Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 21. Living Essayists

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

XIII. Later Essayists

§ 21. Living Essayists

The scope of present-day essayists is far wider than that of the men of the preceding century. The tendency is away from the traditionary essay of morals or of literary culture, partially because the classics are no longer part and parcel of our education, and largely because science and social economics are more and more requistioning the pens of many of our most brilliant contemporary essayists. We have, however, many writers, of course, whose work continues the literary tradition; and to name Howells, Woodberry, Santayana, Woodrow Wilson, Henry Van Dyke, Brander Matthews, Paul Elmer More, Agnes Repplier, and John Burroughs—foremost among nature writers—were yet to omit others well deserving of inclusion lest too long a catalogue of ships should still overlook some bark of letters already worthily launched. Our grateful task has been to write of the men who have gone by, a group of noble gentlemen, whose attitude towards life was that of the idealist, and whose courtesy of spirit and courtesy of phrase are permeating traits of their work. Not even in the harshest days of the Civil War is there a brow-beating epithet or sneering causticity. If the American essayists and critics owe a debt to the English writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—as indeed they do—they have removed from their inheritance all taint of bitterness and cruel satire, and our critical literature has (with the exception of Poe in his uninspired moments) no mean, no biassed, no tyrannical—and no fulsome—appraiser of literary values or of the motives of men’s actions. If, however, we turn to our group of later essayists as a whole, we are soon aware that they leave something to be desired, and that we must have recourse to European essays for the supplying of this want. As our fiction has refused to portray life with full verity, to dissect with searching candour the hidden motives in individual life, so, too, have our essay writers abstained from the subtle workings of the mind in the field of personal emotions and desires. There is, however, a distinction to be made when we seek to explain these limitations in American fiction and American essays. In the first case is preponderantly involved the purpose of popular appeal along the lines of least resistance, with financial success as the writer’s reward. In the second case, the purpose of educating the mind of a nation not yet ready to appreciate art in all its ramifications, has, whether directly or unconsciously, led our essayists to refrain from themes which Continental writers have made luminous to peoples inheriting the Renaissance rather than the Puritan traditions. The group of essayists that we are leaving may indeed have theoretically subscribed to the French dictum that style is the man, yet they wrote, rather, under the propulsion of the idea that mankind is more than style.