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Americanism in Fiction

Contemporary criticism will have it that, in order to create an American
Literature, we must use American materials. The term "Literature" has, no
doubt, come to be employed in a loose sense. The London _Saturday Review_
has (or used to have until lately) a monthly two-column article devoted to
what it called "American Literature," three-fourths of which were devoted
to an examination of volumes of State Histories, Statistical Digests,
Records of the Census, and other such works as were never, before or
since, suspected of being literature; while the remaining fourth mentioned
the titles (occasionally with a line of comment) of whatever productions
were at hand in the way of essays, novels, and poetry. This would seem to
indicate that we may have--nay, are already possessed of--an American
Literature, composed of American materials, provided only that we consent
to adopt the _Saturday Review's_ conception of what literature is.

Many of us believe, however, that the essays, the novels, and the poetry,
as well as the statistical digests, ought to go to the making up of a
national literature. It has been discovered, however, that the existence
of the former does not depend, to the same extent as that of the latter,
upon the employment of exclusively American material. A book about the
census, if it be not American, is nothing; but a poem or a romance, though
written by a native-born American, who, perhaps, has never crossed the
Atlantic, not only may, but frequently does, have nothing in it that can
be called essentially American, except its English and, occasionally, its
ideas. And the question arises whether such productions can justly be held
to form component parts of what shall hereafter be recognized as the
literature of America.

How was it with the makers of English literature? Beginning with Chaucer,
his "Canterbury Pilgrims" is English, both in scene and character; it is
even mentioned of the Abbess that "Frenche of Paris was to her unknowe";
but his "Legende of Goode Women" might, so far as its subject-matter is
concerned, have been written by a French, a Spanish, or an Italian
Chaucer, just as well as by the British Daniel. Spenser's "Faėrie Queene"
numbers St. George and King Arthur among its heroes; but its scene is laid
in Faėrie Lande, if it be laid anywhere, and it is a barefaced moral
allegory throughout. Shakespeare wrote thirty-seven plays, the elimination
of which from English literature would undeniably be a serious loss to it;
yet, of these plays twenty-three have entirely foreign scenes and
characters. Milton, as a political writer, was English; but his "Paradise
Lost and Regained," his "Samson," his "Ode on the Nativity," his "Comus,"
bear no reference to the land of his birth. Dryden's best-known work to-
day is his "Alexander's Feast." Pope has come down to us as the translator
of Homer. Richardson, Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne are the great quartet
of English novelists of the last century; but Smollett, in his preface to
"Roderick Random," after an admiring allusion to the "Gil Blas" of Le
Sage, goes on to say: "The following sheets I have modelled on his plan";
and Sterne was always talking and thinking about Cervantes, and comparing
himself to the great Spaniard: "I think there is more laughable humor,
with an equal degree of Cervantic satire, if not more, than in the last,"
he writes of one of his chapters, to "my witty widow, Mrs. F." Many even
of Walter Scott's romances are un-English in their elements; and the fame
of Shelley, Keats, and Byron rests entirely upon their "foreign" work.
Coleridge's poetry and philosophy bear no technical stamp of nationality;
and, to come down to later times, Carlyle was profoundly imbued with
Germanism, while the "Romola" of George Eliot and the "Cloister and the
Hearth" of Charles Reade are by many considered to be the best of their
works. In the above enumeration innumerable instances in point are, of
course, omitted; but enough have been given, perhaps, to show that
imaginative writers have not generally been disowned by their country on
the ground that they have availed themselves, in their writings, of other
scenes and characters than those of their own immediate neighborhoods.

The statistics of the work of the foremost American writers could easily
be shown to be much more strongly imbued with the specific flavor of their
environment. Benjamin Franklin, though he was an author before the United
States existed, was American to the marrow. The "Leather-Stocking Tales"
of Cooper are the American epic. Irving's "Knickerbocker" and his
"Woolfert's Roost" will long outlast his other productions. Poe's most
popular tale, "The Gold-Bug," is American in its scene, and so is "The
Mystery of Marie Roget," in spite of its French nomenclature; and all that
he wrote is strongly tinged with the native hue of his strange genius.
Longfellow's "Evangeline" and "Hiawatha" and "Miles Standish," and such
poems as "The Skeleton in Armor" and "The Building of the Ship," crowd out
of sight his graceful translations and adaptations. Emerson is the
veritable American eagle of our literature, so that to be Emersonian is to
be American. Whittier and Holmes have never looked beyond their native
boundaries, and Hawthorne has brought the stern gloom of the Puritan
period and the uneasy theorizings of the present day into harmony with the
universal and permanent elements of human nature. There was certainly
nothing European visible in the crude but vigorous stories of Theodore
Winthrop; and Bret Harte, the most brilliant figure among our later men,
is not only American, but Californian,--as is, likewise, the Poet of the
Sierras. It is not necessary to go any further. Mr. Henry James, having
enjoyed early and singular opportunities of studying the effects of the
recent annual influx of Americans, cultured and otherwise, into England
and the Continent, has very sensibly and effectively, and with exquisite
grace of style and pleasantness of thought, made the phenomenon the theme
of a remarkable series of stories. Hereupon the cry of an "International
School" has been raised, and critics profess to be seriously alarmed lest
we should ignore the signal advantages for _mise-en-scčne_ presented by
this Western half of the planet, and should enter into vain and
unpatriotic competition with foreign writers on their own ground. The
truth is, meanwhile, that it would have been a much surer sign of
affectation in us to have abstained from literary comment upon the patent
and notable fact of this international _rapprochement_,--which is just as
characteristic an American trait as the episode of the Argonauts of 1849,
--and we have every reason to be grateful to Mr. Henry James, and to his
school, if he has any, for having rescued us from the opprobrium of so
foolish a piece of know-nothingism. The phase is, of course, merely
temporary; its interest and significance will presently be exhausted; but,
because we are American, are we to import no French cakes and English ale?
As a matter of fact, we are too timid and self-conscious; and these
infirmities imply a much more serious obstacle to the formation of a
characteristic literature than does any amount of gadding abroad.

That must be a very shallow literature which depends for its national
flavor and character upon its topography and its dialect; and the
criticism which can conceive of no deeper Americanism than this is
shallower still. What is an American book? It is a book written by an
American, and by one who writes as an American; that is, unaffectedly. So
an English book is a book written by an unaffected Englishman. What
difference can it make what the subject of the writing is? Mr. Henry James
lately brought out a volume of essays on "French Poets and Novelists." Mr.
E. C. Stedman recently published a series of monographs on "The Victorian
Poets." Are these books French and English, or are they nondescript, or
are they American? Not only are they American, but they are more
essentially American than if they had been disquisitions upon American
literature. And the reason is, of course, that they subject the things of
the old world to the tests of the new, and thereby vindicate and
illustrate the characteristic mission of America to mankind. We are here
to hold up European conventionalisms and prejudices in the light of the
new day, and thus afford everybody the opportunity, never heretofore
enjoyed, of judging them by other standards, and in other surroundings
than those amidst which they came into existence. In the same way,
Emerson's "English Traits" is an American thing, and it gives categorical
reasons why American things should be. And what is an American novel
except a novel treating of persons, places, and ideas from an American
point of view? The point of view is _the_ point, not the thing seen from
it.

But it is said that "the great American novel," in order fully to deserve
its name, ought to have American scenery. Some thousands of years ago, the
Greeks had a novelist--Homer--who evolved the great novel of that epoch;
but the scenery of that novel was Trojan, not Greek. The story is a
criticism, from a Greek standpoint, of foreign affairs, illustrated with
practical examples; and, as regards treatment, quite as much care is
bestowed upon the delineation of Hector, Priam, and Paris, as upon
Agamemnon, Menelaus, and Achilles. The same story, told by a Trojan Homer,
would doubtless have been very different; but it is by no means certain
that it would have been any better told. It embodies, whether symbolically
or literally matters not, the triumph of Greek ideas and civilization.
But, even so, the sympathies of the reader are not always, or perhaps
uniformly, on the conquering side. Homer was doubtless a patriot, but he
shows no signs of having been a bigot. He described that great
international episode with singular impartiality; what chiefly interested
him was the play of human nature. Nevertheless, there is no evidence that
the Greeks were backward in admitting his claims as their national poet;
and we may legitimately conclude that were an American Homer--whether in
prose or poetry--to appear among us, he might pitch his scene where he
liked--in Patagonia, or on the banks of the Zambezi--and we should accept
the situation with perfect equanimity. Only let him be a native of New
York, or Boston, or San Francisco, or Mullenville, and be inspired with
the American idea, and we ask no more. Whatever he writes will belong to
our literature, and add lustre to it.

One hears many complaints about the snobbishness of running after things
European. Go West, young man, these moralists say, or go down Fifth
Avenue, and investigate Chatham Street, and learn that all the elements of
romance, to him who has the seeing eye, lie around your own front doorstep
and back yard. But let not these persons forget that he who fears Europe
is a less respectable snob than he who studies it. Let us welcome Europe
in our books as freely as we do at Castle Garden; we may do so safely. If
our digestion be not strong enough to assimilate her, and work up whatever
is valuable in her into our own bone and sinew, then America is not the
thing we took her for. For what is America? Is it simply a reproduction of
one of these Eastern nationalities, which we are so fond of alluding to as
effete? Surely not. It is a new departure in history; it is a new door
opened to the development of the human race, or, as I should prefer to
say, of humanity. We are misled by the chatter of politicians and the
bombast of Congress. In the course of ages, the time has at last arrived
when man, all over this planet, is entering upon a new career of moral,
intellectual, and political emancipation; and America is the concrete
expression and theatre of that great fact, as all spiritual truths find
their fitting and representative physical incarnation. But what would this
huge western continent be, if America--the real America of the mind--had
no existence? It would be a body without a soul, and would better,
therefore, not be at all. If America is to be a repetition of Europe on a
larger scale, it is not worth the pain of governing it. Europe has shown
what European ideas can accomplish; and whatever fresh thought or impulse
comes to birth in it can be nothing else than an American thought and
impulse, and must sooner or later find its way here, and become
naturalized with its brethren. Buds and blossoms of America are sprouting
forth all over the Old World, and we gather in the fruit. They do not find
themselves at home there, but they know where their home is. The old
country feels them like thorns in her old flesh, and is gladly rid of
them; but such prickings are the only wholesome and hopeful symptoms she
presents; if they ceased to trouble her, she would be dead indeed. She has
an uneasy experience before her, for a time; but the time will come when
she, too, will understand that her ease is her disease, and then Castle
Garden may close its doors, for America will be everywhere.

If, then, America is something vastly more than has hitherto been
understood by the word nation, it is proper that we attach to that other
word, patriotism, a significance broader and loftier than has been
conceived till now. By so much as the idea that we represent is great, by
so much are we, in comparison with it, inevitably chargeable with
littleness and short-comings. For we are of the same flesh and blood as
our neighbors; it is only our opportunities and our responsibilities that
are fairer and weightier than theirs. Circumstances afford every excuse to
them, but none to us. "_E Pluribus Unum_" is a frivolous motto; our true
one should be, "_Noblesse oblige_." But, with a strange perversity, in all
matters of comparison between ourselves and others, we display what we are
pleased to call our patriotism by an absurd touchiness as to points
wherein Europe, with its settled and polished civilization, must needs be
our superior; and are quite indifferent about those things by which our
real strength is constituted. Can we not be content to learn from Europe
the graces, the refinements, the amenities of life, so long as we are able
to teach her life itself? For my part, I never saw in England any
appurtenance of civilization, calculated to add to the convenience and
commodiousness of existence, that did not seem to me to surpass anything
of the kind that we have in this country. Notwithstanding which--and I am
far, indeed, from having any pretensions to asceticism--I would have been
fairly stifled at the idea of having to spend my life there. No American
can live in Europe, unless he means to return home, or unless, at any
rate, he returns here in mind, in hope, in belief. For an American to
accept England, or any other country, as both a mental and physical
finality, would, it seems to me, be tantamount to renouncing his very
life. To enjoy English comforts at the cost of adopting English opinions,
would be about as pleasant as to have the privilege of retaining one's
body on condition of surrendering one's soul, and would, indeed, amount to
just about the same thing.

I fail, therefore, to feel any apprehension as to our literature becoming
Europeanized, because whatever is American in it must lie deeper than
anything European can penetrate. More than that, I believe and hope that
our novelists will deal with Europe a great deal more, and a great deal
more intelligently, than they have done yet. It is a true and healthy
artistic instinct that leads them to do so. Hawthorne--and no American
writer had a better right than he to contradict his own argument--says, in
the preface to the "Marble Faun," in a passage that has been often quoted,
but will bear repetition:--

"Italy, as the site of a romance, was chiefly valuable to him as <
affording a sort of poetic or fairy precinct, where actualities would
not be so terribly insisted on as they are, and must needs be, in
America. No author, without a trial, can conceive of the difficulty of
writing a romance about a country where there is no shadow, no
antiquity, n mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything
but a commonplace prosperity, in broad and simple daylight, as is
happily the case with my dear native land. It will be very long, I
trust, before romance writers may find congenial and easily handled
themes, either in the annals of our stalwart Republic, or in any
characteristic and probable events of our individual lives. Romance
and poetry, ivy, lichens, and wall-flowers, need ruin to make them
grow."

Now, what is to be understood from this passage? It assumes, in the first
place, that a work of art, in order to be effective, must contain profound
contrasts of light and shadow; and then it points out that the shadow, at
least, is found ready to the hand in Europe. There is no hint of patriotic
scruples as to availing one's self of such a "picturesque and gloomy"
background; if it is to be had, then let it be taken; the main object to
be considered is the work of art. Europe, in short, afforded an excellent
quarry, from which, in Hawthorne's opinion, the American novelist might
obtain materials which are conspicuously deficient in his own country, and
which that country is all the better for not possessing. In the "Marble
Faun" the author had conceived a certain idea, and he considered that he
had been not unsuccessful in realizing it. The subject was new, and full
of especial attractions to his genius, and it would manifestly have been
impossible to adapt it to an American setting. There was one drawback
connected with it, and this Hawthorne did not fail to recognize. He
remarks in the preface that he had "lived too long abroad not to be aware
that a foreigner seldom acquires that knowledge of a country at once
flexible and profound, which may justify him in endeavoring to idealize
its traits." But he was careful not to attempt "a portraiture of Italian
manners and character." He made use of the Italian scenery and atmosphere
just so far as was essential to the development of his idea, and
consistent with the extent of his Italian knowledge; and, for the rest,
fell back upon American characters and principles. The result has been
long enough before the world to have met with a proper appreciation. I
have heard regret expressed that the power employed by the author in
working out this story had not been applied to a romance dealing with a
purely American subject. But to analyze this objection is to dispose of
it. A man of genius is not, commonly, enfeebled by his own productions;
and, physical accidents aside, Hawthorne was just as capable of writing
another "Scarlet Letter" after the "Marble Faun" was published, as he had
been before. Meanwhile, few will deny that our literature would be a loser
had the "Marble Faun" never been written.

The drawback above alluded to is, however, not to be underrated. It may
operate in two ways. In the first place, the American's European
observations may be inaccurate. As a child, looking at a sphere, might
suppose it to be a flat disc, shaded at one side and lighted at the other,
so a sightseer in Europe may ascribe to what he beholds qualities and a
character quite at variance with what a more fundamental knowledge would
have enabled him to perceive. In the second place, the stranger in a
strange land, be he as accurate as he may, will always tend to look at
what is around him objectively, instead of allowing it subjectively--or,
as it were, unconsciously--to color his narrative. He will be more apt
directly to describe what he sees, than to convey the feeling or aroma of
it without description. It would doubtless, for instance, be possible for
Mr. Henry James to write an "English" or even a "French" novel without
falling into a single technical error; but it is no less certain that a
native writer, of equal ability, would treat the same subject in a very
different manner. Mr. James's version might contain a great deal more of
definite information; but the native work would insinuate an impression
which both comes from and goes to a greater depth of apprehension.

But, on the other hand, it is not contended that any American should write
an "English" or anything but an "American" novel. The contention is,
simply, that he should not refrain from using foreign material, when it
happens to suit his exigencies, merely because it is foreign. Objective
writing may be quite as good reading as subjective writing, in its proper
place and function. In fiction, no more than elsewhere, may a writer
pretend to be what he is not, or to know what he knows not. When he finds
himself abroad, he must frankly admit his situation; and more will not
then be required of him than he is fairly competent to afford. It will
seldom happen, as Hawthorne intimates, that he can successfully reproduce
the inner workings and philosophy of European social and political customs
and peculiarities; but he can give a picture of the scenery as vivid as
can the aborigine, or more so; he can make an accurate study of personal
native character; and, finally, and most important of all, he can make use
of the conditions of European civilization in events, incidents, and
situations which would be impossible on this side of the water. The
restrictions, the traditions, the law, and the license of those old
countries are full of suggestions to the student of character and
circumstances, and supply him with colors and effects that he would else
search for in vain. For the truth may as well be admitted; we are at a
distinct disadvantage, in America, in respect of the materials of romance.
Not that vigorous, pathetic, striking stories may not be constructed here;
and there is humor enough, the humor of dialect, of incongruity of
character; but, so far as the story depends for its effect, not upon
psychical and personal, but upon physical and general events and
situations, we soon feel the limit of our resources. An analysis of the
human soul, such as may be found in the "House of the Seven Gables," for
instance, is absolute in its interest, apart from outward conditions. But
such an analysis cannot be carried on, so to say, _in vacuo_. You must
have solid ground to stand on; you must have fitting circumstances,
background, and perspective. The ruin of a soul, the tragedy of a heart,
demand, as a necessity of harmony and picturesque effect, a corresponding
and conspiring environment and stage--just as, in music, the air in the
treble is supported and reverberated by the bass accompaniment. The
immediate, contemporary act or predicament loses more than half its
meaning and impressiveness if it be re-echoed from no sounding-board in
the past--its notes, however sweetly and truly touched, fall flatly on the
ear. The deeper we attempt to pitch the key of an American story,
therefore, the more difficulty shall we find in providing a congruous
setting for it; and it is interesting to note how the masters of the craft
have met the difficulty. In the "Seven Gables"--and I take leave to say
that if I draw illustrations from this particular writer, it is for no
other reason than that he presents, more forcibly than most, a method of
dealing with the special problem we are considering--Hawthorne, with the
intuitive skill of genius, evolves a background, and produces a
reverberation, from materials which he may be said to have created almost
as much as discovered. The idea of a house, founded two hundred years ago
upon a crime, remaining ever since in possession of its original owners,
and becoming the theatre, at last, of the judgment upon that crime, is a
thoroughly picturesque idea, but it is thoroughly un-American. Such a
thing might conceivably occur, but nothing in this country could well be
more unlikely. No one before Hawthorne had ever thought of attempting such
a thing; at all events, no one else, before or since, has accomplished it.
The preface to the romance in question reveals the principle upon which
its author worked, and incidentally gives a new definition of the term
"romance,"--a definition of which, thus far, no one but its propounder has
known how to avail himself. It amounts, in fact, to an acknowledgment that
it is impossible to write a "novel" of American life that shall be at once
artistic, realistic, and profound. A novel, he says, aims at a "very
minute fidelity, not merely to the possible, but to the probable and
ordinary course of man's experience." A romance, on the other hand,
"while, as a work of art, it must rigidly subject itself to laws, and
while it sins unpardonably so far as it may swerve aside from the truth of
the human heart, has fairly a right to present that truth under
circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer's own choosing or
creation. If he think fit, also, he may so manage his atmospherical medium
as to bring out and mellow the lights, and deepen and enrich the shadows,
of the picture." This is good advice, no doubt, but not easy to follow. We
can all understand, however, that the difficulties would be greatly
lessened could we but command backgrounds of the European order.
Thackeray, the Brontės, George Eliot, and others have written great
stories, which did not have to be romances, because the literal conditions
of life in England have a picturesqueness and a depth which correspond
well enough with whatever moral and mental scenery we may project upon
them. Hawthorne was forced to use the scenery and capabilities of his
native town of Salem. He saw that he could not present these in a
realistic light, and his artistic instinct showed him that he must modify
or veil the realism of his figures in the same degree and manner as that
of his accessories. No doubt, his peculiar genius and temperament
eminently qualified him to produce this magical change; it was a
remarkable instance of the spontaneous marriage, so to speak, of the means
to the end; and even when, in Italy, he had an opportunity to write a
story which should be accurate in fact, as well as faithful to "the truth
of the human heart," he still preferred a subject which bore to the
Italian environment the same relation that the "House of the Seven Gables"
and the "Scarlet Letter" do to the American one; in other words, the
conception of Donatello is removed as much further than Clifford or Hester
Prynne from literal realism as the inherent romance of the Italian setting
is above that of New England. The whole thing is advanced a step further
towards pure idealism, the relative proportions being maintained.

"The Blithedale Romance" is only another instance in point, and here, as
before, we find the principle admirably stated in the preface. "In the old
countries," says Hawthorne, "a novelist's work is not put exactly side by
side with nature; and he is allowed a license with regard to everyday
probability, in view of the improved effects he is bound to produce
thereby. Among ourselves, on the contrary, there is as yet no Faėry Land,
so like the real world that, in a suitable remoteness, we cannot well tell
the difference, but with an atmosphere of strange enchantment, beheld
through which the inhabitants have a propriety of their own. This
atmosphere is what the American romancer needs. In its absence, the beings
of his imagination are compelled to show themselves in the same category
as actually living mortals; a necessity that renders the paint and
pasteboard of their composition but too painfully discernible."
Accordingly, Hawthorne selects the Brook Farm episode (or a reflection of
it) as affording his drama "a theatre, a little removed from the highway
of ordinary travel, where the creatures of his brain may play their
phantasmagorical antics, without exposing them to too close a comparison
with the actual events of real lives." In this case, therefore, an
exceptional circumstance is made to answer the same purpose that was
attained by different means in the other romances.

But in what manner have our other writers of fiction treated the
difficulties that were thus dealt with by Hawthorne?--Herman Melville
cannot be instanced here; for his only novel or romance, whichever it be,
was also the most impossible of all his books, and really a terrible
example of the enormities which a man of genius may perpetrate when
working in a direction unsuited to him. I refer, of course, to "Pierre, or
the Ambiguities." Oliver Wendell Holmes's two delightful stories are as
favorable examples of what can be done, in the way of an American novel,
by a wise, witty, and learned gentleman, as we are likely to see.
Nevertheless, one cannot avoid the feeling that they are the work of a man
who has achieved success and found recognition in other ways than by
stories, or even poems and essays. The interest, in either book, centres
round one of those physiological phenomena which impinge so strangely upon
the domain of the soul; for the rest, they are simply accurate and
humorous portraitures of local dialects and peculiarities, and thus afford
little assistance in the search for a universally applicable rule of
guidance. Doctor Holmes, I believe, objects to having the term "medicated"
applied to his tales; but surely the adjective is not reproachful; it
indicates one of the most charming and also, alas! inimitable features of
his work.

Bret Harte is probably as valuable a witness as could be summoned in this
case. His touch is realistic, and yet his imagination is poetic and
romantic. He has discovered something. He has done something both new and
good. Within the space of some fifty pages, he has painted a series of
pictures which will last as long as anything in the fifty thousand pages
of Dickens. Taking "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" as perhaps the most nearly
perfect of the tales, as well as the most truly representative of the
writer's powers, let us try to guess its secret. In the first place, it is
very short,--a single episode, succinctly and eloquently told. The
descriptions of scenery and persons are masterly and memorable. The
characters of these persons, their actions, and the circumstances of their
lives, are as rugged, as grotesque, as terrible, and also as beautiful, as
the scenery. Thus an artistic harmony is established,--the thing which is
lacking in so much of our literature. The story moves swiftly on, through
humor, pathos, and tragedy, to its dramatic close. It is given with
perfect literary taste, and naught in its phases of human nature is either
extenuated or set down in malice. The little narrative can be read in a
few minutes, and can never be forgotten. But it is only an episode; and it
is an episode of an episode,--that of the Californian gold-fever. The
story of the Argonauts is only one story, after all, and these tales of
Harte's are but so many facets of the same gem. They are not, however,
like chapters in a romance; there is no such vital connection between them
as develops a cumulative force. We are no more impressed after reading
half a dozen of them than after the first; they are variations of the same
theme. They discover to us no new truth about human nature; they only show
us certain human beings so placed as to act out their naked selves,--to be
neither influenced nor protected by the rewards and screens of
conventional civilization. The affectation and insincerity of our daily
life make such a spectacle fresh and pleasing to us. But we enjoy it
because of its unexpectedness, its separateness, its unlikeness to the
ordinary course of existence. It is like a huge, strange, gorgeous flower,
an exaggeration and intensification of such flowers as we know; but a
flower without roots, unique, never to be reproduced. It is fitting that
its portrait should be painted; but, once done, it is done with; we cannot
fill our picture-gallery with it. Carlyle wrote the History of the French
Revolution, and Bret Harte has written the History of the Argonauts; but
it is absurd to suppose that a national literature could be founded on
either episode.

But though Mr. Harte has not left his fellow-craftsmen anything to gather
from the lode which he opened and exhausted, we may still learn something
from his method. He took things as he found them, and he found them
disinclined to weave themselves into an elaborate and balanced narrative.
He recognized the deficiency of historical perspective, but he saw that
what was lost in slowly growing, culminating power was gained in vivid,
instant force. The deeds of his character could not be represented as the
final result of long-inherited proclivities; but they could appear between
their motive and their consequence, like the draw--aim--fire! of the
Western desperado,--as short, sharp, and conclusive. In other words, the
conditions of American life, as he saw it, justified a short story, or any
number of them, but not a novel; and the fact that he did afterwards
attempt a novel only served to confirm his original position. I think that
the limitation that he discovered is of much wider application than we are
prone to realize. American life has been, as yet, nothing but a series of
episodes, of experiments. There has been no such thing as a fixed and
settled condition of society, not subject to change itself, and therefore
affording a foundation and contrast to minor or individual vicissitudes.
We cannot write American-grown novels, because a novel is not an episode,
nor an aggregation of episodes; we cannot write romances in the Hawthorne
sense, because, as yet, we do not seem to be clever enough. Several
courses are, however, open to us, and we are pursuing them all. First, we
are writing "short stories," accounts of episodes needing no historical
perspective, and not caring for any; and, so far as one may judge, we
write the best short stories in the world. Secondly, we may spin out our
short stories into long-short stories, just as we may imagine a baby six
feet high; it takes up more room, but is just as much a baby as one of
twelve inches. Thirdly, we may graft our flower of romance on a European
stem, and enjoy ourselves as much as the European novelists do, and with
as clear a conscience. We are stealing that which enriches us and does not
impoverish them. It is silly and childish to make the boundaries of the
America of the mind coincide with those of the United States. We need not
dispute about free trade and protection here; literature is not commerce,
nor is it politics. America is not a petty nationality, like France,
England, and Germany; but whatever in such nationalities tends toward
enlightenment and freedom is American. Let us not, therefore, confirm
ourselves in a false and ignoble conception of our meaning and mission in
the world. Let us not carry into the temple of the Muse the jealousies,
the prejudice, the ignorance, the selfishness of our "Senate" and
"Representatives," strangely so called! Let us not refuse to breathe the
air of Heaven, lest there be something European or Asian in it. If we
cannot have a national literature in the narrow, geographical sense of the
phrase, it is because our inheritance transcends all geographical
definitions. The great American novel may not be written this year, or
even in this century. Meanwhile, let us not fear to ride, and ride to
death, whatever species of Pegasus we can catch. It can do us no harm, and
it may help us to acquire a firmer seat against the time when our own, our
very own winged steed makes his appearance.


Julian Hawthorne

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