Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 1. Types of American Essayists

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XIII. Later Essayists

§ 1. Types of American Essayists

WHEN, speaking to his classmates on their graduation from college, William Ellery Channing made the address entitled The Present Age (1798), the note that he uttered was one that thenceforth reverberated throughout our national life and literature. It showed affiliation with the French Revolution, and with the England of Burns, Shelley, and Wordsworth; and notable is the emphasis on the possibility of all human progress, not alone American progress, and on the importance of that culture which shall be shared by all classes of mankind. To material objects Channing gave their due, but regarded them merely as the manifestations of character and of power that have in higher fields their most inspiring representation; and beauty was for him a vast treasury of benediction wherefrom he wished his fellow men to draw the priceless blessings available to the poorest purse. Thus the essay on Self-Culture, written as an address in 1838, is a composition to which the writings of Emerson, Curtis, Higginson, Mabie, and later authors owe a decided, even if in some cases unconscious, debt—the practical and poetical blending of humanity with the humanities.

As Channing was the earliest in that firmament of lecturer-essayists where Emerson shone as the most benignant star, so Nathaniel Parker Willisis the prototype of later semi-literary American journalists. Now, the mark of the journalist, the trait which surely establishes both his immediate success and his final oblivion, is the intentness of seizure on what the present can give, in swift, exciting, easily apprehensible interest. It was always the present that fascinated Willis; and, save in fleeting moments of early days, his vision did not seek the future with any sincere scrutiny. Revelling in personalities, he is expository only secondarily, if at all; and inspiring never. The writer of our own time who works up an interview with some man of mark is following Willis not alone in his interest in the super-ficialities of personality, but often in the very tricks of style, varying from gaudy metaphor to the epithet that has the tang of the unexpected. Our journalists, by and large, remain lesser members of the Willis tribe.

Still a third writer, Washington Irving, exerted a notable influence as the originator of a literary form which, for want of a better phrase, might be called the story-essay, wherein the narrative element runs its gentle course over a bed of personal reflections and descriptive comment of individual flavour. He had a whole school of followers, and even Hawthorne for a time moved among them; while two more natural inheritors of his moods of tender sentiment and gentle satire are Donald Grant Mitchell (1822–1908) and George William Curtis, with whom the history of our later essayists may well begin.