[This is taken from William J. Long's Outlines of English and American Literature.]
Behind him lay the gray Azores,
Behind, the gates of Hercules;
Before him not the ghost of shores,
Before him only shoreless seas.
The good mate said, “Now must we pray,
For lo! the very stars are gone:
Brave Admiral, speak; what shall I say?”
“Why say, ‘Sail on! sail on! and on!’”
Joaquin Miller, “Columbus”
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND. It was in the early part of the nineteenth century that America began to be counted among the great nations of the world, and it was precisely at that time that she produced her first national literature, a literature so broadly human that it appealed not only to the whole country but to readers beyond the sea. Irving, Cooper and Bryant are commonly regarded as the first notable New World writers; and we may better understand them and their enthusiastic young contemporaries if we remember that they “grew up with the country”; that they reflected life at a time when America, having won her independence and emerged from a long period of doubt and struggle, was taking her first confident steps in the sun and becoming splendidly conscious of her destiny as a leader among the world’s free people.
Indeed, there was good reason for confidence in those early days; for never had a young nation looked forth upon a more heartening prospect. The primitive hamlets of Colonial days had been replaced by a multitude of substantial towns, the somber wilderness by a prosperous farming country. The power of a thousand rivers was turning the wheels of as many mills or factories, and to the natural wealth of America was added the increase of a mighty commerce with other nations. By the Louisiana Purchase and the acquisition of Florida her territory was vastly increased, and still her sturdy pioneers were pressing eagerly into more spacious lands beyond the Mississippi. Best of all, this enlarging nation, once a number of scattered colonies holding each to its own course, was now the Union; her people were as one in their patriotism, their loyalty, their intense conviction that the brave New World experiment in free government, once scoffed at as an idle dream, was destined to a glorious future. American democracy was not merely a success; it was an amazing triumph. Moreover, this democracy, supposed to be the weakest form of government, had already proved its power; it had sent its navy abroad to humble the insolent Barbary States, and had measured the temper of its soul and the strength of its arm in the second war with Great Britain.
In fine, the New World had brought forth a hopeful young giant of a nation; and its hopefulness was reflected, with more of zeal than of art, in the prose and poetry of its literary men. Just as the enthusiastic Elizabethan spirit reflected itself in lyric or drama after the defeat of the Armada, so the American spirit seemed to exult in the romances of Cooper and Simms; in the verse of Pinckney, Halleck, Drake and Percival; in a multitude of national songs, such as “The American Flag,” Warren’s Address, “Home Sweet Home” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” We would not venture to liken one set of writings to the other, for we should be on the weak side of an Elizabethan comparison; we simply note that a great national enthusiasm was largely responsible for the sudden appearance of a new literature in the one land as in the other.
LITERARY ENVIRONMENT. In the works of four writers, Irving, Cooper, Bryant and Poe, we have the best that the early national period produced; but we shall not appreciate these writers until we see them, like pines in a wood, lifting their heads over numerous companions, all drawing their nourishment from the same soil and air. The growth of towns and cities in America had led to a rapid increase of newspapers, magazines and annuals (collections of contemporary prose and verse), which called with increasing emphasis for poems, stories, essays, light or “polite” literature. The rapid growth of the nation set men to singing the old psalm of Sursum Corda, and every man and woman who felt the impulse added his story or his verse to the national chorus. When the first attempt at a summary of American literature was made in 1837, the author, Royal Robbins, found more than two thousand living writers demanding his attention.
It was due, one must think, to geography rather than to any spirit of sectionalism, to difficulty of travel between the larger towns rather than to any difference of aim or motive, that the writers of this period associated themselves in a number of so-called schools or literary centers. New York, which now offered a better field for literary work than Boston or Philadelphia, had its important group of writers called the Knickerbocker School, which included Fitz-Greene Halleck and Joseph Rodman Drake, both poets and cheerful satirists of New World society; the versatile Nathaniel Parker Willis, writer of twenty volumes of poems, essays, stories and sketches of travel; and James Kirke Paulding, also a voluminous writer, who worked with Irving in the Salmagundi essays and whose historical novels, such as The Dutchman’s Fireside (1831), are still mildly interesting.
In the South was another group of young writers, quite as able and enthusiastic as their northern contemporaries. Among these we note especially William Gilmore Simms (1806-1870), whose Yemassee, Border Beagles, Katherine Walton and many other historical romances of Colonial and Revolutionary days were of more than passing interest. He was a high-minded and most industrious writer, who produced over forty volumes of poems, essays, biographies, histories and tales; but he is now remembered chiefly by his novels, which won him the title of “the Cooper of the South.” At least one of his historical romances should be read, partly for its own sake and partly for a comparison with Cooper’s work in the same field. Thus The Yemassee (1835), dealing with frontier life and Indian warfare, may be read in connection with Cooper’s The Deerslayer (1841), which has the same general theme; or The Partisan (1835), dealing with the bitter struggle of southern Whigs and Tories during the Revolution, may well be compared with Cooper’s The Spy (1821), which depicts the same struggle in a northern environment.
Other notable writers of the South during this period were Richard Henry Wilde the poet, now remembered by the song (from an unfinished opera) beginning, “My life is like the summer rose”; William Wirt, the essayist and biographer; and John Pendleton Kennedy, writer of essays and stories which contain many charming pictures of social life in Virginia and Maryland in the days “before the war.”
In New England was still another group, who fortunately avoided the name of any school. Sparks, Prescott, Ticknor, Story, Dana,--the very names indicate how true was Boston to her old scholarly traditions. Meanwhile Connecticut had its popular poet in James Gates Percival; Maine had its versatile John Neal; and all the northern states were reading the “goody goody” books of Peter Parley (Samuel Goodrich), the somewhat Byronic Zophiel and other emotional poems of Maria Gowen Brooks (whom Southey called “Maria del Occidente”), and the historical romances of Catherine Sedgwick and Sarah Morton.
The West also (everything beyond the Alleghenies was then the West) made its voice heard in the new literature. Timothy Flint wrote a very interesting Journal from his missionary experiences, and a highly colored romance from his expansive imagination; and James Hall drew some vigorous and sympathetic pictures of frontier life in Letters from the West, Tales of the Border and Wilderness and Warpath.
There are many other writers who won recognition before 1840, but those we have named are more than enough; for each name is an invitation, and invitations when numerous are simply bothersome. For example, the name of Catherine Sedgwick invites us to read Hope Leslie and The Linwoods, both excellent in their day, and still interesting as examples of the novels that won fame less than a century ago; or the name of Kennedy leads us to Swallow Barn (alluring title!) with its bright pictures of Virginia life, and to Horseshoe Robinson, a crude but stirring tale of Revolutionary heroism. The point in naming these minor writers, once as popular as any present-day favorite, is simply this: that the major authors, whom we ordinarily study as typical of the age, were not isolated figures but part of a great romantic movement in literature; that they were influenced on the one hand by European letters, and on the other by a host of native writers who were all intent on reflecting the expanding life of America in the early part of the nineteenth century.
* * * * *
WASHINGTON IRVING (1783-1859)
A very pleasant writer is Irving, a man of romantic and somewhat sentimental disposition, but sound of motive, careful of workmanship, invincibly cheerful of spirit. The genial quality of his work may be due to the fact that from joyous boyhood to serene old age he did very much as he pleased, that he lived in what seemed to him an excellent world and wrote with no other purpose than to make it happy. In summarizing his career an admirer of Irving is reminded of what the Book of Proverbs says of wisdom:
“Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.”
The historian sees another side of Irving’s work. Should it be asked, “What did he do that had not been as well or better done before him?” the first answer is that the importance of any man’s work must be measured by the age in which he did it. A schoolboy now knows more about electricity than ever Franklin learned; but that does not detract from our wonder at Franklin’s kite. So the work of Irving seems impressive when viewed against the gray literary dawn of a century ago. At that time America had done a mighty work for the world politically, but had added little of value to the world’s literature. She read and treasured the best books; but she made no contribution to their number, and her literary impotence galled her sensitive spirit. As if to make up for her failure, the writers of the Knickerbocker, Charleston and other “schools” praised each other’s work extravagantly; but no responsive echo came from overseas, where England’s terse criticism of our literary effort was expressed in the scornful question, “Who reads an American book?”
Irving answered that question effectively when his Sketch Book, Bracebridge Hall and Tales of a Traveller found a multitude of delighted readers on both sides of the Atlantic. His graceful style was hardly rivaled by any other writer of the period; and England, at a time when Scott and Byron were playing heroic parts, welcomed him heartily to a place on the literary stage. Thus he united the English and the American reader in a common interest and, as it were, charmed away the sneer from one face, the resentment from the other. He has been called “father of our American letters” for two reasons: because he was the first to win a lasting literary reputation at home and abroad, and because of the formative influence which his graceful style and artistic purpose have ever since exerted upon our prose writers.
LIFE. Two personal characteristics appear constantly in Irving’s work: the first, that he was always a dreamer, a romance seeker; the second, that he was inclined to close his eyes to the heroic present and open them wide to the glories, real or imaginary, of the remote past. Though he lived in an American city in a day of mighty changes and discoveries, he was far less interested in the modern New York than in the ancient New Amsterdam; and though he was in Europe at the time of the Napoleonic wars, he apparently saw nothing of them, being then wholly absorbed in the battles of the long-vanished Moors. Only once, in his books of western exploration, did he seriously touch the vigorous life of his own times; and critics regard these books as the least important of all his works.
He was born in New York (1783) when the present colossal city was a provincial town that retained many of its quaint Dutch characteristics. Over all the straggling town, from the sunny Battery with its white-winged ships to the Harlem woods where was good squirrel shooting, Irving rambled at ease on many a day when the neighbors said he ought to have been at his books. He was the youngest of the family; his constitution was not rugged, and his gentle mother was indulgent. She would smile when he told of reading a smuggled copy of the Arabian Nights in school, instead of his geography; she was silent when he slipped away from family prayers to climb out of his bedroom window and go to the theater, while his sterner father thought of him as sound asleep in his bed.
Little harm came from these escapades, for Irving was a merry lad with no meanness in him; but his schooling was sadly neglected. His brothers had graduated from Columbia; but on the plea of delicate health he abandoned the idea of college, with a sigh in which there was perhaps as much satisfaction as regret. At sixteen he entered a law office, where he gave less time to studying Blackstone than to reading novels and writing skits for the newspapers.
This happy indifference to work and learning, this disposition to linger on the sunny side of the street, went with Irving through life. Experimentally he joined his brothers, who were in the hardware trade; but when he seemed to be in danger of consumption they sent him to Europe, where he enjoyed himself greatly, and whence he returned perfectly well. Next he was sent on business to England; and there, when the Irving Brothers failed, their business having been ruined by the War of 1812, Irving manfully resolved to be no longer a burden on others and turned to literature for his support. With characteristic love of doing what he liked he refused a good editorial position (which Walter Scott obtained for him) and busied himself with his Sketch Book (1820). This met with a generous welcome in England and America, and it was followed by the equally popular Bracebridge Hall and Tales of a Traveller. By these three works Irving was assured not only of literary fame but, what was to him of more consequence, of his ability to earn his living.
Next we find him in Spain, whither he went with the purpose of translating Navarrete’s Voyages of Columbus, a Spanish book, in which he saw a chance of profit from his countrymen’s interest in the man who discovered America. Instead of translating another man’s work, however, he wrote his own Life and Times of Columbus (1828). The financial success of this book (which is still our most popular biography of the great explorer) enabled Irving to live comfortably in Spain, where he read diligently and accumulated the material for his later works on Spanish history.
By this time Irving’s growing literary fame had attracted the notice of American politicians, who rewarded him with an appointment as secretary of the legation at London. This pleasant office he held for two years, but was less interested in it than in the reception which English men of letters generously offered him. Then he apparently grew homesick, after an absence of seventeen years, and returned to his native land, where he was received with the honor due to a man who had silenced the galling question, “Who reads an American book?”
The rest of Irving’s long life was a continued triumph. Amazed at first, and then a little stunned by the growth, the hurry, the onward surge of his country, he settled back into the restful past, and was heard with the more pleasure by his countrymen because he seemed to speak to them from a vanished age. Once, inspired by the tide of life weeping into the West, he journeyed beyond the Mississippi and found material for his pioneering books; but an active life was far from his taste, and presently he built his house “Sunnyside” (appropriate name) at Tarrytown on the Hudson. There he spent the remainder of his days, with the exception of four years in which he served the nation as ambassador to Spain. This honor, urged upon him by Webster and President Tyler, was accepted with characteristic modesty not as a personal reward but as a tribute which America had been wont to offer to the profession of letters.
CHIEF WORKS OF IRVING. A good way to form a general impression of Irving’s works is to arrange them chronologically in five main groups. The first, consisting of the Salmagundi essays, the Knickerbocker History and a few other trifles, we may call the Oldstyle group, after the pseudonym assumed by the author. [Footnote: Ever since Revolutionary days it had been the fashion for young American writers to use an assumed name. Irving appeared at different times as “Jonathan Oldstyle,” “Diedrich Knickerbocker” and “Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.”] The second or Sketch-Book group includes the Sketch Book, Bracebridge Hall and Tales of a Traveller. The third or Alhambra group, devoted to Spanish and Moorish themes, includes The Conquest of Granada, Spanish Voyages of Discovery, The Alhambra and certain similar works of a later period, such as Moorish Chronicles and Legends of the Conquest of Spain. The fourth or Western group contains A Tour on the Prairies, Astoria and Adventures of Captain Bonneville. The fifth or Sunnyside group is made up chiefly of biographies, Oliver Goldsmith, Mahomet and his Successors and The Life of Washington. Besides these are some essays and stories assembled under the titles of Spanish Papers and Wolfert’s Roost.
The Salmagundi papers and others of the Oldstyle group would have been forgotten long ago if anybody else had written them. In other words, our interest in them is due not to their intrinsic value (for they are all “small potatoes”) but to the fact that their author became a famous literary man. Most candid readers would probably apply this criticism also to the Knickerbocker History, had not that grotesque joke won an undeserved reputation as a work of humor.
The story of the Knickerbocker fabrication illustrates the happy-go-lucky method of all Irving’s earlier work. He had tired of his Salmagundi fooling and was looking for variety when his eyes lighted on Dr. Mitchill’s Picture of New York, a grandiloquent work written by a prominent member of the Historical Society. In a light-headed moment Irving and his brother Peter resolved to burlesque this history and, in the approved fashion of that day, to begin with the foundation of the world. Then Peter went to Europe on more important business, and Irving went on with his joke alone. He professed to have discovered the notes of a learned Dutch antiquarian who had recently disappeared, leaving a mass of manuscript and an unpaid board-bill behind him. After advertising in the newspapers for the missing man, Irving served notice on the public that the profound value of Knickerbocker’s papers justified their publication, and that the proceeds of the book would be devoted to paying the board-bill. Then appeared, in time to satisfy the aroused curiosity of the Historical Society, to whom the book was solemnly dedicated, the History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker (1809).
This literary hoax made an instant sensation; it was denounced for its scandalous irreverence by the members of the Historical Society, especially by those who had Dutch ancestors, but was received with roars of laughter by the rest of the population. Those who read it now (from curiosity, for its merriment has long since departed, leaving it dull as any thrice-repeated joke) are advised to skip the first two books, which are very tedious fooling, and to be content with an abridged version of the stories of Wouter van Twiller, William the Testy and Peter the Headstrong. These are the names of real Dutch governors of New Amsterdam, and the dates given are exact dates; but there history ends and burlesque begins. The combination of fact and nonsense and the strain of gravity in which absurdities are related have led some critics to place the Knickerbocker History first in time of the notable works of so-called American humor. That is doubtless a fair classification; but other critics assert that real humor is as purely human as a smile or a tear, and has therefore no national or racial limitations.
The Sketch Book, chief of the second group of writings, is perhaps the best single work that Irving produced. We shall read it with better understanding if we remember that it was the work of a young man who, having always done as he pleased, proceeds now to write of whatever pleasant matter is close at hand. Being in England at the time, he naturally finds most of his material there; and being youthful, romantic and sentimental, he colors everything with the hue of his own disposition. He begins by chatting of the journey and of the wide sea that separates him from home. He records his impressions of the beautiful English country, tells what he saw or felt during his visit to Stratford on Avon, and what he dreamed in Westminster Abbey, a place hallowed by centuries of worship and humanized by the presence of the great dead. He sheds a ready tear over a rural funeral, and tries to make us cry over the sorrows of a poor widow; then to relieve our feelings he pokes a bit of fun at John Bull. Something calls his attention to Isaac Walton, and he writes a Waltonian kind of sketch about a fisherman. In one chapter he comments on contemporary literature; then, as if not quite satisfied with what authors are doing, he lays aside his record of present impressions, goes back in thought to his home by the Hudson, and produces two stories of such humor, charm and originality that they make the rest of the book appear almost commonplace, as the careless sketches of a painter are forgotten in presence of his inspired masterpiece.
These two stories, the most pleasing that Irving ever wrote, are “Rip van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” They should be read if one reads nothing else of the author’s twenty volumes.
The works on Spanish themes appeal in different ways to different readers. One who knows his history will complain (and justly) that Irving is superficial, that he is concerned with picturesque rather than with important incidents; but one who likes the romance of history, and who reflects that romance plays an important part in the life of any people, will find the legends and chronicles of this Spanish group as interesting as fiction. We should remember, moreover, that in Irving’s day the romance of old Spain, familiar enough to European readers, was to most Americans still fresh and wondrous. In emphasizing the romantic or picturesque side of his subject he not only pleased his readers but broadened their horizon; he also influenced a whole generation of historians who, in contrast with the scientific or prosaic historians of to-day, did not hesitate to add the element of human interest to their narratives.
The most widely read of all the works of the Spanish group is The Alhambra (1832). This is, on the surface, a collection of semihistorical essays and tales clustering around the ancient palace, in Granada, which was the last stronghold of the Moors in Europe; in reality it is a record of the impressions and dreams of a man who, finding himself on historic ground, gives free rein to his imagination. At times, indeed, he seems to have his eye on his American readers, who were then in a romantic mood, rather than on the place or people he was describing. The book delighted its first critics, who called it “the Spanish Sketch Book”; but though pleasant enough as a romantic dream of history, it hardly compares in originality with its famous predecessor.
Except to those who like a brave tale of exploration, and who happily have no academic interest in style, Irving’s western books are of little consequence. In fact, they are often omitted from the list of his important works, though they have more adventurous interest than all the others combined. A Tour on the Prairies, which records a journey beyond the Mississippi in the days when buffalo were the explorers’ mainstay, is the best written of the pioneer books; but the Adventures of Captain Bonneville, a story of wandering up and down the great West with plenty of adventures among Indians and “free trappers,” furnishes the most excitement. Unfortunately this journal, which vies in interest with Parkman’s Oregon Trail, cannot be credited to Irving, though it bears his name on the title-page.
Of the three biographies Oliver Goldsmith (1849) is the best, probably because Irving had more sympathy and affinity with the author of “The Deserted Village” than with Mahomet or Washington. The Life of Washington (1855-1859) was plainly too large an undertaking for Irving’s limited powers; but here again we must judge the work by the standards of its own age and admit that it is vastly better than the popular but fictitious biographies of Washington written by Weems and other romancers. Even in Irving’s day Washington was still regarded as a demigod; his name was always printed in capitals; and the rash novelist who dared to bring him into a story (as Cooper did in The Spy) was denounced for his lack of reverence. In consequence of this false attitude practically all Washington’s biographers (with the exception of the judicious Marshall) depicted him as a ponderously dignified creature, stilted, unlovely, unhuman, who must always appear with a halo around his head. Irving was too much influenced by this absurd fashion and by his lack of scholarship to make a trustworthy book; but he gave at least a touch of naturalness and humanity to our first president, and set a new biographical standard by attempting to write as an honest historian rather than as a mere hero-worshiper.
AN APPRECIATION OF IRVING. The three volumes of the Sketch-Book group and the romantic Alhambra furnish an excellent measure of Irving’s literary talent. At first glance these books appear rather superficial, dealing with pleasant matters of no consequence; but on second thought pleasant matters are always of consequence, and Irving invariably displays two qualities, humor and sentiment, in which humanity is forever interested. His humor, at first crude and sometimes in doubtful taste (as in his Knickerbocker History) grew more refined, more winning in his later works, until a thoughtful critic might welcome it, with its kindness, its culture, its smile in which is no cynicism and no bitterness, as a true example of “American” humor,--if indeed such a specialized product ever existed. His sentiment was for the most part tender, sincere and manly. Though it now seems somewhat exaggerated and at times dangerously near to sentimentality, that may not be altogether a fault; for the same criticism applies to Longfellow, Dickens and, indeed, to most other writers who have won an immense audience by frankly emphasizing, or even exaggerating, the honest sentiments that plain men and women have always cherished both in life and in literature.
The style of Irving, with its suggestion of Goldsmith and Addison (who were his first masters), is deserving of more unstinted praise. A “charming” style we call it; and the word, though indefinite, is expressive of the satisfaction which Irving’s manner affords his readers. One who seeks the source of his charm may find it in this, that he cherished a high opinion of humanity, and that the friendliness, the sense of comradeship, which he felt for his fellow men was reflected in his writing; unconsciously at first, perhaps, and then deliberately, by practice and cultivation. In consequence, we do not read Irving critically but sympathetically; for readers are like children, or animals, in that they are instinctively drawn to an author who trusts and understands them.
Thackeray, who gave cordial welcome to Irving, and who called him “the first ambassador whom the New World of letters sent to the Old,” was deeply impressed by the fact not that the young American had an excellent prose style but that “his gate was forever swinging to visitors.” That is an illuminating criticism; for we can understand the feeling of the men and women of a century ago who, having read the Sketch Book, were eager to meet the man who had given them pleasure by writing it. In brief, though Irving wrote nothing of great import, though he entered not into the stress of life or scaled its heights or sounded its deeps, we still read him for the sufficient but uncritical reason that we like him.
In this respect, of winning our personal allegiance, Irving stands in marked contrast to his greatest American contemporary, Cooper. We read the one because we are attracted to the man, the other for the tale he has to tell.
* * * * *
WILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT (1794-1878)
Bryant has been called “the father of American song,” and the year 1821, when his first volume appeared, is recorded as the natal year of American poetry. Many earlier singers had won local reputations, but he was the first who was honored in all the states and who attained by his poetry alone a dominating place in American letters.
That was long ago; and times have changed, and poets with them. In any collection of recent American verse one may find poems more imaginative or more finely wrought than any that Bryant produced; but these later singers stand in a company and contribute to an already large collection, while Bryant stood alone and made a brave beginning of poetry that we may honestly call native and national. Before he won recognition by his independent work the best that our American singers thought they could do was to copy some English original; but after 1821 they dared to be themselves in poetry, as they had ever been in politics. They had the successful Bryant for a model, and the young Longfellow was one of his pupils. Moreover, he stands the hard test of time, and seems to have no successor. He is still our Puritan poet,--a little severe, perhaps, but American to the core,--who reflects better than any other the rugged spirit of that puritanism which had so profoundly influenced our country during the early, formative days of the republic.
LIFE. In the boyhood of Bryant we shall find the inspiration for all his enduring work. He was of Pilgrim stock, and was born (1794) in the little village of Cummington, in western Massachusetts. There, with the Berkshire Hills and the ancient forest forever in sight, he grew to man’s stature, working on the farm or attending the district school by day, and reading before the open fire at night. His father was a physician, a scholarly man who directed his son’s reading. His mother was a Puritan, one of those quiet, inspiring women who do their work cheerfully, as by God’s grace, and who invariably add some sign or patent of nobility to their sons and daughters. There was also in the home a Puritan grandfather who led the family devotions every evening, and whose prayers with their rich phraseology of psalm or prophecy were “poems from beginning to end.” So said Bryant, who attributed to these prayers his earliest impulse to write poetry.
Between these two influences, nature without and puritanism within, the poet grew up; in their shadow he lived and died; little else of consequence is reflected in the poems that are his best memorial.
The visible life of Bryant lies almost entirely outside the realm of poesie. He as fitted for Williams by country ministers, as was customary in that day; but poverty compelled him to leave college after two brief terms. Then he studied law, and for nine or ten years practiced his profession doggedly, unwillingly, with many a protest at the chicanery he was forced to witness even in the sacred courts of justice. Grown weary of it at last, he went to New York, found work in a newspaper office, and after a few years’ apprenticeship became editor of The Evening Post, a position which he held for more than half a century. His worldly affairs prospered; he became a “leading citizen” of New York, prominent in the social and literary affairs of a great city; he varied the routine of editorship by trips abroad, by literary or patriotic addresses, by cultivating a country estate at Long Island. In his later years, as a literary celebrity, he loaned his name rather too freely to popular histories, anthologies and gift books, which better serve their catchpenny purpose if some famous man can be induced to add “tone” to the rubbish.
And Bryant’s poetry? Ah, that was a thing forever apart from his daily life, an almost sacred thing, to be cherished in moments when, his day’s work done, he was free to follow his spirit and give outlet to the feelings which, as a strong man and a Puritan, he was wont to restrain. He had begun to write poetry in childhood, when his father had taught him the value of brevity or compression and “the difference between poetic enthusiasm and fustian.” Therefore he wrote slowly, carefully, and allowed ample time for change of thought or diction. So his early “Thanatopsis” was hidden away for years till his father found and published it, and made Bryant famous in a day. All this at a time when English critics were exalting “sudden inspiration,” “sustained effort” and poems “done at one sitting.”
Once Bryant had found himself (and the blank verse and simple four-line stanza which suited his talent) he seldom changed, and he never improved. His first little volume, Poems (1821), contains some of his best work. In the next fifty years he added to the size but not to the quality of that volume; and there is little to indicate in such poems as “Thanatopsis” and “The Flood of Years” that the one was written by a boy of seventeen and the other by a sage of eighty. His love of poetry as a thing apart from life is indicated by the fact that in old age, to forget the grief occasioned by the death of his wife, he gave the greater part of six years to a metrical translation of the Greek poet Homer. That he never became a great poet or even fulfilled his early promise is due partly to his natural limitations, no doubt, but more largely to the fact that he gave his time and strength to other things. And a poet is like other men in that he cannot well serve two masters.
THE POETRY OF BRYANT. Besides the translation of the Iliad and the Odyssey there are several volumes of prose to Bryant’s credit, but his fame now rests wholly on a single book of original poems. The best of these (the result of fifty years of writing, which could easily be printed on fifty pages) may be grouped in two main classes, poems of death and poems of nature; outside of which are a few miscellaneous pieces, such as “The Antiquity of Freedom,” “Planting of the Apple Tree” and “The Poet,” in which he departs a little from his favorite themes.
Bryant’s poems on death reflect something of his Puritan training and of his personal experience while threatened with consumption; they are also indicative of the poetic fashion of his age, which was abnormally given to funereal subjects and greatly influenced by such melancholy poems as Gray’s “Elegy” and Young’s “Night Thoughts.” He began his career with “Thanatopsis” (or “View of Death”), a boyhood piece which astonished America when it was published in 1817, and which has ever since been a favorite with readers. The idea of the poem, that the earth is a vast sepulcher of human life, was borrowed from other poets; but the stately blank verse and the noble appreciation of nature are Bryant’s own. They mark, moreover, a new era in American poetry, an original era to replace the long imitative period which had endured since Colonial times. Other and perhaps better poems in the same group are “The Death of the Flowers,” “The Return of Youth” and “Tree Burial,” in which Bryant goes beyond the pagan view of death presented in his first work.
That death had a strange fascination for Bryant is evident from his returning again and again to a subject which most young poets avoid. Its somber shadow and unanswered question intrude upon nearly all of his nature pieces; so much so that even his “June” portrays that blithe, inspiring month of sunshine and bird song as an excellent time to die. It is from such poems that one gets the curious idea that Bryant never was a boy, that he was a graybeard at sixteen and never grew any younger.
It is in his poems of nature that Bryant is at his best. Even here he is never youthful, never the happy singer whose heart overflows to the call of the winds; he is rather the priest of nature, who offers a prayer or hymn of praise at her altar. And it may be that his noble “Forest Hymn” is nearer to a true expression of human feeling, certainly of primitive or elemental feeling, than Shelley’s “Skylark” or Burns’s “Mountain Daisy.” Thoreau in one of his critical epigrams declared it was not important that a poet should say any particular thing, but that he should speak in harmony with nature; that “the tone of his voice is the main thing.” If that be true, Bryant is one of our best poets. He is always in harmony with nature in her prevailing quiet mood; his voice is invariably gentle, subdued, merging into the murmur of trees or the flow of water,--much like Indian voices, but as unlike as possible to the voices of those who go to nature for a picnic or a camping excursion.
Among the best of his nature poems are “To a Waterfowl” (his most perfect single work), “Forest Hymn,” “Hymn to the Sea,” “Summer Wind,” “Night Journey of a River,” “Autumn Woods,” “To a Fringed Gentian,” “Among the Trees,” “The Fountain” and “A Rain Dream.” To read such poems is to understand the fact, mentioned in our biography, that Bryant’s poetry was a thing apart from his daily life. His friends all speak of him as a companionable man, receptive, responsive, abounding in cheerful anecdote, and with a certain “overflowing of strength” in mirth or kindly humor; but one finds absolutely nothing of this genial temper in his verse. There he seems to regard all such bubblings and overflowings as unseemly levity (lo! the Puritan), which he must lay aside in poetry as on entering a church. He is, as we have said, the priest of nature, in whom reverence is uppermost; and he who reads aloud the “Forest Hymn,” with its solemn organ tone, has an impression that it must be followed by the sublime invitation, “O come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker.”
Though Bryant is always serious, it is worthy of note that he is never gloomy, that he entirely escapes the pessimism or despair which seizes upon most poets in times of trouble. Moreover, he has a lighter mood, not gay but serenely happy, which finds expression in such poems as “Evening Wind,” “Gladness of Nature” and especially “Robert of Lincoln.” The exuberance of the last-named, so unlike anything else in Bryant’s book of verse, may be explained on the assumption that not even a Puritan could pull a long face in presence of a bobolink. The intense Americanism of the poet appears in nearly all his verse; and occasionally his patriotism rises to a prophetic strain, as in “The Prairie,” for example, written when he first saw what was then called “the great American desert.” It is said that the honeybee crossed the Mississippi with the first settlers, and Bryant looks with kindled imagination on this little pioneer who
Fills the savannas with his murmurings,
And hides his sweets, as in the golden age,
Within the hollow oak. I listen long
To his domestic hum, and think I hear
The sound of that advancing multitude
Which soon shall fill these deserts. From the ground
Comes up the laugh of children, the soft voice
Of maidens, and the sweet and solemn hymn
Of Sabbath worshippers. The low of herds
Blends with the rustling of the heavy grain
Over the dark brown furrows. All at once
A fresher wind sweeps by, and breaks my dream,
And I am in the wilderness alone.
OUR PIONEER POET. From one point of view our first national poet is a summary of all preceding American verse and a prophecy of better things to come. To be specific, practically all our early poetry shows the inclination to moralize, to sing a song and then add a lesson to it. This is commonly attributed to Puritan influence; but in truth it is a universal poetic impulse, a tribute to the early office of the bard, who was the tribal historian and teacher as well as singer. This ancient didactic or moralizing tendency is very strong in Bryant. To his first notable poem, “Thanatopsis,” he must add a final “So live”; and to his “Waterfowl” must be appended a verse which tells what steadfast lesson may be learned from the mutable phenomena of nature.
Again, most of our Colonial and Revolutionary poetry was strongly (or weakly) imitative, and Bryant shows the habit of his American predecessors. The spiritual conception of nature revealed in some of his early poems is a New World echo of Wordsworth; his somber poems of death indicate that he was familiar with Gray and Young; his “Evening Wind” has some suggestion of Shelley; we suspect the influence of Scott’s narrative poems in the neglected “Stella” and “Little People of the Snow.” But though influenced by English writers, the author of “Thanatopsis” was too independent to imitate them; and in his independence, with the hearty welcome which it received from the American public, we have a prophecy of the new poetry.
The originality and sturdy independence of Bryant are clearly shown in his choice of subjects. In his early days poetry was formal and artificial, after the manner of the eighteenth century; the romantic movement had hardly gained recognition in England; Burns was known only to his own countrymen; Wordsworth was ridiculed or barely tolerated by the critics; and poets on both sides of the Atlantic were still writing of larks and nightingales, of moonlight in the vale, of love in a rose-covered cottage, of ivy-mantled towers, weeping willows, neglected graves,--a medley of tears and sentimentality. You will find all these and little else in The Garland, The Token and many other popular collections of the period; but you will find none of them in Bryant’s first or last volume. From the beginning he wrote of Death and Nature; somewhat coldly, to be sure, but with manly sincerity. Then he wrote of Freedom, the watchword of America, not as other singers had written of it but as a Puritan who had learned in bitter conflict the price of his heritage:
O Freedom! thou art not, as poets dream, A fair young girl, with light and delicate limbs, And wavy tresses gushing from the cap With which the Roman master crowned his slave When he took off the gyves. A bearded man, Armed to the teeth, art thou; one mailéd hand Grasps the broad shield, and one the sword; thy brow, Glorious in beauty though it be, is scarred With tokens of old wars; thy massive limbs Are strong with struggling.
He wrote without affectation of the Past, of Winter, of the North Star, of the Crowded Street, of the Yellow Violet and the Fringed Gentian. If the last-named poems now appear too simple for our poetic taste, remember that simplicity is the hardest to acquire of all literary virtues, and that it was the dominant quality of Bryant. Remember also that these modest flowers of which he wrote so modestly had for two hundred years brightened our spring woods and autumn meadows, waiting patiently for the poet who should speak our appreciation of their beauty. Another century has gone, and no other American poet has spoken so simply or so well of other neglected treasures: of the twin flower, for example, most fragrant of all blooms; or of that other welcome-nodding blossom, beloved of bumblebees, which some call “wild columbine” and others “whippoorwill’s shoes.”
In a word, Bryant was and is our pioneer poet in the realm of native American poetry. As Emerson said, he was our first original poet, and was original because he dared to be sincere.
* * * * *
JAMES FENIMORE COOPER (1789-1851)
In point of time Cooper is the first notable American novelist. Judging by the booksellers, no other has yet approached him in the sustained interest of his work or the number of his readers.
On first analysis we shall find little in Cooper to account for his abiding popularity. The man himself was not exactly lovable; indeed, he had almost a genius for stirring up antagonism. As a writer he began without study or literary training, and was stilted or slovenly in most of his work. He was prone to moralize in the midst of an exciting narrative; he filled countless pages with “wooden” dialogue; he could not portray a child or a woman or a gentleman, though he was confident that he had often done so to perfection. He did not even know Indians or woodcraft, though Indians and woodcraft account for a large part of our interest in his forest romances.
One may enjoy a good story, however, without knowing or caring for its author’s peculiarities, and the vast majority of readers are happily not critical but receptive. Hence if we separate the man from the author, and if we read The Red Rover or The Last of the Mohicans “just for the story,” we shall discover the source of Cooper’s power as a writer. First of all, he has a tale to tell, an epic tale of heroism and manly virtue. Then he appeals strongly to the pioneer spirit, which survives in all great nations, and he is a master at portraying wild nature as the background of human life. The vigor of elemental manhood, the call of adventure, the lure of primeval forests, the surge and mystery of the sea,--these are written large in Cooper’s best books. They make us forget his faults of temper or of style, and they account in large measure for his popularity with young readers of all nations; for he is one of the few American writers who belong not to any country but to humanity. At present he is read chiefly by boys; but half a century or more ago he had more readers of all classes and climes than any other writer in the world.
LIFE. The youthful experiences of Cooper furnished him with the material for his best romances. He was born (1789) in New Jersey; but while he was yet a child the family removed to central New York, where his father had acquired an immense tract of wild land, on which he founded the village that is still called Cooperstown. There on the frontier of civilization, where stood the primeval forest that had witnessed many a wild Indian raid, the novelist passed his boyhood amid the picturesque scenes which he was to immortalize in The Pioneers and The Deerslayer.
Cooper picked up a little “book learning” in a backwoods school and a little more in a minister’s study at Albany. At thirteen he entered Yale; but he was a self-willed lad and was presently dismissed from college. A little later, after receiving some scant nautical training on a merchantman, he entered the navy as midshipman; but after a brief experience in the service he married and resigned his commission. That was in 1811, and the date is significant. It was just before the second war with Great Britain. The author who wrote so much and so vividly of battles, Indian raids and naval engagements never was within sight of such affairs, though the opportunity was present. In his romances we have the product of a vigorous imagination rather than of observation or experience.
His literary work seems now like the result of whim or accident. One day he flung down a novel that he was reading, declaring to his wife that he could write a better story himself. “Try it,” challenged his wife. “I will,” said Cooper; and the result was Precaution, a romance of English society. He was then a farmer in the Hudson valley, and his knowledge of foreign society was picked up, one must think, from silly novels on the subject.
Strange to say, the story was so well received that the gratified author wrote another. This was The Spy (1821), dealing with a Revolutionary hero who had once followed his dangerous calling in the very region in which Cooper was now living. The immense success of this book fairly drove its author into a career. He moved to New York City, and there quickly produced two more successful romances. Thus in four years an unknown man without literary training had become a famous writer, and had moreover produced four different types of fiction: the novel of society in Precaution, the historical romance in The Spy, and the adventurous romance of forest and of ocean in The Pioneers and The Pilot.
Cooper now went abroad, as most famous authors do. His books, already translated into several European languages, had made him known, and he was welcomed in literary circles; but almost immediately he was drawn into squabbles, being naturally inclined that way. He began to write political tirades; and even his romances of the period (The Bravo, The Heidenmauer, The Headsman) were devoted to proclaiming the glories of democracy. Then he returned home and proceeded to set his countrymen by the ears (in such books as Home as Found) by writing too frankly of their crudity in contrast with the culture of Europe. Then followed long years of controversy and lawsuits, during which our newspapers used Cooper scandalously, and Cooper prosecuted and fined the newspapers. It is a sorry spectacle, of no interest except to those who would understand the bulk of Cooper’s neglected works. He was an honest man, vigorous, straightforward, absolutely sincere; but he was prone to waste his strength and embitter his temper by trying to force his opinion on those who were well satisfied with their own. He had no humor, and had never pondered the wisdom of “Who drives fat oxen should himself be fat.”
The last years of his life were spent mostly at the old home at Cooperstown, no longer a frontier settlement but a thriving village, from which Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook had long since departed. Before his death (1851) the fires of controversy had sunk to ashes; but Cooper never got over his resentment at the public, and with the idea of keeping forever aloof he commanded that none of his private papers be given to biographers. It is for lack of such personal letters and documents that no adequate life of Cooper has yet been written.
COOPER’S WORKS. There are over sixty volumes of Cooper, but to read them all would savor of penance rather than of pleasure. Of his miscellaneous writings only the History of the Navy and Lives of Distinguished Naval Officers are worthy of remembrance. Of his thirty-two romances the half, at least, may be ignored; though critics may differ as to whether certain books (The Bravo and Lionel Lincoln, for example) should be placed in one half or the other. There remain as the measure of Cooper’s genius some sixteen works of fiction, which fall naturally into three groups: the historical novels, the tales of pioneer life, and the romances of the sea.
The Spy was the first and probably the best of Cooper’s historical romances. Even his admirers must confess that it is crudely written, and that our patriotic interest inclines us to overestimate a story which throws the glamor of romance over the Revolution. Yet this faulty tale attempts to do what very few histories have ever done fairly, namely, to present both sides or parties of the fateful conflict; and its unusual success in this difficult field may be explained by a bit of family history. Cooper was by birth and training a stanch Whig, or Patriot; but his wife, to whom he was devotedly attached, was the daughter of an unbending Tory, or Loyalist; and his divided allegiance is plainly apparent in his work. Ordinarily his personal antagonisms, his hatred of “Yankees,” Puritans and all politicians of the other party, are dragged into his stories and spoil some of them; but in The Spy he puts his prejudices under restraint, tells his tale in an impersonal way, dealing honestly with both Whigs and Tories, and so produces a work having the double interest of a good adventure story and a fair picture of one of the heroic ages of American history.
Aside from its peculiar American interest, The Spy has some original and broadly human elements which have caused it, notwithstanding its dreary, artificial style, to be highly appreciated in other countries, in South American countries especially. The secret of its appeal lies largely in this, that in Harvey Birch, a brave man who serves his country without hope or possibility of reward, Cooper has strongly portrayed a type of the highest, the most unselfish patriotism.
The other historical novels differ greatly in value. Prominent among them are Mercedes of Castile, dealing with Columbus and the discovery of America; Satanstoe and The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish, depicting Colonial life in New York and New England respectively; and Lionel Lincoln, which is another story of the Revolution, more labored than The Spy and of less sustained interest.
Cooper’s first sea story, The Pilot (1823), was haphazard enough in both motive and method, [Footnote: The Waverley novels by “the great unknown” were appearing at this time. Scott was supposed to be the author of them, but there was much debate on the subject. One day in New York a member of Cooper’s club argued that Scott could not possibly have written The Pirate (which had just appeared), because the nautical skill displayed in the book was such as only a sailor could possess. Cooper maintained, on the contrary, that The Pirate was the work of a landsman; and to prove it he declared that he would write a sea story as it should be written; that is, with understanding as well as with imagination. The Pilot was the result.] but it gave pleasure to a multitude of readers, and it amazed critics by showing that the lonely sea could be a place of romantic human interest. Cooper was thus the first modern novelist of the ocean; and to his influence we are partly indebted for the stirring tales of such writers as Herman Melville and Clark Russell. A part of the action of The Pilot takes place on land (the style and the characters of this part are wretchedly stilted), but the chief interest of the story lies in the adventures of an American privateer commanded by a disguised hero, who turns out to be John Paul Jones. Cooper could not portray such a character, and his effort to make the dashing young captain heroic by surrounding him with a fog of mystery is like his labored attempt to portray the character of Washington in The Spy. On the other hand, he was thoroughly at home on a ship or among common sailors; his sea pictures of gallant craft driven before the gale are magnificent; and Long Tom Coffin is perhaps the most realistic and interesting of all his characters, not excepting even Leatherstocking.
Another and better romance of the sea is The Red Rover (1828). In this story the action takes place almost wholly on the deep, and its vivid word pictures of an ocean smiling under the sunrise or lashed to fury by midnight gales are unrivaled in any literature. Other notable books of the same group are The Water Witch, Afloat and Ashore and Wing and Wing. Some readers will prize these for their stories; but to others they may appear tame in comparison with the superb descriptive passages of The Red Rover.
When Cooper published The Pioneers (1823) he probably had no intention of writing a series of novels recounting the adventures of Natty Bumppo, or Leatherstocking, and his Indian friend Chingachgook; otherwise he would hardly have painted so shabby a picture of these two old heroes, neglected and despised in a land through which they had once moved as masters. Readers were quick to see, however, that these old men had an adventurous past, and when they demanded the rest of the story Cooper wrote four other romances, which are as so many acts in the stirring drama of pioneer life. When these romances are read, therefore, they should be taken in logical sequence, beginning with The Deerslayer, which portrays the two heroes as young men on their first war trail, and following in order with The Last of the Mohicans, The Pathfinder, The Pioneers and The Prairie. If one is to be omitted, let it be The Pathfinder, which is comparatively weak and dull; and if only one is to be read, The Last of the Mohicans is an excellent choice.
After nearly a century of novel writing, these five books remain our most popular romances of pioneer days, and Leatherstocking is still a wingéd name, a name to conjure with, in most civilized countries. Meanwhile a thousand similar works have come and gone and been forgotten. To examine these later books, which attempt to satisfy the juvenile love of Indian stories, is to discover that they are modeled more or less closely on the original work of the first American novelist.
COOPER’S SCENES AND CHARACTERS. Even in his outdoor romances Cooper was forever attempting to depict human society, especially polite society; but that was the one subject he did not and could not understand. The sea in its grandeur and loneliness; the wild lakes, stretching away to misty, unknown shores or nestling like jewels in their evergreen setting; the forest with its dim trails, its subdued light, its rustlings, whisperings, hints of mystery or peril,--these are his proper scenes, and in them he moves as if at ease in his environment.
In his characters we soon discover the same contrast. If he paints a hero of history, he must put him on stilts to increase his stature. If he portrays a woman, he calls her a “female,” makes her a model of decorum, and bores us by her sentimental gabbing. If he describes a social gathering, he instantly betrays his unfamiliarity with real society by talking like a book of etiquette. But with rough men or manly men on land or sea, with half-mutinous crews of privateers or disciplined man-of-war’s men, with woodsmen, trappers, Indians, adventurous characters of the border or the frontier,--with all these Cooper is at home, and in writing of them he rises almost to the height of genius.
If we seek the secret of this contrast, we shall find it partly in the author himself, partly in a popular, half-baked philosophy of the period. That philosophy was summed up in the words “the return to nature,” and it alleged that all human virtues flow from solitude and all vices from civilization. Such a philosophy appealed strongly to Cooper, who was continually at odds with his fellows, who had been expelled from Yale, who had engaged in many a bitter controversy, who had suffered abuse from newspapers, and who in every case was inclined to consider his opponents as blockheads. No matter in what society he found himself, in imagination he was always back in the free but lawless atmosphere of the frontier village in which his youth was spent. Hence he was well fitted to take the point of view of Natty Bumppo (in The Pioneers), who looked with hostile eyes upon the greed and waste of civilization; hence he portrayed his uneducated backwoods hero as a brave and chivalrous gentleman, without guile or fear or selfishness, who owed everything to nature and nothing to society. Europe at that time was ready to welcome such a type with enthusiasm. The world will always make way for him, whether he appears as a hero of fiction or as a man among men.
GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS. The faults of Cooper—his stilted style and slipshod English, his tedious moralizing, his artificial dialogue, his stuffed gentlemen and inane “females,” his blunders in woodcraft—all these are so easily discovered by a casual reader that the historian need not linger over them. His virtues are more interesting, and the first of these is that he has a story to tell. Ever since Anglo-Saxon days the “tale-bringer” has been a welcome guest, and that Cooper is a good tale-bringer is evident from his continued popularity at home and abroad. He may not know much about the art of literature, or about psychology, or about the rule that motives must be commensurate with actions; but he knows a good story, and that, after all, is the main thing in a novel.
Again, there is a love of manly action in Cooper and a robustness of imagination which compel attention. He is rather slow in starting his tale; but he always sees a long trail ahead, and knows that every turn of the trail will bring its surprise or adventure. It is only when we analyze and compare his plots that we discover what a prodigal creative power he had. He wrote, let us say, seven or eight good stories; but he spoiled ten times that number by hasty or careless workmanship. In the neglected Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish, for example, there is enough wasted material to furnish a modern romancer or dramatist for half a lifetime.
Another fine quality of Cooper is his descriptive power, his astonishing vigor in depicting forest, sea, prairie,--all the grandeur of wild nature as a background of human heroism. His descriptions are seldom accurate, for he was a careless observer and habitually made blunders; but he painted nature as on a vast canvas whereon details might be ignored, and he reproduced the total impression of nature in a way that few novelists have ever rivaled. It is this sustained power of creating a vast natural stage and peopling it with elemental men, the pioneers of a strong nation, that largely accounts for Cooper’s secure place among the world’s fiction writers.
Finally, the moral quality of Cooper, his belief in manhood and womanhood, his cleanness of heart and of tongue, are all reflected in his heroes and heroines. Very often he depicts rough men in savage or brutal situations; but, unlike some modern realists, there is nothing brutal in his morals, and it is precisely where we might expect savagery or meanness that his simple heroes appear as chivalrous gentlemen “without fear and without reproach.” That he was here splendidly true to nature and humanity is evident to one who has met his typical men (woodsmen, plainsmen, lumbermen, lonely trappers or timber-cruisers) in their own environment and experienced their rare courtesy and hospitality. In a word, Cooper knew what virtue is, virtue of white man, virtue of Indian, and he makes us know and respect it. Of a hundred strong scenes which he has vividly pictured there is hardly one that does not leave a final impression as pure and wholesome as the breath of the woods or the sea.
* * * * *
EDGAR ALLAN POE (1809-1849)
It is a pleasant task to estimate Irving or Bryant, but Poe offers a hard nut for criticism to crack. The historian is baffled by an author who secretes himself in the shadow, or perplexed by conflicting biographies, or put on the defensive by the fact that any positive judgment or opinion of Poe will almost certainly be challenged.
At the outset, therefore, we are to assume that Poe is one of the most debatable figures in our literature. His life may be summed up as a pitiful struggle for a little fame and a little bread. When he died few missed him, and his works were neglected. Following his recognition in Europe came a revival of interest here, during which Poe was absurdly overpraised and the American people berated for their neglect of a genius. Then arose a literary controversy which showed chiefly that our critics were poles apart in their points of view. Though the controversy has long endured, it has settled nothing of importance; for one reader regards Poe as a literary poseur, a writer of melodious nonsense in verse and of grotesque horrors in prose; while another exalts him as a double master of poetry and fiction, an artist without a peer in American letters.
Somewhere between these extremes hides the truth; but we shall not here attempt to decide whether it is nearer one side or the other. We note merely that Poe is a writer for such mature readers as can appreciate his uncanny talent. What he wrote of abiding interest or value to young people might be printed in a very small book.
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH. Notwithstanding all that has been written about Poe, we do not and cannot know him as we know most other American authors, whose lives are as an open book. He was always a secretive person, “a lover of mystery and retreats,” and such accounts of his life as he gave out are not trustworthy. He came from a good Maryland family, but apparently from one of those offshoots that are not true to type. His father left the study of law to become a strolling actor, and presently married an English actress. It was while the father and mother were playing their parts in Boston that Edgar was born, in 1809.
Actors led a miserable life in those days, and the Poes were no exception. They died comfortless in Richmond; their three children were separated; and Edgar was adopted by John Allan, a wealthy tobacco merchant. It was in the luxurious Allan home that the boy began the drinking habits which were his bane ever afterwards.
The Allans were abroad on business from 1815 to 1820, and during these years Edgar was at a private school in the suburbs of London. It was the master of that school who described the boy as a clever lad spoiled by too much pocket money. The prose tale “William Wilson” has some reflection of these school years, and, so far as known, it is the only work in which Poe introduced any of his familiar experiences.
Soon after his return to Richmond the boy was sent to the University of Virginia, where his brilliant record as a student was marred by his tendency to dissipation. After the first year Mr. Allan, finding that the boy had run up a big gambling debt, took him from college and put him to work in the tobacco house. Whereupon Edgar, always resentful of criticism, quarreled with his foster father and drifted out into the world. He was then at eighteen, a young man of fine bearing, having the taste and manners of a gentleman, but he had no friend in the world, no heritage of hard work, no means of earning a living.
Next we hear vaguely of Poe in Boston where he published a tiny volume, Tamerlane and Other Poems, by a Bostonian (1827). Failing to win either fame or money by his poetry he enlisted in the army under an assumed name and served for about two years. Of his army life we know nothing, nor do we hear of him again until his foster father secured for him an appointment to the military academy at West Point. There Poe made an excellent beginning, but he soon neglected his work, was dismissed, and became an Ishmael again. After trying in vain to secure a political office he went to Baltimore, where he earned a bare living by writing for the newspapers. The popular but mythical account of his life (for which he himself is partly responsible) portrays him at this period in a Byronic rôle, fighting with the Greeks for their liberty.
His literary career began in 1833 when his “Manuscript Found in a Bottle” won for him a prize offered by a weekly newspaper. The same “Manuscript” brought him to the attention of John Pendleton Kennedy, who secured for him a position on the staff of the Southern Literary Messenger. He then settled in Richmond, and in his grasp was every thing that the heart of a young author might desire. He had married his cousin, Virginia Clem, a beautiful young girl whom he idolized; he had a comfortable home and an assured position; Kennedy and other southern writers were his loyal friends; the Messenger published his work and gave him a reputation in the literary world of America. Fortune stood smiling beside him, when he quarreled with his friends, left the Messenger and began once more his struggle with poverty and despair.
It would require a volume to describe the next few years, and we must pass hurriedly over them. His pen was now his only hope, and he used it diligently in an effort to win recognition and a living. He tried his fortune in different cities; he joined the staffs of various periodicals; he projected magazines of his own. In every project success was apparently within his reach when by some weakness or misfortune he let his chance slip away. He was living in Fordham (a suburb of New York, now called the Bronx) when he did his best work; but there his wife died, in need of the common comforts of life; and so destitute was the home that an appeal was made in the newspapers for charity. One has but to remember Poe’s pride to understand how bitter was the cup from which he drank.
After his wife’s death came two frenzied years in which not even the memory of a great love kept him from unmanly wooing of other women; but Poe was then unbalanced and not wholly responsible for his action. At forty he became engaged to a widow in Richmond, who could offer him at least a home. Generous friends raised a fund to start him in life afresh; but a little later he was found unconscious amid sordid surroundings in Baltimore. He died there, in a hospital, before he was able to give any lucid account of his last wanderings. It was a pitiful end; but one who studies Poe at any part of his career has an impression of a perverse fate that dogs the man and that insists on an ending in accord with the rest of the story.
THE POETRY OF POE. Most people read Poe’s poetry for the melody that is in it. To read it in any other way, to analyze or explain its message, is to dissect a butterfly that changes in a moment from a delicate, living creature to a pinch of dust, bright colored but meaningless. It is not for analysis, therefore, but simply for making Poe more intelligible that we record certain facts or principles concerning his verse.
Perhaps the first thing to note is that Poe is not the poet of smiles and tears, of joy and sorrow, as the great poets are, but the poet of a single mood,--a dull, despairing mood without hope of comfort. Next, he had a theory (a strange theory in view of his mood) that the only object of poetry is to give pleasure, and that the pleasure of a poem depends largely on melody, on sound rather than on sense. Finally, he believed that poetry should deal with beauty alone, that poetic beauty is of a supernal or unearthly kind, and that such beauty is forever associated with melancholy. To Poe the most beautiful imaginable object was a beautiful woman; but since her beauty must perish, the poet must assume a tragic or despairing attitude in face of it. Hence his succession of shadowy Helens, and hence his wail of grief that he has lost or must soon lose them.
All these poetic theories, or delusions, appear in Poe’s most widely known work, “The Raven,” which has given pleasure to a multitude of readers. It is a unique poem, and its popularity is due partly to the fact that nobody can tell what it means. To analyze it is to discover that it is extremely melodious; that it reflects a gloomy mood; that at the root of its sorrow is the mysterious “lost Lenore”; and that, as in most of Poe’s works, a fantastic element is introduced, an “ungainly fowl” addressed with grotesque dignity as “Sir, or Madame,” to divert attention from the fact that the poet’s grief is not simple or human enough for tears:
And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore!
Equally characteristic of the author are “To One in Paradise,” “The Sleeper” and “Annabel Lee,”—all melodious, all in hopeless mood, all expressive of the same abnormal idea of poetry. Other and perhaps better poems are “The Coliseum,” “Israfel,” and especially the second “To Helen,” beginning, “Helen, thy beauty is to me.”
Young readers may well be content with a few such lyrics, leaving the bulk of Poe’s poems to such as may find meaning in their vaporous images. As an example, study these two stanzas from “Ulalume,” a work which some may find very poetic and others somewhat lunatic:
The skies they were ashen and sober;
The leaves they were crispéd and sere—
The leaves they were withering and sere;
It was night in the lonesome October
Of my most immemorial year;
It was hard by the dim lake of Auber,
In the misty mid region of Weir—
It was down by the dank tarn of Auber,
In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.
Here once, through an alley Titanic
Of cypress, I roamed with my soul—
Of cypress, with Psyche, my soul.
These were days when my heart was volcanic
As the scoriac rivers that roll—
As the lavas that restlessly roll
Their sulphurous currents down Yaanek,
In the ultimate climes of the pole—
That groan as they roll down Mount Yaanek,
In the realms of the boreal pole.
This is melodious, to be sure, but otherwise it is mere word juggling, a stringing together of names and rimes with a total effect of lugubrious nonsense. It is not to be denied that some critics find pleasure in “Ulalume”; but uncritical readers need not doubt their taste or intelligence if they prefer counting-out rimes, “The Jabberwock,” or other nonsense verses that are more frankly and joyously nonsensical.
POE’S FICTION. Should it be asked why Poe’s tales are nearly all of the bloodcurdling variety, the answer is that they are a triple reflection of himself, of the fantastic romanticism of his age, and of the taste of readers who were then abnormally fond of ghastly effects in fiction. Let us understand these elements clearly; for otherwise Poe’s horrible stories will give us nothing beyond the mere impression of horror.
To begin with the personal element, Poe was naturally inclined to morbidness. He had a childish fear of darkness and hobgoblins; he worked largely “on his nerves”; he had an abnormal interest in graves, ghouls and the terrors which preternatural subjects inspire in superstitious minds. As a writer he had to earn his bread; and the fiction most in demand at that time was of the “gothic” or Mysteries of Udolpho kind, with its diabolical villain, its pallid heroine in a haunted room, its medley of mystery and horror. [Footnote: As Richardson suggests, the popular novels of Poe’s day are nearly all alike in that they remind us of the fat boy in Pickwick, who “just wanted to make your flesh creep.” Jane Austen (and later, Scott and Cooper) had written against this morbid tendency, but still the “gothic” novel had its thousands of shuddering readers on both sides of the Atlantic.] At the beginning of the century Charles Brockden Brown had made a success of the “American gothic” (a story of horror modified to suit American readers), and Poe carried on the work of Brown with precisely the same end in view, namely, to please his audience. He used the motive of horror partly because of his own taste and training, no doubt, but more largely because he shrewdly “followed the market” in fiction. Then as now there were many readers who enjoyed, as Stevenson says, being “frightened out of their boots,” and to such readers he appealed. His individuality and, perhaps, his chief excellence as a story-writer lay in his use of strictly logical methods, in his ability to make the most impossible yarn seem real by his reasonable way of telling it. Moreover, he was a discoverer, an innovator, a maker of new types, since he was the first to introduce in his stories the blend of calm, logical science and wild fancy of a terrifying order; so he served as an inspiration as well as a point of departure for Jules Verne and other writers of the same pseudo-scientific school.
Poe’s numerous tales may be grouped in three or four classes. Standing by itself is “William Wilson,” a story of double personality (one good and one evil genius in the same person), to which Stevenson was indebted in his Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Next are the tales of pseudo-science and adventure, such as “Hans Pfaall” and the “Descent into the Maelstrom,” which represent a type of popular fiction developed by Jules Verne, H. G. Wells and many others, all of whom were more or less influenced by Poe. A third group may be called the ingenious-mystery stories. One of the most typical of these is “The Gold Bug,” a tale of cipher-writing and buried treasure, which contains the germ, at least, of Stevenson’s Treasure Island. To the same group belong “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and other stories dealing with the wondrous acumen of a certain Dupin, who is the father of “Old Sleuth,” “Sherlock Holmes” and other amateur detectives who do such marvelous things in fiction,--to atone, no doubt, for their extraordinary dullness in real life.
Still another group consists of phantom stories,--ghastly yarns that serve no purpose but to make the reader’s spine creep. The mildest of these horrors is “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which some critics place at the head of Poe’s fiction. It is a “story of atmosphere”; that is, a story in which the scene, the air, the vague “feeling” of a place arouse an expectation of some startling or unusual incident. Many have read this story and found pleasure therein; but others ask frankly, “Why bother to write or to read such palpable nonsense?” With all Poe’s efforts to make it real, Usher’s house is not a home or even a building in which dwells a man; it is a vacuum inhabited by a chimera. Of necessity, therefore, it tumbles into melodramatic nothingness the moment the author takes leave of it.
If it be asked, “What shall one read of Poe’s fiction?” the answer must depend largely upon individual taste. “The Gold Bug” is a good story, having the adventurous interest of finding a pirate’s hidden gold; at least, that is how most readers regard it, though Poe meant us to be interested not in the gold but in his ingenious cryptogram or secret writing. The allegory of “William Wilson” is perhaps the most original of Poe’s works; and for a thriller “The House of Usher” may be recommended as the least repulsive of the tales of horror. To the historian the chief interest of all these tales lies in the influence which they have exerted on a host of short-story writers at home and abroad.
AN ESTIMATE OF POE. Any summary of such a difficult subject is unsatisfactory and subject to challenge. We shall try here simply to outline Poe’s aim and method, leaving the student to supply from his own reading most of the details and all the exceptions.
Poe’s chief purpose was not to tell a tale for its own sake or to portray a human character; he aimed to produce an effect or impression in the reader’s mind, an impression of unearthly beauty in his poems and of unearthly horror in his prose. Some writers (Hawthorne, for example) go through life as in a dream; but if one were to judge Poe by his work, one might think that he had suffered a long nightmare. Of this familiar experience, his youth, his army training, his meeting with other men, his impressions of nature or humanity, there is hardly a trace in his work; of despair, terror and hallucinations there is a plethora.
His method was at once haphazard and carefully elaborated,--a paradox, it seems, till we examine his work or read his records thereof. In his poetry words appealed to him, as they appeal to some children, not so much for their meaning as for their sound. Thus the word “nevermore,” a gloomy, terrible word, comes into his mind, and he proceeds to brood over it. The shadow of a great loss is in the word, and loss meant to Poe the loss of beauty in the form of a woman; therefore he invents “the lost Lenore” to rime with his “nevermore.” Some outward figure of despair is now needed, something that will appeal to the imagination; and for that Poe selects the sable bird that poets have used since Anglo-Saxon times as a symbol of gloom or mystery. Then carefully, line by line, he hammers out “The Raven,” a poem which from beginning to end is built around the word “nevermore” with its suggestion of pitiless memories.
Or again, Poe is sitting at the bedside of his dead wife when another word suddenly appeals to him. It is Shakespeare’s Duncan is in his grave;
After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well.
And from that word is born “For Annie,” with an ending to the first stanza which is an epitome of the poem, and which Longfellow suggested as a fitting epitaph for Poe’s tomb:
And the fever called “Living”
Is conquered at last.
He reads Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and his “Manuscript Found in a Bottle” is the elaborated result of his chance inspiration. He sees Cooper make a success of a sea tale, and Irving of a journal of exploration; and, though he knows naught of the sea or the prairie, he produces his hair-raising Arthur Gordon Pym and his Journal of Julius Rodman. Some sailor’s yarn of a maelstrom in the North Sea comes to his ears, and he fabricates a story of a man who went into the whirlpool. He sees a newspaper account of a premature burial, and his “House of Usher” and several other stories reflect the imagined horror of such an experience. The same criticism applies to his miscellaneous thrillers, in which with rare cunning he uses phantoms, curtains, shadows, cats, the moldy odor of the grave,--and all to make a gruesome tale inspired by some wild whim or nightmare.
In fine, no other American writer ever had so slight a human basis for his work; no other ever labored more patiently or more carefully. The unending controversy over Poe commonly reduces itself to this deadlock: one reader asks, “What did he do that was worth a man’s effort in the doing?” and another answers, “What did he do that was not cleverly, skillfully done?”
* * * * *
SUMMARY. The early part of the nineteenth century (sometimes called the First National period of American letters) was a time of unusual enthusiasm. The country had recently won its independence and taken its place among the free nations of the world; it had emerged triumphant from a period of doubt and struggle over the Constitution and the Union; it was increasing with amazing rapidity in territory, in population and in the wealth which followed a successful commerce; its people were united as never before by noble pride in the past and by a great hope for the future. It is not surprising, therefore, that our first really national literature (that is, a literature which was read by practically the whole country, and which represented America to foreign nations) should appear in this expansive age as an expression of the national enthusiasm.
The four chief writers of the period are: Irving, the pleasant essayist, story-teller and historian; Bryant, the poet of primeval nature; Cooper, the novelist, who was the first American author to win world-wide fame; and Poe, the most cunning craftsman among our early writers, who wrote a few melodious poems and many tales of mystery or horror. Some critics would include also among the major writers William Gilmore Simms (sometimes called “the Cooper of the South”), author of many adventurous romances dealing with pioneer life and with Colonial and Revolutionary history.
The numerous minor writers of the age are commonly grouped in local schools. The Knickerbocker school, of New York, includes the poets Halleck and Drake, the novelist Paulding, and one writer of miscellaneous prose and verse, Nathaniel P. Willis, who was for a time more popular than any other American writer save Cooper. In the southern school (led by Poe and Simms) were Wilde, Kennedy and William Wirt. The West was represented by Timothy Flint and James Hall. In New England were the poets Percival and Maria Brooks, the novelists Sarah Morton and Catherine Sedgwick, and the historians Sparks and Bancroft. The writers we have named are merely typical; there were literally hundreds of others who were more or less widely known in the middle of the last century.
The first common characteristic of these writers was their patriotic enthusiasm; the second was their romantic spirit. The romantic movement in English poetry was well under way at this time, and practically all our writers were involved in it. They were strongly influenced, moreover, by English writers of the period or by settled English literary traditions. Thus, Irving modeled his style closely on that of Addison; the early poetry of Bryant shows the influence of Wordsworth; the weird tales of Poe and his critical essays were both alike influenced by Coleridge; and the quickening influence of Scott appears plainly in the romances of Cooper. The minor writers were even more subject to foreign influences, especially to German and English romanticism. There was, however, a sturdy independence in the work of most of these writers which stamps it as original and unmistakably American. The nature poetry of Bryant with its rugged strength and simplicity, the old Dutch legends and stories of Irving, the pioneer romances of Cooper and Simms, the effective short stories of Poe,--these have hardly a counterpart in foreign writings of the period. They are the first striking expressions of the new American spirit in literature.
SELECTIONS FOR READING. Irving’s Sketch Book, in Standard English Classics and various other school editions (see “Texts” in General Bibliography); The Alhambra, in Ginn and Company’s Classics for Children; parts of Bracebridge Hall, in Riverside Literature; Conquest of Granada and other works, in Everyman’s Library.
Selections from Bryant, in Riverside Literature and Pocket Classics.
Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans, in Standard English Classics and other school editions; the five Leatherstocking tales, in Everyman’s Library; The Spy, in Riverside Literature.
Selections from Poe, prose and verse, in Standard English Classics, Silver Classics, Johnson’s English Classics, Lake English Classics.
Simms’s The Yemassee, in Johnson’s English Classics. Typical selections from minor authors of the period, in Readings from American Literature and other anthologies (see “Selections” in General Bibliography).
BIBLIOGRAPHY. For works covering the whole field of American history and literature see the General Bibliography. The following are recommended for a special study of the early part of the nineteenth century.
HISTORY. Adams, History of the United States, 1801-1817, 9 vols.; Von Holst, Constitutional and Political History, 1787-1861, 8 vols.; Sparks, Expansion of the American People; Low, The American People; Expedition of Lewis and Clarke, in Original Narratives Series (Scribner); Page, The Old South; Drake, The Making of the West.
LITERATURE. There is no good literary history devoted to this period. Critical studies of the authors named in the text may be found in Richardson’s American Literature and other general histories. For the lives of minor authors see Adams, Dictionary of American Authors, or Appleton’s Cyclopedia of American Biography.
Irving. Life and Letters, by P. M. Irving, 4 vols., in Crayon edition of Irving’s works. Life by Warner, in American Men of Letters; by Hill, in American Authors; by Boynton (brief), in Riverside Biographies. Essays by Brownell, in American Prose Masters; by Payne, in Leading American Essayists; by Perry, in A Study of Prose Fiction; by Curtis, in Literary and Social Addresses. Biographical sketch of Washington Irving.
Bryant. Life, by Godwin, 2 vols.; by Bigelow, in American Men of Letters; by Curtis. Wilson, Bryant and his Friends. Essays, by Stedman, in Poets of America; by Curtis, in Orations and Addresses; by Whipple, in Literature and Life; by Burton, in Literary Leaders.
Cooper. Life, by Lounsbury, in American Men of Letters; by Clymer (brief), in Beacon Biographies. Essays, by Erskine, in Leading American Novelists; by Brownell, in American Prose Masters; by Matthews, in Gateways to Literature.
Poe. Life, by Woodberry, in American Men of Letters; by Trent, in English Men of Letters; Life and Letters, 2 vols., by Harrison. Essays, by Stedman, in Poets of America; by Brownell, in American Prose Masters; by Burton, in Literary Leaders; by Higginson, in Short Studies of American Authors; by Andrew Lang, in Letters to Dead Authors; by Gates, in Studies and Appreciations; by Gosse, in Questions at Issue.
Simms. Life, by Trent, in American Men of Letters. Critical studies by Moses, in Literature of the South; by Link, in Pioneers of Southern Literature; by Wauchope, in Writers of South Carolina.
FICTION. A few novels dealing with the period are: Brown, Arthur Merwyn; Kennedy, Swallow Barn; Paulding, Westward Ho; Mrs. Stowe, The Minister’s Wooing; Cooke, Leather Stocking and Silk; Eggleston, The Circuit Rider, The Hoosier Schoolmaster; Winthrop, John Brent.
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