[This is taken from Henry A. Beers' Initial Studies in American Letters.]
A generation has nearly passed since the outbreak of the civil war, and although public affairs are still mainly in the hands of men who had reached manhood before the conflict opened, or who were old enough at that time to remember clearly its stirring events, the younger men who are daily coming forward to take their places know it only by tradition. It makes a definite break in the history of our literature, and a number of new literary schools and tendencies have appeared since its close. As to the literature of the war itself, it was largely the work of writers who had already reached or passed middle age. All of the more important authors described in the last three chapters survived the Rebellion except Poe, who died in 1849, Prescott, who died in 1859, and Thoreau and Hawthorne, who died in the second and fourth years of the war, respectively. The final and authoritative history of the struggle has not yet been written, and cannot be written for many years to come. Many partial and tentative accounts have, however, appeared, among which may be mentioned, on the Northern side, Horace Greeley’s American Conflict, 1864-66; Vice-President Wilson’s Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America, and J. W. Draper’s American Civil War, 1868-70; on the Southern side Alexander H. Stephens’s Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis’s Rise and Fall of the Confederate States of America, and E. A. Pollard’s Lost Cause. These, with the exception of Dr. Draper’s philosophical narrative, have the advantage of being the work of actors in the political or military events which they describe, and the disadvantage of being, therefore, partisan—in some instances passionately partisan. A store-house of materials for the coming historian is also at hand in Frank Moore’s great collection, the Rebellion Record; in numerous regimental histories of special armies, departments, and battles, like W. Swinton’s Army of the Potomac; in the autobiographies and recollections of Grant and Sherman and other military leaders; in the “war papers,” lately published in the Century magazine, and in innumerable sketches and reminiscences by officers and privates on both sides.
The war had its poetry, its humors, and its general literature, some of which have been mentioned in connection with Whittier, Lowell, Holmes, Whitman, and others, and some of which remain to be mentioned, as the work of new writers, or of writers who had previously made little mark. There were war-songs on both sides, few of which had much literary value excepting, perhaps, James R. Randall’s Southern ballad, Maryland, My Maryland, sung to the old college air of Lauriger Horatius, and the grand martial chorus of John Brown’s Body, an old Methodist hymn, to which the Northern armies beat time as they went “marching on.” Randall’s song, though spirited, was marred by its fire-eating absurdities about “vandals” and “minions” and “Northern scum,” the cheap insults of the Southern newspaper press. To furnish the John Brown chorus with words worthy of the music, Mrs. Julia Ward Howe wrote her Battle-Hymn of the Republic, a noble poem, but rather too fine and literary for a song, and so never fully accepted by the soldiers. Among the many verses which voiced the anguish and the patriotism of that stern time, which told of partings and home-comings, of women waiting by desolate hearths, in country homes, for tidings of husbands and sons who had gone to the war; or which celebrated individual deeds of heroism or sang the thousand private tragedies and heartbreaks of the great conflict, by far the greater number were of too humble a grade to survive the feeling of the hour. Among the best or the most popular of them were Kate Putnam Osgood’s Driving Home the Cows, Mrs. Ethel Lynn Beers’s All Quiet Along the Potomac; Forceythe Willson’s Old Sergeant, and John James Piatt’s Riding to Vote. Of the poets whom the war brought out, or developed, the most noteworthy were Henry Timrod, of South Carolina, and Henry Howard Brownell, of Connecticut. During the war Timrod was with the Confederate Army of the West, as correspondent for the Charleston Mercury, and in 1864 he became assistant editor of the South Carolinian, at Columbia.
Sherman’s “march to the sea” broke up his business, and he returned to Charleston. A complete edition of his poems was published in 1873, six years after his death. The prettiest of all Timrod’s poems is Katie, but more to our present purpose are Charleston--written in the time of blockade—and the Unknown Dead, which tells “Of nameless graves on battle plains,
Wash’d by a single winter’s rains,
Where, some beneath Virginian hills,
And some by green Atlantic rills,
Some by the waters of the West,
A myriad unknown heroes rest.”
When the war was over a poet of New York State, F. M. Finch, sang of these and of other graves in his beautiful Decoration Day lyric, The Blue and the Gray, which spoke the word of reconciliation and consecration for North and South alike.
Brownell, whose Lyrics of a Day and War Lyrics were published respectively in 1864 and 1866, was private secretary to Farragut, on whose flag-ship, the Hartford, he was present at several great naval engagements, such as the “Passage of the Forts” below New Orleans, and the action off Mobile, described in his poem, the Bay Fight. With some roughness and unevenness of execution Brownell’s poetry had a fire which places him next to Whittier as the Körner of the civil war. In him, especially, as in Whittier, is that Puritan sense of the righteousness of his cause which made the battle for the Union a holy war to the crusaders against slavery:
“Full red the furnace fires must glow
That melt the ore of mortal kind;
The mills of God are grinding slow,
But ah, how close they grind!
“To-day the Dahlgren and the drum
Are dread apostles of his name;
His kingdom here can only come
By chrism of blood and flame.”
One of the earliest martyrs of the war was Theodore Winthrop, hardly known as a writer until the publication in the Atlantic Monthly of his vivid sketches of Washington as a Camp, describing the march of his regiment, the famous New York Seventh, and its first quarters in the Capitol at Washington. A tragic interest was given to these papers by Winthrop’s gallant death in the action of Big Bethel, June 10, 1861. While this was still fresh in public recollection his manuscript novels were published, together with a collection of his stories and sketches reprinted from the magazines. His novels, though in parts crude and immature, have a dash and buoyancy—an out-door air about them—which give the reader a winning impression of Winthrop’s personality. The best of them is, perhaps, Cecil Dreeme, a romance that reminds one a little of Hawthorne, and the scene of which is the New York University building on Washington Square, a locality that has been further celebrated in Henry James’s novel of Washington Square.
Another member of this same Seventh Regiment, Fitz James O’Brien, an Irishman by birth, who died at Baltimore in 1862 from the effects of a wound received in a cavalry skirmish, had contributed to the magazines a number of poems and of brilliant though fantastic tales, among which the Diamond Lens and What Was It? had something of Edgar A. Poe’s quality. Another Irish-American, Charles G. Halpine, under the pen-name of “Miles O’Reilly,” wrote a good many clever ballads of the war, partly serious and partly in comic brogue. Prose writers of note furnished the magazines with narratives of their experience at the seat of war, among papers of which kind may be mentioned Dr. Holmes’s My Search for the Captain, in the Atlantic Monthly, and Colonel T. W. Higginson’s Army Life in a Black Regiment, collected into a volume in 1870.
Of the public oratory of the war, the foremost example is the ever-memorable address of Abraham Lincoln at the dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg. The war had brought the nation to its intellectual majority. In the stress of that terrible fight there was no room for buncombe and verbiage, such as the newspapers and stump-speakers used to dole out in ante bellum days. Lincoln’s speech is short—a few grave words which he turned aside for a moment to speak in the midst of his task of saving the country. The speech is simple, naked of figures, every sentence impressed with a sense of responsibility for the work yet to be done and with a stern determination to do it. “In a larger sense,” it says, “we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us; that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Here was eloquence of a different sort from the sonorous perorations of Webster or the polished climaxes of Everett. As we read the plain, strong language of this brief classic, with its solemnity, its restraint, its “brave old wisdom of sincerity,” we seem to see the president’s homely features irradiated with the light of coming martyrdom—
“The kindly-earnest, brave, foreseeing man,
Sagacious, patient, dreading praise, not blame,
New birth of our new soil, the first American.”
Within the past quarter of a century the popular school of American humor has reached its culmination. Every man of genius who is a humorist at all is so in a way peculiar to himself. There is no lack of individuality in the humor of Irving and Hawthorne and the wit of Holmes and Lowell, but although they are new in subject and application they are not new in kind. Irving, as we have seen, was the literary descendant of Addison. The character-sketches in Bracebridge Hall are of the same family with Sir Roger de Coverley and the other figures of the Spectator Club. Knickerbocker’s History of New York, though purely American in its matter, is not distinctly American in its method, which is akin to the mock heroic of Fielding and the irony of Swift in the Voyage to Lilliput. Irving’s humor, like that of all the great English humorists, had its root in the perception of character—of the characteristic traits of men and classes of men, as ground of amusement. It depended for its effect, therefore, upon its truthfulness, its dramatic insight and sympathy, as did the humor of Shakespeare, of Sterne, Lamb, and Thackeray. This perception of the characteristic, when pushed to excess, issues in grotesque and caricature, as in some of Dickens’s inferior creations, which are little more than personified single tricks of manner, speech, feature, or dress. Hawthorne’s rare humor differed from Irving’s in temper but not in substance, and belonged, like Irving’s, to the English variety. Dr. Holmes’s more pronouncedly comic verse does not differ specifically from the facetiae of Thomas Hood, but his prominent trait is wit, which is the laughter of the head as humor is of the heart. The same is true, with qualifications, of Lowell, whose Biglow Papers, though humor of an original sort in their revelation of Yankee character, are essentially satirical. It is the cleverness, the shrewdness of the hits in the Biglow Papers, their logical, that is, witty character, as distinguished from their drollery, that arrests the attention. They are funny, but they are not so funny as they are smart. In all these writers humor was blent with more serious qualities, which gave fineness and literary value to their humorous writings. Their view of life was not exclusively comic. But there has been a class of jesters, of professional humorists, in America, whose product is so indigenous, so different, if not in essence, yet at least in form and expression, from any European humor, that it may be regarded as a unique addition to the comic literature of the world. It has been accepted as such in England, where Artemus Ward and Mark Twain are familiar to multitudes who have never read the One Hoss-Shay or The Courtin’. And though it would be ridiculous to maintain that either of these writers takes rank with Lowell and Holmes, or to deny that there is an amount of flatness and coarseness in many of their labored fooleries which puts large portions of their writings below the line where real literature begins, still it will not do to ignore them as mere buffoons, or even to predict that their humors will soon be forgotten. It is true that no literary fashion is more subject to change than the fashion of a jest, and that jokes that make one generation laugh seem insipid to the next. But there is something perennial in the fun of Rabelais, whom Bacon called “the great jester of France,” and though the puns of Shakespeare’s clowns are detestable the clowns themselves have not lost their power to amuse.
The Americans are not a gay people, but they are fond of a joke. Lincoln’s “little stories” were characteristically Western, and it is doubtful whether he was more endeared to the masses by his solid virtues than by the humorous perception which made him one of them. The humor of which we are speaking now is a strictly popular and national possession. Though America has never, or not until lately, had a comic paper ranking with Punch or Charivari or the Fliegende Blätter, every newspaper has had its funny column. Our humorists have been graduated from the journalist’s desk and sometimes from the printing-press, and now and then a local or country newspaper has risen into sudden prosperity from the possession of a new humorist, as in the case of G. D. Prentice’s Courier Journal, or more recently of the Cleveland Plaindealer, the Danbury News, the Burlington Hawkeye, the Arkansaw Traveller, the Texas Siftings, and numerous others. Nowadays there are even syndicates of humorists, who co-operate to supply fun for certain groups of periodicals. Of course, the great majority of these manufacturers of jests for newspapers and comic almanacs are doomed to swift oblivion. But it is not so certain that the best of the class, like Clemens and Browne, will not long continue to be read as illustrative of one side of the American mind, or that their best things will not survive as long as the mots of Sydney Smith, which are still as current as ever. One of the earliest of them was Seba Smith, who, under the name of “Major Jack Downing,” did his best to make Jackson’s administration ridiculous. B. P. Shillaber’s “Mrs. Partington”—a sort of American Mrs. Malaprop—enjoyed great vogue before the war. Of a somewhat higher kind were the Phoenixiana, 1855, and Squibob Papers, 1856, of Lieutenant George H. Derby, “John Phoenix,” one of the pioneers of literature on the Pacific coast at the time of the California gold fever of ‘49. Derby’s proposal for A New System of English Grammar, his satirical account of the topographical survey of the two miles of road between San Francisco and the Mission Dolores, and his picture gallery made out of the conventional houses, steam-boats, rail-cars, runaway Negroes, and other designs which used to figure in the advertising columns of the newspapers, were all very ingenious and clever. But all these pale before Artemus Ward—“Artemus the delicious,” as Charles Reade called him—who first secured for this peculiarly American type of humor a hearing and reception abroad. Ever since the invention of Hosea Biglow, an imaginary personage of some sort, under cover of whom the author might conceal his own identity, has seemed a necessity to our humorists. Artemus Ward was a traveling showman who went about the country exhibiting a collection of wax “figgers” and whose experiences and reflections were reported in grammar and spelling of a most ingeniously eccentric kind. His inventor was Charles F. Browne, originally of Maine, a printer by trade and afterward a newspaper writer and editor at Boston, Toledo, and Cleveland, where his comicalities in the Plaindealer first began to attract notice. In 1860 he came to New York and joined the staff of Vanity Fair, a comic weekly of much brightness, which ran a short career and perished for want of capital. When Browne began to appear as a public lecturer, people who had formed an idea of him from his impersonation of the shrewd and vulgar old showman were surprised to find him a gentlemanly-looking young man, who came upon the platform in correct evening dress, and “spoke his piece” in a quiet and somewhat mournful manner, stopping in apparent surprise when any one in the audience laughed at any uncommonly outrageous absurdity. In London, where he delivered his Lecture on the Mormons, in 1806, the gravity of his bearing at first imposed upon his hearers, who had come to the hall in search of instructive information and were disappointed at the inadequate nature of the panorama which Browne had had made to illustrate his lecture. Occasionally some hitch would occur in the machinery of this and the lecturer would leave the rostrum for a few moments to “work the moon” that shone upon the Great Salt Lake, apologizing on his return on the ground, that he was “a man short” and offering “to pay a good salary to any respectable boy of good parentage and education who is a good moonist.” When it gradually dawned upon the British intellect that these and similar devices of the lecturer—such as the soft music which he had the pianist play at pathetic passages—nay, that the panorama and even the lecture itself were of a humorous intention, the joke began to take, and Artemus’s success in England became assured. He was employed as one of the editors of Punch, but died at Southampton in the year following.
Some of Artemus Ward’s effects were produced, by cacography or bad spelling, but there was genius in the wildly erratic way in which he handled even this rather low order of humor. It is a curious commentary on the wretchedness of our English orthography that the phonetic spelling of a word, as for example, wuz for was, should be in itself an occasion of mirth. Other verbal effects of a different kind were among his devices, as in the passage where the seventeen widows of a deceased Mormon offered themselves to Artemus.
“And I said, ‘Why is this thus? What is the reason of this thusness?’
They hove a sigh—seventeen sighs of different size. They said:
“’O, soon thou will be gonested away.’
“I told them that when I got ready to leave a place I wentested.
“They said, ‘Doth not like us?’
“I said, ‘I doth—I doth.’
“I also said, ‘I hope your intentions are honorable, as I am a lone child—my parents being far—far away.’
“They then said, ‘Wilt not marry us?’
“I said, ‘O no, it cannot was.’
“When they cried, ‘O cruel man! this is too much!--O! too much,’ I told them that it was on account of the muchness that I declined.”
It is hard to define the difference between the humor of one writer and another, or of one nation and another. It can be felt and can be illustrated by quoting examples, but scarcely described in general terms. It has been said of that class of American humorists of which Artemus Ward is a representative that their peculiarity consists in extravagance, surprise, audacity, and irreverence. But all these qualities have characterized other schools of humor. There is the same element of surprise in De Quincey’s anti-climax, “Many a man has dated his ruin from some murder or other which, perhaps, at the time he thought little of,” as in Artemus’s truism that “a comic paper ought to publish a joke now and then.” The violation of logic which makes us laugh at an Irish bull is likewise the source of the humor in Artemus’s saying of Jeff Davis, that “it would have been better than ten dollars in his pocket if he had never been born;” or in his advice, “Always live within your income, even if you have to borrow money to do so;” or, again, in his announcement that “Mr. Ward will pay no debts of his own contracting.” A kind of ludicrous confusion, caused by an unusual collocation of words, is also one of his favorite tricks, as when he says of Brigham Young, “He’s the most married man I ever saw in my life;” or when, having been drafted at several hundred different places where he had been exhibiting his wax figures, he says that if he went on he should soon become a regiment, and adds, “I never knew that there was so many of me.” With this a whimsical understatement and an affectation of simplicity, as where he expresses his willingness to sacrifice “even his wife’s relations” on the altar of patriotism; or where, in delightful unconsciousness of his own sins against orthography, he pronounces that “Chaucer was a great poet but he couldn’t spell,” or where he says of the feast of raw dog, tendered him by the Indian chief, Wocky-bocky, “It don’t agree with me. I prefer simple food.” On the whole, it may be said of original humor of this kind, as of other forms of originality in literature, that the elements of it are old, but their combinations are novel. Other humorists, like Henry W. Shaw (“Josh Billings”) and David R. Locke (“Petroleum V. Nasby”), have used bad spelling as a part of their machinery; while Robert H. Newell (“Orpheus C. Kerr”), Samuel L. Clemens (“Mark Twain”), and more recently “Bill Nye,” though belonging to the same school of low or broad comedy, have discarded cacography. Of these the most eminent, by all odds, is Mark Twain, who has probably made more people laugh than any other living writer. A Missourian by birth (1835), he served the usual apprenticeship at type-setting and editing country newspapers; spent seven years as a pilot on a Mississippi steam-boat, and seven years more mining and journalizing in Nevada, where he conducted the Virginia City Enterprise; finally drifted to San Francisco, and was associated with Bret Harte on the Californian, and in 1867 published his first book, The Jumping Frog. This was succeeded by the Innocents Abroad, 1869; Roughing It, 1872; A Tramp Abroad, 1880, and by others not so good.
Mark Twain’s drolleries have frequently the same air of innocence and surprise as Artemus Ward’s, and there is a like suddenness in his turns of expression, as where he speaks of “the calm confidence of a Christian with four aces.” If he did not originate, he at any rate employed very effectively that now familiar device of the newspaper “funny man,” of putting a painful situation euphemistically, as when he says of a man who was hanged, that he “received injuries which terminated in his death.” He uses to the full extent the American humorist’s favorite resources of exaggeration and irreverence. An instance of the former quality may be seen in his famous description of a dog chasing a coyote, in Roughing It, or in his interview with the lightning-rod agent in Mark Twain’s Sketches, 1875. He is a shrewd observer, and his humor has a more satirical side than Artemus Ward’s, sometimes passing into downright denunciation. He delights particularly in ridiculing sentimental humbug and moralizing cant. He runs atilt, as has been said, at “copy-book texts,” at the temperance reformer, the tract distributer, the Good Boy of Sunday-school literature, and the women who send bouquets and sympathetic letters to interesting criminals. He gives a ludicrous turn to famous historical anecdotes, such as the story of George Washington and his little hatchet; burlesques the time-honored adventure, in nautical romances, of the starving crew casting lots in the long-boat, and spoils the dignity of antiquity by modern trivialities, saying of a discontented sailor on Columbus’s ship, “He wanted fresh shad.” The fun of Innocents Abroad consists in this irreverent application of modern, common sense, utilitarian, democratic standards to the memorable places and historic associations of Europe. Tried by this test the Old Masters in the picture galleries become laughable, Abelard was a precious scoundrel, and the raptures of the guide-books are parodied without mercy. The tourist weeps at the grave of Adam. At Genoa he drives the cicerone to despair by pretending never to have heard of Christopher Columbus, and inquiring innocently, “Is he dead?” It is Europe vulgarized and stripped of its illusions—Europe seen by a Western newspaper reporter without any “historic imagination.”
The method of this whole class of humorists is the opposite of Addison’s or Irving’s or Thackeray’s. It does not amuse by the perception of the characteristic. It is not founded upon truth, but upon incongruity, distortion, unexpectedness. Every thing in life is reversed, as in opera bouffe, and turned topsy-turvy, so that paradox takes the place of the natural order of things. Nevertheless they have supplied a wholesome criticism upon sentimental excesses, and the world is in their debt for many a hearty laugh.
In the Atlantic Monthly for December, 1863, appeared a tale entitled The Man Without a Country, which made a great sensation, and did much to strengthen patriotic feeling in one of the darkest hours of the nation’s history. It was the story of one Philip Nolan, an army officer, whose head had been turned by Aaron Burr, and who, having been censured by a court-martial for some minor offense; exclaimed petulantly, upon mention being made of the United States government, “Damn the United States! I wish that I might never hear the United States mentioned again.” Thereupon he was sentenced to have his wish, and was kept all his life aboard the vessels of the navy, being sent off on long voyages and transferred from ship to ship, with orders to those in charge that his country and its concerns should never be spoken of in his presence. Such an air of reality was given to the narrative by incidental references to actual persons and occurrences that many believed it true, and some were found who remembered Philip Nolan, but had heard different versions of his career. The author of this clever hoax—if hoax it may be called—was Edward Everett Hale, a Unitarian clergyman of Boston, who published a collection of stories in 1868, under the fantastic title, If, Yes, and Perhaps, indicating thereby that some of the tales were possible, some of them probable, and others might even be regarded as essentially true. A similar collection, His Level Best, and Other Stories, was published in 1873, and in the interval three volumes of a somewhat different kind, the Ingham Papers and Sybaris and Other Homes, both in 1869, and Ten Times One Is Ten, in 187l. The author shelters himself behind the imaginary figure of Captain Frederic Ingham, pastor of the Sandemanian Church at Naguadavick, and the same characters have a way of re-appearing in his successive volumes as old friends of the reader, which is pleasant at first, but in the end a little tiresome. Mr. Hale is one of the most original and ingenious of American story-writers. The old device of making wildly improbable inventions appear like fact by a realistic treatment of details—a device employed by Swift and Edgar Poe, and more lately by Jules Verne—became quite fresh and novel in his hands, and was managed with a humor all his own. Some of his best stories are My Double and How He Undid Me, describing how a busy clergyman found an Irishman who looked so much like himself that he trained him to pass as his duplicate, and sent him to do duty in his stead at public meetings, dinners, etc., thereby escaping bores and getting time for real work; the Brick Moon, a story of a projectile built and launched into space, to revolve in a fixed meridian about the earth and serve mariners as a mark of longitude; the Rag Man and Rag Woman, a tale of an impoverished couple who made a competence by saving the pamphlets, advertisements, wedding-cards, etc., that came to them through the mail, and developing a paper business on that basis; and the Skeleton in the Closet, which shows how the fate of the Southern Confederacy was involved in the adventures of a certain hoop-skirt, “built in the eclipse and rigged with curses dark.” Mr. Hale’s historical scholarship and his habit of detail have aided him in the art of giving vraisemblance to absurdities. He is known in philanthropy as well as in letters, and his tales have a cheerful, busy, practical way with them in consonance with his motto, “Look up and not down, look forward and not back, look out and not in, and lend a hand.”
It is too soon to sum up the literary history of the last quarter of a century. The writers who have given it shape are still writing, and their work is therefore incomplete. But on the slightest review of it two facts become manifest; first, that New England has lost its long monopoly; and, secondly, that a marked feature of the period is the growth of realistic fiction. The electric tension of the atmosphere for thirty years preceding the civil war, the storm and stress of great public contests, and the intellectual stir produced by transcendentalism seem to have been more favorable to poetry and literary idealism than present conditions are. At all events there are no new poets who rank with Whittier, Longfellow, Lowell, and others of the elder generation, although George H. Boker, in Philadelphia, R. H. Stoddard and E. C. Stedman, in New York, and T. B. Aldrich, first in New York and afterward in Boston, have written creditable verse; not to speak of younger writers, whose work, however, for the most part, has been more distinguished by delicacy of execution than by native impulse. Mention has been made of the establishment of Harper’s Monthly Magazine, which, under the conduct of its accomplished editor, George W. Curtis, has provided the public with an abundance of good reading. The old Putnam’s Monthly, which ran from 1853 to 1858, and had a strong corps of contributors, was revived in 1868, and continued by that name till 1870, when it was succeeded by Scribner’s Monthly, under the editorship of Dr. J. G. Holland, and this in 1881 by the Century, an efficient rival of Harper’s in circulation, in literary excellence, and in the beauty of its wood-engravings, the American school of which art these two great periodicals have done much to develop and encourage. Another New York monthly, the Galaxy, ran from 1866 to 1878, and was edited by Richard Grant White. Within the last few years a new Scribner’s Magazine has also taken the field. The Atlantic, in Boston, and Lippincott’s, in Philadelphia, are no unworthy competitors with these for public favor.
During the forties began a new era of national expansion, somewhat resembling that described in a former chapter, and, like that, bearing fruit eventually in literature. The cession of Florida to the United States in 1845, and the annexation of Texas in the same year, were followed by the purchase of California in 1847, and its admission as a State in 1850. In 1849 came the great rush to the California gold fields. San Francisco, at first a mere collection of tents and board shanties, with a few adobe huts, grew with incredible rapidity into a great city—the wicked and wonderful city apostrophized by Bret Harte in his poem, San Francisco:
“Serene, indifferent of fate,
Thou sittest at the Western Gate;
Upon thy heights so lately won
Still slant the banners of the sun. . . .
I know thy cunning and thy greed,
Thy hard, high lust and willful deed.”
The adventurers of all lands and races who flocked to the Pacific coast, found there a motley state of society between civilization and savagery. There were the relics of the old Mexican occupation, the Spanish missions, with their Christianized Indians; the wild tribes of the plains—Apaches, Utes, and Navajoes; the Chinese coolies and washermen, all elements strange to the Atlantic sea-board and the States of the interior. The gold-hunters crossed, in stages or caravans, enormous prairies, alkaline deserts dotted with sage-brush and seamed by deep canons, and passes through gigantic mountain ranges. On the coast itself nature was unfamiliar: the climate was subtropical; fruits and vegetables grew to a mammoth size, corresponding to the enormous redwoods in the Mariposa groves and the prodigious scale of the scenery in the valley of the Yosemite and the snow-capped peaks of the sierras. At first there were few women, and the men led a wild, lawless existence in the mining camps. Hard upon the heels of the prospector followed the dram-shop, the gambling-hell, and the dance-hall. Every man carried his “Colt,” and looked out for his own life and his “claim.” Crime went unpunished or was taken in hand, when it got too rampant, by vigilance committees. In the diggings shaggy frontiersmen and “pikes” from Missouri mingled with the scum of eastern cities and with broken-down business men and young college graduates seeking their fortune. Surveyors and geologists came of necessity, speculators in mining stock and city lots set up their offices in the town; later came a sprinkling of school-teachers and ministers. Fortunes were made in one day and lost the next at poker or loo. To-day the lucky miner who had struck a good “lead” was drinking champagne out of pails and treating the town; to-morrow he was “busted,” and shouldered the pick for a new onslaught upon his luck. This strange, reckless life was not without fascination, and highly picturesque and dramatic elements were present in it. It was, as Bret Harte says, “an era replete with a certain heroic Greek poetry,” and sooner or later it was sure to find its poet. During the war California remained loyal to the Union, but was too far from the seat of conflict to experience any serious disturbance, and went on independently developing its own resources and becoming daily more civilized. By 1868 San Francisco had a literary magazine, the Overland Monthly, which ran until 1875, and was revived in 1883. It had a decided local flavor, and the vignette on its title-page was a happily chosen emblem, representing a grizzly bear crossing a railway track. In an early number of the Overland was a story entitled the Luck of Roaring Camp, by Francis Bret Harte, a native of Albany, N. Y. (1835), who had come to California at the age of seventeen, in time to catch the unique aspects of the life of the Forty-niners, before their vagabond communities had settled down into the law-abiding society of the present day. His first contribution was followed by other stories and sketches of a similar kind, such as the Outcasts of Poker Flat, Miggles, and Tennessee’s Partner; and by verses, serious and humorous, of which last, Plain Language from Truthful James, better known as the Heathen Chinee, made an immediate hit, and carried its author’s name into every corner of the English-speaking world. In 1871 he published a collection of his tales, another of his poems, and a volume of very clever parodies, Condensed Novels, which rank with Thackeray’s Novels by Eminent Hands. Bret Harte’s California stories were vivid, highly colored pictures of life in the mining camps and raw towns of the Pacific coast. The pathetic and the grotesque went hand in hand in them, and the author aimed to show how even in the desperate characters gathered together there—the fortune-hunters, gamblers, thieves, murderers, drunkards, and prostitutes—the latent nobility of human nature asserted itself in acts of heroism, magnanimity, self-sacrifice, and touching fidelity. The same men who cheated at cards and shot each another down with tipsy curses were capable on occasion of the most romantic generosity and the most delicate chivalry. Critics were not wanting who held that, in the matter of dialect and manners and other details, the narrator was not true to the facts. This was a comparatively unimportant charge; but a more serious question was the doubt whether his characters were essentially true to human nature; whether the wild soil of revenge and greed and dissolute living ever yields such flowers of devotion as blossom in Tennessee’s Partner and the Outcasts of Poker Flat. However this may be, there is no question as to Harte’s power as a narrator. His short stories are skillfully constructed and effectively told. They never drag, and are never over-laden with description, reflection, or other lumber.
In his poems in dialect we find the same variety of types and nationalities characteristic of the Pacific coast: the little Mexican maiden, Pachita, in the old mission garden; the wicked Bill Nye, who tries to cheat the Heathen Chinee at eucher and to rob Injin Dick of his winning lottery ticket; the geological society on the Stanislaw who settle their scientific debates with chunks of old red sandstone and the skulls of mammoths; the unlucky Mr. Dow, who finally strikes gold while digging a well, and builds a house with a “coopilow;” and Flynn, of Virginia, who saves his “pard’s” life, at the sacrifice of his own, by holding up the timbers in the caving tunnel. These poems are mostly in monologue, like Browning’s dramatic lyrics, exclamatory and abrupt in style, and with a good deal of indicated action, as in Jim, where a miner comes into a bar-room, looking for his old chum, learns that he is dead, and is just turning away to hide his emotion when he recognizes Jim in his informant:
No more, sir—I—
What’s that you say?--
Why, dern it!--sho!--
No? Yea! By Jo!
Sold! Why, you limb!
Derned old Long-legged Jim!”
Bret Harte had many imitators, and not only did our newspaper poetry for a number of years abound in the properties of Californian life, such as gulches, placers, divides, etc., but writers further east applied his method to other conditions. Of these by far the most successful was John Hay, a native of Indiana and private secretary to President Lincoln, whose Little Breeches, Jim Bludso, and Mystery of Gilgal have rivaled Bret Harte’s own verses in popularity. In the last-named piece the reader is given to feel that there is something rather cheerful and humorous in a bar-room fight which results in “the gals that winter, as a rule,” going “alone to singing school.” In the two former we have heroes of the Bret Harte type, the same combination of superficial wickedness with inherent loyalty and tenderness. The profane farmer of the South-west, who “doesn’t pan out on the prophets,” and who had taught his little son “to chaw terbacker, just to keep his milk-teeth white,” but who believes in God and the angels ever since the miraculous recovery of the same little son when lost on the prairie in a blizzard; and the unsaintly and bigamistic captain of the Prairie Belle, who died like a hero, holding the nozzle of his burning boat against the bank
“Till the last galoot’s ashore.”
The manners and dialect of other classes and sections of the country have received abundant illustration of late years. Edward Eggleston’s Hoosier Schoolmaster, 1871, and his other novels are pictures of rural life in the early days of Indiana. Western Windows, a volume of poems by John James Piatt, another native of Indiana, had an unmistakable local coloring. Charles G. Leland, of Philadelphia, in his Hans Breitmann ballads, in dialect, gave a humorous presentation of the German-American element in the cities. By the death, in 1881, of Sidney Lanier, a Georgian by birth, the South lost a poet of rare promise, whose original genius was somewhat hampered by his hesitation between two arts of expression, music and verse, and by his effort to co-ordinate them. His Science of English Verse, 1880, was a most suggestive, though hardly convincing, statement of that theory of their relation which he was working out in his practice. Some of his pieces, like the Mocking Bird and the Song of the Chattahoochie, are the most characteristically Southern poetry that has been written in America. Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories, in Negro dialect, are transcripts from the folk-lore of the plantations, while his collection of stories, At Teague Poteet’s, together with Miss Murfree’s In the Tennessee Mountains and her other books, have made the Northern public familiar with the wild life of the “moonshiners,” who distill illicit whiskey in the mountains of Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. These tales are not only exciting in incident, but strong and fresh in their delineations of character. Their descriptions of mountain scenery are also impressive, though, in the case of the last-named writer, frequently too prolonged. George W. Cable’s sketches of French Creole life in New Orleans attracted attention by their freshness and quaintness when published, in the magazines and re-issued in book form as Old Creole Days, in 1879. His first regular novel, the Grandissimes, 1880, was likewise a story of Creole life. It had the same winning qualities as his short stories and sketches, but was an advance upon them in dramatic force, especially in the intensely tragic and powerfully told episode of “Bras Coupé.” Mr. Cable has continued his studies of Louisiana types and ways in his later books, but the Grandissimes still remains his masterpiece. All in all, he is, thus far, the most important literary figure of the New South, and the justness and delicacy of his representations of life speak volumes for the sobering and refining agency of the civil war in the States whose “cause” was “lost,” but whose true interests gained even more by the loss than did the interests of the victorious North.
The four writers last mentioned, have all come to the front within the past eight or ten years, and, in accordance with the plan of this sketch, receive here a mere passing notice. It remains to close our review of the literary history of the period since the war with a somewhat more extended account of the two favorite novelists whose work has done more than any thing else to shape the movement of recent fiction. These are Henry James, Jr., and William Dean Howells. Their writings, though dissimilar in some respects, are alike in this, that they are analytic in method and realistic in spirit. Cooper was a romancer pure and simple; he wrote the romance of adventure and of external incident. Hawthorne went much deeper, and with a finer spiritual insight dealt with the real passions of the heart; and with men’s inner experiences. This he did with truth and power; but, although himself a keen observer of whatever passed before his eyes, he was not careful to secure a photographic fidelity to the surface facts of speech, dress, manners, etc. Thus the talk of his characters is book-talk, and not the actual language of the parlor or the street, with its slang, its colloquial ease and the intonations and shadings of phrase and pronunciation which mark different sections of the country and different grades of society. His attempts at dialect, for example, were of the slenderest kind. His art is ideal, and his romances certainly do not rank as novels of real life. But with the growth of a richer and more complicated society in America fiction has grown more social and more minute in its observation. It would not be fair to classify the novels of James and Howells as the fiction of manners merely; they are also the fiction of character, but they aim to describe people not only as they are, in their inmost natures, but also as they look and talk and dress. They try to express character through manners, which is the way in which it is most often expressed in the daily existence of a conventional society. It is a principle of realism not to select exceptional persons or occurrences, but to take average men and women and their average experiences. The realists protest that the moving incident is not their trade, and that the stories have all been told. They want no plot and no hero. They will tell no rounded tale with a denouement, in which all the parts are distributed, as in the fifth act of an old-fashioned comedy; but they will take a transcript from life and end when they get through, without informing the reader what becomes of the characters. And they will try to interest this reader in “poor real life” with its “foolish face.” Their acknowledged masters are Balzac, George Eliot, Turgénieff, and Anthony Trollope, and they regard novels as studies in sociology, honest reports of the writers’ impressions, which may not be without a certain scientific value even.
Mr. James’s peculiar province is the international novel, a field which he created for himself, but which he has occupied in company with Howells, Mrs. Burnett, and many others. The novelist received most of his schooling in Europe, and has lived much abroad, with the result that he has become half denationalized and has engrafted a cosmopolitan indifference upon his Yankee inheritance. This, indeed, has constituted his opportunity. A close observer and a conscientious student of the literary art, he has added to his intellectual equipment the advantage of a curious doubleness in his point of view. He looks at America with the eyes of a foreigner and at Europe with the eyes of an American. He has so far thrown himself out of relation with American life that he describes a Boston horse-car or a New York hotel table with a sort of amused wonder. His starting-point was in criticism, and he has always maintained the critical attitude. He took up story-writing in order to help himself, by practical experiment, in his chosen art of literary criticism, and his volume on French Poets and Novelists, 1878, is by no means the least valuable of his books. His short stories in the magazines were collected into a volume in 1875, with the title, A Passionate Pilgrim, and Other Stories. One or two of these, as the Last of the Valerii and the Madonna of the Future, suggest Hawthorne, a very unsympathetic study of whom James afterward contributed to the “English Men of Letters” series. But in the name-story of the collection he was already in the line of his future development. This is the story of a middle-aged invalid American who comes to England in search of health, and finds, too late, in the mellow atmosphere of the mother-country, the repose and the congenial surroundings which he has all his life been longing for in his raw America. The pathos of his self-analysis and his confession of failure is subtly imagined. The impressions which he and his far-away English kinsfolk make on one another, their mutual attraction and repulsion, are described with that delicate perception of national differences which makes the humor and sometimes the tragedy of James’s later books, like The American, Daisy Miller, The Europeans, and An International Episode. His first novel was Roderick Hudson, 1876, not the most characteristic of his fictions, but perhaps the most powerful in its grasp of elementary passion. The analytic method and the critical attitude have their dangers in imaginative literature. In proportion as this writer’s faculty of minute observation and his realistic objectivity have increased upon him, the uncomfortable coldness which is felt in his youthful work has become actually disagreeable, and his art—growing constantly finer and surer in matters of detail—has seemed to dwell more and more in the region of mere manners and less in the higher realm of character and passion. In most of his writings the heart, somehow, is left out. We have seen that Irving, from his knowledge of England and America, and his long residence in both countries, became the mediator between the two great branches of the Anglo-Saxon race. This he did by the power of his sympathy with each. Henry James has likewise interpreted the two nations to one another in a subtler but less genial fashion than Irving, and not through sympathy, but through contrast, by bringing into relief the opposing ideals of life and society which have developed under different institutions. In his novel, The American, 1877, he has shown the actual misery which may result from the clashing of opposed social systems. In such clever sketches as Daisy Miller, 1879, the Pension Beaurepas, and A Bundle of Letters, he has exhibited types of the American girl, the American business man, the aesthetic feebling from Boston, and the Europeanized or would-be denationalized American campaigners in the Old World, and has set forth the ludicrous incongruities, perplexities, and misunderstandings which result from contradictory standards of conventional morality and behavior. In The Europeans, 1879, and An International Episode, 1878, he has reversed the process, bringing Old World standards to the test of American ideas by transferring his dramatis personae to republican soil. The last-named of these illustrates how slender a plot realism requires for its purposes. It is nothing more than the history of an English girl of good family who marries an American gentleman and undertakes to live in America, but finds herself so uncomfortable in strange social conditions that she returns to England for life, while, contrariwise, the heroine’s sister is so taken with the freedom of these very conditions that she elopes with another American and “goes West.” James is a keen observer of the physiognomy of cities as well as of men, and his Portraits of Places, 1884, is among the most delightful contributions to the literature of foreign travel.
Mr. Howells’s writings are not without “international” touches. In A Foregone Conclusion and the Lady of the Aroostook, and others of his novels, the contrasted points of view in American and European life are introduced, and especially those variations in feeling, custom, dialect, etc., which make the modern Englishman and the modern American such objects of curiosity to each other, and which have been dwelt upon of late even unto satiety. But in general he finds his subjects at home, and if he does not know his own countrymen and countrywomen more intimately than Mr. James, at least he loves them better. There is a warmer sentiment in his fictions, too; his men are better fellows and his women are more lovable. Howells was born in Ohio. His early life was that of a western country editor. In 1860 he published, jointly with his friend Piatt, a book of verse--Poems of Two Friends. In 1861 he was sent as consul to Venice, and the literary results of his sojourn there appeared in his sketches, Venetian Life, 1865, and Italian Journeys, 1867. In 1871 he became editor of the Atlantic Monthly, and in the same year published his Suburban Sketches. All of these early volumes showed a quick eye for the picturesque, an unusual power of description, and humor of the most delicate quality; but as yet there was little approach to narrative. Their Wedding Journey was a revelation to the public of the interest that may lie in an ordinary bridal trip across the State of New York, when a close and sympathetic observation is brought to bear upon the characteristics of American life as it appears at railway stations and hotels, on steam-boats and in the streets of very commonplace towns. A Chance Acquaintance, 1873, was Howells’s first novel, though even yet the story was set against a background of travel-pictures. A holiday trip on the St. Lawrence and the Saguenay, with descriptions of Quebec and the Falls of Montmorenci, etc., rather predominated over the narrative. Thus, gradually and by a natural process, complete characters and realistic novels, such as A Modern Instance, 1882, and Indian Summer, evolved themselves from truthful sketches of places and persons seen by the way.
The incompatibility existing between European and American views of life, which makes the comedy or the tragedy of Henry James’s international fictions, is replaced in Howells’s novels by the repulsion between differing social grades in the same country. The adjustment of these subtle distinctions forms a part of the problem of life in all complicated societies. Thus in A Chance Acquaintance the heroine is a bright and pretty Western girl, who becomes engaged during a pleasure tour to an irreproachable but offensively priggish young gentleman from Boston, and the engagement is broken by her in consequence of an unintended slight—the betrayal on the hero’s part of a shade of mortification when he and his betrothed are suddenly brought into the presence of some fashionable ladies belonging to his own monde. The little comedy, Out of the Question, deals with this same adjustment of social scales; and in many of Howells’s other novels, such as Silas Lapham and the Lady of the Aroustook, one of the main motives may be described to be the contact of the man who eats with his fork with the man who eats with his knife, and the shock thereby ensuing. In Indian Summer the complications arise from the difference in age between the hero and heroine, and not from a difference in station or social antecedents. In all of these fictions the misunderstandings come from an incompatibility of manners rather than of character, and, if any thing were to be objected to the probability of the story, it is that the climax hinges on delicacies and subtleties which, in real life, when there is opportunity for explanations, are readily brushed aside. But in A Modern Instance Howells touched the deeper springs of action. In this, his strongest work, the catastrophe is brought about, as in George Eliot’s great novels, by the reaction of characters upon one another, and the story is realistic in a higher sense than any mere study of manners can be. His nearest approach to romance is in The Undiscovered Country, 1880, which deals with the Spiritualists and the Shakers, and in its study of problems that hover on the borders of the supernatural, in its out-of-the-way personages and adventures, and in a certain ideal poetic flavor about the whole book, has a strong resemblance to Hawthorne, especially to Hawthorne in the Blithedale Romance, where he comes closer to common ground with other romancers. It is interesting to compare the Undiscovered Country with Henry James’s Bostonians, the latest and one of the cleverest of his fictions, which is likewise a study of the clairvoyants, mediums, woman’s rights advocates, and all varieties of cranks, reformers, and patrons of “causes,” for whom Boston has long been notorious. A most unlovely race of people they become under the cold scrutiny of Mr. James’s cosmopolitan eyes, which see more clearly the charlatanism, narrow-mindedness, mistaken fanaticism, morbid self-consciousness, disagreeable nervous intensity, and vulgar or ridiculous outside peculiarities of the humanitarians, than the nobility and moral enthusiasm which underlie the surface.
Howells is almost the only successful American dramatist, and this in the field of parlor comedy. His little farces, the Elevator, the Register, the Parlor-Car, etc., have a lightness and grace, with an exquisitely absurd situation, which remind us more of the Comedies et Proverbes of Alfred de Musset, or the many agreeable dialogues and monologues of the French domestic stage, than of any work of English or American hands. His softly ironical yet affectionate treatment of feminine ways is especially admirable. In his numerous types of sweetly illogical, inconsistent, and inconsequent womanhood he has perpetuated with a nicer art than Dickens what Thackeray calls “that great discovery,” Mrs. Nickleby.
1. Theodore Winthrop. Life in the Open Air. Cecil Dreeme.
2. Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Life in a Black Regiment.
3. Poetry of the Civil War. Edited by Richard Grant White. New York. 1866.
4. Charles Farrar Browne. Artemus Ward—His Book. Lecture on the Mormons. Artemus Ward in London.
5. Samuel Langhorne Clemens. The Jumping Frog. Roughing It. The Mississippi Pilot.
6. Charles Godfrey Leland. Hans Breitmann’s Ballads.
7. Edward Everett Hale. If, Yes, and Perhaps. His Level Best, and Other Stories.
8. Francis Bret Harte. Outcasts of Poker Flat, and Other Stories. Condensed Novels. Poems in Dialect.
9. Sidney Lanier. Nirvana. Resurrection. The Harlequin of Dreams. Song of the Chattahoochie. The Mocking Bird. The Stirrup-Cup. Tampa Robins. The Bee. The Revenge of Hamish. The Ship of Earth. The Marshes of Glynn. Sunrise.
10. Henry James, Jr. A Passionate Pilgrim. Roderick Hudson. Daisy Miller. Pension Beaurepas. A Bundle of Letters. An International Episode. The Bostonians. Portraits of Places.
11. William Dean Howells. Their Wedding Journey. Suburban Sketches. A Chance Acquaintance. A Foregone Conclusion. The Undiscovered Country. A Modern Instance.
12. George W. Cable. Old Creole Days. Madame Delphine. The Grandissimes.
13. Joel Chandler Harris. Uncle Remus. Mingo, and Other Sketches.14. Charles Egbert Craddook (Miss Murfree). In the Tennessee Mountains.
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