Summary of American literature through the 19th century



NEWSPAPERS appeared early in the eighteenth century. In 1704 the first American newspaper, The Boston News-Letter, was established. The second, The New England Courant, was started by James Franklin, in 1720. His troubles in connection with it are well known from his younger brother Benjamin's famous "Autobiography." In 1765, at the time of the Stamp Act, there were forty news-papers in the Colonies.

Washington Irving was the first to gain for American literature the recognition of European critics. He was born in New York city in 1783. His indeed was an international mission - to heal to some extent, by the sympathetic charm of his style and his personality, the breach between the two countries, aggravated by the second war of 1812. He became "the first literary Ambassador of the New World to the Old." Like a loyal son of the soil, he breathed the breath of literary immortality into the traditions of his own country, as well as voyaged to England in order to write about English scenes and associations. Professor Richardson has remarked that he was "the first conspicuous American author who was neigher a Puritan nor a southron; his local tone was that of New York city and the Hudson." Quick to assimilate the customs and characteristics of other lands, he was the first to make distinctly American themes familiar to the world of letters. Returning to New York after a long residence in England, Irving gathered around him a group of friends now known as the Knickerbocker school, which comprised James Kirke Paulding (a connection of Irving by marriage, who afterwards became Secretary of the Navy, under Van Buren), and the poets Drake and Halleck. All four were Knickerbockers to the bone. Irving served as minister to Spain from 1842 to 1846. His " Life of Columbus" and other writings on Spanish themes were followed by the "Life of Washington," and sundry minor works.

Associated in memory with Irving are the poets Joseph Rodman Drake (1795-1820) and Fitz-Greene Halleck (1790-1867). These two comrades made their debut in the Irving style in the "Croaker Papers," a series of humorous and satirical verses contributed to the New York Evening Post. In the year that Irving in Europe published "The Sketch Book" (1819), Drake gave America "The Culprit Fay." Three years before this, Bryant had produced his unique "Thanatopsis;" and Drake's "Fay," a delicate fairy tale of the Highlands of the Hudson, was the second best' poem then produced in America.

William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878), who in early youth wrote anonymously a political satire, "The Embargo," was the first American poet of note. His stately hymn in blank verse, "Thanatopsis," which appeared in the North American Review in 1817, was a wonderful masterpiece of precocity, and won him an audience in England. Wordsworth is said to have learned the poem by heart, and in dignity of verse and majesty of style it is still to be recognized as one of the poetical masterpieces of the time.

As Bryant may be regarded as the pioneer American poet, and Irving as the pioneer essayist and man of letters, so James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) may be styled the first American novelist of true distinction. He is one of the world's great story-tellers, whose defects of style are abundantly compensated by the invention of his narrative in plot and incident. He became, furthermore, the first voice of primeval America, of her virgin wilderness, and her aboriginal children. He created the Indian as a life-size figure of literature, impressive even if idealized. And as he originated the novel of the forest, so to a certain extent he originated the novel of the sea. In those days it was necessary for professional men of letters to adopt, as Bryant did, the bread winning employment of the newspaper. Literature as a profession did not really exist, and such giants of literary genius as Poe and Hawthorne, not to mention Lowell and others, belonged to a generation of poorly paid Bohemians. In the early forties two Philadelphia magazines began to pay their contributors with what was then thought to be a princely munificence. Godey's Lady's Book, which had the chief financial success among the Philadelphia magazines, had succeeded Dennie's Port Folio in the fine personnel of contributors. It began in July, 1830, and its circulation grew several years later to 150,000 a month, largely due to its colored fashion plates. Some-what dimmed by the prismatic colors of the fashions, some of the earliest compositions of Poe, Holmes, Lydia H. Sigourney, Frances S. Osgood, Longfellow, Bayard Taylor, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, appeared in this magazine. Its chief rival was the Gentleman's Magazine, which George R. Graham, in 1841, purchased from William E. Burton the actor, and renamed simply Graham's Magazine. "There is one thing more," said Burton, after concluding the sale. "I want you to take care of my young editor." The "young editor" was Poe. Later Rufus Wilmot Griswold, of unpleasant notoriety later, sat in the editorial chair, and Lowell assisted Poe. Longfellow's "Spanish Student," Cooper's "Jack Tier," and some of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Twice-told Tales" appeared in its pages. The Cary Sisters, Charles Fenno Hoffman, Thomas Dunn English, N. P. Willis, W. W. Story, E. P. Whipple contributed to it. Among the last were Bayard Taylor and C. Godfrey Leland. N. P. Willis established the American Monthly Magazine and wrote popular books of verse and society sketches.

In the Bohemian world of literary newspapers and magazines, Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) found his destiny cast. He was born in Boston, but he never belonged there, though his first volume, "Tamerlane and Other Poems," bore on its title-page the words, "By a Bostonian." His father was a penniless actor, and had married an actress. Early deprived of both parents, Poe was adopted by Mr. Allan, a wealthy merchant of Richmond, Va. He drank and gambled, ran in debt, indulged in perverse pride, and was finally disowned by his adoptive father, who had tried to make a soldier of him at West Point. Turning to literature for support, Poe won a prize of $100 offered by a weekly paper for a story. His contribution was "The Manuscript Found in a Bottle." Being brought to the notice of John P. Kennedy, he was made editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, at Richmond. He married his cousin, Virginia Clenn, in 1836, and a year later went, first to New York, and then to Philadelphia, where he was editor of the Gentleman's Magazine, afterwards Graham's Magazine. He published "Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque" (1839), which gave him renown as a prose writer. They were soon translated into French, and since that time Poe's popularity in France has exceeded that of any other American writer. Such combination of mathematical and imaginative powers is unknown elsewhere in all the range of literature. There is an exquisite fascination and enchanting melody in his verse that seems beyond the reach of calculating art.

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) was born in Salem, Massachusetts. He was a classmate with Longfellow in Bowdoin College. His first books were warmly received. These half-weird but felicitously told tales marked an epoch in American literature. They were followed by his delightful tales for children from "Grandfather's Chair," in which he first treated New England history. Meanwhile Bancroft, the historian, then collector of customs at Boston, appointed him a weigher and gauger, a place which the Whigs permitted him to retain but two years. He also embarked in the Acadian Brook Farm experiment. "I went to live in Acadia," he said, "and found myself up to my chin in a barn-yard." Deserting Brook Farm, he married and took the historic gambrel-roofed house at Concord, from whence issued the tales collected in the "Mosses from an Old Manse." His second series of "Twice-told Tales," with their Legends of the Province House, added a fresh romantic interest to Revolutionary Boston. Almost noiselessly his shy genius had made itself recognized as a new literary force. He returned to Salem for four years as surveyor in its old Custom House. After leaving this berth, he gave forth his masterwork, "The Scarlet Letter," in the preface to which he has told the story of that old Salem institution (1850). Hawthorne afterwards observed that "no author without a trial can see the difficulty of writing a romance about a country where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity in broad and simple daylight." Yet in "The Scarlet Letter" he had touched even the gloom of Puritanism with the glamour of romance, as well as achieved a world's masterpiece of psychology. He now retired to Lenox, Massachusetts, with Herman Melville, author of "Typee," as almost his sole companion, and wrote the "House of Seven Gables." In 1853 President Pierce appointed him consul at Liverpool. His Notebooks contain his observations on life in England, France, and Italy.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) was a lineal successor to Irving, whom he also resembled in his equal treatment of foreign and native themes and legends alike. Such an academic influence as his, broadened and deepened by generous travel abroad to prepare him for his Harvard chair, was certainly needed in the decade after 1830. By his "Poets and Poetry of Europe" he familiarized Americans with the literature and lore of France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Scandinavia, and even of old Anglo-Saxon days. His "Outre Mer," a book of travel, has kept a place for itself until to-day. When he came to write his Indian legend of "Hiawatha," his familiarity with the then little-known literature of the Northland enabled him to borrow the curious metre, style of imagery, and treatment of the Finnish epic "Kalevala." As a critic proper, Longfellow possessed more learning than Poe, but was less truly critical, nor had he the satire and penetration of Lowell. But it is as the great poet of sympathy, as America's most popular poet, that Longfellow must be chiefly considered; and, in the scope of this brief sketch, it is unnecessary to give a systematic account of his familiar poems. Long-fellow's conspicuous note as a poet was from the heart, and not the head. He touched his readers with tender poems of common sentiment and elevating tendency. Perhaps his most scholarly achievement in poetry was his translation of Dante's "Divina Commedia," published in 1867. How deeply he lingered throughout this long labor of love under the spell of the stern Florentine, may be seen in those sonnets inspired by his work and effectively mirroring on their surface this "mediaeval miracle of song." Long-fellow's translation is, in many respects, such as the metrical and onomatopoetic, superior to that of Carey. He was universally regarded with affection, and England paid her first tribute of memorial honor to an American writer by placing his bust in Westminster Abbey.

James Russell Lowell (1819-1888) succeeded Longfellow in his chair at Harvard. If not of Longfellow's rank as a poet, he was a greater critic and essayist, and had great influence for good in critical times. He was appointed Minister to England by President Hayes, where he won high and lasting favor, and received flattering degrees from Oxford and Cambridge. His "Fable for Critics," and the "Bigelow Papers" sparkled with homely humor, wit, satire, patriotism, and idyllicism, the latter being unique in literature. It is, however, chiefly as critic and essayist that he is best known. In his three books of literacy criticism and fancy, "Fireside Travels," "Among My Books," "My Study Windows," he proved himself to be America's most scholarly critic. The old English authors Chaucer, Spenser, the dramatists of Elizabeth's reign, attracted his attention particularly. But his catholicity of taste was also accompanied by a catholicity of subjects. In "My Garden Acquaintance," and "A Good Word for Winter," he displayed notable graces of style; and his paper "On a Certain Condescension of Foreigners," was a capital "retort courteous" to the woes inflicted upon America by foreign critics, and continues to be a compensating solace even to this day.

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.

In the South, before the Civil War, literature was not generally favored. Men of intellectual ability there became statesmen, ministers, orators, and jurists. Yet some of these gave occasional attention to literary work, and a few devoted themselves to it almost entirely.

The principal literary figure of the Old South was William Gilmore Simms (1806-1870), who was born in Charleston, South Carolina, where his father had come from the North of Ireland, shortly after the Revolution. He wrote historical, geographical, and didactic works; but he lives only in his romances, which are numerous and stirring. Albert Pike (1809-1891) studied law, commanded a force of Cherokee Indians on the Confederate side at the battle of Pea Ridge. His "Hymns to the Gods" and other poems showed high lyric power. John Esten Cooke undertook to do for Virginia what Simms had done for South Carolina. He published the novel "Leather Stocking and Silk," which was soon followed and surpassed by "The Virginia Comedians," probably the best Southern novel written before the war. Others of his early stories were "The Last of the Foresters" and "Henry St. John, Gentleman." During the Civil War Cooke served on the staff of various Confederate generals. Afterwards he retired to his farm near Winchester, and wrote biographies of Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and several novels relating to the great conflict. Among those were "Mohun: or, the Last Days of Lee and His Paladins," and "Hilt to Hilt: or, Days and Nights in the Shenandoah."

Paul Hamilton Hayne (1831-1886), bearing a name famous in the annals of South Carolina, was the finest poet of the South. He was a native of Charleston, and edited literary periodicals there until the war, when he served on the staff of General Pickens. His house and property were destroyed in the bombardment of Charleston, and, after the war, he settled at Copse Hill, Georgia, where he pursued literary work till his death. Among his best poems are "The Pine's Mystery," the ballad "The Battle of King's Mountain," "The Lyric of Action." His war lyrics are thrilling, and his descriptive and meditative verses are exquisite in music and thought.

Henry Timrod (1829-1867), also born in Charleston, suffered from ill-health and poverty, yet wrote poems full of ardent devotion to the South and its lost cause. His war lyrics, grand and impetuous, won for him the title of "the Tyrtaeus of the South." His poems were edited by P.H. Hayne.

Abram Joseph Ryan (1840-1886), born of Irish parents, at Norfolk, Virginia, was equally devoted to the Southern cause. He was a Catholic priest, and served as chaplain in the Confederate army. After the war he edited religious and literary papers in New Orleans and Knoxville, and had charge of a church at Mobile. In 1880 he published his "Poems, Patriotic, Religious, Miscellaneous." He died at Louisville, Kentucky, in 1886. He is best known by his lament over the defeat of the Confederacy, "The Conquered Banner," and the spirited tribute to the Southern leader, "The Sword of Robert Lee."

The most remarkably original singer of the South was Sidney Lanier (1842-1881), who was chosen to write the cantata for the opening of the Centennial Exhibition at Philadelphia. He was descended from a long line of musicians, and distinguished his poetry by the intermingling of musical effects. He was born at Macon, Georgia, and studied at Oglethorpe College, until the war broke out, when he entered the Confederate service. He was captured on a blockade-runner, and held prisoner for five months. The hardships of war developed consumption, and the rest of his life was a courageous struggle with that disease. Though his art was too fine and high for general appreciation, Lanier is by many regarded as one of the greatest American poets.

Of minor poets, whose name is legion, it is not possible to make even a passing mention. The test of time will sift them according to their quality.

Perhaps the first of our nature-essayists was Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), who was born at Concord, Massachusetts, and died there. The son of a farmer, he was educated at Harvard, and for a time taught school. But after a while he took up his self-appointed work of minute observation of nature. He attached himself to Emerson, who always showed him friendly regard. In 1845 he built himself a hut on the shore of Walden Pond, and lived as a recluse in communion with nature. His experiences and observations were embodied in "Walden, or Life in the Woods" (1854). He had already published "A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers" (1848). Thoreau was an apostle of plain living and high thinking, and practiced what he preached. His life was a protest against all forms of superfluous comfort, and an effort to reach harmony with nature, as the basis of true happiness.

Wilson Flagg (1805-1894) also deserves a place among the American nature-essayists. Born at Beverly, Massachusetts, he was educated at Phillips Academy, Andover, and studied medicine. He was a keen observer of outdoor life and natural phenomena. His writings were contributed to Boston newspapers and to the Atlantic Monthly. His best-known works are "Halcyon Days," "A Year with the Trees," and "A Year with the Birds."

Another man who took delight in the portrayal of outdoor nature with the pen was William Hamilton Gibson (1850-1896). He was also an artist and book-illustrator.

The most startling and debatable contribution to American literature is that made by Walt Whitman (1819-1892). It claimed to be the true voice of Democratic America; and, while the claim has been admitted by a scholarly; few here, and acknowledged by an equal number of scholarly poets in Europe, there is no evidence that it has been so accepted anywhere by the people.

Under the initials "H. H." an American woman won high regard as a poet, and afterwards showed brilliant descriptive power in prose. Later, when her name was fully disclosed, she took up the cause of the Indian, and in history and a popular novel pleaded in his behalf with the Government and the people of the United States. Helen Fiske was born in 1831, at Amherst, Massachusetts, where her father was professor in the college. At twenty-one she was married to Captain Edward Hunt of the United States army, and wandered with him in different parts of the country. When he was killed by the explosion of a mine and her daughter died, Mrs. Hunt was plunged in the deepest grief. After some time she began to write meditative and descriptive poems, which attracted attention by their strong feeling and vivid fancy. Sometimes they took the form of parable or allegory, but they were best when they painted out-door nature. Mrs. Hunt then wrote prose descriptions, which were collected under the title "Bits of Travel," and proved attractive to even a wider circle of readers. They abound in humor as well as pathos, and show the delicate insight of women. Other books of the same class followed. Two novels in the "No Name" series are known to have been from her pen,-"Mercy Philbrick's Choice," and "Hetty's Strange History." The stories published under the pen-name "Saxe Holme" have also been ascribed to her. After she was married to Mr. William Jackson, in Colorado, she became fully aware of the gross wrongs done to the Indians, and exerted herself to secure justice for them from the nation. For this purpose she studied the full history of Government dealings with the red men, and summed it up in "A Century of Dishonor," making a passionate appeal for removal of the national disgrace. This was followed by the powerful story "Ramona," written shortly before her death, in 1885. This expiring effort of her genius is perhaps its fullest illustration.





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