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went to the root of the matter when he said that "people are always talking of the study of the ancients; yet what does this mean but apply yourself to the actual world and seek to express it, since this is what the ancients did when they were alive?"
As we consider the brief history of the American branch of English literature, we can see that the growth of a healthy feeling in regard to it has been hindered by two unfortunate failings—provincialism and colonialism. By provincialism I mean the spirit of Little Peddlington, the spirit that makes swans of all our geese. By colonialism I mean the attitude of looking humbly towards the old country for guidance and for counsel even about our own affairs.
Provincialism is local pride unduly inflated. It is the temper that is ready to hail as a Swan of Avon any local gosling who has taught himself to make an unnatural use of his own quills. It is always tempting us to stand on tiptoe to proclaim our own superiority. It prevents our seeing ourselves in proper proportion to the rest of the world. It leads to the preparation of school-manuals in which the threescore years and ten of American literature are made equal in importance to the thousand years of literature produced in Great Britain. It tends to render a modest writer, like Longfellow, ridiculous by comparing him implicitly with the half-dozen world-poets. In the final resort, no doubt, every people must be the judge of its own authors; but before that final judgment is rendered every people consults the precedents, and measures its own local favorites by the cosmopolitan and eternal standards.
Colonialism is shown in the timid deference towards foreign opinion about our own deeds and in the unquestioning acceptance of the foreign estimate upon our own writers. It might be defined almost as a willingness to be second-hand—a feeling which finds satisfaction in calling Irving the American Goldsmith; Cooper, the American Scott; Bryant, the American Wordsworth; and Whittier, the American Burns. Fifty years ago, when this silly trick was far more prevalent than it is now, Lowell satirized it in the "Fable for Critics ":—
"Why, there's scarcely a huddle of log-huts and shanties
And elsewhere in the same poem Lowell protests against the literature that
"... suits each whisper and motion
The corrective of colonialism is a manly self-respect, a wholesome self-reliance, a wish to stand firmly on our own feet, a resolve to survey life with our own eyes and not through any imported spectacles. The New World has already brought forth men of action—Washington, for example, and Lincoln—worthy of comparison with the best that the Old World has enrolled on her records. Has the New World produced any man of letters of corresponding rank? Matthew Arnold thought that there were only five world-classics—Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, and Goethe. This seems a list unduly scanted; but it would need to be five times larger before it included a single American name. What of it? Even if the American poets are no one of them to be inscribed among the twoscore chief singers of the world, they are not the less interesting to us Americans, not the less inspiring. When an English author suggested to Sainte-Beuve that he did not think Lamartine an important poet, the great French critic suavely answered, "He is important to us." Without Lamartine there would be a blank in French literature. So we Americans may see clearly the defects of Bryant and of Whittier, and yet we may say that they are important to us, even though they, like Lamartine, are not among the foremost poets of their language or of their century.
Colonialism and provincialism, although they seem mutually destructive, still manage somehow to exist side by side in our criticism to-day. The best cure for them is a study of the two other great literatures, Greek and French. Too much attention to contemporary British literature is dangerous for us, since its chief characteristics are ours by inheritance. Matthew Arnold held that it was a work of supererogation for Carlyle to preach earnestness to the English, who already abounded in that sense. For us to follow the lead of the British in literature or in any other art is but saying ditto to ourselves. It is like the marriage of cousins—and for the same reasons to be deplored. But the study of Greek literature supplies us instantly with the eternal standards, the use of which cannot but be fatal to provincialism. And the study of French literature, which is as modern as our own and yet as different as may be in its ideals and its methods, is likely to serve as a certain antidote to colonialism.
The study of Greek literature, the greatest of the literatures of the past, and the study of French literature, the other great literature of the present, will lead us towards that American cosmopolitanism which is the antithesis of both provincialism and colonialism. An American cosmopolitanism, I said, for I agree with Coleridge in thinking that "the cosmopolitanism which does not spring out of, and blossom upon, the deep-rooted stem of nationality or patriotism, is a spurious and rotten growth." Stendhal, a Frenchman who did not care for France, and who found himself, at last, a man without a country, had for a motto, "I come from Cosmopolis." A fit motto for an American author might be "I go to Cosmopolis." I go to see the best the world has to offer, the best being none too good for American use; I go as a visitor, and I return always a loyal citizen to my own country.
As Plutarch tells us, "it is well to go for a light to another man's fire, but not to tarry by it, instead of kindling a torch of one's own." A torch of one's own!—that is a possession worth having, whether it be a flaming beacon on the hilltop or a tiny taper in the window. We cannot tell how far a little candle throws its beams, nor who is laying his course by its flickering light. The most that we can do—and it is also the least we should do—is to tend the flame carefully and to keep it steady.
DONALD GRANT MITCHELL
IRVING AS AUTHOR AND MAN
[Address by Donald G. Mitchell—" Ik Marvel "—(born in Norwich,
Conn., April 12, 1822; ), delivered at Tarrytown-on-Hudson,
N. Y., April 3, 1883, at. the commemoration of the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Washington Irving. The exercises were held at the Second Reformed Church, under the auspices of the Washington Irving Association, and were presided over by Chief Justice Noah Davis, of the Supreme Court of New York.]
You are met to-night to pay tribute to the memory of a man we all loved—born a hundred years ago.
Yet, we who put voice to your tribute are brought to a pause at the very start. Who can say over again—in a way that shall make listeners—the praises of a balmy day in June?
Simply to recall him, however, is—I think—to honor him: for there is no memory of him however shadowy or vagrant which is not grateful to you—to me and to all the reading world.
It is now well-nigh upon thirty-five years since I first met Mr. Irving. It was in a sunny parlor in one of the houses of that Colonnade Row which stands opposite the Astor Library in Lafayette Place, New York. I can recall vividly the trepidation which I carried to that meeting—so eager to encounter the man whom all honored and admired—so apprehensive lest a chilling dignity might disturb my ideal. And when that smiling, quiet, well-preserved gentleman (I could hardly believe him sixty-five) left his romp with some of his little kinsfolk, to give me a hearty shake of the hand, and thereafter to run
From the Centenary Commemoration volume of Washington Irving. Copyright, by G. P. Putnam's Sons. Published by permission. 872
on in lively, humorous chat—stealing all trepidation out of me, by—I know not what—kindly magnetism of voice and manner, it was as if some one were playing counterfeit— as if the venerated author were yet to appear and displace this beaming, winning personality, with some awful dignity that should put me again into worshipful tremor.
But no: this was indeed Mr. Irving—hard as it was to adjust this gracious presence, so full of benignity, with the author who had told the story of the Knickerbockers and of Columbus.
Another puzzle to me was—how this easy-going gentleman, with his winning mildness and quiet deliberation— as if he never could, and never did, and never would knuckle down to hard task-work—should have reeled out those hundreds—nay, thousands of pages of graceful, well-ordered, sparkling English.
I could not understand how he did it. I do not think we ever altogether understand how the birds sing and sing; and yet, with feathers quite unruffled, and eyes always a-twinkle.
My next sight of Mr. Irving was hereabout, at his own home. By his kind invitation I had come up to pass a day with him at Sunnyside, and he had promised me a drive through Sleepy Hollow. What a promise that was! No boy ever went to his Christmas holidays more joyously, I think, than I, to meet that engagement.
It was along this road, beside which we are assembled to-night, that we drove. He all alert and brisk, with the cool morning breeze blowing down upon us from the Haverstraw heights and across the wide sweep of river. He called attention to the spot of poor Andre's capture— not forbearing that little touch of sympathy, which came to firmer yet not disloyal expression, afterward, in his story of Washington. A sweep of his whip-hand told me the trees under which Paulding and the rest chanced to be loitering on that memorable day.
We were whirling along the same road a short way farther northward, when I ventured to query about the memorable night-ride of Ichabod Crane and of the Headless Horseman.
Aye, it was thereabout that tragedy came off too.
"Down this bit of road the old horse 'Gunpowder,'