Americanism in Literature by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

THE voyager from Europe who lands upon our shores perceives a difference in the sky above his head; the height seems loftier, the zenith more remote, the horizon-wall more steep; the moon appears to hang in the middle air, beneath a dome that arches far beyond it. The sense of natural symbolism is so strong in us, that the mind seeks a spiritual significance in this glory of the atmosphere. It is not enough to find the sky enlarged, and not the mind,—cœlum, non animum. One wishes to be convinced that here the intellectual man inhales a deeper breath, and walks with bolder tread; that philosopher and artist are here more buoyant, more fresh, more fertile; that the human race has here escaped at one bound from the despondency of ages, as from their wrongs.

And the true and healthy Americanism is to be found, let us believe, in this attitude of hope; an attitude not necessarily connected with culture nor with the absence of culture, but with the consciousness of a new impulse given to all human progress. The most ignorant man may feel the full strength and heartiness of the American idea, and so may the most accomplished scholar. It is a matter of regret if thus far we have mainly had to look for our Americanism and our scholarship in very different quarters, and if it has been a rare delight to find the two in one.

It seems unspeakably important that all persons among us, and especially the student and the writer, should be pervaded with Americanism. Americanism includes the faith that national self-government is not a chimera, but that, with whatever inconsistencies and drawbacks, we are steadily establishing it here. It includes the faith that to this good thing all other good things must in time be added. When a man is heartily imbued with such a national sentiment as this, it is as marrow in his bones and blood in his veins. He may still need culture, but he has the basis of all culture. He is entitled to an imperturbable patience and hopefulness, born of a living faith. All that is scanty in our intellectual attainments, or poor in our artistic life, may then be cheerfully endured: if a man sees his house steadily rising on sure foundations, he can wait or let his children wait for the cornice and the frieze. But if one happens to be born or bred in America without this wholesome confidence, there is no happiness for him; he has his alternative between being unhappy at home and unhappy abroad; it is a choice of martyrdoms for himself, and a certainty of martyrdom for his friends.

Happily, there are few among our cultivated men in whom this oxygen of American life is wholly wanting. Where such exist, for them the path across the ocean is easy, and the return how hard! Yet our national character develops slowly; we are aiming at something better than our English fathers, and we pay for it by greater vacillations and vibrations of movement. The Englishman’s strong point is a vigorous insularity which he carries with him, portable and sometimes insupportable. The American’s more perilous gift is a certain power of assimilation, so that he acquires something from every man he meets, but runs the risk of parting with something in return. For the result, greater possibilities of culture, balanced by greater extremes of sycophancy and meanness. Emerson says that the Englishman of all men stands most firmly on his feet. But it is not the whole of man’s mission to be found standing, even at the most important post. Let him take one step forward,—and in that advancing figure you have the American.

We are accustomed to say that the war and its results have made us a nation, subordinated local distinctions, cleared us of our chief shame, and given us the pride of a common career. This being the case, we may afford to treat ourselves to a little modest self-confidence. Those whose faith in the American people carried them hopefully through the long contest with slavery will not be daunted before any minor perplexities of Chinese immigrants or railway brigands or enfranchised women. We are equal to these things; and we shall also be equal to the creation of a literature. We need intellectual culture inexpressibly, but we need a hearty faith still more. “Never yet was there a great migration that did not result in a new form of national genius.” But we must guard against both croakers and boasters; and above all, we must look beyond our little Boston or New York or Chicago or San Francisco, and be willing citizens of the great Republic.

The highest aim of most of our literary journals has thus far been to appear English, except where some diverging experimentalist has said, “Let us be German,” or “Let us be French.” This was inevitable; as inevitable as a boy’s first imitations of Byron or Tennyson. But it necessarily implied that our literature must, during this epoch, be second-rate. We need to become national, not by any conscious effort, such as implies attitudinizing and constraint, but by simply accepting our own life. It is not desirable to go out of one’s way to be original, but it is to be hoped that it may lie in one’s way. Originality is simply a fresh pair of eyes. If you want to astonish the whole world, said Rahel, tell the simple truth. It is easier to excuse a thousand defects in the literary man who proceeds on this faith, than to forgive the one great defect of imitation in the purist who seeks only to be English. As Wasson has said, “The Englishman is undoubtedly a wholesome figure to the mental eye; but will not twenty million copies of him do, for the present?” We must pardon something to the spirit of liberty. We must run some risks, as all immature creatures do, in the effort to use our own limbs. Professor Edward Channing used to say that it was a bad sign for a college boy to write too well; there should be exuberances and inequalities. A nation which has but just begun to create a literature must sow some wild oats. The most tiresome vaingloriousness may be more hopeful than hypercriticism and spleen. The follies of the absurdest spread-eagle orator may be far more promising, because they smack more of the soil, than the neat Londonism of the city editor who dissects him.

It is but a few years since we have dared to be American in even the details and accessories of our literary work; to make our allusions to natural objects real not conventional; to ignore the nightingale and skylark, and look for the classic and romantic on our own soil. This change began mainly with Emerson. Some of us can recall the bewilderment with which his verses on the humblebee, for instance, were received, when the choice of subject caused as much wonder as the treatment. It was called “a foolish affectation of the familiar.” Happily the atmosphere of distance forms itself rapidly in a new land, and the poem has now as serene a place in literature as if Andrew Marvell had written it. The truly cosmopolitan writer is not he who carefully denudes his work of everything occasional and temporary, but he who makes his local coloring forever classic through the fascination of the dream it tells. Reason, imagination, passion, are universal; but sky, climate, costume, and even type of human character, belong to some one spot alone till they find an artist potent enough to stamp their associations on the memory of all the world. Whether his work be picture or symphony, legend or lyric, is of little moment. The spirit of the execution is all in all.

As yet, we Americans have hardly begun to think of the details of execution in any art. We do not aim at perfection of detail even in engineering, much less in literature. In the haste of our national life, most of our intellectual work is done at a rush, is something inserted in the odd moments of the engrossing pursuit. The popular preacher becomes a novelist; the editor turns his paste-pot and scissors to the compilation of a history; the same man must be poet, wit, philanthropist, and genealogist. We find a sort of pleasure in seeing this variety of effort, just as the bystanders like to see a street-musician adjust every joint in his body to a separate instrument, and play a concerted piece with the whole of himself. To be sure, he plays each part badly, but it is such a wonder he should play them all! Thus, in our rather hurried and helter-skelter training, the man is brilliant, perhaps; his main work is well done; but his secondary work is slurred. The book sells, no doubt, by reason of the author’s popularity in other fields; it is only the tone of our national literature that suffers. There is nothing in American life that can make concentration cease to be a virtue. Let a man choose his pursuit, and make all else count for recreation only. Goethe’s advice to Eckermann is infinitely more important here than it ever was in Germany: “Beware of dissipating your powers; strive constantly to concentrate them. Genius thinks it can do whatever it sees others doing, but it is sure to repent of every ill-judged outlay.”

In one respect, however, this desultory activity is an advantage: it makes men look in a variety of directions for a standard. As each sect in religion helps to protect us from some other sect, so every mental tendency is the limitation of some other. We need the English culture, but we do not need it more evidently than we need the German, the French, the Greek, the Oriental. In prose literature, for instance, the English contemporary models are not enough. There is an admirable vigor and heartiness, a direct and manly tone; King Richard still lives; but Saladin also had his fine sword-play; let us see him. There are the delightful French qualities,—the atmosphere where literary art means fineness of touch. “Où il n’y a point de délicatesse, il n’y a point de littérature. Un écrit où ne se recontrent que de la force et un certain feu sans éclat n’annonce que le caractère.” But there is something in the English climate which seems to turn the fine edge of any very choice scymitar till it cuts Saladin’s own fingers at last.

God forbid that I should disparage this broad Anglo-Saxon manhood which is the basis of our national life. I knew an American mother who sent her boy to Rugby School in England, in the certainty, as she said, that he would there learn two things,—to play cricket and to speak the truth. He acquired both thoroughly, and she brought him home for what she deemed, in comparison, the ornamental branches. We cannot spare the Englishman from our blood, but it is our business to make him more than an Englishman. That iron must become steel; finer, harder, more elastic, more polished. For this end the English stock was transferred from an island to a continent, and mixed with new ingredients, that it might lose its quality of coarseness, and take a more delicate grain.

As yet, it must be owned, this daring expectation is but feebly reflected in our books. In looking over any collection of American poetry, for instance, one is struck with the fact that it is not so much faulty as inadequate. Emerson set free the poetic intuition of America, Hawthorne its imagination. Both looked into the realm of passion, Emerson with distrust, Hawthorne with eager interest; but neither thrilled with its spell, and the American poet of passion is yet to come. How tame and manageable are wont to be the emotions of our bards, how placid and literary their allusions! There is no baptism of fire; no heat that breeds excess. Yet it is not life that is grown dull, surely; there are as many secrets in every heart, as many skeletons in every closet, as in any elder period of the world’s career. It is the interpreters of life who are found wanting, and that not on this soil alone, but throughout the Anglo-Saxon race. It is not just to say, as someone has said, that our language has not in this generation produced a love-song, for it has produced Browning; but was it in England or in Italy that he learned to sound the depths of all human emotion?

And it is not to verse that this temporary check of ardor applies. It is often said that prose fiction now occupies the place held by the drama during the Elizabethan age. Certainly this modern product shows something of the brilliant profusion of that wondrous flowering of genius; but here the resemblance ends. Where in our imaginative literature does one find the concentrated utterance, the intense and breathing life, the triumphs and despairs, the depth of emotion, the tragedy, the thrill, that meet one everywhere in those Elizabethan pages? What impetuous and commanding men are these, what passionate women; how they love and hate, struggle and endure; how they play with the world; what a trail of fire they leave behind them as they pass by! Turn now to recent fiction. Dickens’s people are amusing and lovable, no doubt; Thackeray’s are wicked and witty; but how under-sized they look, and how they loiter on the mere surfaces of life, compared, I will not say with Shakespeare’s, but even with Chapman’s and Webster’s men. Set aside Hawthorne in America, with perhaps Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot in England, and there would scarcely be a fact in prose literature to show that we modern Anglo-Saxons regard a profound human emotion as a thing worth the painting. Who now dares delineate a lover, except with good-natured pitying sarcasm, as in David Copperfield or Pendennis? In the Elizabethan period, with all its unspeakable coarseness, hot blood still ran in the veins of literature; lovers burned and suffered and were men. And what was true of love was true of all the passions of the human soul.

In this respect, as in many others, France has preserved more of the artistic tradition. The common criticism, however, is, that in modern French literature, as in the Elizabethan, the play of feeling is too naked and obvious, and that the Puritan self-restraint is worth more than all that dissolute wealth. I believe it; and here comes in the intellectual worth of America. Puritanism was a phase, a discipline, a hygiene; but we cannot remain always Puritans. The world needed that moral bracing, even for its art; but after all, life is not impoverished by being ennobled; and in a happier age, with a larger faith, we may again enrich ourselves with poetry and passion, while wearing that heroic girdle still around us. Then the next blossoming of the world’s imagination need not bear within itself, like all the others, the seeds of an epoch of decay.

I utterly reject the position taken by Matthew Arnold, that the Puritan spirit in America was essentially hostile to literature and art. Of course the forest pioneer cannot compose orchestral symphonies, nor the founder of a state carve statues. But the thoughtful and scholarly men who created the Massachusetts Colony brought with them the traditions of their universities, and left these embodied in a college. The Puritan life was only historically inconsistent with culture; there was no logical antagonism. Indeed, that life had in it much that was congenial to art, in its enthusiasm and its truthfulness. Take these Puritan traits, employ them in a more genial sphere, add intellectual training and a sunny faith, and you have a soil suited to art above all others. To deny it is to see in art only something frivolous and insincere. The American writer in whom the artistic instinct was strongest came of unmixed Puritan stock. Major John Hathorne, in 1692, put his offenders on trial, and generally convicted and hanged them all. Nathaniel Hawthorne held his more spiritual tribunal two centuries later, and his keener scrutiny found some ground of vindication for each one. The fidelity, the thoroughness, the conscientious purpose, were the same in each. Both sought to rest their work, as all art and all law must rest, upon the absolute truth. The writer kept, no doubt, something of the somberness of the magistrate; each, doubtless, suffered in the woes he studied; and as the one “had a knot of pain in his forehead all winter” while meditating the doom of Arthur Dimmesdale, so may the other have borne upon his own brow the trace of Martha Corey’s grief.

No, it does not seem to me that the obstacle to a new birth of literature and art in America lies in the Puritan tradition, but rather in the timid and faithless spirit that lurks in the circles of culture, and still holds something of literary and academic leadership in the homes of the Puritans. What are the ghosts of a myriad Blue Laws compared with the transplanted cynicism of one “Saturday Review”? How can any noble literature germinate where young men are habitually taught that there is no such thing as originality, and that nothing remains for us in this effete epoch of history but the mere recombining of thoughts which sprang first from braver brains? It is melancholy to see young men come forth from the college walls with less enthusiasm than they carried in; trained in a spirit which is in this respect worse than English toryism—that is, does not even retain a hearty faith in the past. It is better that a man should have eyes in the back of his head than that he should be taught to sneer at even a retrospective vision. One may believe that the golden age is behind us or before us, but alas for the forlorn wisdom of him who rejects it altogether! It is not the climax of culture that a college graduate should emulate the obituary praise bestowed by Cotton Mather on the Rev. John Mitchell of Cambridge, “a truly aged young man.” Better a thousand times train a boy on Scott’s novels or the Border Ballads than educate him to believe, on the one side, that chivalry was a cheat and the troubadours imbeciles, and on the other hand, that universal suffrage is an absurdity and the one real need is to get rid of our voters. A great crisis like a civil war brings men temporarily to their senses, and the young resume the attitude natural to their years, in spite of their teachers; but it is a sad thing when, in seeking for the generous impulses of youth, we have to turn from the public sentiment of the colleges to that of the workshops and the farms.

It is a thing not to be forgotten, that for a long series of years the people of our Northern States were habitually in advance of their institutions of learning, in courage and comprehensiveness of thought. There were long years during which the most cultivated scholar, so soon as he embraced an unpopular opinion, was apt to find the college doors closed against him, and only the country lyceum—the people’s college—left open. Slavery had to be abolished before the most accomplished orator of the nation could be invited to address the graduates of his own university. The first among American scholars was nominated year after year, only to be rejected, before the academic societies of his own neighborhood. Yet during all that time the rural lecture associations showered their invitations on Parker and Phillips; culture shunned them, but the common people heard them gladly. The home of real thought was outside, not inside, the college walls. It hardly embarrassed a professor’s position if he defended slavery as a divine institution; but he risked his place if he denounced the wrong. In those days, if by any chance a man of bold opinions drifted into a reputable professorship, we listened sadly to hear his voice grow faint. He usually began to lose his faith, his courage, his toleration,—in short, his Americanism,—when he left the ranks of the uninstructed.

That time is past; and the literary class has now come more into sympathy with the popular heart. It is perhaps fortunate that there is as yet but little esprit de corps among our writers, so that they receive their best sympathy, not from each other, but from the people. Even the memory of our most original authors, as Thoreau, or Margaret Fuller Ossoli, is apt to receive its sharpest stabs from those of the same guild. When we American writers find grace to do our best, it is not so much because we are sustained by each other, as that we are conscious of a deep popular heart, slowly but surely answering back to ours, and offering a worthier stimulus than the applause of a coterie. If we once lose faith in our audience, the muse grows silent. Even the apparent indifference of this audience to culture and high finish may be in the end a wholesome influence, recalling us to those more important things, compared to which these are secondary qualities. The indifference is only comparative; our public prefers good writing, as it prefers good elocution; but it values energy, heartiness, and action more. The public is right; it is the business of the writer, as of the speaker, to perfect the finer graces without sacrificing things more vital. “She was not a good singer,” says some novelist of his heroine, “but she sang with an inspiration such as good singers rarely indulge in.” Given those positive qualities, and I think that a fine execution does not hinder acceptance in America, but rather aids it. Where there is beauty of execution alone, a popular audience, even in America, very easily goes to sleep. And in such matters, as the French actor, Samson, said to the young dramatist, “sleep is an opinion.”

It takes more than grammars and dictionaries to make a literature. “It is the spirit in which we act that is the great matter,” Goethe says. Der Geist aus dem wir handeln ist das Höchste. Technical training may give the negative merits of style, as an elocutionist may help a public speaker by ridding him of tricks. But the positive force of writing or of speech must come from positive sources,—ardor, energy, depth of feeling or of thought. No instruction ever gave these, only the inspiration of a great soul, a great need, or a great people. We all know that a vast deal of oxygen may go into the style of a man; we see in it not merely what books he has read, what company he has kept, but also the food he eats, the exercise he takes, the air he breathes. And so there is oxygen in the collective literature of a nation, and this vital element proceeds, above all else, from liberty. For want of this wholesome oxygen, the voice of Victor Hugo comes to us uncertain and spasmodic, as of one in an alien atmosphere where breath is pain; for want of it, the eloquent English tones that at first sounded so clear and bell-like now reach us only faint and muffled, and lose their music day by day. It is by the presence of this oxygen that American literature is to be made great. We are lost if we permit this inspiration of our nation’s life to sustain only the journalist and the stump-speaker, while we allow the colleges and the books to be choked with the dust of dead centuries and to pant for daily breath.

Perhaps it may yet be found that the men who are contributing most to raise the tone of American literature are the men who have never yet written a book and have scarcely time to read one, but by their heroic energy in other spheres are providing exemplars for what our books shall one day be. The man who constructs a great mechanical work helps literature, for he gives a model which shall one day inspire us to construct literary works as great. I do not wish to be forever outdone by the carpet-machinery of Clinton or the grain-elevators of Chicago. We have not yet arrived at our literature,—other things must come first; we are busy with our railroads, perfecting the vast alimentary canal by which the nation assimilates raw immigrants at the rate of half a million a year. We are not yet producing, we are digesting: food now, literary composition by and by: Shakespeare did not write Hamlet at the dinner-table. It is of course impossible to explain this to foreigners, and they still talk of convincing, while we talk of dining.

For one, I cannot dispense with the society which we call uncultivated. Democratic sympathies seem to be mainly a matter of vigor and health. It seems to be the first symptom of biliousness to think that only one’s self and one’s cousins are entitled to consideration and constitute the world. Every refined person is an aristocrat in his dyspeptic moments; when hearty and well, he demands a wider range of sympathy. It is so tedious to live only in one circle and have only a genteel acquaintance! Mrs. Trench, in her delightful letters, complains of the society in Dresden, about the year 1800, because of “the impossibility, without overstepping all bounds of social custom, of associating with any but noblesse.” We order that matter otherwise in America. I wish not only to know my neighbor, the man of fashion, who strolls to his club at noon, but also my neighbor, the wheelwright, who goes to his dinner at the same hour. One would not wish to be unacquainted with the fair maiden who drives by in her basket-wagon in the afternoon; nor with the other fair maiden, who may be seen at her washtub in the morning. Both are quite worth knowing; both are good, sensible, dutiful girls: the young laundress is the better mathematician, because she has gone through the grammar school; but the other has the better French accent, because she has spent half her life in Paris. They offer a variety, at least, and save from that monotony which besets any set of people when seen alone. There was much reason in Horace Walpole’s coachman, who, having driven the maids of honor all his life, bequeathed his earnings to his son, on condition that he should never marry a maid of honor.

I affirm that democratic society, the society of the future, enriches and does not impoverish human life, and gives more, not less, material for literary art. Distributing culture through all classes, it diminishes class-distinction and develops individuality. Perhaps it is the best phenomenon of American life, thus far, that the word “gentleman,” which in England still designates a social order, is here more apt to refer to personal character. When we describe a person as a gentleman, we usually refer to his manners, morals, and education, not to his property or birth; and this change alone is worth the transplantation across the Atlantic. The use of the word “lady” is yet more comprehensive, and therefore more honorable still; we sometimes see, in a shopkeeper’s advertisement, “Saleslady wanted.” No doubt the mere fashionable novelist loses terribly by the change: when all classes may wear the same dress-coat, what is left for him? But he who aims to depict passion and character gains in proportion; his material is increased tenfold. The living realities of American life ought to come in among the tiresome lay-figures of average English fiction like Steven Lawrence into the London drawing-room: tragedy must resume its grander shape, and no longer turn on the vexed question whether the daughter of this or that matchmaker shall marry the baronet. It is the characteristic of a real book that, though the scene be laid in courts, their whole machinery might be struck out and the essential interest of the plot remain the same. In Auerbach’s On the Heights, for instance, the social heights might be abolished and the moral elevation would be enough. The play of human emotion is a thing so absorbing, that the petty distinctions of cottage and castle become as nothing in its presence. Why not waive these small matters in advance, then, and go straight to the real thing?

The greatest transatlantic successes which American novelists have yet attained—those won by Cooper and Mrs. Stowe—have come through a daring Americanism of subject, which introduced in each case a new figure to the European world,—first the Indian, then the negro. Whatever the merit of the work, it was plainly the theme which conquered. Such successes are not easily to be repeated, for they were based on temporary situations never to recur. But they prepare the way for higher triumphs to be won by a profounder treatment,—the introduction into literature, not of new tribes alone, but of the American spirit. To analyze combinations of character that only our national life produces, to portray dramatic situations that belong to a clearer social atmosphere,—this is the higher Americanism. Of course, to cope with such themes in such a spirit is less easy than to describe a foray or a tournament, or to multiply indefinitely such still-life pictures as the stereotyped English or French society affords; but the thing when once done is incomparably nobler. It may be centuries before it is done: no matter. It will be done, and with it will come a similar advance along the whole line of literary labor, like the elevation which we have seen in the whole quality of scientific work in this country within the last twenty years.

We talk idly about the tyranny of the ancient classics, as if there were some special peril about it, quite distinct from all other tyrannies. But if a man is to be stunted by the influence of a master, it makes no difference whether that master lived before or since the Christian epoch. One folio volume is as ponderous as another, if it crushes down the tender germs of thought. There is no great choice between the volumes of the Encyclopædia. It is not important to know whether a man reads Homer or Dante: the essential point is whether he believes the world to be young or old; whether he sees as much scope for his own inspiration as if never a book had appeared in the world. So long as he does this, he has the American spirit: no books, no travel, can overwhelm him, for these will only enlarge his thoughts and raise his standard of execution. When he loses this faith, he takes rank among the copyists and the secondary, and no accident can raise him to a place among the benefactors of mankind. He is like a man who is frightened in battle: you cannot exactly blame him, for it may be an affair of the temperament or of the digestion; but you are glad to let him drop to the rear, and to close up the ranks. Fields are won by those who believe in the winning.

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