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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 New England Group

By George Wiley Sherburn (1884–1962)


CLOSELY paralleling the Victorian period of English literature in time (1832–1892), a group of writers arose in New England, who may be said to have been pre-eminent in the United States during a large part of their century. This group included Emerson (1803–1882), Hawthorne (1804–1864), Holmes (1809–1894), Longfellow (1807–1882), Lowell (1819–1891), Thoreau (1817–1862), Whittier (1807–1892), and their lesser contemporaries.

They were men who lived sheltered lives, mainly in rural surroundings, and were devoted to books, to piety, and to political, social, and religious reform. Without exception they sustained the high moral orthodoxy characteristic of the Unitarian faith, which most of them professed. The radical eagerness of New England for reform gave way after the Civil War to a more conservative preaching of intelligent good-citizenship; and along with this general change came a decline in the liberalism of the New England writers. Throughout their period they were apostles of “plain living and high thinking.” In the metropolis, Boston, were found innocuous clubs devoted to literary conversation and—so it was whispered—to “mutual admiration.” Among these were the early Anthology Club, the Symposium, the Saturday Club, and the Atlantic Club. In the rural districts a literary atmosphere was diffused by lectures at the village lyceum. Furthermore, while the literature of New England was much less journalistic than that of New York, at least two Boston magazines were highly important in increasing intelligent literary appreciation. The sedate North American Review, founded in 1815 in imitation of the recently instituted Scotch and English reviews, voiced the conservative ideas of the region on politics and reform, and gave gradually less space to belles lettres than it had in its early years. In 1857 the Atlantic Monthly began its dignified career under the editorship of Lowell, who persuaded most of the better-known New Englanders to write for it. Holmes, Longfellow, Whittier, Emerson, and Hawthorne were his most prized contributors. In 1861 James T. Fields (1817–1881), who, as a member of the publishing firm of Ticknor and Fields, was the best friend and critic most littérateurs of this group had, assumed the editorial duties, and Lowell presently became joint-editor of the North American with Charles Eliot Norton (1827–1908). Both of these magazines have a distinguished record as leaders of the conservative intellectual public of the nation.


Lectures, books, discussion: these avocations marked the life of New England in its most creative intellectual period. It is perhaps natural, then, that the writers of the time should be bookish men, clergymen, and college professors. A consideration of the earliest traditions of New England makes it certainly seem natural that the writing of history should be among the most successfully practiced literary forms. Jared Sparks (1789–1866) was a notable biographer; George Bancroft (1800–1891), a devout democrat, made his great work a ‘History of the United States’; Francis Parkman (1823–1893) dealt with picturesque phases of French-American history; while William Hickling Prescott (1796–1859) worked in Spanish-American fields; and John Lathrop Motley (1814–1877) in his ‘Rise of the Dutch Republic’ produced one of the most dramatic pieces of New England historical writing. The choice of subjects made by these historians shows clearly that the New England intellectual horizon was broad enough to include Europe as well as America. In fact, one of the most interesting phases of this group of men is their eagerness to import and popularize European culture. In this desire George Ticknor (1791–1871) wrote his excellent ‘History of Spanish Literature’ (1849). Similarly T. W. Parsons (1819–1892), Longfellow, and Charles Eliot Norton all translated extensively from Dante, of whom Lowell was also a student and admirer. Longfellow, Lowell, and Holmes—all Harvard professors—were naturally the most bookish among the greater New Englanders, but the first two named, since they taught modern literature, were the most influenced by writers in England and on the continent. Both Longfellow and Lowell began their careers as poets under the influence of Wordsworth, in New England the most popular of the English romantic poets.

Longfellow (1807–1882)

Longfellow was also encouraged by the example of Bryant, but he speedily passed under the influence of the German romantic poets, and the glamor of Europe lies over most of his work. He is, of course, the most versatile of the poets of the group as well as the most popular. The variety of his lyric theme, his success with the sonnet as well as with the moderately long poetic narrative (the substance of which he almost never invented), the wholesomeness of his mood, and the simplicity of his manner put him in the front rank of American poets. But his reflective lyrics say only obvious things, and he saw the world only through “the spectacles of books.” Even ‘Evangeline’ (1847), with its thoroughly American material, is frankly imitative of Goethe’s ‘Hermann und Dorothea,’ and ‘Hiawatha’ itself (1855) is indebted to the Finnish ‘Kalevala.’ Aside from his version of the ‘Divine Comedy,’ he made several successful translations from the literatures of various nations.

Lowell (1819–1891)

Lowell, a poet of more vigor though possibly less fineness, is in his verses less obviously indebted to Europe. His pre-eminent successes were his dialect poems and his odes. His great ‘Commemoration Ode’ (1865) domesticated that form in America as admirably fitted for poems to be delivered on public occasions. His ‘Cathedral’ (1870), on the other hand, shows clearly the effect on his mind of European culture and thinking. By some his prose is valued as much as his poetry, and in this part of his writing the European influence is much more marked. He wrote, to be sure, some charming papers that embody New England landscape or New England tradition, and some that testified to his insight into American political problems, but over half his prose is devoted to essays that might well serve the moderately cultured reader as scintillating introductions to the classic authors of England and Europe. He is busy expounding writers rather than applying to them any scientific or philosophical method of criticism. The essays are a natural outgrowth of his preoccupation with the literatures of Europe; few of them are devoted to American authors.

The Transcendentalists

Europe also contributed much of the stimulus that produced New England transcendentalism. This name is applied to the romantic transmutation locally wrought in certain of the ideas of Kant and the other German idealists, whose philosophy, studied by Dr. Francis, Hedge, Follen, Ripley, Parker, and others, was mainly known in New England through the modifications or interpretations of it made by Herder, Schleiermacher, and De Wette in Germany; by Mme. de Staël and Cousin in France; and by Coleridge and Carlyle in England.

The movement, however, is only loosely related to book sources. It grows out of the religious situation in New England and is concerned with denying the empirical limitations of knowledge predicated by John Locke and with protesting against the theological dependence on miracles felt even by Unitarians of that day. More emphatic, however, is the constructive attempt to preach an intuitional insight into spiritual truths, an insight common to all men and divine in its nature. Here the movement shares pantheistic tendencies with Wordsworth, by whose great ‘Ode’ it was much influenced. Transcendentalists naturally preached self-trust, and were so individualistic that their influence was personal rather than the result of organization.

In 1836, however, the Symposium—otherwise known as the Transcendental Club or the Hedge Club (from F. H. Hedge, a prominent member)—came into existence as a loosely organized circle for the interchange of ideas. Among those on record as some time present at these meetings were Bronson Alcott, George Bancroft, O. A. Brownson, W. E. Channing, C. P. Cranch, R. W. Emerson, Sarah Margaret Fuller, C. T. Follen, Nathaniel Hawthorne, F. H. Hedge, Theodore Parker, George Ripley, Henry D. Thoreau, Jones Very, and others of smaller literary importance. The movement received most public attention probably during the decade 1835–1845, partly because of the work of Emerson and the controversy it provoked—notably between George Ripley and Professor Andrews Norton of Harvard; partly because of radical preaching by that ardent and unselfish reformer, Theodore Parker; but perhaps mainly because of the eccentricities of the transcendentalists themselves. It was a time when, as Emerson told James Freeman Clarke, “every man … carries a revolution in his waistcoat pocket.”

The Utopian ideas and ideals of these men frequently found their way from the pocket to the press; for the literary tendencies of transcendentalism were hardly less striking than the philosophical and religious. The movement early found expression in the articles of F. H. Hedge (1805–1890) and George Ripley (1802–1880) contributed to the Christian Examiner, a Unitarian monthly. After these pages became less hospitable to such views, the transcendentalists founded their own magazine, the Dial (1840–1844), under the editorship of Margaret Fuller, Ripley, and Emerson, aided by Thoreau.

Emerson (1803–1882)

Emerson’s ‘Nature’ (1836), his ‘American Scholar’ (1837), and his ‘Divinity School Address’ (1838), his later ‘Essays’ (1841–1875), and his ‘Poems’ (1847–1867) are commonly regarded as the best results of the transcendental movement. Emerson is greater than his generation partly because his traits seem to apotheosize the typical traits of the Yankee. In his radicalism he is all gentleness, self-control: to the busybody reformer his ‘Nature’ says: “Little man, why so hot?” The typical Yankee is hard-headed and disputatious; Emerson does not know what argument means. He is sanguine, exuberant, rhapsodical; yet seldom does his reason permit him to utter the thaw-slush that came so commonly from his sentimental contemporaries. He seems irritatingly content; the most fundamentally radical of his group, he took perhaps least interest in the “isms” of his day. He went his way preaching the divinity of the ordinary man. Man to him was “a god in ruins;” but because of the divinity inherent in Man’s nature, self-trust, which is soul-trust, will restore him to his pristine state. From this centre Emerson led his audiences through all the paths of theoretical liberalism so gently that their natural orthodoxy seldom took alarm. Partly because of this peculiar temper of his radicalism, his ‘Essays,’ though full of obscurity and lacking coherent structure, are among the most frequently reprinted pieces of American prose. “Sparks of the supersolar blaze” struck from his chiseled sentences cause many to place him apart from the littérateurs of his group and among such wisdom-writers as Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Montaigne, and Bacon. His poems, at times rough and unintentionally grotesque in workmanship, are, at their best, among the most original and choicest work of the American Muse. He is a reflective moral poet who escapes banality.

Second only to Emerson, Thoreau (1817–1862) has, though tardily, won recognition as an important literary figure among the transcendentalists. The Puritan, virginal æsthetic quality of his delight in nature (the expression of which has won him many imitators among nature-writers and which seems to enjoy increasing popularity) is, again, characteristic of the transcendental blending of spiritual idealism with somewhat ungracious individualism. Whatever its purely literary quality, ‘Walden’ (1854) is a unique book.

The writings of the rest of the Symposium circle are of decidedly less interest. William Ellery Channing (1780–1842), who was in a sense the father of transcendentalism, had in his day some reputation as a writer and great influence as a preacher of reform, of individual freedom, and of pure spirituality. The eloquent rhetoric of Theodore Parker (1810–1860), the dignified delicacy of Jones Very’s (1813–1880) poems, and Sylvester Judd’s (1813–1853) novel ‘Margaret’ (1845) also help to characterize this circle. Bronson Alcott (1799–1888) did notable work, but in educational rather than in literary fields.

The intellectual doctrines of New Englanders blended with their moral interests, just as the abstract religious-philosophical reforms of transcendentalism were confused with the various concrete reforms agitated at the same time; for most of these men—though by no means all—were ardent supporters of more or less practical projects to improve the nation or the individual. Among the less practical, doubtless, were settlements such as the one at Brook Farm (1841–1847) under the patronage of George Ripley, supported by Nathaniel Hawthorne, C. A. Dana, G. W. Curtis, Margaret Fuller, and others, and the one called Fruitlands which was attempted (1843) by Bronson Alcott. Brook Farm, owing to the communistic influence of Fourier, became somewhat of a departure from the extreme individualism of early transcendental thinking. Its slight literary importance is derived mainly from the fact that it furnished hints at least for Hawthorne’s ‘Blithedale Romance’ (1852). During or shortly after this Brook Farm experiment, Horace Greeley, who was an interested observer of it, added Miss Fuller, Dana, and Ripley to the staff of the New York Tribune, with which their literary careers are commonly associated. Among the more practical reforms advocated at this time, the temperance movement and the woman-suffrage movement had scant representation in literature, although Miss Fuller’s ‘Woman in the Nineteenth Century’ (1844) should perhaps be mentioned as an expression of feminist tendencies.


The abolition movement, however, was a prolific cause of oratory, poetry, and fiction. Its leader, William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879), though the founder and editor of the Liberator (1831–1865), is perhaps hardly to be included in literary history; but Whittier, Parker, Lowell, and others of literary fame devoted their minds and pens early to this cause. Whittier, more than any one else, is indeed the poet of abolition and of the struggle to which the issue ultimately led. A large part of his work is reform verse, and his songs “as sung by the Hutchinson family” throughout the North, his pathetic narrative poems, and his eloquent poetic vituperation all aided the cause for which his Quaker soul had come to burn. Lowell for some years contributed to the National Anti-Slavery Standard, and the War later called forth some of his finest work. Longfellow’s few poems dealing with the negro were imitative (especially of Freiligrath) and romantic in genesis rather than the result of a great moral indignation. It was, of course, Mrs. Stowe (1811–1896) who, in her widely read ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ (1851–1852), produced the most famous and influential of these campaign masterpieces.


It is natural that this interest in reform and public policy should produce a considerable amount of oratory. Sonorous Latinity, magniloquent metaphor, and classical allusion mark the somewhat old-fashioned eloquence of Daniel Webster (1782–1852), Rufus Choate (1799–1859), and Edward Everett (1794–1865). New England idolized Webster until his famous “Seventh of March Speech” (1850), after which Whittier’s ‘Ichabod’ expressed the attitude of his constituency. Everett, whose versatile public career was one of the most brilliant of the time, left nearly two hundred orations of his composition, some of which earned philanthropic projects very large sums of money. Less pretentious fashions in public speaking make his oratory now seem over-decorative. The bold, erratic eloquence of Wendell Phillips (1811–1884) was most effective when supporting abolition. In addition to Phillips, Theodore Parker (1810–1860) and Henry Ward Beecher (1813–1887) may be mentioned as pulpit orators eloquent in the anti-slavery cause. Beecher’s career is hardly to be associated with that of our group, though he came of a well-known New England family. Not only did the New England audience thrill passionately under the elaborate eloquence of its favorite speakers, but public speaking was at this time highly valued throughout the country.

New England interest in all these moral issues, together with the inbred worship the community paid to moral earnestness in general, colors practically all the writings of this group. Their audience was a rural, home-loving folk who tolerated strange moral theorizing no more than does the typical villager of any period. Literature for them must have a moral tendency, but the thinking must be familiar and accepted. Their moral reflections have two moods: the sentimental melancholy of Longfellow’s ‘Rainy Day’ or the ‘Bridge’; and the fervid courage of Holmes’s ‘Chambered Nautilus.’ Although the gentler, romantic emotions were more popular, Holmes in his ‘One Hoss Shay’ and Lowell in the ‘Biglow Papers,’ and elsewhere, achieved unusual success in satire.

Fiction, habitually romantic, paints sympathetic pictures of simple domestic virtues. Perhaps no one in the use of contemporary home life had more success than Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888) in her stories for the young, and Mrs. Stowe in her later works. Holmes’s “medicated fiction” was read, in part at least, because of his popularity as an essayist. In New England fiction before the War usually only the good may be happy, and they must be so.

Hawthorne (1804–1864)

Nathaniel Hawthorne stands apart from these other writers as a man whose interest in the psychology of morality, in “sin staining the soul,” was so concentrated and penetrating as to enable him to produce works of simple but imposing architecture where others produced mere prettiness. In his use of background he is typically romantic, whether in the colonial Boston of the ‘Scarlet Letter’ (1850), the contemporary New England of the ‘House of the Seven Gables’ (1851) and the ‘Blithedale Romance’ (1852), or the more colorful Italy of the ‘Marble Faun’ (1860). The tendency to leave the bleakness of New England for the more complex European scene is notable also in the work of the artist littérateurs, Washington Allston (1779–1843), W. W. Story (1819–1895), and of Longfellow, as well as later in the works of Hawthorne’s admirer and biographer, Henry James. The character of Hawthorne and of his audience also is hinted in the fact that he expected the ‘Marble Faun’ with its academic moral problem and its naïve “cultural” background to be his masterpiece. Posterity, however, has more than once adjudged the ‘Scarlet Letter’ his greatest work and one of the finest achievements in American fiction. In his short stories the allegorical and moral tendency of his fancy is so strong as to make him probably the most didactic of the world’s greater short-story writers. His superiority to his contemporaries in fiction is in part due to the fact that the almost fatalistic “poetic justice” of his stories—an outgrowth possibly of Calvinistic predestination—contrasts favorably with the cheaper sentimentality of much American fiction; but it is mainly due to the innate poetic fineness of his art in characterization, to his skilful use of background, and to the charm of his style. Almost alone among New Englanders he makes morality serve art instead of art morality.

Most writers of this group were, like Hawthorne, essentially romantic and reflective. Those less artistic than he—and he himself, for that matter—tended to idealize rather than to observe keenly. When Carlyle longed to have from Emerson the depiction of a real American man with a hat on his head and a coat on his back, he must have known that convincing objectivity was even less possible for Emerson than it was for his contemporaries. There was, however, throughout the period a valuable, if relatively small, amount of prose and poetry which effected a more or less faithful reproduction of the New England mind and scene.

A fairly early and certainly influential example of this type of work is seen in Lowell’s ‘Biglow Papers’ (First Series, 1846–1848; Second Series, 1862–1865). While the characterization of these loosely knit patriotic poems may not be above criticism, since both Hosea Biglow and Parson Wilbur are disguises for Lowell himself, the poet through these mouthpieces does give us a sort of mosaic of the opinions and mental mannerisms of rural New England. ‘The Courtin’,’ perhaps the most artistic piece from this collection, is, by all critics unprejudiced against dialect verse, ranked high among Lowell’s successes. These two series of dialect poems are important not only because of their intrinsic merit but also because of the probable influence which their Yankee wit, sharp epigram, rural image, and bad spelling had on the typically “western” wit of such professional funny-men as “Artemus Ward,” “Josh Billings,” and other migratory sons of New England.

The success of Lowell’s work probably contributed inspiration also for the dialect poems of Bret Harte, John Hay, and some of their disciples, though in these writers sentimentality largely supplanted keen wit. If, then, Lowell may be credited with giving us, here and in such prose papers as his ‘Moosehead Journal’ (1853), a real glimpse of rural New England, it may perhaps be suggested that Holmes has similarly in the ‘Breakfast Table Series’ (1857–1872) given us discursive insight into the mental processes of urban New England—that is, of Boston. The pictures of boarding-house life are not especially vivid, but the conversation may be regarded as vivacious reporting of super-Bostonian table-talk of the day. In his poems Holmes tends to take material from the genteel traditions of the past rather than from contemporary local conditions.

In depicting the rural New England scene Whittier is of course the master. None of the group had so complete a dependence on the local manners and landscape. A typical product of the farm, he became a poet through moral earnestness and a vivid memory rather than through a creative and glowing imagination. Too often his simple ballads show that he has stimulated his imagination by reading mediocre predecessors, such as Mrs. Felicia Hemans and “L. E. L.” (Miss Landon), who were very popular in New England; but at his best, inventing little and borrowing less, he relies on the memories of his boyhood farm life, which he represents for us with great fidelity. Among these poems of reminiscence ‘Snow-Bound’ (1866), because of its unusual combination of sympathy and reality, takes first rank. Although every detail here is objectively accurate, Whittier felt there was a less lovely side to New England farm life, and this he has embodied in the more narrowly realistic and prosaic ‘Among the Hills.’ ‘Telling the Bees,’ a similar poem of more idyllic coloring, while in form it owes much to Browning, has a simple poignancy and truth that Browning himself might envy. Together these poems give a better conception of the home life of New England than any other poems ever written.

A faithful localism was also developed in New England prose fiction, though late in this period. Mrs. Stowe, who was usually a writer of purpose novels rather than an observer and reporter of life, put enough of actuality into the ‘Pearl of Orr’s Island’ and ‘Oldtown Folks’ to inspire Sarah Orne Jewett (1849–1909) with the ambition to immortalize the fading vitality of the small Maine villages she knew. Her gifts in handling background and humorous characterization combine to make her probably the greatest writer of New England local fiction. Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1836–1907), better known as a poet, has written stories, some of which report New England life charmingly. His autobiographic ‘Story of a Bad Boy’ (1870) is worth noting here, though its chief significance lies in its connection with a vogue for stories of boy life written in a moderately realistic vein. Mr. Howells, who for a time seemed like an adopted son of New England, early used New England life in his fiction with dignified and truthful effect. Aside from the work of Howells, most of this fiction that reports as well as interprets life is mellowed with a glamor of retrospect. It is obviously written for an audience that valued old-fashioned elegance and overlooked much rural vulgarity. It marks, however, a step towards the later more dispassionate realism of Mrs. Mary E. Wilkins Freeman and Mrs. Edith Wharton’s masterly ‘Ethan Frome’ (1911).

In general, the writing of this New England Group is fundamentally romantic. The Orphic deliverances of Emerson, the discursive prose of Holmes with its wit interrupted by unexpected strata of pathos, the gentle sadness of Longfellow, the exuberance of Lowell, and the patent sentimentality of most of the fiction, all witness to this tendency. One type of poetry in which the New Englanders attained significant success is not, to be sure, usually classed as romantic. This is occasional poetry. Holmes in his series of poems for his class reunions at Harvard produced admirable occasional verse of the lighter sort; Emerson’s ‘Concord Hymn’ (1836) and his ‘Boston Hymn’ (1863) were achievements in short poetry for public occasions, as Lowell’s ‘Commemoration Ode’ (1865) was in a more pretentious kind; lastly, it must be remarked, that Longfellow’s ‘Divina Commedia’ sonnets (1864–1867) are probably unsurpassed in the dedicatory verse of their century. But these poems are not essentially outside a subdued romantic tradition. They, like the other works here considered, are the creations of men living in a refined and prosperous community, where gentle emotions were indulged, but titanic passions never. The writers, like their unusually homogeneous audience, were shrewd, independent, and at times probably complacent; but they were also unselfish idealists. New England furnished the nation’s schoolmasters as well as its peddlers. The literary appeal of these men is due to the simplicity and grace of their writing rather than to its power; for they are content to express the emotions of villagers and farmers who of an evening sat about the family hearth talking or reading together, untroubled by the intense industrialism and the flood of immigration that were yet to come.

Chronological Table

  • 1815The ‘North American Review’ founded
  • 1833American Anti-Slavery Society founded
  • 1836Emerson’s ‘Nature’ published
  • 1837Hawthorne’s ‘Twice-Told Tales’ published
  • 1839Longfellow’s ‘Voices of the Night’ first published
  • 1841–47Brook Farm
  • 1845–48The Mexican War
  • 1846Lowell’s ‘Biglow Papers’ First Series begun
  • 1850Hawthorne’s ‘Scarlet Letter’ published
  • 1851–52Mrs. Stowe’s ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ published
  • 1857The ‘Atlantic Monthly’ founded
  • 1861–65The Civil War
  • 1866Whittier’s ‘Snow-Bound’ published
  • 1877Miss Jewett’s ‘Deephaven’ published
  • 1884Lowell’s ‘Democracy’ address delivered at Birmingham (England)
  • 1894Death of Holmes, the last of the greater New England writers to die
  • Reading Recommended