PART IV: OTHER ASPECTS OF THE NEW ENGLAND MINDChapter I THE REIGN OF THE GENTEEL I
I have not seen Swinburne's new volume-but a poem or two from it which I have seen shocked me, and I am not squeamish. . . . Why should a man by choice go down to live in his cellar, instead of mounting to those fair upper chambers which look towards the sunrise of that Easter which shall greet the resurrection of the soul from the body of this death? Virginibus puerisque? To be sure! let no man write a line that he would not have his daughter read. . . . But I have outlived many heresies, and shall outlive this new Adamite one of Swinburne. The true Church of poetry is founded on a rock, and I have no fear that these smutchy back-doors of hell shall prevail against her. (Letters , Vol. I, p. 377.)
IIThough it willingly recognized the superior claims of poetry and the essay, the Brahmin mind found a more congenial field for its literary ambitions in history; and the quiet scholarship that it pursued with exemplary diligence was likely to flower in substantial historical studies. Excellent work much of it is, brilliant in certain instances; yet it too is subtly marked by the psychology of the environment that produced it. The renaissance of Boston scholarship began with Everett and Ticknor, whose German training was imposed on natures instinctively aristocratic, swayed by the older Federalist prejudices. The latter applied himself to Spanish literature, but his colleague and fellow historian, Jared Sparks, proved that in the American field even painstaking scholarship could not subdue the temptation to improve upon reality. Sparks applied Boston ethics to biography and conceived that his mission in writing the life of a great American like Washington was to portray a national hero as a model to the youth of the land In pursuance of this aim he studiously perfected nature by correcting all the little blemishes of manner and little weaknesses of character in order to produce an immaculate effect. He edited Washington's letters with a free hand, not only correcting the grammar and spelling, but silently deleting such passages as did not become the hero he had in mind. He did not of course go to the absurd lengths of Parson Weems in inventing episodes and effects, but he refused to deal with his materials realistically and the result was a falsifying of the total impression. The greatest and in certain respects the most characteristic work of the period was George Bancroft's History of the United States, to which with single-minded purpose he devoted sixty laborious years. Trained in Gottingen, he gathered his materials with German thoroughness, but the underlying spirit and purpose of his exposition were native to the ardent nationalism of Jacksonian America. Bancroft was the only important member of the New England group of historians who was a militant Democrat, and he set out to justify to the world the ways of democratic America. It was a great undertaking and in the opinion of Ranke, the German historian, it justified itself. "Your history is the best book ever written from the democratic point of view,"1 he wrote Bancroft. The praise was perhaps not excessive. Conceived in the early days of the Jacksonian triumph, it reflects the grandiose conception of the future of America and the beneficent influence of republican institutions on western civilization, that were common in the golden days of equalitarianism and that even such a scholarly legalist as Hugh Legaré shared. But unfortunately, with his generation Bancroft had lost his economic bearings, and he drove forward somewhat too confidently into the new seas of political idealism trusting to the pole-star of emancipated human nature. As a democrat he was too easily persuaded that democratic America lay in the particular keeping of Providence, and he assumed too readily that the democratic development of American institutions was in response to the divine will. It reflects something of the partisanship of honest patriots who believe God is on their side; but it served to correct the teachings of Federalists like Richard Hildreth who insisted that God was on the side of Federalism. Till Bancroft took up his pen the bias of American chronicles had been anti-democratic. Every Federalist with leisure, a quill, and a smattering of historical knowledge, had added his mite to the Federalist myths that long constituted the body of our history. The democratic interpretation ran so counter to Boston tradition that Bancroft found little congeniality amongst his fellow historians, and he eventually quitted his native state and took up his home in Washington. More representative of the Brahmin spirit was the work of William H. Prescott, John L. Matey, and Francis Parkman, who constitute what may be called the romantic school of Boston historians. They sought the romantic in theme and aspired to the romantic in treatment quite as consciously as did the contemporary novelists. Of excellent Brahmin strain, with leisure, wealth, opportunity, they were free to pick and choose as they would. Prescott and Motley turned away from the partisanships of America, and while Jacksonianism was in full swing the former wrote his Ferdinand and Isabella, and while the country was wrangling over slavery the latter wrote his Rise of the Dutch Republic. Broad in conception and dramatic in treatment, they are admirable works, yet they suggest that aloofness from the sordid realities of America so characteristic of the Brahmin mind. Far more brilliant and significant was the work of Francis Parkman who turned his imagination to the far West over which the struggle for exploration and conquest had long persisted between the French and English. In his twenties he had made a venturesome trip to the great plains, and that experience gave life and vitality to his later historical writings, that were enriched by close research, a brilliant style, and a creative imagination. The theme he set himself was not alone a "history of the American forest," but a clash between civilizations - the "feudal, militant, and Catholic France in conflict with democratic, industrial, and Protestant England"; and with fine tenacity of purpose, in the teeth of ill health, he wrought at his project till the America of the old French War times was gathered into his pages. The Brahmin mind has contributed to American letters no more brilliant work than came from the pen of Francis Parkman.
IIIIf the highest aspirations of the Brahmin nature sought satisfaction in poetry, Longfellow may be reckoned its most characteristic product. In his work the romantic, the sentimental, and the moralistic, blended in such just proportions, and expressed themselves with such homely simplicity as to hit exactly the current taste and establish a reputation that later generations have difficulty in understanding. A gentle, lovable soul, widely read and in maturer years possessing a ripe literary scholarship, he was a skillful purveyor of gentle, lovable ideals. Although he drew his materials from Spain and Sweden and Italy, from primitive New England and aboriginal America, it was Germany that largely provided the staple of his romance. With Emerson and Margaret Fuller and Theodore Parker, he found Germany a singularly congenial land - not Konigsberg with its transcendental metaphysics, nor Weimar with its pagan culture, nor Tubingen with its higher criticism. Such things, transcendental and critical, he was not concerned about; it was the minor romantics, Freiligrath rather than Heine, the gentle melancholy and pervasive Sehnsucht of the German folk-nature, that drew him irresistibly and quickened his sympathetic pen. There was little intellect in Longfellow, little creative originality. He was the poet of an uncritical and unsophisticated generation, as yet untroubled by science and industrialism, and his mind was detached from politics and his conscience rarely disturbed by social questions. He came of excellent Federalist stock, his father having been a delegate from Maine to the Hartford Convention; and with his courteous manners he fitted easily into the little world of Cambridge Brahmins. However one might question his poetry, none could question that he was a gentleman amongst gentlemen. If he was never the omnivorous bookman that Lowell was, he was distinctly a poet of the library. His placid and singularly happy life was pretty much bounded by his library walls. One could scarcely have lived more detached from contemporary America, more effectively insulated against the electric currents of the times. Though Thoreau might flee to Walden he carried his questioning intellect with him; even the constable would not leave him alone there. But Longfellow's door shut securely against all intrusion. The winds of doctrine and policy might rage through the land, but they did not rattle the windows of his study to disturb his quiet poring over Dante. The translation of the Divina Commedia would go forward even while the country was being torn asunder. In a sense such work was his refuge against the storm and stress of malignant forces that troubled him. He did not like the tumult and the shouting, and much of Longfellow is compressed into the sonnets that preface the translation, much of the gentleness of his evasion, and much of the finer craftsmanship of his later years.
Oft have I seen at some cathedral door A laborer, pausing in the dust and heat, Lay down his burden, and with reverent feet Enter, and cross himself, and on the floor Kneel to repeat his paternoster o'er; Far off the noises of the world retreat; The loud vociferations of the street Become an undistinguishable roar. So, as I enter here from day to day, And leave my burden at this minster gate, Kneeling in prayer, and not ashamed to pray, The tumult of the time disconsolate To inarticulate murmurs dies away, While the eternal ages watch and wait. How strange the sculptures that adorn these towers! This crowd of statues, in whose folded sleeves Birds build their nests; while canopied with leaves Parvis and portal bloom like trellised bowers, And the vast minster seems a cross of flowers! But fiends and dragons on the gargoyled eaves Watch the dead Christ between the living thieves, And underneath, the traitor Judas lowers! Ah! from what agonies of heart and brain, What exultations trampling on despair, What tenderness, what tears, what hate of wrong, What passionate outcry of a soul in pain, Uprose this poem of the earth and air, This mediaeval miracle of song!A single incursion Longfellow made into the field of Abolition controversy, prompted perhaps by Dickens, whose "grand chapter on slavery" in American Notes he had read in London. The seven poems were written to beguile the tedium of a sea voyage. They are unreal enough to seem quite harmless, yet they created a decided stir on their appearance. For a Harvard professor to express publicly even a mild sympathy with the Abolition movement, may well have been somewhat perilous, considering the fate of Professor Follen; and the sacred institution may have scented a real danger in such romanticisms. Grotesque as these academic poems were, with their burnt-cork figures, they perhaps served to romanticize and sentimentalize the negro for northern minds, as Uncle Tom's Cabin did a decade later with tremendous effect. Slavery had no weapon against such an attack, and no doubt Longfellow's contributions proved serviceable to the cause of Abolitionism. But this one venture satisfied him, and having got safely back to his library, he shut the door on the whole vexatious question of slavery. He was not made for battle, and causes commanded an unwilling allegiance. Little remained of his Puritanism save conscience, a sense of struggle against somewhat vague and indolent powers of evil, a pleasant melancholy that transmuted itself into pleasant verse. He lived vicariously the lives of other poets, sharing their emotions, repeating their thoughts, reproducing their pictures; yet adding some individual color from his own sincere nature. Not richly endowed, he was more than an echo. He marked the transition from the nebulous ferment of the creative renaissance to the scholarly culture of Brahmin Cambridge. After Longfellow came Charles Eliot Norton in whose blameless life that culture flowered, and after that came sterility. 1 Quoted in Stanton, Manual of American Literature