The world as seen through the clarifying lens of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875-1889).

Monday, 14 April 2008

12. (i) Rushing into empty spaces

What is the problem with AMERICAN LITERATURE? This is a question which once troubled the finest minds in England, and which John Nichol, LL. D., F.R.S. (who ABBREVIATION informs us was a Doctor of Law and Fellow of the Royal Society), Professor of English Language at Glasgow University, has addressed with considerable vigour in Volume I of the 9th Edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Incidentally, a fairly large proportion of the essays I have looked at so far come from Volume I. This is in no way as a result of any intention to deal with subjects alphabetically, but sincerely a result of chance (although naturally, looking at any one subject is very likely to lead to the eyes wandering over other beguiling subjects on neighbouring pages). It has occurred to me, however, that Volume I being published at the beginning of 15 year schedule, there might have been more competition from the contributors to provide subjects sparkling with interest.

Back to Professor Nichols and his trans-atlantic musings. Our author, you will be pleased to learn, is well aware of the potential pitfalls that might beset critical enquiries into this subject.

The literature of the United States

[aha! Why wasn't this filed under US LITERATURE in Volume 23, published 13 years later in 1888?]
, while still half our own, is pervaded, to a degree not easily estimated, by a foreign element. The relationship between Englishmen and Americans, making them ignorant of their mutual ignorance, operates against the soundness of their judgment on each other's work. Community of speech, which ought to be a bond of union, is often a medium of offence ; for it dispenses with a study of the language, and in studying a language we learn something also of the habits and social histories which are reflected in, and serve to interpret, distinctly alien literatures. Facility of travel, making it easy to acquire first impressions, is a temptation to such hasty estimates as many of the most accomplished Americans have formed of England, and many of the most accomplished Englishmen have formed of America.

So, with caution, Prof Nichol examines what it is that forms the American character, and so her literature.

When we remember that the Roman lived under the sky of Italy, that the character of the modern Swiss is like that of the modern Dutch, we shall be on our guard against attributing too much to the influence of external nature. Another race than the Anglo-Saxon would doubtless have made another America ; but we cannot avoid the belief that the climate and soil of America have had something to do in moulding the Anglo-Saxon race, in making its features approximate to those of the Red Indian, and stamping it with a new character.

[...] In America [...] it is the extent of nature that is dwelt upon - the infinity of space, rather than the infinity of time, is opposed to the limited rather than to the transient existence of man. Nothing strikes a traveller in that country so much as this feature of magnitude. The rivers like rolling lakes, the lakes which are inland seas, the forests, the plains, Niagara itself, with its world of waters, owe their magnificence to their immensity ; and by a transference, not unnatural although fallacious, the Americans have generally modelled their ideas of art after the same standards of size. Their wars, their hotels, their language, are pitched on the huge scale of their distances.

Is this the American problem? The vulgar brashness of their enormous art, wars, hotels and language? Well, it is clearly a part of the problem.

Where Englishmen remember, Americans anticipate. In thought and action they are ever rushing into empty spaces. [...] [T]he tie which unites one generation with another being easily broken, the want of continuity in life breeds a want of continuity in ideas. The American mind delights in speculative and practical, social and political experiments [...]. The habit of instability, fostered by the rapid vicissitudes of their commercial life and the melting of one class into another, drifts away all landmarks but that of a temporary public opinion ; and where there is little time for verification and the study of details, men satisfy their curiosity with crude generalisations.

This is promising - mental recklessness, social mobility, and preferring crude generalisations over verification and the study of details (as opposed, for example, to John Nichol's considered and meticulous study - from which I am only providing the most American of sketches - born from the culture of this sceptered isle).

The great literary fault of America thus comes to be impatience.


The majority of them have never learned that "raw haste is a half-sister to delay ;" that "works done least rapidly, art most cherishes." The makeshifts which were at first a necessity with the Northern settlers have grown into a custom. They adopt ten half measures instead of one whole one ; and, beginning bravely, like the grandiloquent preambles to their Constitution, end sometimes in the sublime, sometimes in the ridiculous.

NEXT: Professor Nichol continues his balanced inquiry, and we will learn what merit there is in the writing of these Americans. (Clue: very little merit indeed).

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