The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.XIII. Later Essayists
§ 8. His Great Influence
This was Norton’s gift to America: an accentuation of the continuity and permanence of the ideal aspects of the race life. Culture, with both its æsthetic and moral implications, was the inheritance of this New Englander, in whose idealism was inwoven that Brahminical strain which, while it strengthens, at times compresses; and so we find him, in his letters as in his life, a standard-bearer of cultivation who yet lacked the buoyant enthusiasm of American democracy. His early letters never overflow with the spirits of youth; the missives of middle life contain frequent sentences reflecting upon the unsatisfactoriness of American society; and this morally Hebraic descendant of ultra-religious Puritan forbears, sounds, in his later letters, a note of impatient agnosticism. But withal, how fine a quality flavours his correspondence, his comments on Whitman, Summer, Lincoln, Wendell Phillips, and other subjects of his pen! Norton stands among American essayists and lecturers as the most unyielding critic of vulgarity in the social life of his day and of futile sentimentalizing in the political life. We miss in his letters that sense of humour which is the touchstone of the philosopher, and which Norton’s friend Curtis used as a literary force in his public career. We miss also the light touch of fancy and the quick thrust of wit; while, at times, fastidiousness of language and thought accentuates Norton’s aloofness from the ways of other men. When George E. Woodberry sent Norton, in 1881, his verses on America, Norton commented on their surplusage of patriotism in this manner: “We love our country, but with keen-eyed and disciplined passion, not blindly exalting her.… To do justice to the America that may be, we must not exalt the America that is, beyond her worth.” This kind of integrity of judgment, this almost bleak disregard of the popular aspect of things, this stoical insistence on the discipline of passion, made Norton a force to be reckoned with, even when, almost alone among our American men of letters, he took fearless issue with the national administration at the time of the war with Spain. Yet his power with the written word was not sufficiently forceful to assure any very vital hold on men of a later day. He was a phenomenon of æsthetic intuition and of intellectual purity to whom we willingly offer tribute of admiration; yet we are aware of that pessimistic drop of acid which made his blood run a little more coldly than that of his fellow authors, precipitating the residue of an ultimately weary expression of New England culture.