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Outlines of English and American Literature|
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.