Home  »  Volume XVIII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART III  »  § 13. Life, Letters, and Journals

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

XXV. Scholars

§ 13. Life, Letters, and Journals

Ticknor’s life, as recorded in his Life, Letters and Journals, is that of a great man of business, a great social talent, almost a grand seigneur, who stood before kings, or rather sat down with them,—and who was incidentally a scholar. It is necessary, in an account of his works, to distribute the emphasis in this way, partly because the Life, considered as one of them, depends decisively upon his social powers, which elicited characteristic attitudes and utterances from the persons he met, and partly because these powers gave a characteristic turn even to the History of Spanish Literature. The Life, a treasury of anecdote and portraiture, which it costs an effort not to quote, would, if well annotated, be found to be also a compendium of European history in its social and literary aspects during the first half of the nineteenth century. The English great houses, the Paris salons, the German courts and scholars, the international social complex at Rome and Florence—Ticknor saw more of these than any other American, and than any but a few of the most highly placed Europeans. His Life is, emphatically, good reading, and can only increase in interest with time.

His History of Spanish Literature has so impressed critics by its great reputation and by its great conception, scope, and bulk, that they have given it rather praise than appraisal. The claim made by the editors, in their preface to the fourth edition, represents the current opinion of its merits. “So far as the past is concerned, the history of Spanish literature need not be written anew, and the scholars who may hereafter labour in this field of letters will have little else to do than to continue the structure which Mr. Ticknor has reared.” Now it is true that Ticknor is strong in his sense of fact, in his feeling for evidence, and in the sanity of his opinions. Very few indeed of his attributions need revision in the light even of the acutest later scholarship. His very comprehensive bibliography, universally praised by his critics, is a second consequence of his strength. He had probably handled and read more Spanish books than had anybody else in his time. His thoroughness extends also to a pretty full use of existing authorities, Spanish, German, French, and English. His combination of their results with those of his own bibliographical research constitutes his title to be considered a pioneer. Still, pioneer work is one thing; definitive work is another. In many fields of Spanish literature it was Ticknor’s task actually to find and identify the works he describes. For such work—the primary dealings with raw material—his mind was well fitted. But the later regroupings and higher generalizations of the inductive process, the perception of broad differences, resemblances, connections, and tendencies, the framing of comprehensive concepts, and, in general, the freedom of movement in the conceptual world—these things require a mind set free from the pedestrian tasks to which Ticknor willingly committed himself, and another strength than the one he had. There were temperamental reasons, too, why Ticknor could never have made such a higher synthesis. He belongs essentially to the hard-headed group of American writers who, like Andrews Norton, stopped short of transcendentalism. Ticknor’s German training had taught him what much of the British scholarship of his time sorely needed to learn—the need of the broadest possible basis in facts; from that point onward, however, his scholarship remained essentially British in its distrust of ideas.