Home  »  Volume XVIII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART III  »  § 45. Writers upon Art; Charles Eliot Norton

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

XXV. Scholars

§ 45. Writers upon Art; Charles Eliot Norton

It would be an agreeable task to treat in detail the American writers upon art, and to determine whether any definite tendency underlies the work of William Dunlap, Washington Allston, William Wetmore Story, Henry Theodore Tuckerman, W. J. Stillman, and the rest. It will be possible, however, to treat only the most important member of the group. Charles Eliot Norton (1827–1908), the son of Andrews Norton, graduated at Harvard in 1846, spent five years in business and travel in India and in Europe, was abroad again in England and Italy in 1855–57, and after his return busied himself with writing for the newly established Atlantic Monthly and with bringing out certain books of his own. The Civil War gave to his political opinions a stamp which they never lost. From 1864 to 1868 he edited, jointly with Lowell, The North American Review, and in 1865, with Frederick Law Olmsted, James Miller McKim, and Edward Lawrence Godkin, he helped to found The Nation, to which he contributed generously, and the success of which Godkin credited largely to him. From 1868 to 1873 he was in Europe again. From 1875 to 1898, when he became Emeritus, he held at Harvard the professorship of the History of Art.

During his sojourns abroad, he formed lifelong friendships with Carlyle, Ruskin, FitzGerald, and Leslie Stephen. These men, as well as his American friends, Lowell, Longfellow, Emerson, George William Curtis, and others, found in him a remarkably receptive and interpretative mind, together with an uncompromising rectitude and independence of judgment—traits which made him an admirable friend to men of gifts more conspicuous than his own, and eminently qualified him for his literary executorships and editorships. He brought out, for example, various portions of Carlyle’s correspondence and reminiscences—the correspondence with Emerson (1883) and with Goethe (1887), Reminiscences (1887), and letters (1886 and 1889); the letters of Lowell (1893), George William Curtis’s Orations and Addresses (1894), further Emerson letters (those to Samuel G. Ward, 1899), and Ruskin’s letters to Norton himself (1904).

A volume of Notes of Travel and Study in Italy (1860), a portion of which appeared in The Crayon during 1856, contains the beginnings, or more than the beginnings, of his accomplishment in the two other fields of scholarship for which he is notable—the fine arts and Dante. Norton presents the extensive studies he has already begun in Dante’s works: gathering from the Commedia, the Convito, and the De Vulgari Eloquentia the passages that are concerned with Dante’s relation to Rome; studying the interchange of eclogues between Dante and Giovanni del Virgilio; and citing passages from the Inferno as probably the literary originals of some of the sculptures on one of the piers of the cathedral at Orvieto. Of the building of this cathedral he gives a detailed account which anticipates in many ways the method and content of his later Historical Studies of Church Building in the Middle Ages.

Norton’s judgment of painting and architecture at this time suffers severely from the despotism of Ruskin, the Ruskin of Modern Painters, whom Norton had first met in 1855. Like Ruskin, he can find little to praise after 1500; and even the fifteenth century comes in for some rather severe reflections. Nothing is worth while but Gothic, and the merits of Gothic consist in its being like nature and at the same time (Norton did not trouble to explain how) an expression of the deepest and highest religious aspirations of man. Norton even imitates some of Ruskin’s stylistic mannerisms, though occasionally he finds a sturdier model in Gibbon. A certain banal moralism, when he speaks of retribution in the affairs of nations, is rather in the vein of Carlyle; while on the other hand the following passage, dated “Rome, 20th January, 1857,” shows a remarkable coincidence with several passages in The Marble Faun: “There is many a wall in Rome made of old materials strikingly joined together,—bits of ancient bricks stamped with a consular date, pieces of the shaft of some marble column, fragments of serpentine, or even of giallo antico, that once made part of the polished pavement of a palace,—now all combined in one strange harmony by Nature, who seems to love these walls and to reclaim them to herself by tinting their various blocks with every hue of weather stain, and hanging over them her loveliest draperies of wall flower and mosses.”

Norton continued his work on Dante with a translation of the Vita Nuova, first published in 1859. From September, 1865, to May, 1867, he and Lowell, and occasionally George W. Greene, James T. Fields, William Dean Howells, and others, used to gather on Wednesday evenings at Longfellow’s house to offer their suggestions and criticisms upon Longfellow’s translation of the Divina Commedia. This informal Dante Club was the precursor of the Cambridge Dante Society, the foundation of which Norton suggested to some members of his Dante class at Harvard in 1880. These students offered to support the plan, and when Longfellow consented to take the presidency of the club, it was actually inaugurated (1881). Its second president was Lowell; its third, Norton. The Society issues annual reports, accompanied by valuable papers, usually bibliographical, upon various points in Dante scholarship; it has contributed to the assembling in the Harvard library of a large Dante collection; it offers an annual prize for an essay upon a topic relating to Dante; and it has supported and encouraged the publication of the valuable Concordance of the Divina Commedia by Edward Allen Fay (1888) and of other works.

Norton published his own translation of the Commedia in 1891–92—a prose translation, and, needless to say, a faithful one. Compared with a prose masterpiece like Andrew Lang’s version of Theocritus, it seems rather dry, and wanting in such rhythmic beauty as is well within the reach of prose. Here the austerity of Dante seems to have fused with the austerity of the Norton stock to produce something more austere than either. Norton’s version holds its own, however, with other prose versions of Dante.

Norton’s teaching and writing about the fine arts soon became emancipated from the extreme of Ruskin’s influence; the relation was reversed; and Ruskin rather looked upon his younger friend as his “tutor,” recognizing in him a mental balance and a steadfastness that he knew to be wanting in himself. Norton, to be sure, retained the strongly ethical trend of his early days. He never achieved the economic precision of Henry Adams, who considers Chartres as releasing a certain quantity of force, like a railway just built, or a new coal mine. He never reached the degree of æsthetic detachment since attained by Bernard Berenson, who, when he is responding to spatial stimuli in a domed church, is inclined to ask “Why drag in religion?” For Norton the determining consideration is never just the effect of the work of art upon the percipient. What concerns him is the spirit of the artist, together with the spirit of national or civic movements which have produced great art; consequently his approach is historical and ethical; and with Ruskin and Carlyle, he never ceases to be interested in the moral forces which they all believed to be at work in the rise and fall of states. This is the characteristic interest of his Historical Studies of Church Building in the Middle Ages: Venice, Siena, Florence (1880).

On the other hand, Norton’s emancipation from Ruskin’s naturalism was absolute. Humanism is the note of all his later thought and of his influence upon his pupils. It has actuated in several ways a number of men now writing, a group which may perhaps be called “the new humanists,” and which includes Paul Elmer More, Irving Babbitt, John Jay Chapman, and George Edward Woodberry. These all attend to one or another phase of the cleavage between man’s way and nature’s way—a dualism which, whether it cut between man and external nature, or between the “natural man” and the “spiritual man” within; whether it emphasize the “inner check” in any of its various modes, or, as against the naturalistic “education of the senses,” commend to man the study of his own humane tradition, and summon him to take up the racial torch and hand it on,—in any case places man’s hope not upon what nature, whether within or without, may do for him, but upon his making himself more completely man.