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The same causes which wrought this imperial disunion had tended to alter the literary character of America. American theology had already evaporated in metaphysical abstraction; its place, as the principal phase of American expression, had been taken by politics. Of this, no doubt, the animating ideal was
, not so much that of morality as that of law; the writings of eighteenth-century America have less concern with right than with rights. Yet America would not have been America unless these ancestral ideals had remained blended. A yearning for absolute truth, an unbroken faith in abstract ideals, is what makes distinctly national the political utterances of the American Revolution. The love of abstract right which pervades them sprang straight from that aspiration toward absolute truth which had animated the grim idealism of the Puritans. So came the nineteenth
century, - the
of American nationality, when, for all their community of language and of ideals, England and America have believed themselves mutually foreign. English history has proceeded from the extreme isolation which ended at Waterloo, through the constitutional revolution of the Reform Bill to the present reign. What the future may decide to have been the chief features of this Victorian epoch, it is still too soon to assert; yet,
whatever else, the future can hardly fail to remember how, throughout these sixty and more years, England has continually developed in two seemingly divergent ways. At home, on the one hand, it has so tended toward democracy that already the political power of the English masses probably exceeds that of the American. In its world relations, on the other hand, England has become imperial to a degree undreamed of when Queen Victoria ascended the throne. Wherever the influence of England extends to-day, democracy and empire go hand in hand.
Throughout this nineteenth century, America has had the Western Hemisphere almost to itself. This it has dominated with increasing material power, believing all the while that it could keep free from entanglement with other regions of the earth. From this youthful dream it has at last been rudely awakened. In the dawning of a new century, it finds itself like England, at once democratic and imperial — inevitably confronted with world conflict; either its ideals must prevail, or they must perish. After three centuries of separation, then, England and America are once more side by side. With them, in union, lies the hope of imperial democracy.
It is only during the nineteenth century — the century of American nationality — that America has brought forth literature. First appearing in the Middle States, this soon developed more seriously in New England, whose mental life, so active at first, had lain comparatively dormant for almost a hundred years. These two phases of American literary expression, the only ones which may as yet be regarded as complete, have been the chief subject of our study. On the impression which they have left with us must rest our estimate of what the literature produced in America has hitherto signified.
To define this impression, we may helpfully glance back at what the nineteenth century added to the literature of England. First came the poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge and Shelley and Keats and Byron, — a poetry, for all its individual variety, aflame with the spirit of world-revolution. Then, just after Waterloo, came those bravely ideal retrospective romances which have immortalised the name of Scott. He died in 1832, the year of the Reform Bill. The later literature of England has expressed the meanings of life discerned and felt by men whose mature years have fallen within the democratic and imperial reign of Queen Victoria. This literature includes the great modern novelists, — Dickens and Thackeray and George Eliot, with their host of contemporaries and followers; it includes the poetry of Tennyson, and of the Brownings, and of more; it includes a wealth of serious prose, the work of Macaulay, of Carlyle, of Ruskin, of Newman, of Matthew Arnold, and of numberless others ; it
includes the studied and fastidious refinement of Stevenson; it still happily includes the scope and power of writers now living.
In the nineteenth century English literature began with a passionate outburst of aspiring romantic poetry; it passed into an era of retrospective romantic prose; it proceeded to a stage where, for all the merit of persistent poetry, the chief fact seems to have been fiction dealing mostly with contemporary life; its serious prose, all the while, tended more and more to dwell on the problems of the times; and these surely underlie the utterances of its latest masters. The more one considers what the century has added to English literature, the more one marvels at its riches.
Yet all the while one grows aware of something which, if not a loss, is at least a change. Throughout the century, English letters have slowly lapsed away from the grace of personal distinction. The literature of nineteenth-century England, like its history, expresses an irresistible advance of democracy
Political democracy, no doubt, declared itself earlier and more outspokenly in America than in England. So far as literature is concerned, on the other hand, the first thirty years of the nineteenth century excited from America much less democratic utterances than came from the revolutionary poets of the mother country. If you doubt this, compare Brockden Brown with Wordsworth, Irving with Coleridge, Cooper with Shelley, Bryant with Byron. What that earlier literature of the Middle States chiefly certifies of American character is the trait which so far has most surely controlled the progress of the United States : whatever our vagaries of occasional speech, we Americans are at heart disposed, with good old English common-sense, to follow those lines of conduct which practice has proved safe and which prudence has pronounced admirable. The earlier literature of the Middle States has another trait which seems nationally characteristic : its sensitiveness of artistic conscience shows Americans generally to be more alive to artistic duty than Englishmen have often been. The first literary utterances of inexperienced America were marked by no wildness or vagary ; they showed, rather, an almost timid loyalty to the traditions of excellence.
A few years later came what so far seems the nearest approach of America to lasting literature, — the final utterances of New England during the years of its Renaissance, which, broadly speaking, were contemporary with the first half of the reign of Queen Victoria. The new life had begun, of course, somewhat earlier. It had first shown itself in the awakening of New England oratory and scholarship, and in the ardour which stirred Unitarianism to break the fetters of Calvinistic dogma. Scholarship bore fruit in the later works of the New England historians. Unitarianism tended, through Transcendentalism, to militant, disintegrating reform. Amid these freshening intellectual surroundings appeared some men whose names seem destined at least for a while to live in the records of literature. The chief of these were Emerson and Whittier and Longfellow and Lowell and Holmes and Hawthorne. If you will compare them with the writers who in their time were most eminent in England, — with Dickens, Thackeray, and George Eliot, with Tennyson and the Brownings, with Carlyle and Ruskin, with Newman and Matthew Arnold, you can hardly help feeling a difference, palpable even though indistinct, undeniable even though hard to define.
One phase of this difference soon grows clear. Though the writers of renascent New England were generally better in prose than in poetry, — and thus resembled their English contemporaries, — their spirit was rather like that which had animated the fervent English poetry of a generation before. One and all of them, accepting the revolutionary doctrine that human nature is not evil but good, confidently hoped that illimitable development was at hand for a humanity finally freed from the shackles of outworn custom. In this faith and hope, the men of the New England Renaissance were sustained
by a fact never true of any other civilised society than that v from which they sprung.
For more than two hundred years, national inexperience had protected American character from such distortion as the pressure of dense population always twists into human nature. With a justified enthusiasm, then, the literary leaders of New England, full of the earnest idealism inseparable from their Puritan ancestry, and finally escaped from the dogmas which had reviled humanity, fervently proclaimed democracy. And here, at first, their temper seems to linger a little behind that of the mother country. The undimmed confidence of their faith in human nature is like that which was beginning to fade from English literature before the death of Scott. Yet these New England writers were
mere exotic survivors of the days when English Romanticism was fervid. They were all true Americans; and this they could not have been without an almost rustic limitation of worldly knowledge, without a shrewd sense of fact which should at once correct the errors of such ignorance and check the vagaries of their idealism, or without exacting artistic conscience. Their devo tion to the ideals of right and of rights came straight from ancestral England. Their spontaneous aptitude for idealism, their enthusiastic love for abstractions and for absolute truth, they had derived, too, from the Elizabethan Puritans whose traits they had hereditarily preserved. What most surely marked them apart was the quality of their eager faith in democracy. To them this was no untested dream; it was rather a truth confirmed by the national inexperience of their still uncrowded country. Hence sprang the phase of their democratic temper which still seems most precious and most pregnant.
The spirit of European democracy has been dominated by blind devotion to an enforced equality. In many American utterances you may doubtless find thoughtless assertion of the same dogma. Yet if you will ponder on the course of