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American Idealism Post by :Jeremy_Burns Category :Essays Author :Bliss Perry Date :November 2011 Read :1236

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American Idealism

Our endeavor to state the general characteristics of the American mind has already given us some indication of what Americans really care for. The things or the qualities which they like, the objects of their conscious or unconscious striving, are their ideals. "There is what I call the American idea," said Theodore Parker in the Anti-Slavery Convention of 1850. "This idea demands, as the proximate organization thereof, a democracy--that is, a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people; of course, a government on the principle of eternal justice, the unchanging law of God; for shortness' sake, I will call it the idea of Freedom." That is one of a thousand definitions of American idealism. Books devoted to the "Spirit of America"--like the volume by Henry van Dyke which bears that very title--give a programme of national accomplishments and aspirations. But our immediate task is more specific. It is to point out how adequately this idealistic side of the national temperament has been expressed in American writing. Has our literature kept equal pace with our thinking and feeling?

We do not need, in attempting to answer this question, any definition of idealism, in its philosophical or in its more purely literary sense. There are certain fundamental human sentiments which lift men above brutes, Frenchmen above "frog-eaters," and Englishmen above "shop-keepers." These ennobling sentiments or ideals, while universal in their essential nature, assume in each civilized nation a somewhat specific coloring. The national literature reveals the myriad shades and hues of private and public feeling, and the more truthful this literary record, the more delicate and noble become the harmonies of local and national thought or emotion with the universal instincts and passions of mankind. On the other hand, when the literature of Spain, for instance, or of Italy, fails, within a given period, in range and depth of human interest, we are compelled to believe either that the Spain or Italy of that age was wanting in the nobler ideals, or that it lacked literary interpretation.

In the case of America we are confronted by a similar dilemma. Since the beginning of the seventeenth century this country has been, in a peculiar sense, the home of idealism; but our literature has remained through long periods thin and provincial, barren in cosmopolitan significance; and the hard fact faces us to-day that only three or four of our writers have aroused any strong interest in the cultivated readers of continental Europe. Evidently, then, either the torch of American idealism does not burn as brightly as we think, or else our writers, with but few exceptions, have not hitherto possessed the height and reach and grasp to hold up the torch so that the world could see it. Let us look first at the flame, and then at the torch-bearers.

Readers of Carlyle have often been touched by the humility with which that disinherited child of Calvinism speaks of Goethe's doctrine of the "Three Reverences," as set forth in Wilhelm Meister. Again and again, in his correspondence and his essays, does Carlyle recur to that teaching of the threefold Reverence: Reverence for what is above us, for what is around us and for what is under us; that is to say, the ethnic religion which frees us from debasing fear, the philosophical religion which unites us with our comrades, and the Christian religion which recognizes humility and poverty and suffering as divine.

"To which of these religions do you specially adhere?" inquired Wilhelm.

"To all the three," replied the sages; "for in their union they produce what may properly be called the true Religion. Out of those three Reverences springs the highest Reverence, Reverence for Oneself."

An admirable symbolism, surely; vaguer, no doubt, than the old symbols which Carlyle had learned in the Kirk at Ecclefechan, but less vague, in turn, than that doctrine of reverence for the Oversoul, which was soon to be taught at Concord.

As one meditates upon the idealism of the first colonists in America, one is tempted to ask what their "reverences" were. Toward what tangible symbols of the invisible did their eyes instinctively turn?

For New England, at least, the answer is relatively simple. One form of it is contained in John Adams's well-known prescription for Virginia, as recorded in his Diary for July 21, 1786. "Major Langbourne dined with us again. He was lamenting the difference of character between Virginia and New England. I offered to give him a receipt for making a New England in Virginia. He desired it; and I recommended to him town-meetings, training-days, town-schools, and ministers."

The "ministers," it will be noticed, come last on the Adams list. But the order of precedence is unimportant.

Here are four symbols, or, if you like, "reverences." Might not the Virginia planters, loyal to their own specific symbol of the "gentleman,"--no unworthy ideal, surely; one that had been glorified in European literature ever since Castiligione wrote his Courtier, and one that had been transplanted from England to Virginia as soon as Sir Walter Raleigh's men set foot on the soil which took its name from the Virgin Queen,--might not the Virginia gentlemen have pondered to their profit over the blunt suggestion of the Massachusetts commoner? No doubt; and yet how much picturesqueness and nobility--and tragedy, too--we should have missed, if our history had not been full of these varying symbols, clashing ideals, different Reverences!

One Reverence, at least, was common to the Englishman of Virginia and to the Englishman of Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay. They were joint heirs of the Reformation, children of that waxing and puissant England which was a nation of one book, the Bible; a book whose phrases color alike the Faerie Queen of Spenser and the essays of Francis Bacon; a book rich beyond all others in human experience; full of poetry, history, drama; the test of conduct; the manual of devotion; and above all, and blinding all other considerations by the very splendor of the thought, a book believed to be the veritable Word of the unseen God. For these colonists in the wilderness, as for the Protestant Europe which they had left irrevocably behind them, the Bible was the plainest of all symbols of idealism: it was the first of the "Reverences."

The Church was a symbol likewise, but to the greater portion of colonial America the Church meant chiefly the tangible band of militant believers within the limits of a certain township or parish, rather than the mystical Bride of Christ. Except in Maryland and Virginia, whither the older forms of Church worship were early transplanted, there was scanty reverence for the Establishment. There was neither clergyman nor minister on board the Mayflower. In Rufus Choate's oration on the Pilgrims before the New England Society of New York in 1843, occurred the famous sentence about "a church without a bishop and a state without a King"; to which Dr. Wainwright, rector of St. John's, replied wittily at the dinner following the oration that there "can be no church without a bishop." This is perhaps a question for experts; but Thomas Hooker, Thomas Shepard, and John Cotton would have sided with Rufus Choate. The awe which had once been paid to the Establishment was transferred, in the seventeenth-century New England, to the minister. The minister imposed himself upon the popular imagination, partly through sheer force of personal ascendency, and partly as a symbol of the theocracy,--the actual governing of the Commonwealth by the laws and spirit of the sterner Scriptures. The minister dwelt apart as upon an awful Sinai. It was no mere romantic fancy of Hawthorne that shadowed his countenance with a black veil. The church organization, too,--though it may have lacked its bishop,--had a despotic power over its communicants; to be cast out of its fellowship involved social and political consequences comparable to those following excommunication by the Church of Rome. Hawthorne and Whittier and Longfellow--all of them sound antiquarians, though none of them in sympathy with the theology of Puritanism--have described in fit terms the bareness of the New England meeting-house. What intellectual severity and strain was there; what prodigality of learning; what blazing intensity of devotion; what pathos of women's patience, and of children, prematurely old, stretched upon the rack of insoluble problems! What dramas of the soul were played through to the end in those barn-like buildings, where the musket, perhaps, stood in the corner of the pew! "How aweful is this place!" must have been murmured by the lips of all; though there were many who have added, "This is the gate of Heaven."

The gentler side of colonial religion is winningly portrayed in Whittier's Pennsylvania Pilgrim and in his imaginary journal of Margaret Smith. There were sunnier slopes, warmer exposures for the ripening of the human spirit, in the Southern colonies. Even in New England there was sporadic revolt from the beginning. The number of non-church-members increased rapidly after 1700; Franklin as a youth in Boston admired Cotton Mather's ability, but he did not go to church, "Sunday being my studying day." Doubtless there were always humorous sceptics like Mrs. Stowe's delightful Sam Lawson in Oldtown Folks. Lawson's comment on Parson Simpson's service epitomizes two centuries of New England thinking. "Wal," said Sam, "Parson Simpson's a smart man; but I tell ye, it's kind o' discouragin'. Why, he said our state and condition by natur was just like this. We was clear down in a well fifty feet deep, and the sides all round nothin' but glare ice; but we was under immediate obligations to get out, 'cause we was free, voluntary agents. But nobody ever had got out, and nobody would, unless the Lord reached down and took 'em. And whether he would or not nobody could tell; it was all sovereignty. He said there wan't one in a hundred, not one in a thousand,--not one in ten thousand,--that would be saved. Lordy massy, says I to myself, ef that's so they're any of 'em welcome to my chance. And so I kind o' ris up and come out."

Mrs. Stowe's novel is fairly representative of a great mass of derivative literature which draws its materials from the meeting-house period of American history. But the direct literature of that period has passed almost wholly into oblivion. Jonathan Edwards had one of the finest minds of his century; no European standard of comparison is too high for him; he belongs with Pascal, with Augustine, if you like, with Dante. But his great treatises written in the Stockbridge woods are known only to a few technical students of philosophy. One terrible sermon, preached at Enfield in 1741, is still read by the curious; but scarcely anybody knows of the ineffable tenderness, dignity, and pathos of his farewell sermon to his flock at Northampton: and the Yale Library possesses nearly twelve hundred of Edwards's sermons which have never been printed at all. Nor does anybody, save here and there an antiquarian, read Shepard and Hooker and Mayhew. And yet these preachers and their successors furnished the emotional equivalents of great prose and verse to generations of men. "That is poetry," says Professor Saintsbury (in a dangerous latitudinarianism, perhaps!), "which gives the reader the feeling of poetry." Here we touch one of the fundamental characteristics of our national state of mind, in its relation to literature. We are careless of form and type, yet we crave the emotional stimulus. Milton, greatest of Puritan poets, was read and quoted all too seldom in the Puritan colonies, and yet those colonists were no strangers to the emotions of sublimity and awe and beauty. They found them in the meeting-house instead of in a book; precisely as, in a later day, millions of Americans experienced what was for them the emotional equivalent of poetry in the sermons of Henry Ward Beecher and Phillips Brooks. French pulpit oratory of the seventeenth century wins recognition as a distinct type of literature; its great practitioners, like Massillon, Bourdaloue, Bossuet, are appraised in all the histories of the national literature and in books devoted to the evolution of literary species. In the American colonies the great preachers performed the functions of men of letters without knowing it. They have been treated with too scant respect in the histories of American literature. It is one of the penalties of Protestantism that the audiences, after a while, outgrow the preacher. The development of the historic sense, of criticism, of science, makes an impassable gulf between Jonathan Edwards and the American churches of the twentieth century. A sense of profound changes in theology has left our contemporaries indifferent to the literature in which the old theology was clothed.

There is one department of American literary production, of which Bossuet's famous sermon on Queen Henrietta Maria of England may serve to remind us, which illustrates significantly the national idealism. I mean the commemorative oration. The addresses upon the Pilgrim Fathers by such orators as Everett, Webster, and Choate; the countless orations before such organizations as the New England Society of New York and the Phi Beta Kappa; the papers read before historical and patriotic societies; the birthday and centenary discourses upon national figures like Washington or Lincoln, have all performed, and are still performing, an inestimable service in stimulating popular loyalty to the idealism of the fathers. As literature, most of this production is derivative: we listen to eloquence about the Puritans, but we do not read the Puritans; the description of Arthur Dimmesdale's election sermon in The Scarlet Letter, moving as it may be, tempts no one to open the stout collections of election sermons in the libraries. Yet the original literature of mediæval chivalry is known only to a few scholars: Tennyson's Idylls outsell the Mabinogion and Malory. The actual world of literature is always shop-worn; a world chiefly of second-hand books, of warmed-over emotions and it is not surprising that many listeners to orations about Lincoln do not personally emulate Lincoln, and that many of the most enthusiastic dealers in the sentiment of the ancestral meeting-house do not themselves attend church.

The other ingredients of John Adams's ideal Commonwealth are no less significant of our national disposition. Take the school-house. It was planted in the wilderness for the training of boys and girls and for a future "godly and learned ministry." The record of American education is a long story of idealism which has touched literature at every turn. The "red school-house" on the hill-top or at the cross-roads, the "log-colleges" in forgotten hamlets, the universities founded by great states, are all a record of the American faith--which has sometimes been called a fetich--in education. In its origin, it was a part of the essential programme of Calvinism to make a man able to judge for himself upon the most momentous questions; a programme, too, of that political democracy which lay embedded in the tenets of Calvinism, a democracy which believes and must continue to believe that an educated electorate can safeguard its own interests and train up its own leaders. The poetry of the American school-house was written long ago by Whittier, in describing Joshua Coffin's school under the big elm on the cross-road in East Haverhill; its humor and pathos and drama have been portrayed by innumerable story-writers and essayists. Mrs. Martha Baker Dunn's charming sketches, entitled "Cicero in Maine" and "Virgil in Maine," indicate the idealism once taught in the old rural academies,--and it is taught there still. City men will stop wistfully on the street, in the first week of September, to watch the boys and girls go trudging off to their first day of school; men who believe in nothing else at least believe in that! And school and college and university remain, as in the beginning, the first garden-ground and the last refuge of literature.

That "town-meeting" which John Adams thought Virginia might do well to adopt has likewise become a symbol of American idealism. Together with the training-day, it represented the rights and duties and privileges of free men; the machinery of self-government. It was democracy, rather than "representative" government, under its purest aspect. Sentiments of responsibility to the town, the political unit, and to the Commonwealth, the group of units, were bred there. Likewise, it was a training-school for sententious speech and weighty action; its roots, as historians love to demonstrate, run back very far; and though the modern drift to cities has made its machinery ineffective in the larger communities, it remains a perpetual spring or feeding stream to the broader currents of our national life. Without an understanding of the town-meeting and its equivalents, our political literature loses much of its significance. Like the school-house and meeting-house, it has become glorified by our men of letters. John Fiske and other historians have celebrated it in some of the most brilliant pages of our political writing; and that citizen literature, so deeply characteristic of us, found in the plain, forthright, and public-spirited tone of town-meeting discussions its keynote. The spectacular debates of our national history, the dramatic contests in the great arena of the Senate Chamber, the discussions before huge popular audiences in the West, have maintained the civic point of view, have developed and dignified and enriched the prose style first employed by American freemen in deciding their local affairs in the presence of their neighbors. "I am a part of this people," said Lincoln proudly in one of his famous debates of 1858; "I was raised just a little east of here"; and this nearness to the audience, this directness and simplicity and genuineness of our best political literature, its homely persuasiveness and force, is an inheritance of the town-meeting.

Bible and meeting-house, school-house and town-meeting, thus illustrate concretely the responsiveness of the American character to idealistic impulses. They are external symbols of a certain state of mind. It may indeed be urged that they are primarily signs of a moral and social or institutional trend, and are therefore non-literary evidence of American idealism. Nevertheless, institutional as they may be deemed, they lie close to that poetry of daily duty in which our literature has not been poor. They are fundamentally related to that attitude of mind, that habitual temper of the spirit, which has produced, in all countries of settled use and wont, the literature of idealism. Brunetière said of Flaubert's most famous woman character that poor Emma Bovary, the prey and the victim of Romantic desires, was after all much like the rest of us except that she lacked the intelligence to perceive the charm and poetry of the daily task. We have already touched upon the purely romantic side of American energy and of American imagination, and we must shortly look more closely still at those impulses of daring, those moods of heightened feeling, that intensified individualism, the quest of strangeness and terror and wild beauty, which characterize our romantic writing. But this romanticism is, as it were, a segment of the larger circle of idealism. It is idealism accentuated by certain factors, driven to self-expression by the passions of scorn or of desire; it exceeds, in one way or another, the normal range of experience and emotion. Our romantic American literature is doubtless our greatest. And yet some of the most characteristic tendencies of American writing are to be found in the poetry of daily experience, in the quiet accustomed light that falls upon one's own doorway and garden, in the immemorial charm of going forth to one's labor and returning in the evening,--poetry old as the world.

* * * * *

Let us see how this glow of idealism touches some of the more intimate aspects of human experience. "Out of the three Reverences," says Wilhelm Meister, "springs the highest Reverence, Reverence for Oneself." Open the pages of Hawthorne. Moving wholly within the framework of established institutions, with no desire to shatter the existing scheme of social order, choosing as its heroes men of the meeting-house, town-meeting, and training-day, how intensely nevertheless does the imagination of this fiction-writer illuminate the Body and the Soul!

Take first the Body. The inheritance of English Puritanism may be traced throughout our American writing, in its reverence for physical purity. The result is something unique in literary history. Continental critics, while recognizing the intellectual and artistic powers revealed in The Scarlet Letter, have seldom realized the awfulness, to the Puritan mind, of the very thought of an adulterous minister. That a priest in southern Europe should break his vows is indeed scandalous; but the sin is regarded as a failure of the natural man to keep a vow requiring supernatural grace for its fulfilment; it may be that the priest had no vocation for his sacred office; he is unfrocked, punished, forgotten, yet a certain mantle of human charity still covers his offence. But in the Puritan scheme (and The Scarlet Letter, save for that one treacherous, warm human moment in the woodland where "all was spoken," lies wholly within the set framework of Puritanism) there is no forgiveness for a sin of the flesh. There is only Law, Law stretching on into infinitude until the mind shudders at it. Hawthorne knew his Protestant New England through and through. The Scarlet Letter is the most striking example in our national literature of that idealization of physical purity, but hundreds of other romances and poems, less morbid if less great, assert in unmistakable terms the same moral conviction, the same ideal.

Yet, in spite of its theme, there was never a less adulterous novel than this book which plays so artistically with the letter A. The body is branded, is consumed, is at last, perhaps, transfigured by the intense rays of light emitted from the suffering soul.

"The soul is form and doth the body make."


In this intense preoccupation with the Soul, Hawthorne's romance is in unison with the more mystical and spiritual utterances of Catholicism as well as of Protestantism. It was in part a resultant of that early American isolation which contributed so effectively to the artistic setting of The Scarlet Letter. But in his doctrine of spiritual integrity, in the agonized utterance, "Be true--be true!" as well as in his reverence for purity of the body, our greatest romancer was typical of the imaginative literature of his countrymen. The restless artistic experiments of Poe presented the human body in many a ghastly and terrifying aspect of illness and decay, and distorted by all passions save one. His imagination was singularly sexless. Pathological students have pointed out the relation between this characteristic of Poe's writing, and his known tendencies toward opium-eating, alcoholism, and tuberculosis. But no such explanation is at hand to elucidate the absence of sexual passion from the novels of the masculine-minded Fenimore Cooper. One may say, indeed, that Cooper's novels, like Scott's, lack intensity of spiritual vision; that their tone is consonant with the views of a sound Church of England parson in the eighteenth century; and that the absence of physical passion, like the absence of purely spiritual insight, betrays a certain defect in Cooper's imaginative grasp and depth. But it is better criticism, after all, to remember that these three pioneers in American fiction-writing were composing for an audience in which Puritan traditions or tastes were predominant. Not one of the three men but would have instantly sacrificed an artistic effect, legitimate in the eyes of Fielding or Goethe or Balzac, rather than--in the phrase so often satirized--"bring a blush to the cheek of innocence." In other words, the presence of a specific audience, accustomed to certain Anglo-Saxon and Puritanic restraint of topic and of speech, has from the beginning of our imaginative literature coöperated with the instinct of our writers. That Victorian reticence which is so plainly seen even in such full-bodied writers as Dickens or Thackeray--a reticence which men like Mr. Bernard Shaw and Mr. Galsworthy and Mr. Wells think so hypocritical and dangerous to society and which they have certainly done their utmost to abolish--has hitherto dominated our American writing. The contemporary influence of great Continental writers to whom reticence is unknown, combined with the influence of a contemporary opera and drama to which reticence would be unprofitable, are now assaulting this dominant convention. Very possibly it is doomed. But it is only within recent years that its rule has been questioned.

One result of it may, I think, be fairly admitted. While very few writers of eminence, after all, in any country, wish to bring a "blush to the cheek of innocence," they naturally wish, as Thackeray put it in one of the best-known of his utterances, to be permitted to depict a man to the utmost of their power. American literary conventions, like English conventions, have now and again laid a restraining and compelling hand upon the legitimate exercise of this artistic instinct; and this fact has coöperated with many social, ethical, and perhaps physiological causes to produce a thinness or bloodlessness in our books. They are graceful, pleasing, but pale, like one of those cool whitish uncertain skies of an American spring. They lack "body," like certain wines. It is not often that we can produce a real Burgundy. We have had many distinguished fiction-writers, but none with the physical gusto of a Fielding, a Smollett, or even a Dickens, who, idealist and romanticist as he was, and Victorian as were his artistic preferences, has this animal life which tingles upon every page. We must confess that there is a certain quality of American idealism which is covertly suspicious or openly hostile to the glories of bodily sensation. Emerson's thin high shoulders peep up reproachfully above the desk; Lanier is playing his reproachful flute; Longfellow reads Frémont's Rocky Mountain experiences while lying abed, and sighs "But, ah, the discomforts!"; Irving's Astoria, superb as were the possibilities of its physical background, tastes like parlor exploration. Even Dana's Before the Mast and Parkman's Oregon Trail, transcripts of robust actual experience, and admirable books, reveal a sort of physical paleness compared with Turgenieff's Notes of a Sportsman and Tolstoï's Sketches of Sebastopol and the Crimea. They are Harvard undergraduate writing, after all!

These facts illustrate anew that standing temptation of the critic of American literature to palliate literary shortcomings by the plea that we possess certain admirable non-literary qualities. The dominant idealism of the nation has levied, or seemed to levy, a certain tax upon our writing. Some instincts, natural to the full-blooded utterance of Continental literature, have been starved or eliminated here. Very well. The characteristic American retort to this assertion would be: Better our long record and habit of idealism than a few masterpieces more or less. As a people, we have cheerfully accepted the Puritan restraint of speech, we have respected the shamefaced conventions of decent and social utterance. Like the men and women described in Locker-Lampson's verses, Americans


"eat, and drink, and scheme, and plod,--
They go to church on Sunday;
And many are afraid of God--
And more of Mrs. Grundy."


Now Mrs. Grundy is assuredly not the most desirable of literary divinities, but the student of classical literature can easily think of other divinities, celebrated in exquisite Greek and Roman verse, who are distinctly less desirable still.

"Not passion, but sentiment," said Hawthorne, in a familiar passage of criticism of his own Twice-Told Tales. How often must the student of American literature echo that half-melancholy but just verdict, as he surveys the transition from the spiritual intensity of a few of our earlier writers to the sentimental qualities which have brought popular recognition to the many. Take the word "soul" itself. Calvinism shadowed and darkened the meaning, perhaps, and yet its spiritual passion made the word "soul" sublime. The reaction against Calvinism has made religion more human, natural, and possibly more Christlike, but "soul" has lost the thrilling solemnity with which Edwards pronounced the word. Emerson and Hawthorne, far as they had escaped from the bonds of their ancestral religion, still utter the word "soul" with awe. But in the popular sermon and hymn and story of our day,--with their search after the sympathetic and the sentimental, after what is called in magazine slang "heart-interest,"--the word has lost both its intellectual distinction and its literary magic. It will regain neither until it is pronounced once more with spiritual passion.

But in literature, as in other things, we must take what we can get. The great mass of our American writing is sentimental, because it has been produced by, and for, an excessively sentimental people. The poems in Stedman's carefully chosen Anthology, the prose and verse in the two volume Stedman-Hutchinson collection of American Literature, the Library of Southern Literature, and similar sectional anthologies, the school Readers and Speakers,--particularly in the half-century between 1830 and 1880,--our newspapers and magazines,--particularly the so-called "yellow" newspapers and the illustrated magazines typified by Harper's Monthly,--are all fairly dripping with sentiment. American oratory is notoriously the most sentimental oratory of the civilized world. The Congressional Record still presents such specimens of sentiment--delivered or given leave to be printed, it is true, for "home consumption" rather than to affect the course of legislation--as are inexplicable to an Englishman or a Frenchman or an Italian.

Immigrants as we all are, and migratory as we have ever been,--so much so that one rarely meets an American who was born in the house built by his grandfather,--we cling with peculiar fondness to the sentiment of "Home." The best-known American poem, for decades, was Samuel Woodworth's "Old Oaken Bucket," the favorite popular song was Stephen Foster's "My Old Kentucky Home," the favorite play was Denman Thompson's "Old Homestead." Without that appealing word "mother" the American melodrama would be robbed of its fifth act. Without pictures of "the child" the illustrated magazines would go into bankruptcy. No country has witnessed such a production of periodicals and books for boys and girls: France and Germany imitate in vain The Youth's Companion and St. Nicholas, as they did the stories of "Oliver Optic" and Little Women and Little Lord Fauntleroy.

The sentimental attitude towards women and children, which is one of the most typical aspects of American idealism, is constantly illustrated in our short stories. Bret Harte, disciple of Dickens as he was, and Romantic as was his fashion of dressing up his miners and gamblers, was accurately faithful to the American feeling towards the "kid" and the "woman." "Tennessee's Partner," "The Luck of Roaring Camp," "Christmas at Sandy Bar," are obvious examples. Owen Wister's stories are equally faithful and admirable in this matter. The American girl still does astonishing things in international novels, as she has continued to do since the eighteen-sixties, but they are astonishing mainly to the European eye and against the conventionalized European background. She does the same things at home, and neither she nor her mother sees why she should not, so universal among us is the chivalrous interpretation of actions and situations which amaze the European observer. The popular American literature which recognizes and encourages this position of the "young girl" in our social structure is a literature primarily of sentiment. The note of passion--in the European sense of that word--jars and shatters it. The imported "problem-play," written for an adult public in Paris or London, introduces social facts and intellectual elements almost wholly alien to the experience of American matinée audiences. Disillusioned historians of our literature have instanced this unsophistication as a proof of our national inexperience; yet it is often a sort of radiant and triumphant unsophistication which does not lose its innocence in parting with its ignorance.

That sentimental idealization of classes, whether peasant, bourgeois, or aristocratic, which has long been a feature of Continental and English poetry and fiction, is practically absent from American literature. Whatever the future may bring, there have hitherto been no fixed classes in American society. Webster was guilty of no exaggeration when he declared that the whole North was made up of laborers, and Lincoln spoke in the same terms in his well-known sentences about "hired laborers": "twenty-five years ago I was a hired laborer." The relative uniformity of economic and social conditions, which prevailed until toward the close of the nineteenth century, made, no doubt, for the happiness of the greatest number, but it failed, naturally, to afford that picturesqueness of class contrast and to stimulate that sentiment of class distinction, in which European literature is so rich.

Very interesting, in the light of contemporary economic conditions, is the effort made by American poets in the middle of the last century to glorify labor. They were not so much idealizing a particular laboring class, as endeavoring, in Whitman's words, "To teach the average man the glory of his walk and trade." Whitman himself sketched the American workman in almost every attitude which appealed to his own sense of the picturesque and heroic. But years before Leaves of Grass was published, Whittier had celebrated in his Songs of Labor the glorified images of lumberman and drover, shoemaker and fisherman. Lucy Larcom and the authors of The Lowell Offering portrayed the fine idealism of the young women--of the best American stock--who went enthusiastically to work in the cotton-mills of Lowell and Lawrence, or who bound shoes by their own firesides on the Essex County farms. That glow of enthusiasm for labor was chiefly moral, but it was poetical as well. The changes which have come over the economic and social life of America are nowhere more sharply indicated than in that very valley of the Merrimac where, sixty and seventy years ago, one could "hear America singing." There are few who are singing to-day in the cotton-mills; the operators, instead of girls from the hill-farms, are Greeks, Lithuanians, Armenians, Italians. Whittier's drovers have gone forever; the lumbermen and deep-sea fishermen have grown fewer, and the men who still swing the axes and haul the frozen cod-lines are mostly aliens. The pride that once broke into singing has turned harsh and silent. "Labor" looms vast upon the future political and social horizon, but the songs of labor have lost the lyric note. They have turned into the dramas and tragedies of labor, as portrayed with the swift and fierce insistence of the short story, illustrated by the Kodak. In the great agricultural sections of the West and South the old bucolic sentiment still survives,--that simple joy of seeing the "frost upon the pumpkin" and "the fodder in the stock" which Mr. James Whitcomb Riley has sung with such charming fidelity to the type. But even on the Western farms toil has grown less manual. It is more a matter of expert handling of machinery. Reaping and binding may still have their poet, but he needs to be a Kipling rather than a Burns.

Our literature, then, reveals few traces of idealization of a class, and but little idealization of trades or callings. Neither class nor calling presents anything permanent to the American imagination, or stands for anything ultimate in American experience. On the other hand, our writing is rich in local sentiment and sectional loyalty. The short story, which has seized so greedily the more dramatic aspects of American energy, has been equally true to the quiet background of rural scenery and familiar ways. American idealism, as shown in the transformation of the lesser loyalties of home and countryside into the larger loyalties of state and section, and the absorption of these, in turn, into the emotions of nationalism, is particularly illustrated in our political verse. A striking example of the imaginative visualization of the political units of a state is the spirited roll-call of the counties in Whittier's "Massachusetts to Virginia." But the burden of that fine poem, after all, is the essential unity of Massachusetts as a sovereign state, girding herself to repel the attack of another sovereign state, Virginia. Now the evolution of our political history, both local and national, has tended steadily, for half a century, to the obliteration, for purposes of the imagination, of county lines within state lines. At the last Republican state convention held in Massachusetts, there were no county banners displayed, for the first time in half a century. Many a city-dweller to-day cannot tell in what county he is living unless he has happened to make a transfer of real estate. State lines themselves are fading away. The federal idea has triumphed. Doubtless the majority of the fellow citizens of John Randolph of Roanoke were all the more proud of him because the poet could say of him, in writing an admiring and mournful epitaph:--


"Beyond Virginia's border line
His patriotism perished."


The great collections of Civil War verse, which are lying almost unread in the libraries, are store-houses of this ancient state pride and jealousy, which was absorbed so fatally into the larger sectional antagonism. "Maryland, my Maryland" gave place to "Dixie," just as Whittier's "Massachusetts to Virginia" was forgotten when marching men began to sing "John Brown's Body" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." The literature of sectionalism still lingers in its more lovable aspect in the verse and fiction which still celebrates the fairer side of the civilization of the Old South: its ideals of chivalry and local loyalty, its gracious women and gallant men. Our literature needs to cultivate this provincial affection for the past, as an offset to the barren uniformity which the federal scheme allows. But the ultimate imaginative victory, like the actual political victory of the Civil War, is with the thought and feeling of Nationalism. It is foreshadowed in that passionate lyric cry of Lowell, which sums up so much and, like all true passion, anticipates so much:--

"O Beautiful! my Country!"


The literary record of American idealism thus illustrates how deeply the conception of Nationalism has affected the imagination of our countrymen. The literary record of the American conception of liberty runs further back. Some historians have allowed themselves to think that the American notion of liberty is essentially declamatory, a sort of futile echo of Patrick Henry's "Give me Liberty or give me Death"; and not only declamatory, but hopelessly theoretical and abstract. They grant that it was a trumpet-note, no doubt, for agitators against the Stamp Act, and for pamphleteers like Thomas Paine; that it may have been a torch for lighting dark and weary ways in the Revolutionary War; but they believe it likewise to be a torch which gleams with the fire caught from France and which was passed back to France in turn when her own great bonfire was ready for lighting. The facts, however, are inconsistent with this picturesque theory of contemporary reactionists. It is true that the word "liberty" has been full of temptation for generations of American orators, that it has become an idol of the forum, and often a source of heat rather than of light. But to treat American Liberty as if she habitually wore the red cap is to nourish a Francophobia as absurd as Edmund Burke's. The sober truth is that the American working theory of Liberty is singularly like St. Paul's. "Ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh." A few sentences from John Winthrop, written in 1645, are significant: "There is a twofold liberty, natural ... and civil or federal. The first is common to man with beasts and other creatures. By this, man, as he stands in relation to man simply, hath liberty to do what he lists; it is a liberty to evil as well as to good. This liberty is incompatible and inconsistent with authority.... The other kind of liberty I call civil or federal, it may also be termed moral.... This liberty is the proper end and object of authority, and cannot subsist without it; and it is a liberty to that only which is good, just, and honest. This liberty you are to stand for, with the hazard (not only of your goods, but) of your lives, if need be.... This liberty is maintained and exercised in a way of subjection to authority; it is of the same kind of liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free."

There speaks the governor, the man of affairs, the typical citizen of the future republic. The liberty to do as one pleases is a dream of the Renaissance; but out of dreamland it does not work. Nobody, even in revolutionary France, imagines that it will work. Jefferson, who is popularly supposed to derive his notion of liberty from French theorists, is to all practical purposes nearer to John Winthrop than he is to Rousseau. The splendid phrases of his "Declaration" are sometimes characterized as abstractions. They are really generalizations from past political experience. An arbitrary king, assuming a liberty to do as he liked, had encroached upon the long-standing customs and authority of the colonists. Jefferson, at the bidding of the Continental Congress, served notice of the royal trespass, and incidentally produced (as Lincoln said) a "standard maxim for free society."

It is true, no doubt, that the word "liberty" became in Jefferson's day, and later, a mere partisan or national shibboleth, standing for no reality, degraded to a catchword, a symbol of antagonism to Great Britain. In the political debates and the impressive prose and verse of the anti-slavery struggle, the word became once more charged with vital meaning; it glowed under the heat and pressure of an idea. Towards the end of the nineteenth century it went temporarily out of fashion. The late Colonel Higginson, an ideal type of what Europeans call an "1848" man, attended at the close of the century some sessions of the American Historical Association. In his own address, at the closing dinner, he remarked that there was one word for which he had listened in vain during the reading of the papers by the younger men. It was the word "liberty." One of the younger school retorted promptly that since we had the thing liberty, we had no need to glorify the word. But Colonel Higginson, stanch adherent as he was of the "good old cause," was not convinced. Like many another lover of American letters, he thought that William Vaughn Moody's "Ode in Time of Hesitation" deserved a place by the side of Lowell's "Commemoration Ode," and that when the ultimate day of reckoning comes for the whole muddled Imperialistic business, the standard of reckoning must be "liberty" as Winthrop and Jefferson and Lincoln and Lowell and Vaughn Moody understood the word.

In the mean time we must confess that the history of our literature, with a few noble exceptions, shows a surprising defect in the passion for freedom. Tennyson's famous lines about "Freedom broadening slowly down from precedent to precedent" are perfectly American in their conservative tone; while it is Englishmen like Byron and Landor and Shelley and Swinburne who have written the most magnificent republican poetry. The "land of the free" turns to the monarchic mother country, after all, for the glow and thunder and splendor of the poetry of freedom. It is one of the most curious phenomena in the history of literature. Shall we enter the preoccupation plea once more? Enjoying the thing liberty, have we been therefore less concerned with the idea? Or is it simply another illustration of the defective passion of American literature?

Yet there is one phase of political loyalty which has been cherished by the imagination of Americans, and which has inspired noteworthy oratory and noble political prose. It is the sentiment of Union. In one sense, of course, this dates back to the period of Franklin's bon mot about our all hanging together, or hanging separately. It is found in Hamilton's pamphlets, in Paine's Crisis, in the Federalist, in Washington's "Farewell Address." It is peculiarly associated with the name and fame of Daniel Webster, and, to a less degree, with the career of Henry Clay. In the stress of the debate over slavery, many a Northerner with abolitionist convictions, like the majority of Southerners with slave-holding convictions, forgot the splendid peroration of Webster's "Reply to Hayne" and were willing to "let the Union go." But in the four tragic and heroic years that followed the firing upon the American flag at Fort Sumter the sentiment of Union was made sacred by such sacrifices as the patriotic imagination of a Clay or a Webster had never dreamed. A new literature resulted. A lofty ideal of indissoluble Union was preached in pulpits, pleaded for in editorials, sung in lyrics, and woven into the web of fiction. Edward Everett Hale's Man Without a Country became one of the most poignantly moving of American stories. In Walt Whitman's Drum-Taps and his later poems, the "Union of these States" became transfigured with mystical significance: no longer a mere political compact, dissoluble at will, but a spiritual entity, a new incarnation of the soul of man.

We must deal later with that American instinct of fellowship which Whitman believed to have been finally cemented by the Civil War, and which has such import for the future of our democracy. There are likewise communal loyalties, glowing with the new idealism which has come with the twentieth century: ethical, municipal, industrial, and artistic movements which are full of promise for the higher life of the country, but which have not yet had time to express themselves adequately in literature. There are stirrings of racial loyalty among this and that element of our composite population,--as for instance among the gifted younger generation of American Jews,--a racial loyalty not antagonistic to the American current of ideas, but rather in full unison with it. Internationalism itself furnishes motives for the activity of the noblest imaginations, and the true literature of internationalism has hardly yet begun. It is in the play and counterplay of these new forces that the American literature of the twentieth century must measure itself. Communal feelings novel to Americans bred under the accepted individualism will doubtless assert themselves in our prose and verse. But it is to be remembered that the best writing thus far produced on American soil has been a result of the old conditions: of the old "Reverences"; of the pioneer training of mind and body; of the slow tempering of the American spirit into an obstinate idealism. We do not know what course the ship may take in the future, but


"We know what Master laid thy keel,
What Workman wrought thy ribs of steel,
Who made each mast and sail and rope,
What anvil rang, what hammers beat,
In what a forge and what a heat
Were shaped the anchors of thy hope!"


(The end)
Bliss Perry's essay: American Idealism

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