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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

From Uncollected Essays

By Laurence Hutton (1843–1904)


THE AMERICAN play is yet to be written. Such is the unanimous verdict of the guild of dramatic critics of America, the gentlemen whom Mr. Phœbus, in “Lothair,” would describe as having failed to write the American play themselves. Unanimity among critics of any kind is remarkable, but in this instance the critics probably are right. In all of its forms, except the dramatic, we have a literature which is American, distinctive, and a credit to us. The histories of Motley and of Prescott are standard works throughout the literary world. Washington Irving and Hawthorne are as well known to all English readers and are as dearly loved as are Thackeray and Charles Lamb. Poems like Longfellow’s “Hiawatha,” Whittier’s “Snow-Bound,” Lowell’s “The Courtin’,” and Bret Harte’s “Cicely,” belong as decidedly to America as do Gray’s “Elegy” to England, “The Cotter’s Saturday Night” to Scotland, or the songs of the Minnesingers to the German Fatherland, and they are perhaps to be as enduring as any of these. Mr. Lowell, Mr. Emerson, and Prof. John Fiske are essayists and philosophers who reason as well and as clearly and with as much originality as do any of the sages of other lands. In our negro melodies we have a national music that has charms to soothe the savage and the civilized breast in both hemispheres. American humor and American humorists are so peculiarly American that they are sui generis, and belong to a distinct school of their own; while in fiction Cooper’s Indian novels, Holmes’s “Elsie Venner,” Mrs. Stowe’s “Oldtown Folk,” Howells’s “Silas Lapham,” and Cable’s “Old Creole Days,” are purely characteristic of the land in which they were written and of the people and manners and customs of which they treat, and are as charming in their way as are any of the romances of the Old World. Freely acknowledging all this, the dramatic critics still are unable to explain the absence of anything like a standard American drama and the non-existence of a single immortal American play.


The father, the uncle, even the mother-in-law or the step-mother, plays an important part in fiction; but the mother, if she is introduced at all, is always an uncomfortable figure, is always in the way. Can any student of human nature explain this? “No love like mother’s love ever was known,”—so sings the ballad-monger, though in many keys and in many ways; but in love stories every love but mother’s love is sung, and sung and sung again. The practical Scotch lassie said not long after her marriage: “A man’s a man, ye ken! but he’s no’ a body’s mither!” Put the practical Scotch lassie into a novel, and see how quickly and how completely she forgets and forsakes her mither, and cleaves to her man. The mothers who ran to catch us when we fell were not common even in the literature of our childhood. “The English Orphans” certainly were motherless. Robinson Crusoe’s mother was rarely, if ever, in his thoughts. Friday found his father, but does not seem to have asked for his mother. There were no mothers in “Sandford and Merton,” in “The Boy Hunters,” or in “The Wide, Wide World”! Mother Goose was a mother only to other people’s children; Mother Hubbard’s only child seems to have been her dog; and the old lady who lived in the shoe went so far to the other extreme that her children were greater in number than she could properly bring up…. From Richardson to Henry James, Jr., the novel has been little more than a half orphan asylum. Who can tell why? Who will give us a Becky Sharp who is not forced to become her own mamma; or a Jenny Wren who is not only her own mother, but her father’s mother too? Why have all the Pips been brought up by hand; why have all the Topsys growed?