Home  »  The American Novel  »  Section 2. The Three Matters of American Romance

Carl Van Doren (1885–1950). The American Novel. 1921.

Chapter 1. The Beginnings of Fiction

Section 2. The Three Matters of American Romance

EXCEPT for the work of Irving, who deliberately chose short stories to avoid any rivalry with Scott, the first twenty years of the nineteenth century produced no memorable fiction whatever in the United States. Even the example of Scott, who was immensely popular, at first failed to arouse imitators. Indeed, the brilliance of his achievement served to discourage his warmest admirers. Such learning, such experience, such humor, such abundance as the “Author of Waverley” displayed—who dared match his powers against them? Moreover, the elements which gave Scott his vogue, and which for a time seemed the essential elements of fiction, were not easily transportable to another soil. The attitude of Americans in the matter was well set forth by John Bristed in his book on The Resources of the United States in 1818: “Of native novels we have no great stock, and none good; our democratic institutions placing all the people on a dead level of political equality; and the pretty equal diffusion of property throughout the country affords but little room for varieties, and contrasts of character; nor is there much scope for fiction, as the country is quite new, and all that has happened from the first settlement to the present hour, respecting it, is known to every one. There is, to be sure, some traditionary romance about the Indians; but a novel describing these miserable barbarians, their squaws, and papooses, would not be very interesting to the present race of American readers.” To Bristed, as to most contemporaries, it seemed impossible for the novel to flourish in a country which had no aristocracy, no distinct classes of society, no wide range of poverty and wealth, no legendary and semi-legendary lore like that of the English-Scottish border. A genuine task challenged the American imagination before any considerable body of fiction could be achieved. Whatever man of genius might appear, there was still the problem of reaching a public taught that fiction belonged to the Old World, fact to the New; taught to look for the pleasures of the imagination on the soil where they had long existed and to which even the most self-conscious and politically independent American had been accustomed to look back with admiration, with some vague nostalgia of the spirit. Yet at the very moment when Bristed wrote, national passions were awake which within a half-dozen years had not only elicited a great romancer but had shown a popular imagination unexpectedly prepared for him. Out of such emotions come, in the proper ages, ballads and epic lays. In the United States, though prose fiction was the form at hand, the narratives were all romantic, and the literary process but repeated the processes of romantic ages. As in medieval France there were three “matters” of romance,

  • De France, et de Bretagne, et de Rome la grant,
  • so in the United States there were also three: the Revolution, the Settlement, and the Frontier.

    The Revolutionary generation had been an age of mythmaking. Washington, for instance, to his very face was apotheosized by his followers with a passion of language which notoriously embarrassed him. Almost before his bones were cold appeared Parson Weems’s astounding tract, miscalled a biography, to catch the popular fancy at once and to establish the absurd legend of Washington’s superhuman virtues. “Private life,” Weems avowed, “is real life”; and though, lacking first-hand knowledge, he was obliged to invent, he seemed intimate and credible to an audience somewhat overwhelmed by the heavy splendor of the more official orations and odes and sermons called forth by Washington’s death. Thereafter the legend grew unchecked, until the pious Catherine Maria Sedgwick, in 1835, apologizing for the introduction of the hero in her novel The Linwoods, could write “in extenuation of what may seem presumption, that whenever the writer has mentioned Washington, she has felt a sentiment resembling the awe of the pious Israelite when he approached the ark of the Lord.” The legends of Arthur and Charlemagne grew no more rapidly in the most legend-breeding age—indeed, did not grow so rapidly as this. And around Washington, as around Arthur his knights and around Charlemagne his peers, were speedily grouped such minor heroes as Francis Marion, whose life was also written by Weems, Israel Putnam, whom David Humphreys celebrated, Patrick Henry, whose biographer was no less a person than William Wirt, Attorney-General of the United States, Ethan Allen, who wrote his own record, and others whose fame or infamy (as in the case of Benedict Arnold) depended less specifically upon books. As all these heroes were consistently whitened by their biographers, so was the cause for which they fought; until the second generation after the Revolution had hardly a chance to suspect—at least so far as popular literature was concerned—that the Revolution had been anything but a melodrama victoriously waged by stainless Continental heroes against atrocious villains in British scarlet, followed by a victory without ugly revenges and crowned by a reconstruction culminating in the divinely-inspired Constitution. George Bancroft himself, a scholar of large attainments, could write as late as 1860 such words as these concerning the Declaration of Independence: “This immortal state paper, which for its composer was the aurora of enduring fame, was ‘the genuine effusion of the soul of the country at that time,’ the revelation of its mind, when in its youth, its enthusiasm, its sublime confronting of danger, it rose to the highest creative powers of which man is capable. The bill of rights which it promulgates, is of rights that are older than human institutions, and spring from the eternal justice that is anterior to the state. Two political theories divided the world; one founded the commonwealth on the reason of state, the policy of expediency; the other on the immutable principles of morals: the new republic, as it took its place among the powers of the world, proclaimed its faith in the truth and reality and unchangeableness of freedom, virtue, and right. The heart of Jefferson in writing the declaration, and of congress in adopting it, beat for all humanity; the assertion of right was made for the entire world of mankind and all coming generations, without any exception whatever; for the proposition which admits of exceptions can never be self-evident. As it was put forth in the name of the ascendent people of that time, it was sure to make the circuit of the world, passing everywhere through the despotic countries of Europe; and the astonished nations as they read that all men are created equal, started out of their lethargy, like those who have been exiles from childhood, when they suddenly hear the dimly remembered accents of their mother tongue.” This, the most patriotic American must now admit, is the language of romance.

    The deeds and personages of the Revolution, steadily growing in the popular imagination under the stimulus of an exultant and hopeful independence, were naturally first expressed and most highly regarded of the new national themes. But side by side with them, in part aroused and drawn along by the Revolution, went the matter of the Settlement, consisting of the tales told in every state about its colonial days. Here again Parson Weems took a hand and wrote folk-books about William Penn and Benjamin Franklin. Weems, himself a Virginian, in his choice of these Pennsylvania worthies as subjects for his art illustrates the national feeling which gradually superseded the old colonial memories and prejudices. The new states no sooner pooled their national resources than they began unconsciously to pool their resources of tradition, of legend, of local poetry. Their wealth was as unequal in this respect as in any other, and widely different in quality. Certain themes from the first assumed a prominence that attracted to them the national imagination as it was attracted to no others. The landing of the Pilgrims, the witchcraft mania at Salem, Connecticut and its Charter Oak, the Dutch on the Hudson, Penn’s liberality and tolerance, the settlement at Jamestown, Pocahontas and her career, Bacon’s Rebellion, John Locke’s schemes for the Carolinas, the debtors in Georgia, and, somewhat later, the siege of Louisburg and Braddock’s defeat: each of these early became the center of an increasing legend. Particularly important was a theme which in some form or other belonged to every colony—the warfare with the Indians for undisturbed possession of the soil from which they had been driven. So long as the natives had been dangerous to the invaders there had existed that bitterness of race-hatred which goes along with race-menace, and which kept out of the records of the old Indian wars, from Maine to Florida, any real magnanimity or sympathy for the dispossessed owners of the land. They were as paynims to Christian knights, as the sons and daughters of Amalek to the invaders of Canaan. King Philip’s War in New England having begotten better books than any other, it lived in the popular memory more vividly than did the equally bitter and important but unrecorded Tuscarora and Yemassee wars in the Carolinas, for instance. The Deerfield raid, in large measure because of the Rev. John Williams’s narrative of his captivity, became classic while similar episodes elsewhere were forgotten. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, however, when the Indian was no longer in any way a menace, he had begun to be sentimentalized by admirers of the natural man, with whom he was commonly identified by Europeans and not infrequently by the descendants of the very Americans who had hated him so bitterly a century before.

    The Indian was a link connecting the matter of the Settlement with the matter of the Frontier, the only one which had a contemporary aspect. It was the frontier not as remembered from the beginnings but as reported from the more distant territories where it still lay in the early years of the new century. Even before the Revolution not a few imaginations had turned inland. The settlement of Kentucky had excited the seaboard, and Daniel Boone, though not the greatest of the pioneers, before 1800 was already beginning to be the most famous of all of them, a true folk-hero. Literature unquestionably did him this service, in the person of the eccentric schoolmaster John Filson, who wrote for Boone his Adventures in 1784. Later the Louisiana Purchase drew still more eyes to the West, while the government expedition conducted by Lewis and Clark, rather less through its reports than through busy rumor, had an influence upon the popular imagination perhaps larger than that ever produced by any other American exploring venture. As contrasted with the tradition of the Settlement or of the Revolution, the reports concerning the contemporary frontier came as news, but there was still about them the haze of distance—distance in miles if not in years. The Great Lakes, the prairies, the plains and mountains beyond, the fever lands of the lower Mississippi, and especially the broad rivers and bluegrass of Kentucky, all of these constituted a sort of hinterland for the national imagination which writers of fiction were not slow to take advantage of. Nor did the frontier lie entirely inland. The sea also was a frontier. From every port of the New England coast, and to a less degree from the Atlantic coast generally, ships went out to every corner of the world, particularly to the mysterious Pacific, with its strange calms and rich pastures for fishermen, and to the exotic countries beyond, but also to the crowded Mediterranean, the banks of Newfoundland, the neighborly West Indies. The new nation was setting out in every direction to become acquainted with its own immense domain and to establish communications between it and all the rest of the world, real or imaginative.

    Such potentialities, of course, still ran a long way before the facts at the time Bristed made his unhopeful prophecy. What he said of existing American fiction suited its recent examples accurately enough. John Davis, a visiting Englishman, had taken a fancy to the Pocahontas legend and had dealt with it in three versions in his Travels (1803), Captain Smith and Princess Pocahontas (1805), and The First Settlers of Virginia (1806). Preposterous as they all are, they are interesting as the first treatment of one of the most persistent of American legends. A rollicking anti-romance, Female Quixotism (1808?) by Tabitha Tenney, which made very good fun of the novels of the day by showing into how many follies its heroine could blunder by taking the manners of such novels for her guide, was far less popular than the absurdly sentimental performance, probably by Isaac Mitchell, The Asylum (1811), which achieved at least a score of editions and exhibits the worst qualities of Mrs. Radcliffe to an extent which now makes it incredibly amusing. The nadir of the old-fashioned, sensational, sentimental romance was reached, however, in Samuel Woodworth’s The Champions of Freedom (1816), written to order to celebrate the second war with England. Pompous language (Ossian mixed with Sterne and Cicero), a ghost that walks like a man, shrieking patriotism, and ineffable sentimentality are all it has to commend it. No wonder that from such monstrosities the public turned with delight to a story-teller by comparison so natural, so rational, so critical, so sensible as Fenimore Cooper.