Charles Timothy Brooks: Translator from the German, and the Genteel Tradition

Charles Timothy Brooks: Translator from the German, and the Genteel Tradition

Charles Timothy Brooks: Translator from the German, and the Genteel Tradition

Charles Timothy Brooks: Translator from the German, and the Genteel Tradition

Excerpt

We are learning increasingly to realize that we all think of the past in terms of "legend." That is, we are more aware than were our forebears that our interpretation of the past -- both in the realm of politics and in that of art and literature -- are inescapably determined by predilections derived from our intellectual and spiritual heritage, our environment, or our personal temperament. Or, as E. Bertram has happily phrased it, "Allem gehäuften Wissen, allen Methoden, aller Objektivität zum Trotz: wir wissen nur, was wir schauen, und wir schauen nur, was wir sind und weil wir es sind." Hence, descriptions of the past may throw more light on the character of the historian and of the time in which he lived than on the period which he discusses. Thus, to take two striking instances at random, Bossuet's or Voltaire's treatment of the Middle Ages in books like Discours sur l'histoire universelle and Essai sur ks mwurs et l'esprit des hommes is vastly more revelatory of the philosophy of life and of the intellectual habits of these authors and hence of the temper of their age than it is of the times of St. Augustine and Dante. Similarly, the views of American civilization taken by various European writers -- say Lenau, Dickens, Count Keyserling -- are likely to interest us mainly as bits of spiritual autobiography. In exactly the same way the interpretation placed on German culture by American writers from the days of Ticknor to the end of the last century may prove a valuable contribution to a better understanding of their personalities and of the temper of what is now generally known as the age of the "genteel tradition." And, as the voice of New England was without doubt more than that of any other region the adequate expression of that tradition, acquaintance with the attitude towards Germany on the part of distinguished New Englanders of the days of Longfellow must prove especially useful in throwing light on one of the most important periods in American culture. To be sure, not all New Englanders were absolutely at one in all their convictions. There were notable differences in that respect between Whittier and Hawthorne and even between Emerson and Thoreau, and unquestionably between Emerson and Andrews Norton. Nevertheless, so great was on the whole the community of ideas among even disparate figures in the group that the view on a subject of major interest to all voiced by any characteristic member may safety be regarded as shared -- though frequently with minor differences -- by most of the rest.

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