American Literature, American Culture

By Gordon Hutner | Go to book overview

Gertrude Atherton


Why Is American Literature Bourgeois?

American literature after its first natural imitation of Old-World standards showed for a time a disposition to take its cue from the Declaration of Independence. In reading the state papers of the great men of the first era of the Republic--Hamilton, Madison, Jefferson, and the rest--one sees plainly the influence of the "Spectator"; and even Hawthorne and Poe, to say nothing of the Boston groups, and Washington Irving, might never have breathed the free air of a young republic. Cooper was American in nothing but choice of subject. But when Mark Twain and Bret Harte appeared, then indeed we had produced two authors who could have been born and nourished nowhere else on the planet.

Mark Twain, in particular, was so intensely individual, so rampantly--one may say without disrespect--American, that it must have seemed, to those watching what was then the lawn rather than the field of literature in the United States, that the new force was destined to redirect the whole course of American letters. He might indeed have been apprehended as a mighty hose or hydraulic pump, washing the very earth out of the carefully trimmed beds on the lawn. As one looks back to-day, it seems almost incredible that his uncommon and instantly popular methods, his quite unconscious disdain of petty conventions, his convincing expression of the best as well as the most salient of our national characteristics, did not immediately found a school. Even the facts that the true greatness of his intellect was not appreciated, and that he let Cupid severely alone, are not a sufficient explanation of the riddle of his standing apart to-day. Neither does his originality explain it: other original writers have founded their schools. At least his triumphs might have encouraged the young to be as free and individual as himself, even if more slenderly equipped as to creative power: it is not the imitators, of course, who count in the final summing up of literary achievement, almost sure as they are to win temporary success by adhering to the footprints of some leader whom the critic knows it is safe to praise. If Twain ever had so much as an imitator--barring mere humorists--I never heard of him. Harte had many, but they are forgotten. But that is not the point. What is truly remarkable is the fact that the brilliant success of these two men did not remind others that originality is the final and supreme touch which secures an artist a permanent position on the heights, which commands forever the attention of the intelligent masses below.

As a rule, originality has a hard fight, for those who write of writers are, necessarily, unoriginal, and, therefore, no matter how conscientious, timid about endorsing a bold deviation from long established standards. But Twain and Harte had no struggle for recognition, from the public at least. No one remembers today what their critics wrote; all the world knows of their success. Undoubtedly, there were reasons for this, quite aside from their worth, and it would be unfair not to state them: Twain published his first books by subscription, and was already a personality; Harte published in his own magazine, "The Overland Monthly." Both from the start were independent of editors and reviewers. But if this explains their skilful avoidance of the average great author's weary bystanding at the public portals, it by no means explains their failure to encourage others.

American literature to-day, taking it as a whole, taking no account of its strangely few exceptions, is the most timid, the most anæmic, the most lacking in individualities, the most bourgeois, that any country has ever known. There is not a breath of American independence, impatience, energy, contempt of ancient convention in it. It might, indeed, be the product of a great village censored by the village gossip. How utterly un-

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