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HAMILTON WRIGHT MABIE
POE'S PLACE IN AMERICAN LITERATURE
(Address by Hamilton Wright Mabie, editor, essayist, lecturer (born in Cold Spring, N. Y., December 13, 1845; -), delivered at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, on the occasion of the unveiling of the Zolney bust of Edgar Allan Poe, October 7, 1899, the fiftieth anniversary of Poe's death.]
One fact about our literature has not received adequate attention—the fact that it had no childhood. In its beginnings it was the record of a people who had long passed the age of play and dreams, and were given over to pressing and exacting work. We are a young nation, but an old people; and our books, as distinguished from English books, are the products of a mature people in a new world. The world in which books are written has much to do with their quality, their themes, and their form; but the substance of the books of power is the deposit of experience in the hearts and minds of a race. In American literature we have a fresh field and an old race; we have new conditions, and an experience which antedates them. We were educated in the Old World, and a man carries his education with him. He cannot escape it, and would lose incalculably if he could.
The kind of originality which inheres in a new race and runs into novel forms we do not and shall not possess; the kind of originality which issues out of direct and handto-hand dealing with nature and life we may hope to develop on the scale of the Greeks or the English. "A great literature must be waited for, and while we are waiting it is wise to be hopeful of the future; for expectation is often a kind of prophecy, and to believe in the possibility of
Copyright, by Hamilton W. Mabie.
doing the best things in the best way is in itself a kind of preparation. To say that literature in this country, to the close of this century, is the product of an old race is not to charge it with lack of first-hand insight and force, but to explain some of its characteristics.
Goethe speaks of his mother's joyousness and love of stories. Her temperament was the gift which irradiated the pedantic father's bequest of order, industry, and method to the author of Faust. Art is the constant assertion that man has a right to live as well as to work; that the value of work depends largely upon spontaneity; and that the springs which gush from the soil have the greatest power of assuaging the thirst of the soul. This element of the uncalculated, the spontaneous, the uncontrolled, or at least undirected play of human energy finds full and free expression in the literature of the youth of races, and is the special and prime quality of literature at that stage of development. As the man is born first in the boy's temper and spirit and ideals, and born again in the struggles of experience, so the creative imagination of a race is shaped, colored, and formed largely in the earliest contacts of that race with nature and with life; with the order about it, and the inward and outward happenings of its life. Work and play, the conscious putting forth of energy and the unconscious responsiveness to all manner of impressions, must be kept in equilibrium, if there is to be continuous and rich productiveness. But the pressure of suffering and toil is so great upon the mature race, as upon the nature man, that it can be met only by a great accumulation in youth of idealism and joy. In the popular epics and in the early ballads there is a freshness, a vitality, an uncalculated and captivating charm, which make the reader of a more sophisticated age feel that in reading or hearing them he is near the springs of literature.
That there are close and vital ties between all the arts of expression and the life behind them; that the poem and the story reflect in interior and elusive but very real ways the quality of the race which fashioned them; that genius itself, although in a sense independent of character, is conditioned, for its full, free, and highest expression, upon character, the large majority of students of literature are