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PROGNOSTICS OF AMERICAN LITERATURE.
By Prof. N. PORTER, JR., Yale College.
“I said what I thought;" was the impatient answer of the fervid Rousseau, when asked wherein lay the charm of his writings, which were then electrifying all Europe. This reply not only well describes
the secret of the power of this, and of every great writer, but it suggests the best definition of the word Literature—than which no word is more vaguely, though none, it would seem, ought to be more easily, understood.
Literature, after the judgment and usage of not a few, is an amusement, a pastime, a thing of luxury and refinement. It is not the utterance of clear and strong thoughts, but the enunciation of the high and mysterious fancies of certain unhappy wights, who deem themselves inspired to say they know not what. It is not the expression of honest emotions, which have been too strongly felt not to be uttered, but rather of exaggerated and sickly feelings, which have been distorted by unnatural use, or over-refined by foolish indulgence. Then, too, to make known the thoughts and feelings of a writer, something is thought to be necessary besides human language, condensed to its utmost vigor of expression, or wrought into the highest splendor of description, or burning with the intensest fire of feeling. Instead of this, there is demanded a studied prettiness of expression, a far-fetched nicety of conceits, and a lisping effeminacy of manner, to entitle a production to a place in what is, par eminence, Literature. In contrast with these views of the matter and form of Literature, it should be defined as the expression of worthy thoughts and feelings, in worthy language. The theme should be worthy to be expressed, and the expression should be worthy of the theme ; not only worthy to represent and convey it for the moment, but as a crystal shrine, to preserve and adorn it, if need be, for all time.
This view of Literature is, in no sense, illiberal, unworthy, or utilitarian. So far from it, it is the only view that is truly liberal, inasmuch as it is comprehensive enough to include everything which is worthy of a place within its ample enclosure. In Greek Literature, it would find room for the subtle Aristotle, the splendid Plato, the fiery Demosthenes, no less than for Homer the sublimely melodious, the sad Euripides, and the sparkling Anacreon. In the German, it would own the all-crushing” Kant, as well as boast the all-comprehending Goethe. In the English, it would call all its own, in its range from the profound and almost prophetic sayings of Bacon, to the tiniest song that sparkles as a diamond on the dark pall of Shakspeare's tragic muse, or that peeps out from amid the grotesque attire of his comic genius. It would comprehend whatever is grave in philosophy, whatever is serious in theology, whatever is wise or witty in the essayist, whatever is splendid or touching in fiction, whatever is musical or majestic in poetry, whatever is lively and sparkling in the tale or the song, provided it is true to nature and the heart of man, and provided, also, that it is expressed in language worthy of the theme.
Nor is it low or unworthy. That view of Literature is unworthy, which makes her the plaything of the idler, the parasite of the luxurious, or the caterer for an enervated and unmanly taste; but which gives her no place in the thoughts of the wise or among the circles of those who think and act nobly for the welfare of man. That view only gives Literature her lawful honor, which makes her the companion of the truly great, and the graceful handmaid to all that is of permanent worth, or deserves lasting fame.
Nor is it utilitarian-coldly and severely insensible to the charms of beauty in style, and to the nameless graces that move in the bright train of genius. On the contrary, it provides for all these, and would do justice to them, as it secures subjects worth the adorning, and would make them minister in exalted services. The ruby burns as brightly, and the diamond flashes as splendidly, when they adorn the hilt of the hero, who has won the freedom of millions, as when they gem the jewelled plaything that dangles at the side of a dainty “ carpet knight.” The pearl emits as serene a radiance, when it is set in the coronet of a highborn lady, whose virtues are her brighest jewels, as when sported by her flaunting maid of honor.
It is well to assert this view of Literature on all occasions; but it seems to be demanded when we raise inquiries in respect to the Literature of a nation. A national Literature, if it have a distinctive character, must be the expression of the nation's mind and heart. A nation, to have a Literature of its own, must, in that Literature, speak its mind and heart. The mere outside of Literature is the same with every people. The difference, the peculiar spirit and genius of each, must come from the peculiar characteristics of the nation's inner self.
What will be the features, and what is the destiny of American Literature? The question is great and interesting.
It might be thought, perhaps, that a previous question ought to be determined, whether there is to be such a thing as American Literature at all. Some have gravely doubted whether such a thing were possible. Others have confidently asserted that the greatness of this Union was destined to be physical and commercial only; that the line of her eminence was to be practical alone ; but that in Literature she could attain no greatness, and hope for no renown. With those of either opinion we are not disposed to argue. For ourselves, we are certain that a great people, a people with a strong intellect and a strong heart, cannot but give expression to itself in a distinctive and commanding Literature : provided that it have time enough to develope itself in this direction. Besides, to argue the question, might spoil the theme of some transatlantic critic, or his stale copyist this side the ocean. To essay to determine it might be cruelty to some one, who might lack for material on which to descant in a fiery and contemptuous strain towards the young republic. But though we shall not treat the question directly, we hope to furnish some materials towards its adjustment.
First of all, we observe, that American Literature will always be closely entwined with the Literature of England, and can never be wholly independent of it. The literature of this country is no wild plant that, after pushing its way from a chance seed upwards in some hard and rocky soil, amid conflicts with torrent and wind, forces itself at last into a strong and shapely growth; but it is a choice off-shoot from an old and generous tree, that has grown up in the English garden, of which the soil has been mellowed by the cultivation and protection of centuries.. From this soil it can never be uprooted, and we desire that it may never be deprived of its advantages. An American, disconnected from the English Literature, can never exist. It is absurd to speak of it, or to think of it. We might as well talk or dream of the American language. England and America must continue to employ the same speech. The capacities of this language will be developed by both countries in a similar direction. Improvements in vigor and power of speech, and in a flowing and easy harmony of expression, will be transmitted from the one to the other. Great truths illustrated by the one will be caught by the other. New discoveries in the spiritual world will be taken into the common stock. Great writers in poetry and fiction will be received into the common ranks of those who, in the Republic of Letters, are ennobled by a right truly divine. Great historians and philosophers will each add so much of golden treasures to the common wealth. . On this kind of intellectual intercourse there can be no embargo. Non-intercourse here is impossible. The trade is free. America cannot refuse to be indebted to England, nor can England scorn, if she would, to be taught by the daughterland.
The fact is too often lost sight of, or, at least, is not made sufficiently prominent, that in the development of our Literature, we begin where other nations end-with a Literature already matured
to our hands-a Literature too, in some respects, the richest and the most splendid the world has ever seen. Of this Literature we cannot refuse to avail ourselves. In saying this, we confess no dependence, and feel no servility. The treasures of this Literature are by inheritance ours. Shakspeare and Bacon belong to America as truly as to England. Our ancestors laughed and wept at the dramas of the one, as truly as did the fathers of the London cit, or the Yorkshire esquire. Milton wrote for our fathers, as truly as for the fathers of those who exclusively appropriate his fame. When we claim a portion of this fame, it is not with the feeling of slaves or of robbers, but by the right of sons. When we are asked, where is the American Shakspeare and the American Milton ?-we reply, your Shakspeare and Milton are as truly American as they are English. Nay, were it worth while to contest the point, we might show that, as far as the English spirit and the national character have had influence on the English Literature, our fathers were more English than the English themselves. That which has made this Literature what it is, is not the Englishman's feudal spirit, nor his honest but subservient loyalty, nor his gruff contempt of foreigners; but it'is his love of truth, his jealous spirit of liberty, his attachment to home, his unconquered zeal in intellectual labor, his hearty manhood, and his high religious faith. In all these traits, we assert for ourselves a purer blood, and a lineage more unmixed, than can our brothers at home. We freely resign to them all claim to the proud and bloody Norman spirit; for this has had little to do with Literature, except to repress and scorn it. It is the Anglo-Saxon element, which, in the features named, has raised English Literature to its unrivalled eminence. The Anglo-Saxon blood is ours. It is in the Anglo-Saxon line that Literature is an heir-loom. Our fathers, on English soil, did more than their share to cherish the love of learning, to defend free principles, which are its vital air, to foster the intellectual spirit, and to favor and reward intellectual effort ; and by the best of rights do their sons claim an interest in the results of their toil.
American Literature can never bear the traces of a barbarous or aboriginal period. The American people have never known such a period. They began a civilized people. They have no recollections from the misty past, transmitted in the wild legend and still wilder song. Their history is clearly mapped out to the eye. It lies too near them to be glorified by the imagination. On this account, it has been gravely said, we cannot have a national Literature. To have such a Literature, it has been argued, we must go back to the savage state, and bring up from thence the unhewn materials for the finished structure. It might as truly be said, that to have a national costume, we must begin with garments of skins; and to create a national architecture, we must first dwell in the bark ħut of the savage. It is true that the Literature of the European nations has had such beginnings, and has been largely affected by their influence. The Moorish wars gave to Spanish Literature the poem of the Cid. The strifes in the forest and over the sea, gave to Germany the tales of the Niebelungen ; and the heroic age of Britain is still renewed in England's spirit-stirring ballads, and many a song of wondrous pathos and graphic power. But a Literature of this kind we can never have. Our beginnings as a nation are too near us, and too well known, to be invested with mysterious or romantic interest. Our heroic age was made up of battles for the principles of civil and religious freedom, and cannot be the subject of that high wrought enthusiasm which pertains to more passionate strifes. To make such a Literature by force; to seek to invest our early history with an interest it does not possess to the hearts of the people, is vain affectation. It is to contend against nature, who will be sure not only to vanquish us, but to make us the laughing stock of the world. It is as if one should hope to crystallize in an hour the granite, which is the mysterious product of an unknown period; or to force into sudden life the forest that must be the tardy growth of centuries of years.
But though we are thus closely allied to the English people, and to the English Literature, and though we cannot trace back our existence to a barbarous age, does it follow that we have no nationality-or that this nationality will not give us a Literature of our own? Not in the least. We have characteristics which are American and peculiar. To know these is our wisdom, and to develope them will be our strength and glory.
The Americans are a practical people—a nation who strive to be formed and guided by the reality of things. They would, in respect to all subjects, know and rest upon the truth. The Literature of such a people will be eminently 'natural and truthful
. It will be just in sentiment, chaste in style, life-like in its pictures of nature, faithful and true in expressing the emotions. No other Literature than this can find a response in the heart of a truthful people. None other can be the product of those gifted minds, who write to be honored and read. Now we by no means assert that we have, as yet, produced such a Literature. It would be the height of ignorance and vanity, also, to deny that we have grossly offended in the opposite direction. We have been deluded by our own credulity, mystified by our own crudeness, inflated by vanity, imposed on by ignorance, and excited by passion.
are yet young-young enough to commit the follies of youth, and not too young to show distinct promise of a better manhood. Amid all our inconsistent and fantastic exhibitions, there is to be discerned a strong and decided shaping towards whatever the truth requires. We ask what is true in