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

XXXII. Non-English Writings II

§ 2. Types

Something more than a scholarly interest attaches to this unparalleled opportunity for the study of a single racial genius. To the American it is also a study of what the land he loves and lives in may do to the literature by which the American spirit is expressed. These early Amerinds had been subjected to the American environment for from five to ten thousand years. This had given them time to develop certain characteristic Americanisms. They had become intensely democratic, deeply religious, idealistic, communistic in their control of public utilities, and with a strong bias toward representative government. The problem of the political ring, and the excessive accumulation of private property, had already made its appearance within the territory that is now the United States. And along with these things had developed all the varieties of literary expression natural to that temperament and that state of society—oratory, epigram, lyrics, ritual-drama, folk-tale, and epic.

In any competent account of this aboriginal literature of ours it will be necessary to refer to the points, in Mexico and Peru, where the racial genius that produced it reached its highest expression. But between the St. Lawrence and the Rio Grande the one item which primarily conditioned all literary form was complete democracy of thinking and speaking.

Such education as the aboriginal Americans had was “free” in the sense that there were no special advantages for particular classes. Their scholars were wise in life only; there were no “intellectuals.” The language being native, there were no words in it derived from scholastic sources, no words that were not used all the time by all the people. It was not even possible for poet or orator to talk “over the heads” of his audiences. There was a kind of sacred patter used by the initiates of certain mysteries, but the language of literature was the common vehicle of daily life.

This made for a state of things for which we are now vaguely striving in America, in which all the literature will be the possession of all the people, and the distinction between “popular” and real literature will cease to exist. And in aboriginal literature we have interesting examples of how this democracy of content modifies the form of what is written.