The American Spirit in Literature
By Bliss Perry

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Chapter V. The Knickerbocker Group

The Fourth of July orator for 1826 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was Edward Everett. Although only thirty-two he was already a distinguished speaker. In the course of his oration he apostrophized John Adams and Thomas Jefferson as venerable survivors of that momentous day, fifty years earlier, which had witnessed our Declaration of Independence. But even as Everett was speaking, the aged author of the Declaration breathed his last at Monticello, and in the afternoon of that same day Adams died also, murmuring, it is said, with his latest breath, and as if with the whimsical obstinacy of an old man who hated to be beaten by his ancient rival, “Thomas Jefferson still lives.” But Jefferson was already gone.

On the first of August, Everett commemorated the career of the two Revolutionary leaders, and on the following day a greater than Everett, Daniel Webster, pronounced the famous eulogy in Faneuil Hall. Never were the thoughts and emotions of a whole country more adequately voiced than in this commemorative oratory. Its pulse was high with national pride over the accomplishments of half a century. “I ask,” Everett declared, “whether more has not been done to extend the domain of civilization, in fifty years, since the Declaration of Independence, than would have been done in five centuries of continued colonial subjection?” Webster asserted in his peroration: “It cannot be denied, but by those who would dispute against the sun, that with America, and in America, a new era commences in human affairs. This era is distinguished by free representative governments, by entire religious liberty, by improved systems of national intercourse, by a newly awakened and an unconquerable spirit of free enquiry, and by a diffusion of knowledge through the community such as has been before altogether unknown and unheard of.”

Was this merely the “tall talk” then so characteristic of American oratory and soon to be satirized in “Martin Chuzzlewit”? Or was it prompted by a deep and true instinct for the significance of the vast changes that had come over American life since 1776? The external changes were familiar enough to Webster’s auditors: the opening of seemingly illimitable territory through the Louisiana Purchase, the development of roads, canals, and manufactures; a rapid increase in wealth and population; a shifting of political power due to the rise of the new West–in a word, the evidences of irrepressible national energy. But this energy was inadequately expressed by the national literature. The more cultivated Americans were quite aware of this deficiency. It was confessed by the pessimistic Fisher Ames and by the ardent young men who in 1815 founded “The North American Review.” British critics in “The Edinburgh” and “The Quarterly,” commenting upon recent works of travel in America, pointed out the literary poverty of the American soil. Sydney Smith, by no means the most offensive of these critics, declared in 1820: “During the thirty or forty years of their independence they have done absolutely nothing for the sciences, for the arts, for literature . . . . In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book? or goes to an American play? or looks at an American picture or statue?”

Sydney Smith’s question “Who reads an American book?” has outlived all of his own clever volumes. Even while he was asking it, London was eagerly reading Irving’s “Sketch Book.” In 1821 came Fenimore Cooper’s Spy and Bryant’s “Poems,” and by 1826, when Webster was announcing in his rolling orotund that Adams and Jefferson were no more, the London and Paris booksellers were covering their stalls with Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans." Irving, Cooper, and Bryant are thus the pioneers in a new phase of American literary activity, often called, for convenience in labeling, the Knickerbocker Group because of the identification of these men with New York. And close behind these leaders come a younger company, destined likewise, in the shy boyish words of Hawthorne, one of the number, “to write books that would be read in England.” For by 1826 Hawthorne and Longfellow were out of college and were trying to learn to write. Ticknor, Prescott, and Bancroft, somewhat older men, were settling to their great tasks. Emerson was entering upon his duties as a minister. Edgar Allan Poe, at that University of Virginia which Jefferson had just founded, was doubtless revising “Tamerlane and Other Poems” which he was to publish in Boston in the following year. Holmes was a Harvard undergraduate. Garrison had just printed Whittier’s first published poem in the Newburyport “Free Press.” Walt Whitman was a barefooted boy on Long Island, and Lowell, likewise seven years of age, was watching the birds in the treetops of Elmwood. But it was Washington Irving who showed all of these men that nineteenth century England would be interested in American books.

The very word Knickerbocker is one evidence of the vitality of Irving’s happy imaginings. In 1809 he had invented a mythical Dutch historian of New York named Diedrich Knickerbocker and fathered upon him a witty parody of Dr. Mitchill’s grave “Picture of New York.” To read Irving’s chapters today is to witness one of the rarest and most agreeable of phenomena, namely, the actual beginning of a legend which the world is unwilling to let die. The book made Sir Walter Scott’s sides ache with laughter, and reminded him of the humor of Swift and Sterne. But certain New Yorkers were slow to see the joke.

Irving was himself a New Yorker, born just at the close of the Revolution, of a Scotch father and English mother. His youth was pleasantly idle, with a little random education, much theater-going, and plentiful rambles with a gun along the Hudson River. In 1804 he went abroad for his health, returned and helped to write the light social satire of the “Salmagundi Papers,” and became, after the publication of the “Knickerbocker History,” a local celebrity. Sailing for England in 1815 on business, he stayed until 1832 as a roving man of letters in England and Spain and then as Secretary of the American Legation in London. “The Sketch Book,” “Bracebridge Hall,” and “Tales of a Traveler” are the best known productions of Irving’s fruitful residence in England. The “Life of Columbus,” the “Conquest of Granada,” and “The Alhambra” represent his first sojourn in Spain. After his return to America he became fascinated with the Great West, made the travels described in his “Tour of the Prairies,” and told the story of roving trappers and the fur trade in “Captain Bonneville” and “Astoria.” For four years he returned to Spain as American Minister. In his last tranquil years at Sunnyside on the Hudson, where he died in 1859, he wrote graceful lives of Goldsmith and of Washington.

Such a glance at the shelf containing Irving’s books suggests but little of that personal quality to which he owes his significance as an interpreter of America to the Old World. This son of a narrow, hard, Scotch dealer in cutlery, this drifter about town when New York was only a big slovenly village, this light-hearted scribbler of satire and sentiment, was a gentleman born. His boyhood and youth were passed in that period of Post-Revolutionary reaction which exhibits the United States in some of its most unlovely aspects. Historians like Henry Adams and McMaster have painted in detail the low estate of education, religion, and art as the new century began. The bitter feeling of the nascent nation toward Great Britain was intensified by the War of 1812. The Napoleonic Wars had threatened to break the last threads of our friendship for France, and suspicion of the Holy Alliance led to an era of national self-assertion of which the Monroe Doctrine was only one expression. The raw Jacksonism of the West seemed to be gaining upon the older civilizations represented by Virginia and Massachusetts. The self-made type of man began to pose as the genuine American. And at this moment came forward a man of natural lucidity and serenity of mind, of perfect poise and good temper, who knew both Europe and America and felt that they ought to know one another better and to like one another more. That was Irving’s service as an international mediator. He diffused sweetness and light in an era marked by bitterness and obscuration. It was a triumph of character as well as of literary skill.

But the skill was very noticeable also. Irving’s prose is not that of the Defoe-Swift-Franklin-Paine type of plain talk to the crowd. It is rather an inheritance from that other eighteenth century tradition, the conversation of the select circle. Its accents were heard in Steele and Addison and were continued in Goldsmith, Sterne, Cowper, and Charles Lamb. Among Irving’s successors, George William Curtis and Charles Dudley Warner and William Dean Howells have been masters of it likewise. It is mellow human talk, delicate, regardful, capable of exquisite modulation. With instinctive artistic taste, Irving used this old and sound style upon fresh American material. In “Rip van Winkle" and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” he portrayed his native valley of the Hudson, and for a hundred years connoisseurs of style have perceived the exquisite fitness of the language to the images and ideas which Irving desired to convey. To render the Far West of that epoch this style is perhaps not “big” and broad enough, but when used as Irving uses it in describing Stratford and Westminster Abbey and an Old English Christmas, it becomes again a perfect medium. Hawthorne adopted it for “Our Old Home,” and Englishmen recognized it at once as a part of their own inheritance, enriched, like certain wines, by the voyage across the Atlantic and home again. Irving wrote of England, Mr. Warner once said, as Englishmen would have liked to write about it. When he described the Alhambra and Granada and the Moors, it was the style, rich both in physical sensation and in dreamlike reverie, which revealed to the world the quick American appreciation of foreign scenes and characters. Its key is sympathy.

Irving’s popularity has endured in England. It suffered during the middle of the century in his own country, for the strongest New England authors taught the public to demand more thought and passion than were in Irving’s nature. Possibly the nervous, journalistic style of the twentieth century allows too scanty leisure of mind for the full enjoyment of the Knickerbocker flavor. Yet such changes as these in literary fashion scarcely affect the permanent service of Irving to our literature. He immortalized a local type–the New York Dutchman–and local legends, like that of Rip van Winkle; he used the framework of the narrative essay to create something almost like the perfected short story of Poe and Hawthorne; he wrote prose with unfailing charm in an age when charm was lacking; and, if he had no message, it should be remembered that some of the most useful ambassadors have had none save to reveal, with delicacy and tact and humorous kindness, the truth that foreign persons have feelings precisely like our own.

Readers of Sir Walter Scott’s “Journal” may remember his account of an evening party in Paris in 1826 where he met Fenimore Cooper, then in the height of his European reputation. “So the Scotch and American lions took the field together,” wrote Sir Walter, who loved to be generous. “The Last of the Mohicans," then just published, threatened to eclipse the fame of “Ivanhoe." Cooper, born in 1789, was eighteen years younger than the Wizard of the North, and was more deeply indebted to him than he knew. For it was Scott who had created the immense nineteenth century audience for prose fiction, and who had evolved a kind of formula for the novel, ready for Cooper’s use. Both men were natural story-tellers. Scott had the richer mind and the more fully developed historical imagination. Both were out-of-doors men, lovers of manly adventure and of natural beauty. But the American had the good fortune to be able to utilize in his books his personal experiences of forest and sea and to reveal to Europe the real romance of the American wilderness.

That Cooper was the first to perceive the artistic possibilities of this romance, no one would claim. Brockden Brown, a Quaker youth of Philadelphia, a disciple of the English Godwin, had tried his hand at the very end of the eighteenth century upon American variations of the Gothic romance then popular in England. Brown had a keen eye for the values of the American landscape and even of the American Indian. He had a knack for passages of ghastly power, as his descriptions of maniacs, murderers, sleep-walkers, and solitaries abundantly prove. But he had read too much and lived too little to rival the masters of the art of fiction. And there was a traveled Frenchman, Chateaubriand, surely an expert in the art of eloquent prose, who had transferred to the pages of his American Indian stories, “Atala” and “Rene,” the mystery and enchantment of our dark forests and endless rivers. But Chateaubriand, like Brockden Brown, is feverish. A taint of old-world eroticism and despair hovers like a miasma over his magnificent panorama of the wilderness. Cooper, like Scott, is masculine.

He was a Knickerbocker only by adoption. Born in New Jersey, his childhood was spent in the then remote settlement of Cooperstown in Central New York. He had a little schooling at Albany, and a brief and inglorious career at Yale with the class of 1806. He went to sea for two years, and then served for three years in the United States Navy upon Lakes Ontario and Champlain, the very scene of some of his best stories. In 1811 he married, resigned from the Navy, and settled upon a little estate in Westchester County, near New York. Until the age of thirty, he was not in the least a bookman, but a healthy, man of action. Then, as the well-known anecdote goes, he exclaims to his wife, after reading a stupid English novel, “I believe I could write a better story myself.” “Precaution” (1820) was the result, but whether it was better than the unknown English book, no one can now say. It was bad enough. Yet the next year Cooper published “The Spy,” one of the finest of his novels, which was instantly welcomed in England and translated in France. Then came, in swift succession, “The Pioneers,” the first Leather-Stocking tale in order of composition, and “The Pilot,” to show that Scott’s “Pirate” was written by a landsman! “Lionel Lincoln” and “The Last of the Mohicans” followed. The next seven years were spent in Europe, mainly in France, where “The Prairie” and “The Red Rover” were written. Cooper now looked back upon his countrymen with eyes of critical detachment, and made ready to tell them some of their faults. He came home to Cooperstown in 1833, the year after Irving’s return to America. He had won, deservedly, a great fame, which he proceeded to imperil by his combativeness with his neighbors and his harsh strictures upon the national character, due mainly to his lofty conception of the ideal America. He continued to spin yarns of sea and shore, and to write naval history. The tide of fashion set against him in the eighteen-forties when Bulwer and Dickens rode into favor, but the stouthearted old pioneer could afford to bide his time. He died in 1851, just as Mrs. Stowe was writing “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

Two generations have passed since then, and Cooper’s place in our literature remains secure. To have written our first historical novel, “The Spy,” our first sea-story, “The Pilot,” and to have created the Leather-Stocking series, is glory enough. In his perception of masculine character, Cooper ranks with Fielding. His sailors, his scouts and spies, his good and bad Indians, are as veritable human figures as Squire Western. Long Tom Coffin, Harvey Birch, Hawk-Eye, and Chingachgook are physically and morally true to life itself. Read the Leather-Stocking books in the order of the events described, beginning with “The Deerslayer,” then “The Last of the Mohicans,” “The Pathfinder," “The Pioneers”, and ending with the vast darkening horizon of “The Prairie” and the death of the trapper, and one will feel how natural and inevitable are the fates of the personages and the alterations in the life of the frontier. These books vary in their poetic quality and in the degree of their realism, but to watch the evolution of the leading figure is to see human life in its actual texture.

Clever persons and pedantic persons have united to find fault with certain elements of Cooper’s art. Mark Twain, in one of his least inspired moments, selected Cooper’s novels for attack. Every grammar school teacher is ready to point out that his style is often prolix and his sentences are sometimes ungrammatical. Amateurs even criticize Cooper’s seamanship, although it seemed impeccable to Admiral Mahan. No doubt one must admit the “helplessness, propriety, and incapacity” of most of Cooper’s women, and the dreadfulness of his bores, particularly the Scotchmen, the doctors, and the naturalists. Like Sir Walter, Cooper seems to have taken but little pains in the deliberate planning of his plots. Frequently he accepts a ready-made formula of villain and hero, predicament and escape, renewed crisis and rescue, mystification and explanation, worthy of a third-rate novelist. His salvation lies in his genius for action, the beauty and grandeur of his landscapes, the primitive veracity of his children of nature. Cooper was an elemental man, and he comprehended, by means of something deeper than mere artistic instinct, the feelings of elemental humanity in the presence of the wide ocean or of the deep woods. He is as healthy and sane as Fielding, and he possesses an additional quality which all of the purely English novelists lack. It was the result of his youthful sojourn in the wilderness. Let us call it the survival in him of an aboriginal imagination. Cooper reminds one somehow of a moose–an ungraceful creature perhaps, but indubitably big, as many a hunter has suddenly realized when he has come unexpectedly upon a moose that whirled to face him in the twilight silence of a northern wood.

Something of this far-off and gigantic primitivism inheres also in the poetry of William Cullen Bryant. His portrait, with the sweeping white beard and the dark folds of the cloak, suggests the Bard as the Druids might have known him. But in the eighteen-thirties and forties, Mr. Bryant’s alert, clean-shaven face, and energetic gait as he strode down Broadway to the “Evening Post” office, suggested little more than a vigorous and somewhat radical editor of an increasingly prosperous Democratic newspaper. There was nothing of the Fringed Gentian or Yellow Violet about him. Like so many of the Knickerbockers, Bryant was an immigrant to New York; in fact, none of her adopted men of letters have represented so perfectly the inherited traits of the New England Puritan. To understand his long, and honorable public life it is necessary to know something of the city of his choice, but to enter into the spirit of his poetry one must go back to the hills of western Massachusetts.

Bryant had a right to his cold-weather mind. He came from Mayflower stock. His father, Dr. Peter Bryant of Cummington, was a sound country physician, with liberal preferences in theology, Federalist views in politics, and a library of seven hundred volumes, rich in poetry. The poet’s mother records his birth in her diary in terse words which have the true Spartan tang: “Nov. 3, 1794. Stormy, wind N. E. Churned. Seven in the evening a son born.” Two days later the November wind shifted. “Nov. 5, 1794. Clear, wind N. W. Made Austin a coat. Sat up all day. Went into the kitchen.” The baby, it appears, had an abnormally large head and was dipped, day after day, in rude hydropathy, into an icy spring. A precocious childhood was followed by a stern, somewhat unhappy, but aspiring boyhood. The little fellow, lying prone with his brothers before the firelight of the kitchen, reading English poetry from his father’s library, used to pray that he too might become a poet. At thirteen he produced a satire on Jefferson, “The Embargo,” which his proud Federalist father printed at Boston in 1808. The youth had nearly one year at Williams College, over the mountain ranges to the west. He wished to continue his education at Yale, but his father had no money for this greater venture, and the son remained at home. There, in the autumn of 1811, on the bleak hills, he composed the first draft of “Thanatopsis.” He was seventeen, and he had been reading Blair’s “Grave” and the poems of the consumptive Henry Kirke White. He hid his verses in a drawer, and five years later his father found them, shed tears over them, and sent them to the “North American Review,” where they were published in September, 1817.

In the meantime the young man had studied law, though with dislike of it, and with the confession that he sometimes read “The Lyrical Ballads” when he might have been reading Blackstone. One December afternoon in 1815, he was walking from Cummington to Plainfield–aged twenty-one, and looking for a place in which to settle as a lawyer. Across the vivid sunset flew a black duck, as solitary and homeless as himself. The bird seemed an image of his own soul, “lone wandering but not lost.” Before he slept that night he had composed the poem “To a Waterfowl.” No more authentic inspiration ever visited a poet, and though Bryant wrote verse for more than sixty years after that crimson sky had paled into chill December twilight, his lines never again vibrated with such communicative passion.

Bryant’s ensuing career revealed the steady purpose, the stoicism, the reticence of the Puritan. It was highly successful, judged even by material standards. “Thanatopsis” had been instantly regarded in 1817 as the finest poem yet produced in America. The author was invited to contribute to the “North American Review” an essay on American poetry, and this, like all of Bryant’s prose work, was admirably written. He delivered his Harvard Phi Beta Kappa poem, “The Ages,” in 1821, the year of Emerson’s graduation. After a brief practice of the law in Great Barrington, he entered in 1826 into the unpromising field of journalism in New York. While other young Knickerbockers wasted their literary strength on trifles and dissipated their moral energies, Bryant held steadily to his daily task. His life in town was sternly ascetic, but he allowed himself long walks in the country, and he continued to meditate a somewhat thankless Muse. In 1832 he visited his brothers on the Illinois prairies, and stopped one day to chat with a “tall awkward uncouth lad” of racy conversational powers, who was leading his company of volunteers into the Black Hawk War. The two men were destined to meet again in 1860, when Bryant presided at that Cooper Union address of Lincoln’s which revealed to New York and to the country that the former captain of volunteers was now a king of men. Lincoln was embarrassed on that occasion, it is said, by Bryant’s fastidious, dignified presence. Not so Nathaniel Hawthorne, who had seen the poet in Rome, two years before. “There was a weary look in his face,” wrote Hawthorne, “as if he were tired of seeing things and doing things. . . .He uttered neither passion nor poetry, but excellent good sense, and accurate information, on whatever subject transpired; a very pleasant man to associate with, but rather cold, I should imagine, if one should seek to touch his heart with one’s own." Such was the impression Bryant made upon less gifted men than Hawthorne, as he lived out his long and useful life in the Knickerbocker city. Toward the close of it he was in great demand for public occasions; and it was after delivering a speech dedicating a statue to Mazzini in Central Park in 1878, when Bryant was eighty-four, that a fit of dizziness caused a fall which proved fatal to the venerable poet. It was just seventy years since Dr. Peter Bryant had published his boy’s verses on “The Embargo.”

Although Bryant’s poetry has never roused any vociferous excitement, it has enduring qualities. The spiritual preoccupations of many a voiceless generation of New England Puritans found a tongue at last in this late-born son of theirs. The determining mood of his best poems, from boyhood to old age, was precisely that thought of transiency, “the eternal flow of things,” which colored the imaginations of the first colonists. This is the central motive of “Thanatopsis,” “To a Waterfowl," “The Rivulet,” “A Forest Hymn,” “An Evening Revery,” “The Crowded Street,” “The Flood of Years.” All of these tell the same story of endless change and of endless abiding, of varying eddies in the same mighty stream of human existence. Bryant faced the thought as calmly, as majestically, at seventeen as when he wrote “The Flood of Years” at eighty-two. He is a master of description, though he has slight gift for narrative or drama, and he rarely sounds the clear lyric note. But everywhere in his verse there is that cold purity of the winter hills in Western Massachusetts, something austere and elemental which reaches kindred spirits below the surface on which intellect and passion have their play, something more primitive, indeed, than human intellect or passion and belonging to another mode of being, something “rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun.”

A picture of the Knickerbocker era is not complete without its portraits of the minor figures in the literary life of New York up to the time of the Civil War. But the scope of the present volume does not permit sketches of Paulding and Verplanck, of Halleck and his friend Drake, of N. P. Willis and Morris and Woodworth. Some of these are today only “single-poem” men, like Payne, the author of “Home Sweet Home,” just as Key, the author of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” is today a “single-poem” man of an earlier generation. Their names will be found in such limbos of the dead as Griswold’s “Poets and Poetry of America” and Poe’s “Literati.” They knew “the town” in their day, and pleased its very easily pleased taste. The short-lived literary magazines of the eighteen-forties gave them their hour of glory. As representatives of passing phases of the literary history of New York their careers are not without sentimental interest, but few of them spoke to or for the country as a whole. Two figures, indeed, stand out in sharp contrast with those habitual strollers on Broadway and frequenters of literary gatherings, though each of them was for a while a part of Knickerbocker New York. To all appearances they were only two more Bohemians like the rest, but the curiosity of the twentieth century sets them apart from their forgotten contemporaries. They are two of the unluckiest–and yet luckiest–authors who ever tried to sell a manuscript along Broadway. One of them is Edgar Allan Poe and the other is Walt Whitman. They shall have a chapter to themselves.

But before turning to that chapter, we must look back to New England once more and observe the blossoming-time of its ancient commonwealths. During the thirty years preceding the Civil War New England awoke to a new life of the spirit. So varied and rich was her literary productiveness in this era that it still remains her greatest period, and so completely did New England writers of this epoch voice the ideals of the nation that the great majority of Americans, even today, regard these New Englanders as the truest literary exponents of the mind and soul of the United States. We must take a look at them.


Chapter I. The Pioneers  •  Chapter II. The First Colonial Literature  •  Chapter III. The Third and Fourth Generation  •  Chapter IV. The Revolution  •  Chapter V. The Knickerbocker Group  •  Chapter VI. The Transcendentalists  •  Chapter VII. Romance, Poetry, and History  •  Chapter VIII. Poe and Whitman  •  Chapter IX. Union and Liberty  •  Chapter X. A New Nation  •  Bibliographical Note

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