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An essay by Brander Matthews

The Literary Independence Of The United States

Title:     The Literary Independence Of The United States
Author: Brander Matthews [More Titles by Matthews]

On the evening of the Tuesday following the first Monday next November, after the citizens of the several States shall have cast their ballots for the candidates of their choice, the boys of New York, in accord with their immemorial custom on election night, will illuminate the streets of the city with countless bonfires, not knowing, any of them, that they are thus commemorating Guy Faux and the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot. And yet such is the fact, as Doctor Eggleston has ascertained beyond all question. What British boys are pleased to remember on the 5th of November, American boys have forgotten, although they keep alive the memorial fires on the evening of the Tuesday following the first Monday in November, be that the 5th or not, as the almanac may declare. In like manner the "dressing up as a Guy" still survives also in New York, in the parades of the "fantasticals" on Thanksgiving Day--the last Thursday in November. So hard is it for old customs to die out. Perhaps the British 5th of November was in its turn a survival of some pagan rite ignorantly lingering as late as the Gunpowder Plot, and thereafter identified with the fate of Guy Faux.

We cannot help being the descendants of our ancestors; and no tariff, however high and however complicated by ad valorem duties, can keep out of these United States the traditions, the beliefs, the habits, the feelings of the immigrants whose children we are. That those who have left a great country, England or France or Germany, should look back to that country as the centre of light, is natural--perhaps it is inevitable. But that their children should continue to do so, natural enough for a while, is not inevitable. Even though the colonist succeeds in breaking the political tie which binds him to the country whence his fathers came, there is no real independence unless he lays aside also the habit of intellectual deference; and that is as arduous, as difficult, and as long a task as any one ever undertook. None the less is it absolutely necessary if a people is to speak with its own voice and not with borrowed tongues--if its independence is to be complete and final.

In Mr. Henry Cabot Lodge's interesting and stimulant volume called Studies in History there is no essay more interesting or more stimulating than that on "Colonialism in the United States." In two-score pages Mr. Lodge distinguishes colonialism from provincialism, with which it is sometimes confounded, and then shows how the thirteen United States, having once been colonies, still breathed the colonial spirit long after their political independence was fully established. He recalls the fact that one half of the people disliked Washington's proclamation of neutrality as between France and Great Britain, because it seemed "hostile to France," while the other approved of it for the same reason. We Americans at the beginning of this century were still engaged in fighting over again all the battles of Europe. But Washington was an American, not a European, and so was Hamilton; and they kept us true to the line of our national development.

Even before the Revolution, when "the travelled American, the petit-maître of the colonies," so Hawthorne reminds us, was "the ape of London foppery, as the newspaper was the semblance of the London journals"--even then there were Americans, like Franklin, for example, who had nothing of the colonist about them, who were at once cosmopolitan and American. Mr. Lodge is right in calling Franklin's Autobiography "the corner-stone, the first great work of American literature."

After the War of 1812 the politics of the United States ceased to depend in any way on the politics of Europe; and our elections began to turn solely on questions of domestic policy. So our commerce and our manufactures freed themselves from reliance on England or France. An unending succession of inventions showed the ingenuity of the American. In law, the autonomy of the separate States permitted a variety of juristic experiment, the best results of which have been copied now in the legislature of Great Britain. "But the colonial spirit"--to quote Mr. Lodge again--"cast out from our politics and fast disappearing from business and the professions, still clung closely to literature, which must always be the best and last expression of a national mode of thought."

The colonial attitude in literature was unwittingly encouraged by Congress, which, by refusing to pass an international copyright bill, and thus secure to the British author the control of his own works, permitted the foreigner to be plundered, and forced the native author to sell his wares in competition with stolen goods. Sir Henry Sumner Maine declared--in his work on Popular Government (p. 247)--that the neglect to give copyright to foreign "writers has condemned the whole American community to a literary servitude unparalleled in the history of thought." This, of course, is the violent over-statement of an enemy; but there was a percentage of truth in it once. To show just what the American literary attitude was in the early years of this century, Mr. Lodge instances Cooper's first novel, Precaution, now wholly forgotten, and fortunately, for its characters, its scenery, "its conventional phrases were all English; worst and most extraordinary of all, it professed to be by an English author, and was received on that theory without suspicion." And Mr. Lodge tersely sums up the situation by saying that "the first step of an American entering upon a literary career was to pretend to be an Englishman in order that he might win the approval, not of Englishmen, but of his own countrymen."

Cooper was too good an American to be content with the cast-off garments of British novelists; and in 1821, a year after the appearance of Precaution, he published The Spy, and never thereafter was there any need for an American novelist to masquerade as an Englishman. Yet his fellow-countrymen thought to compliment Cooper by calling him "the American Scott." And more than a quarter of a century later, when Lowell put forth his Fable for Critics there was abundant colonialism in our literature, if we may accept the satirist's picture of the mass-meeting of

"The American Bulwers, Disraelis, and Scotts.

By the way, 'tis a fact that displays what profusions
Of all kinds of greatness bless free institutions,
That while the Old World has produced barely eight
Of such poets as all men agree to call great,
And of other great characters nearly a score--
One might safely say less than that rather than more--
With you every year a whole crop is begotten,
They're as much of a staple as corn is or cotton;
Why, there's scarcely a huddle of log-huts and shanties
That has not brought forth its own Miltons and Dantes;
I myself know ten Byrons, one Coleridge, three Shelleys,
Two Raphaels, six Titians (I think), one Apelles,
Leonardos and Rubenses plenty as lichens,
One (but that one is plenty) American Dickens,
A whole flock of Lambs, any number of Tennysons--
In short, if a man has the luck to have any sons,
He may feel pretty certain that one out of twain
Will be some very great person over again."

After Cooper came Hawthorne and Poe, intensely American, both of them, although in different fashion. In due season Mrs. Stowe brought out one book which set forth fearlessly a situation undeniably (and most unfortunately) American. Then came the war, which stiffened our national consciousness, and by giving us something to be proud of, killed the earlier habit of brag. Among later story-tellers who study American life as it is, and without any taint of Briticism, are the author of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the author of The Rise of Silas Lapham, the author of The Hoosier Schoolmaster, and the author of Old Creole Days, all aggressively American, all devoid of the slightest suggestion of colonialism, all possessing a wholesome mistrust of British traditions, British standards, and British methods. Some of his fellow-countrymen and contemporaries complained that Cooper was not proud of being called "the American Scott;" and if we want to see how far we have travelled away from colonialism of this sort we have only to imagine the laughter with which Mark Twain would greet any critic who thought to compliment him by calling him the American Burnand!

That this is an enormous gain is obvious enough. American authors are now writing for their fellow-countrymen and about their fellow-countrymen. If, as Matthew Arnold declared, "the end and aim of all literature is, if one considers it attentively, nothing but that--a criticism of life," then the literature likely to be most useful, most invigorating, and most satisfactory to Americans should be a criticism of life in America. Whether or not the spirit of colonialism still survives in these United States sufficiently to make the majority of readers here prefer books of British authorship is a question hardly worth asking, it seems to me, although there are some, both in London and in New York, who would answer it in the affirmative. To those of us who happened to be in London during the closing days of our long struggle for the Copyright act of 1891 it was obvious that many British authors believed that unbounded affluence was about to burst upon them. They accepted Sir Henry Maine's view as to the literary poverty of America, and apparently did not know that there were American authors standing ready to supply the American demand as soon as they should be relieved from an enforced competition with stolen goods.

These British authors thought that the passage of the act opened a boundless field for them to enter in and take possession of; and no doubt some of the American opponents of the bill were of the same opinion. Of course we all see now, what some of us who had studied the conditions of the book-trade foresaw, that the instant result of the Copyright act must needs be a decrease in the number of books of British authorship sold in the United States. As soon as there was only one authorized publisher engaged in pushing a British book in America, in the place of a dozen unauthorized publishers forced to a frantic and cut-throat competition, the British book had to sell on its merits alone, without the aid of any premium of cheapness. As soon as all books had to be paid for by the publisher, the book of native authorship had its natural preference; and now the inferior and doubtful books of foreign authorship are ceasing to be reprinted here. This is a tendency which will increase with time, and very properly, since every nation ought to be able to supply its own second-rate books, and to borrow from abroad only the best that the foreigner has to offer it. And it cannot be said too often or too emphatically that the British are foreigners, and that their ideals in life, in literature, in politics, in taste, in art, are not our ideals.

The decrease in the proportion of British books published in America, sharply accelerated, no doubt, by the Copyright act of 1891, has been going on ever since Cooper published The Spy, now more than threescore years and ten ago. It occurred to me that it would be useful to show exactly the rate at which the American book had been gaining upon the British book, and to discover whether the native author had overtaken the foreigner or was likely to do so. To this end I have considered the books issued during the past thirty years by two of the leading publishing houses of America: Messrs. Harper & Brothers, and Messrs. Houghton, Mifflin & Company. Messrs. Harper & Brothers have always maintained very close relations with the leading authors of Great Britain; and to them, far more than to any one other American publishing house, have the most popular writers of England intrusted the American editions of their works. Messrs. Houghton, Mifflin & Company, on the other hand, succeeding to the firms of Ticknor & Fields, and of Fields, Osgood & Company, have always devoted themselves more especially to books of American authorship. These two great houses represent different traditions, and it seemed to me therefore that a comparison of their present catalogues with their catalogues of thirty years ago would not be without profit. I have to thank both these firms for their kindly assistance, without which it would have been impossible for me to prepare the present paper.

I have been furnished with a list of the books published by Messrs. Harper & Brothers in the years 1861, 1871, 1881, and 1891; and I propose to show how the book of American authorship has gained on the book of British authorship in three decades. From all the lists I begin by discarding the classic authors of our language. There was scarcely any American literature before Cooper's Spy, and of course all the glorious roll of English authors who wrote before 1776 are as much a part of our having as the common law itself. For kindred reasons I throw out all new editions and all text-books and all school-books.

Making these deductions (and they naturally decrease very much the apparent number of books published during any one year), we find that in the year 1861 Messrs. Harper & Brothers issued twenty-four books, of which fourteen were of British authorship (including George Eliot's Silas Marner) and seven of American authorship (including Motley's United Netherlands and Mr. Curtis's Trumps); three books sent forth by them were translated from foreign languages.

In 1871 Messrs. Harper & Brothers published fifty-seven books, and of these thirty-six were of British authorship, twenty were by American writers, and one was a translation.

In 1881 they sent forth ninety-eight books, of which sixty-six were by British authors (including some forty-seven numbers of the Franklin Square Library) and twenty-six were by American authors, while six were translations from foreign languages. It is to be noted that in 1881 we were in the very thick of piracy, and that Messrs. Harper & Brothers were engaged in pushing vigorously the Franklin Square Library, which they had devised as a weapon to fight the reprinters with.

In 1891 the Copyright act became operative on the 1st of July. During that year Messrs. Harper & Brothers issued seventy-six books, of which twenty-seven were of British authorship and forty-one of American, while eight were translations. It is to be noted here that the translations of 1891 were nearly all made in America, while those of 1861 and of 1881 were the work of British writers. In the books of British authorship are included all those issued only in paper covers in the new Franklin Square Library. Of course, Messrs. Harper & Brothers issued every year many more books than I have counted; but I have, as I said, omitted all new editions, all school-books, and all reprints of the classics of our own or any other language, as not falling within the scope of this inquiry. To decide exactly what to include or to exclude was not always easy, but I have tried to be consistent, and I believe that the figures here given are fairly accurate. They show that a house which published in 1861 twice as many books of British authorship as of American, published in 1891 one-third more books of American authorship than of British. They show also that the actual number of American books issued by this firm increased with every decade, and was in 1891 almost six times as large as it was thirty years before.

The present house of Houghton, Mifflin & Company is descended on one side from the firm of Hurd & Houghton, and on the other from the firm which was successively William D. Ticknor & Company, Ticknor & Fields, Fields, Osgood & Company, and James R. Osgood & Company. I am sorry to say that I have not been able to get a complete catalogue of the books published by Ticknor & Fields in 1861, but I have found certain lists of books published by them about that time: one of these lists contains four American books, three British, and one translation from a foreign tongue; in another there are ten books of British authorship and ten of American; and in a third there are six British authors represented and eight American.

In 1871 the firm was James R. Osgood & Company, and the proportion of books of American authorship was steadily increasing. I have not been able to find a full and complete list, but I know that the house published that year at least twenty-eight books by American authors, ten by British writers, and three translated from a modern language.

In 1881 the firm had become Houghton, Mifflin & Company, and it has kindly provided me with an accurate list of its publications during these twelve months. Omitting, as before, all new editions, we find that the house issued that year thirty-eight books by Americans, seven by British authors, and eleven volumes of translations.

In 1891 the proportion of native works still further increased. The American books published in that year by Messrs. Houghton, Mifflin & Company were sixty-nine, while the firm issued only seven volumes by British authors and two translations. A comparison of these figures with those of thirty years before show that the predecessors of Messrs. Houghton, Mifflin & Company published in 1861 about as many books of British authorship as of American; while in 1891 the firm sent forth ten times as many American books as it did British.

In going over the lists of Messrs. Harper & Brothers and of Messrs. Houghton, Mifflin & Company, I have resolutely cast out of account all school-books, because a consideration of these might have given a false impression, since the school-books of all Americans who were boys in 1861 were already of American authorship. I was a boy myself in 1861, and I never saw a school-book of British origin until after I had been in college for a year or two, and then it was only a single manual of political economy. When Noah Webster issued, in 1783, the first part of a Grammatical Institute of the English Language, afterwards known as Webster's Spelling Book, and as such sold for half a century to the extent of a million copies a year, an example was set which other American educators were prompt to follow.

For nearly a hundred years now the American school-boy has been supplied with American books suited to American conditions and inculcating American ideas. Nor is there any likelihood that this fortunate condition will ever change. The American Book Company, a publishing firm formed by the consolidation of four or five of the leading school-book houses of this country, supplies probably four-fifths of the books used in American schools. I have recently made a careful examination of its complete classified price-list of school and college text-books, with the eminently satisfactory result of finding in the first 500 titles only one book of foreign authorship.

Perhaps it was in consequence of the wholesome Americanism imparted in the school-room that American boys and girls demanded other books of American authorship. Certain it was that the department of the publishing trade which handles "juveniles," as they are called, gave an early preference to books describing life in America or from an American point of view. Peter Parley was a pioneer, and Jacob Abbott followed after; and I confess I am sorry for the boys and girls of Great Britain who did not know the joy of travelling through Europe with Rollo and Uncle George, the omniscient. From my own childhood I can recall only one volume of British origin, although of American manufacture; it was a sturdy tome called The Boy's Own Book, and it had strange wood-cuts of strangely chubby youths in strange Eton jackets.

In Doctor Holmes's paper on "The Seasons" (to be found in Pages from an Old Volume of Life), it is made evident that the American children of the second decade of this century were less fortunate than those of the seventh decade. Doctor Holmes tells us that he was educated on Miss Edgeworth and Evenings at Home. "There we found ourselves in a strange world, where James was called Jem, not Jim, as we always heard it; where one found cowslips in the fields, while what we saw were buttercups; where naughty school-boys got through a gap in the hedge to steal Farmer Giles's red-streaks, instead of shinning over the fence to hook old Daddy Jones's Baldwins; where there were larks and nightingales instead of yellow-birds and bobolinks; where the robin was a little domestic bird that fed at the table, instead of a great, fidgety, jerky, whooping thrush; where poor people lived in thatched cottages, instead of shingled ten-footers; where the tables were made of deal; where every village had its parson and clerk and beadle, its green-grocer, its apothecary who visited the sick, and its bar-maid who served out ale" (pp. 172-3).

And with the witty wisdom which is the secret of the Autocrat's power over us, he continues: "What a mess--there is no other word for it--what a mess was made of it in our young minds in the attempt to reconcile what we read about with what we saw! It was like putting a picture of Regent's Park in one side of a stereoscope and a picture of Boston Common on the other, and trying to make one of them. The end was that we all grew up with a mental squint which we could never get rid of. We saw the lark and the cowslip and the rest on the printed page with one eye, the bobolink and the buttercup, and so on, with the other in nature. This world is always a riddle to us at best; but those English children's books seemed so perfectly simple and natural, and yet were so alien to our youthful experiences that the Houyhnhnm primer could not have muddled our intellects more hopelessly."

The colonial habit of dependence on England for literature and of deference to British opinion is to be seen in the history of the American drama quite as distinctly as in the other departments of literature, and it is not yet wholly extinct. At first, of course, all our actors were of British birth. When the first American comedy, Royall Tyler's "Contrast," was played at the John Street Theatre in New York in 1787, the character of Jonathan the Yankee was undertaken by Thomas Wignell, a native of England. Thomas Abthorpe Cooper was criticised in London as an American, but he had been born in Great Britain. Edwin Forrest was the first distinguished tragedian who was a native of our continent. Since he set the example many an American actor has appeared in England, and Mr. Augustin Daly has taken his whole company of comedians to Europe repeatedly. Nowadays there are always performers of American birth and training in half a dozen of the leading London theatres.

Indeed, it might fairly be said that acting was the first of the arts to develop here in America; beyond all question it was the first that we began to export. But the art of the native American dramatist long lagged behind that of the native American actor. Perhaps even now there is still a lingering survival of the prejudice in favor of foreign plays, or, at least, against plays of American authorship. At present the foreign play most likely to be in favor is the French, but when the theatre was young in this country our sole reliance was on the British stage. Now we get light from Berlin and from Paris; then we saw no ray of hope except from London.

So complete was the dependence of the Park Theatre on Drury Lane and on Covent Garden in the early part of this century, that when our first native dramatist, William Dunlap, made adaptations of Kotzebue's plays he took good care not to avow his share in the work, allowing it to be supposed that his versions of the German originals were those which had been made for the London stage. Even as late as 1812, when Mr. J. N. Barker dramatized Marmion "the prejudice then existing against American authors"--to quote the words of Mr. Ireland, the historian of the New York stage--"was so great that the play was announced as the production of an English dramatist, and thus, with its fine cast, commanded an extraordinary success." Perhaps this is even more pitiful than Cooper's pretending to be an Englishman in his first novel.

To show the changes which have taken place in the composition of our play-bills during the past thirty years, I have had lists made of the plays which were advertised for performance in the first full week of January in 1861, 1871, 1881, and 1891. The result of the consideration of these lists is not as convincing as one could wish, for the performances of a single week are scarcely enough to furnish matter for the adequate comparison of one year with another. Yet the comparison is not without interest, and it seems to me indisputably instructive. All grand operas, all circuses, all menageries, all dime museums, all negro minstrel entertainments, and all those strange performances known, for some inscrutable reason, as "variety shows," are here left out of court, as having little or no connection with literature.

Making these deductions, we find that there were open in New York in the first week of January, 1861, seven places of amusement devoted to the drama, at only two of which were the plays wholly of American authorship; although at a third, where Edwin Forrest was acting, the American tragedy of "The Gladiator" shared the bill with the British tragedy of "Damon and Pythias." At the rest of the theatres the plays were of British authorship, that at Wallack's being "Pauline," a British dramatization of a French novel.

In the corresponding week of 1871 after making the same omissions, and after deducting also the performances in foreign languages, always very frequent in a city with a population as cosmopolitan as ours--making these allowances, we find seven theatres, at which three British plays are being performed and three American plays, and one play, if it can so be called, "The Black Crook," which was an American adaptation from the German. There was at this time a temporary prevalence of negro minstrelsy and the variety show.

In 1881 the New Yorker who went to the theatre during the first week in January had his choice of fifteen performances, and he could see nine plays of American authorship, two American adaptations from the German, two British adaptations from the French, and two plays of British authorship. The proportion of American plays seems overwhelming, and it was probably not maintained throughout the year, although the preceding decade had seen an extraordinary development of the American drama. Among those to be seen at this time in New York were "The Danites," "Hazel Kirke," and "The Banker's Daughter."

When we come to 1891 we see that the list of theatres offering a dramatic entertainment in the English language has swollen to twenty-one, and we note that the variety shows and the negro minstrel performances are now infrequent. At these twenty-one theatres we could see thirteen plays of American authorship, besides two American adaptations from the German, while at the same time there were also visible five plays by British authors and one British adaptation from the French. I may add also, and of my own knowledge, that the plays which were most popular, and therefore most profitable at this time, were all to be found among the thirteen of American authorship. It is a fact also that for fully forty years now the great pecuniary successes of the American theatre have been gained by plays of American life, and more especially of American character. "Uncle Tom's Cabin," "Rip Van Winkle," "Colonel Sellers," "My Partner," "The Danites," "The Banker's Daughter," "Held by the Enemy," and "Shenandoah" have had no foreign rivals in popularity except "The Two Orphans." Possibly exception should also be made of "The Shaughraun" and "Hazel Kirke," both written in America, although dealing with life in Europe.

It is to be noted that the Copyright act of 1891 has had, and will have, but little effect upon the foreign dramatist, because, for twenty years and more, judicial decisions in the United States courts had accorded him a full protection for his stage-right under the common law. Thus the American dramatist had been freed from the necessity of vending his wares in competition with stolen goods long before a like privilege had been vouchsafed to the American novelist.

A careful study of the figures here presented will convince the disinterested critic that the American dramatist has passed his foreign rival in the race for popularity, just as a careful study of the successive lists of Messrs. Harper & Brothers and Messrs. Houghton, Mifflin & Company will prove that the American author has also overtaken the foreigner. If there was truth once in Sir Henry Sumner Maine's assertion that we Americans offered the example of a literary servitude without parallel, that assertion is true no longer. The American author is now conscious of a demand from the American public for plays and for books which reflect American life and embody American character. Before another decade has closed the century, the proportion of works of foreign authorship to be seen in our book-stores and in our theatres is certain to be smaller still. Sooner or later the time will come when it will be profitable to reproduce in America only the best of books of foreign authors and only the best plays of foreign dramatists.

At the same time that the American author has been taking possession of his own country he has also been conquering abroad. I have not had time for the needful and laborious calculation, but I believe that an examination of the files of the London Athenæum and Saturday Review of 1861 would show that very few books of American authorship were deemed worthy of reprint and review in England, while an examination of their files for 1891 would reveal a surprisingly large proportion of books of American origin now considered as entitled to criticism. And I believe that this proportion is steadily increasing, and that more and more books published in the United States are every year reprinted in Great Britain, or exported for sale in London in editions of satisfactory size.

Of course the reputation of American authors has been spread abroad in England largely by the agency of the great American illustrated magazines, which have now an enormous circulation on the other side of the Atlantic. There are at least two American magazines which far outsell in England itself any British magazine of corresponding pretensions. A few British magazines and reviews continue to be imported into the United States, but they are very few indeed; I think that the total number of copies imported is less than the number exported of either of the two great American illustrated monthlies.

It is pleasant to be able to assert that this wide-spread popularity of the American magazines in England has not been due to any attempt to cater to the English market. On the contrary, the more obviously and frankly American these magazines are, the more marked is their success in England. No doubt a large part of this popularity is due to American superiority in wood-engraving, in process work, in printing, and to the liberality of the American publisher in paying for these embellishments; but a share as large is due to the skill with which the American magazines are edited, to their freshness, their brightness, their vivacity, to their national flavor, and especially to their larger scope and to their stronger understanding of the capabilities and the opportunities of the modern periodical.


[The end]
Brander Matthews's essay: Literary Independence Of The United States