Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of William Dean Howells > Text of American Literature In Exile

An essay by William Dean Howells

American Literature In Exile

Title:     American Literature In Exile
Author: William Dean Howells [More Titles by Howells]

A recently lecturing Englishman is reported to have noted the unenviable primacy of the United States among countries where the struggle for material prosperity has been disastrous to the pursuit of literature. He said, or is said to have said (one cannot be too careful in attributing to a public man the thoughts that may be really due to an imaginative frame in the reporter), that among us, "the old race of writers of distinction, such as Longfellow, Bryant, Holmes, and Washington Irving, have (sic) died out, and the Americans who are most prominent in cultivated European opinion in art or literature, like Sargent, Henry James, or Marion Crawford, live habitually out of America, and draw their inspiration from England, France, and Italy."


If this were true, I confess that I am so indifferent to what many Americans glory in that it would not distress me, or wound me in the sort of self-love which calls itself patriotism. If it would at all help to put an end to that struggle for material prosperity which has eventuated with us in so many millionaires and so many tramps, I should be glad to believe that it was driving our literary men out of the country. This would be a tremendous object-lesson, and might be a warning to the millionaires and the tramps. But I am afraid it would not have this effect, for neither our very rich nor our very poor care at all for the state of polite learning among us; though for the matter of that, I believe that economic conditions have little to do with it; and that if a general mediocrity of fortune prevailed and there were no haste to be rich and to get poor, the state of polite learning would not be considerably affected. As matters stand, I think we may reasonably ask whether the Americans "most prominent in cultivated European opinion," the Americans who "live habitually out of America," are not less exiles than advance agents of the expansion now advertising itself to the world. They may be the vanguard of the great army of adventurers destined to overrun the earth from these shores, and exploit all foreign countries to our advantage. They probably themselves do not know it, but in the act of "drawing their inspiration" from alien scenes, or taking their own where they find it, are not they simply transporting to Europe "the struggle for material prosperity," which Sir Lepel supposes to be fatal to them here?

There is a question, however, which comes before this, and that is the question whether they have quitted us in such numbers as justly to alarm our patriotism. Qualitatively, in the authors named and in the late Mr. Bret Harte, Mr. Harry Harland, and the late Mr. Harold Frederic, as well as in Mark Twain, once temporarily resident abroad, the defection is very great; but quantitatively it is not such as to leave us without a fair measure of home-keeping authorship. Our destitution is not nearly so great now in the absence of Mr. James and Mr. Crawford as it was in the times before the "struggle for material prosperity" when Washington Irving went and lived in England and on the European continent well-nigh half his life.

Sir Lepel Griffin--or Sir Lepel Griffin's reporter--seems to forget the fact of Irving's long absenteeism when he classes him with "the old race" of eminent American authors who stayed at home. But really none of those he names were so constant to our air as he seems--or his reporter seems-- to think. Longfellow sojourned three or four years in Germany, Spain, and Italy; Holmes spent as great time in Paris; Bryant was a frequent traveller, and each of them "drew his inspiration" now and then from alien sources. Lowell was many years in Italy, Spain, and England; Motley spent more than half his life abroad; Hawthorne was away from us nearly a decade.


If I seem to be proving too much in one way, I do not feel that I am proving too much in another. My facts go to show that the literary spirit is the true world-citizen, and is at home everywhere. If any good American were distressed by the absenteeism of our authors, I should first advise him that American literature was not derived from the folk- lore of the red Indians, but was, as I have said once before, a condition of English literature, and was independent even of our independence. Then I should entreat him to consider the case of foreign authors who had found it more comfortable or more profitable to live out of their respective countries than in them. I should allege for his consolation the case of Byron, Shelley, and Leigh Hunt, and more latterly that of the Brownings and Walter Savage Landor, who preferred an Italian to an English sojourn; and yet more recently that of Mr. Rudyard Kipling, who voluntarily lived several years in Vermont, and has "drawn his inspiration" in notable instances from the life of these States. It will serve him also to consider that the two greatest Norwegian authors, Bjornsen and Ibsen, have both lived long in France and Italy. Heinrich Heine loved to live in Paris much better than in Dusseldorf, or even in Hamburg; and Tourguenief himself, who said that any man's country could get on without him, but no man could get on without his country, managed to dispense with his own in the French capital, and died there after he was quite free to go back to St. Petersburg. In the last century Rousseau lived in France rather than Switzerland; Voltaire at least tried to live in Prussia, and was obliged to a long exile elsewhere; Goldoni left fame and friends in Venice for the favor of princes in Paris.

Literary absenteeism, it seems to me, is not peculiarly an American vice or an American virtue. It is an expression and a proof of the modern sense which enlarges one's country to the bounds of civilization. I cannot think it justly a reproach in the eyes of the world, and if any American feels it a grievance, I suggest that he do what he can to have embodied in the platform of his party a plank affirming the right of American authors to a public provision that will enable them to live as agreeably at home as they can abroad on the same money. In the mean time, their absenteeism is not a consequence of "the struggle for material prosperity," not a high disdain of the strife which goes on not less in Europe than in America, and must, of course, go on everywhere as long as competitive conditions endure, but is the result of chances and preferences which mean nothing nationally calamitous or discreditable.

[The end]
William Dean Howells's essay: American Literature In Exile