Obrázky stránek
PDF
ePub

INTRODUCTION

[ocr errors]

SCARCELY a year goes by without some contribution of importance to the history of American literature, but much yet remains to be done. The rise and fall of schools, the prevalence and permanence of certain types, the influence of foreign models, remain still to be investigated and explained. Criticism of our literature has scarcely begun, and it will be impossible for sound ideas of the value and bearing of American work to prevail among our people until scholars have studied our literature as our history and our political system have already been studied, noting with care the peculiar qualities that our poets and prose-writers possess as a class, and determining, on a comparative basis, what are the essential characteristics, however precious or however mediocre, that belong to our literature. For such criticism, materials are rapidly accumulating. The whole history of our country, social, political, and literary, is being thoroughly explored. Through the publication of biographies, letters, and journals, through researches into the development of intellectual, moral, and political movements, through our growing knowledge and appreciation of existing and preëxisting social conditions, we begin slowly to understand what has been the course of affairs in the United States since the foundation of the colonies, and slowly to realize what part literature has played in our national development.

Our interest in the literature that has originated among us must not be taken as a sign of our belief that this literature is to be ranked high among the literatures of the world. That is for time to determine. But however humble our literature may be, and however young, it is still ours, bound to us by a thousand natural ties. Its name is inappropriate :“American" literature is an inexact, though unavoidable, term for the literature of the United States, and would seem to imply larger boundaries than those we possess.

[ocr errors][ocr errors]

But within the territory where this literature had its birth, affection for it and a feeling of ownership in it are steadily increasing. During the colonial period much of what was produced here could scarcely be distinguished from the contemporary work of minor British writers, though even Mather and Edwards, to an attentive eye, present traits that distinguish them from their brethren across the sea, and we cannot imagine Franklin as the native of any land but our own. Certainly, from the end of the colonial period forward, the character of our literature became individual almost in proportion as the character of the nation became distinct. American literature has never become independent of outside influences, nor ceased often to follow foreign models. No living literature of modern times can be independent of other literatures ; indeed, it is the glory of English literature, on both sides of the Atlantic, that it has been open to influences froin without, freely absorbing strange ideals, but assimilating them thoroughly. Comparative criticisin has yet to show how extensive •the process of absorption and assimilation has been with us; but it is plain, even to the superficial observer, that whatever may be the points of likeness between ourselves and others, there are, at least, elements in our national literature that are peculiarly characteristic of us as a people. In a literature thus bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh it is natural and human that we should take a strong and an increasing interest.

There are, however, reasons other than those of blind affection that make American literature interesting and important. First, the period covered by it is, in reality, a long one. We are accustomed to think ourselves a young people, and yet it is nearly three hundred years since books in the English language began to be written in this continent. The first books written here were contemporary with Shakspere's plays; the first books printed here were contemporary with those of Milton; the first American-born authors were contemporary with Dryden and Defoe. The period covered by American literature includes, therefore, the whole modern movement of European thought and life, the movement that began with the Renaissance and the Reformation, and that passed, through the age in which pure reason held its sway, through the stormy period of Romantic enthusiasm, into the strangely composite era of to-day. And although the works produced here have not at all times been of great importance, the continuity has been unbroken. In our branch of English literature, as in that of Great Britain, we may trace the development of modern culture.

American literature, again, is interesting and important because it is the characteristic expression of a new nation, and a nation whose life is based, on the whole, upon a single and consistent set of principles. Though our people speak a common language, we did not spring from a single race, but are rather formed, and are still being formed, from many races, each contributing its quota of men who chose voluntarily to live and act under given responsibilities, and in pursuit of given ideals. These responsibilities and these ideals are well known; they assert the right of the individual to complete freedom in his own affairs, except where the common good, as determined by the representatives of each individual, makes restriction necessary. This noble, citizen's ideal of a life free, self-reliant, but responsiblé, shows itself clearly, to my mind, in our literature, and is the source of its strongest characteristics. Each step in our history has served to perpetuate the tendency of citizen and author not only to search for a clear understanding of his own mind and heart, but to look carefully at the minds and hearts of his fellows. To this tendency, obvious in all matters of the common welfare, is due the peculiarity of American literature, as a whole, that it appeals, in a marked degree, to moods or states of the national consciousness or, at least, to the consciousness of large bodies of the people, and that it is lacking in whatever appeals only to a select or special class. Our prose literature, in particular, consists largely of what may be described as the ideas of individuals on matters of wide general interest, presented for adoption, as a series of resolutions might be, to the assembly of the people. It is with matters of the commonwealth that our prose literature is chiefly concerned, from Cotton Mather and Edwards to Parkman and Curtis, - the religious, moral, political, social, and intellectual conceptions that are common to all, and upon the basis of which each must adjust his life. Such a condition of literature is natural to a thorough-going democracy. It has its strong points, and those that are weaker. It is less original, less devoted to the search for abstract beauty ; it is, as a whole, somewhat lacking in charm; but, on the other hand, it is rich in ideas, and strong in its appeal to the hearts of many, rather than to the special tastes or foibles of the few.

American prose has an even stronger claim on our attention than American verse. And this for two reasons. First, American prose originated when modern prose began, at the very end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth century. Before that there had been great schools of poetry, but no great school of prose. Prose style, until then, was unformed, obscure, whimsical, ponderous. Prose had had its great triumphs, but they were separate, accidental, - isolated, in large measure, from the course of development. It was Dryden, Defoe, Steele, Addison, Swift, — the school of journalism, of free speech, of debate and discussion, that, breaking away from the mediæval and Renaissance traditions, made the prose of England what it is; and English prose and English ideals had a powerful influence on the development of prose style in France and Germany. But the school of Steele and Addison and Swift had its followers in America, as well as on the continent of Europe ; and the graceful, well-ordered, effective prose of modern times, in a large part one of England's many contributions to civilization, we learned from its earliest source. It was, too, natural to our intellectual habits and our political and social institutions. The Magnalia is the only folio in our literature; and from Edwards and Franklin down the modern ideal of prose is that to which we have instinctively turned, and that in the development of which we have had our share. Indeed, we may fairly claim that in prose style Great Britain, France, and the United States have been the most fortunate of nations. Germany, for instance, is still floundering in the mediæval fashions of which England rid. herself two centuries ago, and the southern languages, though aided by classic models, are still beguiled by the overwrought enthusiasm which swept over Europe with the romantic movement, but which in Great Britain, France, and America has yielded to the ideals of vigorous but restrained speech which characterizes our own century.

In the second place, prose rather than poetry, has been the natural form of expression in American literature, - a form wholly consonant with our national mood, that of clear-headed, well-ordered

K

aspiration. The part of literature which we call poetry is great in its importance, but very limited in its field. Only ideas of certain sorts can be expressed by it. Its production is dependent, to a large degree, on a state of society in which an author is free to live a life of resolute leisure, free from all that would divert his fancy or his imagination from communion with his dream-like ideals. Such opportunities the American social system rarely furnishes. Our thoughts have been of necessity immediately concerned with the present, with what has been done and is to be done. Prose is therefore our characteristic language,- the language of debate and discussion and explanation, of the statesman, the preacher, the historian, the critic, the novelist.

If, then, we exclude poetry, and consider our literature only on its prose side, it is interesting to notice that it holds a high rank among contemporary literatures. The period of which we are speaking, it must be remembered, is that of the last two centuries. During that period, as a moment's thought will show, Holland has produced practically nothing that has been widely known beyond its own borders, and the same may be said, up to very recent years, of the Scandinavian and the Slavic nations. Italy, Spain, and Portugal, after long periods of literary activity, have contributed scarcely more than the nations just mentioned. The important prose writing of the civilized world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is to be found in the two branches of English literature, in French, and in German. To rank these four products is neither desirable nor possible, but it may be said, on the whole, that the prose literature of the United States, while falling distinctly below that of Great Britain and that of France, in range and power, might fairly be considered, according to the critic's tastes and standards, as superior to German prose literature, as, on the whole, equal to it, or, perhaps, as slightly inferior to it.

Leaving, now, the comparative merits of American prose, of which it has been necessary to say so much only because they are understood so little, we may examine our prose in itself. If we were to judge from current criticism in Great Britain and the United States, we might believe that there were distinct differences in the character of the English language as spoken by the two larger branches of the race. Ill-advised British writers comment freely

« PředchozíPokračovat »