Nonfiction > E.C. Stedman & E.M. Hutchinson, eds. > A Library of American Literature > 1835–1860
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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps.  A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes.  1891.
Vols. VI–VIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 1835–1860
 
A National Literature
By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882)
 
[Kavanagh. A Tale. 1849.]

THE VISITOR was shown in. He announced himself as Mr. Hathaway. Passing through the village, he could not deny himself the pleasure of calling on Mr. Churchill, whom he knew by his writings in the periodicals, though not personally. He wished, moreover, to secure the coöperation of one already so favorably known to the literary world, in a new Magazine he was about to establish, in order to raise the character of American literature, which, in his opinion, the existing reviews and magazines had entirely failed to accomplish. A daily increasing want of something better was felt by the public; and the time had come for the establishment of such a periodical as he proposed. After explaining in rather a florid and exuberant manner his plan and prospects, he entered more at large into the subject of American literature, which it was his design to foster and patronize.
  1
  “I think, Mr. Churchill,” said he, “that we want a national literature commensurate with our mountains and rivers,—commensurate with Niagara, and the Alleghanies, and the Great Lakes!”  2
  “Oh!”  3
  “We want a national epic that shall correspond to the size of the country; that shall be to all other epics what Banvard’s Panorama of the Mississippi is to all other paintings,—the largest in the world!”  4
  “Ah!”  5
  “We want a national drama in which scope enough shall be given to our gigantic ideas, and to the unparalleled activity and progress of our people!”  6
  “Of course.”  7
  “In a word, we want a national literature altogether shaggy and unshorn, that shall shake the earth, like a herd of buffaloes thundering over the prairies!”  8
  “Precisely,” interrupted Mr. Churchill; “but excuse me!—are you not confounding things that have no analogy? Great has a very different meaning when applied to a river, and when applied to a literature. Large and shallow may perhaps be applied to both. Literature is rather an image of the spiritual world, than of the physical, is it not?—of the internal, rather than the external. Mountains, lakes, and rivers are, after all, only its scenery and decorations, not its substance and essence. A man will not necessarily be a great poet because he lives near a great mountain. Nor, being a poet, will he necessarily write better poems than another, because he lives nearer Niagara.”  9
  “But, Mr. Churchill, you do not certainly mean to deny the influence of scenery on the mind?”  10
  “No, only to deny that it can create genius. At best, it can only develop it. Switzerland has produced no extraordinary poet; nor, as far as I know, have the Andes, or the Himalaya mountains, or the Mountains of the Moon in Africa.”  11
  “But, at all events,” urged Mr. Hathaway, “let us have our literature national. If it is not national, it is nothing.”  12
  “On the contrary, it may be a great deal. Nationality is a good thing to a certain extent, but universality is better. All that is best in the great poets of all countries is not what is national in them, but what is universal. Their roots are in their native soil; but their branches wave in the unpatriotic air, that speaks the same language unto all men, and their leaves shine with the illimitable light that pervades all lands. Let us throw all the windows open; let us admit the light and air on all sides; that we may look towards the four corners of the heavens, and not always in the same direction.”  13
  “But you admit nationality to be a good thing?”  14
  “Yes, if not carried too far; still, I confess, it rather limits one’s views of truth. I prefer what is natural. Mere nationality is often ridiculous. Every one smiles when he hears the Icelandic proverb, ‘Iceland is the best land the sun shines upon.’ Let us be natural, and we shall be national enough. Besides, our literature can be strictly national only so far as our character and modes of thought differ from those of other nations. Now, as we are very like the English,—are, in fact, English under a different sky,—I do not see how our literature can be very different from theirs. Westward from hand to hand we pass the lighted torch, but it was lighted at the old domestic fireside of England.”  15
  “Then you think our literature is never to be anything but an imitation of the English?”  16
  “Not at all. It is not an imitation, but, as some one has said, a continuation.”  17
  “It seems to me that you take a very narrow view of the subject.”  18
  “On the contrary, a very broad one. No literature is complete until the language in which it is written is dead. We may well be proud of our task and of our position. Let us see if we can build in any way worthy of our forefathers.”  19
  “But I insist upon originality.”  20
  “Yes; but without spasms and convulsions. Authors must not, like Chinese soldiers, expect to win victories by turning somersets in the air.”  21
  “Well, really, the prospect from your point of view is not very brilliant. Pray, what do you think of our national literature?”  22
  “Simply, that a national literature is not the growth of a day. Centuries must contribute their dew and sunshine to it. Our own is growing slowly but surely, striking its roots downward, and its branches upward, as is natural; and I do not wish, for the sake of what some people call originality, to invert it, and try to make it grow with its roots in the air. And as for having it so savage and wild as you want it, I have only to say, that all literature, as well as all art, is the result of culture and intellectual refinement.”  23
  “Ah! we do not want art and refinement; we want genius,—untutored, wild, original, free.”  24
  “But, if this genius is to find any expression, it must employ art; for art is the external expression of our thoughts. Many have genius, but, wanting art, are forever dumb. The two must go together to form the great poet, painter, or sculptor.”  25
  “In that sense, very well.”  26
  “I was about to say also that I thought our literature would finally not be wanting in a kind of universality.  27
  “As the blood of all nations is mingling with our own, so will their thoughts and feelings finally mingle in our literature. We shall draw from the Germans, tenderness; from the Spaniards, passion; from the French, vivacity, to mingle more and more with our English solid sense. And this will give us universality, so much to be desired.”  28
  “If that is your way of thinking,” interrupted the visitor, “you will like the work I am now engaged upon.”  29
 
 
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