General Progress in American Literature

This is taken from American Literature.


Though Irving, Cooper and Bryant were associated with New York, there was something sporadic in their germination.  They have no common source; they stood apart; and their work neither overlapped nor blended, but remained self-isolated.  None of them can be said to have founded a school, but Irving left a literary tradition and Cooper had followers in the field of historical fiction.  The literary product up to the middle of the century presents generally from its early years the appearance of an indistinguishable mass, as in colonial days, in which neither titles nor authors are eminent.  The association of American literature with the periodical press is, perhaps, the most important trait to be observed.  New York and Philadelphia were book- markets, and local presses had long been at work issuing many reprints.  Magazines in various degrees of importance sprang up in succession to the earlier imitations of English 18th-century periodicals, which abounded at the beginning of the century; and as time went on these were accompanied by a host of annuals of the English Keepsake variety.  Philadelphia was especially distinguished by an early fertility in magazines, which later reached a great circulation, as in the case of Godey’s and Graham’s; the Knickerbocker became prominent in New York from 1833, when it was founded; Richmond had in The Southern Literary Messenger the chief patron of southern writers from 1834, and there were abortive ventures still farther south in Charleston.  These various periodicals and like publications were the literary arena, the place of ambition for young and old, for known and unknown, and there literary fame and what little money came of its pursuit were found.  Minor poetry flourished in it; sketches, tales, essays, every sort of writing in prose multiplied there.  A change in the atmosphere of letters is also to be noted.  The 18th century was fairly left behind.  The Philadelphian reprint of Galignani’s Paris edition of Keats, Shelley and Coleridge had brought in the new romantic poetry with wide effect; and Disraeli, Bulwer and, later, Dickens are felt in the prose; in verse, especially by women, Mrs Hemans and Mrs Browning ruled the moment.  The product was large.  In poetry it was displayed on the most comprehensive scale in Rufus Wilmot Griswold’s (1815-1857) collections of American verse, made in the middle of the century.  Mrs Lydia Sigourney (1791-1865), a prolific writer, and Mrs Maria Gowan Brooks (1795-1845), known as Southey’s “Maria del Occidente,” a more ambitious aspirant, the “Davidson sisters,” (1808-1825: 1823-1838), and Alice (1820-1871) and Phoebe Cary (1824-1871) illustrate the work of the women; and Richard Henry Wilde (1789-1847), George Pope Morris (1802-1864), Charles Fenno Hoffman (1806-1884) and Willis Gaylord Clark (1810-1841) may serve for that of men.  In this verse, and in the abundant prose as well, the sentimentality of the period is strongly marked; it continued to the times of the Civil War. Two poets of a better type, Joseph Rodman Drake (1795-1820), distinguished by delicacy of fancy, and Fitz-Greene Halleck (1790-1867), who showed ardour and a real power of phrase, are remembered from an earlier time for their brotherhood in verse, but Drake died young and Halleck was soon sterilized, so that the talents of both proved abortive.  The characteristic figure that really exemplifies this secondary literature at its best is Nathaniel Parker Willis (1806-1867) who, though born in Portland, Maine, was the chief litterateur of the Knickerbocker period.  He wrote abundantly in both verse and prose, and was the first of the journalist type of authors, a social adventurer with facile powers of literary entertainment, a man of the town and immensely popular.  He was the sentimentalist by profession, and his work, transitory as it proved, was typical of a large share of the taste, talent and ambition of the contemporary crowd of writers.  Neighbouring him in time and place are the authors of various stripe, known as “the Literati,” whom Poe described in his critical papers, which, in connexion with Griswold’s collections mentioned above, are the principal current source of information concerning the bulk of American literature in that period.


This world of the magazines, the Literati and sentimentalism, was the true milieu of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849).  Born in Boston, his mother a pleasing English actress and his father a dissipated stage- struck youth of a Baltimore family, left an orphan in childhood, he was reared in the Virginian home of John Allan, a merchant of Scottish extraction; he received there the stamp of southern character.  He was all his life characteristically a southerner, with southern ideals of character and conduct, southern manners towards both men and women and southern passions.  He showed precocity in verse, but made his real debut in prose as editor of The Southern Literary Messenger at Richmond in 1835.  He was by his talents committed to a literary career, and being usually without definite means of support he followed the literary market, first to Philadelphia and later to New York.  He was continuously associated with magazines as editor, reviewer or contributor; they were his means of sustenance; and, whether as cause or effect, this mode of life fell in with the nature of his mind, which was a contemporary mind.  He was perhaps better acquainted with contemporary work in literature than any of his associates; he took his first cues from Disraeli and Bulwer and Moore, and he was earliest to recognize Tennyson and Mrs Browning; his principal reading was always in the magazines.  He was, however, more than a man of literary temperament like Irving and Cooper; he was a child of genius.  As in their case, there was something sporadic in his appearance on the scene.  He had no American origins, but only American conditions of life.  In fact he bore little relation to his period, and so far as he was influenced, it was for the worse; he transcended the period, essentially, in all his creative work.  He chose for a form of expression the sketch, tale or short story, and he developed it in various ways.  From the start there was a melodramatic element in him, itself a southern trait and developed by the literary influence of Disraeli and Bulwer on his mind.  He took the tale of mystery as his special province; and receiving it as a mystery that was to be explained, after the recent masters of it, he saw its fruitful lines of development in the fact that science had succeeded to superstition as the source of wonder, and also in the use of ratiocination as a mode of disentanglement in the detective story. 

Brilliant as his success was in these lines, his great power lay in the tale of psychological states as a mode of impressing the mind with the thrill of terror, the thrall of fascination, the sense of mystery.  It is by his tales in these several sorts that he won, more slowly than Irving or Cooper and effectually only after his death, continental reputation; at present no American author is so securely settled in the recognition of the world at large, and he owes this, similarly to Cooper, to the power of mystery over the human mind universally; that is, he owes it to his theme, seconded by a marvellous power to develop it by the methods of art.  He thus added new traits to American romanticism, but as in the case of Irving’s Spanish studies there is no American element in the theme; he is detached from his local world, and works in the sphere of universal human nature, nor in his treatment is there any trace of his American birth.  He is a world author more purely than any other American writer.  Though it is on his tales that his continental reputation necessarily rests, his temperament is more subtly expressed in his verse, in which that fond of which his tales are the logical and intelligible growth gives out images and rhythms, the issue of morbid states, which affect the mind rather as a form of music than of thought. 

Emotion was, in art, his constant aim, though it might be only so simple a thing as the emotion of colour as in his landscape studies; and in his verse, by an unconscious integration and flow of elements within him it must be thought, he obtained emotional effects by images which have no intellectual value, and which float in rhythms so as to act musically on the mind and arouse pure moods of feeling absolutely free of any other contents.  Such poems must be an enigma to most men, but others are accessible to them, and derive from them an original and unique pleasure; they belong outside of the intellectual sphere.  It is by virtue of this musical quality and immediacy that his poetry is characterized by genius; in proportion as it has meaning of an intelligible sort it begins to fade and lower; so far as “Lenore” and “Annie” and “Annabel Lee” are human, they are feeble ghosts of that sentimentality which was so rife in Poe’s time and so maudlin in his own personal relations; and except for a half- dozen pieces, in which his quality of rhythmical fascination is supreme, his verse as a whole is inferior to the point of being commonplace.  Small as the quantity of his true verse is, it more sustains his peculiar genius in American eyes than does his prose; and this is because it is so unique.  He stands absolutely alone as a poet with none like him; in his tales, as an artist, he is hardly less solitary, but he has some ties of connexion or likeness with the other masters of mystery.  Poe lived in poverty and died in misery; but without him romanticism in America would lose its most romantic figure, and American literature the artist who, most of all its writers, had the passion of genius for its work.

Poe left even less trace of himself in the work of others than did Irving, Cooper and Bryant.  He stands in succession to them, and closed the period so far as it contributed to American romanticism anything distinguished, original or permanent.  The ways already opened had, however, been trod, and most notably in fiction.  The treatment of manners and customs, essentially in Irving’s vein, was pleasingly cultivated in Maryland by John Pendleton Kennedy (1795- 1870) in Swallow Barn (1832) and similar tales of Old Dominion life.  In Virginia, Beverly Tucker (1784-1851) in The Partisan Leader (1836), noticeable for its prophecy of secession, and John Esten Cooke (1830-1886) in The Virginia Comedians (1854), also won a passing reputation.  The champion in the south, however, was William Gilmore Simms (1806-1870), born in Charleston, a voluminous writer of both prose and verse, who undertook to depict, on the same scale as Cooper and in his manner, the settlement of the southern territory and its Indian and revolutionary history; but of his many novels, of which the characteristic examples are The Yemassee (1335), The Partisan (1835) and Beauchampe (1842), none attained literary distinction.  The sea-novel was developed by Herman Melville (1819- 1891) in Typee (1846) and its successors, but these tales, in spite of their being highly commended by lovers of adventure, have taken no more hold than the work of Simms.  Single novels of wide popularity appeared from time to time, of which a typical instance was The Wide, Wide World (1850) by Susan Warner (1819-1885).  The grade of excellence was best illustrated, perhaps, for the best current fiction which was not to be incorporated in literature, by the novels of Catharine Maria Sedgwick (1789-1867), of a western Massachusetts family, in Hope Leslie (1827) and its successors.  The distinct Knickerbocker strain was best preserved by James Kirke Paulding (1778-1860) among the direct imitators of Irving; but the better part of the Irving tradition, its sentiment, social grace and literary flavour, was not noticeable until it awoke in George William Curtis (1824-1892), born a New Englander but, like Bryant, a journalist and public man of New York, whose novels, notes of travel and casual brief social essays brought that urbane style to an end, as in Donald Grant Mitchell (born 1822) the school of sentiment, descended from the same source, died not unbecomingly in the Reveries of a Bachelor (1850) and Dream Life (1851).  Two poets, just subsequent to Poe, George Henry Boker (1823-1890) and Thomas Buchanan Read (1822-1872), won a certain distinction, the former especially in the drama, in the Philadelphia group.  The single popular songs, “The Star-Spangled Banner” (1813), by Francis Scott Key (1779-1843) of Maryland, “America” (1832) by Samuel Francis Smith (1808-1895) of Massachusetts, and “Home, Sweet Home” (1823) by John Howard Payne (1792-1852) of New York, may also be appropriately recorded here.  The last distinct literary personality to emerge from the miscellany of talent in the middle of the century, in the middle Atlantic states, was James Bayard Taylor (1825-1878) who, characteristically a journalist, gained reputation by his travels, poems and novels, but in spite of brilliant versatility and a high ambition failed to obtain permanent distinction.  His translation of Faust (1870) is his chief title to remembrance; but the later cultivation of the oriental motive in American lyrical poetry owes something to his example.





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