Early 19th Century Classics

American literature first began to exist for the larger world in the persons of Washington Irving (1785-1859) and James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851).  Their recognition was almost contemporaneous. The Sketch Book (1810) was the first American book to win a great reputation in England, and The Spy (1821) was the first to obtain a similar vogue on the continent.  The fame of both authors is associated with New York, and that city took the first place as the centre of the literature of the period.  It was not that New York was more intellectual than other parts of the country; but it was a highly prosperous community, where a mercantile society flourished and consequently a certain degree of culture obtained.  The first American literature was not the product of a raw democracy nor of the new nationality in any sense; there was nothing sudden or vehement in its generation; but, as always, it was the product of older elements in the society where it arose and flourished under the conditions of precedent culture.  The family of Irving were in trade.  Cooper’s father was in the law.  A third writer, William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878), is associated with them, and though he announced his poetic talent precociously by Thanatopsis (1807), his Poems (1832), immediately republished in London, were the basis of his true fame.  Born in Massachusetts, he lived his long life in New York, and was there a distinguished citizen.  His father was a physician.  All three men were not supremely endowed; they do not show the passion of genius for its work which marks the great writers; they were, like most American writers, men with the literary temperament, characteristically gentlemen, who essayed literature with varying power.  If the quality of this early literature is to be appreciated truly, the fact of its provenance from a society whose cultivation was simple and normal, a provincial bourgeois society of a prosperous democracy, must be borne in mind.  It came, not from the people, but from the best classes developed under preceding conditions.


Irving all his life was in the eyes of his countrymen, whatever their pride might be in him, more a traveled gentleman than one of themselves.  He had come home to end his days at Sunnyside by the Hudson, but he had won his fame in foreign fields.  In his youth the beginnings of his literary work were most humble—light contributions to the press.  He was of a most social nature, warm, refined, humorous, a man belonging to the town.  He was not seriously disposed, idled much, and surprised his fellow-citizens suddenly by a grotesque History of New York (1809), an extravaganza satirizing the Dutch element of the province.  He discovered in writing this work his talent for humor and also one part of his literary theme, the Dutch tradition; but he did not so convince himself of his powers as to continue, and it was only after the failure of his commercial interests that, being thrown on himself for support, he published in London ten years later, at the age of thirty-six, the volume of sketches which by its success committed him to a literary career.  In that work he found himself; sentiment and distinction of style characterized it, and these were his main traits.  He remained abroad, always favored in society and living in diplomatic posts in Spain and England, for seventeen years, and he later spent four years in Spain as minister.  Spain gave him a larger opportunity than England for the cultivation of romantic sentiment, and he found there his best themes in Moorish legend and history.  On his return to America he added to his subjects the exploration of the west; and he wrote, besides, biographies of Goldsmith and Washington.  He was, as it turned out, a voluminous writer; yet his books successively seem the accident of his situation.  The excellence of his work lies rather in the treatment than the substance; primarily, there is the pellucid style, which he drew from his love of Goldsmith, and the charm of his personality shown in his romantic interest, his pathos and humor ever growing in delicacy, and his familiar touch with humanity.  He made his name American mainly by creating the legend of the Hudson, and he alone has linked his memory locally with his country so that it hangs over the landscape and blends with it for ever; he owned his nativity, too, by his pictures of the prairie and the fur-trade and by his life of Washington, who had laid his hand upon his head; but he had spent half his life abroad, in the temperamental enjoyment of the romantic suggestion of the old world, and by his writings he gave this expansion of sympathy and sentiment to his countrymen.  If his temperament was native-born and his literary taste home-bred, and if his affections gave a legend to the countryside and his feelings expanded with the view of prairie and wilderness, and if he sought to honor with his pen the historic associations and memory of the land which had honored him, it was, nevertheless, the trans-Atlantic touch that had loosed his genius and mainly fed it, and this fact was prophetic of the immediate course of American literature and the most significant in his career.

Cooper’s initiation into literature was similar to that of Irving.  He had received, perhaps, something more of scanty formal education, since he attended Yale College for a season, but he early took to the sea and was a midshipman.  He was thirty years old before he began to write, and it was almost an accident that after the failure of his first novel he finished The Spy, so deterring was the prejudice that no American book could succeed.  He was, however, a man of great energy of life, great force of will; it was his nature to persist.  The way once opened, he wrote voluminously and with great unevenness.  His literary defects, both of surface and construction, are patent.  It was not by style nor by any detail of plot or character that he excelled; but whatever imperfections there might be, his work was alive; it had body, motion, fire.  He chose his subjects from aspects of life familiar to him in the woods or on the sea or from patriotic memories near to him in the fields of the Revolution.  He thus established a vital connection with his own country, and in so far he is the most national by his themes of any of the American writers.  What he gave was the scene of the new world, both in the forest and by the fires of the Revolution and on the swift and daring American ships; but it was especially by his power to give the sense of the primitive wilderness and the ocean weather, and adventure there, that he won success.  In France, where he was popular, this came as an echo out of the real world of the west to the dream of nature that had lately grown up in French literature; and, besides, of all the springs of interest native to men in every land adventure in the wild is, perhaps, the easiest to touch, the quickest and most inflaming to respond.  Cooper stood for a true element in American experience and conditions, for the romance in the mere presence of primeval things of nature newly found by man and opening to his coming; this was an imaginative moment, and Cooper seized it by his imagination.  He especially did so in the Indian elements of his tale, and gave permanent ideality to the Indian type.  The trait of loftiness which he thus incorporated belongs with the impression of the virgin forest and prairie, the breadth, the silence and the music of universal nature.  The distinction of his work is to open so great a scene worthily, to give it human dignity in rough and primitive characters seen in the simplicity of their being, and to fill it with peril, resourcefulness and hardihood.  It is the only brave picture of life in the broad from an American pen.  Scott, in inventing the romantic treatment of history in fiction, was the leader of the historical novel; but Cooper, except in so far as he employed the form, was not in a true sense an imitator of Scott; he did not create, nor think, nor feel, in Scott’s way, and he came far short of the deep human power of Scott’s genius.  He was not great in character; but he was great in adventure, manly spirit and the atmosphere of the natural world, an Odysseyan writer, who caught the moment of the American planting in vivid and characteristic traits.


This same spirit, but limited to nature in her most elemental forms and having the simplest generic relations to human life, characterizes Bryant.  He, too, had slender academic training, and came from the same social origins as Irving and Cooper; but, owing to his extraordinary boyish precocity, the family influences upon him and the kind of home he was bred in are more clearly seen.  He framed his art in his boyhood on the model of 18th-century verse, and though he felt the liberalizing influences of Wordsworth later there always remained in his verse a sense of form that suggests a severer school than that of his English contemporaries.  He lived the life of a journalist and public man in New York, but the poet in him was a man apart and he jealously guarded his talent in seclusion.  Though he was at times abroad, he resembled Cooper in being unaffected by foreign residence; he remained home-bred.  He wrote a considerable quantity of verse; but it is by a quality in it rather than by its contents that his poetry is recalled, and this quality exists most highly in the few pieces that are well known.  To no verse is the phrase “native wood-notes wild” more properly applied.  His poetry gives this deep impression of privacy; high, clear, brief in voice, and yet, as it were, as of something hidden in the sky or grove or brook, or as if the rock spoke, it is nature in her haunts; it is the voice of the peak, the forests, the cataracts, the smile of the blue gentian, the distant rosy flight of the water-fowl,--with no human element less simple than piety, death or the secular changes of time.  It is, too, an expression of something so purely American that it seems that it must be as uncomprehended by one not familiar with the scene as the beauty of Greece or Italian glows; it is poetry locked in its own land.  This presence of the pure, the pristine, the virginal in the verse, this luminousness, spaciousness, serenity in the land, this immemorialness of natural things, is the body and spirit of the true wild, such as Bryant’s eyes had seen it and as it had possessed his soul.  In no other American poet is there this nearness to original awe in the presence of nature; nowhere is nature so slightly humanized, so cosmically felt, and yet poetized.  Poetry of this sort must be small in amount; a few hundred lines contain it all; but they alone shrine the original grandeur, not so much of the American landscape, as of wild nature when first felt in the primitive American world.

American romanticism thus began with these three writers, who gave it characterization after all by only a few simple traits.  There was in it no profound passion nor philosophy nor revolt; especially there was no morbidness.  It was sprung from a new soil.  The breath of the early American world was in Bryant’s poetry; he had freed from the landscape a Druidical nature-worship of singular purity, simple and grand, unbound by any conventional formulas of thought or feeling but deeply spiritual.  The new life of the land filled the scene of Cooper; prairie, forest and sea, Indians, backwoodsmen and sailors, the human struggle of all kinds, gave it diversity and detail; but its life was the American spirit, the epic action of a people taking primitive possession, battling with its various foes, making its world.  Irving, more brooding and reminiscent, gave legend to the landscape, transformed rudeness with humor and brought elements of picturesqueness into play; and in him, in whom the new race was more mature, was first shown that nostalgia for the past, which is everywhere a romantic trait but was peculiarly strong under American conditions.  He was consequently more free in imagination than the others, and first dealt with other than American subjects, emancipating literature from provinciality of theme, while the modes of his romantic treatment, the way he felt about his subjects, still owed much to his American birth.  In all this literature by the three writers there was little complexity, and there was no strangeness in their personalities.  Irving was more genially human, Cooper more vitally intense; Bryant was the more careful artist in the severe limits of his art, which was simple and plain.  Simplicity and plainness characterize all three; they were, in truth, simple American gentlemen, of the breeding and tastes that a plain democracy produced as its best, who, giving themselves to literature for a career, developed a native romanticism, which, however obvious and uncomplicated with philosophy, passion or moods, represented the first stage of American life with freshness of power, an element of ideal loftiness and much literary charm.


This is taken from American Literature.





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