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

X. Later Poets

§ 12. The West

This brings us to the poetry of the West. The poets of the East are, in one sense, a survival from the past; in another sense, a bridge leading from the past into the future. The West, on the other hand, having the initiative, the irreverence, and the breezy optimism of a new country, set about creating a literature fashioned in its own image. If that image was unbeautiful, it was at least sturdy and forward-looking. At times the West did not hesitate to use the past, but its own force nearly always gave the past a new direction. It was this element of novelty that delighted ordinary readers even in the conservative East and caused England to find in Western poetry, as it found in Whitman, the authentic voice of the New World at last beginning to express itself:

  • Nothing of Europe here—
  • Or, then, of Europe fronting mornward still.
  • For this hasty generalization there is some semblance of justification, since, after all, as Professor Turner has shown impressively, all of the United States save the Atlantic seaboard has at some time been a democratic West in opposition to an aristocratic East. And yet, if the West was not a fixed region, it was merely a phase in national development, and the voice of that phase is not the voice of the nation itself.

    The immigrant character of the Far West is illustrated by its chief writers, Harte, Miller, and Sill. Bret Harte, born in Albany, never became quite saturated with the spirit of the West, and spent a little more than half of his total years in the State of New York and in Great Britain. His poetry is that of a gifted man of letters who perceived the literary possibilities of the material lying about him in his impressionable young manhood in California. The picturesque California of the early fifties he presented adroitly not only in his short stories but also in such poems as Plain Language from Truthful James (generally known as The Heathen Chinee), The Society upon the Stanislaus, Dickens in Camp, and Jim. Some of these poems were dramatic monologues, commonly in dialect; Harte’s poems in conventional English were less successful, though some of his Spanish Idyls and Legends depict attractively the fading glory of Spanish rule in the West. Most of his poems contain humour and pathos, often blended, as in the short stories; in most of them the deft technique, especially the surprising turn at the end, adds much to the reader’s pleasure. His range was considerable but his excellence nowhere great enough to lift him above the minor poets.

    Harte’s East and West Poems, which came out in 1871, exploited “the Pike,” a recurrent figure in our literature since the work of George W. Harris and other Southerners. The Pike County Ballads of John Hay (1838–1905), published in the same year, reached an extensive audience, English as well as American; to the English reviews, indeed, Hay was likely to be the poet of Jim Bludso and Little Breeches rather than one of the authors of a monumental life of Lincoln.Since 1871 dialect poems portraying humble life in a definite region have contributed a striking localism to our minor poetry.