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Outlines of English and American Literature
History and Biography
by Long, William J.


Another interesting feature of recent times is the importance attached to historical and biographical works, which have increased so rapidly since 1876 that there is now no period of American life and no important character or event that lacks its historian. The number of such works is astonishing, but their general lack of style and broad human interest places them outside of the field of literature. The tendency of recent historical writing, for example, is to collect facts about persons or events rather than to reproduce the persons or events so vividly that the past lives again before our eyes. The result of such writing is to make history a puppet show in which dead figures are moved about by unseen economic forces; meanwhile the only record that lives in literature is the one that represents history as it really was in the making; that is, as a drama of living, self-directing men.

There is at least one recent historian, however, whose style gives distinction to his work and makes it worthy of especial notice. This is John Fiske (1842-1901), whose field and method are both unusual. He began as a student of law and philosophy, and his first notable book, Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy, attracted instant attention in England and America by its literary style and rare lucidity of statement. It was followed by a series of essays, such as The Idea Of God, The Destiny Of Man and The Origin of Evil, which were so far above others of their kind that for a time they were in danger of becoming popular. Of a thousand works occasioned by the theory of evolution, when that theory was a nine days' wonder, they are among the very few that stand the test of time by affording as much pleasure and surprise as when they were first written.

It was comparatively late in life that our philosopher turned historian, and his first work in this field, American Political Ideals Viewed from the Standpoint of Universal History, announced that here at last was a writer with broad horizons, who saw America not as an isolated nation making a strange experiment but as adding a vital chapter to the great world's history. It was a surprising work, unlike any other in the field of American history, and it may fall to another generation to appreciate its originality. Finally Fiske took up the study of particular periods or epochs, viewed them with the same deep insight, the same broad sympathy, and reflected them in a series of brilliant narratives: Old Virginia and her Neighbors, The Beginnings of New England, Dutch and Quaker Colonies in America and a few others, the series ending chronologically with A Critical Period of American History, the "critical" period being the time of doubt and struggle over the Constitution. These narratives, though not unified, form a fairly complete history from the Colonial period to the formation of the Union.

To read any of these books is to discover that Fiske is concerned not chiefly with events but with the meaning or philosophy of events; that he has a rare gift of delving below the surface, of seeing in the endeavors of a handful of men at Jamestown or Plymouth or Philadelphia a profoundly significant chapter of universal history. Hence we seem to read in his pages not the story of America but the story of Man. Moreover, he had enthusiasm; which means that his heart was young and that he could make even dull matters vital and interesting. Perhaps the best thing that can be said of his work is that it is a pleasure to read it,--a criticism which is spoken for mature or thoughtful readers rather than for those who read history for its dramatic or heroic interest.

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