- American Literature. A review of A History of American Literature, vol. II, ed. William P. Trent et al.
- The Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber & Faber Ltd
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[ 21 American Literature A review of A History of American Literature, vol. II ed. William P. Trent, John Erskine, Stuart P. Sherman, and Carl Van Doren Cambridge UP, 1918. Pp. x + 658. The Athenaeum, 4643 (25 Apr 1919) 236-37 This is Volume II of the American Supplement to the Cambridge History of English Literature. We look forward with gnawing curiosity to Volume III, wondering what it may contain besides the article on Brander Matthews which is apparently promised;1 for Volume II brings us up through a chapter on “Books for Children.” Did Professor Tassin of Columbia University, to whom this topic was allocated, warm to enthusiasm when he received his commission?2 Hehasdonehisworkwell,andsohavemostofhiscolleagues. But the book has the effect, not of a history, but of a collection of scattered essays on the various fragments of American letters, done by men who did not collaborate, but worked apart, and each with his own aim and method. It is inevitable that any work on American literature should contain a good deal of stuffing. The fault is not in the lack of material so much as in its lack of cohesion. There could be written a very instructive account of American Puritanism, with its interesting transition to Transcendentalism; but this would be a history not of American but of Boston literature, and it would turn out to be not so much a history of the brahminical canon of Boston literature as of Boston Society. The great figures of American literature are peculiarly isolated, and their isolation is an element, if not of their greatness, certainly of their originality. When we glance over the contents of most of the chapters we acquire some perception of how isolated the great figures are. Some of the subjects are too forbidding for any eye but that of the professional anthropologist – “Magazines, Annuals and Gift Books,” “Familiar Verse,” “Dialect Writers.” Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, on Daniel Webster, tries hard to make something literary out of it.3 He quotes from the “Bunker Hill Oration”: 1919 22 ] Let it rise (i.e., the monument), let it rise till it meet the sun in his coming ; let the earliest light of morning gild it, and parting day linger and play on its summit.  Senator Lodge’s comments follow: Here the thought is nothing, the style everything. No-one can repeat those words and be deaf to their music or insensible to the rhythm and beauty of the prose with the Saxon words relieved just sufficiently by the Latin derivatives.  The comment needs no comment. Miss Putnam, on Prescott, remarks enthusiastically that the historian’s wife “was a splendid comrade for her husband in the sheltered life that had to be his lot” .4 She fails to draw any comparison between Prescott and Motley and European historians which might enable us to value the two Americans at their proper rate. Professor MacMechan’s essay on Thoreau is good, but not written from any very fresh or surprising point of view.5 ThethreeimportantmeninthebookarePoe,WhitmanandHawthorne. Professor Campbell, writing on Poe, makes his article turn on Poe’s genuine and unappreciated merits as a critic.6 It is not a point of vast importance , as most of the writers whom Poe criticized are embalmed only in their coffins and in Poe’s abuse; but Poe’s intellectual abilities should not be overlooked; he was the directest, the least pedantic, the least pedagogical of the critics writing in his time in either America or England. It is a pity that Professor Campbell fails to analyse Poe’s peculiar originality as a poet. He perceives the relation of Poe to Byron, Moore and the Romantic movement in general, but misses observing that Poe is both the reductio ad absurdum and the artistic perfection of this movement.7 Professor Holloway’s article on Whitman tells of everything (including several interesting things) except his poetry.8 Professor Erskine’s “Hawthorne” is surely the most serious and intelligent essay in the volume.9 We must regret that this article is not supplemented elsewhere in the book by any coherent study of the society of which Hawthorne did not quite form a part. For this, Barrett Wendell’s Literary History of America remains the best reference.10 Such a supplement would be as useful to most Americans as to foreigners, inasmuch as in this context “foreigners” includes all Americans who are not New Englanders. Hawthorne was very much a New Englander, but he was...