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'The English colonies on the western Atlantic seaboard, and their political successors, the United States of America, have won, by many and varied achievements, a conspicuous place in the history of civilization. But no form of art stands high among those achievements, and American literature cannot yet take rank with the great literatures of the world. It could scarcely be otherwise. Before the arts can flourish, there must be a certain security of social and political life. This security can come only after its foundations have been laid in the struggle for existence itself, in the successful providing of food, clothing, and shelter. The occupants of the New World have been busy bringing the wilderness under cultivation, experimenting with a bewildering variety of soil and climate, and exploring the countless sources of material wealth. Above all, a population nominally English, but really of diverse nationalities, has been learning the hard lesson of self-government under novel and trying conditions. There has been little leisure to devote to art.
It is further to be considered that the brief life of the nation, as such, has fallen in an age of remarkable scientific and material advance. What other centuries were content to refer to vaguely as cowonders of nature” have in the nineteenth century been searchingly investigated, to the opening up of new and apparently boundless fields of knowledge. The impulse once given, it is not surprising that men should neglect the more abstruse creations of their brains for the absorbing study
of the creations around them and the utilization of iheir discoveries in the practical concerns of life. Energies that in another age would have gone to the making of a statue or a poem have been steadily diverted to science and the mechanic arts. And a nation like our own, young and eager, with all the means for scientific investigation and material progress and none of the stimulus of ancient art, would of all nations feel this impulse most keenly.
The effects upon our literature are evident. During only one of the three centuries since the permanent occupation of America by the English people has any literature worthy of the name been produced. Few of our writers have been writers primarily, and few of them have left any such volume of work as we are accustomed to associate with the names of great European authors. In quality, too, our literature is often like a thin wine, without body. Many things are lacking to it. A transplanted people, we are not as a race that is born to the inheritance of its land and bound together by long community of interests and of purpose.
We have no barbarous or legendary past to enrich our chronicles and fire our imaginations. Chivalry and feudalism have no direct part in us. We have no national deities or patron saints; no ancient and mystic priesthood; no fairies, no knights, no courtiers, no kings. We have not even a distinct national name about which traditions might gather and which, like Merrie England or la belle France, would serve to conjure with in the realm of art. Thus our literature quite lacks the peculiar flavor sometimes known as race. It lacks, too, the atmosphere of aristocracy, and, in a sense, the atmosphere of religion. * Worst of all, perhaps, it lacks the feeling for artistic repose, the sense for proportion and beauty; for the strenuous moral and intellectual life of our ancestors has left us a heritage aesthetically barren.
Charles Johnston, in the Atlantic Monthly, July, 1899.
Still, there are compensations. A new world is at least new, and its writers may find novel themes and fresh inspiration just over their thresholds. Our colonial and national history has not been uneventful. There have been religious crusades, financial and industrial panics, and wars both foreign and domestic. The very social chaos which paralyzes art, the conflict and tumult of diverse races struggling towards unity, is, to one who can detach himself and observe, a highly dramatic spectacle. Besides, the world of nature does not materially change. In a new country, indeed, the lure of outdoor life is peculiarly strong. And in variety of natural features, in charm of landscape, in diversity of seasons, in wealth of flora and fauna, the old world has no advantage over the new.
Still less does human nature change, and wherever two men find room to stand together, the primal passions will assert themselves and the poet find his song. It was only a question of time when there should be an American literature, and the time was not unduly long in coming.
Now, indeed, some portion of our literature is safely enshrined as classic, and it is possible for us to look back upon a fairly definite and complete epoch. The literary spirit, the instinct to record the thoughts, feelings, and observations of men, has its fluctuations. At times it is strong and fertile, at other times weak, at still others barren. But at no time in our history has the literary spirit been absolutely barren, and through one period it was strong enough to leave a record at once great and worthy-great in insight and originality, and of adequate art. Now that that period seems to be passed and that its leaders are gone with it, the history of American literature may be written without fear or apology.
Manifestly there can be no elaborate time-division of a literature that has had but one era of high accomplishment. The simple facts stand out clearly: first, that down to the very beginn'ng of the nineteenth century scarcely a book was