Home  »  Volume XVIII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART III  »  § 23. Significance to Modern American Literature of Amerind Modes

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

§ 23. Significance to Modern American Literature of Amerind Modes

It is not, however, the significance of Amerind literature to the social life of the people which interests us. That life is rapidly passing away and must presently be known to us only by tradition and history. The permanent worth of song and epic, folk-tale and drama, aside from its intrinsic literary quality, is its revelation of the power of the American landscape to influence form, and the expressiveness of democratic living in native measures. We have seen how easily some of our outstanding writers have grafted their genius to the Amerind stock, producing work that passes at once into the category of literature. And in this there has nothing happened that has not happened already in every country in the world, where the really great literature is found to have developed on some deep rooted aboriginal stock. The earlier, then, we leave off thinking of our own aboriginal literary sources as the product of an alien and conquered people, and begin to think of them as the inevitable outgrowth of the American environment, the more readily shall we come into full use of it: such use as has in other lands produced out of just such material the plays of Shakespeare, the epics of Homer, the operas of Wagner, the fables of Æsop, the hymns of David, the tales of Andersen, and the Arabian Nights.

Perhaps the nearest and best use we can make of it is the mere contemplation of its content and quality, its variety and extent, to rid ourselves of the incubus of European influence and the ever-present obsession of New York. For we cannot take even this cursory view of it without realizing that there is no quarter of our land that has not spoken with distinct and equal voice, none that is not able, without outside influence, to produce in its people an adequate and characteristic literary medium and form.