CHAPTER VII. THE EASTERN REALISTS
FROM ROMANTICISM TOWARD REALISM.—The enormous circulation of magazines in the United States has furnished a wide market for the writers of fiction. Magazines have especially stimulated the production of short stories, which show how much technique their authors have learned from Poe. The increased attention paid to fiction has led to a careful study of its guiding principles and to the formation of new rules for the practice of the art.
When we look back at the best work of earlier writers of American fiction, we shall find that it is nearly all romantic. In the eighteenth century, Charles Brockden Brown wrote in conformity to the principles of early romanticism, and combined the elements of strangeness and terror in his tales. The modified romanticism persisting through the greater part of the nineteenth century demanded that the unusual should at least be retained in fiction as a dominating factor. Irving's Rip Van Winkle has the older element of the impossible, and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow shows fascinating combinations of the unusual. Cooper achieved his greatest success in presenting the Indians and the stalwart figure of the pioneer against the mysterious forest as a background. Hawthorne occasionally availed himself of the older romantic materials, as in The Snow Image, Rappaccini's Daughter, and Young Goodman Brown , but he was more often attracted by the newer elements, the strange and the unusual, as in The Scarlet Letter andThe House of the Seven Gables. Poe followed with a combination of all the romantic materials,—the supernatural, the terrible, and the unusual. Bret Harte applied his magnifying glass to unusual crises in the strange lives of the western pioneers. By a skillful use of light and shadow, Mark Twain heightened the effect of the strange scenes through which he passed in his young days. Almost all the southern writers, from Simms to Cable and Harris, loved to throw strong lights on unusual characters and romantic situations.
The question which the romanticists, or idealists, as they were often called in later times, had accustomed themselves to ask, was, “Have these characters or incidents the unusual beauty or ugliness or goodness necessary to make an impression and to hold the attention?” The masters of the new eastern school of fiction took a different view, and asked, “Is our matter absolutely true to life?”
REALISM IN FICTION.—The two greatest representatives of the new school of realism in fiction are William D. Howells and Henry James. Both have set forth in special essays the realist's art of fiction. The growing interest in democracy was the moving force in realism. In that realist's textbook, Criticism and Fiction (1891), Howells says of the aristocratic spirit in literature:—
“It is averse to the mass of men; it consents to know them only in some
conventionalized and artificial guise.... Democracy in literature is the
reverse of all this. It wishes to know and to tell the truth, confident
that consolation and delight are there; it does not care to paint the
marvelous and impossible for the vulgar many, or to sentimentalize and
falsify the actual for the vulgar few.”
“Realism is nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material,” says Howells. He sometimes insists on considering “honesty” and “realism” as synonymous terms. His primary object is not merely to amuse by a pleasant story or to startle by a horrible one. His object is to reflect life as he finds it, not only unusual or exceptional life. He believes that it is false to real life to overemphasize certain facts, to overlook the trivial, and to make all life dramatic. He says that the realist in fiction “cannot look upon human life and declare this thing or that thing unworthy of notice, any more than the scientist can declare a fact of the material world beneath the dignity of his inquiry.”
Howells recognizes the great importance of the spirit of romanticism, and says that it was at the beginning of the nineteenth century
”... making the same fight against effete classicism which realism is
making to-day against effete romanticism.... The romantic of that day and
the real of this are in certain degree the same. Romanticism then sought,
as realism seeks now, to widen the bounds of sympathy, to level every
barrier against aesthetic freedom, to escape from the paralysis of
tradition. It exhausted itself in this impulse; and it remained for
realism to assert that fidelity to experience and probability of motive
are essential conditions of a great imaginative literature.”
Henry James in his essay, The Art of Fiction, denies that the novelist is less concerned than the historian about the quest for truth. He says, “The only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does compete with life. When it ceases to compete as the canvas of the painter competes, it will have arrived at a very strange pass.” To the intending novelist he says:—
“All life belongs to you, and don't listen either to those who would shut
you up into corners of it and tell you that it is only here and there
that art inhabits, or to those who would persuade you that this heavenly
messenger wings her way outside of life altogether, breathing a superfine
air and turning away her head from the truth of things.”
It must not be supposed that Howells and James were the original founders of the realistic school, any more than Wordsworth, Coleridge, and their associates were the originators of the romantic school. History has not yet discovered the first realist or the first romanticist. Both schools have from time to time been needed to hold each other in check. Howells makes no claim to being considered the first realist. He distinctly says that Jane Austen (1775-1817) had treated material with entire truthfulness. Henry James might have discovered that Fielding had preceded him in writing, “It is our business to discharge the part of a faithful historian, and to describe human nature as it is, not as we would wish it to be.”
An occasional revolt against extreme romanticism is needed to bring literature closer to everyday life. The tendency of the followers of any school is to push its conclusions to such an extreme that reaction necessarily sets in. Some turned to seek for the soul of reality in the uninteresting commonplace. Others learned from Shakespeare the necessity of looking at life from the combined point of view of the realist and the romanticist, and they discovered that the great dramatist's romantic pictures sometimes convey a truer idea of life than the most literal ones of the painstaking realist. Critics have pointed out that the original History of Dr. Faustus furnished Marlowe with a realistic account of Helen of Troy's hair, eyes, “pleasant round face,” lips, “neck, white like a swan,” general figure, and purple velvet gown, but that his two romantic lines:—
“Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?”
enable any imaginative person to realize her fascination better than pages of realistic description. But we must not forget that it was an achievement for the writers of this group to insist that truth must be the foundation for all pictures of life, to demonstrate that even the pillars of romanticism must rest on a firm basis in a world of reality, and to teach the philosophy of realism to a school of younger writers.
By no means all of the eastern fiction, however, is realistic. THOMAS BAILEY ALDRICH (1836-1907), for instance, wrote in a romantic vein The Story of a Bad Boy, which ranks among the best boys' stories produced in the last half of the nineteenth century. There were many other writers of romantic fiction, but the majority of them at least felt the restraining influence of the realistic school.
REALISM IN POETRY.—One eastern poet, Walt Whitman, took a step beyond any preceding American poet in endeavoring to paint with realistic touches the democracy of life. He defined the poet as the indicator of the path between reality and the soul. He thus proclaims his realistic creed:—
“I will not have in my writing any elegance or effect or originality to
hang in the way between me and the rest like curtains. I will have
nothing hang in the way, not the richest curtains. What I tell I tell for
precisely what it is. Let who may exalt or startle or fascinate or
soothe, I will have purposes as health or heat or snow has and be as
regardless of observation. You shall stand by my side and look in the
mirror with me.”
The subject of his verse is the realities of democracy. No other great American poet had indulged in realism as extreme as this:—
“The butcher-boy puts off his killing-clothes, or sharpens his knife
at the stall in the market,
I loiter enjoying his repartee and his shuffle and break-down.”
Whitman says boldly:—
“And the cow crunching with depress'd head surpasses any statue.”
He discarded ordinary poetic meter, because it seemed to lack the rhythm of nature. It is, however, very easy for a poet to cross the line between realism and idealism, and we sometimes find adherents of the two schools disagreeing whether Whitman was more realist or idealist in some of his work, for instance, in a line or verse unit, like this, when he says:—
“That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly wash
again, and ever again, this soil'd world.”
The fact that not all the later eastern poets were realistic needs emphasis. Thomas Bailey Aldrich, perhaps the most noted successor of New England's famous group, was frequently an exquisite romantic artist, or painter in miniature, as these eight lines which constitute the whole of his poem, Identity, show:—
“Somewhere—in desolate wind-swept space—
In Twilight-land—in No-man's-land—
Two hurrying Shapes met face to face,
And bade each other stand.
“And who are you?' cried one, agape,
Shuddering in the gloaming light.
'I know not,' said the second Shape,
'I only died last night!'“
WILLIAM DEAN HOWELLS, 1837-1920
The foremost leader of realism in modern American fiction, the man who influenced more young writers than any other novelist of the last quarter of the nineteenth century, was William Dean Howells, who was born in Martin's Ferry, Ohio, in 1837. He never went to college, but obtained valuable training as a printer and editor in various newspaper offices in Ohio. He was for many years editor of the Atlantic Monthly and an editorial contributor to the New York Nation and Harper's Magazine. In these capacities, as well as by his fiction, he reached a wide public. Later he turned his attention mainly to the writing of novels. So many of their scenes are laid in New England that he is often claimed as a New England writer.
His strongest novels are A Modern Instance (1882), The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), The Minister's Charge (1886), Indian Summer (1886), and A Hazard of New Fortunes (1889). These belong to the middle period of his career. Before this, his mastery of character portrayal had not culminated, and later, his power of artistic selection and repression was not so strictly exercised.
The Rise of Silas Lapham is a story of the home life and business career of a self-made merchant, who has the customary braggadocio and lack of culture, but who possesses a substantial integrity at the root of his nature. The little shortcomings in social polish, so keenly felt by his wife and daughters, as they rise to a position due to great wealth, the small questions of decorum, and the details of business take up a large part of the reader's attention; but they are treated with such ease, naturalness, repressed humor, refinement of art, and truth in sketching provincial types of character, that the story is a triumph of realistic creation. A Modern Instance is not so pleasant a book, but the attention is firmly held by the strong, realistic presentation of the jealousy, the boredom, the temptations, and the dishonesty exhibited in a household of a commonplace, ill-mated pair. Indian Summer begins well, proceeds well, and ends well. It may be a trifle more conventional than the two other novels just mentioned, but it is altogether delightful. The conversations display keen insight into the heart of the young, imaginative girl and of the older woman and man. The Minister's Charge is thoroughly individual. The young boy seems so close to his readers that every detail in his life becomes important. The other people are also full of real blood, while the background is skillfully arranged to heighten the effect of the characters. A Hazard of New Fortunes would be decidedly improved if many pages were omitted, but it is full of lifelike characters, and it sometimes approaches the dramatic, in a way unusual with Howells.
In his effort to present life without any misleading ideas of heroism, beauty, or idyllic sweetness, Howells sometimes goes so far toward the opposite extreme as to write stories that seem to be filled with commonplace women, humdrum lives, and men like Northwick in The Quality of Mercy, of whom one of the characters says:—
“He was a mere creature of circumstances like the rest of us! His
environment made him rich, and his environment made him a rogue.
Sometimes I think there was nothing to Northwick except what happened
But in such work as the five novels enumerated, Howells shows decided ability in portraying attractive characters, in making their faults human and as interesting as their virtues, in causing ordinary life to yield variety of incident and amusing scenes, and, finally, in engaging his characters in homelike, natural, self-revealing conversations, which are often spiced with wit.
Howells does not always have a plot, that is, a beginning, a climax, and a solution of all the questions suggested. He has, of course, a story, but he does not find it necessary to present the entire life of his characters, if he can accurately portray them by one or more incidents. After that purpose is accomplished, the story often ceases before the reader feels that a real ending has been reached.
Howells rarely startles or thrills; he usually both interests and convinces his readers by a straightforward presentation of everyday, well-known scenes and people. The strongest point in his art is the easy, natural way in which he seems to be retailing faithfully the facts exactly as they happened, without any juggling or rearranging on his part. His characters are so clearly presented that they do not remain in dreary outline, but emerge fully in rounded form, as moving, speaking, feeling beings. His keen insight into human frailties, his delicate, pervading humor, his skill in handling conversations, and his delightfully clear, easy, natural, and familiar style make him a realist of high rank and a worthy teacher of young writers.
HENRY JAMES, 1843-1916
The name most closely associated with Howells is that of Henry James, who was born in New York. William James (1842-1910) the noted psychologist, was an older brother. Henry James is called an “international novelist” because he lived mostly abroad and laid the scenes of his novels in both Europe and America. His sympathy with England in the European war caused him to become a British subject in 1915, eight months before his death in 1916.
Like Howells, James was a leader in modern realistic fiction. His work has been called the “quintessence of realism.” But instead of selecting, as Howells does, the well-known types of the average people, James prefers to study the ordinary mind in extraordinary situations, surroundings, and combinations. For this reason, his characters, while realistically presented, rarely seem well-known and obvious types.
James was the first American to succeed in the realistic short story, that is, the story stripped of the supernatural and romantic elements used by Hawthorne and Poe. James selects neither a commonplace nor a dramatic situation, but chooses some difficult and out-of-the-way theme, and clears it up with his keen, subtle, impressionistic art. A Passionate Pilgrim, The Madonna of the Future, and The Lesson of the Master are short stories that show his abstruse, unusual subject matter and his analytical methods.
He was a very prolific writer. He published as many as three volumes in twelve months. Year after year, with few exceptions, he brought out either a novel, a book of essays, or a volume of short stories. His most interesting novels are Roderick Hudson (1875), Daisy Miller: A Study (1878), The Portrait of a Lady (1881), and The Princess Casamassima (1886).
Daisy Miller is a brilliant study of the Italian experiences of an American girl of the unconventionally independent type. She is beautiful, frank, original, but whimsical, shallow, and headstrong. One minute she attracts, the next moment she repels. One feels baffled and provoked, but is held to the book by the spell of a writer who is clever, intellectual, a master of style, and a skilled scientist in dissecting human character. In Roderick Hudson and The Portrait of a Lady, the characters are much more interesting, the situations are larger, the human emotion deeper, and the books richer from every point of view. These novels also show Americans in European surroundings. Isabel Archer and Ralph Touchet in The Portrait of a Lady have qualities that deeply stir the admiration and emotions. Every scene in which these characters appear adds to the pleasure in being able to know and love them, even though they are merely characters in a book.
Only a few such persons as these, so rich in the qualities of the heart, appear in James's novels. He has portrayed a greater variety of men and women than any other American writer, but they usually interest him for some other quality than their power to love and suffer. He is tempted to regard life from the intellectual viewpoint, as a problem, a game, and a panorama. He does not, like Hawthorne, enter into the sanctuary and become the hero, laying the lash of remorse upon his back. James stands off, a disinterested onlooker, and exhibits his characters critically, accurately, minutely, as they take their parts in the procession or game. Brilliant and faultless as the portraits are, they too frequently appear cold, pitiless renditions of life, often of life too trivial to seem worthy the searching study that he gives it. Ralph Touchet, Roderick Hudson, Isabel Archer, and Miss Light are sufficient to prove the tremendous power possessed by James to present the emotional side of life. Both in theory and practice, however, he usually prefers to remain the disinterested, impartial, detached spectator.
Like Howells, James does not depend upon a plot. There is little action in his works. The interest is psychological, and a chance word, an encounter on the street, even a look, may serve to change an attitude of mind and affect the outcome.
The popular impression that James is impossible to understand and that he uses words to obscure his meaning is, of course, false, although in his later novels his style is extremely involved and often difficult to follow. In such works as The Wings of a Dove (1902) and The Golden Bowl (1904), for example, there are long and intricate psychological explanations, which are most abstruse and confusing. It is this later work which has given rise to the common saying that William James wrote psychology like a novelist, and Henry James, novels like a psychologist.
Judged by his best work, however, such as The Portrait of a Lady and Roderick Hudson, Henry James must be acknowledged a master of English style. His keen analytical mind is reflected in a brilliant, highly polished, and impressively incisive style. In a few perfectly selected words the subtlest thoughts are clearly revealed. In these masterpieces, the reader is constantly delighted by the artist's skill, which leads ever deeper into human motives after it would seem that the heart and mind could disclose no further secrets. Such skill shows a mastery of language rarely surpassed in fiction. At his best, James has a fineness and sureness of touch, and a command of perfectly fitting words, as well as elegance and grace in style.
MARY E. WILKINS FREEMAN, 1862-
Mary Eleanor Wilkins (Mrs. Freeman), known for her realistic stories of the provincial New Englander, was born in Randolph, Massachusetts. With humor to see the little eccentricities of the people among whom she lived and a sympathetic understanding of their heroic qualities, she has created real men and women,—farmers, school teachers, prim spinsters, clergymen, stern Roman matrons,—all unmistakable types of New England village life. Her unfailing ability to transplant the reader into rock-ribbed, snow-clad New England, with its many fond associations for most Americans, is proof of her power as an artist. Her art is subtle, and it commands both attention and admiration, as she reveals every slight move in a simple plot and with extraordinary deftness of touch brings out the most delicate shadings that differentiate her characters.
Her style is easy and clear, and is pervaded by a fine sense of humor. Her short stories are her most artistic work, especially those in the two volumes, A New England Nun, and Silence and Other Tales; but she can also tell a long story well, as is shown in Pembroke, which combines at their best all her qualities as a novelist.
She is distinctly a realist of Howells's school, presenting the daily rounds of the life which she knew intimately, and making complete stories of such meager material as the subterfuges which two poor but proud sisters practiced in order to make one black silk dress, owned in partnership, appear as if each really possessed “a gala dress.” She takes stolid, practical characters, who have seemingly nothing attractive in their composition, and by her sympathetic treatment causes them to appeal strongly to human hearts. She discovers heroic qualities in apparently commonplace homes and families, and finds humorous or pathetic possibilities in men and women whom most writers would consider very unpromising. Miss Wilkins knows that in rural New England romantic things do happen, tragedies do occur, and heroes and heroines do appear in unexpected quarters to meet emergencies, and she occasionally transfers such events to her pages, thereby enlivening them without sacrificing the reality of her pictures. But the triumph of her art consists in her facile handling of simple incidents and everyday men and women and her power to carry them without a hint of sentimentality to a natural, artistic, effective climax, heightened usually by a touch of either humor or pathos.
WALT WHITMAN, 1819-1892
Life.—Suffolk County, Long Island, in which is situated the village of West Hills, where Walt Whitman was born in 1819, was in some ways the most remarkable eastern county in the United States. Hemmed in on a narrow strip of land by the ocean on one side and Long Island Sound on the other, the inhabitants saw little of the world unless they led a seafaring life. Many of the well-to-do farmers, as late as the middle of the nineteenth century, never took a land journey of more than twenty miles from home. Because of such restricted environment, the people of Suffolk County were rather insular in early days, yet the average grade of intelligence was high, for some of England's most progressive blood had settled there in the first half of the seventeenth century.
Nowhere else in this country, not even at the West, was there a greater feeling of independence and a more complete exercise of individuality. There was a certainty about life and opinions, a feeling of relationship with everybody, a defiance of convention, that made Suffolk County the fit birthplace of a man who was destined to trample poetic conventions under his feet and to sing the song of democracy. In Walt Whitman's young days, all sorts and conditions of men on Long Island met familiarly on equal terms. The farmer, the blacksmith, the carpenter, the mason, the woodchopper, the sailor, the clergyman, the teacher, the young college student home on his vacation,—all mingled as naturally as members of a family. No human being felt himself inferior to any one else, so long as the moral proprieties were observed. Nowhere else did there exist a more perfect democracy of conscious equals. Although Whitman's family moved to Brooklyn before he was five years old, he returned to visit relatives, and later taught school at various places on Long Island and edited a paper at Huntington, near his birthplace. In various ways Suffolk County was responsible for the most vital part of his early training. In his poem, There Was a Child Went Forth, he tells how nature educated him in his island home. In his prose work, Specimen Days and Collect, which all who are interested in his autobiography should read, he says, “The successive growth stages of my infancy, childhood, youth, and manhood were all pass'd on Long Island, which I sometimes feel as if I had incorporated.”
Like Mark Twain, Walt Whitman received from the schools only a common education but from life he had an uncommon training. His chief education came from associating with all sorts and conditions of people. In Brooklyn he worked as a printer, carpenter, and editor. His closest friends were the pilots and deck hands of ferry boats, the drivers of New York City omnibuses, factory hands, and sailors. After he had become well known, he was unconventional enough to sit with a street car driver in front of a grocery store in a crowded city and eat a watermelon. When people smiled, he said, “They can have the laugh—we have the melon.”
His Suffolk County life might have left him democratic but insular; but he traveled widely and gained cosmopolitan experience. In 1848 he went leisurely to New Orleans, where he edited a newspaper, but in a short time he journeyed north along the Mississippi, traveled in Canada, and finally returned to New York, having completed a trip of eight thousand miles.
After his return, he seems to have worked with his father in Brooklyn for about three years, building and selling houses. He was then also engaged on a collection of poems, which, in 1855, he published under the title of Leaves of Grass. From this time he was known as an author.
In 1862 he went South to nurse his brother, who was wounded in the Civil War. For nearly three years, the poet served as a volunteer nurse in the army hospitals in Washington and its vicinity. Few good Samaritans have performed better service. He estimated that he attended on the field and in the hospital eighty thousand of the sick and wounded. In after days many a soldier testified that his recovery was aided by Whitman's kindly ministrations. Finally, however, his own iron constitution gave way under this strain.
When the war closed, he was given a government clerkship in Washington, but was dismissed in 1865, because of hostility aroused by his Leaves of Grass. He soon received another appointment, however, which he held until 1873, when a stroke of paralysis forced him to relinquish his position. He went to Camden, New Jersey, where he lived the life of a semi-invalid during the rest of his existence, writing as his health would permit. He died in 1892, and was buried in Harleigh Cemetery, near Camden.
POETRY.—Whitman gave to the world in 1855 the first edition of the poems, which he called Leaves of Grass. His favorite expression, “words simple as grass,” and his line:—
“I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars,”
give a clue to the idea which prompted the choice of such an unusual title. He continued to add to these poems during the rest of his life, and he published in 1892 the tenth edition of Leaves of Grass, in a volume containing four hundred and twenty-two closely printed octavo pages.
Whitman intended Leaves of Grass to be a realistic epic of American democracy. He tried to sing this song as he heard it echoed in the life of man and man's companion, Nature. While many of Whitman's poems have the most dissimilar titles, and record experiences as unlike as his early life on Long Island, his dressing of wounds during the Civil War, his comradeship with the democratic mass, his almost Homeric communion with the sea, and his memories of Lincoln, yet according to his scheme, all of this verse was necessary to constitute a complete song of democracy. His poem, I Hear America Singing, shows the variety that he wished to give to his democratic songs:—
“I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand
singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as
The woodcutter's song, the ploughboy's on his way in the morning, or
at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of
the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else.”
His ambition was to put human life in America “freely, fully, and truly on record.”
His longest and one of his most typical poems in this collection is called Song of Myself, in which he paints himself as a representative member of the democratic mass. He says:—
“Agonies are one of my changes of garments,
I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the
My hurts turn livid upon me as I lean on a cane and observe.
* * * * *
Not a youngster is taken for larceny but I go up too, and am tried and
In these four lines, he states simply what must be the moving impulse of a democratic government if it is to survive. Here is the spirit that is to-day growing among us, the spirit that forbids child labor, cares for orphans, enacts model tenement laws, strives to regenerate the slum districts, and is increasing the altruistic activities of clubs and churches throughout the country. But these verses will not submit to iambic or trochaic scansion, and their form is as strange as a democratic government was a century and a half ago to the monarchies of Europe. Place these lines beside the following couplet from Pope:—
“Self-love and Reason to one end aspire,
Pain their aversion, Pleasure their desire.”
Here the scansion is regular, the verse polished, the thought undemocratic. The world had long been used to such regular poetry. The form of Whitman's verse came as a distinct shock to the majority.
Sometimes what he said was a greater shock, as, for instance, the line:—
“I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”
For a considerable time many people knew Whitman by this one line alone. They concluded that he was a barbarian and that all that he said was “yawp.” Although much of his work certainly deserved this characterization, yet those who persisted in reading him soon discovered that their condemnation was too sweeping, as most were willing to admit after they had read, for instance, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd, a poem that Swinburne called “the most sonorous nocturn yet chanted in the church of the world.” The three motifs of this song are the lilac, the evening star, and the hermit thrush:—
“Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul,
There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.”
In the same class we may place such poems as Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking, where we listen to a song as if from
“Out of the mocking-bird's throat, the musical shuttle.”
Whitman also wrote in almost regular meter his dirge on Lincoln, the greatest dirge of the Civil War:—
“O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting.”
In 1888 Whitman wrote that “from a worldly and business point of view, Leaves of Grass has been worse than a failure—that public criticism on the book and myself as author of it yet shows mark'd anger and contempt more than anything else.” But he says that he had comfort in “a small band of the dearest friends and upholders ever vouchsafed to man or cause.” He was also well received in England. He met with cordial appreciation from Tennyson. John Addington Symonds (1840-1893), a graduate of Oxford and an authority on Greek poetry and the Renaissance, wrote, “Leaves of Grass, which I first read at the age of twenty-five, influenced me more, perhaps, than any other book has done except the Bible; more than Plato, more than Goethe.” Had Whitman lived until 1908, he would probably have been satisfied with the following statement from his biographer, Bliss Perry, formerly professor of English at Princeton, “These primal and ultimate things Whitman felt as few men have ever felt them, and he expressed them, at his best, with a nobility and beauty such as only the world's very greatest poets have surpassed.”
GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS. His most pronounced single characteristic is his presentation of democracy:—
“Stuff'd with the stuff that is coarse and stuff'd with the stuff that is
He said emphatically, “Without yielding an inch, the working man and working woman were to be in my pages from first to last.” He is the only American poet of his rank who remained through life the close companion of day laborers. Yet, although he is the poet of democracy, his poetry is too difficult to be read by the masses, who are for the most part ignorant of the fact that he is their greatest representative poet.
He not only preached democracy, but he also showed in practical ways his intense feeling of comradeship and his sympathy with all. One of his favorite verses was
“And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own
funeral drest in his shroud.”
His Civil War experiences still further intensified this feeling. He looked on the lifeless face of a son of the South, and wrote:—
”... my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead.”
Like Thoreau, Whitman welcomed the return to nature. He says:—
“I am enamour'd of growing out-doors,
Of men that live among cattle or taste of the ocean or woods.”
He is the poet of nature as well as of man. He tells us how nature educated him:—
“The early lilacs became part of this child,
And grass and white and red morning-glories, and white and red
clover, and the song of the phoebe-bird,
And the Third-month lambs and the sow's pink-faint litter, and the
mare's foal and the cow's calf.”
He delights us
”... with meadows, rippling tides and trees and flowers and grass,
And the low hum of living breeze—and in the midst God's beautiful
eternal right hand.”
No American poet was more fond of the ocean. Its aspect and music, more than any other object of nature, influenced his verse. He addresses the sea in lines like these:—
“With husky-haughty lips, O sea!
Where day and night I wend thy surf-beat shore,
Imaging to my sense thy varied strange suggestions,
(I see and plainly list thy talk and conference here,)
Thy troops of white-maned racers racing to the goal,
Thy ample, smiling face, dash'd with the sparkling dimples of the sun.”
He especially loves motion in nature. His poetry abounds in the so-called motor images. [Footnote: For a discussion of the various types of images of the different poets, see the author's Education of the Central Nervous System, Chaps. VII., VIII., IX., X.] He takes pleasure in picturing a scene
“Where the heifers browse, where geese nip their food with short jerks,”
or in watching
“The white arms out in the breakers tirelessly tossing.”
While his verse is fortunately not without idealistic touches, his poetic theory is uncompromisingly realistic, as may be seen in his critical prose essays, some of which deserve to rank only a little below those of Lowell and Poe. Whitman says:—
“For grounds for Leaves of Grass, as a poem, I abandoned the
conventional themes, which do not appear in it: none of the stock
ornamentation, or choice plots of love or war, or high exceptional
personages of Old-World song; nothing, as I may say, for beauty's
sake—no legend or myth or romance, nor euphemism, nor rhyme.”
His unbalanced desire for realism led him into two mistakes. In the first place, his determination to avoid ornamentation often caused him to insert in his poems mere catalogues of names, which are not bound together by a particle of poetic cement. The following from his Song of Myself is an instance:—
“Land of coal and iron! land of gold! land of cotton, sugar, rice!
Land of wheat, beef, pork! land of wool and hemp! land of the apple
and the grape!”
In the second place, he thought that genuine realism forbade his being selective and commanded him to put everything in his verse. He accordingly included some offensive material which was outside the pale of poetic treatment. Had he followed the same rule with his cooking, his chickens would have been served to him without removing the feathers. His refusal to eliminate unpoetic material from his verse has cost him very many readers.
He further concluded that it was unfitting for a democratic poet to be hampered by the verse forms of the Old World. He discarded rhyme almost entirely, but he did employ rhythm, which is determined by the tone of the ideas, not by the number of syllables. This rhythm is often not evident in a single line, but usually becomes manifest as the thought is developed. His verse was intended to be read aloud or chanted. He himself says that his verse construction is “apparently lawless at first perusal, although on closer examination a certain regularity appears, like the recurrence of lesser and larger waves on the seashore, rolling in without intermission, and fitfully rising and falling.” There is little doubt that he carried in his ear the music of the waves and endeavored to make his verse in some measure conform to that. He says specifically that while he was listening to the call of a seabird
”... on Paumanok's [Footnote: The Indian name for Long Island.] gray
With the thousand responsive songs at random,
My own songs awaked from that hour,
And with them the key, the word up from the waves.”
In ideals he is most like Emerson. Critics have called Whitman a concrete translation of Emerson, and have noticed that he practiced the independence which Emerson preached in the famous lecture on The American Scholar (p. 185). In 1855 Emerson wrote to Whitman: “I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of Leaves of Grass. I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.”
Whitman is America's strangest compound of unfiltered realism, alloyed with rich veins of noble idealism. No students of American democracy, its ideals and social spirit, can afford to leave him unread. He sings, “unwarped by any influence save democracy,”
“Of Life, immense in passion, pulse, and power,
Cheerful, for freest action form'd under the laws divine.”
Intelligent sympathy with the humblest, the power to see himself “in prison shaped like another man and feel the dull unintermitted pain,” prompts him to exclaim:—
“I seize the descending man and raise him with resistless will.”
An elemental poet of democracy, embodying its faults as well as its virtues, Whitman is noteworthy for voicing the new social spirit on which the twentieth century is relying for the regeneration of the masses.
American fiction had for the most part been romantic from its beginning until the last part of the nineteenth century. Charles Brockden Brown, Irving, Cooper, Hawthorne, Poe, Bret Harte, and Mark Twain were all tinged with romanticism. In the latter part of the last century, there arose a school of realists who insisted that life should be painted as it is, without any addition to or subtraction from reality. This school did not ask, “Is the matter interesting or exciting?” but, “Is it true to life?”
Howells and James were the leaders of the realists. Howells uses everyday incidents and conversations. James not infrequently takes unusual situations, so long as they conform to reality, and subjects them to the most searching psychological analysis. Mary Wilkins Freeman, a pupil of Howells, shows exceptional skill in depicting with realistic interest the humble life of provincial New England. While this school did not turn all writers into extreme realists, its influence was felt on the mass of contemporary fiction.
Walt Whitman brings excessive realism into the form and matter of verse. For fear of using stock poetic ornaments, he sometimes introduces mere catalogues of names, uninvested with a single poetic touch. He is America's greatest poet of democracy. His work is characterized by altruism, by all-embracing sympathy, by emphasis on the social side of democracy, and by love of nature and the sea.
Stanton's A Manual of American Literature.
Alden's Magazine Writing and the New Literature.
Perry's A Study of Prose Fiction, Chap. IX., Realism.
Howells's Criticism and Fiction.
Burt and Howells's The Howells Story Book. (Contains biographical matter.)
Henry James's The Art of Fiction.
Phelps's William Dean Howells, in Essays on Modern Novelists.
Brownell's Henry James, in American Prose Masters.
Canby's The Short Story in English. (James.)
Whitman's Leaves of Grass (1897), 446 pp. (Contains all of his poems, the publication of which was authorized by himself.)
Triggs's Selections from the Prose and Poetry of Walt Whitman . (The best for general readers.)
Perry's Walt Whitman, his Life, and Work. (Excellent.)
G. R. Carpenter's Walt Whitman.
Platt's Walt Whitman. (Beacon Biographies)
Noyes's An Approach to Walt Whitman. (Excellent.)
Bucke's Walt Whitman. (A biography by one of his executors.)
In Re Walt Whitman, edited by his literary executors. (Supplements Bucke.)
Burroughs's Whitman: A Study.
Symonds's Walt Whitman: A Study.
Dowden's The Poetry of Democracy, in Studies in Literature .
Stevenson's Familiar Studies of Men and Books. (Whitman.)
Whitman's Works, edited by Triggs. (Putnam Subscription Edition.) Vol. X. contains a bibliography and reference list of 98 pp.
THE PROSE REALISTS.—Sections II., XV., and XXVIII., from Howells's Criticism and Fiction. Silas Lapham is the best of his novels. Those who desire to read more should consult the list on p. 373 of this book.
In Henry James, read either The Portrait of a Lady or Roderick Hudson. A Passionate Pilgrim, and The Madonna of the Future are two of his best short stories.
Read any or all of these short stories by Mary Wilkins Freeman: A New England Nun, A Gala Dress, in the volume, A New England Nun and Other Stories, Evelina's Garden, in the volume, Silence and Other Stories. Her best long novel is Pembroke.
WALT WHITMAN.—While the majority of his poems should be left for mature years, the following, carefully edited by Triggs in his volume of Selections, need not be deferred:—
Song of Myself, Triggs, pp. 105-120. (Begin with the line on p. 105, “A child said, What is the Grass?“), Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking, pp. 154-160, I Hear America Singing , p. 100,Reconciliation p. 175, O Captain! My Captain, p. 184, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed, pp. 176-184, Patrolling Barnegat, p. 163, With Husky-Haughty Lips, O Sea! p. 232.
Selections from his prose, including Specimen Days, Memoranda of the War, and his theories of art and poetry, may be found in Triggs, pp. 3-95.
QUESTIONS AND SUGGESTIONS
THE PROSE REALISTS.—To what school did the best writers in American fiction belong, prior to the last quarter of the nineteenth century? What was the subject of each? What is the realistic theory advanced by Howells? In what respects does this differ from the practice of the romantic school?
Take any chapter of Silas Lapham and of either The Portrait of a Lady, or of Roderick Hudson, and show how Howells and James differ from the romanticists. What difference do you notice in the realistic method and in the style of Howells and of James?
What special qualities characterize the work of Mary Wilkins Freeman? What is the secret of her success in so employing a little realistic incident as to hold the reader's attention? Compare the two short stories, The Madonna of the Future (James) and A New England Nun (Wilkins Freeman) and show how James's interest lies in the subtle psychological problem, while Mrs. Freeman's depends on the unfolding of simple emotions. It will also be found interesting to compare the method of that early English realist Jane Austen, e.g. in her novel Emma, with the work of the American realists.
In general, do you think that the romantic or the realistic school has the truer conception of the mission and art of fiction? Why is it desirable that each school should hold the other in check?
WALT WHITMAN.—How did his early life prepare him to be the poet of democracy? To what voices does he specially listen in his poem, I Hear America Singing? In his Song of Myself, point out some passages that show the modern spirit of altruism. In Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking, what lines best show his lyric gift? What individual objects stand out most strongly and poetically? Could this poem have been written by one reared in the middle West? Why does he select the lilacs, evening star, and hermit thrush, as the motifs of the poem, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd? In Patrolling Barnegat, do you notice any resemblance to Anglo-Saxon poetry of the sea, e.g. to Beowulf or The Seafarer? In With Husky-Haughty Lips, O Sea! what touches are unlike those of Anglo-Saxon poets? (See the author's History of English Literature, pp. 21, 25, 33, 35, 37.) Which of Whitman's references to nature do you consider the most poetic? How does O Captain! My Captain! differ in form from the other poems indicated for reading? What qualities in his verse impress you most?
A GLANCE BACKWARD
Lack of originality is a frequent charge against young literatures, but the best foreign critics have testified to the originality of the Knickerbocker Legend, of Leatherstocking, of the great Puritan romances, in which the Ten Commandments are the supreme law, of the work of that southern wizard who has taught a great part of the world the art of the modern short story and who has charmed the ear of death with his melodies, of America's unique humor, so conspicuous in the service of reform and in rendering the New World philosophy doubly impressive.
American literature has not only produced original work, but it has also delivered a worthy message to humanity. Franklin has voiced an unsurpassed philosophy of the practical. Emerson is a great apostle of the ideal, an unexcelled preacher of New World self-reliance. His teachings, which have become almost as widely diffused as the air we breathe, have added a cubit to the stature of unnumbered pupils. We still respond to the half Celtic, half Saxon, song of one of these:—
“Luck hates the slow and loves the bold,
Soon come the darkness and the cold.”
American poets and prose writers have disclosed the glory of a new companionship with nature and have shown how we,
”... pocketless of a dime may purchase the pick of the earth.”
After association with them, we also feel like exclaiming:—
“Earth of the vitreous pour of the full moon just tinged with blue!
... rich apple-blossom'd earth!
Smile, for your lover comes.”
No other literature has so forcibly expressed such an inspiring belief in individuality, the aim to have each human being realize that this plastic world expects to find in him an individual hero. Emerson emphasized “the new importance given to the single person.” No philosophy of individuality could be more explicit than Walt Whitman's:—
“The whole theory of the universe is directed unerringly to one
single individual,—namely to You.”
This emphasis on individuality is an added incentive to try “to yield that particular fruit which each was created to bear.” We feel that the universe is our property and that we shall not stop until we have a clear title to that part which we desire. As we study this literature, the moral greatness of the race seems to course afresh through our veins, and our individual strength becomes the strength of ten.
No other nation could have sung America's song of democracy:—
“Stuff'd with the stuff that is coarse and stuff'd with the stuff
that is fine.”
The East and the West have vied in singing the song of a new social democracy, in holding up as an ideal a
”... love that lives
On the errors it forgives,”
in teaching each mother to sing to her child:—
“Thou art one with the world—though I love thee the best,
And to save thee from pain, I must save all the rest.
Thou wilt weep; and thy mother must dry
The tears of the world, lest her darling should cry.”
True poets, like the great physicians, minister to life by awakening faith. The singers of New England have made us feel that the Divine Presence stands behind the darkest shadow, that the feeble hands groping blindly in the darkness will touch God's strengthening right hand. Amid the snows of his Northland, Whittier wrote:—
“I know not where his islands lift
Their fronded palms in air;
I only know I cannot drift
Beyond his love and care.”
Lanier calls from the southern marshes, fringed with the live oaks “and woven shades of the vine”:—
“I will fly in the greatness of God as the marsh-hen flies
In the freedom that fills all the space 'twixt the marsh and the skies:
By so many roots as the marsh-grass sends in the sod
I will heartily lay me a-hold on the greatness of God.”
The impressive moral lesson taught by American literature is a presence not to be put by. Lowell's utterance is typical of our greatest authors:—
“Not failure, but low aim, is crime.”
Hawthorne wrote his great masterpiece to express this central truth:—
“To the untrue man, the whole universe is false,—it is impalpable,—
it shrinks to nothing within his grasp.”
Finally, American literature has striven to impress the truth voiced in these lines:—
“As children of the Infinite Soul
Our Birthright is the boundless whole....
“High truths which have not yet been dreamed,
Realities of all that seemed....
“No fate can rob the earnest soul
Of his great Birthright in the boundless whole!”