The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.
§ 6. Nathaniel Parker Willis
Flashes of cleverness, geniality, and quiet humour, however, could not conceal the lack of originality and barrenness of invention that were becoming more and more apparent among the remoter satellites of Geoffrey Crayon. The stream of discursive literature was indeed running dry when Nathaniel Parker Willis (1806–61) burst into prominence like a spring freshet, frothy, shallow, temporary, but sweeping all before it. This prince of magazinists, precociously celebrated as a poet even before his graduation from Yale in 1823, and petted by society in this country and abroad, has suffered the fate of other ten days’ wonders. Though the evanescent sparkle and glancing brilliance of his A I’Abri, less extravagantly known by its later title of Letters from under a Bridge, fully deserved Lowell’s praise, though it is possible to understand the popularity of his vivid, vivacious glimpses of European society in Pencillings by the Way and the vogue of his clever “Slingsby” stories in Inklings of Adventure, yet it cannot be denied that Willis too often merited the charges of affectation and mawkishness which we still instinctively associate with the elaborately gilded backs of his many volumes. Unluckily he wrote himself out just at the time when his necessities compelled him to have continous recourse to his pen for a livelihood. His later books sound like a parody of his true manner. It is unnecessary, therefore, to dwell upon the reasons for the decline of his immense reputation; they are obvious.
Nor is it needful to distinguish the paste from the genuine in the composition of the man himself; to defend him from the charge of puppyism by insisting upon his kindliness to younger authors. All that concerns us here is to indicate in what ways Willis inaugurated a temporary but essential phase in the development of the essay and indeed of American letters. The time had come to break with the smooth, dry, elegant style. Willis’s romantic and sentimental ardour influenced more than his choice of subject; it dictated his whole manner. He was the most formless of writers. His eclectic, tentative genius readily expressed itself, and often with great charm, in amorphous informal blends of essay, letter, and story. Fleeting impressions, “dashes at life,” ephemera, “hurry-graphs” were his forte. In an established form like the novel he was never successful. Striving to be original at all costs, he first embellished, then later mutilated the English language, sticking it full of foreign phrase, coined words, and oddities of diction culled from all times and localities. If these things seem intolerable when compared to the sure classic perfection of Irving’s style, we must remember that fluidity is essential to the innovator. Willis followed no tradition, good or bad. That with no guide but his own not infallible taste he should have reached at his best an easy, supple grace of manner, never for a moment tedious, is an evidence of uncommon powers, and even his weaknesses, his not infrequent soft spots, show that at least he was independent of the methods of eighteenthcentury prose.
In this respect Willis has been compared to Leigh Hunt, whom in several ways he certainly resembled, but he was not, like Hunt, an omnivorous reader. The social sense was stronger in him than literary instinct; the merits of his best work are the merits of lively chat. During his European wanderings he learned more from men than from books, and from women most of all. His Diotima was Lady Blessington, whose literary dinners and soirees were duly, in The New York Mirror, dashed at by his free pencil. At Gore House he heard gossip of Byron, saw D’Israeli in action, and met Rogers, Procter, Moore, and Bulwer, men of letters and men of the world. After such models Willis shaped his own career. He luxuriated in drawing-rooms and shone at dinners,