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.

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).

Monday, 7 April 2008

11. Abracadabra

ABRACADABRA, a meaningless word once supposed to have a magical efficacy as an antidote against agues and other fevers. Ridiculously minute directions for the proper use of the charm are given in the Praecepta de Medicina of Serenus Sammonicus. The paper on which the word was written had to be folded in the form of a cross, suspended from the neck by a strip of linen so as to rest on the pit of the stomach, worn in this way for nine days, and then, before sunrise, cast behind the wearer into a stream running to the east. The letters of the word were usually arranged to form a triangle in one or other of the following ways:-



[From vol. 1 of the 9th Edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875). Author uncredited.]

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Normal Service Will Be Resumed Shortly

My sincerest apologies for the long silence on matters Britannican. The recent arrival of a son, Thomas, has caused a degree of distraction from posting duties, which I will remedy as soon as humanly possible.