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American Literature: Now and To Be

Part One


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.

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easy to answer.

Two things astonished me about those who wished to have my opinion. One was that they should have expected America to produce in the short time that America has been a great country a literature as potent as that of England or France or Germany. The other was the extraordinary contempt in which many of them held American writing. I was unable to share this contempt, and now that I am at home again and have had time to make myself more familiar with American literature, I feel less inclined to share it. The American people have not yet produced a large volume of great literature, literature so indisputably great that it has crossed the Atlantic without effort and compelled attention and respect from reluctant Europeans; but they have produced one poet, Walt Whitman, who is very nearly on the level of supreme genius, and a number of writers, Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, and Henry James who, though not men of like excellence, are certainly men of great quality. I am not an admirer of the work of Mr. James, whose style of writing is not of the sort that appeals to me, but I trust I am not so infatuated with my own opinion that I cannot recognize merit in one who has commanded the respect of people of taste in two continents. Greater men than I am have held greater men than Mr. James in disesteem. Mr. James himself amaz

ingly failed to find merit in Thomas Hardy or Ibsen. Meredith disliked the work of Dickens and thought that the "Pickwick Papers" had little hope of permanent appeal. Dr. Johnson considered that Fielding was a poor novelist, vastly inferior to that dull dog, Samuel Richardson!

Taste, like the Almighty, is no respecter of persons, and we can like only the things that make some stir in ourselves: we cannot prefer those which stir others and leave us unmoved. It is idle to complain of the servant girl that she prefers the work of Mr. Harold Bell Wright to that of Mr. Joseph Hergesheimer, or the poetry of the late Ella Wheeler Wilcox to that of Mr. Edwin Arlington Robinson. Such complaint may confuse and even anger the servant girl, but it is not likely to make her change her mind. It is equally idle to complain of one man that he prefers romanticism to realism, or of another that he favors realism rather than romance. Truth is one and indivisible, but it may be approached by many very different paths, and the wise mind remembers that each of us must reach truth in our own way.

American literature, as I know it, is far from being contemptible. Longfellow does not appeal to me, but he was as meritable as Cowper and Southey and Thomas Moore. Mark Twain, whose writing is greatly admired by Mr. Bernard Shaw as much for his style as for his humor, had not the rich variety of Charles Dickens; but he is not so far behind the English novelist that he is out of sight. I have read "Huckleberry

Finn" and "Tom Sawyer" both as a boy and as a man, and have found their appeal as strong in adult age as in boyhood, which is surely a powerful test of a book, and it seems to me that Twain's position among the English-writing novelists of the last sixty years is so high that he may be considered to be a great figure in imaginative literature and certainly a preeminent figure among Americans.

It is when we come to consider the general level of writing in America and particularly the work of contemporary American authors that the critical faculty finds itself most exercised. Why is it that this great, eager, inquiring country is not producing great or meritable writers at the rate at which European countries have produced them? Is American literature at the end of a period or at the beginning of one? Are the majority of books that are published in the United States the result of an influence that is passing or of one that is developing? In short, is American literature derivative or original? Does it remind the critical reader of European influences, or does it impress him only with something essentially American? It is on the answers to these questions that one must base one's judgment of the value of American literature.

But before I consider this question of whether American literature is derivative or original or in a stage of transition, let me return to the angry and contemptuous Americans who deny that there is an American literature at all, or, if they admit that there is one, declare it to be negligible. A certain confusion of mind has reduced them to this state, and I cannot see that their anger and contempt will do much to help to raise the condition of letters in America. I see nothing contemptible in the fact that much of American writing is derivative, that Mr. Ernest Poole has come under the influence of Mr. H. G. Wells or that Mr. Joseph Hergesheimer derives from Mr. Joseph Conrad or that Miss Zona Gale has benefited considerably from reading Mr. Arnold Bennett. All young writers are influenced by their elders, and it is inevitable that informed readers should be able to detect in the

work of young authors traces of the authority of older ones. What matters is whether these young authors have been influenced or overpowered by their elders. Mr. John Drinkwater's play, "Abraham Lincoln," has been influenced by Mr. Thomas Hardy's "The Dynasts" but Mr. Drinkwater's play is not merely an imitation of Mr. Hardy's, and it impresses us because we find in it at once the powerful guidance of a great man and the growing strength of a young man.

I read Miss Zona Gale's novel, "Birth" while I was on board the steamer returning to England, and was ashamed to think that I had not discovered her work before. This book, intimate and very American, a little too photographic, perhaps, interested me because I saw two contending powers in it, one, the influence, very marked, of Mr. Arnold Bennett, and the other, the indubitable ability of Miss Gale herself. There are passages in this story which might have been written by Mr. Bennett. Take these sentences from page 173 and ask yourself whether they do not seem to you to have come straight from the mind of the author of "The Old Wives' Tale" and "The Card": "To him the world was an endless procession of hands laying down money, taking up money. Whether any one got anywhere with the tickets which he handed out gave him no concern.'

This description of a ticket-agent at a railway station is a characteristic Bennettism. The whole of the first section of chapter four of the second part of the novel, pages 211-13, is full of the Arnold Bennett attitude of mind toward life. Miss Gale is describing the way in which a boy goes out to look for employment, and if her description were abstracted from her book and inserted into one of Mr. Bennett's, it would not seem to have suffered by the change. All this seems to be a condemnation of Miss Gale as an original writer, and perhaps it would be if there were any such person as an original writer in the world; but I am eager to avoid seeming to condemn this very remarkable writer, and I would add that when she stands on her own feet, she stands very firmly and with assurance. It is only when she leans on Mr. Bennett that she begins

to sway. But she will not always lean on him. Presently, if she has not already done so, she will move away from him, and I venture to prophesy that when she shakes off the last vestige of outside influence and gives free play to her own native strength, she will produce a book of which her country people may feel very proud.

Those who are impatient with the achievements of American authors because of the extent to which they derive from European writers are on firmer ground when they complain that their countrymen have not produced a greater volume of fine literature in a given period than has been produced by Europeans. But here again all sorts of outside factors have to be considered. My comparison will be drawn between American and English literature for the obvious reasons that I am more familiar with English literature than with that of, say, France or Germany, and also because English literature is more widely read in America than the literature of either of these two countries. If the reader considers that the great period of English literature began with Chaucer, and makes a list of the worth-while poets and novelists and dramatists and philosophers and historians who have flourished in England during that period, he will discover that there are at least seventy writers whose quality varies from great merit to supreme genius. Eight of these writers were men of indisputable genius. In other words, the English people have produced a great writer once in every eight years for six hundred years, and once in every seventy-five years they have produced one of supreme genius. It would not be difficult to establish a claim to the production of a man of supreme genius in England once every fifty years, but I have deliberately limited my list to those about whose quality there is no dispute. I think I am keeping within the region of acknowledged things when I say that Chaucer, Shakspere, Milton, Fielding, Sheridan, Shelley, Keats, and Dickens are men of supreme genius. Some readers will object that my list is too short. They will grant that it contains the names of men whose genius is indubitable, but they will insist

that other names should be added to it. Where, they will ask, are the names of De Foe, Sir Walter Scott, Wordsworth, Thackeray? Others will complain that my list does not contain the name of a single historian, economist, or philosopher, or that I have not mentioned any modern man of genius, such as Mr. Bernard Shaw or Mr. W. B. Yeats. I admit that there is force in their complaints, but I retort that I have purposely kept my list small and have deliberately abstained from including in it the name of any writer about whom there is argument.

When we turn from the region of men of indisputable genius to that of men whose quality is not generally acknowledged to be supremely great, we discover a long and varied list of names of men and women, many of whom had genius, even if it was not supreme, and all of whom had very great quality. Omitting the eight names I have already set out and also the name of so great a writer as Mr. Joseph Conrad, who is a Pole, though he has expressed himself exclusively in English, the following is a rough list, admittedly incomplete, of English writers of very great merit who have flourished during the last six centuries: Ben Jonson, Sidney, Spencer, Marlowe, Beaumont, Fletcher, Donne, Herrick, Bunyan, Marvell, Dryden, Crabbe, Wycherley, Congreve, Vanbrugh, Farquhar, Goldsmith, Berkeley, Newton, Locke, Hume, Adam Smith, Addison, Swift, De Foe, Richardson, Smollett, Sterne, Dr. Johnson, Fanny Burney, Pope, Gibbon, Burns, Cowper, Scott, Lamb, Coleridge, Southey, Thomas Moore, Byron, Jane Austen, Gray, Thackeray, Charlotte Brontë, Blake, Wordsworth, Swinburne, Tennyson, John Stuart Mill, Browning, Carlyle, George Eliot, Matthew Arnold, Ruskin, Trollope, Meredith, Hardy, Kipling, Yeats, Shaw, Wilde, Wells, George Moore, Bennett, Galsworthy, Masefield.

One might go on and add the names of Mrs. Browning, the Rossettis, William Morris, R. L. Stevenson, John Millington Synge, and others, but the list is already sufficiently comprehensive for my purpose.

Now, this list is a very remarkable one. It is a list which throws great

glory on the English people. I am now using the word "English," of course, in an inclusive sense; and, as I have already stated, it shows that once in every eight years a great writer has been produced in Great Britain and Ireland. It is obviously impossible to make a similar list for America because America has not six hundred years of culture behind her. It is when we become aware of this fact that we realize what is perhaps the first cause of the deficiency in literary genius of which many Americans complain; namely, the lack of a long tradition and a coherent culture. America has not yet had time in which to develop that cultivated society in which the arts grow and flourish. There were several centuries of crude literary achievement behind Chaucer. England had been beaten into something like a coherent shape when that great poet was born. A tradition of England has grown up, and there was a common consciousness, not yet complete, but sufficiently well established for us to be able to say that there was an English people with a history and a tradition and a purpose. It is otherwise in America.

The history of the United States is recent history. Its people are still too diversified for us to be able to say that they have a common history and tradition, though we may believe that they have a common purpose. Many men and women in America have come to their new country with their minds almost set by the countries from which they have emigrated. There must be thousands and thousands of people in the United States who have hardly any comprehension of the country other than as a place in which to earn a better livelihood in pleasanter conditions than they were able to achieve in their birthplace. Names such as Washington, Franklin, Lincoln, Lee, Grant, and Adams must mean very little to them. Whatever of tradition they have is European, and probably held in disrepute. Seventy years ago the great city of Chicago was not in existence, and New York was a small city. The most essentially American figure of all, Abraham Lincoln, for Washington had the traditions of an English aristocrat, had not yet come from Springfield to the

White House. Men's lives were still in great measure the lives of pioneers. What culture there was was self-conscious, narrowly contained, and very exclusive, derived from Europe, and not only without anything essentially American about it, but contemptuous of anything that smacked of the soil. The name of Boston sums up all of that culture, now changing its character. It is unreasonable to expect that there should be any possibility of compiling a list of great writers in America during the last seventy years at all comparable with the list of great writers in England during the same period.

What the records of American literature will be like six hundred years from the War of Independence is not a matter on which any one can profitably speculate, but if we may judge by what has already been done, we may confidently expect that these records will not be barren. Walt Whitman, when that list is compiled five hundred years from now, may be seen to occupy in America much the same position that Chaucer occupies in England, the great forerunner of a great race of giants. But in the meantime there is certainly some ground for concern at the very marked disparity between English and American authors during the last fifty years. It would be easy, I think, to name an American novelist who is greater than any particular English writer among the last twenty on my list. Mr. Winston Churchill, in my judgment, is a greater novelist than Mr. John Galsworthy, and Mr. Edwin Arlington Robinson is a more equal poet than Mr. John Masefield. I imagine that the aloof and austere verse of Mr. Robinson will make a stronger appeal to the regard of the American people when culture and tradition has become more surely fixed among them. He is likely to have greater posthumous fame than he has now, for it is only a people who have achieved poise and placidity of mind who can appreciate his grave beauty. Much that has been written by Mr. Booth Tarkington excels the work of very many popular English writers. His book, "The Magnificent Ambersons," is a remarkably fine story and might, had he taken more care with it,

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