Page images
PDF
EPUB

may help to restore harmony in the universe by balancing a disproportion on the other side which I find in some handbooks and histories.

The historian is subservient to an ideal of encyclopedic completeness and to traditional values. He rules literature off in sections; into each school and period he puts the great men, and then stuffs the chinks with such as N. P. Willis and Margaret Fuller, who may have been admirable persons but omitted to make literature. Life is short, and art, even American art, is long and vital. It is perplexing to find in current manuals no mention of Father Tabb, but a full page about Anne Bradstreet; a chapter on Bryant, but only a page about Sidney Lanier; extended accounts of Charles Brockden Brown and William Gilmore Simms, but only half a page about Mark Twain. To be sure, the historian avowedly and properly puts emphasis on writers who are dead in the flesh, and finishes off his contemporaries briefly because they are not yet established and are too numerous to mention. But it seems well, in books about literature, not to discuss writers admittedly dead in the spirit, whose names persist by the inertia of reputation.

No man's sense of what is important will agree exactly with his neighbour's judgment; moreover, it is risky for one who is making a book to hint defects in other works on the same subject. All that I wish to plead is that a living lion is better than a dead mouse. If we should have another chapter about a poet, it should treat not Bayard Taylor, nor Bryant, but James Whitcomb Riley or Father Tabb. That any one should quest on a chapter about William James in

vi

[ocr errors]

a book in which a chapter on that dreadful bore, Jonathan

2 Edwards, would pass unchallenged, seems to be a perversion of literary values. If we should have a chapter on Bret Harte (as well we might), then we should have chapters about two very much better story-tellers — Sarah Orne Jewett and Mrs. Mary Wilkins-Freeman. There is, I am confident, only one first-rate man of letters of the elder days who is not discussed in the following pages - Francis Parkman. The omission is due not to lack of admiration for his thrilling and finely written books, but to my inability to enter the field of purely historical work with any sureness or illusion of authority.

If, as I believe, accepted handbooks and histories of American literature pay too much attention to doubly dead worthies, whose books are not interesting, and miss or but timidly acknowledge contemporary excellence, there is a way of accounting for it. Every generation, except the more independent spirits in it, looks with too Chinese reverence upon its ancestors. Moreover, the passing generation of American writers, critics and professors, the men who wrote the prevalent handbooks, are intellectually a poor generation as compared with their fathers. They have reason to lack confidence in their contemporaries. The other day they drew up a list of their living selves. The National Institute of Arts and Letters announced the Forty American Immortals, the first roster of an absurd Yankee imitation of the French Academy. Twenty-eight men, "chosen from among the greatest living American writers” (that is, of course, men past middle age), were elected to immortality on the score

of literary achievement. On the roll are exactly three men who have made literature Mr. Henry James, Mr. Howells, and Mr. James Whitcomb Riley. The list is well chosen; there is no other genius that one would nominate for a place in it, except Mrs. Wharton and Mrs. Freeman, who cannot be admitted because they are women. The list (except for two or three distinguished men who are dead) represents American literature for the last thirty or forty years. Morituros salutamus!

WRENTHAM, April 26, 1912.

J. M.

« PreviousContinue »