New England Authors and Thinkers

(This is taken from American Literature.)

In New England, which succeeded to New York as the chief source of literature of high distinction, the progress of culture in the post- Revolutionary period was as normal and gradual as elsewhere in the country; there was no violence of development, no sudden break, but the growth of knowledge and taste went slowly on in conjunction with the softening of the Puritan foundation of thought, belief and practice.  What most distinguished literature in New England from that to the west and south was its connection with religion and scholarship, neither of which elements was strong in the literature that has been described.  The neighborhood of Harvard College to Boston was a powerful influence in the field of knowledge and critical culture.  The most significant fact in respect to scholarship, however, was the residence abroad of George Ticknor (1791-1871), author of The History of Spanish Literature (1849), of Edward Everett (1794-1865), the orator, and of George Bancroft (1800-1891), author of the History of the United States (1834-1874), who as young men brought back new ideals of learning.  The social connection of Boston, not only with England but with the continent, was more constant, varied and intimate than fell to the fortune of any other city, and owing to the serious temper of the community the intellectual commerce with the outer world through books was more profound.  Coleridge was early deeply influential on the thought of the cultivated class, and to him Carlyle, who found his first sincere welcome and effectual power there, succeeded.  The influence of both combined to introduce, and to secure attention for, German writers.  Translation, as time went on, followed, and German thought was also further sustained and advanced in the community by Frederick Henry Hedge (1805-1890), a philosophical theologian, who conducted a propaganda of German ideas. 

The activity of the group about him is significantly marked by the issue of the series of Specimens of Foreign Standard Literature (1838), edited by George Ripley (1802-1880), the critic, which was the first of its kind in America.  French ideas, as time went on, were also current, and the field of research extended to the Orient, the writings of which were brought forward especially in connection with the Transcendental Movement to which all these foreign studies contributed.  In New England, in other words, a close, serious and vital connection was made, for the first time, with the philosophic thought of the world and with its tradition even in the remote past.  Unitarianism, which was the form in which the old Puritanism dissolved in the cultivated class, came in with the beginning of the century, and found its representative in the gentle character, refined intelligence and liberal humanity of William Ellery Channing (1780- 1842), who has remained its chief apostle.  It was the expression of a moral maturing and intellectual enlightenment that took place with as little disturbance as ever marked religious evolution in any community.  The people at large remained evangelical, but they also felt in a less degree the softening and liberalizing tendency; nevertheless it was mainly in the field of Unitarianism that literature flourished, as was natural, and Transcendentalism was a phenomenon that grew out of Unitarianism, being indeed the excess of the movement of enlightenment and the extreme limit of intuitionalism, individualism and private judgment.  These two factors, religion and scholarship, gave to New England literature its serious stamp and academic quality; but the preparatory stage being longer, it was slower to emerge than the literature of the rest of the country.

The first stirrings of romanticism in New England were felt, as in the country to the south, by men of literary temperament in a sympathetic enjoyment and feeble imitation of the contemporary English romantic school of fiction exemplified by Mrs. Radcliffe, Lewis and Godwin.  Washington Allston (1779-1843), the painter, born in South Carolina but by education and adoption a citizen of Cambridge, showed the taste in Monaldi (1841), and Richard Henry Dana (1787-1879) in Paul Felton (1833); in his poem of the same date, “The Buccaneer,” the pseudo-Byronic element, which belongs to the conception of character and passion in this school of fiction, appears.  These elder writers illustrate rather the stage of imaginative culture at the period, and show by their other works also—Allston by his poems “The Sylphs of the Seasons” (1813), and Dana by his abortive periodical The Idle Man (1821) issued at New York—their essential sympathy with the literary conditions reigning before the time of Irving.  They both were post-Revolutionary, and advanced American culture in other fields rather than imagination, Allston in art and Dana in criticism, as editor of The North American Review, which was founded in 1815, and was long the chief organ of serious thought and critical learning, influential in the dissemination of ideas and in the maintenance of the intellectual life.  The influence of their personality in the community, like that of Channing, with whom they were closely connected, was of more importance than any of their works.

Emerson: Hawthorne: Longfellow.

The definite moment of the appearance of New England in literature in the true sense was marked by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s (1803-1882) Nature (1836), Nathaniel Hawthorne’s (1804-1864) Twice-Told Tales (1837) and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s (1807-1882) Voices of the Night (1839).  Of this group of men Longfellow is the most national figure, and from the point of view of literary history the most significant by virtue of what he contributed to American romanticism in the large.  He felt the conscious desire of the people for an American literature, and he obeyed it in the choice of his subjects.  He took national themes, and his work is in this respect the counterpart in poetry to that of Cooper in prose.  In Hiawatha (1855) he poetized the Indian life; and, though the scene and figures of the poem are no more localized than the happy hunting-grounds, the ideal of the life of the aborigines in the wilderness is given with freshness and primitive charm and with effect on the imagination.  It is the sole survivor of many poetic attempts to naturalize the Indian in literature, and will remain the classic Indian poem.  In Evangeline (1847), The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858) and The New England Tragedies (1868), he depicted colonial life.  As he thus embodied national tradition in one portion of his work, he rendered national character in another, and with more spontaneity, in those domestic poems of childhood and the affections, simple moods of the heart in the common lot, which most endeared him as the poet of the household.  These are American poems as truly as his historical verse, though they are also universal for the English race.  In another large portion of his work he brought back from the romantic tradition of Europe, after Irving’s manner, motives which he treated for their pure poetic quality, detached from anything American, and he also translated much foreign verse from the north and the south of Europe, including Dante’s Divine Comedy (1867).  He has, more than any other single writer, reunited America with the poetic past of Europe, particularly in its romance.  The same serenity of disposition that marked Irving and Bryant characterized his life; and his art, more varied than Bryant’s or Irving’s, has the same refinement, being simple and so limpid as to deceive the reader into an oblivion of its quality and sometimes into an unwitting disparagement of what seems so plain and natural as to be commonplace.  In Longfellow, as in Irving, one is struck by that quietude, which is so prevailing a characteristic of American literature, and which proceeds from its steady and even flow from sources that never knew any disturbance or perturbation.  The life, the art, the moods are all calm; deep passion is absent.

Hawthorne was endowed with a soul of more intense brooding, but he remained within the circle of this peace.  He developed in solitude exquisite grace of language, and in other respects was an artist, the mate of Poe in the tale and exceeding Poe in significance since he used symbolism for effects of truth.  He, like Longfellow, embodied the national tradition, in this case the Puritan past; but he seized the subject, not in its historical aspects and diversity of character and event, but psychologically in its moral passion in The Scarlet Letter (1850), and less abstractly, more picturesquely, more humanly, in its blood tradition, in The House of the Seven Gables.  In his earlier work, as an artist, he shows the paucity of the materials in the environment, especially in his tales; but when his residence in Italy and England gave into his hands larger opportunity, he did not succeed so well in welding Italy with America in The Marble Faun (1860), or England with America in his experimental attempts at the work which he left uncompleted, as he had done in the Puritan romances.  He had, however, added a new domain to American romanticism; and, most of all these writers, he blended moral truth with fiction; he, indeed, spiritualized romance, and without loss of human reality,--a rare thing in any literature.  Both Longfellow and Hawthorne were happy in reconciling their art with their country: both, not less than Poe, were universal artists, but they incorporated the national past in their art and were thereby more profoundly American.

Emerson, whose work lay in the religious sphere, not unlike Jonathan Edwards at an earlier time of climax but in a different way, marked the issue of Puritanism in pure idealism, and was more contemporaneously associated with life in the times than were the purely imaginative writers.  He was the central figure of Transcendentalism, and apart from his specific teachings stood for the American spirit, disengaged from authority, independent, personal, responsible only to himself.  He reached a revolutionary extreme, but he had not arrived at it by revolutionary means; without storm or stress, with characteristic peacefulness, he came to the great denials, and without much concerning himself with them turned to his own affirmations of spiritual reality, methods of life and personal results.  Serenity was his peculiar trait; amid all the agitation about him he was entirely unmoved, lived calmly and wrote with placid power, concentrating into the slowly wrought sentences of his Essays (1841-1875) the spiritual essence and moral metal of a life lived to God, to himself and to his fellow-men.  He, more than any other single writer, reunited American thought with the philosophy of the world; more than all others, he opened the ways of liberalism, wherever they may lead.  He was an emancipator of the mind.  In his Poems (1847-1867), though the abstract and the concrete often find themselves awkward mates, his philosophic ideas are put forth under forms of imagination and his personal life is expressed with nobility; his poetic originality, though so different in kind, is as unique as Poe’s, and reaches a height of imaginative faculty not elsewhere found in American verse.  His poetry belongs more peculiarly to universal art, so pure in general is its philosophic content and so free from any temporal trait is the style; but it is as distinguished for the laconic expression of American ideas, minted with one blow, as his prose is for the constant breathing of the American spirit.  It is the less possible to define the American traits in Emerson, because they constituted the man.  He was as purely an American type as Lincoln.  The grain of the man is in his work also; and the best that his prose and verse contain is his personal force.  In him alone is genius felt as power; in the others it impresses one primarily as culture, modes of artistic faculty, phases of temperament.  In this, too, he brings to mind Jonathan Edwards, the other climax of the religious spirit in New England; in Edwards it was intellectual power, in Emerson it was moral power; in both it was indigenous, power springing from what was most profound in the historic life of the community.

Whittier: Holmes: Lowell.

Three other names, John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892), Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894), James Russell Lowell (1819-1891), complete the group of the greater writers of New England.  Holmes was a more local figure, by his humor and wit and his mental acuteness a Yankee and having the flavor of race, but neither in his verse nor his novels reaching a high degree of excellence and best known by The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table (1858), which is the Yankee prose classic.  His contemporary reputation was largely social and owed much to the length of his life, but his actual hold on literature already seems slight and his work of little permanent value.  Whittier stands somewhat apart as the poet of the soil and also because of his Quakerism; he was first eminent as the poet of the anti-slavery movement, to which he contributed much stirring verse, and later secured a broader fame by Snowbound (1866) and his religious poems of simple piety, welcome to every faith; he was also a balladist of local legends.  In general he is the voice of the plain people without the medium of academic culture, and his verse though of low flight is near to their life and faith.  Lowell first won distinction by The Biglow Papers (1848), which with the second series (1886) is the Yankee classic in verse, and is second only to his patriotic odes in maintaining his poetic reputation; his other verse, variously romantic in theme and feeling, and latterly more kindred to English classic style, shows little originality and was never popularly received; it is rather the fruit of great talent working in close literary sympathy with other poets whom from time to time he valued.  His prose consists in the main of literary studies in criticism, a field in which he held the first rank.  Together with Holmes and Whittier he gives greater body, diversity and illustration to the literature of New England; but in the work of none of these is there the initiative or the presence of single genius that characterize Emerson, Hawthorne and Longfellow.  Lowell was a scholar with academic ties, a patriot above party, master of prose and verse highly developed and finished, and at times of a lofty strain owing to his moral enthusiasm; Whittier was a Quaker priest, vigorous in a great cause of humanity, with fluent power to express in poetry the life of the farm, the roadside and the legends that were like folklore in the memory of the settlement;

Holmes was a town wit and master of occasional verse, with notes here and there of a higher strain in single rare poems.


The secondary literature that accompanied the work of these writers was abundant.  It was largely the product of Transcendentalism and much of it gathered about Emerson.  In The Dial (1840), the organ of Transcendentalism, he introduced to the public his young friend, Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), author of Walden (1854) and the father of the nature-writers, who as a hermit-type has had some European vogue and shows an increasing hold as an exception among men, but whose work has little literary distinction; and together with him, his companion, William Ellery Channing (1818-1901), a poet who has significance only in the transcendentalist group.  With them should be named Emerson’s coeval, Amos Bronson Alcott (1799-1888), the patriarch of the so-called Concord philosophers, better esteemed for his powers of monologue than as a writer in either prose or verse.  Emerson’s associate-editor in The Dial was Sarah Margaret Fuller, afterwards Marchioness d’Ossoli (1810-1850), a woman of extraordinary qualities and much usefulness, who is best remembered by her Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1844), but contributed no permanent work to literature.  She was a leading figure at Brook Farm, the socialistic community founded by members of the group, and especially by Ripley, who like her afterwards emigrated to New York and together with her began a distinguished critical career in connection with The New York Tribune.  Transcendentalism produced also its peculiar poet in Jones Very (1813-1881), whose Poems (1839) have original quality though slight merit, and its novelist in Sylvester Judd (1813-1853), whose Margaret (1845) is a unique work in American fiction.  Other transcendentalist poets were Christopher Pearse Cranch (1813-1892), and Charles Timothy Brooks (1813-1883), who translated Faust (1856), besides a score of minor names.  Outside of this group Thomas William Parsons (1819-1892), who translated Dante’s Inferno (1843), was a poet of greater distinction, but his product was slight.  The prose of the movement, though abundant, yielded nothing that is remembered.


The literary life of Boston was, however, by no means confined within this circle of thought.  It was most distinguished in the field of history, where indeed the writers rivaled the imaginative authors in public fame.  They were, besides George Bancroft already mentioned, John Gorham Palfrey (1796-1881), author of The History of New England (1858), William Hickling Prescott (1796-1859), whose field was Spanish and Spanish-American history, John Lothrop Motley (1814- 1877), whose attention was given to Dutch history, and Jared Sparks (1789-1866), whose work lay in biography.  In the writings of Prescott and Motley the romanticism of the period is clearly felt, and they attained the highest distinction in the literary school of history of the period.


Oratory also flourished in Daniel Webster (1782-1852), Edward Everett (1794-1865), Rufus Choate (1799-1859), Wendell Phillips (1811-1884), Charles Sumner (1811-1874), and Robert Charles Winthrop (1809-1894), the last survivor of a long line of fiery or classic oratory in which New England was especially distinguished and had rivalry only from Henry Clay (1777-1852) of Virginia, and John Caldwell Calhoun (1782-1850) of South Carolina.  The church also produced two powerful speakers in Theodore Parker (1810-1860), the protagonist of the liberals in Boston, and Henry Ward Beecher (1813- 1887), who sustained a liberal form of New England congregationalism in Brooklyn, New York, where he made Plymouth Church a national pulpit.


The single memorable novel of the period was Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s (1811-1896) Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), which had a world-wide vogue; it is the chief contribution of the anti-slavery movement to American literature and stands for plantation life in the old south.  Another female writer, Mrs. Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880), remembered by her Philothea (1836), deserves mention in the line of notable American women who served their generation in literary ways and by devotion to public causes.


Criticism was served excellently by Edwin Percy Whipple (1819-1885), and less eminently by Henry Theodore Tuckerman (1813-1871), who emigrated to New York; but scholarship in general flourished under the protection of Harvard College, where Ticknor, Longfellow and Lowell maintained a high ideal of literary knowledge and judgment in the chair they successively filled, and were accompanied in English by Francis James Child (1825-1896), whose English and Scottish Ballads, first issued in 1858, was brought to its final and monumental form in 1892.  Cornelius Conway Felton (1807-1862), president of Harvard College, stood for Greek culture, but the classical influence was little in evidence.  Elsewhere in New England George Perkins Marsh (1801-1882) of Vermont, long minister to Italy, and William Dwight Whitney (1827-1894) of Yale, were linguistic scholars of high distinction.  The development of the colleges into universities was already prophesied in the presence and work of these men.  Outside of New England scholarship had been illustrated in New York by Charles Anthon (1797-1867), the classical editor, by the Duyckincks, Evert Augustus (1816-1878) and George Long (1823-1863), editors of the Cyclopaedia of American Literature (1855), and by Giulian Crommelin Verplanck (1786-1870), editor of Shakespeare (1846).

Characteristics of New England literature.

New England thus, standing somewhat apart, produced a characteristic literature, more deeply rooted in the community than was the case elsewhere; and this literature, blending with what was produced to the south and west, became a predominant share of what has been nationally accepted as standard American literature.  It is also the more profound and scholarly share; and if quantity as well as quality be counted, and, as is proper, Bryant be included as the product of Puritan culture, it is the more artistic share.  American standard literature, so constituted, belongs to romanticism, and is a phase of the romanticism which was then the general mood of literature; but it is a native product, with traits of its own and inward development from local conditions, not only apparent by its themes, but by its distinct evolution.  Though it owed much to contact with Europe through its traveled scholars and its intellectual commerce by means of translations and imported books, and often dealt with matter detached from America both in prose and poetry, it was essentially self-contained.  It was, in a marked way, free from the passions whose source was the French Revolution and its after-throes from 1789 to 1848; it is by this fact that it differs most from European romanticism.  Just as the Puritan Rebellion in England left the colonies untouched to their own development, the political revolutions in Europe left the new nation unaffected to its normal evolution.  There was never any revolution, in the French sense, in America, whether social, political, religious or literary; its great historical changes, such as the termination of English rule, the passing away of Puritanism, the abolition of slavery with the consequent destruction of the old South, were in a true sense conservative changes, normal phases of new life.  In literature this state of things is reflected in the absence in it of any disturbance, its serenity of mood, its air of quiet studies.  It is shown especially in its lack of passion.  The only ardors displayed by its writers are moral, patriotic or religious, and in none of them is there any sense of conflict.  The life which they knew was wholesome, regular, still free from urban corruption, the experience of a plain, prosperous and law-abiding people.  None of these writers, though like Hawthorne they might deal with sin or like Poe with horror and a lover’s despair at death, struck any tragic note.  No tragedy was written, no love-poetry, no novel of passion.  No literature is so maiden-pure.  It is by refinement rather than power that it is most distinguished, by taste and cultivation, by conscientiousness in art, in poetic and stylistic craft; it is romance retrospectively seen in the national past, or conjured out of foreign lands by reminiscent imagination, or symbolically created out of fantasy; and this is supplemented by poetry of the domestic affections, the simple sorrows, all “that has been and may be again” in daily human lives, and by prose similarly related to a well-ordered life.  If it is undistinguished by any work of supreme genius, it reflects broadly and happily and in enduring forms the national tradition and character of the land in its dawning century.

The original impulse of this literature had spent its force by 1861-- that is, before the Civil War. The greater writers had, in general, already done their characteristic work, and though the survivors continued to produce till toward the close of the century, their works contained no new element and were at most mellow fruits of age.  The war itself, like the Revolution, left little trace in literature beyond a few popular songs and those occasional poems which the older poets wrote in the course of the conflict.  Their attitude toward it and (with the exception of Whittier and Lowell) toward the anti- slavery movement which led up to it was rather that of citizens than of poets, though in the verse of Longfellow and Emerson there is the noble stamp of the hour, the impress of liberty, bravery and sorrow.  Lowell is the exception; he found in the Commemoration Ode (1865) his loftiest subject and most enduring fame.  The work began to fall into new hands, and a literature since the war grew up, which was, however, especially in poetry, a continuation of romanticism and contained its declining force.  It was contributed to from all parts of the older country, and also from the west, and a generation has now added its completed work to the sum.  No author, in this late period, has received the national welcome to the same degree as the men of the elder time; none has had such personal distinction, eminence or public affection; and none has found such honorable favor abroad, either in England or on the continent.  Poetry has felt the presence of the art of Tennyson, which has maintained an extreme sensitiveness among the poets to artistic requirements of both material and technique; and it also has taken color from the later English schools.  It has, however, yielded its pre-eminent position to prose.  The novel has displaced romance as the highest form of fiction, and the essay has succeeded the review as the form of criticism.  The older colleges have grown into universities, and public libraries have multiplied throughout the north and west.  The literature of information, meant for the popularization of knowledge of all kinds, has been put forth in great quantity, and the annual increase in the production of books keeps pace with the general growth of the country.  Literature of distinction, however, makes but a small part of this large mass.





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