Edwin Percy Whipple.

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years enjoyed the inestimable privilege of hearing
him converse. It is to be regretted that no copious
notes were taken of his conversations. Mrs. Jame-
son, in her visit to the United States, was so surprised
to witness such opulence of thought conveyed in such
seemingly careless talk, that she took a few notes of
his deep and beautiful sayings. It would have been
well if Dana and others who from day to day and year
to year saw the clear stream of conversation flow ever
on from the same inexhaustible mind, had made the
world partakers of the wealth with which they were
enriched. AUston, indeed, was one of those men
whose works are hardly the measure of their powers
— who can talk better than they can write, and con-
ceive more vividly than they can execute.

The "revival " of American literature in New York
differed much in character from its revival in New
England. In New York it was purely human in tone ;
in New England it was a little superhuman in tone.
In New England they feared the devil ; in New York
they dared the devil ; and the greatest and most orig-
inal literary dare-devil in New York was a young
gentleman of good family, whose " schooling " ended
with his sixteenth year, who had rambled much about
the island of Manhattan, who had in his saunterings
gleaned and brooded over many Dutch legends of an
elder time, who had read much but had studied little,
who possessed fine observation, quick intelligence, a



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AMERICAN LITERATURE. 48

genial disposition, and an indolently original genius
in detecting the ludicrous side of things, and whose
name was Washington Irving. After some prelimi-
nary essays in humorous literature his genius arrived
at the age of indiscretion, and he produced at the age
of twenty-six the most deliciously audacious work of
humor in our literature, namely, '*The History of
New Yorlc, by Diedrich Knickerbocker." It is said
of some reformers that they have not only opinions,
but the courage of their opinions. It may be said of
Irving that he not only caricatured, but had the
courage of his caricatures. The persons whom he
covered with ridicule were the ancestors of the leading
families of New York, and these families prided them-
selves on their descent. After the publication of such
a book he could hardly enter the " best society " of
New York, to^ which he naturally belonged, without
running the risk of being insulted, especially by the
elderly women of fashion; but he conquered their
prejudices by the same grace and geniality of manner,
by the same unmistakable tokens that he was an in-
born gentleman, through which he afterward won his
way into the first society of England, France, Ger-
many, Italy, and Spain. Still, the promise of Knick-
erbocker was not fulfilled. That book, if considered
as an imitation at all, was an imitation of Rabelais, or
Swift, or of any author in any language who had
shown an independence of all convention, who did
^ot hesitate to commit indecorums, and who laughed
at all the regalities of the world. The author lived



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44 AMERICAN LITERATURE.

long enough to be called a timid imitator of Addison
and Goldsmith. In fact, he imitated nobody. His
genius, at first riotous and unrestrained, became
tamed and regulated by a larger intercourse with the
world, by the saddening experience of life, and by the
gradual development of some deep sentiments which
held in check the audacities of his wit and humor.
But even in the portions of " The Sketch-Book " relat-
ing to England it will be seen that his favorite authors
belonged rather to the age of Elizabeth than to the
age of Anne. In " Bracebridge Hall " there is one
chapter called " The Rookery," which in exquisitely
poetic humor is hardly equalled by the best produc-
tions of the authors he is said to have made his
models. That he possessed essential humor and
pathos, is proved by the warm admiration he excited
in such masters of humor and pathos as Scott and
Dickens ; and style is but a secondary consideration
when it expresses vital qualities of genius. If he
subordinated energy to elegance, he did it, not be-
cause he had the ignoble ambition to be ranked as " a
fine writer," but because he was free from the ambi-
tion, equally ignoble, of simulating a passion which
he did not feel. The period which elapsed between
the publication of Knickerbocker's history and " The
Sketch-Book" was ten years. During this time his
mind acquired the habit of tranquilly contemplating
the objects which filled his imagination, and what it
lost in spontaneous vigor it gained in sureness of in-
sight and completeness o:^ representation. " Rip Van



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AMERICAN LITEBATURE. 45

Winkle " and " The Legend of Sleepy Hollow " have
not the humorous inspiration of some passages in
Kjiickerbocker, but perhaps they give more perma-
nent delight, for the scenes and characters are so har-
monized that they have the effect of a picture, in
which all the parts combine to produce one charming
whole. Besides, Irving is one of those exceptional
authors who are regarded by their readers as personal
friends, and the felicity of nature by which he obtained
this distinction was expressed in that amenity, that
amiability of tone, which some of his austere critics
have called elegant feebleness. As a biographer and
historian, his ** Life of Columbus " and his " Life of
Washington" have indissolubly connected his name
with the discoverer of the American continent and
the champion of the liberties of his country. In "The
Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada" and "The
Alhambra" he occupies a unique position among
those writers of fiction who have based fiction on a
laborious investigation into the facts of history. His
reputation is not local, but is recognized by all culti-
vated people who speak the English language. If
Great Britain established an English intellectual col-
ony in the United States, such men as Irving and
Cooper may be said to have retorted by establishing
an American intellectual colony in England.

James Penimore Cooper was substantially a New
Yorker, though accidentally born (in 1789) in New
Jersey. He entered Yale College in 1802, and three
years after left it without graduating, having obtained



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46 AMERICAN LITERATURE.

a midshipman's warrant in the United States na^y-
He remained in the naval service for six years. In
1811 he married, and in 1821 began a somewhat
memorable literary career by the publication of a
novel of English life, called "Precaution," which
failed to attract much attention. In the same year,
however, he published another novel, relating to tlie
Revolutionary period of our history, called " The Spy,"
and rose at once to the position of a power of the first
class in our literature. The novels which immediately
followed did, on the whole, increase his reputation ;
and after .the publication of "The Red Rover,'* in
1827, his works were not only eagerly welcomed by
his countrymen, but were translated into almost all
the languages of Europe. Indeed, it seemed at one
time that Cooper's fame was co-extensive with Ameri-
can commerce. The novels were intensely American
in spirit, and intensely American in scenery and char-
acters ; but they were also found to contain in them
something which appealed to human nature every-
where. Much of their popularity was doubtless due
to Cooper's vivid presentation of the wildest aspects
of nature in a comparatively new country, and his
creation of characters corresponding to their physical
environment ; but the essential influence he exerted is
to be referred to the pleasure all men experience in
the kindling exhibition of man as an active being.
No Hamlets or Werthers or Ren^s or Childe Harolds
were allowed to tenant his woods or appear on his
quarter-decks. Will, and the trained sagacity and



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AMERICAN LITERATURE. 47

experience directing will, were the invigorating ele-
ments of character which he selected for romantic
treatment. Whether the scene be laid in the primi-
tive forest or on the ocean, his men are always strug-
gling with each other or with the forces of nature.
This primal quality of robust manhood all men
understand, and it shines triumphantly through the
interposing fogs of French, German, Italian,^and Rus-
sian translations. A physician of the mind could
hardly prescribe a more eCBcient tonic for weak and
sentimental natures than a daily diet made up of the
most bracing passages in the novels of Cooper.

Another characteristic of Cooper, which makes him
universally acceptable, is his closeness to nature. He
agrees with Wordsworth in this, that in all his de-
scriptions of natural objects he indicates that he and
nature are familiar acquaintances, and, as Dana says,
have "talked together." He takes nothing at second-
hand. If brought before a justice of the peace, he
could solemnly swear to the exact truth of his repre-
sentations without running any risk of being prose-
cuted for perjury. Cooper as well as Wordsworth
took nature, as it were, at first-hand, the perceiving
mind coming into direct contact with the thing per-
ceived ; but Wordsworth primarily contemplated na-
ture as the divinely appointed food for the nourishment
of the spirit that meditates, while Cooper felt its power
as a stimulus to the spirit that acts. No two minds
could, in many respects, be more different, yet both
agree in the instinctive sagacity which detects the



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48 AMERICAN LITERATUBE.

heroic under the guise of the homely. The greatest
creation of Cooper is the hunter and trapper, Leather-
stocking, who appears in five of his best novels,
namely, "The Pioneers," "The Last of the Mohi-
cans," " The Prairie," « The Pathfinder," and " The
Deerslayer," and who is unmistakably the life of each.
The simplicity, sagacity, and intrepidity of this man
of the woods, his quaint sylvan piety and humane
feeling, the perfect harmony established between his
will and reason, his effectiveness equal to all occasions,
and his determination to dwell on those vanishing
points of civilization which faintly mark the domain
of the settler from that of the savage, altogether com-
bine to make up a character which is admired equally
in log-cabins and palaces. Wordsworth, in one of the
most-exquisite of his minor poems, — "Three Years
She grew in Sun and Shower," — has traced the proc-
ess of Nature in making " a lady of her own." Cer-
tainly Leatherstocking might be quoted as a successful
attempt of the same austere goddess to make, out of
ruder materials, a man of " her own."

Cooper lived to write thirty-four novels, the merits
of which are so unequal that at times we are puzzled
to conceive of them as the products of one mind. His
failures are not to be referred to that decline of power
which accompanies increasing age, for " The Deer-
slayer," one of his best novels, was written six years
after his worst novel, "The Monikins." He often
failed, early as well as late in his career, not because
his faculties were impaired, but because they were



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AMERICAN LITERATURE. 49

misdirected. One of the secrets of his fascination
was also one of the causes of his frequent dulness.
He equalled De Foe in the art of giving reality to ro-
mance by the dexterous accumulation and manage-
ment of details. In his two great sea novels, " The
Pilot '* and " The Red Rover," the important events
are preceded by a large number of minor incidents,
each of which promises to be an event. The rocks
which the vessel by cunning seamanship escapes are
described as minutely as the rocks on which she is
finally wrecked. It is difficult for the reader to con-
ceive that he is not reading an account of an actual
occurrence. He unconsciously transports himself to
the deck of the ship, participates in all the hopes and
fears of the crew, thanks God when the keel just
grazes a ledge without being seriously injured, and
finally goes down into the " hell of waters " in com-
pany with his imagined associates. In such scenes
the imagination of the reader is so excited that he
has no notion whether the writer's style is good or
bad. He is made by some magic of words to see, feel,
realize, the situation ; the verbal method by which
the miracle is wrought he entirely ignores or over-
looks. But then the preliminaries to these grand
scenes which exhibit intelligent man in a life-and-
death contest with the unintelligent forces of nature
— how tiresome they often are ! The early chapters
of " The Red Rover," for example, are dull beyond
expression. The author's fondness for detail tres-
passes on all the reserved fund of human patience.

4



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60 AMERICAN LITEBATURB.

It is only because " expectation sits i* the air *' that
we tolerate bis tediousness. If we desire to witness
the conduct of the man-of-war in the tempest and the
battle, we must first submit to follow all the cumber-
some details by which she is slowly detached from
the dock and laboriously piloted into the open sea.
There is more " padding " in Cooper's novels than in
those of any author who can make any pretensions to
rival him. His representative sailors, Long Tom
CoflSn, Tom Tiller, Nightingale, Bolthrope, Trysail,
Bob Yarn, not to mention others, are admirable as
characters, but they are allowed to inflict too much of
their practical wisdom on the reader. In fact, it is a
great misfortune, as it regards the permanent fame
of Cooper, that he wrote one-third, at least, of his
novels at all, and that he did not condense the other
two-thirds into a third of their present length.

Cooper, on his return from Europe in 1833 or 1834,
published a series of novels satirizing what he consid-
ered the faults and vices of his countrymen. The
novels have little literary merit, but they afforded an
excellent opportunity to exhibit the independence, in-
trepidity, and integrity of the author's character. It
is a pity he ever wrote them ; still, they proved that
he became a bad novelist in order to perform what he
deemed to be the duties of a good citizen. ludeed, as
a brave, high-spirited, noble-minded man, somewhat
too proud and dogmatic, but thoroughly honest, he
was ever on a level with the best characters in his
best works.



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AMERICAN LITERATURE. 61

The names of Joseph Rodman Drake and Fitz-
Greene Halleck are connected, not merely by per-
sonal friendship, but by partnership in poetry. Both
were bom in the same year, 1795, but Drake died in
1820, while HaUeck survived to 1867. Halleck, in
strength of constitution as well as in power of mind,
was much supei:ior to his fragile companion ; but
Drake had a real enthusiasm for poetry, which Hal-
leck, though a poet, did not possess. Drake's " Cul-
prit Fay " is an original American poem, formed out
of materials collected from the scenery and traditions
of the classical American river, the Hudson ; but it
was too hastily written to do justice to the fancy by
which it was conceived. His " Ode on the American
Flag " derives its chief strength from the resounding
quatrain by which it is closed, and these four lines
were contributed by Halleck. Indeed, Drake is, on
the whole, less remembered by his own poems than
by the beautiful tribute which Halleck made to his
memory. They were coadjutors in the composition
of the " Croaker Papers," originally contributed to
the New York " Evening Post ; " but the superiority
of Halleck to his friend is manifest at the first glance.
One of the puzzles which arrest the attention of a
historian of American literature is to account for the
strange indifference of Halleck to exercise often the
faculty which on occasions he showed he possessed
in superabundance. All the subjects he attempted
— the " Croaker Papers," " Fanny," " Burns,"
"Red Jacket," "Alnwick Castle," " Connecticut," the



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68 AMERICAN LITERATURE.

magnificent heroic ode, " Marco Bozzaris " — show a
complete artistic mastery of the resources of poetic
expression, whether his theme be gay or grave, or
compounded of the two. His extravagant admira-
tion of Campbell was founded on Campbell's admi-
rable power of compression. Halleck thought that
Byron was a mere rhetorician in comparison with his
favorite poet. Yet it is evident to a critical reader
that a good deal of Campbell's compactness is due to
a studied artifice of rhythm and rhyme, while Hal-
leck seemingly writes in verse as if he were not
trammelled by its laws; and his rhymes naturally
recur without suggesting to the reader that his con-
densation of thought and feeling is at all affected by
the necessity of rhyming. Prose has rarely been
written with more careless ease and more melodious
compactness than Halleck has shown in writing verse.
The wonder is, that with this conscious command of
bending verse into the brief expression of all the
moods of his mind, he should have written so little.
The only explanation is to be found in his scepticism
as to the vital reality of those profound states of con-
sciousness which inspire poets of less imaginative
faculty than he possessed to incessant activity. He
was among poets what Thackeray is among novelists.
Being the well-paid clerk and man of business of a
millionnaire, his grand talent was not stung into exer-
tion by necessity. Though he lived to the age of
seventy-two, he allowed year after year to pass without
any exercise of his genius. " What 's the use ? " —



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AMERICAN LITERATURE. 63

that was th^ deadening maxim which struck his
poetic faculties with paralysis. Yet what he has
written, though very small in amount, belongs to the
most precious treasures of our poetical literature.
What he might have written, had he so chosen, would
have raised him to a rank among our first men of
letters, which he does not at present hold.

James K. Paulding (1778-1860) completes this
peculiar group of New York authors. He was con-
nected with Irving in the production of the " Salma-
gundi " essays, and was at one time prominent as a
satirist, humorist, and novelist. Most of his writings
are now forgotten, though they evinced a somewhat
strong though coarse vein of humor, which was not
without its effect at the period when its local and
political allusions and personalities were understood.
A scene in one of his novels indicates the kind of
comicality in which he excelled. The house of an
old reprobate situated on the bank of a river is car-
ried away by a freshet. In the agony of his fear he
strives to recall some prayer which he learned when
a child ; but as he rushes distractedly up and down
the stairs of his floating mansion he can only re-
member the first line of the baby's hymn, "Now I
lay me down to sleep," which he incessantly repeats
as he runs.

While these New York essayists, humorists, and
novelists were laughing at the New Englander as a
Puritan, and satirizing him as a Yankee, there was a
peculiar revival of spiritual sentiment in New Eng-



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64 AMERICAN LITERATUKB.

land, which made its mark in general as well as in
theological literature. In the very home of Puritan-
ism there was going on a reaction against the funda-
mental doctrines of Calvinism and the inexorable
faith of the Pilgrim Fathers. This reaction began
before the Revolutionary war, and continued after it.
Jonathan Mayhew, the pastor of the West Church
of Boston, was not only a flaming defender of the
political rights of the colonies, but his sermons also
teemed with theological heresies. He rebelled against
King Calvin as well as against King George. Prob-
ably Paine's " Age of Reason " had afterward some
effect in inducing prominent Boston clergymen, re-
puted orthodox, to silently drop from their preaching
the leading dogmas of the accredited creed. With
such accomplished ministers as Freeman, Buckmin-
ster, Thacher, and their followers, sermonizing be-
came more and more a form of moralizing, and the
" scheme of salvation " was ignored or overlooked in
the emphasis laid on the performance of practical
duties. What would now be called rationalism, either
expressed or implied, seemed to threaten the old or-
thodox faith with destruction by the subtle process
of sapping and undermining without directly assail-
ing it. The sturdy Calvinists were at first puzzled
what to do, as the new heresiarchs did not so much
offend by what they preached as by what they omitted
to preach ; but they at last forced those who were
Unitarians in opinion to become Unitarians in pro-
fession, and thus what was intended as a peaceful



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AMERICAN LITERATURE. 65

evolution of religious faith was compelled to assume
the character of a revolutionary protest against the
generally received dogmas of the Christian churches.
The two men prominent in this insurrection against
ancestral orthodoxy were William Ellery Channing
and Andrews Norton. Channing was a pious hu-
manitarian; Norton was an accomplished Biblical
scholar. Channing assailed Calvinism because, in
his opinion, it falsified all right notions of God ;
Norton, because it falsified the true interpretation of
the Word of God. Channing's soul was filled with
the idea of the dignity of human nature, which, he
thought, Calvinism degraded ; Norton's mind re-
sented what he considered the illogical combination
of Scripture texts to sustain an intolerable theologi-
cal theory. Channing delighted to portray the felici-
ties of a heavenly frame of mind ; Norton delighted
to -exhibit the felicities of accurate exegesis. Both
were masters of style ; but Channing used his rheto-
ric to prove that the doctrines of Calvinism were
abhorrent to the God-given moral nature of man ;
Norton employed his somewhat dry and bleak but
singularly lucid powers of statement, exposition, and
logic to show that his opponents were deficient in
scholarship and sophistical in argumentation. Chan-
ning's literary reputation, which overleaped all the
boundaries of his sect, was primarily due to his essay
on Milton ; but Norton could not endure the theologi-
cal system on which " Paradise Lost " was based,
and therefore laughed at the poem. Norton had



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66 AMERICAN LITERATURE.

little of that imaginative sympathy with the mass of
mankind for which Channing was pre-eminently dis-
tinguished. Anybody who has mingled much with
Unitarian divines must have heard their esoteric
pleasantry as to what these two redoubtable cham-
pions of the Unitarian faith would say when they
were transferred from earth to heaven. Channing,
as he looks upon the bright rows of the celestial
society, rapturously declares, " This gives me a new
idea of the dignity of human nature ; " Norton, with
a certain patrician exclusiveness born of scholarly
tastes, folds his hands, and quietly says to Saint Peter
or Saint Paul, '' Rather a miscellaneous assemblage."
But on earth they worked together, each after his
gifts, to draw out all the resources of sentiment,
scholarship, and reasoning possessed by such able
opponents as they found in Stuart, Woods, and Park.
There can be no doubt that Calvinism, in its modified
Hopkinsian form, gained increased power by the
wholesome shaking which Unitarianism gave it ; for
this siiaking kindled the zeal, sharpened the intel-
lects, stimulated the mental activity of every professor
of the evangelical faith. Neither Channing nor Nor-
ton, in assailing the statements in which the Calvin-
istic creed was mechanically expressed, exhibited an
interior view of the creed as it vitally existed in the
souls of Calvinists. Channing, however, was still the
legitimate spiritual successor of Jonathan Edwards
in affirming, with new emphasis, the fundamental doc-
trine of Christianity, that God is in direct communica-



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AMERICAN LITERATURE. 57

tion with the souls of His creatures. The difference
is that Edwards holds the doors of communication so
nearly closed that only the elect can pass in ; Chan-
ning throws them wide open, and invites everybody
to be illumined in thought and vitalized in will by
the ever-fresh outpourings of celestial light and
warmth. But Channing wrote on human nature as
though the world was tenanted by actual or possible
Channings, who possessed his exceptional delicacy
of spiritual perception and his exceptional exemption
from the temptations of practical life. He was, as


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Online LibraryEdwin Percy WhippleAmerican literature, and other papers → online text (page 4 of 21)