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

XIII. Later Essayists

§ 7. Charles Eliot Norton

To sit in judgment on the authors whose lives outran that of Curtis—men whose hospitality was extended to so many younger writers, and whose personal inspiration has quickened unforgettable hours—is no easy task; and far more grateful it would be to saunter in informal easy fashion along the paths of past days, placing wreaths of affectionate reverence in homes where Norton, Higginson, Stedman dwell no more. But we are here concerned less with the charm of men in their social intercourse than with the printed pages which are to succeeding generations their sole direct heritage—direct heritage because who shall gauge those influences which, emanating from personalities like Norton’s and Stedman’s, come to flower long after the hand that cast the initial seed has withered in the grave? The bibliographer of Charles Eliot Norton (1827–1908) finds comparatively little to record that is of importance to the American essay. A study of Dante; notes of travel and study in Italy; some papers published in The Atlantic Monthly; and, later in life, historical studies concerning church building in the Middle Ages,—these indicate to some extent the trend of Norton’s interests, and form a distinguished contribution in those particular fields of literature and art. It is, however, to his letters, published after his death, that we must have recourse for fuller appreciation of his place in the annals of our literary culture. The revelation is a fine one. We behold a being of simple and unswerving rectitude, with a capacity for noble friendships, and with a rare power for instilling enthusiasm. Not only to the large group of students who came, at an impressionable age, under the influence of the Professor of the Fine Arts at Harvard University, but also to men like Ruskin, Lowell, Howells, and other intellectual leaders on both sides of the Atlantic, the clear-visioned Norton spoke heartening words. In a letter, in 1874, to Carlyle, Norton wrote of his aim

  • to give the students some definite notions of the Fine Arts as a mode in which men in past times have expressed their thoughts, faiths, sentiments, and desires; to show the political, moral, and social conditions which have determined the forms of the Arts, and to quicken so far as may be, in the youth of a land barren of visible memorials of former times, the sense of connection with the past and gratitude for the effort and labours of other nations and former generations.