Carl Van Doren (1885–1950). The American Novel. 1921.Chapter 3. Romances of Adventure
Section 1. Materials and Men
In Europe, at Cooper’s death, a new vogue of realism had set in, but America still had little but romance. The presence of the frontier as a contemporary fact as well as a matter of fiction accounts for this condition quite as much as does the absence at the time of any strong realistic bent among American writers. With that vast, mysterious hinterland free to any one who might come to take it, novelists, like farmers, were less prompt in America than in Europe to settle down to the intensive cultivation of known fields. There is a closer analogy, indeed, between the geographic and the imaginative frontier of the United States than has generally been realized. As the first advanced, thin, straggling, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, widening from Canada to Mexico, and reaching out in ships, the other followed, also thin and straggling but with an incessant purpose to find out new territories which the imagination could play over and claim for its own. “Until now,” wrote Cooper in 1828, “the Americans have been tracing the outline of their great national picture. The work of filling up has just seriously commenced.” He had in mind only the physical process, but his image applies as well to that other process in which he was the most effective pioneer. Two years after his death the outline of the national picture, at least of contiguous territory, was established, and the nation gave itself to the problem of occupation. In fiction, too, after the death of Cooper, the main tendency for nearly a generation was away from the conquest of new borders to the closer cultivation, east of the Mississippi, of ground already marked.
As late as 1825 Jared Sparks thought ten American novels a striking output for one year, but during the second quarter of the century Cooper had many helpers in his task. For the most part they were more limited than he to particular sections. In New England, John Neal, D. P. Thompson, and Sylvester Judd had already set outposts before Hawthorne, at first a writer of short stories, came definitely with his greater novels to capture that section for classic ground. Paulding assisted Cooper in New York, and took Swedish Delaware for himself; for Pennsylvania, Bird was Brown’s chief successor; Maryland had Kennedy; Virginia, without many native novels, began to undergo, in the hands of almost every romancer who dealt with either the Settlement or the Revolution, that idealization which has made it, especially since the Civil War, the most romantic of American states; South Carolina passed into the pages of Simms; Georgia and the lower South brought forth a school of native humorists who abounded in the truth as well as in the fun of that border; the Mississippi and the Ohio advanced to a place in the imagination with the Hudson, the Susquehanna, the Potomac, and the James. North of the Ohio romance achieved comparatively little and the epic of the Great Lakes remained—as indeed it still remains—unsung; but on the southern bank of the Ohio, Kentucky, “dark and bloody ground,” rivaled its mother Virginia. Bird ventured into Mexico at a time when Irving and Prescott were writing romantic histories of the Spanish discovery and conquest. Melville, the most original and enduring of Cooper’s contemporaries, concerned himself with the wonders of the Pacific and the deeds of Yankee whalers. Nor did the romancers of the period confine themselves entirely to native borders and native ships, though the exceptions are relatively unimportant: various narratives by various narrators of the life and voyages of Columbus; the African tales of Mayo; the one story of classical antiquity, Mrs. Child’s gentle, ignorant Philothea (1836); the Biblical romances of William Ware; and George Tucker’s satirical Voyage to the Moon (1827).
The topographical arrangement is the natural arrangement of this body of romance, for as regards style, method, attitude toward the American past, present, future, general criticism of life, or individual distinction, the different novels exhibit but in rare cases any such qualities as would make classification significant or even possible. Again medieval France furnishes a parallel in the chansons de geste, which differ from these old American romances in little besides their anonymity and their meter. Were the names of the American authors transposed it would be noticed, if at all, only by experts. Almost all of these tales employ a more or less standardized idiom and terminology, tending to the heroic and inflated in the dialogue and to the verbose in narrative and description. Swift improvisation underlies the method, with a large but heedless handling of groups of characters and blocks of material, and with Providence and coincidence involved as lightly as in the most romantic ages. Although there is a strangely monotonous plethora of incident, the plots play continual variations upon a few themes and personages. In those dealing with the matter of the Revolution the war against the British never slackens; nor in those dealing with the Settlement and the Frontier, the war against the stubborn aborigines. Types of character are strongly opposed and slightly shaded, as suits an atmosphere habitually tinged with conflict. Children hardly exist on the scene, and the women rarely rise above the pretty and elegant and helpless except when now and then one of them assumes the virago, often with comic effect. So far as the characters have a psychology, it is restricted to a few single motives: with the women, a passive readiness to be wooed, a meek endurance of husbands, and a tearful solicitude for children—again except for the viragoes, who anticipate their suitors, nag their husbands, and beat or savagely protect their young; with the men, intense patriotism, a burning confidence in the national destiny, a passion for fighting and hardships, considerable insensibility to pain, in themselves and others, which finds expression in stoicism, cruelty, and heavy pranks; and chivalric love remarkably sexless in any but the villains. The moral standards implied belong to conventional ethics, Christianity being professed and war practised in the ordinary modern mixture. While some strained points of honor appear, especially arising from the codes of the gaming table and the duel, there is little of that casuistry which in the medieval courtly romances plays so large a part. There might be more of it were there not a tolerably constant strain of humor, though more generally the characteristic American “good humor” than wit or comedy. Burlesque frequently shows its head, as a rule in connection with the lower order of characters, who, as with Scott, are more likely to be conceived as amusing than as heroic. Such non-English elements in the population as the Irish, German, and French commonly play comic rôles; the negroes have hardly ever any character but that of faithful slaves; and the Indians stand normally at one extreme or other of the scale—fierce savages to be exterminated without mercy or amiable sons and daughters of nature. Towards history most of the romancers took the attitude that it existed for the edification or for the elevation of their readers, and they did not hesitate to enlarge it at will. On the whole the most realistic elements in the entire tradition are the geography, which almost never becomes hazy and casual as in medieval romance, and the landscape, which, though grandiose and elaborate, is little more so in the novels than it was in fact at a time when the great forests and mountains and prairies of the continent were still immense as compared with the settled regions. A certain largeness about the physical horizons, indeed, went a long way for Cooper’s generation, and in the twentieth century still goes a fair distance, toward tempting readers to forget the countless conventional elements in our early fiction. Without their sense of that largeness these novelists could hardly have possessed the rough narrative enegy which is their highest quality.
Only a few of them need to be specially characterized. John Neal of Maine, the first obvious and confessed imitator of Cooper, when The Spy appeared took fire at the example. Neal’s real master, however, was Byron, whom he followed with a fury of rant and fustion which would have made him, had he been gifted with taste and humor as well, no mean follower. The Down-Easters (1833), though promising at first to be a real picture of native life and character, soon runs amuck into raving melodrama. The Rev. Sylvester Judd in 1845 published a novel, Margaret, which Lowell declared had the soul of Down East in it; but the soul of the book has not proved immortal. Written to show that the Unitarians could produce imaginative literature as well as the more orthodox sects, Margaret is badly constructed and it wanders, toward the close, into a region of misty transcendentalisms where characters and plot are lost; and yet it has genuine merits in its vivid fidelity to the life of rural Massachusetts just after the Revolution, in its thorough, loving familiarity with the New England temper and scene, and in a kind of spiritual ardor which pervades it throughout. Judge Daniel Pierce Thompson knew the Vermont frontier as Cooper knew that of New York. After many struggles with the bitterest poverty he got to college, studied law, became a prominent official of his native state, and somewhat accidentally took to fiction. Of his half dozen novels, which all possess a good share of honest realism, Locke Amsden (1847) gives perhaps the most truthful record of frontier life, but The Green Mountain Boys (1839) is the classic of Vermont. It is concerned with the struggles of the Vermonters for independence first from New York and second from Great Britain; its hero is the famous Ethan Allen. Thompson had none of Cooper’s poetry and was little concerned with the magic of nature; he took over most of the tricks of the older novelists and their stock types and sentiments. But he made little effort to preach, he could tell a straight story plainly and rapidly, and he touched action with rhetoric in just the proportion needed to sell fifty editions of the book by 1860 and to make it in the twentieth century a standard book for boys—by far the most popular romance of the immediate school of Cooper.
There was a school of Irving, too, which touched the novel. James Kirke Paulding, Irving’s friend, had considerable merit as a novelist, particularly in the matter of comedy. He enjoyed burlesque and he laughed at what he called “Blood-Pudding Literature.” He was too facile in lending his pen, as parodist or follower, to whatever fashion prevailed at any given moment to do any very individual work, but The Dutchman’s Fireside (1831), his masterpiece, deserves to be mentioned with Cooper’s Satanstoe, considerably its superior, as a worthy record of the Settlement along the Hudson; and his Westward Ho! (1832) significantly reveals the charm which the West—especially Kentucky, in which the scene of this novel is chiefly laid—had for the natives of the older states. Other writers of Eastern birth, resident for a time in the new settlements, cheerfully or romantically undertook the representation of manners not known to the seaboard. The wittiest was Caroline Matilda Stansbury Kirkland, a native of New York, who wrote from the Michigan frontier, among other lesser books, A New Home—Who’ll Follow? (1839), a volume of keen and sprightly letters avowedly in the manner of Miss Mitford, an English imitator of Irving. Still closer to Irving was Judge James Hall of Pennsylvania, who went west in search of adventure, lived in Illinois and Ohio, and by his various literary enterprises served as an interpreter between West and East much as Irving did between America and Europe. Hall’s manner is like Irving’s in its leisurely, genial narrative, its abundant descriptions, and its affection for supernatural legends which could be handled smilingly. He had real powers of fidelity, the only merit he claimed, to the life he knew, but he had also a florid style and a vein of romantic sentiment which have denied his best book, The Wilderness and the Warpath (1846), a permanent vitality. Nearest of all to Irving, however, was his friend and admirer, John Pendleton Kennedy. Of excellent Virginia connections, but born in Baltimore, he served as bloodlessly as Irving in the War of 1812, like him was admitted to the bar, and like him lived merrily thereafter in his native town. His Red Book (1818–19) was a Baltimore Salmagundi in prose and verse, and his Swallow Barn (1832), an amiable and admirable record of life on a Virginia plantation, was a Virginia Bracebridge Hall, even to certain incidents and characters which give the effect of having been introduced rather because Kennedy had observed them in Irving than because he had observed them in Virginia. But Kennedy’s easy humor and real skill at description and characterization make the book distinguished in its own right. His later novels, Horse-Shoe Robinson (1835), in which he dealt with the Revolution in the Carolinas, and Rob of the Bowl (1838), which has its scene laid in colonial Maryland, are nearer Cooper, with the difference that Kennedy depended, as he had done in Swallow Barn, on fact not invention for almost all his action as well as for his details of topography and costume. Indeed, he founded the career of Horse-Shoe Robinson upon that of an actual Revolutionary partizan with such care that the man is said later to have approved the record as authentic. Decidedly Kennedy’s gift, like Irving’s again, was for enriching actual events with a finer grace and culture than the ordinary romancers could command. His style is clear, his methods always simple and rational.
Cooper’s closest rival among the romancers of his school was William Gilmore Simms (1806–70) of South Carolina. Born in Charleston, outside the little aristocracy of the town, Simms got but a scanty schooling. He seems, indeed, during his youth to have been as bookish as Charles Brockden Brown, but it was romantic poetry and history which fascinated him, not romantic speculation. From his grandmother he heard innumerable legends of the Revolution, South Carolina’s epic age, and cherished them with a poetic and patriotic devotion. When he was eighteen he went to visit his father, who had left Charleston for the West, had become friend and follower of Andrew Jackson, and had settled on a plantation in Mississippi. The young poet was thus shown the manners of a frontier which corresponded, in many ways, to that of Cooper, and he seems, during extended travels, to have observed its rough comedy and violent melodrama with sharp eyes. But the border—the matter of the Frontier—was not Simms’s first love as it had been Cooper’s, and the inalienable Carolinian went back, against his father’s advice, to the traditions and dreams of Charleston. There he was admitted to the bar, and there he published the first of his many volumes of verse.
It is unnecessary to say more of the miscellaneous literary tasks of Simms than that, somewhat after the fashion of Sir Walter Scott on a smaller scale, he wrote moderate poetry to the end of his life, including three verse tragedies; that he edited the apocryphal plays of Shakespeare; that he produced popular histories of South Carolina and popular biographies of Francis Marion, Captain John Smith, the Chevalier Bayard, and Nathanael Greene; and that he kept up a ceaseless flood of contributions to periodicals. His range of interest and information was large, but he commonly dealt with American, and particularly Southern, affairs. His really significant work, as a romancer, he began in 1833 with a Godwinian tale of crime, Martin Faber, which was so well received that he followed it in 1834 with Guy Rivers and in 1835 with The Yemassee, two romances in which almost the full extent of his powers was thus early displayed. Guy Rivers, thoroughly conventional as regards the love affair which makes a part of the plot, is a tale of deadly strife between the laws of Georgia and a fiendish border bandit. A born story-teller, like Cooper, Simms was as casual as Cooper in regard to structure and less careful in regard to style, but he was too rapid to be dull and he revealed to Americans a new section of their adventurous frontier. His concern with colonial South Carolina bore fruit in The Yemassee, a moving tale of the Yemassee War of 1715 which has been on the whole his most famous, and which is without much doubt his best, work. Once again Simms took hints from current romances, but when he set himself to describing the rich landscape of South Carolina or to recounting its annals, he was more fully master of his material than in Guy Rivers and more admirable in proportion as his subject was more congenial to him. He gave his Indians the dignity and courage which he said they must have had at an earlier period; he invented for them a mythology. But his triumph comes from the bold and truthful variation he here plays upon the theme used by Cooper in The Last of the Mohicans. Occonestoga, the Uncas of this drama, has been corrupted by contact with the whites and has betrayed his people; Sanutee, his father, like another Brutus, denounces the renegade; Matiwan, his mother, with a more than Roman fortitude, kills him with her own hands to save him from the dishonor which his tribe could inflict only upon a living man. The older American romance has no more dramatic moment. The various white and black characters in The Yemassee have somewhat less heroic dimensions than the red, but they are done with great vigor and some realism.
Having succeeded with the matters of the Frontier and the Settlement, Simms now turned to the Revolution and wrote The Partisan (1835), designed as the first member of a trilogy which should properly celebrate those valorous times. He later wavered in his scheme, and though he finally called Mellichampe (1836) and Katherine Walton (1851) the other members of his trilogy, he grouped round them four more novels that have obvious marks of kinship. The Partisan traces events from the fall of Charleston to Gates’s defeat at Camden; the action of Mellichampe, which is nearly parallel to that of Katherine Walton, the proper sequel of The Partisan, takes place in the interval between Camden and the coming of Greene; The Scout, originally called The Kinsmen (1841), illustrates the period of Greene’s first victories; The Sword and the Distaff (1853), later known as Woodcraft, furnishes a kind of comic afterpiece to the series. Simms subsequently returned to the body of his theme and produced The Forayers (1855) and its sequel Eutaw (1856), to do honor to the American successes of the year 1781. Of these The Scout is perhaps the poorest, because of the large admixture of Simms’s cardinal defect, horrible melodrama; Woodcraft is on many grounds the best, by reason of its close-built plot and the high spirits with which it tells of the pranks and courtship, after the war, of Captain Porgy, the most truly comic character ever produced by this school of American romance. But neither of these works is quite representative of the series; neither has quite the dignity which, lacking in his sensational tales of the border, Simms always imparted to his work when he was most under the spell of the Carolina tradition. That always warmed him; at times he seems drunk with history. He had a tendency to overload his tales with solid blocks of fact derived from his wide researches, forgetting, in his passionate antiquarianism, his own belief that “the chief value of history consists in its proper employment for the purposes of art”; or, rather, he was too much thrilled by bare events to perceive that they needed to be colored into fiction if they were to fit his narratives. Simms never took his art as a mere technical enterprise. He held that “modern romance is the substitute which the people of the present day offer for the ancient epic,” and his heart beat to be another Homer. His seven novels are his epic of the Revolution. Marion, the Agamemnon of these wars, had already become a legend in the popular memory with the help of Weems’s fantastic ardor, but it remained for Simms to show a whole society engaged in Marion’s task. The defect of Simms was that he relied too much upon one plot for each of his tales—a partizan and a loyalist contending for the hand of the same girl—and that he repeated certain stock scenes and personages again and again. His virtue was not only that he handled the actual warfare with interest and power but that he managed to multiply episodes with huge fecundity. He described, in a surge of rhetoric, his favorite material: “Partisan warfare, itself, is that irregular and desultory sort of life, which is unavoidably suggestive of the deeds and feelings of chivalry—such as gave the peculiar character, and much of the charm, to the history of the middle ages. The sudden onslaught—the retreat as sudden—the midnight tramp—the moonlight bivouack—the swift surprise, the desperate defence—the cruel slaughter and the headlong flight—and, amid the fierce and bitter warfare, always, like a sweet star shining above the gloom, the faithful love, the constant prayer, the devoted homage and fond allegiance of the maiden heart!”
The passage is almost a generalized epitome of his Revolutionary romances. It also betrays the fact that the epic for Simms lay decidedly nearer to Froissart than to Homer. If he is more sanguinary, he is also more sentimental than Cooper. His women, though Nelly Floyd in Eutaw is pathetic and mysterious, and Matiwan in The Yemassee is nearly as tragic as romance can make her, are almost all fragile and colorless things. Even more than Cooper, Simms suffered from the pseudo-chivalrous in his Carolina tradition: tediously old-school toward his women, he is also undemocratically “condescending” toward his common men. His comedy is successful only, and then not always, in the words and deeds of the gourmand Porgy. In this respect he clearly surpasses Cooper, whom he equals if not surpasses in the description of landscapes, which in Simms range from the sterile wastes of Georgia to the luxuriant Carolina swamps in which the partizans found a refuge—descriptions full of reality and gusto, but with little emphasis on the “poetry” or “philosophy” of nature.
It was in dealing with the matters of the Revolution and the Settlement, not Cooper’s forte, that Simms succeeded best; he was inferior when he dealt with the Frontier. Perhaps the earlier frontier had been intrinsically more dignified than that which Simms had observed; perhaps the difference is that Cooper’s had lain deeper under the softening shadow of the past. At any rate, Simms grew more melodramatic, as Cooper grew more poetic, the farther he ventured from regions of law and order. Richard Hurdis (1838), Border Beagles (1840), Beauchampe (1842), and its sequel Charlemont (1856) are amazingly sensational—bloody and tearful and barbarously ornate. Nor was Simms happier when he abandoned native for foreign history, as in Pelayo (1838), The Damsel of Darien (1839), Count Julian (1845), and Vasconselos (1853). Even more than Cooper he lacked judgment as to the true province of his art; like Cooper, he constantly turned aside to put his pen to the service of the distracted times through which he was fated to live. As the agitation which led to civil war grew more heated, he plunged into stormy apologetics for the grounds and virtues of slavery, as passionately tory as Dr. Johnson or Sir Walter Scott. Just on the eve of the struggle Simms repeated the success of The Yemassee with a romance of seventeenth-century Carolina, The Cassique of Kiawah (1859), a stirring, varied story which, though generally neglected, must be ranked with his best books. The war ruined and broke him, and though he wrote stoutly on till his death in 1870 he never regained his earlier powers or his earlier prestige.
Robert Montgomery Bird of Delaware, in his Mexican romances recalling Irving and in his novels of New Jersey and Pennsylvania nearer to Cooper, has survived solely—and that but dimly—as the author of Nick of the Woods (1837), a powerful and exciting tale of the Kentucky frontier in 1782, wherein he attempted to correct Cooper’s heroic drawing of the Indian by presenting him as a fierce and filthy savage utterly undeserving of sentimental sympathy. The book celebrates a type of character often spoken of in border annals, the white man who, crazed by Indian atrocities, gave his whole life to a career of ruthless vengeance. As critical a disposition as Bird’s rarely appeared outside of Cooper, but it appeared in The Partisan Leader (1836) by Judge Nathaniel Beverley Tucker of Virginia, a novel which was made the vehicle of criticism. Famous chiefly because it prophesied disunion and civil war, the book deserves note also for its classical restraint, its pride, its intense, conscious Virginianism. Distinction of another sort belongs to the Rev. William Ware of Massachusetts, whose Zenobia (1837), Aurelian (1838), and Julian (1841), though strongly biased in favor of the creed Ware preached, and often diffuse and monotonous, have still force and charm enough to be read even in the present day by that considerable share of the population to whom books dealing with the origins of Christianity are equally duty and delight. And there is another distinction still in Kaloolah (1849), by William Starbuck Mayo of New York, a romance which contains a strange mixture of satire and romance in its account of an African Utopia visited by the Yankee hero Jonathan Romer.
Besides the novelists who can here be characterized or even named there were, or had been, by 1851 many others whom it would avail little to catalogue: authors for children, authors preaching causes, authors celebrating fashionable or Bohemian life in New York; writers of domestic stories with obvious morals, writers of adventure stories with shudderingly sensational plots. Longfellow lamented the success which attended the flashy labors of Joseph Holt Ingraham. E. Z. C. Judson (“Ned Buntline”) and Emerson Bennett began their energetic, sub-literary careers. As the century advanced there was undoubtedly an increase in the amount of trivial fiction produced. The rise of the great Victorian novelists in England was not paralleled in America. Their works in the absence of any copyright could be sold by American publishers more cheaply than native novels could be with the incumbrance of royalties to the native authors. Some Americans avoided competition by preferring short stories; others, by sinking to a lower level and manufacturing a cheap domestic grade of entertainment. All the more, then, do such figures as Cooper and Simms and Melville emerge from among the minor creatures of the day.