Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 18. James A. Herne

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

XVIII. The Drama, 1860–1918

§ 18. James A. Herne

At the time Fitch and Thomas were gaining headway, another playwright came to the front, having attained before-hand a reputation for powerful acting and excellent stage management. This was James A. Herne (1839–1901). His distinctive gifts as a writer were clarity and simplicity, and his art of expression lay in the illumination he infused into homely things and simple people. Coming East from California with the traditions of florid melodrama which influenced Belasco (the two having worked together at the Baldwin Theatre), Herne fell under the influence of Darwin and Herbert Spencer, in philosophy, and of Henry George in economics. He arrived in Boston at the time W. D. Howells, an exponent of realism in the novel, was the foremost writer of the day. All these forces prompted Herne to deal with the fundamentals of character in his dramatic work. He became interested, as Maeterlinck would say, in conditions of soul. His dialogue in Margaret Fleming (Lynn, Mass., 4 July, 1880), rang true, instinct with homely life; his Griffith Davenport (Washington, D. C., 16 January, 1899)—a drama of the Civil War based not on external action but on inward struggle—was filled with sincerity; his Shore Acres (Chicago, 23 May, 1892)—which, because of the prècieuse success of Margaret Fleming, made concessions to the old-time melodrama, had passages of dominant realism, simple conversation warm with human meaning, which have not been surpassed by an American playwright thus far. The popular notion is that Herne wrote “by gosh” drama of the type of The Vermont Wool-Dealer and Denman Thompson’s Old Homestead (Boston, 5 April, 1885). But that is farthest from a true comparison, for Herne’s observation was based on profound appreciation of character and human relationship, and the Yankee-type drama was dependent on outward eccentricity.