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Outlines of English and American Literature
Literature of the Period
by Long, William J.

The violent political agitation and the profound social unrest of the period found expression in multitudinous works of prose or verse; but the curious fact is that these are all minor works, and could without much loss be omitted from our literary records. They are mostly sectional in spirit, and only what is national or human can long endure.

Minor Works

To illustrate our criticism, the terrible war that dominates the period never had any worthy literary expression; there are thousands of writings but not a single great poem or story or essay or drama on the subject. The antislavery movement likewise brought forth its poets, novelists, orators and essayists; some of the greater writers were drawn into its whirlpool of agitation, and Whittier voiced the conviction that the age called for a man rather than a poet in a cry which was half defiance and half regret:

  Better than self-indulgent years
    The outflung heart of youth,
  Than pleasant songs in idle ears
    The tumult of the truth!

That was the feeling in the heart of many a promising young southern or northern poet in midcentury, just as it was in 1776, when our best writers neglected literature for political satires against Whigs or Tories. Yet of the thousand works which the antislavery agitation inspired we can think of only one, Mrs. Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, which lives with power to our own day; and there is something of universal human nature in that famous book, written not from knowledge or experience but from the imagination, which appeals broadly to our human sympathy, and which makes it welcome in countries where slavery as a political or a moral issue has long since been forgotten.

General Characteristics

Though the ferment of the age produced no great books, it certainly influenced our literature, making it a very different product from that of the early national period. For example, nearly every political issue soon became a moral issue; and there is a deep ethical earnestness in the essays of Emerson, the poems of Longfellow and the novels of Hawthorne which sets them apart, as of a different spirit, from the works of Irving, Poe and Cooper.

Again, the mental unrest of the period showed itself in a passion for new ideas, new philosophy, new prose and poetry. We have already spoken of the transcendental philosophy, but even more significant was the sudden broadening of literary interest. American readers had long been familiar with the best English poets; now they desired to know how our common life had been reflected by poets of other nations. In answer to that desire came, first, the establishment of professorships of belles-lettres in our American colleges; and then a flood of translations from European and oriental literatures. As we shall presently see, every prominent writer from Emerson to Whitman was influenced by new views of life as reflected in the world's poetry. Longfellow is a conspicuous example; with his songs inspired by Spanish or German or Scandinavian originals he is at times more like an echo of Europe than a voice from the New World.


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