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An essay by Brander Matthews

Three American Essayists

Title:     Three American Essayists
Author: Brander Matthews [More Titles by Matthews]

"Whoever wishes to attain an English style, familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the study of Addison," said Doctor Johnson a many years ago; and Doctor Johnson's own style, elaborate if not artificial, and orotund if not polysyllabic, might no doubt have been improved if the writer of the Rambler had given more of his days and nights to the study of the chief writer of the Spectator. Doctor Johnson's advice is still quoted often, perhaps it is still followed sometimes. Yet it is outworn and not for to-day. We have nowadays better weapons than the Brown Bess Johnson appreciated so highly--breech-loading rifles incomparably superior to the smooth-bore he praises. Owing in part, no doubt, to the influence of Addison and to the advice of Johnson, we have had writers of late whose style is easier than Addison's, more graceful, more varied, more precise. Set a page of one of Addison's little apologues beside a page of one of Hawthorne's tales, and note how much more pellucid Hawthorne's style is, how much more beautiful, how much more distinguished. Contrast one of Addison's criticisms with one of Matthew Arnold's, and observe not only how much more complete is the terminology of the art now than it was when the Spectator was appearing twice a week, but also how much more acute and how much more flexible the mind of the later critic than the mind of the earlier.

Compare Addison's essays with those which Mr. George William Curtis has recently collected into a volume, From the Easy Chair, and you will see no reason to adopt any theory of literary degeneracy in our day. We are all of us the heirs of the ages, no doubt, but it is in an unusual degree that Mr. Curtis is the inheritor of the best traditions of the English essay. He is the direct descendant of Addison, whose style is overrated; of Steele, whose morality is humorous; of Goldsmith, whose writing was angelic, and of Irving, whose taste was pretty. Mr. Curtis recalls all of these, yet he is like none of them. Humorous as they are and charming, he is somewhat sturdier, of a more robust fibre, with a stronger respect for plain living and high thinking, with a firmer grasp on the duties of life.

For the most part these essays of Mr. Curtis's are pleasant papers of reminiscence, of gentle moralizing, and of kindly satire; but he is a swift and a careless reader who does not detect the underlying preachment which is at the core of most of them. Mr. Curtis is not content to scourge lightly the snobbery and the vulgarity which cling to the fringe of fashion, and sometimes get nearer to the centre of society; he also sets up a high standard of morality in public life. The divorce between Politics and Society--in the narrower meaning of the words--is not wholesome for either party. Mr. Curtis reminds us that "good government is one of the best things in the world," and that the wise man "knows that good things of that kind are not cheap." This is a quotation from the highly instructive and permanently pertinent paper on "Honestus at the Caucus," which begins with the assertion that "a man who is easily discouraged, who is not willing to put the good seed out of sight and wait for results, who desponds if he cannot obtain everything at once, and who thinks the human race lost if he is disappointed, will be very unhappy if he persists in taking part in politics. There is no sphere in which self-deception is easier."

There are but few essays with a political intention in this delightful little book. The rest are papers mainly about people, about "Edward Everett in 1862," and about "Emerson Lecturing," and about "Dickens Reading," and about "Robert Browning in Florence," and about "Wendell Phillips at Harvard," and about "A Little Dinner with Thackeray," and about Thoreau, who had "a staccato style of speech, every word coming separately and distinctly as if preserving the same cool isolation in the sentence that the speaker did in society." Not a few of them have to do with the players of the past, with the vocalists who are now but memories of dead and gone delight, with the performers on musical instruments--"Thalberg and other Pianists," "At the Opera in 1864," "Jenny Lind." Was the gentle Jenny Lind really a vocalist, or was she only a singer of songs, unforgetable now because she sang them? As we read these reminders of past delights we find ourselves wondering how Jenny Lind would please the denizens of certain Unmusical Boxes at the Metropolitan Opera-house, "who have an insatiable desire to proceed with their intellectual cultivation by audible conversation during the performance."

In the thick of the tussle of life here in this huge city of ours, where strident voices fill the market-place, the mellow note of the essayist is heard distinctly as he leans back in his Easy Chair, modulating every syllable with exquisite felicity. And perhaps the author of the Potiphar Papers is in his way quite as characteristic of New York as any of the more self-seeking notorieties who din into our ears the catalogue of their merits. In a great city there is room for all, for the boss and the heeler and the tough, as well as for the Tatler, the Spectator, the Idler, the Rambler, and the Citizen of the World.

A citizen of the world, Mr. Curtis is, beyond all question, really cosmopolitan; and, as Colonel Higginson told us a dozen years ago, "to be really cosmopolitan a man must be at home even in his own country." When Colonel Higginson came to New York last year to deliver before the Nineteenth Century Club the lecture on The New World and the New Book, which gives its title to a recent collection of his essays, this epigram was quoted by the president of the club in introducing the speaker of the evening. It is perhaps now the best known of Colonel Higginson's many sharp sayings; it is better known probably than his assertion that the American has "a drop more of nervous fluid" than the Englishman--an assertion which Matthew Arnold failed to understand but did not fail to denounce. No doubt it is hard for a writer as witty as Colonel Higginson to find one or two of his acute sentences quivering in the public memory, while others as well aimed fall off idly. But it is with the epigram as with the lyric; we shoot an arrow in the air, it falls to earth we know not where; and we can rarely foretell which shaft is going to split the willow wand.

Colonel Higginson need not be ashamed to go down to posterity as the author of one phrase, for many a writer is saved from oblivion by a single apothegm; nor need he be afraid of this fate, for there are "good things" a-plenty in this new volume, and some of them are certain to do good service in international combat, and to go hustling across the Atlantic again and again. There is an arsenal of epigram in the little essay called "Weapons of Precision," and it is pleasant to see that their effective range is more than 3000 miles. At that distance they have already wounded Mr. Andrew Lang, and forced from him a cry of pain. So sensitive did Mr. Lang show himself to these transatlantic darts that he allowed himself to reveal his ignorance of Colonel Higginson's work, of the Peabody Museum, and of various other men and things in America--a knowledge of which was a condition precedent to debate on the question.

This question is very simple: Is there such a man as an American? Has he ever done anything justifying his existence? Or is he simply a second-rate, expatriated Englishman, a colonist who is to say ditto forever and a day? If we are only debased duplicates of the Poor Islanders, then our experiment here is a failure, and our continued existence is not worth while. If we are something other than English, then it may be as well to understand ourselves, and to throw off any lingering bond of colonialism. This is what Colonel Higginson's book was intended to help us to do. "Nothing is further," he has said in his preface, from his "wish than to pander to any petty national vanity," his sole desire being to assist in creating a modest and reasonable self-respect. "The Civil War bequeathed to us Americans, twenty-five years ago, a great revival of national feeling; but this has been followed in some quarters, during the last few years, by a curious relapse into something of the old colonial and apologetic attitude." No doubt this attitude is not characteristic of the best; it is to be seen only in the East--chiefly in New York and in Boston--chiefly among the half-educated, for the man of wide culture looks for light rather to Paris and Berlin than to London.

Colonel Higginson proves abundantly, with a cloud of witnesses, that one of the differences between the American and the Englishman is the former's greater quickness. We are lighter and swifter in our appreciation of humor, for example. Indeed, it is amusing to observe that we speak of the English as obtuse in humor, just as they speak of the Scotch. I think that Colonel Higginson succeeds also in showing that there is greater fineness of taste in literature and in art in America; at least we do not take our dime novels seriously, while in England the leading weekly reviews really consider the stories of Miss Marryat and of Mr. Farjeon.

Of course "the added drop of nervous fluid" must be paid for somehow; in all international comparisons the great law of compensations holds good. Recently a leading American scientist told me that he thought there was, in American scientific work, a lack of the energy he had observed in the English. It was of pure science he was speaking; as far as applied science is concerned, there seems to be no lack of energy visible in the United States. That this criticism is just I cannot deny, having no wish to fall into the pitfall of discussing a subject of which I have no knowledge whatever. But if there is a possible loss of energy, there is an indisputable gain in mental flexibility, in openness of mind. There are Philistines in the United States, as there are in Great Britain, a many of them on both sides of the Atlantic; but between the British Philistine and the American there is an essential difference. The British Philistine knows not the light, and he hates it and he refuses to receive it. The American Philistine knows not the light, but he is not hostile, and he is not only ready to receive it, but eager. This is a difference which goes to the root of the matter.

I have delayed so long over the subject of Colonel Higginson's book that I have now no space to speak of its style or of its separate chapters. "Weapons of Precision" I have already praised; it is a protest against vulgarity of style--against the bludgeon and the boomerang as arms of debate; it is a series of swift, rapier-like thrusts, to be considered by all who think that our language is inferior to the French in point and in brilliancy. Indeed, the whole book may be commended to those who can enjoy style and wit and learning and a knowledge of the world and a wisdom derived from men as well as from books. Especially may the essays on the "Shadow of Europe," on the "Perils of American Humor," on the "Evolution of an American," and on the "Trick of Self-Depreciation" be recommended to all who are downcast about the position of literature and of the arts in these United States, or about the United States as a nation. These essays are tonic and stimulant; and if their Americanism may seem to some aggressive, this is a failing which might become more common than it is without becoming dangerous--if always it were characterized by knowledge as wide as Colonel Higginson's and by wit as keen.

To no one may I venture to recommend Colonel Higginson's book more urgently than to Miss Agnes Repplier, who has sent forth a second volume of her entertaining magazine articles grouped under the excellent title of Points of View. Miss Repplier is very clever and very colonial. Although a Philadelphian, she has apparently never heard of the Declaration of Independence. From the company she keeps it is perhaps not an unfair inference to suggest that she seems to be sorry that she is not herself a Poor Islander. She is a well-read woman, with all literature open before her, yet she quotes almost altogether from the contributors to the contemporary British magazines; and we feel that if birds of a feather flock together we have here in the eagle's nest by some mischance hatched a British sparrow.

Miss Repplier's subjects are excellent--"A Plea for Humor," "Books that Have Hindered Me," "Literary Shibboleths," "Fiction in the Pulpit," and the like; and she discusses them with ready humor and feminine individuality. She quotes abundantly and often aptly--and apt quotation is a difficult art. But the writers from whom she quotes are not always of that compliment. Bagehot had the gift of the winged phrase, and a quotation from his masculine prose is always welcome. But a glance down the list of the others from whom Miss Repplier quotes will show that she mischooses often. She seems to lack the sense of literary perspective; and for her one writer is apparently as good as another--so long as he is a contemporary Englishman.

There is no index to Miss Repplier's book, but I have found amusement in making out a hasty list of those from whom she quotes. I do not vouch for its completeness or for its absolute accuracy, but it will serve to show that she is more at home in Great Britain than in the United States, and that her mind travels more willingly in the little compartments of a British railway carriage than in the large parlor cars of her native land. Besides Bagehot she cites Mr. Lang, Mr. Birrell, Mr. Shorthouse, Mr. Frederic Harrison, Mr. Radford, Mr. Swinburne, Mr. George Saintsbury, Mr. Gosse, Mr. James Payn, Mr. Ruskin, Mr. Pater, Mr. Froude, Mr. Oscar Wilde, and Miss "Vernon Lee." There is also one quotation from Doctor Everett, and one more from Doctor Holmes, or perhaps two. But there is nothing from Lowell, than whom a more quotable writer never lived. In like manner we find Miss Repplier discussing the novels and characters of Miss Austen and of Scott, of Dickens, of Thackeray, and of George Eliot, but never once referring to the novels or characters of Hawthorne. Just how it was possible for any clever American woman to write nine essays in criticism, rich in references and quotations, without once happening on Lowell or on Hawthorne, is to me inexplicable.

Colonialism is scarcely an adequate explanation for this devotion to the first-rate, second-rate, and third-rate writers of a foreign country to the neglect of the first-rate writers of her own. Perhaps the secret is to be sought rather in Miss Repplier's lack of literary standards. In literature as in some other things a woman's opinion is often personal and accidental; it depends on the way the book has happened to strike her; the angle of reflection is equal to the angle of incidence. Miss Repplier fails to apprehend the distinction between the authors who are to be taken seriously and the writers who are not to be taken seriously--between the man of letters who is somebody and the scribbler who is merely, in the French phrase, quelconque--nobody in particular. There is no need to go over the list of the persons from whom Miss Repplier quotes, and with whose writings she seems to have an equal familiarity; certain names on it are those of comic personalities not to be accorded the compliment of serious criticism.

Despite Miss Repplier's reliance on those British authors who have come to America to enlighten us with lectures in words of one syllable--to borrow a neat phrase of Colonel Higginson's--her Points of View are well chosen, and the outlook from them is pleasant. She writes brightly always, and often brilliantly. She does herself injustice by her deference to those whom she invites to her board, for she is better company than her guests. Her criticism one need not fully agree with to call it generally sensible and well put, and sometimes necessary. Perhaps her best pages contain her protest against critical shams and literary affectations. She has no patience with the man who, while really liking Mr. Haggard's tales of battle, murder, and sudden death, absurdly pretends to a preference for Tolstoï and Ibsen, whom his soul abhors. She has pleasant humor in her remark that those who read Robert Elsmere nowadays would think it wrong to enjoy Tom Jones, while the people who enjoyed Tom Jones--when it first came out--would have thought it wrong to read Robert Elsmere; and "that the people who, wishing to be on the safe side of virtue, think it wrong to read either, are scorned greatly as lacking true moral discrimination."

A bias in favor of one's own countrymen is absurd when it leads us to accept native geese for swans of Avon; but even then it is more creditable than a bias in favor of foreigners. So it is to be hoped that some of Miss Repplier's Philadelphian friends will take her to Independence Hall next Fourth of July and show her the bell that proclaimed liberty throughout the land. Then, on their way home, they might drop into a book-store and make Miss Repplier a present of Colonel Higginson's The New World and the New Book, and of Mr. Henry Cabot Lodge's Studies in History (wherein is to be found his acute account of "Colonialism in America"), and also of that volume of Lowell's prose which contains the famous essay "On a Certain Condescension in Foreigners."


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Brander Matthews's essay: Three American Essayists