« AnteriorContinuar »
THE PERSPECTIVE OF AMERICAN LITERATURE.
No critical task is more difficult and delicate than that of estimating the rank and analyzing the achievements of American authors. The student of the classical literature of Greece and Rome finds himself, notwithstanding the controversies of scholars, on well-defined ground, with all of which he can familiarize himself, and on which he can work in accordance with clear laws of criticism, unhindered by contemporary prejudice and error. He who takes up the history of some of the living literatures of the world, such as French, or Spanish, or German, or English, or Italian, can consider, if he will, the literary records of past times alone, not venturing upon dangerous questions affecting living authors. The reader of Russian or Norwegian books, which have, indeed, fewer predecessors in past centuries, has the advantage to be derived from the study of works which are closely related to the life and character of somewhat peculiar and isolated peoples, whose output can advantageously be considered by any contemporary foreigner.
In the case of our own literature the situation is different. In the first place, it may be noted that
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. And yet 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 was " 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 critics 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 Euro
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