James Fenimore Cooper.

Notions of the Americans: picked up by a travelling bachelor (Volume 1-2) online

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think, the cause of the latter. The affairs of an in-
dividual are rarely touched upon in the journals of
this country ; never, unless it is thought they have a
direct connexion with the public interests, or from a
wish to do him good. Still there is a habit, getting
into use in America, no less than in France, that is
borrowed-from the English, which proves that the
more unworthy feelings of our nature are common
to men under all systems, and only need opportunity
to find encouragement. I allude to the practice of
repeating the proceedings of the courts of justice, in
order to cater to a vicious appetite for amusement in
the public.

It is pretended that, as a court of justice is open
to the world, there can be no harm in giving the
utmost publicity to its proceedings. It is strange
the courts should act so rigidly on the principle, that
it is better a dozen guilty men should go free, than«^
that one innocent man should suffer, and yet permit"'
the gross injustice that is daily done by means of this
practice. One would think, that if a court of justice
is so open to the world, that it should be the business
of the people of the world to enter it, in order that -
they might be certain that the information they crave
should be without colouring or exaggeration. It is
idle to say that the reports are accurate, and that he
who reads is enabled to do justice to the accused, by
comparing the facts that are laid before him. A
reporter may give the expression of the tongue ; but
can he convey that of the eye, of the countenance,
or of the form ? — without regarding all of which, no
man is perfectly master of the degree of credibility
that is due to any witness of whose character he is
necessarily ignorant. But every man has an infallible


means of assuring himself of the value of these re-
ports. Who has ever read a dozen of them with-
out meeting w^ith one (or perhaps more,) in which
the decision of the court and jury is to him a matter
of surprise? It is true he assumes, that those who
were present knew best, and as he has no great in-
terest in the matter, he is commonly satisfied. But
how is it with the unfortunate man who is wrong-
fully brought out of his retirement to repel an unjust
attack against his person, his property, or his charac-
ter? If he be a man of virtue, he is a man of sensi-
bility; and not only he, but, what is far worse, those
tender beings, whose existence is wrapped up in his
own, are to be wounded daily and hourly, for weeks
at a time, in order that a depraved appetite should be
glutted. It is enough for justice that her proceedings
should be so public as to prevent the danger of cor-
ruption ; but we pervert a blessing to a curse, in
making that which was intended for our protection,
the means of so much individual misery. It is an
unavoidable evil of the law that it necessarily works
some wrong, in order to do much good ; but it is
cruel that even the acquittal of a man should be un-
necessarily circulated, in a manner to make all men
remember that he had been accused. We have
proof of the consequences of this practice iri Eng-
land. Men daily shrink from resistance to base
frauds, rather than expose themselves to the obser-
vations and comments of those who enliven their
breakfasts by sporting with these exhibitions of theii
fellow-creatures. There are, undoubtedly, cases of
that magnitude which require some sacrifice of pri-
vate feelings, in order that the community should
reap the advantage ; but the regular books are suffi-
cient for authorities — the decisions of the courts are
sufficient for justice — and the utmost possible oblivion
should prove as nearly sufficient as may be to serve
(he ends of a prudent and a righteous humanity.


Nothing can be more free than the press of tliis
country, on all subjects connected with pobtics.
Treason cannot be written, unless by communicating
with an open enemy. There is no other protection to
a public man than that which is given by an indepen-
dent jury, which punishes, of course, in proportion
to the dignity and importance of the injured party.
But the utmost lenity is always used in construing
the right of the press to canvass the public acts
of public men. Mere commonplace charges defeat
themselves, and get into discredit so soon as to be
lost, while graver accusations are met by grave re-
plies. There is no doubt that the complacency of
individuals is sometimes disturbed by these liberties;
but they serve to keep the officers of the governm.eiit
to their work, while they rarely do any lasting, or
even temporary injury. Serious and criminal accu-
sations against a public man, if groundless, are, by
the law of reason, a crime against the community,
and, as such, they are punished. The general prin-
ciple observed in these matters is very simple. If
A. accuse B. of an act that is an offence against law,
he may be called on for his proof, and if he fail he
must take the consequences. But an editor of a pa-
per, or any one else, who should bring a criminal
charge, no matter how grave, agairtst the President,
and who could prove it, is just as certain of doing it
with impunity, as if he held the whole power in his
own hands. He w^ould be protected by the invinci-
ble shield of public opinion, which is not only in con-
sonance with the law, but which, in this country,
makes law.

Actions for injuries done by the press, considering
the number of journals, are astonishingly rare in
America. When one remembers the usual difficulty of
obtaining legal proof, which is a constant temptation,
even to the guilty, to appeal to the courts ; and, oa
the other hand, the great freedom of the press, which


is a constant temptation to abuse the trust, this fact,
in itself, furnishes irresistible evidence of the general
tone of decency which predominates in this nation.
The truth is, that public opinion, among its other
laws, has imperiously prescribed that, amidst the ut-
most latitude of discussion, certain limits shall not be
passed ; and public opinion, which is so completely
the offspring of a free press, must be obeyed in this,
as well as in other matters.

Leaving the journals, we come to those pubhca-
tions which make their appearance periodically. Of
these there are a good many, some few of which are
well supported. There are several scientific works,
that are printed monthly, or quarterly, of respectable
merit, and four or five reviews. Magazines of a more
general character are not much Encouraged. Eng-
land, which is teeming with educated men, who are
glad to make their bread by writing for these works,
still aifords too strong a competition for the success
of any American attempts, in this species of litera-
ture. Though few, perhaps no Enghsh magazine is
actually republished in America, a vast number are
imported and read in the towns, where the support
for any similar original production must first be found.

The literature of the United States has, indeed, too
powerful obstacles to conquer before (to use a mer-
cantile expression) it can ever enter the' markets of
its own country on terms of perfect equality with
that of England. Solitary and individual works of
genius may^ indeed, be occasionally brought to light,
under the impulses of the high feeling which has con-
ceived them ; but, I fear, a good, wholesome, profit-
able and continued pecuniary support, is the applause
that talent most craves. The fact, that an American
publisher can get an English work without money,
must, for a few years longer, (unless legislative pro-
tection shall be extended to their own authors,) have
a tendency to repress a national literature. No man


will pay a writer for an epic, a tragedy, a sonnet, a
history, or a romance, when he can get a work of
equal merit for nothing. I have conversed w'ith
those who are conversant on the subject, and, J con-
fess, I have been astonished at the information they

A capital American publisher has assured me that
there are not a dozen writers in this country, whose
works he should feel confidence in publishing at all,
while he reprints hundreds of English books without
the least hesitation. This preference is by no means
so much owing to any diflerence in merit, as to the
fact that, when the price of the original author is to
be added to the uniform hazard which accompanies
all literary speculations, the risk becomes too great.
The general taste of the reading world in this coun-
try is better than that of England."^ The fact is both
proved and explained by the circumstance that thou-
sands of works that are printed and read in the
mother country, are not printed and read here. The
publisher on this side of the Atlantic has the advan-
tage of seeing the reviews of every book he wishes
to print, and, what is of far more importance, he
knows, with the exception of books that he is sure
of selling, by means of a name, the decision of the
English critics before he makes his choice. Nine
times in ten, popularity, w^hich is all he looks for, is
a sufficient test of general merit. Thus, while you
find every Enghsh work of character, or notoriety,
on the shelves of an American book-store, you may
ask in vain for most of the trash that is so greedily
devoured in the circulating libraries of the mother
country, and which would be just as eagerly devour-
ed here, had not a better taste been created by a

* The writer does not mean that the best taste of America is
better than that of England ; perhaps it is not quite so good ;
bnt, as a whole, the American reading world requires better
books than the whole of the English re^ading world.


compelled abstinence. That taste must now be over-
come before such works could be sold at all.

When I say that books are not rejected here, from
any want of talent in the writers, perhaps I ought
to explain. I wish to express something a little dif-
ferent. Talent is sure of too many avenues to wealth
and honours, in America, to seek, unnecessarily, an
unknown and hazardous path. It is better paid in
the ordinary pursuits of life, than it would be likely
to be paid by an adventure in which an extraordinary
and skilful, because practised, foreign competition is
certain. Perhaps high talent does not often make the
trial with the American bookseller ; but it is precisely
for the reason I have named.

The second obstacle against wliich American lite-
rature has to contend, is in the poverty of materials.
There is scarcely an ore which contributes to the
wealth of the author, that is found, here, in veins
as rich as in Europe. There are no annals for the
historian ; no follies (beyond the most vulgar and
commonplace) for the satirist ; no manners for the
dram^-tist; no obscure fictions for the writer of ro-
mance ; no gross and hardy offences against decorum
for the moralist ; nor any of the rich artificial auxilia-
ries of poetry. The weakest hand can extract a
spark from the flint, but it would baffle the strength
of a giant to attempt kindling a flame with a pudding-
stone. I very well know there are theorists who as-
sume that the society and institutions of this country
are, or ought to be, particularly favourable to novel-
ties and variety. But the experience of one month,
in these States, is sufficient to show any observant
man the falsity of their position. The effect of a
promiscuous assemblage any where, is to create a
standard of deportment; and great liberty permits
every one to aim at its attainment. I have never
seen a nation so much alike in my life, as the people
of the United States, and what is more, they are not


only like each other, but they are remarkably like
that which common sense tells them they ought to
resemble. No doubt, traits of character that are a
little peculiar, without, however, being either very
poetical, or Very rich, are to be found in remote dis-
tricts ; but they are rare, and not always happy ex-
ceptions. In short, it is not possible to conceive a
state of society in which more of the attributes of
plain good sense, or fewer of the artificial absurdities
of life, are to be found, than here. There is no cos-
tume for the peasant, (there is scarcely a peasant at
all,) no wig for the judge, no baton for the general,
no diadem for the chief magistrate. The darkest
ages of their history are illuminated by the light of
truth ; the utmost efforts of their chivalry are limited
by the laws of God; and even the deeds of their
sages and heroes are to be sung in a language that
would differ but little from a version of the ten com-
mandments. However useful and respectable all
this may be in actual life, it indicates but one direc-
tion to the man of genius.

It is very true there are a few" young poets now
living in this country, who have known how to ex-
tract sweets from even these wholesome, but scent-
less native phmts. They have, however, been com-
pelled to seek their inspiration in the universal laws
of nature, and they have succeeded, precisely in pro-
portion as they have been most general in their ap-
plication. Among these gifted young men, there is
one (Halleck) who is remarkable for an exquisite
vein of ironical wit, mingled with a fine, poetical,
and, frequently, a lofty expression. This gentleman
commenced his career as a satirist in one of the jour-
nals of New-York. Heaven knows, his materials
were none of the richest ; and yet the melody of his
verse, the quaintness and force of his comparisons,
and the exceeding humour of his strong points,
brought him instantly into notice. He then attewipt-

VoL. II. K


ed a general satire, by giving the history of the early
days of a belle. He was again successful, though
every body, at least every body of any talent, felt
that he wrote in leading-strings. But he happened,
shortly after the appearance of the httle volume just
named, (Fanny,) to visit England. Here his spirit
was properly excited, and, probably on a rainy day,
he was induced to try his hand at a jeu d^esprit, in
the mother country. The result was one of the
finest semi-heroic ironical descriptions to be found
in the English language.* This simple fact, in itself,
proves the truth of a great deal of what I have just
been writing, since it shows the effect a superiority
of material can produce on the efforts of a man of
true genius.

Notwithstanding the difficulties of the subject,
talent has even done more than in the instance of
Mr. Halleck. 1 could mention several other young
poets of this country of rare merit. By mentioning
Bryant, Percival, and Sprague, I shall direct your
attention to the names of those whose works would
be most likely to give you pleasure. Unfortunately
they are not yet known in Italian, but I think even
you would not turn in distaste from the task of trans-
lation which the best of their effusions will invite.

The next, though certainly an inferior branch of
imaginative writing, is fictitious composition. From
the facts just named, you cannot expect that the
novelists, or romance writers of the United States,
should be very successful. The same reason will be
likely, for a long time to come, to repress the ardour
of dramatic genius. Still, tales and plays are no nov-
elties in the literature of this country. Of the for-
mer, there are many as old as soon after the revolu-
tion ; and a vast number have been published within
the last five years. One of their authors of romance,

* This little inorceau of pleasant irony is called Alnwick


who curbed his talents by as few allusions as possible
to actual society, is distinguished for power and com-
prehensiveness of thought. I remember to have read
one of his books (Wieland) when a boy, and I take
it to be a never-failing evidence of genius, that, amid
a thousand similar pictures which have succeeded,
the images it has left, still stand distinct and promi-
nent in my recollection. This author (Mr. Brockden
Brown) enjoys a high reputation among his country-
men, whose opinions are sufficiently impartial, since
he flattered no particular prejudice of the nation in
any of his works.

The reputation of Irving is well known to you.
He is an author distinguished for a quahty (humour)
that has been denied his cjountrymen ; and his merit
is the more rare, that it has been shown in a state of
society so cold and so restrained. Besides these
writers, there are many others of a similar character,
who enjoy a greater or less degree of favour in their
own country. The works of two or three have even
been translated (into French) in Europe, and a great
many are reprinted in England. Though every writer
of fiction in America has to contend against the diffi-
culties 1 have named, there is a certain interest in the
novelty of the subject, which is not without its charm.
I think, however, it will be found that they have all
been successful, or the reverse, just as they have
drawn warily, or freely, on the distinctive habits of
their own country. I now speak of their success
purely as writers of romance. It certainly would be
possible for an American to give a description of the
manners of his own country, in a book that he might
choose to call a romance, which should be read, be-
cause the world is curious on the subject, but which
would certainly never be read for that nearly inde-
finable poetical interest which attaches itself to a
description of manners less bald and uniform. AH the
attempts to blend history with romance in America,


have been comparatively failures, (and perhaps for-
tunately,) since the subjects are too familiar to be
treated with the freedom that the imagination abso-
lutely requires. Some of the descriptions of the
progress of society on the borders, have had a rather
better success, since there is a positive, tlwugh no
very poetical, novelty in the subject; but, on the
whole, the books which have been best received, are
those in which the authors have trusted most to their
own conceptions of character, and to qualities that
are common to the rest of the world and to human
nature. This fact, if its truth be admitted, will serve
to prove that the American writer must seek his re-
nown in the exhibition of qualities that are general,
while he is confessedly compelled to limit his obser-
vations to a state of society that has a wonderful ten-
dency not only to repress passion, but to equalize

The Americans have always been prolific writers
on polemics and politics. Their sermons and fourth
of July orations are numberless. Their historians,
without being very classical or very profound, are
remarkable for truth and good sense. There is not,
perhaps, in the language a closer reasoner in meta-
physics than Edwards ; and their theological vi^riters
find great favour among the sectarians of their re-
spective schools.

The stage of the United States is decidedly Eng-
hsh. Both plays and players, with few exceptions,
are imported. Theatres are numerous, and they are
to be found in places where a traveller would little
expect to meet them. Of course they are of all
sizes, and of every degree of decoration and archi-
tectural beauty known in Europe, below the very
highest. The facade of the principal theatre in Phila-
delphia, is a chaste specimen in marble, of the Ionic,
if my memory is correct, hi New-York, there are
two theatres about as large as the Theatre Fran^ais


(in the interior), and not much inferior in embelhsh-
ments. Besides these, there is a verj pretty Httle
theatre, where hghter pieces are performed, and an-
other with a vast stage for melo-dramas. There are
also one or two other places of dramatic representa-
tion in this city, in which horses and men contend for
the bays.

, The Americans pay well for dramatic talent.
Cooke, the greatest English tragedian of our age,
died on this side of the Atlantic ; and there are few
players of eminence in the mother country who are
not tempted, at some time or other, to cross the
ocean. Shakspeare is, of course, the great author
of America, as he is of England, and 1 think he is
quite as well relished here as there. In point of taste,
if all the rest of the world be any thing against Eng-
land, that of America is the best, since it unquestion-
ably approaches nearest to that of the continent of
Europe. Nearly one-half of the theatrical taste of
the English .is condemned by their own judgments,
since the stage is not much supported by those who
have had an opportunity of seeing any other. You
will be apt to ask me how it happens, then, that the
American taste is better ? Because the people, being
less exaggerated in their habits, are less disposed to
tolerate caricatures, and because the theatres are not
yet sufficiently numerous (though that hour is near)
to admit of a representation that shall not be subject
to the control of a certain degree of intelligence. I
have heard an English player complain that he never
saw such a dull audience as the one before which he
had just been exhibiting ; and I heard the same audi-
ence complain that they never listened to such dull
jokes. Now% there w^as talent enough in both parties ;
but the one had formed his taste in a coarse school,
and the others had formed theirs under the dominion
of common sense. Independently of this peculiarity,
there is a vast deal of acquired, travelled taste in
K 2


this country. English tragedy, and high Enghsh
comedy, both of which, you know, are excellent,
never fail here, if well played ; that is, they never
fail under the usual limits of all amusement. One
wmII cloy of sweets. But the fact of the taste and
judgment of these people, in theatrical exhibitions,
is proved by the number of their good theatres, com-
pared to their population.

Of dramatic writers there are none, or next to
none. The remarks I have made in respect to novels
apply with double force to this species of composi-
tion. A witty and successful American comedy could
only proceed from extraordinary talent. There would
be less difficulty, certainly, with a tragedy; but still,
there is rather too much foreign competition, and too
much domestic employment in other pursuits, to invite
genius to so doubtful an enterprise. The very bald-
ness of ordinary American life is in deadly hostility
to scenic representation. The character must be
supported solely by its intrinsic power. The judge,
the footman, the clown, the lawyer, the belle, or the
beau, can receive no great assistance from dress.
Melo-dramas, except the scene should be laid in the
woods, are out of the question. It would be neces-
sary to seek the great clock, which is to strike the
portentous twelve blows, in the nearest church; a
vaulted passage would degenerate into a cellar ; and,
as for ghosts, the country was discovered, since their
visitations have ceased. The smallest departure
from the incidents of ordinary life would do violence
to every man's experience; and, as already mention-
ed, the passions which belong to human nature must
be delineated, in America, subject to the influence
of that despot — common sense.

Notwithstanding the overwhelming influence of
British publications, and all the difficulties I have
named, original books are getting to be numerous in
the United States. The impulses of talent and intel-


ligence are bearing down a thousand obstacles. I
think the new works will increase rapidly, and that
they are destined to produce a powerful influence on
the world. We will pursue this subject another
time. — Adieu.


<Src. Sfc.



— You will be satisfied with these reasons for the
abrupt conclusion of my last. I shall now tax your
patience for a short continuation of the subject.

Although there are so many reasons why an ima-
ginative literature should not be speedily created in
this country, there is none, but that general activity
of employment which is not favourable to study,
why science and all the useful arts should not be
cultivated here, perhaps, more than any where else.
Great attention is already paid to the latter. Though
there is scarce such a thing as a capital picture in
this whole country, I have seen more beautiful, grace-
ful, and convenient ploughs in positive use here, than

Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperNotions of the Americans: picked up by a travelling bachelor (Volume 1-2) → online text (page 38 of 58)