American Literature, American Culture

By Gordon Hutner | Go to book overview

American novel," must be a poet; he must look at life, not as the statistician, not as the census-taker, nor yet as the newspaper reporter, but with an eye that sees, through temporary disguises, the animating principles, good or bad, that direct human existence; these he must set before us, to be sure, under probable conditions, but yet without mistaking the conditions for the principles. He must idealize. The idealizing novelist will be the real novelist. All truth does not lie in facts. {1872}

Robert Herrick


The American Novel

One hears much of the romantic quality of American life, which when analyzed is found to consist for the most part of our dazzling performances in conquering wealth and the frequently bizarre conduct of the successful rich. The feeling, still widespread, that opportunities for similar individual achievements exist more abundantly here than elsewhere continues this romantic note even in the face of sobering economic facts. In harmony with the rest of the world, American literature is less flamboyantly romantic than it was a scant decade ago, but it vaunts at all times a robust optimism that verges upon the romantic. We are also told that ours is a fertile soil artistically, ripe for a creative period of self- expression. How does it happen then, one is likely to ask, that the most significant imaginative work of the day still comes to us from the other side of the ocean--the best plays from Austria and Germany, the best novels from the much worked English field? Why is it that Wells, Bennett, and Galsworthy-- not to mention half a dozen others almost as distinguished as these three--are writing in England at the present time, while in America one would have to strain patriotism to the point of absurdity to name any novelist of similar performance? In answering this pertinent question we shall have to consider incidentally the quality of our imaginative life to-day and thus continue the theme of my paper in the January number of this magazine.

We have had a literature in America--not an American literature, to be sure,--but a good sort of literature in America. The best of it came from the New England group of writers--the purest, the most authentic expression we have yet had. When Emerson, Hawthorne, Longfellow, and Lowell were writing, New England may have been but one province of a greater country, but it was intellectually a dominant and fairly homogeneous province. Mr. Howells has garnered admirably the last sheaves from that soil. Puritan America found its ultimate expression in "Silas Lapham," "A Modern Instance," and "The Hazard of New Fortunes." Mrs. Freeman and others have gleaned faithfully the last stalks. Some of their disciples are still trying to revive the cold ashes on the hearth.

Meanwhile, following the more robust inspiration of Bret Harte and Mark Twain, a large number of writers have risen to take possession of local fields--Cable in the South, Miss Murfree in the mountain districts of Tennessee, Owen Wister and many others in the varied localities of the great West, to name but a few of these fruitful writers. Already that period of local literature is passing, and the reason for its swift passing is obvious. It was

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