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no language and literature save the English has ever put forth a commanding offshoot without essential change of form and character, and yet existing under peculiar conditions. Dickens can be read with no difficulty on the sand-lots of San Francisco ; and Bret Harte, in turn, is almost our most popular author on the railway stalls of England. The language is practically identical in Britain and America, and the literatures are mutually influential. It is not always easy to say where one begins and the other ends. The English critic feels entirely competent, therefore, to criticise American literature ; and the French or German writer who knows English deems it quite within his province to write on any American theme. this very similarity or identity is confusing and misleading. Wherein our literature really differs from English literature, and wherein it is but a branch bearing the same fruit in a different corner of the inclosure,--these are questions demanding the utmost care on the critic's part.
In considering American literature, therefore, we cannot safely say that the judgment of foreigners is the judgment of posterity. The most intelligent Europeans often make the most startling mistakes concerning literary matters here. Victor Hugo declared, without hesitation, that Poe wa; "the prince of American literature," and yet, it is said, professed entire ignorance of Emerson's name when it was mentioned to him. Bret Harte, Mark Twain, and other humorists are deemed by many our most characteristic writers, while other critic;
aver that Joaquin Miller is a truer representative of the life of this country, and still others insist that we really have no American poet save Whitman. The earlier English critics raised Longfellow to a pinnacle of fame ; some later ones dismiss him as “the poet of the commonplace,”—an educated gentleman, who made fair translations and neatly copied foreign models for the home public of the less cultured order. In Longfellow's case, praise has been followed by blame; but some recent English over-praise of American work—especially in fiction—is scarcely less to be deplored than the former sharp criticisms. Once Sydney Smith made his hackneyed query, John Keats dismissed all American books as worthless, and Southey could find here nothing to praise but Mrs. Brooks' “ Zophiel ; or, The Bride of Seven.” Now London and Paris and Berlin journals are telling us that our stories are the best in the world, and that this or that new American novel is sure of a prominent place in the literature of the language. We knew that the old denouncers were wrong ; let us not be too sure that the later praisers are right. Both fall into a fatal error of perspective. The first thought that no good thing could come from the American Nazareth, because it was beyond the line of possible productiveness. The last declare, with the French critics, that to tell a story well is the utmost reach of literary endeavor ; or else maintain that no American literature is characteristic which is not new and striking when measured by European standards. In a word, foreign criticism of
American literature is, with all its ability, discernment, and appreciation, too often limited in view, bound by the modern fondness for neat fictionmongering, or dazzled by unfamiliar forms of verse or jest. It does not help us in the matter of literary perspective. We dare not rely upon it for a just description of our works and ways. The critic of American literature should be thoroughly acquainted with both English and American political, social, and literary history; should perceive clearly that in England and America is a dominant and assimilating Saxon folk, working out a similar problem on similar lines ; and yet should discriminate between variant conditions, aims, methods, and results. It is not too much to say that no foreign historian of our literature has shown himself
possessed of all these qualifications.
In American criticism of American literature, it is surely not less necessary that a true perspective be attained, if possible. How shall it be reached, without much aid from past centuries so far as our point of view is concerned; without material assistance, save in minor matters, from foreign essayists; and with a constantly changing army of writers, quite crowding our literary field, and winning a hurried praise that is soon, perhaps, to change to equally unjust blame?
The point of view of American literature must include living authors. What account of our writers could omit Lowell, Holmes, Whittier, Bancroft, or, indeed, Whitman and James ? Could a critic, viewing our literary products in 1876, omit consideration
of Bryant, Emerson, and Longfellow? Our literature is practically about eighty years old ; any study of it is a study of living writers, in large measure. This necessity is simply to be accepted at the outset. We must read and study books by authors living as well as by authors dead; by those whose best works may be in the future, by those whose methods and achievements may be modified hereafter. We must also recognize the fact that contemporary opinion is sadly fallible, that celebrities are dethroned in the passage
of years, and that obscurities are brought into clear and lasting light. Between these two duties it is by no means easy to go.
Incidis in Scyllam, cupiens vitare Charybdim.” The Scylla of American literary criticism is the temptation to be prematurely confident that a writer is for all time; the Charybdis is the refusal to praise Lowell and Whittier, where they deserve praise, because they are still alive. Between these perils the critic too often goes to ruin. Poe fell upon both of them; he attacked Longfellow, derided Lowell, and patronized Hawthorne, reserving his praises for writers possessing the prime merit, in his view, of being Southerners or sentimentalists. And yet Poe honestly tried, in his day, to write criticisms which should be unbiased by current verdicts, and should be based on his own investigations. He failed because he lacked the wide learning, the clear insight, and the just temper which the true critic must have.
Applying well-known laws of criticism to the subject in hand, the critic of an American book or author, whether that critic be an American or a
foreigner, and whether he be considering past writings or contemporary ones, should try to answer these questions : What did the author aim to do? what method did he adopt? under what conditions did he work? what were his relations to previous writers on this side of the Atlantic? what his debt to English literature? what his obligations to, and his influence upon, his fellow-authors ? what his intrinsic success? what his probable rank in the future? In the case of writers no longer living, or in advanced life, he can also ask concerning their influence upon literature here and elsewhere, and the effect of time upon their reputations.
Acting honestly upon this obvious method, and remembering the special environment of American men of letters, and also their heritage in English literature, the critic can properly venture to express an opinion concerning his predecessors and his contemporaries. That he will sometimes fail is unquestionable ; but critics of Hebrew or Greek or Roman literature have failed after twenty centuries of accumulated wisdom. Critical failure depends, after all, upon lacks in the critic's standpoint and intellectual equipment, quite as much as upon his place in time, as regards the subjects of his criticism. By him who studiously sets before himself the questions mentioned, conclusions may be reached in an author's lifetime as truly, if not as confidently, as after that author's death. Foolish “patriotism,” local pride, the influence of popular enthusiasm and prejudice, resentment of foreign blame, delight at foreign praise,—these things cannot endure in the clear light of true criticism.