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The essay, in more than one of its directions, has been represented creditably in America. If we define the word somewhat in the sense in which Lord Bacon used it, as a brief. literary composition on some important theme of religion, morals, taste, intellect, or the conduct of life, the essays of Emerson, studied in the preceding chapter, fulfil the definition, and add to it an original element.
If by the term essay we are reminded of the gracious and winsome work of Addison, Steele, or Lamb, in which grave and gay are discussed with pathos or humor, and in a style which is finished at its best or attitudinizing at its worst, the writings of Washington Irving occur to the mind of the reader. A few attempts have even been made—by Franklin, Irving, Mitchell, Curtis —to revive and perpetuate the periodical essay. If, again, we are thinking of the critical essay of Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, or Sainte-Beuve, it is no shame to add to their company the genuinely Yankee but soundly scholarly James Russell Lowell. Of all the chief departments of English essaywriting, but one has been ineffectively represented
in the United States : the biographical or historical essay of the Macaulay type, in which the author, taking a book-title for a text, proceeds to write a miniature “life and times” or “complete history.” " The
pages of our reviews are full of imitations of Macaulay, short paragraphs, antitheses, and all, which sadly prove that “all that flams is not flamboyant.” Even in this division, however, is found the historical essay of Motley or Prescott; Motley's “ Peter the Great," if it is less than Macaulay's work, is also some thing more.
Besides these writers, there is another American whose work as a poet will be considered in a future volume of this history, but who must also take his place in the present chapter. Oliver Wendell Oliver Wen. Holmes, as an essayist, does not belong dell Holmes, b. 1809.
to the school of Bacon, or Addison, or Lamb, or Carlyle, or Montaigne, or Sainte-Beuve. It would be easy, perhaps, to frame a comparison between him and Christopher North, and to say that Holmes performed for The Atlantic Monthly, in its early years, a service like that which Christopher gave to Maga long ago. In their writings, too, there is a little likeness. But to carry out this comparison, or any other, would be valueless, and might mislead. It is better to say that Holmes followed an original idea in his BreakfastTable series. When he was a young man, so he tells us in the illustrated edition of “ The Last Leaf,” he found that some poetasters were probably imitating his metrical forms, and determined to produce a poem in a metre wholly unfamiliar, so
any imitation could be instantly detected. No such idea, doubtless, occurred to him when, half accidentally, he hit upon the rambling, varied path which «The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table" and his successors, the “ Professor" and the “Poet,' " followed for so many years; but the result was equally his own property. In these three books, if there be a conspicuous influence, it is that of Sterne, an influence which the careful reader can discern in the pages of so widely different an author as Jean Paul Richter, and which was transferred thence to “Sartor Resartus.” But literary rambling is older than Holmes, Carlyle, Richter, Sterne, or Burton's “Anatomy"; discursiveness and an alert wit have marked most of the better humorists of all the world. The reader of those of Holmes' prose works which not novels, biographies, or brief medical disquisitions, does not stop to criticise or trace intellectual influences, he is content to enjoy, and is sure that he is in the presence of a native force, which he need not stop to label and assign to its proper shelf in the literary cabinet. On the whole, in this study of American literature, where detailed arrangement of our literary product becomes necessary, it seems clear that Doctor Holmes is to be ranked among the essayists, and that in their company he stands in a place of his own.
When Holmes was twenty years old * —so he tells us in the preface to the “ Autocrat”—he printed in The New England Magazine the first of two papers called “The
“The Autocrat of the Breakfast
Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table." They attracted little attention; the author frankly calls them “crude products of his uncombed literary boyhood”, but he never forgot them; and when, in 1857, The Atlantic Monthly was started, he concluded to return to them and continue the series, thinking that “it would be a curious experiment to shake the same bough again, and see if the ripe fruit were better or worse than the early windfalls.” The experiment did not have to wait long for success. Holmes was nearly fifty years old, and was, in verity, able to offer to the public the “ripe fruit” of his mind. Discursive writing, or rambling talk, demands this quality of ripeness. When young writers have attempted to print dicta, ana, gossip, proverbs, pensées, or what you will in the department of literature which comes under the general head of Sayings, they have usually failed. This sort of work demands experience and reflection, neither of which is a common attribute of juvenility. No matter how light the manner or how jovial the spirit, a Montaigne, Sterne, or Lamb must be a man of wisdom and experience, in one way or another. It was well that Holmes early series of Autocrat papers was postponed until his middle life. It was also lucky for the magazine which was in its early years the most important American monthly. that such genial wit and wisdom, such unfamiliar attractiveness of style, was to lead it to success after a general period of business depression.
« The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table" was a
genuinely Yankee book-New Englandism at its best, interpreted so familiarly that running readers might comprehend its good points. Holmes is thoroughly Bostonian ; an occasional trip to New York, a summer a few miles north of Boston, satisfy his desires for any outside world. He visits Europe at half-century intervals. His books have a similar local contentment. In practical sense, in alertness of thought, in neatness of phrase, in quaint mixture of earthly shrewdness and starry ideality, the words and ways of the breakfast-table of which the Autocrat is the head, represent the Massachusetts founded by the Puritans and Pilgrims, freed by Sam. Adams and his fellows, mitigated by Channing, and nationalized by Webster and Everett. If the Autocrat's wit is homely on one page, it is poetical on the next; the verse scattered throughout the book is its greatest charm. Here is a poem of mere fun, here one touched with pathos, and a little farther on a hymn of faith and trust. Holmes' Yankee shrewdness forgets the eternal verities no more than does Emerson's. Calvinism, in the eyes of its bitter and relentless opponent, Doctor Holmes, falls in a collapse as complete as that of the “One-Hoss Shay"; but his faith exclaims, in the last stanza of “The Chambered Nautilus ": “Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
As the swift seasons roll !
Leave thy low-vaulted past!
Till thou at length are free,