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The typical literature of a land, in addition to satisfying the instinct for beauty and stimulating the mind by imaginative creations, should thus teach patriotism and train character, Whatever the esthetic value of our native literature, it has always in its best examples performed this service.
In writing a comprehensive history of American literature, it is customary to begin with Captain John Smith, an adventurous sixteenth-century Englishman, and then to study the writings of all the men who left work of any importance in the development of the life upon the native shores. This method implies a mingling of historical and literary interest, since many of these early writers did not make great literature; indeed, hardly made literature at all. Just here it would be well to make a distinction, the misunderstanding of which, I believe, often confuses the student. A given author may be of considerable significance in the development of the national literature, because, seen in the setting of his time, he had more importance than any contemporary, or because from him has come an important evolution. Yet he may be by no means a writer of the first rank, or even of the second class, judged by comparative tests. In short, his importance is historical and relative. Often, in text-books, he is made to loom up so large that the student is puzzled as to his real standing. In the present book, devoted in the main to the dominant figures of our literature, those of first importance, it will not be necessary to dwell long on those of lesser note. The high lights only will be emphasized. To get a bird's-eye view, this is necessary; otherwise, one fails to see the forest for the leaves. In the short introductory chapter which follows, the earlier periods are summarized. Then the chief business of the book is taken up; namely, a setting forth of the dozen or more great writers who have made our literature widely
Then, finally, follows a brief survey of contemporary conditions, in which the present state of national letters is considered.
But, first, a question : Have we an American literature at all? More than one critic of standing have taken the ground that strictly we have not. The meaning back of the assertion is that, broadly viewed, American literature is simply British literature upon American soil, a variant, not an independent production. American literature looks to the same great past, expresses itself in the same tongue. There is not the difference, for example, between English and American literature that exists between that of any two of the so-called Romance tongues, like the Italian and Spanish,
The matter is in truth debatable, but it is largely a quarrel over terms. For practical purposes, there is a national literature, particularly that produced during the last century, as distinguished from a British. If it were not so, Americans would be as eager to buy British books as those of their own authors, and it would argue an absence of independent national life, which were to ignore our wonderful history and all that makes us American.
Use the same language we do, but even the language has a different idiomatic color from the present British, as all educated folk and especially traveled folk are aware. And our historical evolution, our climate and physical geography, our political and social ideals, and the type of people developed by all these things for two hundred and fifty years have resulted in bringing into our letters a quality and putting upon it a stamp which are distinctive, justifying the opinion that there is an American literature in the true sense. This view may be held without any antagonism toward British influence and British accomplishment. That this distinction should have arisen is entirely in accord with the usual happening when peoples of the same stock separate on the face of the earth. The Germanic settler in England spoke a tongue which was a dialect closely akin to the German and still closer to what we now call the Dutch. In the course of centuries a differentiation had arisen because the German settlers had sought another home, with the result that their tongue, English, became an entirely different speech from that of the Continental peoples whence they came. The same process is at work in America ; the very much slighter difference between the tongues being due, of course, to the comparatively short time that has elapsed since the separation, and the additional fact that in our day of rapid and easy communication all speech is far less isolated than it was in earlier times. Centripetal and centrifugal forces are thus at work, and it is inconceivable that American English should ever become unintelligible to an Englishman, but it is not at all inconceivable that in the years to come our native speech shall become more rather than less distinctive. Hence, since our speech and our life are thus independent, it is the most natural thing in the world that our literature should likewise and increasingly have a flavor of its own.
It is then, on the whole, correct to speak of an American literature, meaning such a variation from the parent British product in letters as to imply an independent existence. In this our literature is unique, since in no other case is there an independent literature unless it be expressed in another language. This belief in our own literature should not make Americans self-satisfied with
their literary product, or lead them to forget that while we inherited our literature, as it were, ready-made from England, historical conditions for several hundred years kept back letters on this continent from being cultivated as they might have been under more favoring circumstances. The proper attitude for an American toward his own literature, it seems to me, should be one of modest, firm, hopeful, unboastful faith. In view of our history, we have done much; we have a past to be proud of, and certainly our accomplishment in the future should be noteworthy, and signs are not wanting that it will be. There is ample reason why an American should have especial interest in the native literature. Even if the greatest American writers -- Poe, Irving, Emerson, and Hawthorne were of less than international importance, they would have a significance for us, which is the measure of the truth and power wherewith they interpret for us the national conditions and ideals : our habits and beliefs, our hopes and potentialities. Every representative American writer is thus dear and precious, aside from the fact that he has made what the world calls great literature. A few have done so, but many more have reflected the conditions of life in this country, and in this sense have constituted themselves true interpreters of these United States, - to be treasured by all Americans who love their land. It will be seen that any just and fruitful study of American literature in its best examples is, therefore, far more than a study of literary develop ment; it is, or should be, a lesson in patriotism.
Just here it will be well to enlarge a little upon the misconceptions of the term “ literature” itself. The word is often used simply to denote all writings about a subject, whatever is to be found in print. Thus we speak of the literature of a subject when that subject is geography, and mean the books bearing upon that study. This, of course, is a loose, general application of the word, but, in the truer and better sense, literature refers to all writing that possesses power and beauty of expression. This truth, that manner is important as well as matter, has, however, led, especially in our own day, to a too great emphasis upon technique at the expense of thought and character. Really noble literature, on the contrary, exhibits, in combination, beauty of form and worthiness of content; or, to modify a famous definition of Matthew Arnold's, literature is the most beautiful way of saying something worthy to be said. Very much so-called literature of the nineteenth century fails because it is exquisitely said, but not worth saying, -- not worth it intellectually or morally; or, worse,
says with technical skill what is paltry or vicious. The healthy-minded student and lover of literature, therefore, should steer his course between two mistakes which confront him, Scylla and Charybdis: the mistake of thinking that all that is in books is literature, and the mistake of believing that good technique necessarily means good and great literature.
In trying to get some notion of American letters, there is an advantage in giving main attention to the representative writers. It fixes the eye on the unquestionably excellent; it does not give undue space to earlier writers who, though important when we are tracing the full literary evolution, nevertheless are chiefly significant for their historical value, as minor links in the chain. Manuals of literature are in the habit of giving considerable space, for example, to the Colonial period, to such figures as Captain John Smith or Cotton Mather; or later to the Revolutionary period and the political writers it begot.