It is difficult for contemporary Americans to assess the value of such a man, who evidently did nothing except to write a few books. His rare, delicate genius was scarcely touched by passing events. Not many of his countrymen really love his writings, as they love, for instance the writings of Dickens or Thackeray or Stevenson. Everyone reads, at some time of his life, "The Scarlet Letter," and trembles at its passionate indictment of the sin of concealment, at its agonized admonition, "Be true! Be true!" Perhaps the happiest memories of Hawthorne's readers, as of Kipling's readers, hover about his charming stories for children; to have missed "The Wonder-Book" is like having grown old without ever catching the sweetness of the green world at dawn. But our public has learned to enjoy a wholly different kind of style, taught by the daily journals, a nervous, graphic, sensational, physical style fit for describing an automobile, a department store, a steamship, a lynching party. It is the style of our day, and judged by it Hawthorne, who wrote with severity, conscience, and good taste, seems somewhat old-fashioned, like Irving or Addison. He is perhaps too completely a New Englander to be understood by men of other stock, and has never, like Poe and Whitman, excited strong interest among European minds.
Yet no American is surer, generation after generation, of finding a fit audience. Hawthorne's genius was meditative rather than dramatic. His artistic material was moral rather than physical; he brooded over the soul of man as affected by this and that condition and situation. The child of a new analytical age, he thought out with rigid accuracy the precise circumstances surrounding each one of his cases and modifying it. Many of his sketches and short stories and most of his romances deal with historical facts, moods, and atmospheres, and he knew the past of New England as few men have ever known it. There is solid historical and psychological stuff as the foundation of his air-castles. His latent radicalism furnished him with a touchstone of criticism as he interpreted the moral standards of ancient communities; no reader of "The Scarlet Letter" can forget Hawthorne's implicit condemnation of the unimaginative harshness of the Puritans. His own judgment upon the deep matters of the human conscience was stern enough, but it was a universalized judgment, and by no means the result of a Calvinism which he hated. Over-fond as he was in his earlier tales of elaborate, fanciful, decorative treatment of themes that promised to point a moral, in his finest short stories, such as "The Ambitious Guest," "The Gentle Boy," "Young Goodman Brown," "The Snow Image," "The Great Stone Face," "Drowne's Wooden Image," "Rappacini's Daughter," the moral, if there be one, is not obtruded. He loves physical symbols for mental and moral states, and was poet and Transcendentalist enough to retain his youthful affection for parables; but his true field as a story-teller is the erring, questing, aspiring, shadowed human heart.
"The Scarlet Letter," for instance, is a study of a universal theme, the problem of concealed sin, punishment, redemption. Only the setting is provincial. The story cannot be rightly estimated, it is true, without remembering the Puritan reverence for physical purity, the Puritan reverence for the magistrate-minister—differing so widely from the respect of Latin countries for the priest—the Puritan preoccupation with the life of the soul, or, as more narrowly construed by Calvinism, the problem of evil. The word Adultery, although suggestively enough present in one of the finest symbolical titles ever devised by a romancer, does not once occur in the book. The sins dealt with are hypocrisy and revenge. Arthur Dimmesdale, Hester Prynne, and Roger Chillingworth are developing, suffering, living creatures, caught inextricably in the toils of a moral situation. By an incomparable succession of pictures Hawthorne exhibits the travail of their souls. In the greatest scene of all, that between Hester and Arthur in the forest, the Puritan framework of the story gives way beneath the weight of human passion, and we seem on the verge of another and perhaps larger solution than was actually worked out by the logic of succeeding events. But though the book has been called Christless, prayerless, hopeless, no mature person ever reads it without a deepened sense of the impotence of all mechanistic theories of sin, and a new vision of the intense reality of spiritual things. "The law we broke," in Dimmesdale's ghostly words, was a more subtle law than can be graven on tables of stone and numbered as the Seventh Commandment.
The legacy of guilt is likewise the theme of "The House of the Seven Gables," which Hawthorne himself was inclined to think a better book than "The Scarlet Letter." Certainly this story of old Salem is impeccably written and its subtle handling of tone and atmosphere is beyond dispute. An ancestral curse, the visitation of the sins of the fathers upon the children, the gradual decay of a once sound stock, are motives that Ibsen might have developed. But the Norseman would have failed to rival Hawthorne's delicate manipulation of his shadows, and the no less masterly deftness of the ultimate mediation of a dark inheritance through the love of the light-hearted Phoebe for the latest descendant of the Maules. In "The Blithedale Romance" Hawthorne stood for once, perhaps, too near his material to allow the rich atmospheric effects which he prefers, and in spite of the unforgetable portrait of Zenobia and powerful passages of realistic description, the book is not quite focussed. In "The Marble Faun" Hawthorne comes into his own again. Its central problem is one of those dark insoluble ones that he loves: the influence of a crime upon the development of a soul. Donatello, the Faun, is a charming young creature of the natural sunshine until his love for the somber Miriam tempts him to the commission of murder: then begins the growth of his mind and character. Perhaps the haunting power of the main theme of the book has contributed less to its fame than the felicity of its descriptions of Rome and Italy. For Hawthorne possessed, like Byron, in spite of his defective training in the appreciation of the arts, a gift of romantic discernment which makes "The Marble Faun," like "Childe Harold," a glorified guide-book to the Eternal City.
All of Hawthorne's books, in short, have a central core of psychological romance, and a rich surface finish of description. His style, at its best, has a subdued splendor of coloring which is only less wonderful than the spiritual perceptions with which this magician was endowed. The gloom which haunts many of his pages, as I have said elsewhere, is the long shadow cast by our mortal destiny upon a sensitive soul. The mystery is our mystery, perceived, and not created, by that finely endowed mind and heart. The shadow is our shadow; the gleams of insight, the soft radiance of truth and beauty, are his own.
A college classmate of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow summed up the Portland boy's character in one sentence: "It appeared easy for him to avoid the unworthy." Born in 1807, of Mayflower stock that had distinguished itself for bravery and uprightness, the youth was graduated from Bowdoin at eighteen. Like his classmate Hawthorne, he had been a wide and secretly ambitious reader, and had followed the successive numbers of Irving's "Sketch Book," he tells us, "with ever increasing wonder and delight." His college offered him in 1826 a professorship of the modern languages, and he spent three happy years in Europe in preparation. He taught successfully at Bowdoin for five or six years, and for eighteen years, 1836 to 1854, served as George Ticknor's successor at Harvard, ultimately surrendering the chair to Lowell. He early published two prose volumes, "Hyperion" and "Outre-mer," Irvingesque romances of European travel. Then came, after ten years of teaching and the death of his young wife, the sudden impulse to write poetry, and he produced, "softly excited, I know not why," "The Reaper and the Flowers, a Psalm of Death." From that December morning in 1838 until his death in 1882 he was Longfellow the Poet.
His outward life, like Hawthorne's, was barren of dramatic incident, save the one tragic accident by which his second wife, the mother of his children, perished before his eyes in 1861. He bore the calamity with the quiet courage of his race and breeding. But otherwise his days ran softly and gently, enriched with books and friendships, sheltered from the storms of circumstance. He had leisure to grow ripe, to remember, and to dream. But he never secluded himself, like Tennyson, from normal contacts with his fellowmen. The owner of the Craigie House was a good neighbor, approachable and deferential. He was even interested in local Cambridge politics. On the larger political issues of his day his Americanism was sound and loyal. "It is disheartening," he wrote in his Cambridge journal for 1851, "to see how little sympathy there is in the hearts of the young men here for freedom and great ideas." But his own sympathy never wavered. His linguistic talent helped him to penetrate the secrets of alien ways of thought and speech. He understood Italy and Spain, Holland and France and Germany. He had studied them on the lips of their living men and women and in the books where soldier and historian, priest and poet, had inscribed the record of five hundred years. From the Revival of Learning to the middle of the nineteenth century, Longfellow knew the soul of Europe as few men have known it, and he helped to translate Europe to America. His intellectual receptivity, his quick eye for color and costume and landscape, his ear for folklore and ballad, his own ripe mastery of words, made him the most resourceful of international interpreters. And this lover of children, walking in quiet ways, this refined and courteous host and gentleman, scholar and poet, exemplified without self-advertisement the richer qualities of his own people. When Couper's statue of Longfellow was dedicated in Washington, Hamilton Mabie said: "His freedom from the sophistication of a more experienced country; his simplicity, due in large measure to the absence of social self-consciousness; his tranquil and deep-seated optimism, which is the effluence of an unexhausted soil; his happy and confident expectation, born of a sense of tremendous national vitality; his love of simple things in normal relations to world-wide interests of the mind; his courage in interpreting those deeper experiences which craftsmen who know art but who do not know life call commonplaces; the unaffected and beautiful democracy of his spirit—these are the delicate flowers of our new world, and as much a part of it as its stretches of wilderness and the continental roll of its rivers."
Longfellow's poetic service to his countrymen has thus become a national asset, and not merely because in his three best known narrative poems, "Evangeline," "Hiawatha," and "The Courtship of Miles Standish," he selected his themes from our own history. "The Building of the Ship," written with full faith in the troubled year of 1849, is a national anthem. "It is a wonderful gift," said Lincoln, as he listened to it, his eyes filled with tears, "to be able to stir men like that." "The Skeleton in Armor," "A Ballad of the French Fleet," "Paul Revere's Ride," "The Wreck of the Hesperus," are ballads that stir men still. For all of his skill in story-telling in verse—witness the "Tales of a Wayside Inn"—Longfellow was not by nature a dramatist, and his trilogy now published under the title of "Christus," made up of "The Divine Tragedy," "The Golden Legend," and "New England Tragedies," added little to a reputation won in other fields. His sonnets, particularly those upon "Chaucer," "Milton," "The Divina Commedia," "A Nameless Grave," "Felton," "Sumner," "Nature," "My Books," are among the imperishable treasures of the English language. In descriptive pieces like "Keramos" and "The Hanging of the Crane," in such personal and occasional verses as "The Herons of Elmwood," "The Fiftieth Birthday of Agassiz," and the noble "Morituri Salutamus" written for his classmates in 1875, he exhibits his tenderness of affection and all the ripeness of his technical skill. But it was as a lyric poet, after all, that he won and held his immense audience throughout the English-speaking world. Two of the most popular of all his early pieces, "The Psalm of Life" and "Excelsior," have paid the price of a too apt adjustment to the ethical mood of an earnest moment in our national life. We have passed beyond them. And many readers may have outgrown their youthful pleasure in "Maidenhood," "The Rainy Day," "The Bridge," "The Day is Done," verses whose simplicity lent themselves temptingly to parody. Yet such poems as "The Belfry of Bruges," "Seaweed," "The Fire of Driftwood," "The Arsenal at Springfield," "My Lost Youth," "The Children's Hour," and many another lyric, lose nothing with the lapse of time. There is fortunately infinite room for personal preference in this whole matter of poetry, but the confession of a lack of regard for Longfellow's verse must often be recognized as a confession of a lessening love for what is simple, graceful, and refined. The current of contemporary American taste, especially among consciously clever, half-trained persons, seems to be running against Longfellow. How soon the tide may turn, no one can say. Meanwhile he has his tranquil place in the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey. The Abbey must be a pleasant spot to wait in, for the Portland boy.
Oddly enough, some of the over-sophisticated and under-experienced people who affect to patronize Longfellow assume toward John Greenleaf Whittier an air of deference. This attitude would amuse the Quaker poet. One can almost see his dark eyes twinkle and the grim lips tighten in that silent laughter in which the old man so much resembled Cooper's Leather-Stocking. Whittier knew that his friend Longfellow was a better artist than himself, and he also knew, by intimate experience as a maker of public opinion, how variable are its judgments. Whittier represents a stock different from that of the Longfellows, but equally American, equally thoroughbred: the Essex County Quaker farmer of Massachusetts. The homestead in which he was born in 1807, at East Haverhill, had been built by his great-great-grandfather in 1688. Mount Vernon in Virginia and the Craigie House in Cambridge are newer than this by two generations. The house has been restored to the precise aspect it had in Whittier's boyhood: and the garden, lawn, and brook, even the door-stone and bridle-post and the barn across the road are witnesses to the fidelity of the descriptions in "Snow-Bound." The neighborhood is still a lonely one. The youth grew up in seclusion, yet in contact with a few great ideas, chief among them Liberty. "My father," he said, "was an old-fashioned Democrat, and really believed in the Preamble of the Bill of Rights which reaffirmed the Declaration of Independence." The taciturn father transmitted to his sons a hatred of kingcraft and priestcraft, the inward moral freedom of the Quaker touched with humanitarian passion. The spirit of a boyhood in this homestead is veraciously told in "The Barefoot Boy," "School-Days," "Snow-Bound," "Ramoth Hill," and "Telling the Bees." It was a chance copy of Burns that revealed to the farmer lad his own desire and capacity for verse-writing. When he was nineteen, his sister sent his "Exile's Departure" to William Lloyd Garrison, then twenty, and the editor of the "Newburyport Free Press." The neighbors liked it, and the tall frail author was rewarded with a term at the Haverhill Academy, where he paid his way, in old Essex County fashion, by making shoes.
He had little more formal schooling than this, was too poor to enter college, but had what he modestly called a "knack at rhyming," and much facility in prose. He turned to journalism and politics, for which he possessed a notable instinct. For a while he thought he had "done with poetry and literature." Then in 1833, at twenty-six, came Garrison's stirring letter bidding him enlist in the cause of Anti-Slavery. He obeyed the call, not knowing that this new allegiance to the service of humanity was to transform him from a facile local verse-writer into a national poet. It was the ancient miracle of losing one's life and finding it. For the immediate sacrifice was very real to a youth trained in quietism and non-resistance, and well aware, as a Whig journalist, of the ostracism visited upon the active Abolitionists. Whittier entered the fight with absolute courage and with the shrewdest practical judgment of weapons and tactics. He forgot himself. He turned aside from those pleasant fields of New England legend and history to which he was destined to return after his warfare was accomplished. He had read the prose of Milton and of Burke. He perceived that negro emancipation in the United States was only a single and immediate phase of a universal movement of liberalism. The thought kindled his imagination. He wrote, at white heat, political and social verse that glowed with humanitarian passion: lyrics in praise of fellow-workers, salutes to the dead, campaign songs, hymns, satires against the clergy and the capitalists, superb sectional poems like "Massachusetts to Virginia," and, more nobly still, poems embodying what Wordsworth called "the sensation and image of country and the human race."
Whittier had now "found himself" as a poet. It is true that his style remained diffuse and his ear faulty, but his countrymen, then as now uncritical of artistic form, overlooked the blemishes of his verse, and thought only of his vibrant emotion, his scorn of cowardice and evil, his prophetic exaltation. In 1847 came the first general collection of his poems, and here were to be found not merely controversial verses, but spirited "Songs of Labor," pictures of the lovely Merrimac countryside, legends written in the mood of Hawthorne or Longfellow, and bright bits of foreign lore and fancy. For though Whittier never went abroad, his quiet life at Amesbury gave him leisure for varied reading, and he followed contemporary European politics with the closest interest. He emerged more and more from the atmosphere of faction and section, and, though he retained to the last his Quaker creed, he held its simple tenets in such undogmatic and winning fashion that his hymns are sung today in all the churches.
When "The Atlantic Monthly" was established in 1857, Whittier was fifty. He took his place among the contributors to the new magazine not as a controversialist but as a man of letters, with such poems as "Tritemius," and "Skipper Ireson's Ride." Characteristic productions of this period are "My Psalm," "Cobbler Keezar's Vision," "Andrew Rykman's Prayer," "The Eternal Goodness"—poems grave, sweet, and tender. But it was not until the publication of "Snow-Bound" in 1866 that Whittier's work touched its widest popularity. He had never married, and the deaths of his mother and sister Elizabeth set him brooding, in the desolate Amesbury house, over memories of his birthplace, six miles away in East Haverhill. The homestead had gone out of the hands of the Whittiers, and the poet, nearing sixty, set himself to compose an idyll descriptive of the vanished past. No artist could have a theme more perfectly adapted to his mood and to his powers. There are no novel ideas in "Snow-Bound," nor is there any need of them, but the thousands of annual pilgrims to the old farmhouse can bear witness to the touching intimacy, the homely charm, the unerring rightness of feeling with which Whittier's genius recreated his own lost youth and painted for all time a true New England hearthside.
Whittier was still to write nearly two hundred more poems, for he lived to be eighty-five, and he composed until the last. But his creative period was now over. He rejoiced in the friendly recognition of his work that came to him from every section of a reunited country. His personal friends were loyal in their devotion. He followed the intricacies of American politics with the keen zest of a veteran in that game, for in his time he had made and unmade governors and senators. "The greatest politician I have ever met," said James G. Blaine, who had certainly met many. He had an income from his poems far in excess of his needs, but retained the absolute simplicity of his earlier habits. When his publishers first proposed the notable public dinner in honor of his seventieth birthday he demurred, explaining to a member of his family that he did not want the bother of "buying a new pair of pants"—a petty anecdote, but somehow refreshing. So the rustic, shrewd, gentle old man waited for the end. He had known what it means to toil, to fight, to renounce, to eat his bread in tears, and to see some of his dreams come true. We have had, and shall have, more accomplished craftsmen in verse, but we have never bred a more genuine man than Whittier, nor one who had more kinship with the saints.
A few days before Whittier's death, he wrote an affectionate poem in celebration of the eighty-third birthday of his old friend of the Saturday Club, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. This was in 1892. The little Doctor, rather lonely in his latest years, composed some tender obituary verses at Whittier's passing. He had already performed the same office for Lowell. He lingered himself until the autumn of 1894, in his eighty-sixth year—"The Last Leaf," in truth, of New England's richest springtime.
"No, my friends," he had said in "The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table," "I go (always, other things being equal) for the man who inherits family traditions and the cumulative humanities of at least four or five generations." The Doctor came naturally by his preference for a "man of family," being one himself. He was a descendant of Anne Bradstreet, the poetess. "Dorothy Q.," whom he had made the most picturesque of the Quincys, was his great-grandmother. Wendell Phillips was his cousin. His father, the Rev. Abiel Holmes, a Yale graduate, was the minister of the First Church in Cambridge, and it was in its "gambrel-roofed" parsonage that Oliver Wendell was born in 1809.
"Know old Cambridge? Hope you do— Born there? Don't say so! I was, too. Nicest place that was ever seen— Colleges red and Common green."
So he wrote, in scores of passages of filial devotion, concerning the village of his boyhood and the city of Boston. His best-known prose sentence is: "Boston State House is the hub of the Solar System." It is easy to smile, as indeed he did himself, at such fond provinciality, but the fact remains that our literature as a whole sadly needs this richness of local atmosphere. A nation of restless immigrants, here today and "moved on" tomorrow, has the fibres of its imagination uprooted, and its artists in their eager quest of "local color" purchase brilliancy at the cost of thinness of tone, poverty of association. Philadelphia and Boston, almost alone among the larger American cities, yield the sense of intimacy, or what the Autocrat would call "the cumulative humanities."
Young Holmes became the pet and the glory of his class of 1829 at Harvard. It was only in 1838 that their reunions began, but thereafter they held fifty-six meetings, of which Holmes attended fifty and wrote poems for forty-three. Many of "the Boys" whom he celebrated became famous in their own right, but they remain "the Boys" to all lovers of Holmes's verses. His own career as a poet had begun during his single year in the Law School. His later years brought him some additional skill in polishing his lines and a riper human wisdom, but his native verse-making talent is as completely revealed in "Old Ironsides," published when he was twenty-one, and in "The Last Leaf," composed a year or two later, as in anything he was to write during the next half-century. In many respects he was a curious survival of the cumulative humanities of the eighteenth century. He might have been, like good Dr. Arbuthnot, an ornament of the Augustan age. He shared with the English Augustans a liking for the rhymed couplet, an instinctive social sense, a feeling for the presence of an imaginary audience of congenial listeners. One still catches the "Hear! Hear!" between his clever lines. In many of the traits of his mind this "Yankee Frenchman" resembled such a typical eighteenth century figure as Voltaire. Like Voltaire, he was tolerant—except toward Calvinism and Homeopathy. In some of the tricks of his prose style he is like a kindlier Sterne. His knack for vers de societe was caught from Horace, but he would not have been a child of his own age without the additional gift of rhetoric and eloquence which is to be seen in his patriotic poems and his hymns. For Holmes possessed, in spite of all his limitations in poetic range, true devotion, patriotism, humor, and pathos.
His poetry was in the best sense of the word "occasional," and his prose was only an incidental or accidental harvest of a long career in which his chief duty was that of a professor of anatomy in the Harvard Medical School. He had studied in Paris under sound teachers, and after some years of private practice won the appointment which he held, as active and emeritus professor, for forty-seven years. He was a faithful, clear, and amusing lecturer, and printed two or three notable medical essays, but his chief Boston reputation, in the eighteen-fifties, was that of a wit and diner-out and writer of verses for occasions. Then came his great hour of good luck in 1857, when Lowell, the editor of the newly-established "Atlantic Monthly," persuaded him to write "The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table." It was the public's luck also, for whoever had been so unfortunate as not to be born in Boston could now listen—as if across the table—to Boston's best talker. Few volumes of essays during the last sixty years have given more pleasure to a greater variety of readers than is yielded by "The Autocrat." It gave the Doctor a reputation in England which he naturally prized, and which contributed to his triumphal English progress, many years later, recorded pleasantly in "Our Hundred Days." "The Professor at the Breakfast Table" and "The Poet at the Breakfast Table" are less successful variations of "The Autocrat." Neither professors nor poets are at their best at this meal. Holmes wrote three novels—of which "Elsie Venner," a somewhat too medical story, is the best remembered—memoirs of his friends Emerson and Motley, and many miscellaneous essays. His life was exceptionally happy, and his cheery good opinion of himself is still contagious. To pronounce the words Doctor Holmes in any company of intelligent Americans is the prologue to a smile of recognition, comprehension, sympathy. The word Goldsmith has now lost, alas, this provocative quality; the word Stevenson still possesses it. The little Doctor, who died in the same year as Stevenson, belonged like him to the genial race of friends of mankind, and a few of his poems, and some gay warm-hearted pages of his prose, will long preserve his memory. But the Boston which he loved has vanished as utterly as Sam Johnson's London.
James Russell Lowell was ten years younger than Holmes, and though he died three years before the Doctor, he seems, for other reasons than those of chronology, to belong more nearly to the present. Although by birth as much of a New England Brahmin as Holmes, and in his later years as much of a Boston and Cambridge idol, he nevertheless touched our universal American life on many sides, represented us worthily in foreign diplomacy, argued the case of Democracy with convincing power, and embodied, as more perfect artists like Hawthorne and Longfellow could never have done, the subtleties and potencies of the national temperament. He deserves and reveals the closest scrutiny, but his personality is difficult to put on paper. Horace Scudder wrote his biography with careful competence, and Ferris Greenslet has made him the subject of a brilliant critical study. Yet readers differ widely in their assessment of the value of his prose and verse, and in their understanding of his personality.
The external facts of his career are easy to trace and must be set down here with brevity. A minister's son, and descended from a very old and distinguished family, he was born at Elmwood in Cambridge in 1819. After a somewhat turbulent course, he was graduated from Harvard in 1838, the year of Emerson's "Divinity School Address." He studied law, turned Abolitionist, wrote poetry, married the beautiful and transcendental Maria White, and did magazine work in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. He was thought by his friends in the eighteen-fifties to be "the most Shakespearian" man in America. When he was ten years out of college, in 1848, he published "The Biglow Papers" (First Series), "A Fable for Critics," and "The Vision of Sir Launfal." After a long visit to Europe and the death of his wife, he gave some brilliant Lowell Institute lectures in Boston, and was appointed Longfellow's successor at Harvard. He went to Europe again to prepare himself, and after entering upon his work as a teacher made a happy second marriage, served for four years as the first editor of "The Atlantic," and helped his friend Charles Eliot Norton edit "The North American Review." The Civil War inspired a second series of "Biglow Papers" and the magnificent "Commemoration Ode" of 1865. Then came volume after volume of literary essays, such as "Among My Books" and "My Study Windows," and an occasional book of verse. Again he made a long sojourn in Europe, resigned his Harvard professorship, and in 1877 was appointed Minister to Spain. After three years he was transferred to the most important post in our diplomatic service, London. He performed his duties with extraordinary skill and success until 1885, when he was relieved. His last years were spent in Elmwood, the Cambridge house where he was born, and he was still writing, in almost as rich a vein as ever, when the end came in 1891.
Here was certainly a full and varied life, responsive to many personal moods and many tides of public feeling. Lowell drew intellectual stimulus from enormously wide reading in classical and modern literatures. Puritanically earnest by inheritance, he seems also to have inherited a strain of levity which he could not always control, and, through his mother's family, a dash of mysticism sometimes resembling second sight. His physical and mental powers were not always in the happiest mutual adjustment: he became easily the prey of moods and fancies, and knew the alternations from wild gaiety of spirits to black despair. The firm moral consistency of Puritanism was always his, yet his playful remark about belonging in a hospital for incurable children had a measure of truth in it also.
Both his poetry and his prose reveal a nature never quite integrated into wholeness of structure, into harmony with itself. His writing, at its best, is noble and delightful, full of human charm, but it is difficult for him to master a certain waywardness and to sustain any note steadily. This temperamental flaw does not affect the winsomeness of his letters, unless to add to it. It is lost to view, often, in the sincerity and pathos of his lyrics, but it is felt in most of his longer efforts in prose, and accounts for a certain dissatisfaction which many grateful and loyal readers nevertheless feel in his criticism. Lowell was more richly endowed by nature and by breadth of reading than Matthew Arnold, for instance, but in the actual performance of the critical function he was surpassed in method by Arnold and perhaps in inerrant perception, in a limited field, by Poe.
It was as a poet, however, that he first won his place in our literature, and it is by means of certain passages in the "Biglow Papers" and the "Commemoration Ode" that he has most moved his countrymen. The effectiveness of The "Present Crisis" and "Sir Launfal," and of the "Memorial Odes," particularly the "Ode to Agassiz," is likewise due to the passion, sweetness, and splendor of certain strophes, rather than to the perfection of these poems as artistic wholes. Lowell's personal lyrics of sorrow, such as "The Changeling," "The First SnowFall," "After the Burial," have touched many hearts.
His later lyrics are more subtle, weighted with thought, tinged with autumnal melancholy. He was a most fertile composer, and, like all the men of his time and group, produced too much. Yet his patriotic verse was so admirable in feeling and is still so inspiring to his readers that one cannot wish it less in quantity; and in the field of political satire, such as the two series of "Biglow Papers," he had a theme and a method precisely suited to his temperament. No American has approached Lowell's success in this difficult genre: the swift transitions from rural Yankee humor to splendid scorn of evil and to noblest idealism reveal the full powers of one of our most gifted men. The preacher lurked in this Puritan from first to last, and the war against Mexico and the Civil War stirred him to the depths.
His prose, likewise, is a school of loyalty. There was much of Europe in his learning, as his memorable Dante essay shows, and the traditions of great English literature were the daily companions of his mind. He was bookish, as a bookman should be, and sometimes the very richness and whimsicality of his bookish fancies marred the simplicity and good taste of his pages. But the fundamental texture of his thought and feeling was American, and his most characteristic style has the raciness of our soil. Nature lovers like to point out the freshness and delicacy of his reaction to the New England scene. Thoreau himself, whom Lowell did not like, was not more veracious an observer than the author of "Sunthin' in the Pastoral Line," "Cambridge Thirty Years Ago," and "My Garden Acquaintance." Yet he watched men as keenly as he did "laylocks" and bobolinks, and no shrewder American essay has been written than his "On a Certain Condescension in Foreigners." Wit and humor and wisdom made him one of the best talkers of his generation. These qualities pervade his essays and his letters, and the latter in particular reveal those ardors and fidelities of friendship which men like Emerson and Thoreau longed after without ever quite experiencing. Lowell's cosmopolitan reputation, which was greatly enhanced in the last decade of his life, seemed to his old associates of the Saturday Club only a fit recognition of the learning, wit, and fine imagination which had been familiar to them from the first. To hold the old friends throughout his lifetime, and to win fresh ones of a new generation through his books, is perhaps the greatest of Lowell's personal felicities.
While there are no other names in the literature of New England quite comparable with those that have just been discussed, it should be remembered that the immediate effectiveness and popularity of these representative poets and prose writers were dependent upon the existence of an intelligent and responsive reading public. The lectures of Emerson, the speeches of Webster, the stories of Hawthorne, the political verse of Whittier and Lowell, presupposed a keen, reflecting audience, mentally and morally exigent. The spread of the Lyceum system along the line of westward emigration from New England as far as the Mississippi is one tangible evidence of the high level of popular intelligence. That there was much of the superficial and the spread-eagle in the American life of the eighteen-forties is apparent enough without the amusing comments of such English travellers as Dickens, Miss Martineau, and Captain Basil Hall. But there was also genuine intellectual curiosity and a general reading habit which are evidenced not only by a steady growth of newspapers and magazines but also by the demand for substantial books. Biography and history began to be widely read, and it was natural that the most notable productiveness in historical writing should manifest itself in that section of the country where there were libraries, wealth, leisure for the pursuits of scholarship, a sense of intimate concern with the great issues of the past, and a diffusion of intellectual tastes throughout the community. It was no accident that Sparks and Ticknor, Bancroft and Prescott, Motley and Parkman, were Massachusetts men.
Jared Sparks, it is true, inherited neither wealth nor leisure. He was a furious, unwearied toiler in the field of our national history. Born in 1789, by profession a Unitarian minister, he began collecting the papers of George Washington by 1825. John Marshall, the great jurist, had published his five-volume life of his fellow Virginian a score of years earlier. But Sparks proceeded to write another biography of Washington and to edit his writings. He also edited a "Library of American Biography," wrote lives of Franklin and Gouverneur Morris, was professor of history and President of Harvard, and lived to be seventy-seven. As editor of the writings of Franklin and Washington, he took what we now consider unpardonable liberties in altering the text, and this error of judgment has somewhat clouded his just reputation as a pioneer in historical research.
George Bancroft, who was born in 1800, and died, a horseback-riding sage, at ninety-one, inherited from his clergyman father a taste for history. He studied in Germany after leaving Harvard, turned schoolmaster, Democratic politician and office-holder, served as Secretary of the Navy, Minister to England and then to the German Empire, and won distinction in each of his avocations, though the real passion of his life was his "History of the United States," which he succeeded in bringing down to the adoption of the Constitution. The first volume, which appeared in 1834, reads today like a stump speech by a sturdy Democratic orator of the Jacksonian period. But there was solid stuff in it, nevertheless, and as Bancroft proceeded, decade after decade, he discarded some of his rhetoric and philosophy of democracy and utilized increasingly the vast stores of documents which his energy and his high political positions had made it possible for him to obtain. Late in life he condensed his ten great volumes to six. Posterity will doubtless condense these in turn, as posterity has a way of doing, but Bancroft the historian realized his own youthful ambition with a completeness rare in the history of human effort and performed a monumental service to his country. He was less of an artist, however, than Prescott, the eldest and in some ways the finest figure of the well-known Prescott-Motley-Parkman group of Boston historians. All of these men, together with their friend George Ticknor, who wrote the "History of Spanish Literature" and whose own "Life and Letters" pictures a whole generation, had the professional advantages of inherited wealth, and the opportunity to make deliberate choice of a historical field which offered freshness and picturesqueness of theme. All were tireless workers in spite of every physical handicap; all enjoyed social security and the rich reward of full recognition by their contemporaries. They had their world as in their time, as Chaucer makes the Wife of Bath say of herself, and it was a pleasant world to live in.
Grandson of "Prescott the Brave" of Bunker Hill, and son of the rich Judge Prescott of Salem, William Hickling Prescott was born in 1796, and was graduated from Harvard in 1814. An accident in college destroyed the sight of one eye, and left him but a precarious use of the other. Nevertheless he resolved to emulate Gibbon, whose "Autobiography" had impressed him, and to make himself "an historian in the best sense of the term." He studied arduously in Europe, with the help of secretaries, and by 1826, after a long hesitation, decided upon a "History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella." In ten years the three volumes were finished. "Pursuing the work in this quiet, leisurely way, without over-exertion or fatigue," wrote Prescott, "or any sense of obligation to complete it in a given time, I have found it a continual source of pleasure." It was published at his own expense on Christmas Day, 1837, and met with instantaneous success. "My market and my reputation rest principally with England," he wrote in 1838—a curious footnote, by the way, to Emerson's Phi Beta Kappa Address of the year before. But America joined with England, in praising the new book. Then Prescott turned to the "Conquest of Mexico," the "Conquest of Peru," and finally to his unfinished "History of the Reign of Philip II." He had, as Dean Milman wrote him, "the judgment to choose noble subjects." He wrote with serenity and dignity, with fine balance and proportion. Some of the Spanish documents upon which he relied have been proved less trustworthy than he thought, but this unsuspected defect in his materials scarcely impaired the skill with which this unhasting, unresting painter filled his great canvases. They need retouching, perhaps, but the younger historians are incompetent for the task. Prescott died in 1859, in the same year as Irving, and he already seems quite as remote from the present hour.
His young friend Motley, of "Dutch Republic" fame, was another Boston Brahmin, born in the year of Prescott's graduation from college. He attended George Bancroft's school, went to Harvard in due course, where he knew Holmes, Sumner, and Wendell Phillips, and at Gottingen became a warm friend of a dog-lover and duelist named Bismarck. Young Motley wrote a couple of unsuccessful novels, dabbled in diplomacy, politics, and review-writing, and finally, encouraged by Prescott, settled down upon Dutch history, went to Europe to work up his material in 1851, and, after five years, scored an immense triumph with his "Rise of the Dutch Republic." He was a brilliant partisan, hating Spaniards and Calvinists; and wrote all the better for this bias. He was an admirable sketcher of historical portraits, and had Macaulay's skill in composing special chapters devoted to the tendencies and qualities of an epoch or to the characteristics of a dynasty. Between 1860 and 1868 he produced the four volumes of the "History of the United Netherlands." During the Civil War he served usefully as American minister to Vienna, and in 1869 was appointed minister to London. Both of these appointments ended unhappily for him. Dr. Holmes, his loyal admirer and biographer, does not conceal the fact that a steadier, less excitable type of public servant might have handled both the Vienna situation and the London situation without incurring a recall. Motley continued to live in England, where his daughters had married, and where, in spite of his ardent Americanism, he felt socially at home. His last book was "The Life and Death of John of Barneveld." His "Letters," edited after his death in 1877 by George William Curtis, give a fascinating picture of English life among the cultivated and leisurely classes. The Boston merchant's son was a high-hearted gentleman, and his cosmopolitan experiences used to make his stay-at-home friend, Oliver Wendell Holmes, feel rather dull and provincial in comparison. Both were Sons of Liberty, but Motley had had the luck to find in "brave little Holland" a subject which captivated the interest of Europe and gave the historian international fame. He had more eloquence than the Doctor, and a far more varied range of prose, but there may be here and there a Yankee guesser about the taste of future generations who will bet on "The Autocrat," after all.
The character and career of Francis Parkman afford curious material to the student of New England's golden age. In the seventy years of his heroic life, from 1823 to 1893, all the characteristic forces of the age reached their culmination and decline, and his own personality indicates some of the violent reactions produced by the over-strain of Transcendentalism. For here was a descendant of John Cotton, and a clergyman's son, who detested Puritanism and the clergy; who, coming to manhood in the eighteen-forties, hated the very words Transcendentalism, Philosophy, Religion, Reform; an inheritor of property, trained at Harvard, and an Overseer and Fellow of his University, who disliked the ideals of culture and refinement; a member of the Saturday Club who was bored with literary talk and literary people; a staunch American who despised democracy as thoroughly as Alexander Hamilton, and thought suffrage a failure; a nineteenth century historian who cared nothing for philosophy, science, or the larger lessons of history itself; a fascinating realistic writer who admired Scott, Byron, and Cooper for their tales of action, and despised Wordsworth and Thoreau as effeminate sentimentalists who were preoccupied with themselves. In Parkman "the wheel has come full circle," and a movement that began with expansion of self ended in hard Spartan repression, even in inhibition of emotion.
Becoming "enamoured of the woods" at sixteen, Parkman chose his life work at eighteen, and he was a man who could say proudly: "I have not yet abandoned any plan which I ever formed." "Before the end of the sophomore year," he wrote in his autobiography, "my various schemes had crystallized into a plan of writing the story of what was then known as the 'Old French War,' that is, the war that ended in the conquest of Canada, for here, as it seemed to me, the forest drama was more stirring and the forest stage more thronged with appropriate actors than in any other passage of our history. It was not till some years later that I enlarged the plan to include the whole course of the American conflict between France and England, or, in other words, the history of the American forest: for this was the light in which I regarded it. My theme fascinated me, and I was haunted with wilderness images day and night." To understand "the history of the American forest" young Parkman devoted his college vacations to long trips in the wilderness, and in 1846, two years after graduation, he made the epoch-making journey described in his first book, "The Oregon Trail."
"The Conspiracy of Pontiac," a highly-colored narrative in two volumes appearing in 1851, marks the first stage of his historical writing. Then came the tragedy of shattered health, and for fourteen years Parkman fought for life and sanity, and produced practically nothing. He had had to struggle from his college days with an obscure disorder of the brain, aggravated by the hardships of his Oregon Trail journey, and by ill-considered efforts to harden his bodily frame by over-exertion. His disease took many forms—insomnia, arthritis, weakness of sight, incapacity for sustained thought. His biographer Farnham says that "he never saw a perfectly well day during his entire literary career." Even when aided by secretaries and copyists, six lines a day was often the limit of his production. His own Stoic words about the limitations of his eyesight are characteristic: "By reading for one minute, and then resting for an equal time, this alternate process may gradually be continued for about half an hour. Then, after a sufficient interval, it may be repeated, often three or four times in the course of the day. By this means nearly the whole of the volume now offered has been composed." There is no more piteous or inspiring story of a fight against odds in the history of literature.
For after his fortieth year the enemy gave way a little, and book after book somehow got itself written. There they stand upon the shelves, a dozen of them—"The Pioneers of France," "The Jesuits in North America," "La Salle," "The Old Regime," "Frontenac," "Montcalm and Wolfe," "A Half-Century of Conflict"—the boy's dream realized, the man's long warfare accomplished. The history of the forest, as Parkman saw it, was a pageant with the dark wilderness for a background, and, for the actors, taciturn savages, black-robed Jesuits, intrepid explorers, soldiers of France—all struggling for a vast prize, all changing, passing, with a pomp and color unknown to wearied Europe. It was a superb theme, better after all for an American than the themes chosen by Prescott and Ticknor and Motley, and precisely adapted to the pictorial and narrative powers of the soldier-minded, soldier-hearted author.
The quality which Parkman admired most in men—though he never seems to have loved men deeply, even his own heroes—was strength of will. That was the secret of his own power, and the sign, it must be added, of the limitations of this group of historians who came at the close of the golden age. Whatever a New England will can accomplish was wrought manfully by such admirable men as Prescott and Parkman. Trained intelligence, deliberate selection of subject, skillful cultivation of appropriate story-telling and picture-painting style, all these were theirs. But the "wild ecstasy" that thrilled the young Emerson as he crossed the bare Common at sunset, the "supernal beauty" of which Poe dreamed in the Fordham cottage, the bay horse and hound and turtle-dove which Thoreau lost long ago and could not find in his but at Walden, these were something which our later Greeks of the New England Athens esteemed as foolishness.
CHAPTER VIII. POE AND WHITMAN
Enter now two egotists, who have little in common save their egotism, two outsiders who upset most of the conventional American rules for winning the literary race, two men of genius, in short, about whom we are still quarreling, and whose distinctive quality is more accurately perceived in Europe than it has ever been in the United States.
Both Poe and Whitman were Romanticists by temperament. Both shared in the tradition and influence of European Romanticism. But they were also late comers, and they were caught in the more morbid and extravagant phases of the great European movement while its current was beginning to ebb. Their acquaintance with its literature was mainly at second-hand and through the medium of British and American periodicals. Poe, who was older than Whitman by ten years, was fifteen when Byron died, in 1824. He was untouched by the nobler mood of Byron, though his verse was colored by the influence of Byron, Moore, and Shelley. His prose models were De Quincey, Disraeli, and Bulwer. Yet he owed more to Coleridge than to any of the Romantics. He was himself a sort of Coleridge without the piety, with the same keen penetrating critical intelligence, the same lovely opium-shadowed dreams, and, alas, with something of the same reputation as a deadbeat.
A child of strolling players, Poe happened to be born in Boston, but he hated "Frog-Pondium"—his favorite name for the city of his nativity—as much as Whistler hated his native town of Lowell. His father died early of tuberculosis, and his mother, after a pitiful struggle with disease and poverty, soon followed her husband to the grave. The boy, by physical inheritance a neurasthenic, though with marked bodily activity in youth, was adopted by the Allans, a kindly family in Richmond, Virginia. Poe liked to think of himself as a Southerner. He was sent to school in England, and in 1826, at seventeen, he attended for nearly a year the newly founded University of Virginia. He was a dark, short, bow-legged boy, with the face of his own Roderick Usher. He made a good record in French and Latin, read, wrote and recited poetry, tramped on the Ragged Mountains, and did not notably exceed his companions in drinking and gambling. But his Scotch foster-father disapproved of his conduct and withdrew him from the University. A period of wandering followed. He enlisted in the army and was stationed in Boston in 1827, when his first volume, "Tamerlane," was published. In 1829 he was in Fortress Monroe, and published "Al Aaraf" at Baltimore. He entered West Point in 1830, and was surely, except Whistler, the strangest of all possible cadets. When he was dismissed in 1831, he had written the marvellous lines "To Helen," "Israfel," and "The City in the Sea." That is enough to have in one's knapsack at the age of twenty-two.
In the eighteen years from 1831 to 1849, when Poe's unhappy life came to an end in a Baltimore hospital, his literary activity was chiefly that of a journalist, critic, and short story writer. He lived in Baltimore, Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York. Authors who now exploit their fat bargains with their publishers may have forgotten that letter which Poe wrote back to Philadelphia the morning after he arrived with his child-wife in New York: "We are both in excellent spirits.... We have now got four dollars and a half left. To-morrow I am going to try and borrow three dollars, so that I may have a fortnight to go upon." When the child-wife died in the shabby cottage at Fordham, her wasted body was covered with the old army overcoat which Poe had brought from West Point. If Poe met some of the tests of practical life inadequately, it must be remembered that his health failed at twenty-five, that he was pitiably poor, and that the slightest indulgence in drink set his overwrought nerves jangling. Ferguson, the former office-boy of the "Literary Messenger," judged this man of letters with an office-boy's firm and experienced eye: "Mr. Poe was a fine gentleman when he was sober. He was ever kind and courtly, and at such times everyone liked him. But when he was drinking he was about one of the most disagreeable men I have ever met." "I am sorry for him," wrote C. F. Briggs to Lowell. "He has some good points, but taken altogether, he is badly made up." "Badly made up," no doubt, both in body and mind, but all respectable and prosperous Pharisees should be reminded that Poe did not make himself; or rather, that he could not make himself over. Very few men can. Given Poe's temperament, and the problem is insoluble. He wrote to Lowell in 1844: "I have been too deeply conscious of the mutability and evanescence of temporal things to give any continuous effort to anything—to be consistent in anything. My life has been WHIM—impulse—passion—a longing for solitude—a scorn of all things present in an earnest desire for the future." It is the pathetic confession of a dreamer. Yet this dreamer was also a keen analyzer, a tireless creator of beautiful things. In them he sought and found a refuge from actuality. The marvel of his career is, as I have said elsewhere, that this solitary, embittered craftsman, out of such hopeless material as negations and abstractions, shadows and superstitions, out of disordered fancies and dreams of physical horror and strange crime, should have wrought structures of imperishable beauty.
Let us notice the critical instinct which he brought to the task of creation. His theory of verse is simple, in fact too simple to account for all of the facts. The aim of poetry, according to Poe, is not truth but pleasure—the rhythmical creation of beauty. Poetry should be brief, indefinite, and musical. Its chief instrument is sound. A certain quaintness or grotesqueness of tone is a means for satisfying the thirst for supernal beauty. Hence the musical lyric is to Poe the only true type of poetry; a long poem does not exist. Readers who respond more readily to auditory than to visual or motor stimulus are therefore Poe's chosen audience. For them he executes, like Paganini, marvels upon his single string. He has easily recognizable devices: the dominant note, the refrain, the "repetend," that is to say the phrase which echoes, with some variation, a phrase or line already used. In such poems as "To Helen," "Israfel," "The Haunted Palace," "Annabel Lee," the theme, the tone, the melody all weave their magic spell; it is like listening to a lute-player in a dream.
That the device often turns into a trick is equally true. In "The Bells" and "The Raven" we detect the prestidigitator. It is jugglery, though such juggling as only a master-musician can perform. In "Ulalume" and other showpieces the wires get crossed and the charm snaps, scattering tinsel fragments of nonsense verse. Such are the dangers of the technical temperament unenriched by wide and deep contact with human feeling.
Poe's theory of the art of the short story is now familiar enough. The power of a tale, he thought, turned chiefly if not solely upon its unity, its harmony of effect. This is illustrated in all of his finest stories. In "The Fall of the House of Usher" the theme is Fear; the opening sentence strikes the key and the closing sentence contains the climax. In the whole composition every sentence is modulated to the one end in view. The autumn landscape tones with the melancholy house; the somber chamber frames the cadaverous face of Roderick Usher; the face is an index of the tumultuous agitation of a mind wrestling with the grim phantom Fear and awaiting the cumulative horror of the final moment. In "Ligeia," which Poe sometimes thought the best of all his tales, the theme is the ceaseless life of the will, the potency of the spirit of the beloved and departed woman. The unity of effect is absolute, the workmanship consummate. So with the theme of revenge in "The Cask of Amontillado," the theme of mysterious intrigue in "The Assignation." In Poe's detective stories, or tales of ratiocination as he preferred to call them, he takes to pieces for our amusement a puzzle which he has cunningly put together. "The Gold Bug" is the best known of these, "The Purloined Letter" the most perfect, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" the most sensational. Then there are the tales upon scientific subjects or displaying the pretence of scientific knowledge, where the narrator loves to pose as a man without imagination and with "habits of rigid thought." And there are tales of conscience, of which "The Black Cat" is the most fearful and "William Wilson" the most subtle; and there are landscape sketches and fantasies and extravaganzas, most of these poor stuff.
It is ungrateful and perhaps unnecessary to dwell upon Poe's limitations. His scornful glance caught certain aspects of the human drama with camera-like precision. Other aspects of life, and nobler, he never seemed to perceive. The human comedy sometimes moved him to laughter, but his humor is impish and his wit malign. His imagination fled from the daylight; he dwelt in the twilight among the tombs. He closed his eyes to dream, and could not see the green sunlit earth, seed-time and harvest, man going forth to his toil and returning to his hearthstone, the America that laughs as it labors. He wore upon his finger the magic ring and the genii did his bidding. But we could wish that the palaces they reared for him were not in such a somber land, with such infernal lights gleaming in their windows, and crowded with such horror-haunted forms. We could wish that his imagination dealt less often with those primitive terrors that belong to the childhood of our race. Yet when his spell is upon us we lapse back by a sort of atavism into primal savagery and shudder with a recrudescence of long forgotten fears. No doubt Poe was ignorant of life, in the highest sense. He was caged in by his ignorance, Yet he had beautiful dusky wings that bruised themselves against his prison.
Poe was a tireless critic of his own work, and both his standards of workmanship and his critical precepts have been of great service to his careless countrymen. He turned out between four and five short stories a year, was poorly paid for them, and indeed found difficulty in selling them at all. Yet he was constantly correcting them for the better. His best poems were likewise his latest. He was tantalized with the desire for artistic perfection. He became the pathbreaker for a long file of men in France, Italy, England, and America. He found the way and they brought back the glory and the cash.
I have sometimes imagined Poe, with four other men and one woman, seated at a dinner-table laid for six, and talking of their art and of themselves. What would the others think of Poe? I fancy that Thackeray would chat with him courteously, but would not greatly care for him. George Eliot, woman-like, would pity him. Hawthorne would watch him with those inscrutable eyes and understand him better than the rest. But Stevenson would be immensely interested; he would begin an essay on Poe before he went to sleep. And Mr. Kipling would look sharply at him: he has seen that man before, in "The Gate of a Hundred Sorrows." All of them would find in him something to praise, a great deal to marvel at, and perhaps not much to love. And the sensitive, shabby, lonely Poe—what would he think of them? He might not care much for the other guests, but I think he would say to himself with a thrill of pride: "I belong at this table." And he does.
Walt Whitman, whom his friend O'Connor dubbed the "good gray poet," offers a bizarre contrast to Edgar Allan Poe. There was nothing distinctively American about Poe except his ingenuity; he had no interest in American history or in American ideas; he was a timeless, placeless embodiment of technical artistry. But Whitman had a passion for his native soil; he was hypnotized by the word America; he spent much of his mature life in brooding over the question, "What, after all, is an American, and what should an American poet be in our age of science and democracy?" It is true that he was as untypical as Poe of the average citizen of "these states." His personality is unique. In many respects he still baffles our curiosity. He repels many of his countrymen without arousing the pity which adds to their romantic interest in Poe. Whatever our literary students may feel, and whatever foreign critics may assert, it must be acknowledged that to the vast majority of American men and women "good old Walt" is still an outsider.
Let us try to see first the type of mind with which we are dealing. It is fundamentally religious, perceiving the unity and kinship and glory of all created things. It is this passion of worship which inspired St. Francis of Assisi's "Canticle to the Sun." It cries, "Benedicite, Omnia opera Domini: All ye Green Things upon the Earth, bless ye the Lord!" That is the real motto for Whitman's "Leaves of Grass." Like St. Francis, and like his own immediate master, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Whitman is a mystic. He cannot argue the ultimate questions; he asserts them. Instead of marshaling and sifting the proofs for immortality, he chants "I know I am deathless." Like Emerson again, Whitman shares that peculiarly American type of mysticism known as Transcendentalism, but he came at the end of this movement instead of at the beginning of it. In his Romanticism, likewise, he is an end of an era figure. His affiliations with Victor Hugo are significant; and a volume of Scott's poems which he owned at the age of sixteen became his "inexhaustible mine and treasury for more than sixty years." Finally, and quite as uncompromisingly as Emerson, Thoreau, and Poe, Whitman is an individualist. He represents the assertive, Jacksonian period of our national existence. In a thousand similes he makes a declaration of independence for the separate person, the "single man" of Emerson's Phi Beta Kappa address. "I wear my hat as I please, indoors and out." Sometimes this is mere swagger. Sometimes it is superb.
So much for the type. Let us turn next to the story of Whitman's life. It must here be told in the briefest fashion, for Whitman's own prose and poetry relate the essentials of his biography. He was born on Long Island, of New England and Dutch ancestry, in 1819. Lowell, W. W. Story, and Charles A. Dana were born in that year, as was also George Eliot. Whitman's father was a carpenter, who "leaned to the Quakers." There were many children. When little "Walt"—as he was called, to distinguish him from his father, Walter—was four, the family moved to Brooklyn. The boy had scanty schooling, and by the time he was twenty had tried typesetting, teaching, and editing a country newspaper on Long Island. He was a big, dark-haired fellow, sensitive, emotional, extraordinarily impressible.
The next sixteen years were full of happy vagrancy. At twenty-two he was editing a paper in New York, and furnishing short stories to the "Democratic Review," a literary journal which numbered Bryant, Longfellow, Whittier, Poe, Hawthorne, and Thoreau among its contributors. He wrote a novel on temperance, "mostly in the reading-room of Tammany Hall," and tried here and there an experiment in free verse. He was in love with the pavements of New York and the Brooklyn ferryboats, in love with Italian opera and with long tramps over Long Island. He left his position on "The Brooklyn Eagle" and wandered south to New Orleans. By and by he drifted back to New York, tried lecturing, worked at the carpenter's trade with his father, and brooded over a book—"a book of new things."
This was the famous "Leaves of Grass." He set the type himself, in a Brooklyn printing-office, and printed about eight hundred copies. The book had a portrait of the author—a meditative, gray-bearded poet in workman's clothes—and a confused preface on America as a field for the true poet. Then followed the new gospel, "I celebrate myself," chanted in long lines of free verse, whose patterns perplexed contemporary readers. For the most part it was passionate speech rather than song, a rhapsodical declamation in hybrid rhythms. Very few people bought the book or pretended to understand what it was all about. Some were startled by the frank sexuality of certain poems. But Emerson wrote to Whitman from Concord: "I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed."
Until the Civil War was half over, Whitman remained in Brooklyn, patiently composing new poems for successive printings of his book. Then he went to the front to care for a wounded brother, and finally settled down in a Washington garret to spend his strength as an army hospital nurse. He wrote "Drum Taps" and other magnificent poems about the War, culminating in his threnody on Lincoln's death, "When Lilacs last in the Dooryard Bloomed." Swinburne called this "the most sonorous nocturn ever chanted in the church of the world." After the war had ended, Whitman stayed on in Washington as a government clerk, and saw much of John Burroughs and W. D. O'Connor. John Hay was a staunch friend. Some of the best known poets and critics of England and the Continent now began to recognize his genius. But his health had been permanently shattered by his heroic service as a nurse, and in 1873 he suffered a paralytic stroke which forced him to resign his position in Washington and remove to his brother's home in Camden, New Jersey.
He was only fifty-four, but his best work was already done, and his remaining years, until his death in 1892, were those of patient and serene invalidism. He wrote some fascinating prose in this final period, and his cluttered chamber in Camden became the shrine of many a literary pilgrim, among them some of the foremost men of letters of this country and of Europe. He was cared for by loyal friends. Occasionally he appeared in public, a magnificent gray figure of a man. And then, at seventy-three, the "Dark mother always gliding near" enfolded him.
There are puzzling things in the physical and moral constitution of Walt Whitman, and the obstinate questions involved in his theory of poetry and in his actual poetical performance are still far from solution. But a few points concerning him are by this time fairly clear. They must be swiftly summarized.
The first obstacle to the popular acceptance of Walt Whitman is the formlessness or alleged formlessness of "Leaves of Grass." This is a highly technical question, involving a more accurate notation than has thus far been made of the patterns and tunes of free verse and of emotional prose. Whitman's "new and national declamatory expression," as he termed it, cannot receive a final technical valuation until we have made more scientific progress in the analysis of rhythms. As regards the contents of his verse, it is plain that he included much material unfused and untransformed by emotion. These elements foreign to the nature of poetry clog many of his lines. The enumerated objects in his catalogue or inventory poems often remain inert objects only. Like many mystics, he was hypnotized by external phenomena, and he often fails to communicate to his reader the trancelike emotion which he himself experienced. This imperfect transfusion of his material is a far more significant defect in Whitman's poetry than the relatively few passages of unashamed sexuality which shocked the American public in 1855.
The gospel or burden of "Leaves of Grass" is no more difficult of comprehension than the general drift of Emerson's essays, which helped to inspire it. The starting point of the book is a mystical illumination regarding the unity and blessedness of the universe, an insight passing understanding, but based upon the revelatory experience of love. In the light of this experience, all created things are recognized as divine. The starting-point and center of the Whitman world is the individual man, the "strong person," imperturbable in mind, athletic in body, unconquerable, and immortal. Such individuals meet in comradeship, and pass together along the open roads of the world. No one is excluded because of his poverty or his sins; there is room in the ideal America for everybody except the doubter and sceptic. Whitman does not linger over the smaller groups of human society, like the family. He is not a fireside poet. He passes directly from his strong persons, meeting freely on the open road, to his conception of "these States." One of his typical visions of the breadth and depth and height of America will be found in "By Blue Ontario's Shore." In this and in many similar rhapsodies Whitman holds obstinately to what may be termed the three points of his national creed. The first is the newness of America, and its expression is in his well-known chant of "Pioneers, O Pioneers." Yet this new America is subtly related to the past; and in Whitman's later poems, such as "Passage to India," the spiritual kinship of orient and occident is emphasized. The second article of the creed is the unity of America. Here he voices the conceptions of Hamilton, Clay, Webster, and Lincoln. In spite of all diversity in external aspects the republic is "one and indivisible." This unity, in Whitman's view, was cemented forever by the issue of the Civil War. Lincoln, the "Captain," dies indeed on the deck of the "victor ship," but the ship comes into the harbor "with object won." Third and finally, Whitman insists upon the solidarity of America with all countries of the globe. Particularly in his yearning and thoughtful old age, the poet perceived that humanity has but one heart and that it should have but one will. No American poet has ever prophesied so directly and powerfully concerning the final issue involved in that World War which he did not live to see.
Whitman, like Poe, had defects of character and defects of art. His life and work raise many problems which will long continue to fascinate and to baffle the critics. But after all of them have had their say, it will remain true that he was a seer and a prophet, far in advance of his own time, like Lincoln, and like Lincoln, an inspired interpreter of the soul of this republic.
CHAPTER IX. UNION AND LIBERTY
"There is what I call the American idea," declared Theodore Parker in the Anti-Slavery Convention of 1850. "This idea demands, as the proximate organization thereof, a democracy—that is, a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people; of course, a government on the principle of eternal justice, the unchanging law of God; for shortness' sake, I will call it the idea of Freedom."
These are noble words, and they are thought to have suggested a familiar phrase of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, thirteen years later. Yet students of literature, no less than students of politics, recognize the difficulty of summarizing in words a national "idea." Precisely what was the Greek "idea"? What is today the French "idea"? No single formula is adequate to express such a complex of fact, theories, moods—not even the famous "Liberty, Fraternity, Equality." The existence of a truly national life and literature presupposes a certain degree of unity, an integration of race, language, political institutions, and social ideals. It is obvious that this problem of national integration meets peculiar obstacles in the United States. Divergencies of race, tradition, and social theory, and clashing interests of different sections have been felt from the beginning of the nation's life. There was well-nigh complete solidarity in the single province of New England during a portion of the seventeenth century, and under the leadership of the great Virginians there was sufficient national fusion to make the Revolution successful. But early in the nineteenth century, the opening of the new West, and the increasing economic importance of Slavery as a peculiar institution of the South, provoked again the ominous question of the possibility of an enduring Union. From 1820 until the end of the Civil War, it was the chief political issue of the United States. The aim of the present chapter is to show how the theme of Union and Liberty affected our literature.
To appreciate the significance of this theme we must remind ourselves again of what many persons have called the civic note in our national writing. Franklin exemplified it in his day. It is far removed from the pure literary art of a Poe, a Hawthorne, a Henry James. It aims at action rather than beauty. It seeks to persuade, to convince, to bring things to pass. We shall observe it in the oratory of Clay and Webster, as they pleaded for compromise; in the editorials of Garrison, a foe to compromise and like Calhoun an advocate, if necessary, of disunion; in the epochmaking novel of Harriet Beecher Stowe; in the speeches of Wendell Phillips, in verse white-hot with political passion, and sermons blazing with the fury of attack and defense of principles dear to the human heart. We must glance, at least, at the lyrics produced by the war itself, and finally, we shall observe how Abraham Lincoln, the inheritor of the ideas of Jefferson, Clay, and Webster, perceives and maintains, in the noblest tones of our civic speech, the sole conditions of our continuance as a nation.
Let us begin with oratory, an American habit, and, as many besides Dickens have thought, an American defect. We cannot argue that question adequately here. It is sufficient to say that in the pioneer stages of our existence oratory was necessary as a stimulus to communal thought and feeling. The speeches of Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams were as essential to our winning independence as the sessions of statesmen and the armed conflicts in the field. And in that new West which came so swiftly and dramatically into existence at the close of the Revolution, the orator came to be regarded as the normal type of intellectual leadership. The stump grew more potent than schoolhouse and church and bench.
The very pattern, and, if one likes, the tragic victim of this glorification of oratory was Henry Clay, "Harry of the West," the glamour of whose name and the wonderful tones of whose voice became for a while a part of the political system of the United States. Union and Liberty were the master-passions of Clay's life, but the greater of these was Union. The half-educated young immigrant from Virginia hazarded his career at the outset by championing Anti-Slavery in the Kentucky Constitutional Convention; the last notable act of his life was his successful management, at the age of seventy-three, of the futile Compromise of 1850. All his life long he fought for national issues; for the War of 1812, for a protective tariff and an "American system," for the Missouri Compromise of 1820 as a measure for national safety; and he had plead generously for the young South American republics and for struggling Greece. He had become the perpetual candidate of his party for the Presidency, and had gone down again and again in unforeseen and heart-rending defeat. Yet he could say honorably: "If any one desires to know the leading and paramount object of my public life, the preservation of this union will furnish him the key." One could wish that the speeches of this fascinating American were more readable today. They seem thin, facile, full of phrases—such adroit phrases as would catch the ear of a listening, applauding audience. Straight, hard thinking was not the road to political preferment in Clay's day. Calhoun had that power, as Lincoln had it. Webster had the capacity for it, although he was too indolent to employ his great gifts steadily. Yet it was Webster who analyzed kindly and a little sadly, for he was talking during Clay's last illness and just before his own, his old rival's defect in literary quality: "He was never a man of books.... I could never imagine him sitting comfortably in his library and reading quietly out of the great books of the past. He has been too fond of excitement—he has lived upon it; he has been too fond of company, not enough alone; and has had few resources within himself." Were the limitations of a typical oratorical temperament ever touched more unerringly than in these words?
When Webster himself thundered, at the close of his reply to Hayne in 1830, "Union AND Liberty, now and forever, one and inseparable," the words sank deeper into the consciousness of the American people than any similar sentiment uttered by Henry Clay. For Webster's was the richer, fuller nature, nurtured by "the great books of the past," brooding, as Lincoln was to brood later, over the seemingly insoluble problem of preserving a union of States half slave, half free. On the fateful seventh of March, 1850, Webster, like Clay, cast the immense weight of his personality and prestige upon the side of compromise. It was the ruin of his political fortune, for the mood of the North was changing, and the South preferred other candidates for the Presidency. Yet the worst that can fairly be said against that speech today is that it lacked moral imagination to visualize, as Mrs. Stowe was soon to visualize, the human results of slavery. As a plea for the transcendent necessity of maintaining the old Union it was consistent with Webster's whole development of political thought.
What were the secrets of that power that held Webster's hearers literally spellbound, and made the North think of him, after that alienation of 1850, as a fallen angel? No one can say fully, for we touch here the mysteries of personality and of the spoken word. But enough survives from the Webster legend, from his correspondence and political and legal oratory, to bring us into the presence of a superman. The dark Titan face, painted by such masters as Carlyle, Hawthorne, and Emerson; the magical voice, remembered now but by a few old men; the bodily presence, with its leonine suggestion of sleepy power only half put forth—these aided Webster to awe men or allure them into personal idolatry. Yet outside of New England he was admired rather than loved. There is still universal recognition of the mental capacity of this foremost lawyer and foremost statesman of his time. He was unsurpassed in his skill for direct, simple, limpid statement; but he could rise at will to a high Roman stateliness of diction, a splendid sonorousness of cadence. His greatest public appearances were in the Dartmouth College Case before the Supreme Court, the Plymouth, Bunker Hill, and Adams-Jefferson commemorative orations, the Reply to Hayne, and the Seventh of March speeches in the Senate. Though he exhibited in his private life something of the prodigal recklessness of the pioneer, his mental operations were conservative, constructive. His lifelong antagonist Calhoun declared that "The United States are not a nation." Webster, in opposition to this theory of a confederation of states, devoted his superb talents to the demonstration of the thesis that the United States "IS," not "are." Thus he came to be known as the typical expounder of the Constitution. When he reached, in 1850, the turning point of his career, his countrymen knew by heart his personal and political history, the New Hampshire boyhood and education, the rise to mastery at the New England bar, the service in the House of Representatives and the Senate and as Secretary of State. His speeches were already in the schoolbooks, and for twenty years boys had been declaiming his arguments against nullification. He had helped to teach America to think and to feel. Indeed it was through his oratory that many of his fellow-citizens had gained their highest conception of the beauty, the potency, and the dignity of human speech. And in truth he never exhibited his logical power and demonstrative skill more superbly than in the plea of the seventh of March for the preservation of the status quo, for the avoidance of mutual recrimination between North and South, for obedience to the law of the land. It was his supreme effort to reconcile an irreconcilable situation.
It failed, as we know. Whittier, Emerson, Theodore Parker, and indeed most of the voters of New England, believed that Webster had bartered his private convictions in the hope of securing the Presidential nomination in 1852. They assailed him savagely, and Webster died, a broken man, in the autumn of the Presidential year. "I have given my life to law and politics," he wrote to Professor Silliman. "Law is uncertain and politics are utterly vain." The dispassionate judgment of the present hour frees him from the charge of conscious treachery to principle. He was rather a martyr to his own conception of the obligations imposed by nationality. When these obligations run counter to human realities, the theories of statesmen must give way. Emerson could not refute that logic of Webster's argument for the Fugitive Slave Law, but he could at least record in his private Journal: "I WILL NOT OBEY IT, BY GOD!" So said hundreds of thousands of obscure men in the North, but Webster did not or could not hear them.
While no other orator of that period was so richly endowed as Daniel Webster, the struggle for Union and Liberty enlisted on both sides many eloquent men. John C. Calhoun's acute, ingenious, masterly political theorizing can still be studied in speeches that have lost little of their effectiveness through the lapse of time. The years have dealt roughly with Edward Everett, once thought to be the pattern of oratorical gifts and graces. In commemorative oratory, indeed, he ranked with Webster, but the dust is settling upon his learned and ornate pages. Rufus Choate, another conservative Whig in politics, and a leader, like Wirt and Pinkney, at the bar, had an exotic, almost Oriental fancy, a gorgeousness of diction, and an intensity of emotion unrivaled among his contemporaries. His Dartmouth College eulogy of Webster in 1853 shows him at his best. The Anti-Slavery orators, on the other hand, had the advantage of a specific moral issue in which they led the attack. Wendell Phillips was the most polished, the most consummate in his air of informality, and his example did much to puncture the American tradition of high-flown oratory. He was an expert in virulent denunciation, passionately unfair beneath his mask of conversational decorum, an aristocratic demagogue. He is still distrusted and hated by the Brahmin class of his own city, still adored by the children and grandchildren of slaves. Charles Sumner, like Edward Everett, seems sinking into popular oblivion, in spite of the statues and portraits and massive volumes of erudite and caustic and high-minded orations. He may be seen at his best in such books as Longfellow's "Journal and Correspondence" and the "Life and Letters" of George Ticknor. There one has a pleasant picture of a booklover, traveler, and friend. But in his public speech he was arrogant, unsympathetic, domineering. "Sumner is my idea of a bishop," said Lincoln tentatively. There are bishops and bishops, however, and if Henry Ward Beecher, whom Lincoln and hosts of other Americans admired, had only belonged to the Church of England, what an admirable Victorian bishop he might have made! Perhaps his best service to the cause of union was rendered by his speeches in England, where he fairly mobbed the mob and won them by his wit, courage, and by his appeal to the instinct of fair play. Beecher's oratory, in and out of the pulpit, was temperamental, sentimental in the better sense, and admirably human in all its instincts. He had an immense following, not only in political and humanitarian fields, but as a lovable type of the everyday American who can say undisputed things not only solemnly, if need be, but by preference with an infectious smile. The people who loved Mr. Beecher are the people who understand Mr. Bryan.
Foremost among the journalists of the great debate were William Lloyd Garrison and Horace Greeley. Garrison was a perfect example of the successful journalist as described by Zola—the man who keeps on pounding at a single idea until he has driven it into the head of the public. Everyone knows at least the sentence from his salutatory editorial in "The Liberator" on January 1, 1831: "I am in earnest—I will not retreat a single inch—AND I WILL BE HEARD." He kept this vow, and he also kept the accompanying and highly characteristic promise: "I will be as harsh as truth and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or write, or speak, with moderation." But there would be little political literature in the world if its production were entrusted to the moderate type of man, and the files of "The Liberator," though certainly harsh and full of all uncharitableness towards slave-owners, make excellent reading for the twentieth century American who perceives that in spite of the triumph of emancipation, in which Garrison had his fair share of glory, many aspects of our race-problem remain unsolved. Horace Greeley, the founder and editor of the "New York Tribune" was a farmer's boy who learned early to speak and write the vocabulary of the plain people. Always interested in new ideas, even in Transcendentalism and Fourierism, his courage and energy and journalistic vigor gave him leadership in the later phases of the movement for enfranchisement. He did not hesitate to offer unasked advice to Lincoln on many occasions, and Lincoln enriched our literature by his replies. Greeley had his share of faults and fatuities, but in his best days he had an impressively loyal following among both rural and city-bred readers of his paper, and he remains one of the best examples of that obsolescent personal journalism which is destined to disappear under modern conditions of newspaper production. Readers really used to care for "what Greeley said" and "Dana said" and "Sam Bowles said," and all of these men, with scores of others, have left their stamp upon the phrases and the tone of our political writing.
In the concrete issue of Slavery, however, it must be admitted that the most remarkable literary victory was scored, not by any orator or journalist, but by an almost unknown little woman, the author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." No American novel has had so curious a history and so great or so immediate an influence in this country and in Europe. In spite of all that has been written about it, its author's purpose is still widely misunderstood, particularly in the South, and the controversy over this one epoch-making novel has tended to obscure the literary reputation which Mrs. Stowe won by her other books.
Harriet Beecher, the daughter and the sister of famous clergymen, was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, in 1811. For seventeen years, from 1832 to 1849, she lived in the border city of Cincinnati, within sight of slave territory, and in daily contact with victims of the slave system. While her sympathies, like those of her father Lyman Beecher, were anti-slavery, she was not an Abolitionist in the Garrisonian sense of that word. At twenty five she had married a widowed professor, Calvin Stowe, to whom she bore many children. She had written a few sketches of New England life, and her family thought her a woman of genius. Such was the situation in the winter of 1849-1850, when the Stowes migrated to Brunswick, Maine, where the husband had been appointed to a chair at Bowdoin. Pitiably poor, and distracted by household cares which she had to face single-handed—for the Professor was a "feckless body"—Mrs. Stowe nevertheless could not be indifferent to the national crisis over the Fugitive Slave Law. She had seen its working. When her sister-in-law wrote to her: "If I could use a pen as you can, I would write something that would make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is," Mrs. Stowe exclaimed: "God helping me, I will write something; I will if I live."
"Uncle Tom's Cabin," begun in the spring of 1850, was a woman's answer to Webster's seventh of March speech. Its object was plainly stated to be "to awaken sympathy and feeling for the African race; to show, their wrongs and sorrows, under a system so necessarily cruel and unjust as to defeat and do away the good effects of all that can be attempted for them, by their best friends under it." The book was permeated with what we now call the 1848 anti-aristocratic sentiment, the direct heritage of the French Revolution. "There is a dies irae coming on, sooner or later," admits St. Clare in the story. "The same thing is working, in Europe, in England, and in this country." There was no sectional hostility in Mrs. Stowe's heart. "The people of the free states have defended, encouraged, and participated [in slavery]; and are more guilty for it, before God, than the South, in that they have NOT the apology of education or custom. If the mothers of the free states had all felt as they should in times past, the sons of the free states would not have been the holders, and proverbially the hardest masters, of slaves; the sons of the free states would not have connived at the extension of slavery in our national body." "Your book is going to be the great pacificator," wrote a friend of Mrs. Stowe; "it will unite North and South." But the distinctly Christian and fraternal intention of the book was swiftly forgotten in the storm of controversy that followed its appearance. It had been written hastily, fervidly, in the intervals of domestic toil at Brunswick, had been printed as a serial in "The National Era" without attracting much attention, and was issued in book form in March, 1852. Its sudden and amazing success was not confined to this country. The story ran in three Paris newspapers at once, was promptly dramatized, and has held the stage in France ever since. It was placed upon the "Index" in Italy, as being subversive of established authority. Millions of copies were sold in Europe, and "Uncle Tom's Cabin," more than any other cause, held the English working men in sympathy with the North in the English cotton crisis of our Civil War.