The authors under consideration in this symposium are most probably our greatest collective claim to literary pre-eminence. They are also controversial figures. The controversy on some of them revolves around their literary stature: is Cooper, for instance, to be estimated merely in the terms applied to him by Mark Twain ("there have been daring people in the world who claimed that Cooper could write English, but they are all dead now") or in those accorded him by Wilkie Collins ("Cooper is the greatest artist in the domain of romantic fiction yet produced by America")? Or shall we be content merely to state with Vernon Parrington that "no other major writer, unless it be Whitman, has been so misunderstood, and no other offers a knottier problem to the student of American letters"? Again, did Poe have what James Russell Lowell called "that indescribable something which men have agreed to call genius"? or does Poe, as Dr. Durick states in his study, "tend to diminish in stature as we grow older"? --or is "genius" compatible with such diminution?
More puzzling, however, than the controversies which have arisen over the literary stature of these authors is the cloud of debate that has blown up about their philosophies and theologies, about their fundamental attitudes toward God, man, and nature, and the degree in which those attitudes have shaped or colored their work.
Was Emerson, to take him as perhaps the cardinal figure about whom the storms of debate have centered, the Pelagian such a critic as Yvor Winter would have us believe he was, and did his doctrine of self-reliance grow to its logical and awful climax in the suicide of Hart Crane? This is the position startlingly defended in Mr. Winters' chapter, "The Significance of The Bridge by Hart Crane," in In Defense of Reason (University of Denver, 1947, pp. 577-603). Or was there, as John Jay Chapman thinks, such "radiance" about his writings as about his personality that "while he lived his figure could be seen from Europe towering like Atlas over the culture of the United States." If that was his true stature, how could his influence have been as sinister as Winters estimates it was?
Or consider the various evaluations of the thought and influence of Walt Whitman. Even if we refuse to take seriously the public protests vociferated recently in New Jersey when the proposal was made to name a bridge in his honor--protests on the grounds that he was neither a great poet (he couldn't "see beyond his eyelids," it was claimed) nor a citizen of respectable moral life--it still remains true that many a popular estimate of the "good gray poet" relegates him to the role of a hairy-chested and uncouth chanter of incantations to a democracy he understood but little. On the other hand, D. H. Lawrence considers him "the greatest and the first and the only American teacher," though the teaching Lawrence attributes to Whitman may be considered a thing of very dubious worth indeed.