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Outlines of English and American Literature|
Literature of the New Nation
by Long, William J.
Behind him lay the gray Azores,
Behind, the gates of Hercules;
Before him not the ghost of shores,
Before him only shoreless seas.
The good mate said, "Now must we pray,
For lo! the very stars are gone:
Brave Admiral, speak; what shall I say?"
"Why say, 'Sail on! sail on! and on!'"
Joaquin Miller, "Columbus"
It was in the early part of the nineteenth
century that America began to be counted among the great nations of
the world, and it was precisely at that time that she produced her
first national literature, a literature so broadly human that it
appealed not only to the whole country but to readers beyond the
sea. Irving, Cooper and Bryant are commonly regarded as the first
notable New World writers; and we may better understand them and
their enthusiastic young contemporaries if we remember that they
"grew up with the country"; that they reflected life at a time when
America, having won her independence and emerged from a long period
of doubt and struggle, was taking her first confident steps in the
sun and becoming splendidly conscious of her destiny as a leader
among the world's free people.
Indeed, there was good reason for confidence in those early days;
for never had a young nation looked forth upon a more heartening
prospect. The primitive hamlets of Colonial days had been replaced
by a multitude of substantial towns, the somber wilderness by a
prosperous farming country. The power of a thousand rivers was
turning the wheels of as many mills or factories, and to the
natural wealth of America was added the increase of a mighty
commerce with other nations. By the Louisiana Purchase and the
acquisition of Florida her territory was vastly increased, and
still her sturdy pioneers were pressing eagerly into more spacious
lands beyond the Mississippi. Best of all, this enlarging nation,
once a number of scattered colonies holding each to its own course,
was now the Union; her people were as one in their patriotism,
their loyalty, their intense conviction that the brave New World
experiment in free government, once scoffed at as an idle dream,
was destined to a glorious future. American democracy was not
merely a success; it was an amazing triumph. Moreover, this
democracy, supposed to be the weakest form of government, had
already proved its power; it had sent its navy abroad to humble the
insolent Barbary States, and had measured the temper of its soul
and the strength of its arm in the second war with Great Britain.
In fine, the New World had brought forth a hopeful young giant of a
nation; and its hopefulness was reflected, with more of zeal than
of art, in the prose and poetry of its literary men. Just as the
enthusiastic Elizabethan spirit reflected itself in lyric or drama
after the defeat of the Armada, so the American spirit seemed to
exult in the romances of Cooper and Simms; in the verse of
Pinckney, Halleck, Drake and Percival; in a multitude of national
songs, such as "The American Flag," Warren's Address, "Home Sweet
Home" and "The Star-Spangled Banner." We would not venture to liken
one set of writings to the other, for we should be on the weak side
of an Elizabethan comparison; we simply note that a great national
enthusiasm was largely responsible for the sudden appearance of a
new literature in the one land as in the other.
In the works of four writers, Irving, Cooper, Bryant
and Poe, we have the best that the early national period produced; but we
shall not appreciate these writers until we see them, like pines in a wood,
lifting their heads over numerous companions, all drawing their nourishment
from the same soil and air. The growth of towns and cities in America had
led to a rapid increase of newspapers, magazines and annuals (collections
of contemporary prose and verse), which called with increasing emphasis for
poems, stories, essays, light or "polite" literature. The rapid growth of
the nation set men to singing the old psalm of Sursum Corda, and
every man and woman who felt the impulse added his story or his verse to
the national chorus. When the first attempt at a summary of American
literature was made in 1837, the author, Royal Robbins, found more than two
thousand living writers demanding his attention.