Literature and the New Nation

The new nation, which with the 19th century began its integral career, still retained the great disparities which originally existed between the diverse colonies.  Political unity, the simplest of the social unities, had been achieved; “a more perfect union,” in the language of the founders, had been formed; but even in the political sphere the new state bore in its bosom disuniting forces which again and again threatened to rive it apart until they were dissipated in the Civil War; and in the other spheres of its existence, intellectually, morally, socially, its unity was far from being accomplished.  The expansion of its territory over the continental area brought new local diversity and prolonged the contrasts of border conditions with those of the long-settled communities.  This state of affairs was reflected in the capital fact that there was no metropolitan centre in which the tradition and forces of the nation were concentrated.  Washington was a centre of political administration; but that was all. The nation grew slowly, indeed, into consciousness of its own existence; but it was without united history, without national traditions of civilization and culture, and it was committed to the untried idea of democracy.  It was founded in a new faith; yet at the moment that it proclaimed the equality of men, its own social structure and habit north and south contradicted the declaration, not merely by the fact of slavery, but by the life of its classes.  The south long remained oligarchic; in the north aristocracy slowly melted away. 

The coincidence of an economic opportunity with a philosophic principle is the secret of the career of American democracy in its first century. The vast resources of an undeveloped country gave this opportunity to the individual, while the nation was pledged by its fundamental idea to material prosperity for the masses, popular education and the common welfare, as the supreme test of government.  In this labor, subduing the new world to agriculture, trade and manufactures, the forces of the nation were spent, under the complication of maintaining the will of the people as the directing power; the subjugation of the soil and experience in popular government are the main facts of American history.  In the course of this task the practice of the fine arts was hardly more than an incident.  When anyone thinks of Greece, he thinks first of her arts; when anyone thinks of America, he thinks of her arts last.  Literature, in the sense of the printed word, has had a great career in America; as the vehicle of use, books, journals, literary communication, educational works and libraries have filled the land; nowhere has the power of the printed word ever been so great, nowhere has the man of literary genius ever had so broad an opportunity to affect the minds of men contemporaneously.  But, in the artistic sense, literature, at most, has been locally illustrated by a few eminent names.

The most obvious fact with regard to this literature is that—to adopt a convenient word—it has been regional.  It has flourished in parts of the country, very distinctly marked, and is in each case affected by its environment and local culture; if it incorporates national elements at times, it seems to graft them on its own stock.  The growth of literature in these favored soils was slow and humble.  There was no outburst of genius, no sudden movement, no renaissance; but very gradually a step was taken in advance of the last generation, as that had advanced upon its forefathers.  The first books of true excellence were experiments; they seem almost accidents.  The cities of Boston, New York and Philadelphia were lettered communities; they possessed imported books, professional classes, men of education and taste.  The tradition of literature was strong, especially in New England; there were readers used to the polite letters of the past.  It was, however, in the main the past of Puritanism, both in England and at home, and of the 18th century in general, on which they were bred, with a touch ever growing stronger of the new European romanticism.  All the philosophic ideas of the 18th century were current.  What was most lacking was a standard self-applied by original writers; and in the absence of a great national centre of standards and traditions, and amid the poverty of such small local centers as the writers were bred in, they sought what they desired, not in England, not in any one country nor in any one literature, but in the solidarity of literature itself, in the republic of letters, the world-state itself,--the master-works of all European lands; they became either actual pilgrims on foreign soil or pilgrims of the mind in fireside travels.  The foreign influences that thus entered into American literature are obvious and make a large part of its history; but the fact here brought out is that European literature and experience stood to American writers in lieu of a national centre; it was there that both standard and tradition were found.


This is taken from American Literature.

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