Puslapio vaizdai

lifted out of their proper setting and stripped of their natural simplicity. For most readers this appears to be enough, for they know very little about history and are satisfied with literary versions of it. And even the people with a gift for reality are not at their best when face to face with literature. They yield to its charm, and somehow believe it, even when it represents human beings as behaving in a fashion which, in actual life, would be regarded by sensible observers as sheer histrionics for the gallery.

The Beards, while historians, have the gift for reality which commonly goes with other occupations. The result is that in reading "The Rise of American Civilization" I never once found that I had got up into that easy region in which a reader travels along with what may be called the literary momentum without any particular reference to disobliging facts. On the contrary, I found myself, through all these pages, steadily held down to what I believe to be the world in which men truly live. If, approaching some familiar episode in American history, I started off ahead of my historians along the path which I supposed they would take, I was often pulled back. And each time I realized that I still had certain conventional notions about the motives for colonization or the processes of the Revolution or the details of the expansion westward or the issues involved in the Civil War or the methods of industrial expansion or the secrets of imperialism. On nearly every point I was thoroughly convinced by the arguments brought forward. Reading the Beards after, say, Bancroft is a good

deal like reading Tolstoy after Fenimore Cooper.

Of course Bancroft has long been dispossessed by historians less given than he to heroics. The Beards must really be compared with the later writers, many of them followers of Mr. Beard, who have dug into special phases of American history with critical eyes. Yet here too the Beards easily survive the comparison. They have made due use of all such monographs and have absorbed them. them. But beyond that, they have put life into their materials by fitting them to a general pattern and then unfolding it with a fine sweep and eloquence. Unavoidably they must be compared with the H. G. Wells of "The Outline of History." They have indeed a smaller topic, and they start with a less brilliant rush than Mr. Wells's. But in other respects I think they have beaten him at this game.

BEHIND LITERATURE:-Along with "The Rise of American Civilization" comes another learned but exciting work, "Main Currents in American Thought" (Harcourt, Brace), by Vernon Louis Parrington, which should make the author notable at once. He has, it is true, been noteworthy, but few have known about his activities. I have myself known about this book for more than a dozen years, and ten years ago I had a hand in publishing an abridged version of part of it. Season after season I have vainly hoped that some publisher would have the courage to bring it out. It has been lamentably delayed; but Mr. Parrington, a professor at the University of Washing

ton, has apparently kept busy with it, for the third volume, to be published later, will bring the record down to 1920. The publication of the first two, of which the subtitles are "The Colonial Mind" and "The Romantic Revolution in America," ought to be regarded as an event in the history of American criticism.

I believe that Mr. Parrington originally planned to call his work "The Development of Democracy in American Literature." If this is true, he must then have thought of it as only another monograph on a special phase of American culture. Fifteen or twenty years ago this was the form in which the idea would have occurred to almost any scholar. Democracy was then a more popular topic than it has become, and the history of literature seemed a more distinct field than it is now generally held to be. At present, however, that earlier title has a slightly archaic sound. And I imagine that the book itself has become, during the past decade, something more extensive than it was at first intended to be. Nor does this apply alone to the expected third volume, to be called "The Beginnings of Critical Realism in America." All three volumes must have been enlarged in scope to make this history of American opinion cover so much ground the very existence of which was clear to few observers when Mr. Parrington began his labors.

The credit which belongs to Mr. Parrington, however, should should not be given to the mere fact that time has passed and some things have changed. From the first he plainly had a spacious and enlightened plan. His aim was, studying the national

literature, to look behind it to the national moods and the national doctrines to which it gave voice. While he has gone primarily to American literature for his evidence as to how men were feeling and thinking at any given moment in the history of the nation, he has regularly tested the poets and orators and story-tellers and commentators by a hawk-like examination of the actual conditions which they portrayed or discussed and of the particular bias with which this or that author viewed his themes. Moreover, Mr. Parrington has chosen to concern himself with the most representative figures, to the extent of not even mentioning John Woolman, to take one illustration, and of giving Poe but a brief mention as an isolated figure. The total effect is therefore strikingly novel. The country of the American mind has been remapped.

Readers not interested in the history of literature will find Mr. Parrington's treatment perhaps more detailed than they have expected with reference to many individual authors. In this sense, “Main Currents in American Thought" still carries the burden of specialization with which it set out. This burden is less heavy than it may seem. All the individual authors are drawn into the general stream, and all are studied by a mind never subdued to narrow views. The whole world of the Puritan is reconstructed from the fragmentary records which are to be found in Puritan books, and the obsolete jargon of the age is translated into more or less universal terms. In the same fashion the Revolutionary generation is anato

mized, and the distinctive elements in the South and East and West which, after differences of opinion leading to civil war, grew into a sort of uniformity about 1860. Specialization ceases to have its customary disadvantages when it is employed in the service of so general an idea.

There has lately been a great deal of demand for a synthesis of American civilization which might give Americans some notion of what they had done and in what direction they were going. Happily no synthesis of a living civilization is ever more than a thing to be hoped for, but the Beard and Parrington books should go a good way toward satisfying that hope for some time to come.

LITERATURE:-I suppose that most critics who have paid much attention to literary history are in danger of laying too much stress upon what in literature is known as immortality. That is, they tend to value masterpieces which survive to subsequent generations, and to undervalue those which, having done their work, go back to their first elements. As a matter of fact, I do not see precisely how the merits of present usefulness and future attractiveness can be measured. Masterpieces have had a short life, as men have had; trash has survived. A book survives its age, I should say, only because it has the special quality of survival. I do not feel sure that that is invariably a sign of superiority. There are qualities which are not essentially merits, but simply qualities.

Nevertheless I cannot help taking a little satisfaction from my belief that fifty or a hundred years from

now the year 1927 will be remembered in the history of American literature not by either of the useful learned works which I have so far discussed, but by Edwin Arlington Robinson's "Tristram" (Macmillan). I do not, indeed, think that its survival quality is its chief quality. While I believe it will survive, I believe it will carry with it the virtues of elevation, melodiousness, passion, and wisdom which will make its survival genuinely important to other ages.

What business, it has already been asked, has an American poet of the twentieth century to go back to heathen England and to retell a story which has been told over and over by many poets in many languages? The question need not be seriously answered. Poetry has always gone wherever it wanted to go for its subjects, and it always will, just as a man will love the woman he loves, and not some other woman who may be recommended to him by the best authorities. Mr. Robinson is to be judged only by what he has produced, not by what he might have been asked to produce in accordance with some other scheme of criticism.

In any case, he only seems to have borrowed his material. His hero is called Tristram, like the ancient tragic hero, and he too is sent to bring Isolt of Ireland home to be the bride of King Mark of Cornwall; he too falls in love with her, as she does with him, and is so lost in that love that his loyalty to the king cannot prevail against it; he too is banished from the court on account of his love, goes to Brittany and marries another Isolt, and eventually dies of his first love. But only in this outline is Mr.

Robinson's story the legendary one. As to its substance, it is as fresh and immediate as any love-story between the most contemporary persons. persons. The magic philter which in the old story was the cause of the ill fated love this poet quite leaves out, knowing that love is not to be attributed to philters or explained by them. The feudal obligation which the legendary Tristram owes to the legendary Mark has become another thing. Tristram has merely failed to know his own mind soon enough, has allowed Isolt to marry Mark without protest, and in view of the king's jealousy and power can do nothing but accept his exile. To stay would mean his own death and Isolt's lasting grief. In the Robinson version, Tristram comes back to England and temporarily and surreptitiously rejoins Isolt. Mark, learning the state of Isolt's feeling for Tristram, decides, like any civilized modern man, that their love has a right greater than his legal claim. The death of Tristram is the work of an officious fool who has the legendary attitude. The story might have had its scene laid in Maine or California without any greater loss than would have come from the sacrifice of names and places already rich with poetic association. The tragedy is universal, not traditional. Consequently there is no historical posturing, no antiquities of speech or

mode, no venerable costumes. The characters speak with the spare directness of all Mr. Robinson's characters. The narrative advances with the straightforward, doomed tread of all his tragedies. But never before has he told a story of anything like the present scope with so much lucidity or with so much simplicity of structure. Even readers accustomed to read novels only should find no difficulty in following the story. It is, of course, a novel in verse, lifted to eminence not by the fact that it is in verse, but by the fact that it is lofty and intense and concentrated beyond the reach of prose.

If "Tristram" is not a great poem, no version of the legend since Gottfried von Strassburg's can be called great. If it is not a great poem, no American narrative poem can be called great. Considering the significance of the theme, the strength with which it is grasped, the skill with which the tragic drama is built up, the steady fire which burns in every line, the felicity and harmony of the language, I am led to say that this is the greatest Tristram since Gottfried. And, though ordinarily averse to superlatives in literary criticism, I bring this department to an end with a superlative. I believe that "Tristram" is the greatest poem yet written, or at least published, by an American.

Vol 114

July 1927

No 3



A Foot-Note on Imperialism

HE ENGINES ran easily for the first time in six days, as the Narrows slid past and the baggage waited, neatly stacked, in the relinquished state-rooms. Ecstatic watchers on the deck saw tall, unlikely towers step suddenly out of the mist and group themselves into a city. But down below the anxious voices still inquired along every sounding passage for the Something Sisters and the Marchese della Cosa, as an eager Press reached out its tentacles to embrace these paragons of dance and diplomacy, the pride of our ship's company. Perhaps it found them, though I never saw the photographic record of their smiles, their feelings on returning home, impressions of the sky-line, thoughts on war-debts, censorship, the current trial, and the latest book, which are the toll exacted by the inquiring gate-keeper of the New World. One envies Christopher Columbus, to whom the sky-line, at any rate, must have presented a simpler problem. For in the somewhat uneventful landscape of Ambrose Channel the wary Genoese might well reply that

he had not noticed one, an excuse now lying far beyond the reach of the least observant mariner. So we admired it, each after his own fashion, to his appropriate reporterthe Something Sisters in duet, the Marchese with a touch of Latin fire, myself with a nervous gesture of propitiation. We admired the United States as well. True, we had not yet set foot in it. But if the ancients sacrificed to an Unknown God, why not a cautious modern?

These strange rites of initiation are among the most mysterious features of the Dark Continent. Why in the name of sane and interesting journalism is it supposed that the opinion of no one in particular (especially on matters upon which he is not qualified to have one) is likely to provide attractive reading-matter? Why does a proud continent refresh itself with the lightest thoughts of every passing stranger who may be pressed into its service as a momentary leader-writer and pontificates gravely to reporters upon subjects with which he is imperfectly acquainted? But I digress. The Narrows were

Copyright, 1927, by THE CENTURY Co. All rights reserved.


« AnkstesnisTęsti »