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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.
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.