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American Literature: Now and To Be

Part One

By ST. JOHN ERVINE

When Mr. St. John Ervine, the author of "John Ferguson" and "Jane Clegg," was in America last year for a long visit, the first question that was often asked of him was, "What do you think of American literature?" Having been asked so frequently, he felt he should attempt an intelligent and studied reply. His answer is now given through the pages of THE CENTURY.—THE EDITORS.

W

HILE I was in America, ingly failed to find merit in Thomas people sometimes asked Hardy or Ibsen. Meredith disliked the me to tell them what I work of Dickens and thought that the thought of their literature, "Pickwick Papers" had little hope of

a question that was not permanent appeal. Dr. Johnson coneasy to answer.

sidered that Fielding was a poor novelTwo things astonished me about those ist, vastly inferior to that dull dog, who wished to have my opinion. One Samuel Richardson! was that they should have expected Taste, like the Almighty, is no reAmerica to produce in the short time specter of persons, and we can like only that America has been a great country the things that make some stir in oura literature as potent as that of England selves: we cannot prefer those which stir or France or Germany. The other was others and leave us unmoved. It is idle the extraordinary contempt in which to complain of the servant girl that she many of them held American writing. I prefers the work of Mr. Harold Bell was unable to share this contempt, and Wright to that of Mr. Joseph Hergesnow that I am at home again and have heimer, or the poetry of the late Ella had time to make myself more familiar Wheeler Wilcox to that of Mr. Edwin with American literature, I feel less in- Arlington Robinson. Such complaint clined to share it. The American people may confuse and even anger the servant have not yet produced a large volume of girl, but it is not likely to make her great literature, literature so indisput- change her mind. It is equally idle to ably great that it has crossed the Atlantic complain of one man that he prefers without effort and compelled attention romanticism to realism, or of another and respect from reluctant Europeans; that he favors realism rather than robut they have produced one poet, Walt mance. Truth is one and indivisible, but Whitman, who is very nearly on the it may be approached by many very diflevel of supreme genius, and a number of ferent paths, and the wise mind rememwriters, Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, and bers that each of us must reach truth in Henry James who, though not men of our own way. like excellence, are certainly men of great American literature, as I know it, is quality. I am not an admirer of the far from being contemptible. Longfelwork of Mr. James, whose style of low does not appeal to me, but he was writing is not of the sort that appeals to as meritable as Cowper and Southey and me, but I trust I am not so infatuated Thomas Moore. Mark Twain, whose with my own opinion that I cannot writing is greatly admired by Mr. recognize merit in one who has com- Bernard Shaw as much for his style as manded the respect of people of taste in for his humor, had not the rich variety of two continents. Greater men than I am Charles Dickens; but he is not so far have held greater men than Mr. James behind the English novelist that he is in disesteem. Mr. James himself amaz- out of sight. I have read "Huckleberry Finn" and "Tom Sawyer" both as a boy work of young authors traces of the and as a man, and have found their authority of older ones. What matters appeal as strong in adult age as in boy- is whether these young authors have hood, which is surely a powerful test of been influenced or overpowered by their a book, and it seems to me that Twain's elders. Mr. John Drinkwater's play, position among the English-writing nov- “Abraham Lincoln," has been influenced elists of the last sixty years is so high by Mr. Thomas Hardy's “The Dynasts” that he may be considered to be a great but Mr. Drinkwater's play is not merely figure in imaginative literature and an imitation of Mr. Hardy's, and it imcertainly a preëminent figure among presses us because we find in it at once Americans.

the powerful guidance of a great man It is when we come to consider the and the growing strength of a young man. general level of writing in America and I read Miss Zona Gale's novel, “Birth" particularly the work of contemporary while I was on board the steamer returnAmerican authors that the critical ing to England, and was ashamed to faculty finds itself most exercised. Why think that I had not discovered her is it that this great, eager, inquiring work before. This book, intimate and country is not producing great or very American, a little too photographic, meritable writers at the rate at which perhaps, interested me because I saw European countries have produced two contending powers in it, one, the them? Is American literature at the influence, very marked, of Mr. Arnold end of a period or at the beginning of Bennett, and the other, the indubitable one? Are the majority of books that are ability of Miss Gale herself. There are published in the United States the result passages in this story which might have of an influence that is passing or of one been written by Mr. Bennett. Take that is developing? In short, is Ameri- these sentences from page 173 and ask can literature derivative or original? yourself whether they do not seem to Does it remind the critical reader of you to have come straight from the European influences, or does it impress mind of the author of “The Old Wives' him only with something essentially Tale” and “The Card”: “To him the American? It is on the answers to these world was an endless procession of questions that one must base one's hands laying down money, taking up judgment of the value of American money. Whether any one got anywhere literature.

with the tickets which he handed out But before I consider this question of gave him no concern." whether American literature is deriva- This description of a ticket-agent at tive or original or in a stage of transition, a railway station is a characteristic let me return to the angry and contempt- Bennettism. The whole of the first secuous Americans who deny that there is tion of chapter four of the second part an American literature at all, or, if they of the novel, pages 211-13, is full of admit that there is one, declare it to be the Arnold Bennett attitude of mind negligible. A certain confusion of mind toward life. Miss Gale is describing the has reduced them to this state, and I way in which a boy goes out to look for cannot see that their anger and con- employment, and if her description were tempt will do much to help to raise the abstracted from her book and inserted condition of letters in America. I see into one of Mr. Bennett's, it would not nothing contemptible in the fact that seem to have suffered by the change. much of American writing is derivative, All this seems to be a condemnation of that Mr. Ernest Poole has come under Miss Gale as an original writer, and perthe influence of Mr. H. G. Wells or that haps it would be if there were any such Mr. Joseph Hergesheimer derives from

person as an original writer in the world; Mr. Joseph Conrad or that Miss Zona but I am eager to avoid seeming to Gale has benefited considerably from condemn this very remarkable writer, reading Mr. Arnold Bennett. All young and I would add that when she stands writers are influenced by their elders, on her own feet, she stands very firmly and it is inevitable that informed read- and with assurance. It is only when she ers should be able to detect in the leans on Mr. Bennett that she begins to sway. But she will not always lean that other names should be added to it. on him. Presently, if she has not al- Where, they will ask, are the names of ready done so, she will move away from De Foe, Sir Walter Scott, Wordsworth, him, and I venture to prophesy that Thackeray? Others will complain that when she shakes off the last vestige of my list does not contain the name of a outside influence and gives free play to single historian, economist, or philosoher own native strength, she will pro- pher, or that I have not mentioned any duce a book of which her country people modern man of genius, such as Mr. may feel very proud.

Bernard Shaw or Mr. W. B. Yeats. Those who are impatient with the I admit that there is force in their comachievements of American authors be- plaints, but I retort that I have purcause of the extent to which they derive posely kept my list small and have from European writers are on firmer deliberately abstained from including ground when they complain that their in it the name of any writer about whom countrymen have not produced a greater there is argument. volume of fine literature in a given period When we turn from the region of men than has been produced by Europeans. of indisputable genius to that of men But here again all sorts of outside fac- whose quality is not generally acknowltors have to be considered. My com- edged to be supremely great, we disparison will be drawn between American cover a long and varied list of names of and English literature for the obvious men and women, many of whom had reasons that I am more familiar with genius, even if it was not supreme, and English literature than with that of, say, all of whom had very great quality. France or Germany, and also because Omitting the eight names I have already English literature is more widely read in set out and also the name of so great a America than the literature of either of writer as Mr. Joseph Conrad, who is a these two countries. If the reader con- Pole, though he has expressed himself siders that the great period of English exclusively in English, the following is literature began with Chaucer, and a rough list, admittedly incomplete, of makes a list of the worth-while poets English writers of very great merit and novelists and dramatists and phi- who have flourished during the last six losophers and historians who have flour- centuries: Ben Jonson, Sidney, Spencer, ished in England during that period, he Marlowe, Beaumont, Fletcher, Donne, will discover that there are at least Herrick, Bunyan, Marvell, Dryden, seventy writers whose quality varies Crabbe, Wycherley, Congreve, Vanfrom great merit to supreme genius. brugh, Farquhar, Goldsmith, Berkeley, Eight of these writers were

men of

Newton, Locke, Hume, Adam Smith, indisputable genius. In other words, the Addison, Swift, De Foe, Richardson, English people have produced a great Smollett, Sterne, Dr. Johnson, Fanny writer once in every eight years for six Burney, Pope, Gibbon, Burns, Cowper, hundred years, and once in every sev- Scott, Lamb, Coleridge, Southey, Thomenty-five years they have produced one as Moore, Byron, Jane Austen, Gray, of supreme genius. It would not be Thackeray, Charlotte Brontë, Blake, difficult to establish a claim to the pro- Wordsworth, Swinburne, Tennyson, duction of a man of supreme genius in John Stuart Mill, Browning, Carlyle, England once every fifty years, but I George Eliot, Matthew Arnold, Rushave deliberately limited my list to kin, Trollope, Meredith, Hardy, Kipthose about whose quality there is no ling, Yeats, Shaw, Wilde, Wells, George dispute. I think I am keeping within Moore, Bennett, Galsworthy, Masefield. the region of acknowledged things when One might go on and add the names I say that Chaucer, Shakspere, Milton, of Mrs. Browning, the Rossettis, William Fielding, Sheridan, Shelley, Keats, and Morris, R. L. Stevenson, John MillingDickens are

men of supreme genius. ton Synge, and others, but the list is Some readers will object that my list is already sufficiently comprehensive for too short. They will grant that it con- my purpose. tains the names of men whose genius Now, this list is a very remarkable is indubitable, but they will insist one. It is a list which throws great

glory on the English people. I am now White House. Men's lives were still in using the word “English,” of course, in great measure the lives of pioneers. an inclusive sense; and, as I have already What culture there was was self-constated, it shows that once in every eight scious, narrowly contained, and very years a great writer has been produced exclusive, derived from Europe, and not in Great Britain and Ireland. It is only without anything essentially Amerobviously impossible to make a similar ican about it, but contemptuous of list for America because America has anything that smacked of the soil. not six hundred years of culture behind The name of Boston sums up all of that her. It is when we become aware of this culture, now changing its character. fact that we realize what is perhaps the It is unreasonable to expect that there first cause of the deficiency in literary should be any possibility of compiling a genius of which many Americans com- list of great writers in America during plain; namely, the lack of a long tradi- the last seventy years at all comparable tion and a coherent culture. America with the list of great writers in England has not yet had time in which to develop during the same period. that cultivated society in which the What the records of American literaarts grow and flourish. There were sev- ture will be like six hundred years from eral centuries of crude literary achieve- the War of Independence is not a matter ment behind Chaucer. England had on which any one can profitably specubeen beaten into something like a cohe- late, but if we may judge by what has rent shape when that great poet was already been done, we may confidently born. A tradition of England has grown expect that these records will not be up, and there was a common conscious- barren. Walt Whitman, when that list ness, not yet complete, but sufficiently is compiled five hundred years from well established for us to be able to say now, may be seen to occupy in America that there was an English people with a much the same position that Chaucer history and a tradition and a purpose. occupies in England, the great foreIt is otherwise in America.

runner of a great race of giants. But in The history of the United States is the meantime there is certainly some recent history. Its people are still too ground for concern at the very marked diversified for us to be able to say that disparity between English and American they have a common history and tradi- authors during the last fifty years. It tion, though we may believe that they would be easy, I think, to name an have a common purpose. Many men American novelist who is greater than and women in America have come to any particular English writer among the their new country with their minds al- last twenty on my list. Mr. Winston most set by the countries from which Churchill, in my judgment, is a greater they have emigrated. There must be novelist than Mr. John Galsworthy, and thousands and thousands of people in Mr. Edwin Arlington Robinson is a the United States who have hardly any more equal poet than Mr. John Masecomprehension of the country other field. I imagine that the aloof and than as a place in which to earn a better austere verse of Mr. Robinson will make livelihood in pleasanter conditions than a stronger appeal to the regard of the they were able to achieve in their birth- American people when culture and place. Names such as Washington, tradition has become more surely fixed Franklin, Lincoln, Lee, Grant, and among them. He is likely to have Adams must mean very little to them. greater posthumous fame than he has Whatever of tradition they have is now, for it is only a people who have European, and probably held in disre- achieved poise and placidity of mind pute. Seventy years ago the great city who can appreciate his grave beauty. of Chicago was not in existence, and Much that has been written by Mr. New York was a small city. The most Booth Tarkington excels the work of essentially American figure of all, Abra- very many popular English writers. ham Lincoln, for Washington had the His book, "The Magnificent Ambertraditions of an English aristocrat, had sons," is a remarkably fine story and not yet come from Springfield to the might, had he taken more care with it,

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