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

Friday, 18 April 2008

12. (ii) Strenuous and spasmodic efforts after originality

Professor John Nichol has more good things to say on the subject of AMERICAN LITERATURE, and this still in the introduction to his essay.

Many of the artistic as well as the social peculiarities of the United States may doubtless be traced to their form of government. [...] When the hereditary privileges of rank have ceased to be recognised, the utility, if not the beauty, of knowledge becomes conspicuous. The intellectual world is spurred into activity : there is a race in which the prize is to the swift. Everyone tries to draw the eyes of others by innumerable imperfect efforts with a large insignificant sum total. Art is abundant and inferior : whitewashed wood and brick pass for marble, and rhythmical spasms for poetry. It is acknowledged that the prevailing defect of Aristocratic literature is formality ; they are apt to be precise and restricted. A Democratic literature runs the risk of lawlessness, inaccuracy and irreverence. [...] [America is] a country which is not only democratic but youthful without the modesty of youth [...], where the spirit of adventure is unrestrained by feelings of personal loyalty [...], where vehemence, vigour, and wit are common, good taste, profundity, and imagination rare ;-a country whose untamed material infects the people and diverts them from the task of civilisation to the desire of conquest.

It should by now be abundantly clear why American Literature deserves its own category separate from that of English Literature, indeed one would wonder how the two might ever have been confused. That the author of this piece is given so much space to expound on his observations on the character of the United States and her people before getting down to the specifics of considering actual American authors and their works, is one of the delights of the Ninth edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica. And whilst Professor Nichol's opinions might seem to be a little coloured by a degree of prejudice against the cultural products of the former colonies, these opinions are expressed with compelling and entertaining vigour - and just the right degree of supposed even-handedness to give his comments a final acerbic sting. Were we not to be treated to this introductory sharpening of the knives, it might be that the later judgements passed on the merits of Longfellow, Poe, Whitman and company be considered insufficiently impartial.

One might furthermore consider whether there is a degree of justice, for example, in the opinion that America's Constitution ends "sometimes in the sublime, sometimes in the ridiculous", in a week when the Supreme Court debate and rule that the triple-injection execution does not constitute "cruel and unusual punishment".

As for the faults of American Literature, Nichol has some final observations.

American literature is cramped on another side by the spirit of imitation. [...] [T]heir highest ambition, like that of all colonists, has hitherto been to receive a favourable verdict, not from the country of their birth, but from that of their ancestors. [...] The writers of the last thirty years have been making strenuous, sometimes spasmodic, efforts after originality, but they are still affected by transatlantic associations. [...] If the people of the United States had spoken a language of their own, it is probable they would have gained in originality ; as it is, they are only now beginning to sign their intellectual declaration of independence [...].

Ouch. As I have alluded, this is all from but the introduction to a long and entertaining essay, which can happily be read in full at Professor Nichol's withering demolition of American humorous writing is worth particular attention, and may or may not be largely directed against Mark Twain, who is not named, but whose The Innocents Abroad is dismissed under "Books of Travel" as being in "bad taste". Poe receives rather more favourable treatment, and his work is pithily summed-up with the judgement that

In the regions of the strangely terrible, remotely fantastic, and ghastly, Edgar Allan Poe reigns supreme.

Hear, hear.

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