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Outlines of English and American Literature
The All-America Period
by Long, William J.

  Thou Mother with thy equal brood,
  Thou varied chain of different States, yet one identity only,
  A special song before I go I'd sing o'er all the rest:
  For thee, the Future.

                                        Whitman, "Thou Mother"

Some critics find little or no American literature of a distinctly national spirit prior to 1876, and they explain the lack of it on the assumption that Americans were too far apart and too much occupied with local or sectional interests for any author to represent the nation. It was even said at the time of the Centennial Exposition that our countrymen had never met, save on the battlefields of the Civil War, until the common interest in Jubilee Year drew men and women from the four quarters of America "around the old family altar at Philadelphia." Whatever exaggeration there may be in that fine poetic figure, it is certain that our literature, once confined to a few schools or centers, began in the decade after 1870 to be broadly representative of the whole country. Miller's Songs of the Sierras, Hay's Pike-County Ballads, Harte's Tales of the Argonauts, Cable's Old Creole Days, Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, Miss Jewett's Deephaven, Stockton's Rudder Grange, Harris's Uncle Remus,--a host of surprising books suddenly appeared with the announcement that America was too large for any one man or literary school to be its spokesman. It is because of these new voices, coming from North, South, East or West and heard with delight by the whole nation, that we venture to call the years after 1876 the all-America period of our literature.

Contemporary History

We are still too near that period to make a history of it, for the simple reason that a true history implies distance and perspective. No historian could read, much less measure and compare, a tenth part of the books that have won recognition since 1876. In such works as he might select as typical he must be governed by his own taste or judgment; and the writer was never born who could by such personal standards forecast the judgment of time and of humanity. In a word, contemporary or "up-to-date" histories are vain attempts at the impossible; save in the unimportant matter of chronicling names or dates they are all alike untrustworthy. The student should bear in mind, therefore, that the following summary of our recent literature is based largely upon personal opinion; that it selects a few authors by way of illustration, omitting many others who may be of equal or greater importance. We are confronted by a host of books that serve the prime purpose of literature by giving pleasure; but what proportion of them are enduring books, or what few of them will be known to readers of the next century as the Sketch Book and Snow-Bound are known to us,--these are questions that only Father Time can answer.


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