The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.XIII. Later Essayists
§ 17. Edwin Percy Whipple
Mabie was a voluminous writer on literary topics, but two keener students of literature, among the American writers in the second half of the nineteenth century, were Edwin Percy Whipple (1819–86) and Edmund Clarence Stedman (1833–1908). Whipple is a critic whose attainments have been neglected by later readers, yet whose works have force and clarity of expression, sharp insight, frequent wit. He was born in Gloucester, Massachusetts, the very year that Washington Irving’s Sketch Book marked the commencement of American belles-lettres; but his first book, Essays and Reviews (1848), allies him rather with the Macaulay school of essayists than with the more personal and leisurely Irving tradition. Indeed, it was Whipple’s brilliant article on Macaulay, written in 1843, that made its author known to the literary world of Boston, where Whipple, a young man of twenty-four, was then employed in the brokerage business; and Macaulay’s style is reflected in much of the earlier work of his American admirer. In the lectures and essays contained in the volumes entitled Literature and Life (1871) and Character and Characteristic Men (1877) Whipple continued to reveal that really keen penetration into the strata of values and that ready entrance into the temperament of his subject which had been shown in his earlier appraisals of men and books. There are few better essays on British critics than Whipple’s paper wherein, in discussing Jeffrey, to whose charm of wit he is “by no means insensible,” Whipple not only refers with succinct phraseology to the “cool and provoking dogmatism” and “the insulting tone of fairness” of the British critic; but goes deeper into the nature of æsthetics, as where he writes: “By making beauty dependent on the association of external things with the ordinary emotions and affections of our nature, by denying its existence both as an inward sense and as outward reality, he substantially annihilates it.” Then again, of Hazlitt: “He was naturally shy and despairing of his own powers, but his dogmatism was of that turbulent kind which comes from passion and self-distrust.” Sheridan, Fielding, Carlyle, and the earlier English dramatists, beginning with Marlowe and Ben Jonson, are all treated with the sympathy of the man of letters who is, at the same time, the student of national and epochal tendencies; and so, too, in his estimates of Rufus Choate, Emerson, Motley, Sumner, and others of our own writers.