American Literature, American Culture

By Gordon Hutner | Go to book overview

slaves to their owners--and now? Five years ago everybody swore to pay the national debt in specie--and now? Our aristocracy flies through the phases of Knickerbocker, codfish, shoddy, and petroleum. Where are the "high-toned gentlemen" whom North and South gloried in a quarter of a century since? Where are the Congressmen who could write "The Federalist?" Where is everything that was? Can a society which is changing so rapidly be painted except in the daily newspaper? Has any one photographed fireworks or the shooting-stars? And then there is such variety and even such antagonism in the component parts of this cataract. When you have made your picture of petrified New England village life, left aground like a boulder near the banks of the Merrimac, does the Mississippian or the Minnesotian or the Pennsylvanian recognize it as American society? We are a nation of provinces, and each province claims to be the court.

When Mr. Anthony Trollope commences a novel, he is perplexed by no such kaleidoscopic transformations and no such conflicting claims of sections. Hundreds of years ago English aristocracy assumed the spiritual nature which it holds with little change to the present day. It had made its code of honor; it had established its relations with the mass of the nation; it had become the model for all proper Englishmen. At this time it is a unit of social expression throughout the kingdom. A large class of people go up to London at the same season, go into the country at the same season, lead very nearly the same lives, have the same ideas and castes. There you have something fixed to paint; there you have the novelist's sitter; there you have his purchaser. All successful English romances are written with reference to this class; they may attack it, they may defend it, they always paint it. Wealthy, it pays high prices for books; anxious to be amused, it buys them freely. For such a sitter who would not, if possible, learn to paint well? Thus also, in France, only that the subject is always in your studio, for the studio is Paris. If George Sand writes a provincial novel, she does it not for the people of the province described but for the Parisians, who occasionally like a novelty. But the French author need not know more than that one city to have his subject and his public, in divided Germany there have been few good novels. In distracted Italy there has been, perhaps, but one--"I Promessai Sposi"--and that historical, the result of half a lifetime, the task of a great poet. Even Manzoni found it a mighty labor to depict the life of a nation of provinces.

Well, what are our immediate chances for a "great American novel"? We fear that the wonder will not soon be wrought unless more talent can be enlisted in the work, and we are sure that this sufficient talent can hardly be otained without the encouragement of a international copyright. And, even then, is it time? [ 1867]

Thomas S. Perry


American Novels

We have often wondered that the people who raise the outcry for the "Great American Novel" did not see that, so far from being of any assistance to our fellow-countryman who is trying to win fame by writing fiction, they have rather stood in his way by setting up

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