Nathaniel Hillyer. Egleston.

The North American review (Volume 139) online

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thorne has brought the stern gloom of the Puritan period and
the uneasy theorizings of the present day into harmony with the
universal and permanent elements of human nature. There was
certainly nothing European visible in the crude but vigorous
stories of Theodore Winthrop ; and Bret Harte, the most brill
iant figure among our later men, is not only American, but
Calif ornian, as is, likewise, the Poet of the Sierras. It is not
necessary to go any further. Mr. Henry James, having enjoyed
early and singular opportunities of studying the effects of the
recent annual influx of Americans, cultured and otherwise, into
England and the Continent, has very sensibly and effectively,
and with exquisite grace of style and pleasantness of thought,
made the phenomenon the theme of a remarkable series of
novels. Hereupon the cry of an "International School" has
been raised, and critics profess to be seriously alarmed lest we
should ignore the signal advantages for mise-en-scene presented
by this western half of the planet, and should enter into vain
and unpatriotic competition with foreign writers on their own
ground. The truth is, meanwhile, that it would have been a
much surer sign of affectation in us to have abstained from
literary comment upon the patent and notable fact of this inter
national rapprochement, which is just as characteristic an
American trait as the episode of the Argonauts of 1849, and we
have every reason to be grateful to Mr. Henry James, and to his



THE AMERICAN ELEMENT IN FICTION. 167

school, if he has any, for having rescued us from the opprobrium
of so foolish a piece of know-nothingism. The phase is, of
course, merely temporary 5 its interest and significance will
presently be exhausted ; but, because we are American, are we
to import no French cakes and English ale ? As a matter of
fact, we are too timid and self-conscious ; and these infirmities
imply a much more serious obstacle to the formation of a char
acteristic literature than does any amount of gadding abroad.

That must be a very shallow literature which depends for its
national flavor and character upon its topography and its
dialect; and the criticism which can conceive of no deeper
Americanism than this is shallower still. What is an American
book ? It is a book written by an American, and by one who
writes as an American, that is, unaffectedly. So an English
book is a book written by an unaffected Englishman. What
difference can it make what the subject of the writing is ? Mr.
Henry James lately brought out a volume of essays on " French
Poets and Novelists. 77 Mr. E. C. Stedman recently published a
series of monographs on " The Victorian Poets." Are these
books French and English, or are they nondescript, or are they
American? Not only are they American, but they are more
essentially American than if they had been disquisitions upon
American literature. And the reason is, of course, that they
subject the things of the old world to the tests of the new, and
thereby vindicate and illustrate the characteristic mission of
America to mankind. We are here to hold up European con
ventionalisms and prejudices in the light of the new day, and
thus afford everybody the opportunity, never heretofore enjoyed,
of judging them by other standards, and in other surroundings
than those amidst which they came into existence. In the
same way, Emerson's " English Traits " is an American thing,
and it gives categorical reasons why American things should
be. And what is an American novel except a novel treating
of persons, places, and ideas from an American point of view ?
The point of view is the point, not the thing seen from it.

But it is said that "the great American novel," in order
fully to deserve its name, ought to have American scenery.
Some thousands of years ago, the Greeks had a novelist
Homer who evolved the great novel of that epoch; but the
scenery of that novel was Trojan, not Greek. The story is a
criticism, from a Greek stand-point, of foreign affairs, illustrated



168 THE NORTH AMERICAN REVIEW.

with practical examples; and, as regards treatment, quite as
much care is bestowed upon the delineation of Hector, Priam,
and Paris, as upon Agamemnon, Menelaus, and Achilles. The
same story, told by a Trojan Homer, would doubtless have been
very different j but it is by no means certain that it would have
been any better told. It embodies, whether symbolically or
literally matters not, the triumph of Greek ideas and civiliza
tion. But, even so; the sympathies of the reader are not always,
or perhaps uniformly, on the conquering side. Homer was
doubtless a patriot, but he shows no signs of having been a
bigot. He described that great international episode with
singular impartiality ; what chiefly interested him was the play
of human nature. Nevertheless, there is no evidence that the
Greeks were backward in admitting his claims as their national
poet ; and we may legitimately conclude that were an American
Homer whether in prose or poetry to appear among us, he
might pitch his scene where he liked in Patagonia or on the
banks of the Zambezi and we should accept the situation
with perfect equanimity. Only let him be a native of New York,
or Boston, or San Francisco, or Mullenville, and be inspired
with the American idea, and we ask no more. Whatever he
writes will belong to our literature and add luster to it.

One hears many complaints about the snobbishness of run
ning after things European. Go West, young man, these
moralists say, or go down Fifth Avenue, and investigate
Chatham street, and learn that all the elements of romance, to
him who has the seeing eye, lie around your own front door
step and back yard. But let not these persons forget that he
who fears Europe is a less respectable snob than he who studies
it. Let us welcome Europe in our books as freely as we do at
Castle Garden ; we may do so safely. If our digestion be not
strong enough to assimilate her, and work up whatever is
valuable in her into our own bone and sinew, then America is
not the thing we took her for. For what is America? Is it
simply a reproduction of one of these Eastern nationalities,
which we are so fond of alluding to as effete ? Surely not. It
is a new departure in history 5 it is a new door opened to the
development of the human race, or, as I should prefer to say, of
humanity. We are misled by the chatter of politicians and the
bombast of Congress. In the course of ages, the time has at
last arrived when man, all over this planet, is entering upon a



THE AMERICAN ELEMENT IN FICTION. 169

new career of moral, intellectual, and political emancipation ;
and America is the concrete expression and theater of that great
fact, as all spiritual truths find their fitting and representative
physical incarnation. But what would this huge western con
tinent be, if America the real America of the mind had no
existence! It would be a body without a soul, and would
better, therefore, not be at all. If America is to be a repetition
of Europe on a larger scale, it is not worth the pain of govern
ing it. Europe has shown what European ideas can accomplish ;
and whatever fresh thought or impulse comes to birth in it can
be nothing else than an American thought and impulse, and
must sooner or later find its way here, and become naturalized
with its brethren. Buds and blossoms of America are sprouting
forth all over the Old World, and we gather in the fruit. They
do not find themselves at home there, but they know where their
home is. The old country feels them like thorns in her old
flesh, and is gladly rid of them ; but such prickings are the only
wholesome and hopeful symptoms she presents ; if they ceased
to trouble her, she would be dead indeed. She has an uneasy
experience before her, for a time ; but the time will come when
she, too, will understand that her ease is her disease, and
then Castle Garden may close its doors, for America will be
everywhere.

If, then, America is something vastly more than has hitherto
been understood by the word nation, it is proper that we attach
to that other word, patriotism, a significance broader and loftier
than has been conceived till now. By so much as the idea that
we represent is great, by so much are we, in comparison with it,
inevitably chargeable with littleness and short-comings. For
we are of the same flesh and blood as our neighbors j it is only
our opportunities and our responsibilities that are fairer and
weightier than theirs. Circumstances afford every excuse to
them, but none to us. " E Pluribus Unum " is a frivolous
motto 5 our true one should be, "Noblesse oblige." But, with a
strange perversity, in all matters of comparison between our
selves and others, we display what we are pleased to call our
patriotism by an absurd touchiness as to points wherein Europe,
with its settled and polished civilization, must needs be our
superior and are quite indifferent about those things by which
our real strength is constituted. Can we not be content to learn
from Europe the graces, the refinements, the amenities of life,



170 THE NOETH AMERICAN REVIEW.

so long as we are able to teach her life itself ? For my part, I
never saw in England any appurtenance of civilization, calcu
lated to add to the convenience and commodiousness of existence,
that did not seem to me to surpass anything of the kind that
we have in this country. Notwithstanding which and I am far,
indeed, from having any pretensions to asceticism I would
have been fairly stifled at the idea of having to spend my life
there. No American can live in Europe, unless he means to
return home, or unless, at any rate, he returns here in mind,
in hope, in belief. For an American to accept England, or any
other country, as both a mental and physical finality, would, it
seems to me, be tantamount to renouncing his very life. To
enjoy English comforts at the cost of adopting English opinions,
would be about as pleasant as to have the privilege of retaining
one's body on condition of surrendering one's soul, and would,
indeed, amount to just about the same thing.

I fail, therefore, to feel any apprehension as to our literature
becoming Europeanized, because whatever is American in it
must lie deeper than anything European can penetrate More
than that, I believe and hope that our novelists will deal with
Europe a great deal more, and a great deal more intelligently,
than they have done yet. It is a true and healthy artistic in
stinct that leads them to do so. Hawthorne and no American
writer had a better right than he to contradict his own argu
ment says, in the preface to the " Marble Faun," in a passage
that has been often quoted, but will bear repetition :

' ' Italy, as the site of a romance, was chiefly valuable to him as affording
a sort of poetic or fairy precinct, where actualities would not be so terribly
insisted on as they are, and must needs be, in America. No author, without
a trial, can conceive of the difficulty of writing a romance about a country
where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and
gloomy army, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity, in broad and
simple daylight, as is happily the case with my dear native land. It will be
very long, I trust, before romance writers may find congenial and easily-
handled themes, either in the annals of our stalwart Republic, or in any
characteristic and probable events of our individual lives. Eomance and
poetry, ivy, lichens, and wall-flowers need ruin to make them grow."

Now, what is to be understood from this passage ? It assumes,
in the first place, that a work of art, in order to be effective,
must contain profound contrasts of light and shadow ; and then
it points out that the shadow, at least, is found ready to the



THE AMERICAN ELEMENT IN FICTION. 171

hand in Europe. There is no hint of patriotic scruples as to
availing one's self of such a " picturesque and gloomy " back
ground ; if it is to be had, then let it be taken ; the main object
to be considered is the work of art. Europe, in short, afforded
an excellent quarry, from which, in Hawthorne's opinion, the
American novelist might obtain materials which are conspicuously
deficient in his own country, and which that country is all the
better for not possessing. In " Marble Faun v the author had
conceived a certain idea, and he considered that he had been
not unsuccessful in realizing it The subject was new, and
full of especial attractions to his genius, and it would mani
festly have been impossible to adapt it to an American set
ting. There was one drawback connected with it, and this
Hawthorne did not fail to recognize. He remarks in the
preface that he had " lived too long abroad not to be aware
that a foreigner seldom acquires that knowledge of a country at
once flexible and profound, which may justify him in endeavor
ing to idealize its traits." But he was careful not to attempt " a
portraiture of Italian manners and character." He made use of
the Italian scenery and atmosphere just so far as was essential
to the development of his idea, and consistent with the extent of
his Italian knowledge j and, for the rest, fell back upon American
characters and principles. The result has been long enough
before the world to have met with a proper appreciation. I have
heard regret expressed that the power employed by the author in
working out this story had not been applied to a romance deal
ing with a purely American subject. But to analyze this objection
is to dispose of it. A man of genius is not> commonly, enfeebled
by his own productions; and, physical accidents aside, Haw
thorne was just as capable of writing another " Scarlet Letter n
after the " Marble Faun " was published, as he had been before.
Meanwjiile, few will deny that our literature would be a loser
had the " Marble Faun " never been written.

The drawback above alluded to is, -however, not to be under
rated. It may operate in two ways In the first place, the
American's European observations may be inaccurate. As a
child, looking at a sphere, might suppose it to be a flat disk,
shaded at one side and lighted at the other, so a sight-seer in
Europe may ascribe to what he beholds qualities and a character
quite at variance with what a more fundamental knowledge
would have enabled him to perceive. In the second place, the



172 THE NOETH AMERICAN REVIEW.

stranger in a strange land, be lie as accurate as he may, will
always tend to look at what is around him objectively, instead
of allowing it subjectively or, as it were, unconsciously to
color his narrative. He will be more apt directly to describe
what he sees, than to convey the feeling or aroma of it without
description. It would doubtless, for instance, be possible for
Mr. Henry James to write an " English " or even a " French"
novel without falling into a single technical error ; but it is no
less certain that a native writer, of equal ability, would treat the
same subject in a very different manner. Mr. James's version
might contain a great deal more of definite information ; but the
native work would insinuate an impression which both comes
from and goes to a greater depth of apprehension.

But, on the other hand, it is not contended that any Amer
ican should write an " English n or anything but an " American "
novel. The contention is, simply, that he should not refrain
from using foreign material, when it happens to suit his exigen
cies, merely because it is foreign. Objective writing may be
quite as good reading as subjective writing, in its proper place
and function. In fiction, no more than elsewhere, may a writer
pretend to be what he is not, or to know what he knows not.
When he finds himself abroad, he must frankly admit his situa
tion j and more will not then be required of him than he is fairly
competent to afford. It will seldom happen, as Hawthorne inti
mates, that he can successfully reproduce the inner workings and
philosophy of European social and political customs and peculi
arities ; but he can give a picture of the scenery as vivid as can
the aborigine, or more so ; he can make an accurate study of
personal native character 5 and, finally, and most important of
all, he can make use of the conditions of European civilization
in events, incidents, and situations which would be impossible
on this side of the water. The restrictions, the traditions, the
law, and the license of those old countries are full of suggestions
to the student of character and circumstances, and supply him
with colors and effects that he would else search for in vain.
For the truth may as well be admitted j we are at a distinct dis
advantage, in America, in respect of the materials of romance.
Not that vigorous, pathetic, striking stories may not be con
structed here ; and there is humor enough, the humor of dialect,
of incongruity of character; but, so far as the story depends
for its effect, not upon psychical and personal, but upon physical



THE AMERICAN ELEMENT IN FICTION. 173

and general events and situations, we soon feel the limit of our
resources. An analysis of the human soul, such as may be found
in the " House of the Seven Gables," for instance, is absolute in
its interest, apart from outward conditions. But such an analysis
cannot be carried on, so to say, in vacuo. You must have solid
ground to stand on 5 you must have fitting circumstances, back
ground, and perspective. The ruin of a soul, the tragedy of a
heart, demand, as a necessity of harmony and picturesque effect,
a corresponding and conspiring environment and stage just
as, in music, the air in the treble is supported and reverberated
by the bass accompaniment. The immediate, contemporary act
or predicament loses more than half its meaning and impressive-
ness if it be reechoed from no sounding-board in the past its
notes, however sweetly and truly touched, fall flatly on the ear.
The deeper we attempt to pitch the key of an American story,
therefore, the more difficulty shall we find in providing a con
gruous setting for it ; angl it is interesting to note how the mas
ters of the craft have met the difficulty. In the u Seven Gables "
and I take leave to say, that if I draw illustrations from this
particular writer, it is for no other reason than that he presents,
more forcibly than most, a method of dealing with the special
problem we are considering Hawthorne, with the intuitive
skill of genius, evolves a background, and produces a reverbera
tion, from materials which he may be said to have created
almost as much as discovered. The idea of a house, founded
two hundred years ago upon a crime, remaining ever since in
possession of its original owners, and becoming the theater, at
last, of the judgment upon that crime, is a thoroughly pictur
esque idea, but it is thoroughly un-American. Such a thing
might conceivably occur, but nothing in this country could well
be more unlikely. No one before Hawthorne had ever thought
of attempting such a thing 5 at all events, no one else, before or
since, has accomplished it. The preface to the romance in
question reveals the principle upon which its author worked,
and incidentally gives a new definition of the term " romance,"
a definition of which, thus far, no one but its propounder has
known how to avail himself. It amounts, in fact, to an acknowl
edgment that it is impossible to write a " novel r of American
life that shall be at once artistic, realistic, and profound. A
novel, he says, aims at a " very minute fidelity, not merely to
the possible, but to the probable and ordinary course of man's



174 THE NOETH AMERICAN REVIEW.

experience." A romance, on the other hand, " while, as a work
of art, it must rigidly subject itself to laws, and while it sins
unpardonably so far as it may swerve aside from the truth of
the human heart, has fairly a right to pervert that truth under
circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer's own choosing or
creation. If he think fit, also, he may so manage his atmos
pherical medium as to bring out and mellow the lights, and
deepen and enrich the shadows, of the picture." This is good
advice, no doubt 5 but it reminds one of the renowned physician
advising the poor patient : " All you need is to enjoy yourself
thoroughly, to see only pleasant people and places, and to live
upon the fat of the land." The patient acknowledges the
soundness of the counsel, but he has not the means of following
it. We can all understand, however, that the difficulties would
be greatly lessened could we but command backgrounds of the
European order. Thackeray, the Brontes, George Eliot, and
others have written great stories, which were not obliged to be
romances, because the literal conditions of life in England have
a picturesqueness and a depth which correspond well enough
with whatever moral and mental vision we may project
upon them. Hawthorne was forced to use the scenery and
capabilities of his native town of Salem. He saw that he could
not present these in a realistic light, and his artistic instinct
showed him that he must modify or veil the realism of his
figures in the same degree and manner as that of his
accessories. No doubt, his peculiar genius and temperament
eminently qualified him to produce this magical change j it was
a remarkable instance of the spontaneous marriage, O to speak,
of the means to the end ; and even when, in Italy, he had an
opportunity to write a story which should be accurate in fact,
as well as faithful to " the truth of the human heart/ 7 he still
preferred a subject which bore to the Italian environment the
same relation that the " House of the Seven Gables ' 7 and the
"Scarlet Letter" do to the American one; in other words,
the conception of Donatello is removed from literal realism as
much further than Clifford or Hester Prynne as the inherent
romance of the Italian setting is above that of New England.
The whole thing is advanced a step further toward pure ideal
ism, the relative proportions being maintained.

" The Blithedale Romance " is only another instance in point,
and here, as before, we find the principle admirably stated in the



THE AMEEICAN ELEMENT IN FICTION. 175

preface. " In the old countries/' says Hawthorne, " a novelist's
work is not put exactly side by side with nature; and he is
allowed a license with regard to every-day probability, in view
of the improved effects he is bound to produce thereby. Among
ourselves, on the contrary, there is as yet no Faery Land, so
like the real world that, in a suitable remoteness, we cannot
well tell the difference, but with an atmosphere of strange en
chantment, beheld through which the inhabitants have a pro
priety of their own. This atmosphere is what the American
romancer needs. In its absence, the beings of his imagination
are compelled to show themselves in the same category as actu
ally living mortals ; a necessity that renders the paint and paste
board of their composition but too painfully discernible."
Accordingly, Hawthorne selects the Brook Farm episode (or a
reflection of it) as affording his drama " a theater, a little re
moved from the highway of ordinary travel, where the creatures
of his brain may play their phantasmagorical antics, without
exposing them to too close a comparison with the actual events
of real lives." In this case, therefore, an exceptional circum
stance is made to answer the same purpose that was attained by
different means in the other romances.

But in what manner have our other writers of fiction treated
the difficulties that were thus dealt with by Hawthorne ? Her
man Melville cannot be instanced here j for his only novel or
romance, whichever it be, was also the most impossible of all his
books, and really a terrible example of the enormities which a
man of genius may perpetrate when working in a direction un-
suited to him. I refer, of course, to " Pierre, or the Ambigui
ties." Oliver Wendell Holmes's two delightful stories are as
favorable examples of what can be done, in the way of an
American novel, by a wise, witty, and learned gentleman, as we
are likely to see. Nevertheless, one cannot avoid the feeling that
they are the work of a man who has achieved success, and found
recognition in other ways than by stories, or even poems and
essays. The interest, in either book, centers round one of those
physiological phenomena which impinge so strangely upon the
domain of the soul ; for the rest, they are simply accurate and
humorous portraitures of local dialects and peculiarities, and thus
afford little assistance in the search for a universally applicable
rule of guidance. Doctor Holmes, I believe, objects to having



Online LibraryNathaniel Hillyer. EglestonThe North American review (Volume 139) → online text (page 17 of 60)