"The Critic" Essay on American Literature by Emma Lazarus, June 18, 1881 (Page 1 of 2)
Published Fortnightly. Office, No. 757 Broadway. Entered as Second-class Mail Matter at the Post-Office at New York, N.Y.
NEW YORK, JUNE 18, 1881
In the May number of the Fortnightly Review Mr. George Edward Woodberry dogmatizes in a singular way concerning the "Fortunes of Literature under the American Republic." "Among us," he writes, "literature has no continuous tradition; where the torch fell, it was extinguished. Irving, it is true, had imitators who came to nothing; but our fiction does not seem to be different because Hawthorne lived; no poet has caught the music of Longfellow; no thinker carries forward the conclusions of Emerson. These men have left no lineage...We have not earned the right to claim them as a national possession." The merest tyro in the study of American literature can unravel this flimsy web of sophistries. In the first place we have yet to learn that in the sense of producing imitators, the influence of a man of genius is beneficial. On the contrary, we consider the shoal of imitators of the few first-class living poets of England--Tennyson, Morris, Swinburne, and Browning--one of the worst pests of contemporary literature. Who cares a fig for the imitators of Thackeray, of Dickens, of Carlyle? All these great men have marked mannerisms of style which make them the easy prey of a host of petty tricksters, who do all in their power by a cheap imitation of the outward form to disgust the world with the original, inimitable thought. The modern novel was invented, not by an Englishman, but by Balzac; Thackeray did not take up the torch extinguished in the hands of Scott, but appropriated what was his own in the immense world discovered by the Frenchmen. It may be remember, too, that contemporary English criticism declared Dickens's early work to be imitative of an American's--Irving. What would be said of an American who placed himself so conspicuously and shamelessly under the guidance of foreign leaders, as did Carlyle under the banner of Germany? The language which we share in common with England gives a false air of resemblance to productions that have infinitely less in common than have those of Carlyle with the works of Jean-Paul and the German romantic school.
Emerson stands isolated by his superiority in the sense that all men of genius are isolated, even from their followers; but whoever fails to see in Emerson's works the flowering of a distinctively American school of thought and habit of life, fails to understand the essential spirit of his teachings. Moreover, "his conclusions" are "carried forward," and tot heir extreme development, by a fellow-townsman of his own, only second to him in intellectual force, and with a still stronger local flavor--the poet-naturalist, Henry Thoreau. Again, in our own generation it is difficult to conceive of, otherwise than as a successor of these two, the keen-eyed observer of Nature and charming reporter of her open secrets, John Burroughs. Individual and sincere though he be, the influence of Emerson and Thoreau is strongly felt through his writings, which could have been produced nowhere else than in America. Let Mr. Woodberry take up any number of the Atlantic Monthly, any volume of New England essays or poetry, and judge whether the influence, as subtle as it is strong, of the transcendental idealist Emerson has not penetrated through all superficial practicalities and vulgarities to the very fibre of our best intellectual life. Is Mr. Woodberry quite fair in selecting Donatello as the representative type of Hawthorne's genius, and adding, "Except for the accident of the author's birth, the character would be as welcome in England as in America?" This is as if e should choose "Romola" for our example, and say, "Except for the accident of George Eliot's birth, she would be as welcome in Italy as in England." In each case we unjustly exclude the essentially national and even more powerful works of the same author. What foreigner could have given us the inside view of New England Puritanism presented in the "Scarlet Letter," or have created the character of Hester Prynne? Did not the history of Salem "contribute an important element to the growth of Hawthorne's genius," which we have "a right to claim as a national possession?" Why does Mr. Woodberry persistently put forward, as the only American poet, Longfellow, and ignore (Except as a writer of sensational tales) Edgar Poe, "whose cup was small, but who drank from his own glass," as emphatically as did Alfred de Musset, or Keats, or Tennyson? Is it by accident that Walt Whitman was born in America, or Lowell, or Holmes, or Bret Harte, or the author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," or, to come down to the present moment, the men who wrote the "Fool's Errand," and "Creole Days?" "To-day," affirms Mr. Woodberry, "American authors make their reputation by English criticism, and American magazines are rivals for English pens." It is surprising that so ridiculously obsolete a tradition as this should still endeavor to pass current. The Atlantic Monthly has never depended for its reputation upon foreign contributions, and it is notorious that the success of Scribner's Monthly and of Harper's has been based upon their national character.
For evils that do not exist, Mr. Woodberry is at no loss to discover causes equally mythical. He complains of the lack of good critics, and describes the habit of American critics as being simply to "give a synopsis of the work before them"; yet, after reading French, German, Italian, and English articles, amid the flood of criticisms upon Carlyle, with which the world has been deluged since his death, we found by far the most discriminating and intelligent analysis of his genius among the essays of an American--Mr. Lowell; while one of the most just and sympathetic estimates of Carlyle's personality appeared in a Boston magazine over the signature of the elder Henry James; and Emerson's reminiscences, published in a New York monthly, painted a portrait that could have come only from the hand of a master. Mr. Stedman, in his criticisms of America and English poets, Mr. Henry James, Jr., in his volume on the French poets and novelists, and, in their more elaborate and critical articles, Mr. Stoddard and Mr. Howells, compare favorably with the leading European critics. So far from true is it that "American authors make their reputation by English criticism" that we do not hesitate to reject and ridicule the English verdict of men whom we consider ourselves better fitted to understand--as in the case of a certain poet, whom all the lion hunters of London could not foist upon America as anything higher than a second-rate singer. On the other hand, in some instances, American critics have founded the reputation of English books. Carlyle's now hackneyed sentence "I hear many echoes, but only one voice--from Concord," ascribed to the right quarter the first rumor of his frame. It is less well-known, but equally true, that the same authoritative voice was among the first to proclaim the greatness of the authors of the "Idylls of the Kings," and "Peg Woffington." In short, we cannot help thinking that the literary history of the past fifty years in England--the only period with which it can, with any show of justice, be compared.
E.P. DUTTON & CO, will publish in September a volume of sermons by the late Bishop Odenheimer of New Jersey, with an introductory memoir edited by hist wife.
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. ""The Critic" Essay on American Literature by Emma Lazarus, June 18, 1881 (Page 1 of 2)." (Viewed on November 15, 2019) <https://jwa.org/media/american-literature-0>.