Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 15. Charles Dudley Warner

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

XIII. Later Essayists

§ 15. Charles Dudley Warner

It was Mrs. Stowe’s famous brother, Henry Ward Beecher, who introducted to the world of letters the most likable of all the later American essayist, Charles Dudley Warner (1829–1900), when, in 1870, Beecher wrote the preface to Warner’s first book, My Summer in a Garden. In these papers, as in his Saunterings (1872), based on European travels, and his Backlog Studies (1873), there are a genial humour and a grace of style decidedly reminiscent of Washington Irving, whose life Warner was later to writer in a most sympathetic way. In the long course of his lectures and essays we find many stimulating appeals for greater personal and national culture, and helpful discussions in the field of social topics, especially in connection with prison reform. His travel essays, recording adventures and observations in Europe and America, Africa and Asia, are enjoyable additions to this branch of our literature; while Warner’s activities as an abolitionist bring him further into touch with his fellow writers of the second half of the nineteenth century. He, more than any other of the later essayists, affected his lesser contemporaries of the pen. His papers, with their fireside warmth, their sketchy touch, their humorous and intimate personal note, were studied by many writers for magazines and newspapers, a host of commonplace scribes who found it easier to imitate the Warner flavour than to create any original atmosphere in their own writings.

For a delicious example of Warner’s style one might turn to that part of My Summer in a Garden where the adult agriculturist has an entirely ordinary experience in which his labours are set at naught by the universal characteristics of boyhood. Here Warner rounds out a paragraph which begins with an expression of semi-comic awe, with a reference to the Greek conception of fate as that element in human affairs against which are hopeless the prescience of the wisest minds, the provisions of the most arduous hands. The most baffling and sombre of themes is lightly and delightfully touched, while the author instils in our attitude towards a pear tree that sense of human companionship which, elsewhere in his pages, makes peas and beans and the upspringing asparagus warm and living things.

There are two other papers of Warner’s from which a few lines may indicate how he influenced the thought of his times, and how he is directly related to other American Essayists. One is The Relation of Literature to Life, an address introductory to a course of five lectures delivered at various universities. Warner differed from others of our critics in his belief that the development of American letters would be along lines diverging from, rather than continuing in, the channels of English literature, and his first precept, as a student and expositor of American literature, was “to study the people for whom it was produced.” In the light of our national character would thus be revealed the light of our works of authorship; and Warner clearly understood that in the first century of the United States the national character expressed itself most widely in those activities of invention, material production and construction, path-finding, and path-clearing, which have led to concrete prosperity—all of which Warner summarizes in the phrase “the ideal of Crœsus.” But side by side with the more material tendencies, he perceived those finer currents which bear the rarer cargo of American idealism. Thus while Warner with frankness pointed out that the majority of people look upon literature as a decoration rather than as an essential element in their lives, and while he saw that culture had its own unfortunate arrogances, yet he showed how poetry (and all that poetry connotes) supplies the highest wants of a people: that literature is power as well as pleasure. In his Thoughts Suggested by Mr. Froude’s Progress, Warner wrote:

  • When we speak of progress we may mean men or things. We may mean the lifting of the race as a whole by reason of more power over the material world, by reason of what we call the conquest of nature; or we may mean a higher development of the individual man, so that he shall he better and happier.
In progress of both these kinds Warner had faith. He never forsook the American birthright of optimism, while the ethical note in his writings, continuing the New England tradition, was uttered with so much grace and fine whimsicality of style that it lost didactic harshness.