The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.XIII. Later Essayists
§ 18. Edmund Clarence Stedman
In the centennial year of American independence, Whipple contributed to Harper’s Magazine a paper entitled The First Century of the Republic, in which he reviewed the development of American literature and showed how its course had been “subsidiary to the general movement of the American mind.” In agreeing with this point of view, Stedman, in his Poets of America (1885), expands the thesis: “Our imagination has found exercise in the subjugation of a continent, in war, politics, and government, in inventive and constructive energy, in developing and controlling our material heritage.” It was because Stedman was so enthusiastic a follower of all the efforts and advances of the human mind, an alert man of affairs, experienced in business and finance, as well as a poet, that he possessed in such generous measure the ability to judge both scientifically and poetically. His volumes Victorian Poets (1876) and Poets of America—those standard works of fine sanity and even finer vision—reveal the great eclectic who with warm heart and open mind had a thousand approaches to life. His understanding of philosophy and his vibrating sense of melody are evident, but perhaps nowhere more significantly than in his appraisal of the poetry of Emerson, where he uses a metaphor suggested by science and the practical affairs of everyday life. Emerson, writes Stedman, “had seasons when feeling and expression were in circuit, and others when the wires were down.” Only Stedman could thus have evalued the electric spark, the brilliant mysterious vitality of Emerson’s poetry, negated at times by the insufficiency of his art.
Stedman’s essays were almost exclusively in the field of literary criticism, but there have been published since his death two copious volumes of letters revealing in delightful fashion the range of his interest and the charm of his temperament. Beauty was his guide, and friendship was his passion. He had that spirituality which led him to write to John Hay —the most enjoyable of letter writers among our literary statesmen—that the earth “is smaller than either your soul or mine”; and though Stedman’s manliness remained undaunted before cruel onsets of fate—frequent illness, the loss of fortune, the death of near and dear—he could be moved almost to woman’s tears when the love of friends brought to him unexpected tribute. “For of Heavenly Love we may dream, but know nothing, while from the currents that flow between earthly hearts—young and old—we do gain our most real and exquisite compensation.” In the hurried life of New York this poet who was a broker on the Stock Exchange made time to correspond not alone with his many confréres in fame but with a host of younger writers; and it was his chivalric boast that no letter from a woman ever remained unanswered. The broadness of his sympathies in art, in drama, in music, as well as in letters, coupled with his generous interest in the effort of all those who even at the furthest radius came within his circle, made of Stedman one of the finest influences in the development of New York’s cultural life. “New York,” Stedman wrote in his essay on Bayard Taylor, “is still too practical to do much more than affect an æsthetic sentiment.” This judgment was pronounced more than a score of years ago, and if it is now increasingly open to qualification, Stedman is one of those whom we have therefor most to thank.