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

Another feature of our recent prose is the number of books devoted to the study of American letters; and that, like the study of nature, is a phenomenon which is without precedent. Notwithstanding Emerson's plea for independence in The American Scholar (1837), our critics were busy long after that date with the books of other lands, thinking that there was no American literature worthy of their attention. In the same year that Emerson made his famous address Royal Robbins made what was probably the first attempt at a history of American literature. [Footnote: Chambers' History of the English Language and Literature, to which is added A History of American Contributions to the English Language and Literature, by Royal Robbins (Hartford, 1837). It is interesting to note that the author complained of the difficulty of his task in view of the fact that there were at that time over two thousand living American authors.] It consisted of a few tag-ends attached to a dry catalogue of English writers, and the scholarly author declared that, as there was only one poor literary history then in existence (namely, Chambers'), he must depend largely on his own memory for correcting the English part of the book and creating a new American part. Nor were conditions improved during the next forty years.

After the war, however, the viewpoint of our historians was changed. They began to regard American literature with increasing respect as an original product, as a true reflection of human life in a new field and under the stimulus of new incentives to play the fine old game of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." In 1878 appeared Tyler's History of American Literature 1607-1765 in two bulky volumes that surprised readers by revealing a mass of important writings in a period supposed to be barren of literary interest; and the surprise increased when the same author produced two more volumes dealing with the literature of the Revolution. In 1885 came Stedman's Poets of America, an excellent critical study of New World poetry; and two years later Richardson published the first of his two splendid volumes of American Literature. These good beginnings were followed by a host of biographies dealing with every important American author, until we now have choice of a large assortment of literary material where Royal Robbins had none at all.

Such formal works are for the student, but the reader who goes to books for recreation has also been remembered. Edward Everett Hale's James Russell Lowell and his Friends, Higginson's Old Cambridge, Howells's Literary Friends and Acquaintance, Trowbridge's My Own Story, Mrs. Field's Authors and Friends, Stoddard's Homes and Haunts of our Elder Poets, Curtis's Homes of American Authors, Mitchell's American Lands and Letters,--these are but few of many recent books of reminiscences, all bearing witness to the fact that American literature has a history and tradition of its own. It is no longer an appendix to English literature but an original record, to be cherished as we cherish any other precious national heritage, and to stand or fall among the literatures of the world as it shall be found true or false to the fundamental ideals of American life.


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