately from the poet’s own inner experience. The Hymn to the Night, the Psalm of Life, The Reaper and the Flowers, Footsteps of Angels, The Light of Stars, and The Beleaguered City spoke of love, bereavement, comfort, patience, and faith. In these lovely songs, and in many others of the same kind which he afterward wrote, Longfellow touched the hearts of all his countrymen. America is a country of homes, and Longfellow, as the poet of sentiment and of the domestic affections, became and remains far more general in his appeal than such a “cosmic” singer as Whitman, who is still practically unknown to the “fierce democracy” to which he has addressed himself. It would be hard to overestimate the influence for good exerted by the tender feeling and the pure and sweet morality which the hundreds of thousands of copies of Longfellow’s writings, that have been circulated among readers of all classes in America and England, have brought with them.
Three later collections, Ballads and Other Poems, 1842, The Belfry of Bruges, 1846; and The Seaside and the Fireside, 1850, comprise most of what is noteworthy in Longfellow’s minor poetry. The first of these embraced, together with some renderings from the German and the Scandinavian languages, specimens of stronger original work than the author had yet put forth; namely, the two powerful ballads of The Skeleton in Armor and The Wreck of the Hesperus. The former of these, written in the swift leaping meter of Drayton’s Ode to the Cambro Britons on their Harp, was suggested by the digging up of a mail-clad skeleton at Fall River—a circumstance which the poet linked with the traditions about the Round Tower at Newport, thus giving to the whole the spirit of a Norse viking song of war and of the sea. The Wreck of the Hesperus was occasioned by the news of shipwrecks on the coast near Gloucester and by the name of a reef—“Norman’s Woe”—where many of them took place. It was written one night between twelve and three, and cost the poet, he said, “hardly an effort.” Indeed, it is the spontaneous ease and grace, the unfailing taste of Longfellow’s lines, which are their best technical quality. There is nothing obscure or esoteric about his poetry. If there is little passion or intellectual depth, there is always genuine poetic feeling, often a very high order of imagination, and almost invariably the choice of the right word. In this volume were also included The Village Blacksmith and Excelsior. The latter, and the Psalm of Life, have had a “damnable iteration” which causes them to figure as Longfellow’s most popular pieces. They are by no means, however, among his best. They are vigorously expressed common-places of that hortatory kind which passes for poetry, but is, in reality, a vague species of preaching.
In The Belfry of Bruges and The Seaside and the Fireside the translations were still kept up, and among the original pieces were The Occupation of Orion--the most imaginative of all Longfellow’s poems; Seaweed, which has very noble stanzas, the favorite Old Clock on the Stairs, The Building of the Ship, with its magnificent closing apostrophe to the Union, and The Fire of Driftwood, the subtlest in feeling of any thing that the poet ever wrote. With these were verses of a more familiar quality, such as The Bridge, Resignation, and The Day Is Done, and many others, all reflecting moods of gentle and pensive sentiment, and drawing from analogies in nature or in legend lessons which, if somewhat obvious, were expressed with perfect art. Like Keats, he apprehended every thing on its beautiful side. Longfellow was all poet. Like Ophelia in Hamlet,
“Thought and affection, passion, hell itself,
He turns to favor and to prettiness.”
He cared very little about the intellectual movement of the age. The transcendental ideas of Emerson passed over his head and left him undisturbed. For politics he had that gentlemanly distaste which the cultivated class in America had already begun to entertain. In 1842 he printed a small volume of Poems on Slavery, which drew commendation from his friend Sumner, but had nothing of the fervor of Whittier’s or Lowell’s utterances on the same subject. It is interesting to compare his journals with Hawthorne’s American Note Books, and to observe in what very different ways the two writers made prey of their daily experiences for literary material. A favorite haunt of Longfellow’s was the bridge between Boston and Cambridgeport, the same which he put into verse in his poem, The Bridge. “I always stop on the bridge,” he writes in his journal; “tide waters are beautiful. From the ocean up into the land they go, like messengers, to ask why the tribute has not been paid. The brooks and rivers answer that there has been little harvest of snow and rain this year. Floating sea-wood and kelp is carried up into the meadows, as returning sailors bring oranges in bandanna handkerchiefs to friends in the country.” And again: “We leaned for a while on the wooden rail and enjoyed the silvery reflection on the sea, making sundry comparisons. Among other thoughts we had this cheering one, that the whole sea was flashing with this heavenly light, though we saw it only in a single track; the dark waves are the dark providences of God; luminous, though not to us; and even to ourselves in another position.” “Walk on the bridge, both ends of which are lost in the fog, like human life midway between two eternities; beginning and ending in mist.” In Hawthorne an allegoric moaning is usually something deeper and subtler than this, and seldom so openly expressed. Many of Longfellow’s poems—the Beleaguered City, for example—may be definitely divided into two parts; in the first, a story is told or a natural phenomenon described; in the second, the spiritual application of the parable is formally set forth. This method became with him almost a trick of style, and his readers learn to look for the hoec fabula docet at the end as a matter of course. As for the prevailing optimism in Longfellow’s view of life—of which the above passage is an instance—it seems to be in him an affair of temperament, and not, as in Emerson, the result of philosophic insight. Perhaps, however, in the last analysis optimism and pessimism are subjective—the expression of temperament or individual experience, since the facts of life are the same, whether seen through Schopenhauer’s eyes or through Emerson’s. If there is any particular in which Longfellow’s inspiration came to him at first hand and not through books, it is in respect to the aspects of the sea. On this theme no American poet has written more beautifully and with a keener sympathy than the author of The Wreck of the Hesperus and of Seaweed.
In 1847 was published the long poem of Evangeline. The story of the Acadian peasant girl, who was separated from her lover in the dispersion of her people by the English troops, and after weary wanderings and a life-long search, found him at last, an old man dying in a Philadelphia hospital, was told to Longfellow by the Rev. H. L. Conolly, who had previously suggested it to Hawthorne as a subject for a story. Longfellow, characteristically enough, “got up” the local color for his poem from Haliburton’s account of the dispersion of the Grand-Pré Acadians, from Darby’s Geographical Description of Louisiana and Watson’s Annals of Philadelphia. He never needed to go much outside of his library for literary impulse and material. Whatever may be held as to Longfellow’s inventive powers as a creator of characters or an interpreter of American life, his originality as an artist is manifested by his successful domestication in Evangeline of the dactylic hexameter, which no English poet had yet used with effect. The English poet, Arthur Hugh Clough, who lived for a time in Cambridge, followed Longfellow’s example in the use of hexameter in his Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich, so that we have now arrived at the time—a proud moment for American letters—when the works of our writers began to react upon the literature of Europe. But the beauty of the descriptions in Evangeline and the pathos—somewhat too drawn out—of the story made it dear to a multitude of readers who cared nothing about the technical disputes of Poe and other critics as to whether or not Longfellow’s lines were sufficiently “spondaic” to represent truthfully the quantitative hexameters of Homer and Vergil.
In 1855 appeared Hiawatha, Longfellow’s most aboriginal and “American” book. The tripping trochaic measure he borrowed from the Finnish epic Kalevala. The vague, child-like mythology of the Indian tribes, with its anthropomorphic sense of the brotherhood between men, animals, and the forms of inanimate nature, he took from Schoolcraft’s Algic Researches, 1839. He fixed forever, in a skillfully chosen poetic form, the more inward and imaginative part of Indian character, as Cooper had given permanence to its external and active side. Of Longfellow’s dramatic experiments, the Golden Legend, 1851, alone deserves mention here. This was in his chosen realm, a tale taken from the ecclesiastical annals of the Middle Ages, precious with martyrs’ blood and bathed in the rich twilight of the cloister. It contains some of his best work, but its merit is rather poetic than dramatic, although Ruskin praised it for the closeness with which it entered into the temper of the monk.
Longfellow has pleased the people more than the critics. He gave freely what he had, and the gift was beautiful. Those who have looked in his poetry for something else than poetry, or for poetry of some other kind, have not been slow to assert that he was a lady’s poet—one who satisfied callow youths and school-girls by uttering commonplaces in graceful and musical shape, but who offered no strong meat for men. Miss Fuller called his poetry thin, and the poet himself—or, rather, a portrait of the poet which frontispieced an illustrated edition of his works—a “dandy Pindar.” This is not true of his poetry, or of the best of it. But he had a singing and not a talking voice, and in his prose one becomes sensible of a certain weakness. Hyperion, for example, published in 1839, a loitering fiction, interspersed with descriptions of European travel, is, upon the whole, a weak book, overflowery in diction and sentimental in tone.
The crown of Longfellow’s achievements as a translator was his great version of Dante’s Divina Commedia, published between 1867 and 1870. It is a severely literal, almost a line for line, rendering. The meter is preserved, but the rhyme sacrificed. If not the best English poem constructed from Dante, it is at all events the most faithful and scholarly paraphrase. The sonnets which accompanied it are among Longfellow’s best work. He seems to have been raised by daily communion with the great Tuscan into a habit of deeper and more subtle thought than is elsewhere common in his poetry.
Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809- ) is a native of Cambridge and a graduate of Harvard in the class of ‘29; a class whose anniversary reunions he has celebrated in something like forty distinct poems and songs. For sheer cleverness and versatility Dr. Holmes is, perhaps, unrivaled among American men of letters. He has been poet, wit, humorist, novelist, essayist, and a college lecturer and writer on medical topics. In all of these departments he has produced work which ranks high, if not with the highest. His father, Dr. Abiel Holmes, was a graduate of Yale and an orthodox minister of liberal temper, but the son early threw in his lot with the Unitarians; and, as was natural to a man of satiric turn and with a very human enjoyment of a fight, whose youth was cast in an age of theological controversy, he has always had his fling at Calvinism, and has prolonged the slogans of old battles into a later generation; sometimes, perhaps, insisting upon them rather wearisomely and beyond the limits of good taste. He had, even as an undergraduate, a reputation for cleverness at writing comic verses, and many of his good things in this kind, such as the Dorchester Giant and the Height of the Ridiculous, were contributed to the Collegian, a students’ paper. But he first drew the attention of a wider public by his spirited ballad of Old Ironsides--
“Ay! Tear her tattered ensign down!”—
composed about 1830, when it was proposed by the government to take to pieces the unseaworthy hulk of the famous old man-of-war, Constitution. Holmes’s indignant protest—which has been a favorite subject for school-boy declamation—had the effect of postponing the vessel’s fate for a great many years. From 1830-35 the young poet was pursuing his medical studies in Boston and Paris, contributing now and then some verses to the magazines. Of his life as a medical student in Paris there are many pleasant reminiscences in his Autocrat and other writings, as where he tells, for instance, of a dinner-party of Americans in the French capital, where one of the company brought tears of homesickness into the eyes of his sodales by saying that the tinkle of the ice in the champagne-glasses reminded him of the cow-bells in the rocky old pastures of New England. In 1836 he printed his first collection of poems. The volume contained, among a number of pieces broadly comic, like the September Gale, the Music Grinders, and the Ballad of the Oyster-man--which at once became widely popular—a few poems of a finer and quieter temper, in which there was a quaint blending of the humorous and the pathetic. Such were My Aunt and the Last Leaf--which Abraham Lincoln found “inexpressibly touching,” and which it is difficult to read without the double tribute of a smile and a tear. The volume contained also Poetry: A Metrical Essay, read before the Harvard Chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, which was the first of that long line of capital occasional poems which Holmes has been spinning for half a century with no sign of fatigue and with scarcely any falling off in freshness; poems read or spoken or sung at all manner of gatherings, public and private, at Harvard commencements, class days, and other academic anniversaries; at inaugurations, centennials, dedications of cemeteries, meetings of medical associations, mercantile libraries, Burns clubs, and New England societies; at rural festivals and city fairs; openings of theaters, layings of corner- stones, birthday celebrations, jubilees, funerals, commemoration services, dinners of welcome or farewell to Dickens, Bryant, Everett, Whittier, Longfellow, Grant, Farragut, the Grand Duke Alexis, the Chinese embassy, and what not. Probably no poet of any age or clime has written so much and so well to order. He has been particularly happy in verses of a convivial kind, toasts for big civic feasts, or post- prandial rhymes for the petit comité--the snug little dinners of the chosen few; his
“The quaint trick to cram the pithy line
That cracks so crisply over bubbling wine.”
And although he could write on occasion a Song for a Temperance Dinner, he has preferred to chant the praise of the punch bowl and to
“feel the old convivial glow (unaided) o’er me stealing,
The warm, champagny, old-particular-brandy-punchy feeling.”
It would be impossible to enumerate the many good things of this sort which Holmes has written, full of wit and wisdom, and of humor lightly dashed with sentiment and sparkling with droll analogies, sudden puns, and unexpected turns of rhyme and phrase. Among the best of them are Nux Postcoenatica, A Modest Request, Ode for a Social Meeting, The Boys, and Rip Van Winkle, M.D. Holmes’s favorite measure, in his longer poems, is the heroic couplet which Pope’s example seems to have consecrated forever to satiric and didactic verse. He writes as easily in this meter as if it were prose, and with much of Pope’s epigrammatic neatness. He also manages with facility the anapaestics of Moore and the ballad stanza which Hood had made the vehicle for his drolleries. It cannot be expected that verses manufactured to pop with the corks and fizz with the champagne at academic banquets should much outlive the occasion; or that the habit of producing such verses on demand should foster in the producer that “high seriousness” which Matthew Arnold asserts to be one mark of all great poetry. Holmes’s poetry is mostly on the colloquial level, excellent society-verse, but even in its serious moments too smart and too pretty to be taken very gravely; with a certain glitter, knowingness, and flippancy about it, and an absence of that self-forgetfulness and intense absorption in its theme which characterize the work of the higher imagination. This is rather the product of fancy and wit. Wit, indeed, in the old sense of quickness in the perception of analogies, is the staple of his mind. His resources in the way of figure, illustration, allusion, and anecdote are wonderful. Age cannot wither him nor custom stale his infinite variety, and there is as much powder in his latest pyrotechnics as in the rockets which he sent up half a century ago.
Yet, though the humorist in him rather outweighs the poet, he has written a few things, like the Chambered Nautilus and Homesick in Heaven, which are as purely and deeply poetic as the One-Hoss Shay and the Prologue are funny. Dr. Holmes is not of the stuff of which idealists and enthusiasts are made. As a physician and a student of science, the facts of the material universe have counted for much with him. His clear, positive, alert intellect was always impatient of mysticism. He had the sharp eye of the satirist and the man of the world for oddities of dress, dialect, and manners. Naturally the transcendental movement struck him on its ludicrous side, and in his After-Dinner Poem, read at the Phi Beta Kappa dinner at Cambridge in 1843, he had his laugh at the “Orphic odes” and “runes” of the bedlamite seer and bard of mystery
“Who rides a beetle which he calls a ‘sphinx.’
And O what questions asked in club-foot rhyme
Of Earth the tongueless, and the deaf-mute Time!
Here babbling ‘Insight’ shouts in Nature’s ears
His last conundrum on the orbs and spheres;
There Self-inspection sucks its little thumb,
With ‘Whence am I?’ and ‘Wherefore did I come?’”
Curiously enough, the author of these lines lived to write an appreciative life of the poet who wrote the Sphinx. There was a good deal of toryism or social conservatism in Holmes. He acknowledged a preference for the man with a pedigree, the man who owned family portraits, had been brought up in familiarity with books, and could pronounce “view” correctly. Readers unhappily not of the “Brahmin caste of New England” have sometimes resented as snobbishness Holmes’s harping on “family,” and his perpetual application of certain favorite shibboleths to other people’s ways of speech. “The woman who calc’lates is lost.”
“Learning condemns beyond the reach of hope
The careless lips that speak of soap for soap. . . .
Do put your accents in the proper spot:
Don’t, let me beg you, don’t say ‘How?’ for ‘What?’
The things named ‘pants’ in certain documents,
A word not made for gentlemen, but ‘gents.’”
With the rest of “society” he was disposed to ridicule the abolition movement as a crotchet of the eccentric and the long-haired. But when the civil war broke out he lent his pen, his tongue, and his own flesh and blood to the cause of the Union. The individuality of Holmes’s writings comes in part from their local and provincial bias. He has been the laureate of Harvard College and the bard of Boston city, an urban poet, with a cockneyish fondness for old Boston ways and things—the Common and the Frog Pond, Faneuil Hall and King’s Chapel and the Old South, Bunker Hill, Long Wharf, the Tea Party, and the town crier. It was Holmes who invented the playful saying that “Boston Statehouse is the hub of the solar system.”
In 1857 was started the Atlantic Monthly, a magazine which has published a good share of the best work done by American writers within the past generation. Its immediate success was assured by Dr. Holmes’s brilliant series of papers, the Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, 1858, followed at once by the Professor at the Breakfast Table, 1859, and later by the Poet at the Breakfast Table, 1873. The Autocrat is its author’s masterpiece, and holds the fine quintessence of his humor, his scholarship, his satire, genial observation, and ripe experience of men and cities. The form is as unique and original as the contents, being something between an essay and a drama; a succession of monologues or table-talks at a typical American boarding-house, with a thread of story running through the whole. The variety of mood and thought is so great that these conversations never tire, and the prose is interspersed with some of the author’s choicest verse. The Professor at the Breakfast Table followed too closely on the heels of the Autocrat, and had less freshness. The third number of the series was better, and was pleasantly reminiscent and slightly garrulous, Dr. Holmes being now (1873) sixty-four years old, and entitled to the gossiping privilege of age. The personnel of the Breakfast Table series, such as the landlady and the landlady’s daughter and her son, Benjamin Franklin; the schoolmistress, the young man named John, the Divinity Student, the Kohinoor, the Sculpin, the Scarabaeus, and the Old Gentleman who sits opposite, are not fully drawn characters, but outlined figures, lightly sketched—as is the Autocrat’s wont—by means of some trick of speech, or dress, or feature, but they are quite life-like enough for their purpose, which is mainly to furnish listeners and foils to the eloquence and wit of the chief talker.
In 1860 and 1867 Holmes entered the field of fiction with two “medicated novels,” Elsie Venner and the Guardian Angel. The first of these was a singular tale, whose heroine united with her very fascinating human attributes something of the nature of a serpent; her mother having been bitten by a rattlesnake a few months before the birth of the girl, and kept alive meanwhile by the use of powerful antidotes. The heroine of the Guardian Angel inherited lawless instincts from a vein of Indian blood in her ancestry. These two books were studies of certain medico-psychological problems. They preached Dr. Holmes’s favorite doctrines of heredity and of the modified nature of moral responsibility by reason of transmitted tendencies which limit the freedom of the will. In Elsie Venner, in particular, the weirdly imaginative and speculative character of the leading motive suggests Hawthorne’s method in fiction, but the background and the subsidiary figures have a realism that is in abrupt contrast with this, and gives a kind of doubleness and want of keeping to the whole. The Yankee characters, in particular, and the satirical pictures of New England country life are open to the charge of caricature. In the Guardian Angel the figure of Byles Gridley, the old scholar, is drawn with thorough sympathy, and though some of his acts are improbable, he is, on the whole, Holmes’s most vital conception in the region of dramatic creation.
James Russell Lowell (1819- ), the foremost of American critics and of living American poets, is, like Holmes, a native of Cambridge, and, like Emerson and Holmes, a clergyman’s son. In 1855 he succeeded Longfellow as professor of modern languages in Harvard College. Of late years he has held important diplomatic posts, like Everett, Irving, Bancroft, Motley, and other Americans distinguished in letters, having been United States minister to Spain, and, under two administrations, to the court of St. James. Lowell is not so spontaneously and exclusively a poet as Longfellow, and his popularity with the average reader has never been so great. His appeal has been to the few rather than the many, to an audience of scholars and of the judicious rather than to the “groundlings” of the general public. Nevertheless his verse, though without the evenness, instinctive grace, and unerring good taste of Longfellow’s, has more energy and a stronger intellectual fiber, while in prose he is very greatly the superior. His first volume, A Year’s Life, 1841, gave some promise. In 1843 he started a magazine, the Pioneer, which only reached its third number, though it counted among its contributors Hawthorne, Poe, Whittier, and Miss Barrett (afterward Mrs. Browning). A second volume of poems, printed in 1844, showed a distinct advance, in such pieces as the Shepherd of King Admetus, Rhoecus, a classical myth, told in excellent blank verse, and the same in subject with one of Landor’s polished intaglios; and the Legend of Brittany, a narrative poem, which had fine passages, but no firmness in the management of the story. As yet, it was evident, the young poet had not found his theme. This came with the outbreak of the Mexican War, which was unpopular in New England, and which the Free Soil party regarded as a slave-holders’ war waged without provocation against a sister republic, and simply for the purpose of extending the area of slavery.
In 1846, accordingly, the Biglow Papers began to appear in the Boston Courier, and were collected and published in book form in 1848. These were a series of rhymed satires upon the government and the war party, written in the Yankee dialect, and supposed to be the work of Hosea Biglow, a home-spun genius in a down-east country town, whose letters to the editor were indorsed and accompanied by the comments of the Rev. Homer Wilbur, A.M., pastor of the First Church in Jaalam, and (prospective) member of many learned societies. The first paper was a derisive address to a recruiting sergeant, with a denunciation of the “nigger-drivin’ States” and the “Northern dough-faces;” a plain hint that the North would do better to secede than to continue doing dirty work for the South; and an expression of those universal peace doctrines which were then in the air, and to which Longfellow gave serious utterance in his Occultation of Orion.
“Ez for war, I call it murder—
There you hev it plain an’ flat;
I don’t want to go no furder
Than my Testyment for that;
God hez said so plump an’ fairly,
It’s as long as it is broad,
An’ you’ve gut to git up airly
Ef you want to take in God.”
The second number was a versified paraphrase of a letter received from Mr. Birdofredom Sawin, “a yung feller of our town that was cussed fool enuff to goe atrottin inter Miss Chiff arter a dram and fife,” and who finds when he gets to Mexico that
“This kind o’ sogerin’ aint a mite like our October trainin’.”
Of the subsequent papers the best was, perhaps, What Mr. Robinson Thinks, an election ballad, which caused universal laughter, and was on every body’s tongue.
The Biglow Papers remain Lowell’s most original contribution to American literature. They are, all in all, the best political satires in the language, and unequaled as portraitures of the Yankee character, with its cuteness, its homely wit, and its latent poetry. Under the racy humor of the dialect—which became in Lowell’s hands a medium of literary expression almost as effective as Burns’s Ayrshire Scotch—burned that moral enthusiasm and that hatred of wrong and deification of duty—“Stern daughter of the voice of God”—which, in the tough New England stock, stands instead of the passion in the blood of southern races. Lowell’s serious poems on political questions, such as the Present Crisis, Ode to Freedom, and the Capture of Fugitive Slaves, have the old Puritan fervor, and such lines as
“They are slaves who dare not be
In the right with two or three,”
and the passage beginning
“Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne,”
became watchwords in the struggle against slavery and disunion. Some of these were published in his volume of 1848 and the collected edition of his poems, in two volumes, issued in 1850. These also included his most ambitious narrative poem, the Vision of Sir Launfal, an allegorical and spiritual treatment of one of the legends of the Holy Grail. Lowell’s genius was not epical, but lyric and didactic. The merit of Sir Launfal is not in the telling of the story, but in the beautiful descriptive episodes, one of which, commencing,
“And what is so rare as a day in June?
Then if ever come perfect days,”
is as current as any thing that he has written. It is significant of the lack of a natural impulse toward narrative invention in Lowell that, unlike Longfellow and Holmes, he never tried his hand at a novel. One of the most important parts of a novelist’s equipment he certainly possesses, namely, an insight into character and an ability to delineate it. This gift is seen especially in his sketch of Parson Wilbur, who edited the Biglow Papers with a delightfully pedantic introduction, glossary, and notes; in the prose essay On a Certain Condescension in Foreigners, and in the uncompleted poem, Fitz Adam’s Story. See also the sketch of Captain Underhill in the essay on New England Two Centuries Ago.
The Biglow Papers when brought out in a volume were prefaced by imaginary notices of the press, including a capital parody of Carlyle, and a reprint from the “Jaalam Independent Blunderbuss,” of the first sketch—afterward amplified and enriched—of that perfect Yankee idyl, The Courtin’. Between 1862 and 1865 a second series of Biglow Papers appeared, called out by the events of the civil war. Some of these, as, for instance, Jonathan to John, a remonstrance with England for her unfriendly attitude toward the North, were not inferior to any thing in the earlier series; and others were even superior as poems, equal, indeed, in pathos and intensity to any thing that Lowell has written in his professedly serious verse. In such passages the dialect wears rather thin, and there is a certain incongruity between the rustic spelling and the vivid beauty and power and the figurative cast of the phrase in stanzas like the following:
“Wut’s words to them whose faith an’ truth
On war’s red techstone rang true metal,
Who ventered life an’ love an’ youth
For the gret prize o’ death in battle?
To him who, deadly hurt, agen
Flashed on afore the charge’s thunder,
Tippin’ with fire the bolt of men
That rived the rebel line asunder?”
Charles Sumner, a somewhat heavy person, with little sense of humor, wished that the author of the Biglow Papers “could have used good English.” In the lines just quoted, indeed, the bad English adds nothing to the effect. In 1848 Lowell wrote A Fable for Critics, something after the style of Sir John Suckling’s Session of the Poets; a piece of rollicking doggerel in which he surveyed the American Parnassus, scattering about headlong fun, sharp satire, and sound criticism in equal proportion. Never an industrious workman, like Longfellow, at the poetic craft, but preferring to wait for the mood to seize him, he allowed eighteen years to go by, from 1850 to 1868, before publishing another volume of verse. In the latter year appeared Under the Willows, which contains some of his ripest and most perfect work, notably A Winter Evening Hymn to my Fire, with its noble and touching close—suggested by, perhaps, at any rate recalling, the dedication of Goethe’s Faust,
“Ihr naht euch wieder, schwankende Gestalten;”
the subtle Footpath and In the Twilight, the lovely little poems Auf Wiedersehen and After the Funeral, and a number of spirited political pieces, such as Villa Franca and the Washers of the Shroud. This volume contained also his Ode Recited at the Harvard Commemoration in 1865. This, although uneven, is one of the finest occasional poems in the language, and the most important contribution which our civil war has made to song. It was charged with the grave emotion of one who not only shared the patriotic grief and exultation of his alma mater in the sacrifice of her sons, but who felt a more personal sorrow in the loss of kindred of his own, fallen in the front of battle. Particularly note-worthy in this memorial ode are the tribute to Abraham Lincoln, the third strophe beginning, “Many loved Truth;” the exordium, “O Beautiful! my Country! ours once more!” and the close of the eighth strophe, where the poet chants of the youthful heroes who
“Come transfigured back,
Secure from change in their high-hearted ways,
Beautiful evermore and with the rays
Of morn on their white Shields of Expectation.”
From 1857 to 1862 Lowell edited the Atlantic Monthly, and from 1863 to 1872 the North American Review. His prose, beginning with an early volume of Conversations on Some of the Old Poets, 1844, has consisted mainly of critical essays on individual writers, such as Dante, Chaucer, Spenser, Emerson, Shakespeare, Thoreau, Pope, Carlyle, etc., together with papers of a more miscellaneous kind, like Witchcraft, New England Two Centuries Ago, My Garden Acquaintance, A Good Word for Winter, Abraham Lincoln, etc., etc. Two volumes of these were published in 1870 and 1876, under the title Among My Books, and another, My Study Windows, in 1871. As a literary critic Lowell ranks easily among the first of living writers. His scholarship is thorough, his judgment keen, and he pours out upon his page an unwithholding wealth of knowledge, humor, wit, and imagination from the fullness of an overflowing mind. His prose has not the chastened correctness and “low tone” of Matthew Arnold’s. It is rich, exuberant, and, sometimes overfanciful, running away into excesses of allusion or following the lead of a chance pun so as sometimes to lay itself open to the charge of pedantry and bad taste. Lowell’s resources in the way of illustration and comparison are endless, and the readiness of his wit and his delight in using it put many temptations in his way. Purists in style accordingly take offense at his saying that “Milton is the only man who ever got much poetry out of a cataract, and that was a cataract in his eye,” or of his speaking of “a gentleman for whom the bottle before him reversed the wonder of the stereoscope and substituted the Gascon v for the b in binocular,” which is certainly a puzzling and roundabout fashion of telling us that he had drunk so much that he saw double. The critics also find fault with his coining such words as “undisprivacied,” and with his writing such lines as the famous one—from The Cathedral, 1870--
“Spume-sliding down the baffled decuman.”
It must be acknowledged that his style lacks the crowning grace of simplicity, but it is precisely by reason of its allusive quality that scholarly readers take pleasure in it. They like a diction that has stuff in it and is woven thick, and where a thing is said in such a way as to recall many other things.
Mention should be made, in connection with this Cambridge circle, of one writer who touched its circumference briefly. This was Sylvester Judd, a graduate of Yale, who entered the Harvard Divinity School in 1837, and in 1840 became minister of a Unitarian church in Augusta, Maine. Judd published several books, but the only one of them at all rememberable was Margaret, 1845, a novel of which, Lowell said, in A Fable for Critics, that it was “the first Yankee book with the soul of Down East in it.” It was very imperfect in point of art, and its second part—a rhapsodical description of a sort of Unitarian Utopia—is quite unreadable. But in the delineation of the few chief characters and of the rude, wild life of an outlying New England township just after the close of the Revolutionary War, as well as in the tragic power of the catastrophe, there was genius of a high order.
As the country has grown older and more populous, and works in all departments of thought have multiplied, it becomes necessary to draw more strictly the line between the literature of knowledge and the literature of power. Political history, in and of itself, scarcely falls within the limits of this sketch, and yet it cannot be altogether dismissed, for the historian’s art, at its highest, demands imagination, narrative skill, and a sense of unity and proportion in the selection and arrangement of his facts, all of which are literary qualities. It is significant that many of our best historians have begun authorship in the domain of imaginative literature: Bancroft with an early volume of poems; Motley with his historical romances, Merry Mount and Morton’s Hope; and Parkman with a novel, Vassall Morton. The oldest of that modern group of writers that have given America an honorable position in the historical literature of the world was William Hickling Prescott (1796-1859). Prescott chose for his theme the history of the Spanish conquests in the New World, a subject full of romantic incident and susceptible of that glowing and perhaps slightly overgorgeous coloring which he laid on with a liberal hand. His completed histories, in their order, are the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, 1837; the Conquest of Mexico, 1843--a topic which Irving had relinquished to him; and the Conquest of Peru, 1847. Prescott was fortunate in being born to leisure and fortune, but he had difficulties of another kind to overcome. He was nearly blind, and had to teach himself Spanish and look up authorities through the help of others, and to write with a noctograph or by amanuenses.
George Bancroft (1800-91) issued the first volume of his great History of the United States in 1834, and exactly half a century later the final volume of the work, bringing the subject down to 1789. Bancroft had studied at Göttingen, and imbibed from the German historian Heeren the scientific method of historical study. He had access to original sources, in the nature of collections and state papers in the governmental archives of Europe, of which no American had hitherto been able to avail himself. His history, in thoroughness of treatment, leaves nothing to be desired, and has become the standard authority on the subject. As a literary performance merely, it is somewhat wanting in flavor, Bancroft’s manner being heavy and stiff when compared with Motley’s or Parkman’s. The historian’s services to his country have been publicly recognized by his successive appointments as secretary of the navy, minister to England, and minister to Germany.
The greatest, on the whole, of American historians was John Lothrop Motley (1814-77), who, like Bancroft, was a student at Göttingen and United States minister to England. His Rise of the Dutch Republic, 1856, and History of the United Netherlands, published in installments from 1861 to 1868, equaled Bancroft’s work in scientific thoroughness and philosophic grasp, and Prescott’s in the picturesque brilliancy of the narrative, while it excelled them both in its masterly analysis of great historic characters, reminding the reader, in this particular, of Macaulay’s figure-painting. The episodes of the siege of Antwerp and the sack of the cathedral, and of the defeat and wreck of the Spanish Armada, are as graphic as Prescott’s famous description of Cortez’s capture of the city of Mexico; while the elder historian has nothing to compare with Motley’s vivid personal sketches of Queen Elizabeth, Philip the Second, Henry of Navarre, and William the Silent. The Life of John of Barneveld, 1874, completed this series of studies upon the history of the Netherlands, a theme to which Motley was attracted because the heroic struggle of the Dutch for liberty offered, in some respects, a parallel to the growth of political independence in Anglo-Saxon communities, and especially in his own America.
The last of these Massachusetts historical writers whom we shall mention is Francis Parkman, whose subject has the advantage of being thoroughly American. His Oregon Trail, 1847, a series of sketches of prairie and Rocky Mountain life, originally contributed to the Knickerbocker Magazine, displays his early interest in the American Indians. In 1851 appeared his first historical work, the Conspiracy of Pontiac. This has been followed by the series entitled France and England in North America, the six successive parts of which are as follows: the Pioneers of France in the New World, the Jesuits in North America; La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West; the Old Régime in Canada; Count Frontenac and New France; and Montcalm and Wolfe. These narratives have a wonderful vividness, and a romantic interest not inferior to Cooper’s novels. Parkman made himself personally familiar with the scenes which he described, and some of the best descriptions of American woods and waters are to be found in his histories. If any fault is to be found with his books, indeed, it is that their picturesqueness and “fine writing” are a little in excess.
The political literature of the years from 1837 to 1861 hinged upon the antislavery struggle. In this “irrepressible conflict” Massachusetts led the van. Garrison had written in his Liberator, in 1830, “I will be as harsh as truth and as uncompromising as justice. I am in earnest; I will not equivocate; I will not excuse; I will not retreat a single inch; and I will be heard.” But the Garrisonian abolitionists remained for a long time, even in the North, a small and despised faction. It was a great point gained when men of education and social standing, like Wendell Phillips (1811-84) and Charles Sumner (1811-74), joined themselves to the cause. Both of these were graduates of Harvard and men of scholarly pursuits. They became the representative orators of the antislavery party, Phillips on the platform and Sumner in the Senate. The former first came before the public in his fiery speech, delivered in Faneuil Hall December 8, 1837, before a meeting called to denounce the murder of Lovejoy, who had been killed at Alton, Ill., while defending his press against a pro-slavery mob. Thenceforth Phillips’s voice was never idle in behalf of the slave. His eloquence was impassioned and direct, and his English singularly pure, simple, and nervous. He is perhaps nearer to Demosthenes than any other American orator. He was a most fascinating platform speaker on themes outside of politics, and his lecture on the Lost Arts was a favorite with audiences of all sorts.
Sumner was a man of intellectual tastes, who entered politics reluctantly and only in obedience to the resistless leading of his conscience. He was a student of literature and art; a connoisseur of engravings, for example, of which he made a valuable collection. He was fond of books, conversation, and foreign travel, and in Europe, while still a young man, had made a remarkable impression in society. But he left all this for public life, and in 1851 was elected as Webster’s successor to the Senate of the United States. Thereafter he remained the leader of the abolitionists in Congress until slavery was abolished. His influence throughout the North was greatly increased by the brutal attack upon him in the Senate chamber in 1856 by “Bully Brooks” of South Carolina. Sumner’s oratory was stately and somewhat labored. While speaking he always seemed, as has been wittily said, to be surveying a “broad landscape of his own convictions.” His most impressive qualities as a speaker were his intense moral earnestness and his thorough knowledge of his subject. The most telling of his parliamentary speeches are perhaps his speech On the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, of February 3, 1854, and On the Crime against Kansas, May 19 and 20, 1856; of his platform addresses, the oration on the True Grandeur of Nations.
1. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Voices of the Night. The Skeleton in Armor. The Wreck of the Hesperus. The Village Blacksmith. The Belfry of Bruges, and Other Poems (1846). By the Seaside. Hiawatha. Tales of a Wayside Inn.
2. Oliver Wendell Holmes. Autocrat of the Breakfast Table. Elsie Venner. Old Ironsides. The Last Leaf. My Aunt. The Music Grinders. On Lending a Punch-Bowl. Nux Postcoenatica. A Modest Request. The Living Temple. Meeting of the Alumni of Harvard College. Homesick in Heaven. Epilogue to the Breakfast Table Series. The Boys. Dorothy Q. The Iron Gate.
3. James Russell Lowell. The Biglow Papers (two series). Under the Willows, and Other Poems (1868). Rhoecus. The Shepherd of King Admetus. The Vision of Sir Launfal. The Present Crisis. The Dandelion. The Birch Tree. Beaver Brook. Essays on Chaucer. Shakespeare Once More. Dryden. Emerson, the Lecturer. Thoreau. My Garden Acquaintance. A Good Word for Winter. A Certain Condescension in Foreigners.
4. William Hickling Prescott. The Conquest of Mexico.
5. John Lothrop Motley. The United Netherlands.
6. Francis Parkman. The Oregon Trail. The Jesuits in North America.
7. Representative American Orations, volume v. Edited by Alexander Johnston. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1884.
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