Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
By Thomas Wentworth Higginson (18231911)
[Born in Cambridge, Mass., 1823. Died there, 1911. A Plea for Culture.Atlantic Essays. 1871.]
IT is observable that in English books and magazines everything seems written for some limited circle,tales for those who can use French phrases, essays for those who can understand a Latin quotation. But every American writer must address himself to a vast audience, possessing the greatest quickness and common sense, with but little culture; and he must command their attention as he can. This has some admirable results; he must put some life into what he writes, or his thirty million auditors will go to sleep; he must write clearly, or they will cease to follow him; must keep clear of pedantry and unknown tongues, or they will turn to some one who can address them in English. On the other hand, these same conditions tempt one to accept a low standard of execution, to substitute artifice for art, and to disregard the more permanent verdict of more fastidious tribunals. The richest thought and the finest literary handling which America has yet producedas of Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreaureached at first but a small audience, and are but very gradually attaining a wider hold. Renan has said that every mans work is superficial, until he has learned to content himself with the approbation of a few. This is only one-half the truth; but it is the half which Americans find hardest to remember.
Yet American literature, though its full harvest be postponed for another hundred years, is sure to come to ripeness at last. Our national development in this direction, though slow, is perfectly healthy. There are many influences to retard, but none to distort. Even if the more ideal aims of the artist are treated with indifference, it is a frank indifference; there is no contempt, no jealousy, no call for petty manuvres. No man is asked to flatter this vast audience; no man can succeed with it by flattering; it simply reserves its attention, and lets one obtain its ear if he can. When won, it is worth the winning,generous in its confidence, noble in its rewards. There is abundant cause for strenuous effort among those who give their lives to the intellectual service of America, but there is no cause for fear. If we can only avoid incorporating superficiality into our institutions, literature will come when all is ready, and when it comes will be of the best. It is not enough to make England or France our standard. There is something in the present atmosphere of England which seems fatal to purely literary genius: its fruits do not mature and mellow, but grow more and more acid until they drop. Give Ruskin space enough, and he grows frantic and beats the air like Carlyle. Thackeray was tinged with the same bitterness, but he was the last Englishman who could be said, in any artistic sense, to have a style; as Heine was the last German. The French seems the only prose literature of the present day in which the element of form has any prominent place; and literature in France is after all but a favored slave. This surely leaves a clear field for America.
But it is peculiarly important for us to remember that we can make no progress through affectation or spasm, but only by accepting the essential laws of art, which are the same for the whole human race. Any misconceived patronageto call anything art merely because it interests us as being Americanmust react against us in the end. A certain point of culture once reached, we become citizens of the world. Art is higher than nations, older than many centuries; its code includes no local or partial provisions. No Paris Exposition is truly universal, compared with that vast gallery of Time to which nations and ages are but contributors. So far as circumstances excuse America from being yet amenable before this high tribunal, she is safe; but if she enters its jurisdiction, she must own its laws. Neither man nor nation can develop by defying traditions, but by first mastering and then remoulding them. That genius is feeble which cannot hold its own before the masterpieces of the world.
Above all other races and all other times, we should be full of hearty faith. It is but a few years since we heard it said that the age was dull and mean, and inspiration gone. A single gun-shot turned meanness to self-sacrifice, mercenary toil to the vigils of the camp and the transports of battle. It linked boyish and girlish life to new opportunities, sweeter self-devotions, more heroic endings; tied and loosed the threads of existence in profounder complications. That is all past now; but its results can never pass. The nation has found its true grandeur by war; but must retain it in peace.
Peace too has its infinite resources, after a nation has once become conscious of itself. It is impossible that human life should ever be utterly impoverished, and all the currents of American civilization now tend to its enrichment. This vast development of rudimentary intellect, this mingling of nationalities, these opportunities of books and travel, educate in this new race a thousand new susceptibilities. Then comes Passion, a hand straying freely through all the chords, and thrilling all with magic. We cannot exclude it, a forbidden guest. It re-creates itself in each generation, and bids art live. Rouge gagne. If the romance of life does not assert itself in safe and innocent ways, it finds its outlet with fatal certainty in guilt; as we see colorless Puritanism touched with scarlet splendor through the glass of Hawthorne. Every form of human life is romantic; every age may become classic. Lamentations, doubts, discouragements, all are wasted things. Everything is here, between these Atlantic and Pacific shores, save only the perfected utterance that comes with years. Between Shakespeare in his cradle and Shakespeare in Hamlet there was needed but an interval of time, and the same sublime condition is all that lies between the America of toil and the America of art.