New England Literature of the 19th century



Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was the most potent force in New England thought. In 1832, after his wife's death, he gave up the Congregational ministry, for reasons of conscience, and travelled in Italy, France, and England, where began the lifelong friendship with Thomas Carlyle. His transcendental writings attracted wide attention, and he retained his popularity as a lecturer during forty-six years.

He smiled approval on the Brook Farm experiment, but took little part in it except to contribute to the Dial. But he did assist with voice and pen in the anti-slavery agitation. In 1847 he went on a second visit to England, which was rich in observation and effect on his mind. After his return his lectures on Plato, Shakespeare, Napoleon, Swedenborg, and others, were published under the title, "Representative Men" (1850). This proved popular, and still more so was his "English Traits" (1856). More readers could appreciate his judgement of great men and nations than could understand his sublime philosophy of the universe.

Emerson had but rarely contributed to periodical literature; but in 1857 a group of his friends - Longfellow, Lowell, Holmes - arranged in his parlor for the publication of the Atlantic Monthly, Lowell being editor. For some years Emerson contributed to it regularly prose and verse. His essays were collected in "The Conduct of Life" (1860); "Society and Solitude" (1864), and "Letters and Social Aims" (1876); his poems in "May-Day" (1867). He edited a collection of poetry by other authors in "Parnassus" (1874), and a selection of his own "Poems" (1876). Thereafter he wrote but little, though he revised and edited his former publications. The projected "Natural History of the Intellect," on which he had labored for many years, was never put into a form suitable for publication. In the latter years of his life his mind and memory failed. After his death his correspondence with Carlyle was edited by Professor Charles Eliot Norton (1883).

John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892), born at Haver-hill, Massachusetts, was not only the chief Quaker poet, but the clearest voice of New England country life. Bred on a farm, he found his first poetic inspiration in reading the poems of the inspired Scotch ploughman, Robert Burns. At the age of twenty he had earned enough by farm chores and shoemaking to secure some instruction at Haverhill Academy, and then became a district school-teacher. He contributed verse to the Free Press and found a lasting friend in the editor, William Lloyd Garrison, who enlisted him in the anti-slavery crusade. In 1835 Whittier was a member of the Massachusetts Legislature. From 1837 to 1839 he edited the Pennsylvania Freeman, at Philadelphia, where his office was sacked and burnt by a mob. His delicate health obliged him to return to Amesbury, Massachusetts, where with his sister he led a frugal life, contributing chiefly to the National Era, published in Washington. Gradually his books of poems made their way, and when the struggle for Kansas came, in 1856, he was recognized as the poet of freedom. These militant poems of a peace-loving Quaker helped to prepare the Northern people for the Civil War. When the Atlantic Monthly was founded,. Whittier was a frequent contributor. His verse celebrated there the emancipation of the slaves; but in his lallad of "Barbara Frietchie" he told effectively the story of the old woman of Frederick, Maryland, who waived the Union flag over the troops of Stonewall Jackson, and was gallantly spared by him. This tribute to Northern loyalty and Southern chivalry has become a national classic. His masterpiece is "Snow-Bound," a characteristic American poem. He ranks next in popularity to Longfellow.

Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894) was the last survivor of the Cambridge poet-group. He was the son of Rev. Abiel Holmes, a Harvard pastor, who wrote "The Annals of America." Having graduated from Harvard in 1829, he studied law and medicine, and spent three years in Europe. He was but twenty-one years old when he made his famous protest, "Old Ironsides," which saved the frigate Constitution from destruction, and not much older when in "The Last Leaf" he combined humor with the deepest pathos. Holmes was professor of medicine at Dartmouth College for a year, but settled in Boston in 1840, and seven years later was made professor at Harvard. Besides lecturing there and on the lyceum platform, he wrote patriotic and entertaining poems for occasions, and became the laureate of his Alma Mater, inditing forty poems in her honor. One of these, "The Boys," is the jolliest class poem ever written. Holmes was also the bard of Boston, whose state-house he pronounced to be "the hub of our solar system." But his lasting fame was due to the founding of the Atlantic Monthly, in 1857. His contribution was in the form of a serial, "The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table." The series was renewed, in 1859, in "The Professor," and continued, in 1873, as "The Poet at the Breakfast Table." Novels and books of verse appeared during these years. In 1884 he published "Our Hundred Days in Europe," telling of his observations there fifty years after his first visit. Then, in his eightieth year, the veteran renewed his conversational contributions to the Atlantic in a series called "Over the Tea-Cups," full of the same shrewd sense and tender sentiment as "The Autocrat." He lived to be a "Last Leaf," yet without losing his geniality and optimism, preserving to the last the fresh spirit of youth.

Other New England writers of note were Margaret Fuller, Bronon Alcott, Lydia Maria Child, Mrs. Sigourney, philosophic and progressive teachers. The North American Review was founded in 1815, and gathered around it a brilliant circle of writers, of whom Edward Everett (1794-1865) was one of the strongest. Everett unloaded his treasures of German thought. More than a hundred articles came from his pen. In 1824 his address before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard on "The Circumstances Favorable to the Progress of Literature in America," was a prophetic precursor of Emerson's dissertation on "The American Scholar," delivered before the same society thirteen years later. Everett was noted for his high classical scholarship and for the careful finish of his prose style. But he was not merely a literary man; he was active in public affairs. He represented Boston in Congress for ten years, was governor of Massachusetts for three years, United States minister to England for four years, president of Harvard for three years, secretary of state in President Fillmore's cabinet for one year, and United States senator for one year, when he resigned on account of impaired health. Yet afterwards he delivered in various parts of the country an oration on Washington for the purpose of raising a fund to purchase Mount Vernon and preserve it intact as a national memorial. His final service was in delivering the oration at the dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, in November, 1863. His speeches were polished to the perfection of classical oratory, and were full of admiring contemplation and thoughtful admonition.





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