Late Victorian American Literature

(This is taken from American Literature.)

In poetry the literary tradition was continued in Boston by Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1836-1907), essentially a stylist in verse, brief, definite, delicate, who carried the lighter graces of the art, refinement, wit, polish, to a high point of excellence.  His artistic consanguinity is with Herrick and Landor, and he takes motive and color for his verse from every land, as his predecessors had done, but with effects less rich.  He divided attention between drama and lyric, but as his dramas look strictly to the stage, it is on the lyrics that his reputation rests.  He was master also of an excellent prose and wrote novels, sketches of travel, and especially stories, strongly marked by humor, surprise and literary distinction.  In New York, Edmund Clarence Stedman (1833-1908) became the chief representative of the literary profession.  He was both poet and critic, and won reputation in the former and the first rank in the latter field.  His Victorian Poets (1875) and Poets of America (1885), followed by comprehensive anthologies (1894-1900), together with The Nature and Elements of Poetry (1892), are the principal critical work of his generation, and indeed the sole work that is eminent.  His verse, less practiced as time went on, was well wrought and often distinguished by flashes of spirited song and balladry.  With him is associated his elder friend, Richard Henry Stoddard (1825- 1903), who made his appearance before the Civil War, and whose verse belongs in general character to the style of that earlier period and is as rapidly forgotten.  Both Stedman and Stoddard were of New England birth, as was also the third to be mentioned, William Winter (born 1836), better known as the lifelong dramatic critic of the metropolis.  The last of the New York poets of established reputation, Richard Watson Gilder (b. 1844 in New Jersey; d. 1909), was at first affiliated with the school of Rossetti, and his work in general, Five Books of Song (1894), strongly marked by artistic susceptibility, is in a high degree refined and delicate.  In the country at large popular success, in England as well as in America, was won by Charles Godfrey Leland (1824-1903), in Hans Breitmann’s Ballads (1871), humorous poems in the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect.  Born in Philadelphia, he spent the greater part of his mature life abroad and wrote numerous works on diverse topics, but his reputation is chiefly connected with his books on gypsy life and lore.  Another foreign resident who deserves mention was Wilham Wetmore Story (1819-1895), the sculptor, of Massachusetts, connected with the Boston group, whose verse and prose gave him the rank of a litterateur. The South again entered into literature with the work of Sidney Lanier (1842-1881), in succession to Henry Timrod (1829-1867) and Paul Hamilton Hayne (1830-1886), who find a place rather by the affection in which they are held at the South than by positive merit.  Lanier showed originality and a true poetic gift, but his talents were little effectual.  From the West humorous poetry was produced by Francis Bret Harte (1839-1902), born in Albany, in The Heathen Chinee (1870) and similar verse, but he is better remembered as the artistic narrator of western mining life in his numerous stories and novels.  Verse of a similar kind also first brought into literary notice John Hay (1838-1905), in Pike County Ballads (1871), who also wrote in prose; but his reputation was rather won as a statesman in the closing years of his life.  Minor poets of less distinction but with a vein superior to that of the earlier period, more excellent in workmanship and more colored with imagination and mood, arose in all parts, of whom the most notable are Julia Ward Howe (born 1819), in Boston, the venerable friend of many good causes, Henry Howard Brownell (1820-1872) of Rhode Island, author of the most vigorous and realistic poetry of the Civil War, War Lyrics (1866), Edward Rowland Sill (1841-1887), born in Connecticut but associated with California, Henry Van Dyke (born 1852), in New York, better known by his prose in tale and essay, Silas Weir Mitchell (born 1830), in Philadelphia, whose repute as a novelist has overshadowed his admirable verse, Eugene Field (1850-1895) of Chicago, James Whitcomb Riley (born 1853) of Indiana, both distinguished for their humorous and childhood verse, and Joaquin Miller (born 1841) of Oregon, whose first work, Songs of the Sierras (1871), had in it much of the spirit of the wild land, the color of the desert, the free, adventurous character of the filibuster, all strangely mixed with pseudo-Byronic passions.


Apart from all these, whether minor or major poets, stands Walt Whitman (1819-1892), whose Leaves of Grass (1855) first appeared before the war, but whose fame is associated rather with its successive editions and its companion volumes, and definitely dated, perhaps, from 1867.  He received attention in England, as did Miller, on an assumption that his works expressed the new and original America, the unknown democracy, and he has had some vogue in Germany mainly owing to his naturalism.  His own countrymen, however, steadily refuse to accept him as representative of themselves, and his naturalism is uninteresting to them, while on the other hand a group apparently increasing in critical authority treat his work as significant.  It is, in general, only by those few fine lyrics which have found a place in all anthologies of American verse that he is well known and highly valued in his own land.

The later novel.

The chief field of literary activity has been found in the novel, and nowhere has the change been so marked as here.  The romantic treatment of the novel practically disappeared, and in its place came the realistic or analytic treatment, rendering manners by minute strokes of observation or dissecting motives psychologically.  This amounted to a substitution of the French art of fiction, in some of its forms, for the English tradition of broad ideality and historical picturesqueness.  The protagonist of the reform was William Dean Howells (born 1837), a cultivated literary scholar, and a various writer of essays, travel sketches, poetry and plays, editor of many magazines and books, whose career in letters has been more laborious and miscellaneous than any other contemporary, but whose main work has been the long series of novels that he has put forth almost annually throughout the period.  He not only wrote fiction, but he endeavored to make known to Americans fiction as it was practiced in other lands, Russia, Italy, Spain, and to bring the art that was dearest to him into line with the standard of the European world.  He was an apostle of the realistic school, and directed his teaching to the advocacy of the novel of observation, which records life in its conditions and attempts to realize what is in the daily lives and experience of man rather than what belongs to adventure, imagination or the dreaming part of life.  Of his works, The Lady of the Aroostook (1879), The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), A Hazard of New Fortunes (1889), are characteristic examples. 

He won a popular vogue, and if it is now less than it was, it is because after a score of years tastes and fashions change.  The conscientiousness of his art continues the tradition of American writers in that respect, and he is master of an affable style.  His work, including all its phases, is the most important body of work done in his generation.  Henry James (born 1843), who mainly resided abroad, is his compeer, and in a similar way has followed French initiative.  He also has been a various writer of criticism and travel and the occasional essay; but his equally long series of novels sustains his reputation.  He has developed the psychological treatment of fiction, and of his work The Portrait of a Lady (1881), The Princess Casamassima (1886) and The Tragic Muse (1890) are characteristic.  He has had less vogue owing to both matter and style, but in certain respects his power, more intellectual than that of Howells, has greater artistic elements, while the society with which he deals is more complex.  He is really a cosmopolitan writer and has no other connection with America than the accident of birth.  A third novelist, also a foreign resident, Francis Marion Crawford (1854-1909), falls into the same category.  A prolific novelist, in the beaten track of story-telling, he has always a story to tell and excellent narrative power.  The work regarded as most important from his hand is Saracinesca (1887) and its sequels; but his subjects are cosmopolitan, his talent is personal, and he has no effectual connection with his own country.  The romantic tradition of the older time was continued by Lew Wallace (1827-1905) of Indiana, a distinguished general and diplomat, in his Mexican tale, The Fair God (1873), and his oriental romances, Ben Hur (1880), one of the most widely circulated of American books, and The Prince of India (1893).  A mode of the novel which was wholly unique was practiced by Francis Richard Stockton (1834-1902) in his droll tales, of which Rudder Grange (1879) is the best known.

The principal minor product of the novel lay in the provincial tale.  The new methods easily lent themselves to the portraiture of local conditions, types and color.  Every part of the country had its writers who recorded its traits in this way.  For New England Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe described the older life in Old Town Folks (1869), and was succeeded by Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909) and Mary Eleanor Wilkins (born 1862).  The West was notably treated by Edward Eggleston (1837-1902) in The Hoosier School Master (1871), Mary Hallock Foote (born 1847) in Led-Horse Claim (1883) and Hamlin Garland (born 1860) in Main Traveled Roads (1891).  The South was represented by Mary Noailles Murfree [”Charles Egbert Craddock”] (born 1850) in In the Tennessee Mountains (1884) and its successors, by Thomas Nelson Page (born 1853) in Marse Chan (1887) and other tales of the reconstruction in Virginia, and with most literary grace by George Washington Cable (born 1844), whose novels of Louisiana are remarkable for their poetic charm.  The list is sufficiently illustrative of the general movement, which made what was called the dialect novel supreme for the season.  This was succeeded by a revival of the historical novel in local fields, of which Winston Churchill (born 1871) in Richard Carvel (1899) is the leading exponent, and together with it the sword and dagger tale of the Dumas type, the special contemporary plot invented by Anthony Hope, and romance in its utmost forms of adventure and extravagance, came in like a flood at the close of the Spanish War. There were during the period from 1870 to 1900 many other writers of fiction, who often proceeded in conventional and time-honored ways to tell their tale, but none of them is especially significant for the general view or as showing any tendencies of an original sort.  The pietistic novel, for example, was produced with immense popularity by Edward Payson Roe (1838-1888), who shared the same vogue as Josiah Gilbert Holland (1819-1881), and both fell heir to the same audience which in the earlier period had welcomed The Wide, Wide World with the same broad acceptance.


The essay, and the miscellaneous work which may be classed with it, was cultivated with most distinction by Thomas Wentworth Higginson (born 1823), one of the Boston group, a writer of the greatest versatility, as in his life he followed many employments, from that of preaching in a Unitarian pulpit to that of commanding a negro regiment in the Civil War. He has written good verse and excellent prose, and his familiar style, often brilliant with life and wit, especially becomes the social essay or reminiscent paper in which he excelled, and gives agreeableness to his writings in every form.  Atlantic Essays (1871) is a characteristic book; and, in general, in his volumes is to be found a valuable fund of reminiscence about the literature and the times of his long life, not elsewhere so abundant or entertaining.  Charles Dudley Warner (1829-1900) of Hartford, also in close touch in the later years with the Boston group, was more gifted with gentle humor and of a literary temperament that made the social essay his natural expression.  He won popularity by My Summer in a Garden (1870), and was the author of many volumes of travel and several novels, but the familiar essay, lighted with humor and touched with a reminiscence of the Irving quality in sentiment, was his distinctive work.  The long life of Edward Everett Hale (1822- 1909), minister at Boston, was fruitful in many miscellaneous volumes, including fiction of note, The Man Without a Country (1868), but the most useful writing from his pen falls into prose resembling the essay in its form and manner of address, though cousin, too, to the sermon.  John Burroughs (b. 1837) of New York carried on in essay form the nature tradition of Thoreau, touched with Emersonianism in the thought, and after his example books of mingled observation, sentiment and literary quality, with an out-of-door atmosphere, have multiplied.


American humor often cultivates a form akin to the essay, but it also falls into the mould of the tale or scene from life.  In the period before the Civil War, to sum up the whole subject in this place, it had the traits which it has since maintained, as its local tang, of burlesque, extravaganza, violence, but it recorded better an actual state of manners and scene of life in raw aspects.  Its noteworthy writers were Seba Smith (1792-1868) of Maine, author of the Letters of Major Jack Downing, which began to appear in the press in 1830; Augustus Baldwin Longstreet of Georgia in Georgia Scenes (1835); William Tappan Thompson (1812-1882), born in Ohio but associated with the South by descent and residence, in Major Jones’ Courtship (1840), a Georgian publication; Joseph G. Baldwin (1815-1864) in Flush Times in Alabama and Mississippi (1853); and Benjamin Penhallow Shillaber (1814-1890) in Life and Sayings of Mrs. Partington (1854).  A fresh form, attended by whimsicality, appears in George Horatio Derby’s (1823-1861) Phoenixiana (1855).  In the war-times Robert Henry Newell (1836-1901) and David Ross Locke (1833-1888), respectively known as “Orpheus C. Kerr” and “Petroleum V. Nasby” cultivated grotesque orthography in a characteristic vein of wit; and with more quaintness and drollery Henry Wheeler Shaw (1818-1885) and Charles Farrar Browne (1834-1867), known as “Josh Billings” and “Artemus Ward,” won immense popularity which extended to England.  These latter writers were men of Northern birth, but of Western and wandering journalistic experience as a rule.  Their works make up a body of what is known as “American humor,” a characteristic native product of social conditions and home talent.  One poet, John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887) of Vermont, attempted something similar in literary verse after the style of Tom Hood.  The heir to this tradition of farce, drollery and joke was Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910), known as “Mark Twain,” born in Missouri, who raised it to an extraordinary height of success and won world-wide reputation as a great and original humorist.  His works, however, include a broader compass of fiction, greater humanity and reality, and ally him to the masters of humorous creation.  Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908) of Georgia introduced a new variety in Nights with Uncle Remus (1883), which is literary negro folklore, and Finley Peter Dunne (born 1857) of Chicago, the creator of “Mr Dooley,” continues the older American style in its original traits.


History was represented in this period with a distinction not inferior to that of the elder group by Francis Parkman (1823-1903) of Boston, who, however, really belongs with the preceding age by his affiliations; his series of histories fell after the Civil War by their dates of publication, but they began with History of the Conspiracy of Pontiac (1851); he was the contemporary of Lowell and differed from the other members of the elder group, who survived, only by the fact of the later maturing of his work.  He was not less eminent than Motley and Prescott and his history is of a more modern type.  In the next generation the field of American history was cultivated by many scholars, and a large part of local history and of national biography was for the first time recorded.  James Ford Rhodes’s (1848) History of the United States (1892) holds standard rank; the various writings of John Fiske (1842-1901), distinguished also as a philosophical writer, in the colonial and revolutionary periods are valued both for scholarship and for excellent literary style; and Theodore Roosevelt’s (born 1858) The Winning of the West (1889) and his several biographical studies deserve mention by their merit as well as for his eminent position.  The historians, however, have seldom sought literary excellence, and their works belong rather to learning than to literature.  The same statement is true of the scholarship of the universities in general, where the spirit of literary study has changed.  In the department of scholarship little requires mention beyond Horace Howard Furness’s (born 1833) lifelong work on his Variorum Edition of Shakespeare, the Shakespearian labors of Henry Norman Hudson (1814-1886) and Richard Grant White (1821-1885), the Chaucerian studies of Thomas Raynesford Lounsbury (born 1838) of Yale, and the translations of Dante (1867, 1892) by Charles Eliot Norton (1827-1908) of Harvard.

Modern ideas.

The period has been one of great literary activity, effort and ambition, but it affects one by its mass rather than its details; it presents few eminent names.  The romantic motives fixed in early colonizing history as a taking possession of the land by a race of Puritans, pioneers, river-voyagers, backwoodsmen, argonauts, have been exhausted; and no new motives have been found.  The national tradition has been absorbed and incorporated, so far as literature was able to accomplish this.  The national character on the other hand has been expressed rather in local types, the color of isolated communities and provincial conditions for their picturesque value and human truth, and in commonplace characters of average life; but no broadly ideal types of the old English tradition have been created, and the great scene of life has not been staged after the manner of the imaginative masters of the past.  There has been no product of ideas since Emerson; he was, indeed, the sole author who received and fertilized ideas as such, and he has had no successor.  America is, in truth, perhaps intellectually more remote from Europe than in its earlier days.  The contact of its romanticism with that of Europe was, as has been seen, imperfect, but its touch with the later developments and reactions of the movement in Europe is far more imperfect.  With Tolstoy, Ibsen, d’Annunzio, Zola, Nietzsche, Maeterlinck, Sudermann, the American people can have no effectual touch; their social tradition and culture make them impenetrable to the present ideas of Europe as they are current in literary forms.  Nor has anything been developed from within that is fertile in literature.  The political unity of the nation is achieved, but it is not an integral people in other respects.  It has not the unity of England or France or even of the general European mind; it rather contains such disparate elements as characterize the Roman or the Turkish empire.  It is cleft by political tradition and in social moral conviction, north and south, and by intellectual strata of culture east and west; it is still a people in the making.  Its literature has been regional, as was said, centered in New England, New York, Philadelphia, contributed to sporadically from the South, growing up in Western districts like Indiana or germinating in Louisville in Kentucky, abundant in California, but always much dependent on the culture of its localities; it blends to some extent in the mind of the national reading public, but not very perfectly.  The universities have not, on the whole, been its sources or fosterers, and they are now filled with research, useful for learning but impotent for literature.  The intellectual life is now rather to be found in social, political and natural science than elsewhere; the imaginative life is feeble, and when felt is crude; the poetic pulse is imperceptible.

BIBLIOGRAPHY.—The best general histories of American literature are by Barrett Wendell (1900) and William P. Trent (1903).  Histories of particular periods or topics, most serviceable, are M. C. Tyler’s History of American Literature during the Colonial Time (2 vols., 1878), Literary History of the American Revolution (2 vols., 1897); J. F. Jameson, History of Historical Writing in America (1891); H. D. Addison, The Clergy in American Life and Letters (1900); W. H. Venable, Beginnings of Literary Culture in the Ohio Valley (1891); M.  Nicholson, The Hoosiers (1900); A. H. Smith, Philadelphia Magazines and their Contributors, 1741-1850 (1892); W. B.  Cairns, Development of American Literature, 1815-1833 (1898); O. B. Frothingham, Transcendentalism in New England (1876); L.  Swift, Brook Farm (1900); T. W. Higginson, Old Cambridge (1900).  The entire field is covered encyclopedically by Stedman and Hutchinson, Library of American Literature (11 vols., 1888-1890) and the Duyckincks, Cyclopaedia (3rd ed., 1875), and portions of it in R. W. Griswold’s successive collections, Poets and Poetry or America (1842), Prose Writers of America (1847), Female Poets of America (1848); Trent and Wells, Colonial Prose and Poetry (3 vols., 1901); Louise Manly, Southern Literature (1900), and E. C. Stedman, American Anthology (1900).  The American Men of Letters series (Houghton, Mifflin & Co., Boston) and the English Men of Letters, American Series (Macmillan, New York), present the biographical and critical view in general, to which may be added E. C. Stedman, Poets of America (1885); W. C.  Lawton, The New England Poets (1898), and G. E. Woodberry, America in Literature (1903).  Detailed and admirable bibliographies for all aspects of the subject are to be found in Wendell’s and Trent’s Histories, and abundant and minute biographical detail in Stedman’s indexes of authors in his collections. 





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