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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

Literary Fame

By Edward Tyrrel Channing (1790–1856)

[Born in Newport, R. I., 1790. Died at Cambridge, Mass., 1856. Lectures read to the Seniors in Harvard College. 1856.]


LET us now observe the impression which an author makes, to learn whether it indicates a firm hold on public favor. We do not promise him, or require for him, in the distant, tranquil future, the bustling admiration of his contemporaries; but he must have qualities that will secure men’s sober love and gratitude in their homes, in their solitary walks, in their studies, in the highest and the most familiar intercourse of social life, through all time, and, to a degree, in every reading country. To be immortal as a writer is more than to have a place among the customary tenants of large libraries, to be hidden perhaps for ages; and, when brought to light, like an embalmed corpse of the East, for the examination of the curious,—to be wondered at chiefly for having lasted so long. It is more than to have a deserved name for wisdom and genius, if these come not with a gracious as well as an awakening power. The writer, whom we presume to call immortal, must have life in the hearts, the experience and the wants of men. He must be essential to them. He must be a part of them, of their pride, their preferences, their opinions, their actions. He must hear on every side, forever, the voice of favor and thanks, and make it their honor more than his that he is still remembered and desired.

To be at the full tide of popularity in one’s own time is not in the least a sign, as many fear, that there will be an ebb in the next age; though, probably, the surface will be less disturbed. A single generation may give clear evidence of what will be thought of a man forever. An individual may have a movement in his heart towards a man of genius which will be answered by other hearts in all time. The man of genius himself may be inspired to proclaim, without vanity, that he shall not wholly die. We naturally enough distrust present celebrity, because it may be owing to accident and perishable influences. For the same reason, we may not feel the slightest uneasiness at present neglect. It was no pledge, to be sure, and neither was it a hindrance of Milton’s awful name in the world to-day, that he was passed by in his own time. This simply denoted what the time was.

The mere amount of an author’s contemporary popularity, of the excitement he produces, and of the importance attached to everything that relates to him, will give no sure indication of his future standing. It is the kind of estimation that he obtains, the kind of interest that he awakens, which is to settle the matter. Does he give us new impulses, new views, new mental exercises, which we receive as perfectly natural and as all our own; and is this done in language and a style which our hearts tell us were suggested to him by his immediate experience,—by the things he was saying? Are we sure that the agitation he produces is not a feverish or delirious transport, into which we are thrown by something that is startling merely because it is monstrous, or paradoxical, or associated with some urgent and transitory passions or prejudices of the day? Whatever be the subject,—new or old, familiar or strange,—do we value the book first of all as a picture of an original mind,—and for what that mind has done for the subject, rather than owes to it? Is the power we acknowledge and extol a generous and strengthening and kindly one to ourselves, encouraging and elevating our faculties, and drawing us into near communion with itself, instead of reminding us of our inferiority?

After settling these and similar points concerning the impression he makes,—if we need any external evidence of his probable future position, we may compare him with those writers who have long pleased and are considered as established in the world’s memory, and see if he has their marks of health and long life. If we are satisfied in this, as well as in the other respects, that he has made out a good claim for himself, we may trust his name to the “dim and perilous” future, with as little fear as we should to a living friend.

There may be times in which he is no longer popular. The larger part of his writings, though still kept in print by virtue of the precious residue, and by the literary importance of his name, may fall into neglect and to most readers be unknown. Things for which he was once most valued may give place to new-discovered or more highly prized qualities in himself. Accident may depress for a season the department of literature in which he excels, or other eminent men may walk in his steps and seem ready to shake his supremacy. But we know that he will not be ultimately superseded, or for any cause perish, as surely as we know that the frame of man’s mind and the true fountains of his happiness will never be changed….


And now, with our knowledge of the facts, we may proceed one step farther and imagine a writer looking into the future, to see what awaits him there. The revelation will often be very strange to him. He was prepared for times when his name should be clouded and his influence obstructed; and equally for the day of his restored and perhaps heightened favor; but the course and complexion of his fortunes are not altogether what he had looked for. At times he is ready to exclaim:—
  • “Visions of glory, spare my aching sight;
  • Ye unborn ages, crowd not on my soul;”
  • but the day may be near when he will have much to vex, and something to amuse, him in the homage he receives and in the questions which are raised about him and his works. He must console himself with the thought that nearly all which he sees and hears is a proof of his continued, perhaps of his increasing, importance, and of the almost personal attachment that is felt towards him by all orders of men. Let us recall some of his experiences.

    He has passed among his countrymen, and in all nations for many ages, as an individual, with a name in every man’s mouth, with cities ready to fight for the honor of giving him birth, and with the credit of being the author of distinctly marked and most popular works, which have been the origin of a principal department of poetry, and its model ever since. Yet he is now told that there has all along been a great mistake in this belief. He is no longer to be a person, a unit, with a lawful name, but a set of ballad-singers, each with his own story upon the same great national subject.

    He has written plays which have given him the first name in poetry. Hence an ample biography must be invented for him, since there is scarcely anything to say from records or trustworthy tradition. He is not denied his rightful name; but there are undecided contests how it should be spelt; for he and the family seem to have cared little for the matter, and the people of his time as little for orthography generally. All this serves both him and us for amusement. But graver considerations are to come before him. He died without publishing his writings. They are in the hands of others and the property of others, and have been subject to maiming and corruption during many years of theatrical service. At length a posthumous edition appears, and, as we presume, a very careless one, for we are often perplexed for a meaning. Hence spring up a class of critics, especially devoted to him,—some of them eminent for general ability and scholarship, as well as for acquaintance with the early times of the country, and the now somewhat antiquated speech. Their office is to settle the text and explain obscurities. But, by some ill-fortune, the larger part of them have been the most captious, assuming and quarrelsome set of men that ever claimed to be literary judges, or judges in any question. His mere name,—a fountain of love to common men,—is to them a war-cry. A new reading, or the discovery of an old copy with alleged contemporary corrections, is received as a personal wrong, an invasion of some private right, and very soon the world is in arms. A pretty spectacle for a benign spirit, long withdrawn from our strifes, and who all the time hears himself hailed, with one voice, as the benefactor and glory of his race. Last of all, he sees that his plays, so far as representation is concerned, are undergoing hideous changes to adapt them to modern ideas; though some still think that in nothing is he more perfect than in managing the course of the action for the highest stage effect. This adaptation most commonly consists in omissions of scenes and persons. But this is the least of his wrongs; for sometimes parts of different dramas are united by the aid of interpolation; sometimes a play is pieced with wholly foreign additions; and sometimes the plot is so transformed that the catastrophe is quite another thing.

    He has been widely known as the explorer and interpreter of his native tongue, as an observer of human life and expositor of duty, as a biographer, as the bold and successful former of a style safe only for himself, and, finally, as a dictator in literary criticism. The light has not wholly passed from any of the monuments of his genius and wisdom. But it comes to his ears that he is to be better and longer known for an accident in his history than for the deliberate fruits of his studies. He is to be remembered chiefly for the record of his conversation, made up by his extraordinary and equally immortal biographer. He cannot reasonably complain that he has unexpectedly surpassed himself; though, upon this very subject of a man’s books and conversation, he has left the dictum,—“Madam, the best part of an author will always be found in his writings.” The wonder to him and all of us must be, not that his conversation was so memorable, for we know that it was, in no small degree, his ambition and care,—but that such a record of it should have been made, and with such a bearing upon his reputation.

    If we should bring into one view the fortunes of still other writers, who are considered as the most prosperous among the immortals, the lowly might be brought to think it better for a man to sleep quietly when he has no more to do with the earth in the body. But they will not persuade the soaring spirit that it is not worth ambition to be a great power in the world, ages after one’s burial.