The wide use of the author's History of English Literature, the favor with which it has been received in all parts of the United States, and the number of earnest requests for a History of American Literature on the same plan, have led to the writing of this book. It has not appeared sooner because the author has followed his rule of making a careful first-hand study, not only of all the matter discussed, but also of a far greater amount, which, although it must be omitted from a condensed textbook, is, nevertheless, necessary as a background for judgment and selection.
The following chapters describe the greatest achievements in American literature from the earliest times until the present. Many pupils fail to obtain a clear idea of great American authors and literary movements because textbook writers and teachers ignore the element of truth in the old adage, “The half is greater than the whole,” and dwell too much on minor authors and details, which could reasonably be expected to interest only a specialist. In the following pages especial attention has been paid, not only to the individual work of great authors, but also to literary movements, ideals, and animating principles, and to the relation of all these to English literature.
The author has further aimed to make this work both interesting and suggestive. He has endeavored to present the subject in a way that necessitates the comparison of authors and movements, and leads to stimulating thinking. He has tried to communicate enough of the spirit of our literature to make students eager for a first-hand acquaintance with it, to cause them to investigate for themselves this remarkable American record of spirituality, initiative, and democratic accomplishment. As a guide to such study, there have been placed at the end of each chapter Suggested Readings and still further hints, calledQuestions and Suggestions. In A Glance Backward, the author emphasizes in brief compass the most important truths that American literature teaches, truths that have resulted in raising the ideals of Americans and in arousing them to greater activity.
Any one who makes an original study of American literature will not be a mere apologist for it. He will marvel at the greatness of the moral lesson, at the fidelity of the presentation of the thought which has molded this nation, and at the peculiar aptness which its great authors have displayed in ministering to the special needs and aspirations of Americans. He will realize that the youth who stops with the indispensable study of English literature is not prepared for American citizenship, because our literature is needed to present the ideals of American life. There may be greater literatures, but none of them can possibly take the place of ours for citizens of this democracy.
The moral element, the most impressive quality in American literature, is continuous from the earliest colonial days until the present. Teachers should be careful not to obscure this quality. As the English scientist, John Tyndall, has shown in the case of Emerson, this moral stimulus is capable of adding immeasurably to the achievement of the young.
The temptation to slight the colonial period should be resisted. It has too often been the fashion to ask, Why should the student not begin the study of American literature with Washington Irving, the first author read for pure pleasure? The answer is that the student would not then comprehend the stages of growth of the new world ideals, that he would not view our later literature through the proper atmosphere, and that he would lack certain elements necessary for a sympathetic comprehension of the subject.
The seven years employed in the preparation of this work would have been insufficient, had not the author been assisted by his wife, to whom he is indebted not only for invaluable criticism but also for the direct authorship of some of the best matter in this book.
R. P. H.
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[Transcriber's note: Index not included in this electronic version.]