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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.
G. R. Lomer, ed. The Student’s Course in Literature.

American Literature: The Early New Yorkers

By Percy Holmes Boynton (1875–1946)

THE TURN to Washington Irving and his chief associates in New York, James Fenimore Cooper and William Cullen Bryant, is a turn from colonial to national America, and from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century. This is not to say that what they wrote was utterly and dramatically different from what had been written in the Colonial period; yet there are many points of clear distinction to be marked. With them, for one thing, New York City first assumed the literary leadership of the country. It was not a permanent conquest, but it was notable as marking the fact that the new country had a dominating city.

As a rule the intellectual and artistic life of a country centres about its capital. Athens, Rome, Paris, London are the places through which the voices of Greece, Italy, France, and England have uttered their messages. These cities have held their pre-eminence, moreover, because in addition to being the seats of government, they have been the great commercial centres and usually the chief ports of their countries. In the United States, then, the final adoption of Washington in the District of Columbia as the national capitol was a compromise step which could not result in bringing to it the additional distinction which natural conditions gave to New York. Washington has never been more than the city where the national business of government has been carried on. The locating of the centre for art and literature has been beyond the control of legislative action. For the first third of the nineteenth century New York was the favored city. Here Irving was born, and Cooper and Bryant came as young men, rather than to the Philadelphia of Franklin and many of the other distinguished writers of the preceding generation.

For these men of New York America was an accomplished fact—a nation slowly and awkwardly taking its place among the nations of the world. To be sure, the place that Americans wanted to take, following the advice of George Washington, was one of withdrawal from the turmoil of the Old World, and of safety from “entangling alliances” which could ever again bring them into the warfare from which they were so glad to be escaping. The Atlantic was immensely broader in those days than now, for its real breadth is to be measured not in miles, but in the number of days consumed in crossing. When Irving went abroad for the first time in 1804, he was fifty-nine days in passage. To-day one can go around the world in considerably less time. So the early Americans rejoiced in their “magnificent isolation” and wanted to grow up as dignified, respected, but very distant neighbors of the Old World.

It was an unhappy fact, however, that America—or the United States—was not notable for its dignity in the early years of the nineteenth century; for the finest dignity like charity, “is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly,” whereas the new nation was very self-conscious, quickly irritated at foreign criticism, and uncomfortably aware of its own crudities in manner and defects in character. As far as foreign criticism was concerned, there were ample reasons for annoyance in America. Even as early as 1775 John Trumbull had felt that it was hopeless to expect a fair treatment at the hands of English reviewers, warning his friends Dwight and Barlow,

  • “Such men to charm could Homer’s muse avail,
  • Who read to cavil, and who write to rail[?]
  • When ardent genius pours the bold sublime,
  • Carp at the style, or nibble at the rhyme;”
  • and the Mother Country after the Revolution and the War of 1812 was less inclined than before to deal in compliment. Man after man came over,
  • “Like Fearon, Ashe, and others we could mention;
  • Who paid us friendly visits to abuse
  • Our country, and find food for the reviews.”
  • Moreover, all the time that England was criticizing her runaway child, she was maddeningly complacent as to her own virtues. Americans could not strike back with any effect, because they could not make the English feel their blows. So they fretted and fumed for half a century, their discomfort finding its clearest expression in Lowell’s lines:
  • “She is some punkins, thet I wun’t deny
  • (For ain’t she some related to you ’n’ I?),
  • But there’s a few small intrists here below
  • Outside the counter o’ John Bull and Co,
  • An’ though they can’t conceit how’t should be so,
  • I guess the Lord druv down Creation’s spiles
  • ’thout no gret helpin’ from the British Isles,
  • An’ could contrive to keep things pooty stiff
  • Ef they withdrawed from business in a miff;
  • I han’t no patience with sech swellin’ fellers ez
  • Think God can’t forge ’thout them to blow the bellerses.”
  • A further reason for uneasiness in the face of foreign comment was that honest Americans were aware that their country suffered from the crudities of youth. It is unpleasant enough for “Seventeen” to be nagged by an unsympathetic maiden aunt; but it is intolerable if she has some ground for her naggings. In small matters as well as great, “conscience doth make cowards of us all.” In a period of such rapid expansion as prevailed in the young manhood of Irving, Cooper, and Bryant, it was unavoidable that most of the population were drawn into business undertakings that were usually eager and hurried, and that were often slipshod or even shady. The American colleges and their graduates were not as distinguished as they had been in the earlier colonial days, and the new influence of European culture from the Old World universities was yet to come. In the cities, and notably in New York, the vulgar possessors of mushroom fortunes multiplied rapidly, bringing up vapid daughters like Halleck’s “Fanny,” who in all the modern languages was

  • “Exceedingly well-versed; and had devoted
  • To their attainment, far more time than has,
  • By the best teachers, lately been allotted;
  • For she had taken lessons, twice a week,
  • For a full month in each; and she could speak
  • “French and Italian, equally as well
  • As Chinese, Portuguese, or German; and,
  • What is still more surprising, she could spell
  • Most of our longest English words off-hand;
  • Was quite familiar in Low Dutch and Spanish,
  • And thought of studying modern Greek and Danish”;

  • and whose father was established in a mortgaged house, filled with servants, and “whatever is necessary for a ‘genteel liver.’” At the same time the countryside was developing a native but not altogether admirable Yankee type. At their best, Halleck wrote,
  • “The people of to-day
  • Appear good, honest, quiet men enough
  • And hospitable too—for ready pay;
  • With manners like their roads, a little rough,
  • And hands whose grasp is warm and welcoming, though tough.”
  • And at their worst Whittier looks back a half century, to 1818, and recalls them as

  • “Shrill, querulous women, sour and sullen men,
  • Untidy, loveless, old before their time,
  • With scarce a human interest save their own
  • Monotonous round of small economies,
  • Or the poor scandal of the neighborhood;
  • *****
  • “Church-goers, fearful of the unseen Powers,
  • But grumbling over pulpit-tax and pew-rent,
  • Saving, as shrewd economists, their souls
  • And winter pork, with the least possible outlay
  • Of salt and sanctity; in daily life
  • Showing as little actual comprehension
  • Of Christian charity and love and duty
  • As if the Sermon on the Mount had been
  • Outdated like a last year’s almanac.”
  • A natural consequence of such criticism from without and such raw and defective culture within the country was that American writers who amounted to anything bided their time as patiently as they could, recognizing that, for the moment, America must be a nation of workers who were

  • “Rearing the pedestal, broad-based and grand
  • Whereon the fair shapes of the artist shall stand,
  • And creating through labors undaunted and long,
  • The theme for all Sculpture and Painting and Song.”
  • Finally, it is worth noting that the first three eminent writers in nineteenth-century America were themselves not university products. Bryant withdrew from Williams College at the end of the first year, and Cooper from Yale towards the end of the second. The real education of these two and of Irving was in the world of action rather than in the world of books, and their associates were for the most part men of affairs.

    Washington Irving (1783–1859), after a somewhat constricted upbringing in New York, was forced as a young man to travel for his health, and spent two years abroad in the later period of his growing-up. Largely as result of this, from the day of his return in 1806 to the day of his death in 1859, he maintained an international point of view and developed into an international character. His first piece of writing was that of a very young man but a young man of promise. Like the well-schooled young men of his generation he had read a good deal of eighteenth-century English literature, and had been attracted by Oliver Goldsmith among others. New York supplied him with his subject, and Goldsmith with his method of attack, for he wrote, in company with one of his brothers and a mutual friend,—James K. Paulding,—a series of amusing criticisms on the ways of his townsmen, modeling his ‘Salmagundi Papers’ after Goldsmith’s ‘Citizen of the World.’ They were at once independent and imitative, interesting as early members of a longish succession of satires on the life of New York, all charming and rather pleasantly superficial. Three years later Irving, this time alone, followed up this initial success with his burlesque ‘Knickerbocker’s History of New York.’

    Now for ten years he produced nothing. The first step toward his wider reputation came with the publication of ‘The Sketch Book,’ in 1819, while he was abroad on an extended stay. This was followed within the next four years by ‘Bracebridge Hall’ and ‘Tales of a Traveler,’ both similar in tone and contents to ‘The Sketch Book.’ With a reputation now firmly established as a graceful writer of sketches and stories, he turned to a more substantial and ambitious form of work in the composition of ‘The History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus,’ living and writing in Madrid for the two years before publication in 1828; and this book he followed quickly, as in the case of ‘The Sketch Book,’ with two other productions of the same kind, ‘The Conquest of Granada,’ and ‘The Voyages of the Companions of Columbus.’

    With the appearance of ‘The Sketch Book,’ England came to a new answer for Sidney Smith’s famous query: “Who reads an American book?” Irving was sought as a celebrity by the many, in addition to being loved as a charming gentleman by his older friends. Few tributes are more telling than that contained in a letter written many years later by Charles Dickens in which he refers to the delight he used to feel in Irving’s pages when he was a “small and not over particularly well taken care of boy.” Even the austere Edinburgh Review endorsed the American as “a writer of great purity and beauty of diction.” From the most feared critic in the English-speaking world to the neglected boy whose father was in debtor’s prison, Irving received applause enough quite to turn the head of a less modest man.

    As a whole ‘The Sketch Book’ can best be estimated as an American’s comments on English life and customs, made at a time when “the retort of abuse and sarcasm” to the uncharity of English criticism would have been quite natural. In the opening paper, as well as in the sixth, there is reminder that the literary east wind had felt all too sharp in New York. Irving, describing himself in eighteenth-century fashion at the beginning of the series, indulged in this little nudge of irony: “A great man of Europe, thought I, must be as superior to a great man of America as a peak of the Alps to a highland of the Hudson; and in this idea I was confirmed by observing the comparative importance and swelling magnitude of many English travelers among us, who, I was assured, were very little people in their own country. I will visit this land of wonders, thought I, and see the gigantic race from which I am degenerated.” He was able to continue in this strain without disaster because he had the happy gift of writing satire which was tart without being venomous. As a visitor in England from a new and unsettled land, Irving was chiefly fascinated by the evidences of old-age and tradition on every side. He was sufficiently of the old school to love a rough, boisterous, jolly, sentimental England, to forgive a good deal of vulgarity, and to overlook a good many vices in favor of its chief virtues,—a blunt honesty, a hearty laugh, a ready tear, and a full stomach.

    Irving lived until 1859, but the richly fruitful period of his life ran from 1819, when the serial publication of ‘The Sketch Book’ began, to 1833, the year after his return from abroad. In this period he published ten volumes, and all the best known of his works but the lives of Goldsmith and Washington. When he came back after seventeen years’ absence, he was known and admired in England, France, and Germany, and was the most popular of American authors. He had already received the gold medal from the Royal Society of Literature, and the degree of Doctor of Laws from Oxford University. Now he was to have the refusal of a whole succession of public offices, and the leadership of a whole school of writers. Diedrich Knickerbocker had become a household word which was applied to the “Knickerbocker School” of Irving’s followers, and used in the christening of the Knickerbocker Magazine (1833–1866).

    Irving was, in truth, a connecting link between the century of his birth and the century of his achievements. He always seemed to have in mind an audience of eighteenth-century readers, gentlemen who enjoyed the rhythmical flow of a courtly and elegant style, who felt that there was an intrinsic value in “purity and beauty of diction.” He carried the spirit and manners of Addison and Goldsmith over into the New World and into the age of steam. With him his style was a natural mode of thought and way of expression; but with his imitators it was affected and superficial, so much so that the “Knickerbocker School” declined, and the Knickerbocker Magazine went out of existence shortly after his death.

    For the first thirty years of the life of James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851) there seemed to be little prospect that he was to become a novelist of worldwide and permanent reputation. There is no record that anyone, even including himself, expected him to be an author. Yet it is quite evident, as one looks back over it, that his preparation had been rich and varied. He had lived on land and sea, in country and city, in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. He had breathed-in the stories of Revolutionary days, had grown up on the frontier, and had been a part of America in the making. From his father, his tutor, his wife and her family, and his wide travel, he had learned to see America through critical eyes. He had the material to write with, and the experience to make him use it wisely. The one apparently missing factor was the most important one of all: there was not the slightest indication that he had either the will or the power to use the pen.

    His first novel, ‘Precaution,’ a most casual experiment, was successful only in the fact that it started Cooper on his career. It was a colorless tale with an English plot, located in English scenes of which he had no first-hand knowledge. It made so little impression on public or publishers that when his next story was ready in 1821, he had to issue it at his own expense; and he made this next venture, ‘The Spy,’ in part at least because of his friends’ comment—characteristic of that self-conscious period—that he would have been more patriotic to write on an American theme. By means, then, of this story, of war times, involving the amazing adventures of Harvey Birch, the spy, Cooper won his public—a fact which was impressively demonstrated by the sale of 3,500 copies of his third novel, ‘The Pioneer,’ on the morning of publication. This story came nearer home to him, for the scenery and characters were those among whom he had lived as a boy at Cooperstown. Working with this familiar material, based on the developing life of the country which was a part of his very self, Cooper wrote the first of his famous “Leather-stocking” series. The five stories, taken together, complete the long epic of the American Indian to which Longfellow was later to supply the earlier cantos in ‘Hiawatha.’ For Cooper takes up the chronicle where Longfellow drops it:

  • “Saw the remnants of our people
  • Sweeping westward, wild and woful,
  • Like the cloud-rack of a tempest,
  • Like the withered leaves of Autumn.”
  • As a chapter in the literary history of America another aspect of Cooper’s career is intensely interesting. In 1829, while in full momentum as a writer of romantic tales, he went off on a side issue and sacrificed the next ten years to controversial books. The whole thing started with Cooper’s resentment at “a certain condescension in foreigners” that was to make Lowell smart nearly forty years later. To meet this, and particularly the condescension of the English, he left the field of fiction to write ‘Notions of the Americans, picked up by a Travelling Bachelor.’ The book failed of its purpose because it was too complacent about America, and, now and then, too offensive about England; but the underlying defect was its aggressive tone. Cooper could never refrain from “the retort of abuse” against which Irving had warned him. By the time Cooper came back to America in 1832, after the production of three more unsuccessful digressions, he had become kinked and querulous. The story of his controversies is too long for detailing in this chapter. The chief literary fruits of them are the pair of stories, ‘Homeward Bound’ and ‘Home as Found.’ The point of them, for they again were written to prove a thesis, was to express the crudities of a commercialized America. The weakness of his strictures was not that they were untrue, but that they were so evidently ill-tempered and bad-mannered. He made the utter mistake of identifying the accusers of America in these books with himself, and thus loaded on his own shoulders all the priggishness he ascribed to them. The public was only too ready to take it as a personal utterance when he made one of them say: “I should prefer the cold, dogged domination of English law, with its fruits, the heartlessness of a sophistication without parallel, to being trampled on by every arrant blackguard that may happen to traverse this valley in his wanderings after dollars.”

    It is a misfortune that most men and women who are willing to risk their good repute for the freedom to think are eccentric in other respects. They are unusual first of all in their independence of mind and the courage of their convictions. They are made more unusual by the distrust and misrepresentation to which they invariably are subjected. Honest and truly reckless, they are stung to extravagance of expression; they rely more and more on their own judgments, and less and less on the facts; and sooner or later they lose all influence if, indeed, they do not become outcasts. In the end they have the courage and honesty with which they started, a few deploring friends, and a thousand enemies who hate them with a sincere and wholly unjustified hatred. It is a tragic round which all but the most extraordinary of free speakers seem doomed to travel. And Cooper did not escape it. Yet he did have the remarkable strength and good fortune to pass out of the vale of controversy toward the end of his life. With 1842 his campaign against the public ceased—and theirs against him. He spent his last years happily at Cooperstown, and slowly returned into an era of good feeling. It was in these later years that Lowell paid him his heartfelt tribute in ‘The Fable for Critics.’ He was really a great patriot. If his love of America led him into this sea of troubles, it was the same love that made him the successful writer of a masterly series of American stories. It is the native character of the man that is worth remembering, and the native quality of his books that earned him a wide and lasting fame.

    When William Cullen Bryant (1794–1878) became editor of the New York Evening Post in 1829, he was thirty-five years old. He had written about one-third of the poetry preserved in the collected editions, and one-half of the better-known work on which his reputation rests. This much is distinctively an American product, though quite different from the output of the latter fifty years. He came of Puritan New England stock “whose minds had derived a peculiar character from the daily contemplation of superior beings and eternal interests.” His own mind and imagination were therefore wide open to the influence of Kirke White and the “graveyard poets.” ‘Thanatopsis’ was composed under the eye of God as the youthful Bryant knew him. In setting down “When thoughts of the last bitter hour come like a blight over thy spirit,” he was not indulging in any far-fetched fancy; he was alluding to what the preacher brought home in two sermons every Sunday, and to the unfailing subject of discussion at the mid-week prayer-meeting. And when he wrote of approaching the grave “Sustained and soothed by an unfaltering trust,” he was writing of a trust which needed to be especially strong to face the thought of possible damnation. Akin to this religiosity was a sentimentalism which belonged to the age. ‘The Yellow Violet,’ ‘To a Waterfowl,’ and ‘The Fringed Gentian’ were the utterances of youth which took life as a personal matter of consuming importance. There is a slight touch of self-commendation in his continual references at this time to his thrills and awes and adorations, and to the “pleasurable melancholy” with which he enjoyed life.

    When Bryant went down into the crowded activity of New York, he began very soon to lift his eyes unto the hills whence came his help, instead of persistently brooding over his own hopes and fears. In the ‘Hymn of the City’ he recorded his discovery that God lived in town as well as in country, and that he was the God of life as much as of death. Then, in ‘The Battle Field’ and ‘The Antiquity of Freedom,’ he awakened for the first time to the idea that as the world grows older it grows wiser, and that the well-rounded life cannot rest content in contemplation of the beauties of June because it must have some share in the struggle for justice. It was a new idea of God for him. As a young Puritan he had felt him to be a power outside who managed things. He had been content to pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” and to turn his back on earth while he meditated on the mansions prepared above. Now he aspired to do with heaven what Addison had attempted to do with “philosophy,” and to bring it down from the clouds into the hearts of men. When he wrote “Truth crushed to earth shall rise again,” he meant, as the context shows, not the old truth of past centuries, but the unfamiliar truth which the new age was to set on its throne.

    With more confidence than Cooper and with more definiteness than Irving, Bryant founded his loyalty to America on the hope that in this new land the seeds of truth would fall on fertile ground. The number and bulk of his poems of patriotism are not so great as those by Freneau, or Whittier and Lowell, or Timrod and Lanier, but those in his smaller group are as distinguished as an equal number by any of the others, except possibly Lowell. In ‘O Mother of a Mighty Race’ he alluded again to the envy and unfriendliness of the elder nations, which disturbed him as they did Irving and Cooper. In the face of it he tried, with less success than Irving, to keep his temper, taking comfort in the thought that the oppressed of Europe could find shelter here. As a journalist he was a strong champion of Lincoln long before the conservative East had given him unreserved support; and when the Civil War came on, he sounded ‘Our Country’s Call,’ and stimulated “The grim resolve to guard it well.” During the war he wrote from time to time verses full of devotion, and free from the hate that poisons most war poetry; and at the end he mourned ‘The Death of Lincoln’ no less fervently than he rejoiced at ‘The Death of Slavery.’

    In his later years Bryant was one of the best-known citizens of New York. His striking presence on the streets made poetry real to the crowds that were inclined to think of it as something remotely bookish. On account of his gifts of speech and his place in literature, he was often called on to deliver memorial addresses, and was affectionately named “The old man eloquent.” His orations on Cooper and Irving were among the first of these. His last was in 1878, at the unveiling of a statue to the Italian patriot Mazzini. As he was returning into his home he fell and received injuries from which he died shortly after. It was fitting that his valedictory should have been in praise of a champion of freedom, and that he should have died with the echoes of his countrymen’s applause still ringing in his ears.

    With the deaths of these three men the leadership of American letters passed from New York. Indeed by 1850, while they all were living, Emerson, Longfellow, Lowell, and Whittier were in full career, and before the death of Irving in 1859, Hawthorne, Thoreau, and Holmes were at the height of their powers. The New Yorkers had done a distinguished work. The two prose writers had introduced the New World to the Old. Yet though their fame was destined to live, their influence on other writers was bound to die with them, because they were looking backward. Their roots were deep struck in the eighteenth century. Of the three Bryant was the only modern man. His later life was finely admirable, but, though his thinking was wise and just, he influenced men less as a thinker than as a stalwart citizen. The New Yorkers, in a word, all wrote as men who had been educated in the world of action. As compared with the New Englanders who were to supplant them, they were relatively untouched by the deeper currents of thought, which in the nineteenth century were to make great changes in the world.

    Chronological Table

  • 1789Inauguration of Washington
  • 1799Death of Washington
  • 1807Voyage of Fulton’s “Clermont” from New York to Albany
  • 1812–15War with England
  • 1819Florida acquired by treaty from Spain
  • 1823Monroe Doctrine
  • 1825Erie Canal opened
  • First locomotive used
  • 1825–29John Quincy Adams, president
  • 1829–37Administration of Andrew Jackson
  • 1837Coronation of Queen Victoria
  • 1842Webster-Ashburton treaty settles boundary dispute
  • 1845Texas becomes part of United States territory
  • 1846–48Mexican War
  • 1848By treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, United States acquires New Mexico and California
  • Gold discovered in California
  • 1852‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ published
  • 1854Reciprocity with Canada
  • 1857Dred Scot decision
  • 1860Lincoln becomes president
  • Secession of South Carolina
  • 1861Civil War
  • 1863Emancipation proclamation
  • 1865Surrender of Lee
  • Assassination of Lincoln
  • 1867Purchase of Alaska
  • Dominion of Canada founded
  • Reading Recommended

  • 1789–1851James Fenimore Cooper
  • 1790–1867Fitz-Greene Halleck
  • 1783–1859Washington Irving
  • 1794–1878William Cullen Bryant
  • 1795–1820Joseph Rodman Drake