[This is taken from Henry A. Beers' Initial Studies in American Letters.]
Literature as a profession has hardly existed in the United States until very recently. Even now the number of those who support themselves by purely literary work is small, although the growth of the reading public and the establishment of great magazines, such as Harper’s, the Century, and the Atlantic, have made a market for intellectual wares which forty years ago would have seemed a godsend to poorly paid Bohemians like Poe or obscure men of genius like Hawthorne. About 1840, two Philadelphia magazines--Godey’s Lady’s Book and Graham’s Monthly--began to pay their contributors twelve dollars a page, a price then thought wildly munificent. But the first magazine of the modern type was Harper’s Monthly, founded in 1850. American books have always suffered, and still continue to suffer, from the want of an international copyright, which has flooded the country with cheap reprints and translations of foreign works, with which the domestic product has been unable to contend on such uneven terms. With the first ocean steamers there started up a class of large-paged weeklies in New York and elsewhere, such as Brother Jonathan, the New World, and the Corsair, which furnished their readers with the freshest writings of Dickens and Bulwer and other British celebrities within a fortnight after their appearance in London. This still further restricted the profits of native authors and nearly drove them from the field of periodical literature. By special arrangement the novels of Thackeray and other English writers were printed in Harper’s in installments simultaneously with their issue in English periodicals. The Atlantic was the first of our magazines which was founded expressly for the encouragement of home talent, and which had a purely Yankee flavor. Journalism was the profession which naturally attracted men of letters, as having most in common with their chosen work and as giving them a medium, under their own control, through which they could address the public. A few favored scholars, like Prescott, were made independent by the possession of private fortunes. Others, like Holmes, Longfellow, and Lowell, gave to literature such leisure as they could get in the intervals of an active profession or of college work. Still others, like Emerson and Thoreau, by living in the country and making their modest competence—eked out in Emerson’s case by lecturing here and there—suffice for their simple needs, secured themselves freedom from the restraints of any regular calling. But, in default of some such pou sto, our men of letters have usually sought the cities and allied themselves with the press. It will be remembered that Lowell started a short-lived magazine on his own account, and that he afterward edited the Atlantic and the North American. Also that Ripley and Charles A. Dana betook themselves to journalism after the break-up of the Brook Farm Community.
In the same way William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878), the earliest American poet of importance, whose impulses drew him to the solitudes of nature, was compelled to gain a livelihood, by conducting a daily newspaper; or, as he himself puts it, was
“Forced to drudge for the dregs of men,
And scrawl strange words with the barbarous pen.”
Bryant was born at Cummington, in Berkshire, the western-most county of Massachusetts. After two years in Williams College he studied law, and practiced for nine years as a country lawyer in Plainfield and Great Barrington. Following the line of the Housatonic Valley, the social and theological affiliations of Berkshire have always been closer with Connecticut and New York than with Boston and eastern Massachusetts. Accordingly, when in 1825 Bryant yielded to the attractions of a literary career, he betook himself to New York city, where, after a brief experiment in conducting a monthly magazine, the New York Review and Athenaeum, he assumed the editorship of the Evening Post, a Democratic and free-trade journal, with which he remained connected till his death. He already had a reputation as a poet when he entered the ranks of metropolitan journalism. In 1816 his Thanatopsis had been published in the North American Review, and had attracted immediate and general admiration. It had been finished, indeed, two years before, when the poet was only in his nineteenth year, and was a wonderful instance of precocity. The thought in this stately hymn was not that of a young man, but of a sage who has reflected long upon the universality, the necessity, and the majesty of death. Bryant’s blank verse when at its best, as in Thanatopsis and the Forest Hymn, is extremely noble. In gravity and dignity it is surpassed by no English blank verse of this century, though in rich and various modulation it falls below Tennyson’s Ulysses and Morte d’Arthur. It was characteristic of Bryant’s limitations that he came thus early into possession of his faculty. His range was always a narrow one, and about his poetry, as a whole, there is a certain coldness, rigidity, and solemnity. His fixed position among American poets is described in his own Hymn to the North Star:
“And thou dost see them rise,
Star of the pole! and thou dost see them set.
Alone, in thy cold skies,
Thou keep’st thy old, unmoving station yet,
Nor join’st the dances of that glittering train,
Nor dipp’st thy virgin orb in the blue western main.”
In 1821 he read The Ages, a didactic poem, in thirty-five stanzas, before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge, and in the same year brought out his first volume of poems. A second collection appeared in 1832, which was printed in London under the auspices of Washington Irving. Bryant was the first American poet who had much of an audience in England, and Wordsworth is said to have learned Thanatopsis by heart. Bryant was, indeed, in a measure, a scholar of Wordsworth’s school, and his place among American poets corresponds roughly, though not precisely, to Wordsworth’s among English poets. With no humor, with somewhat restricted sympathies, with little flexibility or openness to new impressions, but gifted with a high, austere imagination, Bryant became the meditative poet of nature. His best poems are those in which he draws lessons from nature, or sings of its calming, purifying, and bracing influences upon the human soul. His office, in other words, is the same which Matthew Arnold asserts to be the peculiar office of modern poetry, “the moral interpretation of nature.” Poems of this class are Green River, To a Water-fowl, June, the Death of the Flowers, and the Evening Wind. The song, “O fairest of the rural maids,” which has more fancy than is common in Bryant, and which Poe pronounced his best poem, has an obvious resemblance to Wordsworth’s “Three years she grew in sun and shade,” and both of these nameless pieces might fitly be entitled—as Wordsworth’s is in Mr. Palgrave’s Golden Treasury--“The Education of Nature.”
Although Bryant’s career is identified with New York his poetry is all of New England. His heart was always turning back fondly to the woods and streams of the Berkshire hills. There was nothing of that urban strain in him which appears in Holmes and Willis. He was, in especial, the poet of autumn, of the American October and the New England Indian Summer, that season of “dropping nuts” and “smoky light,” to whose subtle analogy with the decay of the young by the New England disease, consumption, he gave such tender expression in the Death of the Flowers, and amid whose “bright, late quiet” he wished himself to pass away. Bryant is our poet of “the melancholy days,” as Lowell is of June. If, by chance, he touches upon June, it is not with the exultant gladness of Lowell in meadows full of bobolinks, and in the summer day that is
“simply perfect from its own resource,
As to the bee the new campanula’s
Illuminate seclusion swung in air.”
Rather, the stir of new life in the clod suggests to Bryant by contrast the thought of death; and there is nowhere in his poetry a passage of deeper feeling than the closing stanzas of June, in which he speaks of himself, by anticipation, as of one
“Whose part in all the pomp that fills
The circuit of the summer hills
Is—that his grave is green.”
Bryant is, par excellence, the poet of New England wild flowers, the yellow violet, the fringed gentian—to each of which he dedicated an entire poem—the orchis and the golden-rod, “the aster in the wood and the yellow sunflower by the brook.” With these his name will be associated as Wordsworth’s with the daffodil and the lesser celandine, and Emerson’s with the rhodora.
Except when writing of nature he was apt to be commonplace, and there are not many such energetic lines in his purely reflective verse as these famous ones from The Battle-Field:
“Truth crushed to earth shall rise again;
The eternal years of God are hers;
But Error, wounded, writhes in pain,
And dies among his worshipers.”
He added but slowly to the number of his poems, publishing a new collection in 1840, another in 1844, and Thirty Poems in 1864. His work at all ages was remarkably even. Thanatopsis was as mature as any thing that he wrote afterward, and among his later pieces the Planting of the Apple Tree and the Flood of Years were as fresh as any thing that he had written in the first flush of youth. Bryant’s poetic style was always pure and correct, without any tincture of affectation or extravagance. His prose writings are not important, consisting mainly of papers of the Salmagundi variety contributed to the Talisman, an annual published in 1827-30; some rather sketchy stories, Tales of the Glauber Spa, 1832; and impressions of Europe, entitled Letters of a Traveler, issued in two series, in 1849 and 1858. In 1869 and 1871 appeared his blank-verse translations of the Iliad and Odyssey, a remarkable achievement for a man of his age, and not excelled, upon the whole, by any recent metrical version of Homer in the English tongue. Bryant’s half-century of service as the editor of a daily paper should not be overlooked. The Evening Post, under his management, was always honest, gentlemanly, and courageous, and did much to raise the tone of journalism in New York.
Another Massachusetts poet, who was outside the Boston coterie, like Bryant, and, like him, tried his hand at journalism, was John Greenleaf Whittier (1807- ). He was born in a solitary farm-house near Haverhill, in the valley of the Merrimack, and his life has been passed mostly at his native place and at the neighboring town of Amesbury. The local color, which is very pronounced in his poetry, is that of the Merrimack from the vicinity of Haverhill to its mouth at Newburyport, a region of hill-side farms, opening out below into wide marshes—“the low, green prairies of the sea,” and the beaches of Hampton and Salisbury. The scenery of the Merrimack is familiar to all readers of Whittier: the cotton-spinning towns along its banks, with their factories and dams, the sloping pastures and orchards of the back country, the sands of Plum Island and the level reaches of water meadow between which glide the broad-sailed “gundalows”—a local corruption of gondola—laden with hay. Whittier was a farmer lad, and had only such education as the district school could supply, supplemented by two years at the Haverhill Academy. In his School Days he gives a picture of the little old country school-house as it used to be, the only alma mater of so many distinguished Americans, and to which many others who have afterward trodden the pavements of great universities look back so fondly as to their first wicket gate into the land of knowledge.
“Still sits the school-house by the road,
A ragged beggar sunning;
Around it still the sumacs grow
And blackberry vines are running.
“Within the master’s desk is seen,
Deep-scarred by raps official,
The warping floor, the battered seats,
The jack-knife’s carved initial.”
A copy of Burns awoke the slumbering instinct in the young poet, and he began to contribute verses to Garrison’s Free Press, published in Newburyport, and to the Haverhill Gazette. Then he went to Boston, and became editor for a short time of the Manufacturer. Next he edited the Essex Gazette, at Haverhill, and in 1830 he took charge of George D. Prentice’s paper, the New England Weekly Review, at Hartford, Conn. Here he fell in with a young Connecticut poet of much promise, J. G. C. Brainard, editor of the Connecticut Mirror, whose “Remains” Whittier edited in 1832. At Hartford, too, he published his first book, a volume of prose and verse, entitled Legends of New England, 1831, which is not otherwise remarkable than as showing his early interest in Indian colonial traditions—especially those which had a touch of the supernatural—a mine which he afterward worked to good purpose in the Bridal of Pennacook, the Witch’s Daughter, and similar poems. Some of the Legends testify to Brainard’s influence and to the influence of Whittier’s temporary residence at Hartford. One of the prose pieces, for example, deals with the famous “Moodus Noises” at Haddam, on the Connecticut River, and one of the poems is the same in subject with Brainard’s Black Fox of Salmon River. After a year and a half at Hartford Whittier returned to Haverhill and to farming.
The antislavery agitation was now beginning, and into this he threw himself with all the ardor of his nature. He became the poet of the reform as Garrison was its apostle, and Sumner and Phillips its speakers. In 1833 he published Justice and Expediency, a prose tract against slavery, and in the same year he took part in the formation of the American Antislavery Society at Philadelphia, sitting in the convention as a delegate of the Boston abolitionists. Whittier was a Quaker, and that denomination, influenced by the preaching of John Woolman and others, had long since quietly abolished slavery within its own communion. The Quakers of Philadelphia and elsewhere took an earnest though peaceful part in the Garrisonian movement. But it was a strange irony of fate that had made the fiery-hearted Whittier a friend. His poems against slavery and disunion have the martial ring of a Tyrtaeus or a Körner, added to the stern religious zeal of Cromwell’s Ironsides. They are like the sound of the trumpet blown before the walls of Jericho, or the psalms of David denouncing woe upon the enemies of God’s chosen people. If there is any purely Puritan strain in American poetry it is in the war-hymns of the Quaker “Hermit of Amesbury.” Of these patriotic poems there were three principal collections: Voices of Freedom, 1849; The Panorama, and Other Poems, 1856; and In War Time, 1863. Whittier’s work as the poet of freedom was done when, on hearing the bells ring for the passage of the constitutional amendment abolishing slavery, he wrote his splendid Laus Deo, thrilling with the ancient Hebrew spirit:
“Loud and long
Lift the old exulting song,
Sing with Miriam by the sea—
He has cast the mighty down,
Horse and rider sink and drown,
He hath triumphed gloriously.”
Of his poems distinctly relating to the events of the civil war, the best, or at all events the most popular, is Barbara Frietchie. Ichabod, expressing the indignation of the Free Soilers at Daniel Webster’s seventh of March speech in defense of the Fugitive Slave Law, is one of Whittier’s best political poems, and not altogether unworthy of comparison with Browning’s Lost Leader. The language of Whittier’s warlike lyrics is biblical, and many of his purely devotional pieces are religious poetry of a high order and have been included in numerous collections of hymns. Of his songs of faith and doubt, the best are perhaps Our Master, Chapel of the Hermits, and Eternal Goodness; one stanza from the last of which is familiar;
“I know not where his islands lift
Their fronded palms in air,
I only know I cannot drift,
Beyond his love and care.”
But from politics and war Whittier turned gladly to sing the homely life of the New England country-side. His rural ballads and idyls are as genuinely American as any thing that our poets have written, and have been recommended, as such, to English working-men by Whittier’s co-religionist, John Bright. The most popular of these is probably Maud Muller, whose closing couplet has passed into proverb. Skipper Ireson’s Ride is also very current. Better than either of them, as poetry, is Telling the Bees. But Whittier’s masterpiece in work of a descriptive and reminiscent kind is Snow-Bound, 1866, a New England fireside idyl which in its truthfulness recalls the Winter Evening of Cowper’s Task and Burns’s Cotter’s Saturday Night, but in sweetness and animation is superior to either of them. Although in some things a Puritan of the Puritans, Whittier has never forgotten that he is also a Friend, and several of his ballads and songs have been upon the subject of the early Quaker persecutions in Massachusetts. The most impressive of these is Cassandra Southwick. The latest of them, the King’s Missive, originally contributed to the Memorial History of Boston in 1880, and reprinted the next year in a volume with other poems, has been the occasion of a rather lively controversy. The Bridal of Pennacook, 1848, and the Tent on the Beach, 1867, which contain some of his best work, were series of ballads told by different narrators, after the fashion of Longfellow’s Tales of a Wayside Inn. As an artist in verse, Whittier is strong and fervid, rather than delicate or rich. He uses only a few metrical forms—by preference the eight-syllabled rhyming couplet—
“Maud Muller on a summer’s day
Raked the meadow sweet with hay,” etc.
and the emphatic tramp of this measure becomes very monotonous, as do some of Whittier’s mannerisms, which proceed, however, never from affectation, but from a lack of study and variety, and so, no doubt, in part from the want of that academic culture and thorough technical equipment which Lowell and Longfellow enjoyed. Though his poems are not in dialect, like Lowell’s Biglow Papers, he knows how to make an artistic use of homely provincial words, such as “chore,” which give his idyls of the hearth and the barnyard a genuine Doric cast. Whittier’s prose is inferior to his verse. The fluency which was a besetting sin of his poetry, when released from the fetters of rhyme and meter, ran into wordiness. His prose writings were partly contributions to the slavery controversy, partly biographical sketches of English and American reformers, and partly studies of the scenery and folk-lore of the Merrimack Valley. Those of most literary interest were the Supernaturalism of New England, 1847, and some of the papers in Literary Recreations and Miscellanies, 1854.
While Massachusetts was creating an American literature other sections of the Union were by no means idle. The West, indeed, was as yet too raw to add any thing of importance to the artistic product of the country. The South was hampered by circumstances which will presently be described. But in and about the sea-board cities of New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Richmond many pens were busy filling the columns of literary weeklies and monthlies; and there was a considerable output, such as it was, of books of poetry, fiction, travel, and miscellaneous light literature. Time has already relegated most of these to the dusty top shelves. To rehearse the names of the numerous contributors to the old Knickerbocker Magazine, to Godey’s, and Graham’s, and the New Mirror, and the Southern Literary Messenger, or to run over the list of authorlings and poetasters in Poe’s papers on the Literati of New York, would be very much like reading the inscriptions on the head-stones of an old grave-yard. In the columns of these prehistoric magazines and in the book notices and reviews away back in the thirties and forties, one encounters the handiwork and the names of Emerson, Holmes, Longfellow, Hawthorne, and Lowell embodied in this mass of forgotten literature. It would have required a good deal of critical acumen, at the time, to predict that these and a few others would soon be thrown out into bold relief, as the significant and permanent names in the literature of their generation, while Paulding, Hirst, Fay, Dawes, Mrs. Osgood, and scores of others who figured beside them in the fashionable periodicals, and filled quite as large a space in the public eye, would sink into oblivion in less than thirty years. Some of these latter were clever enough people; they entertained their contemporary public sufficiently, but their work had no vitality or “power of continuance.” The great majority of the writings of any period are necessarily ephemeral, and time by a slow process of natural selection is constantly sifting out the few representative books which shall carry on the memory of the period to posterity. Now and then it may be predicted of some undoubted work of genius, even at the moment that it sees the light, that it is destined to endure. But tastes and fashions change, and few things are better calculated to inspire the literary critic with humility than to read the prophecies in old reviews and see how the future, now become the present, has quietly given them the lie.
From among the professional littérateurs of his day emerges, with ever sharper distinctness as time goes on, the name of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49). By the irony of fate Poe was born at Boston, and his first volume, Tamerlane, and Other Poems, 1827, was printed in that city and bore upon its title-page the words, “By a Bostonian.” But his parentage, so far as it was any thing, was Southern. His father was a Marylander who had gone upon the stage and married an actress, herself the daughter of an actress and a native of England. Left an orphan by the early death of both parents, Poe was adopted by a Mr. Allan, a wealthy merchant of Richmond, Va. He was educated partly at an English school, was student for a time in the University of Virginia, and afterward a cadet in the Military Academy at West Point. His youth was wild and irregular; he gambled and drank, was proud, bitter, and perverse, finally quarreled with his guardian and adopted father—by whom he was disowned—and then betook himself to the life of a literary hack. His brilliant but underpaid work for various periodicals soon brought him into notice, and he was given the editorship of the Southern Literary Messenger, published at Richmond, and subsequently of the Gentlemen’s--afterward Graham’s--Magazine in Philadelphia. These and all other positions Poe forfeited through his dissipated habits and wayward temper, and finally, in 1844, he drifted to New York, where he found employment on the Evening Mirror and then on the Broadway Journal. He died of delirium tremens at the Marine Hospital in Baltimore. His life was one of the most wretched in literary history. He was an extreme instance of what used to be called the “eccentricity of genius.” He had the irritable vanity which is popularly supposed to accompany the poetic temperament, and was so insanely egotistic as to imagine that Longfellow and others were constantly plagiarizing from him. The best side of Poe’s character came out in his domestic relations, in which he displayed great tenderness, patience, and fidelity. His instincts were gentlemanly, and his manner and conversation were often winning. In the place of moral feeling he had the artistic conscience. In his critical papers, except where warped by passion or prejudice, he showed neither fear nor favor, denouncing bad work by the most illustrious hands and commending obscure merit. The “impudent literary cliques” who puffed each other’s books; the feeble chirrupings of the bardlings who manufactured verses for the “Annuals;” and the twaddle of the “genial” incapables who praised them in flabby reviews—all these Poe exposed with ferocious honesty. Nor, though his writings are unmoral, can they be called in any sense immoral. His poetry is as pure in its unearthliness as Bryant’s in its austerity.
By 1831 Poe had published three thin books of verse, none of which had attracted notice, although the latest contained the drafts of a few of his most perfect poems, such as Israfel, the Valley of Unrest, the City in the Sea, and one of the two pieces inscribed To Helen. It was his habit to touch and retouch his work until it grew under his more practiced hand into a shape that satisfied his fastidious taste. Hence the same poem frequently re-appears in different stages of development in successive editions. Poe was a subtle artist in the realm of the weird and the fantastic. In his intellectual nature there was a strange conjunction; an imagination as spiritual as Shelley’s, though, unlike Shelley’s, haunted perpetually with shapes of fear and the imagery of ruin; with this, an analytic power, a scientific exactness, and a mechanical ingenuity more usual in a chemist or a mathematician than in a poet. He studied carefully the mechanism of his verse and experimented endlessly with verbal and musical effects, such as repetition and monotone and the selection of words in which the consonants alliterated and the vowels varied. In his Philosophy of Composition he described how his best-known poem, the Raven, was systematically built up on a preconceived plan in which the number of lines was first determined and the word “nevermore” selected as a starting-point. No one who knows the mood in which poetry is composed will believe that this ingenious piece of dissection really describes the way in which the Raven was conceived and written, or that any such deliberate and self-conscious process could originate the associations from which a true poem springs. But it flattered Poe’s pride of intellect to assert that his cooler reason had control not only over the execution of his poetry, but over the very well-head of thought and emotion. Some of his most successful stories, like the Gold Bug, the Mystery of Marie Roget, the Purloined Letter, and the Murders in the Rue Morgue, were applications of this analytic faculty to the solution of puzzles, such as the finding of buried treasure or of a lost document, or the ferreting out of a mysterious crime. After the publication of the Gold Bug he received from all parts of the country specimens of cipher-writing, which he delighted to work out. Others of his tales were clever pieces of mystification, like Hans Pfaall, the story of a journey to the moon, or experiments at giving verisimilitude to wild improbabilities by the skillful introduction of scientific details, as in the Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar and Von Kempelen’s Discovery. In his narratives of this kind Poe anticipated the detective novels of Gaboriau and Wilkie Collins, the scientific hoaxes of Jules Verne, and, though in a less degree, the artfully worked up likeness to fact in Edward Everett Hale’s Man Without a Country, and similar fictions. While Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge was publishing in parts Poe showed his skill as a plot-hunter by publishing a paper in Graham’s Magazine in which the very tangled intrigue of the novel was correctly raveled and the finale predicted in advance.
In his union of imagination and analytic power Poe resembled Coleridge, who, if any one, was his teacher in poetry and criticism. Poe’s verse often reminds one of Christabel and the Ancient Mariner, still oftener of Kubla Khan. Like Coleridge, too, he indulged at times in the opium habit. But in Poe the artist predominated over every thing else. He began not with sentiment or thought, but with technique, with melody and color, tricks of language, and effects of verse. It is curious to study the growth of his style in his successive volumes of poetry. At first these are metrical experiments and vague images, original, and with a fascinating suggestiveness, but with so little meaning that some of his earlier pieces are hardly removed from nonsense. Gradually, like distant music drawing nearer and nearer, his poetry becomes fuller of imagination and of an inward significance, without ever losing, however, its mysterious aloofness from the real world of the senses. It was a part of Poe’s literary creed—formed upon his own practice and his own limitations, but set forth with a great display of a priori reasoning in his essay on the Poetic Principle and elsewhere—that pleasure and not instruction or moral exhortation was the end of poetry; that beauty and not truth or goodness was its means; and, furthermore, that the pleasure which it gave should be indefinite. About his own poetry there was always this indefiniteness. His imagination dwelt in a strange country of dream—a “ghoul-haunted region of Weir,” “out of space, out of time”—filled with unsubstantial landscapes and peopled by spectral shapes. And yet there is a wonderful, hidden significance in this uncanny scenery. The reader feels that the wild, fantasmal imagery is in itself a kind of language, and that it in some way expresses a brooding thought or passion, the terror and despair of a lost soul. Sometimes there is an obvious allegory, as in the Haunted Palace, which is the parable of a ruined mind, or in the Raven, the most popular of all Poe’s poems, originally published in the American Whig Review for February, 1845. Sometimes the meaning is more obscure, as in Ulalume, which, to most people, is quite incomprehensible, and yet to all readers of poetic feeling is among the most characteristic, and, therefore, the most fascinating, of its author’s creations.
Now and then, as in the beautiful ballad Annabel Lee, and To One in Paradise, the poet emerges into the light of common human feeling and speaks a more intelligible language. But in general his poetry is not the poetry of the heart, and its passion is not the passion of flesh and blood. In Poe the thought of death is always near, and of the shadowy borderland between death and life.
“The play is the tragedy ‘Man,’
And its hero the Conqueror Worm.”
The prose tale, Ligeia, in which these verses are inserted, is one of the most powerful of all Poe’s writings, and its theme is the power of the will to overcome death. In that singularly impressive poem, The Sleeper, the morbid horror which invests the tomb springs from the same source, the materiality of Poe’s imagination, which refuses to let the soul go free from the body.
This quality explains why Poe’s Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, 1840, are on a lower plane than Hawthorne’s romances, to which a few of them, like William Wilson, and The Man of the Crowd, have some resemblance. The former of these, in particular, is in Hawthorne’s peculiar province, the allegory of the conscience. But in general the tragedy in Hawthorne is a spiritual one, while Poe calls in the aid of material forces. The passion of physical fear or of superstitious horror is that which his writings most frequently excite. These tales represent various grades of the frightful and the ghastly, from the mere bugaboo story like the Black Cat, which makes children afraid to go in the dark, up to the breathless terror of the Cask of Amontillado, or the Red Death. Poe’s masterpiece in this kind is the fateful tale of the Fall of the House of Usher, with its solemn and magnificent close. His prose, at its best, often recalls, in its richly imaginative cast, the manner of De Quincey in such passages as his Dream Fugue, or Our Ladies of Sorrow. In descriptive pieces like the Domain of Arnheim, and stories of adventure like the Descent into the Maelstrom, and his long sea-tale, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, 1838, he displayed, a realistic inventiveness almost equal to Swift’s or De Foe’s. He was not without a mocking irony, but he had no constructive humor, and his attempts at the facetious were mostly failures.
Poe’s magical creations were rootless flowers. He took no hold upon the life about him, and cared nothing for the public concerns of his country. His poems and tales might have been written in vacuo for any thing American in them. Perhaps for this reason, in part, his fame has been so cosmopolitan. In France especially his writings have been favorites. Charles Baudelaire, the author of the Fleurs du Mal, translated them into French, and his own impressive but unhealthy poetry shows evidence of Poe’s influence. The defect in Poe was in character—a defect which will make itself felt in art as in life. If he had had the sweet home feeling of Longfellow or the moral fervor of Whittier he might have been a greater poet than either.
“If I could dwell
Hath dwelt, and he where I,
He might not sing so wildly well
A mortal melody,
While a bolder note than this might swell
From my lyre within the sky!”
Though Poe was a Southerner, if not by birth, at least by race and breeding, there was nothing distinctly Southern about his peculiar genius, and in his wandering life he was associated as much with Philadelphia and New York as with Baltimore and Richmond. The conditions which had made the Southern colonies unfruitful in literary and educational works before the Revolution continued to act down to the time of the civil war. Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton-gin in the closing years of the last century gave extension to slavery, making it profitable to cultivate the now staple by enormous gangs of field-hands working under the whip of the overseer in large plantations. Slavery became henceforth a business speculation in the States furthest south, and not, as in Old Virginia and Kentucky, a comparatively mild domestic system. The necessity of defending its peculiar institution against the attacks of a growing faction in the North compelled the South to throw all its intellectual strength into politics, which, for that matter, is the natural occupation and excitement of a social aristocracy. Meanwhile immigration sought the free States, and there was no middle class at the South. The “poor whites” were ignorant and degraded. There were people of education in the cities and on some of the plantations, but there was no great educated class from which a literature could proceed. And the culture of the South, such as it was, was becoming old-fashioned and local, as the section was isolated more and more from the rest of the Union and from the enlightened public opinion of Europe by its reactionary prejudices and its sensitiveness on the subject of slavery. Nothing can be imagined more ridiculously provincial than the sophomorical editorials in the Southern press just before the outbreak of the war, or than the backward and ill-informed articles which passed for reviews in the poorly supported periodicals of the South.
In the general dearth of work of high and permanent value, one or two Southern authors may be mentioned whose writings have at least done something to illustrate the life and scenery of their section. When in 1833 the Baltimore Saturday Visitor offered a prize of a hundred dollars for the best prose tale, one of the committee who awarded the prize to Poe’s first story, the MS. Found in a Bottle, was John P. Kennedy, a Whig gentleman of Baltimore, who afterward became secretary of the navy in Fillmore’s administration. The year before he had published Swallow Barn, a series of agreeable sketches of country life in Virginia. In 1835 and 1838 he published his two novels, Horse-Shoe Robinson and Rob of the Bowl, the former a story of the Revolutionary War in South Carolina, the latter an historical tale of colonial Maryland. These had sufficient success to warrant reprinting as late as 1852. But the most popular and voluminous of all Southern writers of fiction was William Gilmore Simms, a South Carolinian, who died in 1870. He wrote over thirty novels, mostly romances of Revolutionary history, Southern life, and wild adventure, among the best of which were the Partisan, 1835, and the Yemassee. Simms was an inferior Cooper, with a difference. His novels are good boys’ books, but are crude and hasty in composition. He was strongly Southern in his sympathies, though his newspaper, the Charleston City Gazette, took part against the Nullifiers. His miscellaneous writings include several histories and biographies, political tracts, addresses, and critical papers contributed to Southern magazines. He also wrote numerous poems, the most ambitious of which was Atlantis, a Story of the Sea, 1832. His poems have little value except as here and there illustrating local scenery and manners, as in Southern Passages and Pictures, 1839. Mr. John Esten Cooke’s pleasant but not very strong Virginia Comedians was, perhaps, in literary quality the best Southern novel produced before the civil war.
When Poe came to New York the most conspicuous literary figure of the metropolis, with the possible exception of Bryant and Halleck, was N. P. Willis, one of the editors of the Evening Mirror, upon which journal Poe was for a time engaged. Willis had made a literary reputation, when a student at Yale, by his Scripture Poems, written in smooth blank verse. Afterward he had edited the American Monthly in his native city of Boston, and more recently he had published Pencillings by the Way, 1835, a pleasant record of European saunterings; Inklings of Adventure, 1836, a collection of dashing stories and sketches of American and foreign life; and Letters from Under a Bridge, 1839, a series of charming rural letters from his country place at Owego, on the Susquehanna. Willis’s work, always graceful and sparkling, sometimes even brilliant, though light in substance and jaunty in style, had quickly raised him to the summit of popularity. During the years from 1835 to 1850 he was the most successful American magazinist, and even down to the day of his death, in 1867, he retained his hold upon the attention of the fashionable public by his easy paragraphing and correspondence in the Mirror and its successor, the Home Journal, which catered to the literary wants of the beau monde. Much of Willis’s work was ephemeral, though clever of its kind, but a few of his best tales and sketches, such as F. Smith, The Ghost Ball at Congress Hall, Edith Linsey, and the Lunatic’s Skate, together with some of the Letters from Under a Bridge, are worthy of preservation, not only as readable stories, but as society studies of life at American watering-places like Nahant and Saratoga and Ballston Spa half a century ago. A number of his simpler poems, like Unseen Spirits, Spring, To M---- from Abroad, and Lines on Leaving Europe, still retain a deserved place in collections and anthologies.
The senior editor of the Mirror, George P. Morris, was once a very popular song-writer, and his Woodman, Spare that Tree, still survives. Other residents of New York city who have written single famous pieces were Clement C. Moore, a professor in the General Theological Seminary, whose Visit from St. Nicholas--“’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” etc.—is a favorite ballad in every nursery in the land; Charles Fenno Hoffman, a novelist of reputation in his time, but now remembered only as the author of the song Sparkling and Bright, and the patriotic ballad of Monterey; Robert H. Messinger, a native of Boston, but long resident in New York, where he was a familiar figure in fashionable society, who wrote Give Me the Old, a fine ode with a choice Horatian flavor; and William Allen Butler, a lawyer and occasional writer, whose capital satire of Nothing to Wear was published anonymously and had a great run. Of younger poets, like Stoddard and Aldrich, who formerly wrote for the Mirror and who are still living and working in the maturity of their powers, it is not within the limits and design of this sketch to speak. But one of their contemporaries, Bayard Taylor, who died American minister at Berlin, in 1878, though a Pennsylvanian by birth and rearing, may be reckoned among the “literati of New York.” A farmer lad from Chester County, who had learned the printer’s trade and printed a little volume of his juvenile verses in 1844, he came to New York shortly after with credentials from Dr. Griswold, the editor of Graham’s, and obtaining encouragement and aid from Willis, Horace Greeley, and others, he set out to make the tour of Europe, walking from town to town in Germany and getting employment now and then at his trade to help pay the expenses of the trip. The story of these Wanderjahre he told in his Views Afoot, 1846. This was the first of eleven books of travel written during the course of his life. He was an inveterate nomad, and his journeyings carried him to the remotest regions—to California, India, China, Japan, and the isles of the sea, to Central Africa and the Soudan, Palestine, Egypt, Iceland, and the “by-ways of Europe.” His head-quarters at home were in New York, where he did literary work for the Tribune. He was a rapid and incessant worker, throwing off many volumes of verse and prose, fiction, essays, sketches, translations, and criticisms, mainly contributed in the first instance to the magazines. His versatility was very marked, and his poetry ranged from Rhymes of Travel, 1848, and Poems of the Orient, 1854, to idyls and home ballads of Pennsylvania life, like the Quaker Widow and the Old Pennsylvania Farmer; and on the other side, to ambitious and somewhat mystical poems, like the Masque of the Gods, 1872--written in four days—and dramatic experiments like the Prophet, 1874, and Prince Deukalion, 1878. He was a man of buoyant and eager nature, with a great appetite for new experience, a remarkable memory, a talent for learning languages, and a too great readiness to take the hue of his favorite books. From his facility, his openness to external impressions of scenery and costume and his habit of turning these at once into the service of his pen, it results that there is something “newspapery” and superficial about most of his prose. It is reporter’s work, though reporting of a high order. His poetry too, though full of glow and picturesqueness, is largely imitative, suggesting Tennyson not unfrequently, but more often Shelley. His spirited Bedouin Song, for example, has an echo of Shelley’s Lines to an Indian Air:
“From the desert I come to thee
On a stallion shod with fire;
And the winds are left behind
In the speed of my desire.
Under thy window I stand,
And the midnight hears my cry;
I love thee, I love but thee,
With a love that shall not die.”
The dangerous quickness with which he caught the manner of other poets made him an admirable parodist and translator. His Echo Club, 1876, contains some of the best travesties in the tongue, and his great translation of Goethe’s Faust, 1870-71--with its wonderfully close reproduction of the original meters—is one of the glories of American literature. All in all, Taylor may unhesitatingly be put first among our poets of the second generation—the generation succeeding that of Longfellow and Lowell—although the lack in him of original genius self-determined to a peculiar sphere, or the want of an inward fixity and concentration to resist the rich tumult of outward impressions, has made him less significant in the history of our literary thought than some other writers less generously endowed.
Taylor’s novels had the qualities of his verse. They were profuse, eloquent, and faulty. John Godfrey’s Fortune, 1864, gave a picture of bohemian life in New York. Hannah Thurston, 1863, and the Story of Kennett; 1866, introduced many incidents and persons from the old Quaker life of rural Pennsylvania, as Taylor remembered it in his boyhood. The former was like Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance, a satire on fanatics and reformers, and its heroine is a nobly conceived character, though drawn with some exaggeration. The Story of Kennett, which is largely autobiographic, has a greater freshness and reality than the others, and is full of personal recollections. In these novels, as in his short stories, Taylor’s pictorial skill is greater on the whole than his power of creating characters or inventing plots.
Literature in the West now began to have an existence. Another young poet from Chester County, Pa., namely, Thomas Buchanan Read, went to Cincinnati, and not to New York, to study sculpture and painting, about 1837, and one of his best-known poems, Pons Maximus, was written on the occasion of the opening of the suspension bridge across the Ohio. Read came East, to be sure, in 1841, and spent many years in our sea-board cities and in Italy. He was distinctly a minor poet, but some of his Pennsylvania pastorals, like the Deserted Road, have a natural sweetness; and his luxurious Drifting, which combines the methods of painting and poetry, is justly popular. Sheridan’s Ride--perhaps his most current piece—is a rather forced production, and has been overpraised. The two Ohio sister poets, Alice and Phoebe Cary, were attracted to New York in 1850, as soon as their literary success seemed assured. They made that city their home for the remainder of their lives. Poe praised Alice Cary’s Pictures of Memory, and Phoebe’s Nearer Home has become a favorite hymn. There is nothing peculiarly Western about the verse of the Cary sisters. It is the poetry of sentiment, memory, and domestic affection, entirely feminine, rather tame and diffuse as a whole, but tender and sweet, cherished by many good women and dear to simple hearts.
A stronger smack of the soil is in the Negro melodies like Uncle Ned, O Susanna, Old Folks at Home, ’Way Down South, Nelly was a Lady, My Old Kentucky Home, etc., which were the work, not of any Southern poet, but of Stephen C. Foster, a native of Allegheny, Pa., and a resident of Cincinnati and Pittsburg. He composed the words and music of these, and many others of a similar kind, during the years 1847 to 1861. Taken together they form the most original and vital addition which this country has made to the psalmody of the world, and entitle Foster to the first rank among American song-writers.
As Foster’s plaintive melodies carried the pathos and humor of the plantation all over the land, so Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1852, brought home to millions of readers the sufferings of the Negroes in the “black belt” of the cotton-growing States. This is the most popular novel ever written in America. Hundreds of thousands of copies were sold in this country and in England, and some forty translations were made into foreign tongues. In its dramatized form it still keeps the stage, and the statistics of circulating libraries show that even now it is in greater demand than any other single book. It did more than any other literary agency to rouse the public conscience to a sense of the shame and horror of slavery; more even than Garrison’s Liberator, more than the indignant poems of Whittier and Lowell or the orations of Sumner and Phillips. It presented the thing concretely and dramatically, and in particular it made the odious Fugitive Slave Law forever impossible to enforce. It was useless for the defenders of slavery to protest that the picture was exaggerated, and that planters like Legree were the exception. The system under which such brutalities could happen, and did sometimes happen, was doomed. It is easy now to point out defects of taste and art in this masterpiece, to show that the tone is occasionally melodramatic, that some of the characters are conventional, and that the literary execution is in parts feeble and in others coarse. In spite of all, it remains true that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a great book, the work of genius seizing instinctively upon its opportunity and uttering the thought of the time with a power that thrilled the heart of the nation and of the world. Mrs. Stowe never repeated her first success. Some of her novels of New England life, such as the Minister’s Wooing, 1859, and the Pearl of Orr’s Island, 1862, have a mild kind of interest, and contain truthful portraiture of provincial ways and traits; while later fictions of a domestic type, like Pink and White Tyranny and My Wife and I, are really beneath criticism.
There were other Connecticut writers contemporary with Mrs. Stowe: Mrs. L. H. Sigourney, for example, a Hartford poetess, formerly known as “the Hemans of America,” but now quite obsolete; and J. G. Percival, of New Haven, a shy and eccentric scholar, whose geological work was of value, and whose memory is preserved by one or two of his simpler poems, still in circulation, such as To Seneca Lake and the Coral Grove. Another Hartford poet, Brainard—already spoken of as an early friend of Whittier—died young, leaving a few pieces which show that his lyrical gift was spontaneous and genuine, but had received little cultivation. A much younger writer than either of these, Donald G. Mitchell, of New Haven, has a more lasting place in our literature, by virtue of his charmingly written Reveries of a Bachelor, 1850, and Dream Life, 1852, stories which sketch themselves out in a series of reminiscences and lightly connected scenes, and which always appeal freshly to young men because they have that dreamy outlook upon life which is characteristic of youth. But, upon the whole, the most important contribution made by Connecticut in that generation to the literary stock of America was the Beecher family. Lyman Beecher had been an influential preacher and theologian, and a sturdy defender of orthodoxy against Boston Unitarianism. Of his numerous sons and daughters, all more or less noted for intellectual vigor and independence, the most eminent were Mrs. Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher, the great pulpit orator of Brooklyn. Mr. Beecher was too busy a man to give more than his spare moments to general literature. His sermons, lectures, and addresses were reported for the daily papers and printed in part in book form; but these lose greatly when divorced from the large, warm, and benignant personality of the man. His volumes made up of articles in the Independent and the Ledger, such as Star Papers, 1855, and Eyes and Ears, 1862, contain many delightful morceaux upon country life and similar topics, though they are hardly wrought with sufficient closeness and care to take a permanent place in letters. Like Willis’s Ephemera they are excellent literary journalism, but hardly literature.
We may close our retrospect of American literature before 1861 with a brief notice of one of the most striking literary phenomena of the time—the Leaves of Grass of Walt Whitman, published at Brooklyn in 1855. The author, born at West Hills, Long Island, in 1819, had been printer, school-teacher, editor, and builder. He had scribbled a good deal of poetry of the ordinary kind, which attracted little attention, but finding conventional rhymes and meters too cramping a vehicle for his need of expression, he discarded them for a kind of rhythmic chant, of which the following is a fair specimen:
“Press close, bare-bosom’d night!
Press close, magnetic, nourishing night!
Night of south winds! night of the few large stars!
Still, nodding night! mad, naked, summer night!”
The invention was not altogether a new one. The English translation of the psalms of David and of some of the prophets, the Poems of Ossian, and some of Matthew Arnold’s unrhymed pieces, especially the Strayed Reveller, have an irregular rhythm of this kind, to say nothing of the old Anglo-Saxon poems, like Beowulf, and the Scripture paraphrases attributed to Caedmon. But this species of oratio soluta, carried to the lengths to which Whitman carried it, had an air of novelty which was displeasing to some, while to others, weary of familiar measures and jingling rhymes, it was refreshing in its boldness and freedom. There is no consenting estimate of this poet. Many think that his so-called poems are not poems at all, but simply a bad variety of prose; that there is nothing to him beyond a combination of affectation and indecency; and that the Whitman culte is a passing “fad” of a few literary men, and especially of a number of English critics like Rossetti, Swinburne, Buchanan, etc., who, being determined to have something unmistakably American—that is, different from any thing else—in writings from this side of the water, before they will acknowledge any originality in them, have been misled into discovering in Whitman “the poet of democracy.” Others maintain that he is the greatest of American poets, or, indeed, of all modern poets; that he is “cosmic,” or universal, and that he has put an end forever to puling rhymes and lines chopped up into metrical feet. Whether Whitman’s poetry is formally poetry at all or merely the raw material of poetry, the chaotic and amorphous impression which it makes on readers of conservative tastes results from his effort to take up into his verse elements which poetry has usually left out—the ugly, the earthy, and even the disgusting; the “under side of things,” which he holds not to be prosaic when apprehended with a strong, masculine joy in life and nature seen in all their aspects. The lack of these elements in the conventional poets seems to him and his disciples like leaving out the salt from the ocean, making poetry merely pretty and blinking whole classes of facts. Hence the naturalism and animalism of some of the divisions in Leaves of Grass, particularly that entitled Children of Adam, which gave great offense by its immodesty, or its outspokenness, Whitman holds that nakedness is chaste; that all the functions of the body in healthy exercise are equally clean; that all, in fact, are divine, and that matter is as divine as spirit. The effort to get every thing into his poetry, to speak out his thought just as it comes to him, accounts, too, for his way of cataloguing objects without selection. His single expressions arc often unsurpassed for descriptive beauty and truth. He speaks of “the vitreous pour of the full moon, just tinged with blue,” of the “lisp” of the plane, of the prairies, “where herds of buffalo make a crawling spread of the square miles.” But if there is any eternal distinction between poetry and prose, the most liberal canons of the poetic art will never agree to accept lines like these:
“And [I] remember putting plasters on the galls of his neck and ankles;
He stayed with me a week before he was recuperated, and passed north.”
Whitman is the spokesman of democracy and of the future; full of brotherliness and hope, loving the warm, gregarious pressure of the crowd and the touch of his comrade’s elbow in the ranks. He liked the people—multitudes of people; the swarm of life beheld from a Broadway omnibus or a Brooklyn ferry-boat. The rowdy and the Negro truck-driver were closer to his sympathy than the gentleman and the scholar. “I loaf and invite my soul,” he writes; “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” His poem Walt Whitman, frankly egotistic, simply describes himself as a typical, average man—the same as any other man, and therefore not individual but universal. He has great tenderness and heartiness—“the good gray poet;” and during the civil war he devoted himself unreservedly to the wounded soldiers in the Washington hospitals—an experience which he has related in the Dresser and elsewhere. It is characteristic of his rough and ready comradery to use slang and newspaper English in his poetry, to call himself Walt instead of Walter, and to have his picture taken in a slouch hat and with a flannel shirt open at the throat. His decriers allege that he poses for effect; that he is simply a backward eddy in the tide, and significant only as a temporary reaction against ultra civilization—like Thoreau, though in a different way. But with all his shortcomings in art there is a healthy, virile, tumultuous pulse of life in his lyric utterance and a great sweep of imagination in his panoramic view of times and countries. One likes to read him because he feels so good, enjoys so fully the play of his senses, and has such a lusty confidence in his own immortality and in the prospects of the human race. Stripped of verbiage and repetition, his ideas are not many. His indebtedness to Emerson—who wrote an introduction to the Leaves of Grass--is manifest. He sings of man and not men, and the individual differences of character, sentiment, and passion, the dramatic elements of life, find small place in his system. It is too early to say what will be his final position in literary history. But it is noteworthy that the democratic masses have not accepted him yet as their poet. Whittier and Longfellow, the poets of conscience and feeling, are the darlings of the American people. The admiration, and even the knowledge of Whitman, are mostly esoteric, confined to the literary class. It is also not without significance as to the ultimate reception of his innovations in verse that he has numerous parodists, but no imitators. The tendency among our younger poets is not toward the abandonment of rhyme and meter, but toward the introduction of new stanza forms and an increasing carefulness and finish in the technique of their art. It is observable, too, that in his most inspired passages Whitman reverts to the old forms of verse; to blank verse, for example, in the Man-of-War-Bird:
“Thou who hast slept all night upon the storm,
Waking renewed on thy prodigious pinions,” etc.;
and elsewhere not infrequently to dactylic hexameters and pentameters:
“Earth of shine and dark, mottling the tide of the river! . . .
Far-swooping, elbowed earth! rich, apple-blossomed earth.”
Indeed, Whitman’s most popular poem, My Captain, written after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, differs little in form from ordinary verse, as a stanza of it will show:
“My captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchored safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won.
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck, my captain lies
Fallen, cold and dead.”
This is from Drum Taps, a volume of poems of the civil war. Whitman has also written prose having much the same quality as his poetry: Democratic Vistas, Memoranda of the Civil War, and, more recently, Specimen Days. His residence of late years has been at Camden, New Jersey, where a centennial edition of his writings was published in 1876.
1. William Cullen Bryant. Thanatopsis. To a Water-fowl. Green River. Hymn to the North Star. A Forest Hymn. “O Fairest of the Rural Maids.” June. The Death of the Flowers. The Evening Wind. The Battle-Field. The Planting of the Apple-tree. The Flood of Years.
2. John Greenleaf Whittier. Cassandra Southwick. The New Wife and the Old. The Virginia Slave Mother. Randolph of Roanoke. Barclay of Ury. The Witch of Wenham. Skipper Ireson’s Ride. Marguerite. Maud Muller. Telling the Bees. My Playmate. Barbara Frietchie. Ichabod. Laus Deo. Snow-Bound.
3. Edgar Allan Poe. The Raven. The Bells. Israfel. Ulalume. To Helen. The City in the Sea. Annabel Lee. To One in Paradise. The Sleeper. The Valley of Unrest. The Fall of the House of Usher. Ligeia. William Wilson. The Cask of Amontillado. The Assignation. The Masque of the Red Death. Narrative of A. Gordon Pym.
4. N. P. Willis. Select Prose Writings. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1886.
5. Mrs. H. B. Stowe. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Oldtown Folks.
6. W. G. Simms, The Partisan. The Yemassee.
7. Bayard Taylor. A Bacchic Ode. Hylas. Kubleh. The Soldier and the Pard. Sicilian Wine. Taurus. Serapion. The Metempsychosis of the Pine. The Temptation of Hassan Ben Khaled. Bedouin Song. Euphorion. The Quaker Widow. John Reid. Lars. Views Afoot. By-ways of Europe. The Story of Kennett. The Echo Club.
8. Walt Whitman. My Captain. “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloomed.” Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking. Pioneers, O Pioneers. The Mystic Trumpeter. A Woman at Auction. Sea-shore Memoirs. Passage to India. Mannahatta. The Wound Dresser. Longings for Some.
9. Poets of America. By E. C. Stedman. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1885.
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