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THE THEME-SONG OF AMERICAN CRITICISM CLARENCE GOHDES "l X TH,EN the echoes of the Revolutionary War were V V ~eginning to be lost amid the noise of shipbuilding , the groans ofwaggoD-wheeis crossing the Appalachians, and the oratorical clamours of the politicians whose theories were to shape the national destiny, a very significant literary movement in America was the hurried manufacture of epics to extol the merits of the new nation and to prophesy the triumph of democratic principles. That these hasty and imitative performances should have failed to satisfy the critics of the day-so far as there were any-goes without saying, for it was not long before American literary men were echoing the query uttered with such vicious force by Sydney Smith: "Who reads an American book?" A reader of the magazines published in the United States during the thirties and forties is struck by the repeated inquiries of critics as to the existence of solid American works and the reasons for their absence. One of Emerson's best known, but weakest, performances, his Harvard Phi Beta Kappa oration, is an example of the partial treatment of a topic already well-worn by r837, "What is wrong with American creative genius?" The same subject came to occupy a prominent place in American criticism during the dismaying in tellectual lull which followed the Civil War, when the energies of the country seemed completely absorbed by the new industrialism , which made ante-bellum days appear romantically naive in the eyes of a nation approaching economic self-sufficiency. Even after the good old writers like Longfellow, Whittier, and Hawthorne had become hirsute 49 THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY portraits for public walls and their works had been established as "classics" for the school-room, the themesong was still sung by the critics. Walt Whitman was a " human interest" case who somehow had attracted atten tion in England, presumably as a misrepresen tative of American crudeness; Howells, with his love of the "foolish and insipid face" of "poor Real Life," was too Boston-plated; and the younger men somehow failed to arrive. If they once wrote a fairly successful work, they followed the way of all American flesh and merely made money. Later, when the "debunkers" were in power and the 1920'S attempted to show that America had come of age, the same tune was sung. One curious about the antiquities of the period will do well to look at Civilhation in the United States, edited by Harold Stearns ·in 1 922, and containing blasting essays, calculated to deflate the national ego, by J ohn Macy, Conrad Aiken, H. L. Mencken, and others. The examples, the corpora vilia, changed from year to year, but not the theme. The general topic of American criticism was still the same one which the Transcendentalists had discussed in 1836 at the first meeting of their club: "American genius-the causes which hinder its growth, giving us no first-rate productions." With such historic background I may perhaps be forgiven for playing my own variations on the theme-songvariations which are obvious enough, but like all obvious facts, occasionally lost in the discord of the "controlled madness" which Mr. Santayana describes as human thought. One of the chief reasons assigned by the critics for the weakness of the American Ii terary tradition is foreign influence. They have sung out in a wailful choir: "\il/arum ist es am Rhein so schon, and not 50 THE THEME·SONG OF AMERICAN CRITICISM on the banks of the Wabash?" . Aping British models in particular, American writers have seemed merely imitative , their products "genteel" and effeminate. So goes the story. That there is a certain amoun t of tru th in the criticism is readily seen, yet the whole truth is by no means stated. Indeed, in subjects of such broad scope, wi th thousands of personalities involved, there can be no complete statement of opinion, let alone truth. But from one angle at least the matter of foreign, influence upon American genius appears inept as an explanation of Iiterary barrenness. Particularly is thi~ true when it is remembered that in certain periods of extraordinary fruitfulness we...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 49-65
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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