The last thing we find in making a book is to know what to put
When an author has finished his history, after months or years of happy
work, there comes a dismal hour when he must explain its purpose and
apologize for its shortcomings.
The explanation in this case is very simple and goes back to a personal
experience. When the author first studied the history of our literature
there was put into his hands as a textbook a most dreary catalogue of dead
authors, dead masterpieces, dead criticisms, dead ages; and a boy who knew
chiefly that he was alive was supposed to become interested in this
literary sepulchre or else have it said that there was something hopeless
about him. Later he learned that the great writers of England and America
were concerned with life alone, as the most familiar, the most mysterious,
the most fascinating thing in the world, and that the only valuable or
interesting feature of any work of literature is its vitality.
To introduce these writers not as dead worthies but as companionable men
and women, and to present their living subject as a living thing, winsome
as a smile on a human face,--such was the author's purpose in writing this
The apology is harder to frame, as anyone knows who has attempted to gather
the writers of a thousand years into a single volume that shall have the
three virtues of brevity, readableness and accuracy. That this record is
brief in view of the immensity of the subject is plainly apparent. That it
may prove pleasantly readable is a hope inspired chiefly by the fact that
it was a pleasure to write it, and that pleasure is contagious. As for
accuracy, every historian who fears God or regards man strives hard enough
for that virtue; but after all his striving, remembering the difficulty of
criticism and the perversity of names and dates that tend to error as the
sparks fly upward, he must still trust heaven and send forth his work with
something of Chaucer's feeling when he wrote:
O littel bookė, thou art so unconning,
How darst thou put thy-self in prees for drede?
Which may mean, to one who appreciates Chaucer's wisdom and humor,
that having written a little book in what seemed to him an unskilled or
"unconning" way, he hesitated to give it to the world for dread of the
"prees" or crowd of critics who, even in that early day, were wont to look
upon each new book as a camel that must be put through the needle's eye of
their tender mercies.
In the selection and arrangement of his material the author has aimed to
make a usable book that may appeal to pupils and teachers alike. Because
history and literature are closely related (one being the record of man's
deed, the other of his thought and feeling) there is a brief historical
introduction to every literary period. There is also a review of the
general literary tendencies of each age, of the fashions, humors and ideals
that influenced writers in forming their style or selecting their subject.
Then there is a biography of every important author, written not to offer
another subject for hero-worship but to present the man exactly as he was;
a review of his chief works, which is intended chiefly as a guide to the
best reading; and a critical estimate or appreciation of his writings based
partly upon first-hand impressions, partly upon the assumption that an
author must deal honestly with life as he finds it and that the business of
criticism is, as Emerson said, "not to legislate but to raise the dead."
This detailed study of the greater writers of a period is followed by an
examination of some of the minor writers and their memorable works.
Finally, each chapter concludes with a concise summary of the period under
consideration, a list of selections for reading and a bibliography of works
that will be found most useful in acquiring a larger knowledge of the
In its general plan this little volume is modeled on the author's more
advanced English Literature and American Literature; but the
material, the viewpoint, the presentation of individual writers,--all the
details of the work are entirely new. Such a book is like a second journey
through ample and beautiful regions filled with historic associations, a
journey that one undertakes with new companions, with renewed pleasure and,
it is to be hoped, with increased wisdom. It is hardly necessary to add
that our subject has still its unvoiced charms, that it cannot be exhausted
or even adequately presented in any number of histories. For literature
deals with life; and life, with its endlessly surprising variety in unity,
has happily some suggestion of infinity.