The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

III. Early Essayists

§ 7. Henry Theodore Tuckerman

A more reserved, though hardly less voluminous writer than Willis, was the critic, biographer, and essayist, Henry Theodore Tuckerman, born in Boston in 1813 and from 1845 until his death in 1871 a resident of New York. As a young man he twice spent a year or two abroad, of which the fruits were an Italian Sketch Book in 1835 and several other volumes of travel. Meanwhile he had been reading widely, studying art, and meeting authors and painters. These things combined with a native fineness of temperament to preserve him from falling into the verbal excesses of Willis. Whatever else Tuckerman lacked, he was not wanting in good taste.

As a critic Tuckerman earned the praise of Irving for his “liberal, generous, catholic spirit.” The solid merits of his Thoughts on the Poets were admired in Germany, where the work was translated. But more popular in this country were Characteristics of Literature and Essays, Biographical and Critical, which illustrate various types of genius by little biographies of representative men. Addison, for instance, appeared—with no reference to Dennie—as the Lay Preacher. Many introductions, magazine articles on literature, and two books on American artists gave evidence of Tuckerman’s critical versatility.

His cosmpolitan training is equally apparent in his familiary eassys. The Optimist (1850) was nearly akin to the miscellaneous reflections sometimes imbedded in his early books of travel. It was followed by The Criterion, more appropriately known in England as The Collector, in 1866. Antiquarian in spirit, fond of mingling bits of book-lore with personal reminiscence, Tuckerman picks his meditative and discriminating way along the byways of literature and life. Authors, Pictures, Inns, Sepulchres, Holidays, Bridges, equally provoke his ready flow of illustrative anecdote and well-chosen quotation. With Longfellow and others, he did much to familiarize the American public with a wide range of literature. His cosmopolitanism, however, though of considerable service to his contemporaries, prevented him from interpreting the America that he knew to other countries or to after times. His pleasantly pedantic essays are no longer either novel or informing. Lowell and Whipple have left him scarcely a corner of his chosen field.