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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 South and West: II. Western Literature (1850–1900)

By Daniel Kilham Dodge (1863–1933)

THE EARLIEST and for many years the most important cultural centre of the country west of the Alleghanies was Cincinnati, which, with characteristic pioneer modesty, laid claim to the title of “The Athens of the West.” By 1833 five literary magazines had been published in this city, a number exceeded by only three other American towns. Ohio was settled mainly by New Englanders, who had brought with them an interest in education that resulted in the establishment of numerous schools and colleges. One of the latter, Miami College, showed remarkable literary activity in issuing two magazines by the students and faculty as early as 1828.

But, in spite of these evidences of intellectual energy, the only original contributions to literature made by this section during the first half of the nineteenth century are in the form of the oration. Especially popular during the last decade of the period, when party feeling ran high, was the political debate, in which Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas were the acknowledged masters. The speeches made during their famous joint debates of 1858 were published in 1860 and formed the principal campaign document of the Republicans. Lincoln’s lofty place in literature, however, was not won by these brilliant arguments, but by the more sober and more finished speeches of 1854, the two Inaugural Addresses, and above all by ‘The Gettysburg Address,’ the finest plea for true democracy ever uttered by human voice. Early Western literature, although it is confined to one field, can, in the person of Abraham Lincoln, be safely compared with the greatest writings of the past or present.

The development of a distinctively Western literature started in California and it is intimately connected with the discovery of gold in that country. The pioneer California author is the humorist Horatio Derby, who, under the pseudonym of John Phœnix, wrote a number of extravagant articles in letter form, which were published posthumously under the titles ‘The Squibob Papers’ (1855) and ‘Phœnixiana’ (1859). Derby was not only the earliest California writer, but he may be regarded as the founder of the peculiar form of journalistic humor which depends for its effect upon gross exaggeration. In his early writings Mark Twain shows the same tendency, and Artemus Ward makes constant use of it.

The real literature of California began a few years later, with Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens) and Bret Harte as the central figures. The Overland Monthly, of which Bret Harte became the editor in 1867, soon developed into a serious rival of the Eastern magazines; and when Joaquin Miller’s ‘Songs of the Sierra’ appeared in 1871 the importance of this new literary movement won general recognition. Both Mark Twain and Bret Harte left the West and broke off their connection with its literature, but Joaquin Miller remained true to California. He was a lover of the free, expansive life of the mountains, and almost all of his poetry is devoted to its praise and description. His poetical creed has been expressed by the poet himself in these words: “We must, in some sort, live what we write if what we write is to live.” Like Bret Harte, Miller was ranked higher by European critics than by his countrymen. Bret Harte’s reputation is based almost wholly upon the poems and stories of the West, and in the latter genre he exerted a powerful influence upon later short-story writers that is still apparent. In spite of an effect of insincerity, such stories as ‘The Luck of Roaring Camp’ appear already to have found a permanent place among the classics of prose fiction.

The most powerful recent California novelist is Frank Norris (1870–1902). His first stories were in the extreme naturalistic style of Zola but in the first two volumes of his trilogy of wheat he abandons this school and suggests not a little of the vitality and breadth of Victor Hugo. In the opinion of many European critics, Norris is the most important figure in recent American literature. Mary Halleck Foote (1847–1938), though an Easterner by birth, in her first book, ‘The Led-Horse Claim,’ and in several later ones, has made interesting contributions to Western literature. The leading living California novelist is Mrs. Gertrude Atherton (1857–1948).

Turning back to the Middle West, we find an interesting volume of poems, slightly earlier than Bret Harte, ‘Poems of Two Friends’ (1860), the anonymous work of W. D. Howells and J. J. Piatt. Piatt continued to make poetical contributions for twenty years, but Howells, after writing a campaign life of Lincoln, left Ohio and poetry, and thus passes out of the compass of this survey. The year 1871 was notable in the poetical history of the central West as well as of California, for in this year appeared Will Carleton’s first volume of ‘Poems,’ and John Hay’s ‘Pike County Ballads.’ Carleton’s poetry is of the sentimental rural type which makes a strong appeal to large numbers of readers. It corresponds in poetry to ‘The Old Homestead’ type of plays in the drama. Of a radically different nature is the rude but convincing frontier poetry of Hay, often suggesting in its appeal the genuine popular ballads of England and Scotland.

The earliest Indiana novel, ‘The Hoosier Schoolmaster,’ by Edward Eggleston (1837–1902), appeared in the notable year of 1871. Its author was a Methodist circuit rider, and his appeal was similar to that made by J. G. Holland and E. P. Roe, although the form of the appeal was much more artistic. These writers undoubtedly exerted a marked influence upon the prejudice against prose fiction which still survived in many quarters. Eggleston’s later writings were in the direction of history, although it has been claimed that even in his novels Eggleston is an historian at heart.

In 1880 appeared the first volume of poems by James Whitcomb Riley (1849–1916), the most popular of the numerous Hoosier poets. In many of his poems Riley uses a somewhat conventional but very effective form of the Indiana dialect. Within his adopted field Riley has achieved real success as well as popularity, and he is a worthy successor to Longfellow’s title of the children’s poet. Another Indiana poet, whose attention has in the main been directed towards prose fiction, is Meredith Nicholson (1866–1947). In his prose fancy, ‘The Poet’ (1914), he has given a delicate portrait of his friend and master, Riley. Booth Tarkington (1869–1946), like Nicholson, stands just on the border of the century, but his first two books, ‘The Gentleman from Indiana’ (1899) and ‘Monsieur Beaucaire’ (1900), fall within our limits. Before the close of the century another Indiana writer, William Vaughn Moody (1869–1910), had already won recognition by the publication of two volumes of poems of unusual beauty and strength. Shortly before his death he produced in ‘The Great Divide’ (1906) the most significant play of Western life.

One of the most delicate of the later Western poets is Eugene Field (1850–1895), a brilliant journalist, who found time to translate Horace and to write humorous and pathetic poems, some of which vie in general popularity with Riley’s. During the last years of his life Field lived in Chicago, with which city he is most closely associated. The chief interpreter of Chicago life in prose fiction is Henry B. Fuller (1857–1929). He is distinctly realistic in his methods and his most successful treatments of his theme are ‘The Cliff-Dwellers’ (1893), and ‘With the Procession’ (1895)

Since 1880, Chicago has had in The Dial one of the leading literary journals of the country. The establishment of the University of Chicago in 1892 and the Columbian Exposition, held the following year, have had a marked influence upon the culture of the metropolis of the West. At present Chicago is as greatly distinguished for its interest in art, music, and poetry as for its stockyards and its railroad terminals. The neighboring state of Wisconsin has a powerful literary representative in Hamlin Garland (1860–1940), author of ‘Main-Traveled Roads’ (1890) and ‘Rose of Dutcher’s Coolly’ (1895). Garland is the best realistic novelist among the writers of the central West. In his drab pictures of Wisconsin farm life he carries out fully the theory of Howells.

Chronological Table

  • 1848Discovery of gold in California
  • 1854Kansas-Nebraska Bill passed
  • 1858Lincoln-Douglas Debates
  • 1861Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address; Douglas died
  • 1863Gettysburg Address
  • 1865Death of Lincoln
  • 1870Bret Harte’s ‘Luck of Roaring Camp’ published
  • 1871‘The Hoosier Schoolmaster,’ Bret Harte’s ‘Poems,’ Hay’s ‘Pike County Ballads,’ Miller’s ‘Songs of the Sierras,’ Carleton’s ‘Poems’ published
  • 1883Riley’s ‘Old Swimmin’ Pool’ published
  • 1892University of Chicago opened
  • 1893Columbian Exposition
  • Reading Recommended