PLACE had been a living force in New England, in the West and South, and along the Mississippi. The vanishing horizon had all but created a fundamental national temper. When the rim of the continent was reached in California, when at the same time an enduring human hope was realized, that for treasure trove, exultation rose with a new sense of union. Whitman felt it; allusion to the new rich empire on the Pacific runs through his poetry, curving beyond his pervasive sense of the Great Valley. Something more complex came into his consciousness, for the conquest of California meant not only a final American migration but a final human migration toward the home of races.
Facing West from California's shores,
Look off the shores of my Western sea, the circle almost circled;
For starting westward from Hindustan, from the vales of Kashmere,
From Asia, from the north, from the God, the sage, and the hero,
From the south, from the flowery peninsulas and the spice islands,
Long having wander'd since, round the earth having wander'd,
Now I face home again, very pleas'd and joyous, (But where is
And why is it yet unfound?)
The query of the last lines was to remain unanswered, but the sense of national enlargement was profound.
Such experiences have always affected the creative imagination. The whole outflowering.of the American tradition came in those first brief years of acquisition and discovery. Melville--always facing west--Whitman, even Hawthorne, wrote their greater works in the small span of hardly more than half a decade after the conquest of California; and national legends took new forms. It was then that the mythical Crockett went west and to the South Seas, and that the strangest scattered tales of far islands, verging upon the supernatural, crowded the almanacs. A sense of national union was created which may have been more binding than that forced union, often considered primary, that followed the Civil War. "I linger yet by the shores of the vast Pacific," wrote Horace Greeley in 1859, "for I feel that the general mind is still inadequately impressed with the majestic promise that impels the resistless tendency of our Gothic race toward the sands of that mighty sea." But the general mind was deeply impressed. The new empire haunted the popular imagination, this was the greatest of the nomadic adventures. In the East, the music halls and variety and minstrel shows were filled with songs and stories about California for at least two decade. The American impulse toward autobiography sprang to life in California, and innumerable narratives of personal ad venture poured from the press, to be eagerly seized by eastern readers.
The national mind was knit into fresh coherence by tics of fancy, of curiosity, of emotional alliance. Once more the idyllic background of the pioneer experience became clear. "I never felt a more thorough, exhilarating sense of free dom than when first afloat on these vast and beautiful plains," wrote Bayard Taylor to the Tribune in '49. "With the mule as my shallop, urged steadily onward past the tranquil isles and long promontories of timber; drinking with a delight that made it a flavor on the palate, the soft, elastic, fragrant air; cut off for a time from every irksome requirement of civilization, and cast loose like a stray, un shackled spirit on the bosom of a new earth, I seemed to take a fresh and more perfect lease of existence." Such serene pleasures were echoed in California newspapers of the cities and the mining camps. The more delicate flowers, the more reticent and wayward scenes, were noted. Instead of the brilliance of sky and water, of red soil and glittering rock, these shyer aspects claimed attention as if a quiet mood lay beneath the extravagant invasion.
But for the new Californians the return journey was bounded--in those quick configurations that make so deep an impress upon the fancy of peoples--by the high Sierras and the long way back by sea. Here was not only a last rim of the continent but a breaking of bounds, a final em pire and a release. Hunger, desperate effort, the harsher emotions, were also composed within the scene. Again, as in the Ohio valley when wild bands of river boatmen made their loud rejoinders, the idyllic touch receded or was over laid by a rougher expression. Again the American hurried with apparent heedlessness over the prints of an older race, bent upon obliterating these, yet accepting certain of their forms. In gross shapes the older life, that of the native Spaniard, was transmuted. Gaiety was now hardly cere monious: yet gaiety was essential among this new people, with something of the opulence of Spanish days. A mingled procession of highly expressive types marched up and down the new land, drawn from all nations, "one of the most heterogeneous masses that ever existed since the building of the tower of Babel," as one of the great crowd of Cali fornian self-portraitists wrote in '49. Again the theatrical, strain in the American character sprang into a many-sided existence. Costume was rich and flamboyant. The theater came into abundant life with the landing of the first gold seekers.
The whole ritual of the pioneer experience was repeated with new intensity and with salient differences. Tolerance now marched with excitement, sophistication with violence. These combinations were not perfect, it is true: racial out breaks occurred against the Mexicans, the Chileans, the Chinese; but in a closer measure than had been known else where a mixed population milled over the new land with ease and freedom. The English invasion in California, like the solid onset of the French, might have provoked the old nationalistic bias when rivalry over claims grew fierce, but the familiar obsession seemed to have vanished. It was wiped out even from the theater. "There is a sort of inde pendence and liberality here, which with the excitement attending the rapid march of the country . . . must make one who returns from hence to his old beaten path at home feel insignificant, and sad," wrote a California miner in 1855. With all the vociferation of the time and place, pa triotic bombast found no outlet; it may be sought in vain even on the likely hunting-ground of political speeches. Nor did the revival take shape; the new settlements devel oped without the camp-meeting as a basic institution. Mor monism made a brief invasion, but leading Mormons had a way of altering their standards when they reached the gold camps. They built hotels and theaters, and staked out new claims, and gave their humble followers useful tasks. A fantastic mood was abroad that took closely colored and earthy forms. Bull- and bear-fighting remained as from Spanish days or from other frontiers. Dancing grew primitive and bizarre. A wild hilarity prevailed without the familiar check, without the familiar descent into other com munal emotions. That dark intensity, familiar to the wil derness, which had been part fear of the unknown and part the pressure of an ancient faith, seemed to have been lost on the long journey out or to have disappeared in a genial climate. Yet an almost frantic emotionalism was present: too much was at stake for these adventurers to achieve a quiet level. Personal ties had been cut: a deep sentiment, a vast sentimentalism, overflowed along with hilarity. But the terms were elementary, as if the experi ence of the pioneer had reached its primitive core. The current mood in California was purely native; and it was comic. With all the vicissitudes, the heartbreak, the losses, the abundance of human failure, the comic mood arose irresistibly. Quickly the curve of theatrical interest ran up from romantic tragedy to extravaganza. Nameless humorists appeared in the new cities and the mining camps; and at least one, Squibob or John Phoenix, achieved a last ing reputation that spread beyond California, as he used grotesquerie and the hoax, ridiculing the pomposities of serious travelers in the new land.
IN Two cresting waves the tide of this farthest frontier rose, in the first rush of '49, and in Washoe as fabulous quantities of gold and silver were discovered in its bleak mountains. In Washoe, with the guns of the Civil War immensely remote, Mark Twain began the renewal of the American comic legend. A touch of this appeared in one of the early letters from Carson, as he wrote of "a river, twenty yards wide, knee-deep, and so villainously rapid and crooked that it looks like it had wandered into the ountry without intending it and had run about in a be- wildered way and got lost in its hurry to get out again before some thirsty man came along and drank it up."
At Virginia City, crowded with fortune-seekers from all over the world, Mark Twain outdid the miners in rough ness of costume, joined the adventurous spirits on the Enterprise, and became "one of the Comstock features that it was proper to see, along with the Ophir and Gould and Curry mines." It was an ugly place at its wildest moment, where characters appeared and disappeared who were more consistently theatrical than any on the California stage. Artemus Ward came to stay three days, and remained three weeks that were a continuous holiday, ending in a lurching procession over the iron roofs of the town, and with Ward making a gibbering speech in blackface at one of the melodeons. Ward too was pictorial: a New Englander, he looked like the rural Yankee of the fables, a caricature of Uncle Sam, or the familiar cartoons of Jack Downing. He was born with the inalienable Yankee countenance, or contrived it. Later when Mark Twain went to San Fran cisco he encountered other characters of the same histrionic kind.
Bret Harte was there, wearing Dundreary whiskers. Joaquin Miller drifted in, picturesque as a prophet and full of windy rhetoric. Another oracle was added to the group, Orpheus C. Kerr, attached to the highly projected Adah Menken. There were days and nights of uproarious story-telling, and a loud banter which resounded along the Pacific and was continually flung toward Virginia City and back again. "Comedy rolled in shouting under the divine protection of the Son of the Wine-Jar," said Meredith, "never one of the most honored of the Muses." But the comedy which began in that time was sufficiently honored up and down the highways leading out from San Francisco to the Sierras and over the country.
It is a mistake to look for the social critic--even manque --in Mark Twain. In a sense the whole American comic tradition had been that of social criticism: but this had been instinctive and incomplete, and so it proved to be in Mark Twain. Like the earlier humorists he was rich in no tation; from Roughing It to The Gilded Age he contrived to enclose the color of a period with a thousand details of manner, ambition, lingo. But as he turned toward the in clusive or penetrative view he was invariably blocked by some preposterous extravagance that seemed to mount visibly before his eyes. He was primarily a raconteur, with an "unequaled dramatic authority," as Howells called it. He was never the conscious artist, always the improviser. He had the garrulity and the inconsequence of the earlier comic story-tellers of the stage and tavern; and his comic sense was theirs almost without alteration.
He summed this up, as they had never done, in How to Tell a Story. "The humorous story is American, the comic story is English, the witty story is French. The humorous story depends for its effect upon the manner of telling; the comic story and the witty story upon the matter." He had defined the native quality which he had made his own. His stories were oral and histrionic: manner was everything. "The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it." Here was the tradition for the mask, and for the long procession of dull-looking, unlikely oracles. "The humorous story is strictly a work of art, high and delicate art, and only an artist can tell it; but no art is necessary in telling the comic and witty story, any body can do it." Even the touch of national exaltation was familiar. But the art was hardly high and delicate, as Mark Twain proved by an illustration that was a vast oral prac tical joke, inducing the jolt of surprise through fright. Born in the precise era when the American comic sense was coming to its first full expression, in 1835, Mark Twain had grown up in a small town on the Mississippi, in a region where the Crockett myth had taken shape and the tall tale had grown in stature. As a young printer he must have read newspapers of St. Louis and New Orleans that overflowed with the familiar comic narratives; he must have caught the full impact of that spirit of burlesque flourishing so broadly up and down the Great Valley. He could remember-as his tales of the Mississippi show-a crowd of wayward figures given to comedy, troupers, min strels, itinerant preachers, wandering adventurers from the other side of the world: the variegated lot of migrants who could be seen anywhere in that period moving along the river or toward the plains.
In the compact encirclement of California with its re- newal of pioneer life these elements flooded to the surface. Every essential aspect of his talent became articulate there; even his lecturing began in the West, the lecturing which was not truly lecturing at all but the old, spacious form of the theatrical monologue. His first two conspicuous efforts were hoaxes, in the vein which had become familiar thirty years before: after the gory Dutch Nick Massacre came The Petrified Man, which wore the old air of my thology, and permitted only the slowest recognition of the fact that the fabulous relic had its thumb to its nose. The tale which first gave him nation-wide fame, The Jumping Frog of Calaveras, called by Howells "one of his most stu pendous inventions," was in fact a tall tale current in California before Mark Twain went there. His Colonel Sel lers of later years seems to have been modeled on a slight sketch of the rascally Simon Suggs impersonating an opu lent Colonel Witherspoon of Kentucky: Suggs too had soared like a kite as his fancy was loosed.
Again and again Mark Twain went back to that era of the river boatmen which had been a vanishing era in his youth. "I remember the annual procession of mighty rafts that used to glide by Hannibal when I was a boy-an acre or so of white, sweet-smelling boards in each raft . . . . I remember the rude ways and tremendous talk of their big crews, the ex-keelboatmen and their admiringly patterning successors." Some of the talk he reproduced in Life on the Mississippi. The Child of Calamity discoursed on the nutri tiousness of Mississippi water, and declared that a man who had drunk it could grow corn in his stomach if he wanted to, and that as compared to the water of the Mississippi that of the Ohio was as nothing. "You look at the grave yards: that tells the tale. Trees won't grow worth shucks in a Cincinnati graveyard, but in a Sent Louis graveyard they grow upwards of eight hundred feet high. It's all on account of the water the people drunk before they laid up. A Cincinnati corpse don't richen the soil any."
That grotesque naturalism which had often approached ancient myth lived again briefly in such glimpses, here re. calling--as in caricature--the legend of the buried Osiris, from whose body sprang the growing stalk of the corn Once more through Mark Twain those antiphonal and primitive self-descriptions of the river boatmen were heard, which at their best gave a gross effect of poetic ritual. "Whoo-oop ! bow your neck and spread, for the kingdom of sorrow's coming! Hold me down to the earth, for I don't feel my powers a-working ! Whoo-oop ! I'm a child of sin, don't let me get a start! Smoked glass, here, for all! Don't attempt to look at me with the naked eye, gentlemen'. When I'm playful I use the meridians of longitude and the parallels of latitude for a seine and drag the Atlantic ocean for whales! I scratch my head with the lightninn" and purr myself to sleep with the thunder! When I'm cola, I bile the Gulf of Mexico and bathe in it; when I'm thirsty I reach up and suck a cloud dry like a sponge; when 1 range the earth hungry, famine follows in my tracks! Whoo-oop! Bow your neck and spread! I put my hand on the sun's face and make night on the earth; I bite a piece out of the moon and hurry the seasons; I shake myself and crumble the mountains! Contemplate me through leather-- don't use the naked eye!"
Yankees had come to the Mississippi; Mark Twain could render the dialogue of two old Yankees bargaining over lots in the graveyard as well as any of the Yankee actors. He turned to the Yankee fable, shaping this anew in Innocents Abroad, which came into new and startling life, since the account was factual. The voyage of the Quaker City might even be called epochal, when the persistence is recalled with which the American had viewed himself in relation to the parent nations. Here at last, in this voyage of 1869, was the American exodus faintly foretold in earlier years by such creatures of the American fancy as Sam Slick and Sam Patch.
Turning to the European past an habitual and dedicated eye, Mark Twain found on this trip what a century-old and composite American, nurtured on the Yankee fables, could be expected to find, not only that its monuments were decayed, but that the European was a dastardly fellow for the most part, however the circumstance might arouse laughter in the genial newcomer. That the ancestral European had been cringing was proved by the attitude of famous artists of the past toward princely patrons. Even European topography was inferior. "It is popular to ad mire the Arno. It is a great historical creek with four feet of water in the channel and some scows floating around."
Mark Twain followed the cult of newness like a thousand comic prophets and serious exhorters who had gone before him. He preferred copies of masterpieces to the originals because they were brighter. In a dozen forms he repeated the old assurance that American manners need not be mended. The American could do no fundamental wrong, because he was good. The American had always been good, in the native fancy; he had always been innocent in rela tion to the European.
For the first time on any substantial scale Mark Twain pictured the American within the European scene. He might have drawn this provincial and untutored traveler against the accumulated riches of ages, with satire and pathos. Perhaps the theme was too new for a truly spacious approach: Mark Twain was himself one of the innocent invaders, without distance, and without perspective. But he seems to have been hampered at the outset by the old formula. He took the trip and wrote the book as though off on an inevitable tangent, when he left California. He circled around the same theme in A Tramp Abroad; he repeated it broadside in A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court. "The boys all took a flier at the Holy Grail now and then." "You can't throw too much style into a miracle. It costs trouble, and work, and sometimes money; but it pays in the end." "No soap, no matches, no looking-glass--except a metal one, about as powerful as a pail of water!" Again he took pot-shots at art. He scorned tapestries. "As for proportions, even Raphael himself couldn't have blotched them more formidably, after ail his practice on those nightmares they call his `Celebrated Hampton Court Cartoons.' Raphael was a bird. We had several of his chromos : one was his `Miraculous Draught of Fishes,' where he puts in a miracle of his own--puts three men into a canoe which wouldn't have held a dog without upsetting. I always admired to study R's art, it was so fresh and unconventional."
In the history of the old fable these three pieces by Mark Twain stand as monuments. As the last migration westward surged toward the Pacific another smaller and more transient movement had begun toward Europe. Even in the early '50's American travelers had begun to announce their judgments on the European scene, sometimes with an acrid humor, sometimes with rapture. A considerable num ber began a private "pillage of the past," bringing home copies of the masterpieces, marbles, tapestries. This migra tion had been halted by the Civil War, but it continued in force as soon as the War was over. By the end of the '60's the long and serious quest for European culture was well under way.
The reaction of Mark Twain to this phenomenon was foreordained, steeped as he was in the native tradition and entirely untutored. As a boy he might have seen it enacted on some small western stage, establishing the image. The basic fable grew rigid in his mind, as it had grown rigid for many other Americans. The new cultural migration was contrary to an established figment. So thousands uproari- ously laughed at the attack and upset and triumph of these latter-day versions, enjoying the rough and tumble the more because they too, many of them, had stood perplexed before masterpieces.
The talent of Mark Twain was consistently a pioneer talent. He showed touches of that abysmal melancholy which had led the boatmen of the Ohio and the Mississippi and the miners of California to drift into lonesome ditties; lie struck out, as they did, into a wild burlesque. His ob scenity was also of the pioneer piece. The sentimental strain that had been thinly interwoven with the rough tirades of the pioneer appeared in his Joan of Arc. Emotion he seldom revealed except in travesty; one of his favorite forms of comedy was to create the semblance of an emotional scene, beguiling the reader or hearer into the belief that this might be true, then puncturing it. Thin-skinned, so sensitive that he could hardly endure a joke turned against himself, he showed the quick revulsions, the neurotic explosiveness, which for long had broken forth into a long-winded comic vein. His fun was often half perplexity, like a revolt from crowding circumstance with no secure base anywhere: the theme of perplexity enters into his humor again and again, in his hoaxes, in his yarns, in Innocents Abroad. The savage note sounded, with the crackling weakness of the sardonic, 1ike the inevitable outcome of the romantic mood gone wrong. A great repository, he caught the mood of disillusion ment that followed the Civil War.
Mark Twain achieved scale, with the gusty breadth astir in the country as the Pacific was reached. Huckleberry Finn belongs within the scope of that epical impulse which had taken shape in the '50's : it has indeed a cumulative epical power as its main story branches off in innumerable directions under the stress of an opulent improvisation. In this book Mark Twain gave to the great flood of the Mis sissippi its elementary place in the American experience, with the river as a dominating fantasy, with the small human figures as prototypes of those untethered wanderers who had appeared so often on the popular horizon. Even The Gilded Age, in spite of its divided purpose and sham bling approaches, takes on something of the same scale, moving toward the encompassment of a period and a people. Mark Twain could never yield to the mode of satire in this book, but fell back continually upon the vast burlesque that had belonged to earlier years and was his heritage. Colonel Sellers was the epitome of those earlier strollers who were fakers and believers with unbounded confidence in fantasies--himself a fantasy of the first mag nitude, embodying that perennial unworldliness which mixed so oddly with prosaic qualities in the native character. He too looked afresh at the world every morning and saw a new empire. If he was not the fabulous single figure toward which the national types had tended to merge, his stride was great; he was accepted throughout the nation as its own.
In the end Mark Twain's scope was nation-wide, because of the quality of his imagination, because of the regional elements which he freely mixed, the Yankee with tile Cali fornian, the backwoodsman with both of these. The wide reach may be unimportant for judgments of intrinsic qual ity, but its significance may be great among a people seek ing the illusive goal of unity and the resting-place of a tradition. Through Mark Twain the American mind re sumed many of its more careless and instinctive early pat terns. The sense of legend was continued or restored, or at least the high comic legend again commanded the native fancy. The patterns might have been richer patterns: and Mark Twain's accent of a tense relationship with the older, countries may seem deplorable; and much of his comic dis play has gone the transient way of comedy: he both gained and lost by a primitive vigor and by his adherence to the spoken and theatrical. But all these elements--the tense relationship with the rest--had long since joined in the making of the native character: to have abandoned or lost them would have meant an essential violence and disin tegration.
No other tradition could have been shaped and substi tuted in the chaotic years that followed the Civil War. Traditions cannot be improvised in the slow minds of whole peoples. Even if war had not come, the long labor of a closely established integration would have remained on the greatly extended scale. The conquest of California meant not only a great lift for the fancy but an immense scat tering. No deeper furtherance could have been expected in that difficult time, nothing subtle, nothing of that deeply penetrating humor which is reconciliation. If this was to appear (and against all logic it did appear in those years on a wholly different level) the main tradition might still be strengthened by this strong and coarse resurgence.
A CONTINUANCE of the long comic tradition was seen else where in these years, maintaining the old forms and a fa miliar tone. A cluster of new oracles appeared as Mark Twain began to write, adopting the homely masquerade of earlier years and the familiar style of the monologue. The slow still arrows of Artemus Ward struck deep into social and political absurdities; he caught the strolling life which had been almost habitual to the Yankee. His role of show man was a symbol--
He was afloat with the actors, the circus men, the revival ists, the purveyors of new religions: his mild satire touched them all. He pretended to tell of his stay among the free lovers, spirit rappers, and "high presher reformers on gin eral principles." He had known them in early years in Ohio; he met them continually on his travels as a lecturer. On the Mississippi in the '60's he rubbed against a power ful revivalist who could move whole audiences to an abysmal grief for their sins, and who failed to become a bishop because of an irresistible bent toward telling comic stories. Ward lectured to the Mormons. His long counte nance was always dull and impassive as he talked. Every thing he said seemed unstudied; his best lines were uttered with hesitation as if they were afterthoughts of which he was hardly sure. Yet his lectures and newspaper squibs had the outline, close and unobtrusive, which belonged to the best of the Yankee tradition. Never so large in his political inclusions as Jack Downing, he caught a wealth of comic human detail, and could communicate its effect in print as well as from the lecture platform, using the old device of misspelling to indicate the slow stops and breathings and innumerable oddities of native speech.
Petroleum V. Nasby pictured himself as "Lait Paster uv the Church of the Noo Dispensashun," though his shots were most often political--
1st I want a offis 2nd I need a offis 3rd A offis wood suit me; therefore 4th I shood like to hev a offis.
Within the rough texture of his satire he was likely to keep revivalistic rhythms and the rhapsodic tone. Orpheus C. Kerr (the office-seeker of Lincoln's time) sported with that rolling and grandiose oratory which came into strong renas cence during the Civil War. "The sun rushed up the eastern sky in a state of patriotic combustion, and as the dew fell upon the grassy hillsides, the mountains lifted their heads and were rather green."
Nearly all these latter-day oracles were strolling lec turers; even their writings conveyed the impression of movement over the country. Most of them came out of the West or moved toward the West by large encirclements. In themes, in tone, they belonged to the frontier. None of them was definitely localized; their lingo was far less regional than that of the oracles of an earlier day. Artemus Ward, the most skillful of them all in the sheer comedy of sound, used the Yankee speech with an overlay from the backwoods and called the product Hoosier, though it might have been spoken in many parts of the West, and seemed in fact a composite American speech. The local character was diminished, the local scene lost. The effect again was that of scale, as the new oracles moved toward a national type. Even in the midst of the disruption of the Civil War the drift toward the composite was maintained.
Mimicry and travesty belonged to them all; they caught the scattered life of the time not realistically but with pre posterous inflation. They offered talk in a familiar tone, the next thing to conversation; and they were heard and read with an absorbed delight, as if their wide public trans ferred the burden of uncertain selves to these assured and unabashed provincials. These oracles were indeed pro foundly social in their effect as they attacked abuses and foibles and idiosyncrasies of the time; most of them kept that salty and satirical view of the affairs of the nation which had belonged to the earlier figures. Sumner thought that the political value of the Nasby papers could hardly be overestimated. Lincoln pored over all that Nasby wrote and kept the pamphlets near him. "For the genius to write these things I would gladly give up my office," he said; and he read Artemus Ward's High-Handed Outrage at Utica as sheer comedy--as comic relief--before the mem bers of his cabinet in 1862, when he was about to lay be fore them the final draft of the Emancipation Proclama. tion. Saturated in the story-telling of the West, Lincoln may have gained a sense of foothold as he discovered fa miliar ground in these monologues. This comedy belonged with his own.
SOMETHING more complex than mergence of national types occurred in comedy during these years. Facing west from California's shores meant the spacious view and a fresh sense of unity; it also meant the long breath taken as a last boundary was reached, and a turn toward entrench ment in local life. The lack of a purely nationalistic spirit in California had been a sign. Through Bret Harte in Cali fornia the local scene was brought into fresh and penetrat ing consideration. He used the traditional forms: burlesque, the brief sketch, the yarn, the episode, loosely put together, and low-keyed. Indeed he used the monologue: its tone was often apparent even when the personal approach was sub merged. The first of his pieces to bring him fame, The Heathen Chinee, though in verse, followed perfectly the unobtrusive manner of the Yankee monologue, and cele brated the mask: its immense vogue must be attributed to the slightly surprising repetition of an old effect. His char acters were all wandering adventurers: and again--in spite of appearances--they were good; they were innocent.
His color and intensifications were new. Harte's scenes were closely drawn even while he kept the undemonstrative approach; his characters were limned for intrinsic human quality. For the first time a philosophic strain was notice able in American comedy: Harte created tragi-comedy. For the first time--barring only the submerged creations of the Negro--elements of the humor of defeat appeared. Hith erto the heroes of the comic stories had been on the high crest, but these characters were outcasts, scalawags, prosti tutes, hold-up men. The humor with which they were en wrapped was at an antithesis to the high burlesque of Mark Twain, though Harte too could write superlatively fine burlesque when he chose. Satire came in thin biting understatements. "I took quite a liking to him and pat ronized him to some extent." "With him life was at best an uncertain game, and he recognized the usual percentage in favor of the dealer." Sentimentalism seeped into some of the tales, and humor at times gave way to pathos; but the flicker of satire constantly lit the small portraits, a satire which was often intimate and communicative as fa miliar elements were noted in the California scene, such as "the demonstrative gallantry for which the Californian has been so justly celebrated by his brother Californians." These thrusts were in the traditional manner: little Hill had used them in monologues before Yankee audiences. The response too was familiar: the American had always been sensitive to satirical comment, though in the end he usually acclaimed portraiture with ardor. The Luck of Roaring Camp was coldly received in California, but in later years the tales seemed a rich heritage. Harte had in fact many ties with the older local comedy; he had the sense--also strong on the Mississippi in an earlier day--that the times were momentous. Disclaiming the heroic projection, calling his tales sketches, he said he hoped to "illustrate an era"--"an era replete with a certain heroic Greek poetry, of which perhaps none were more uncon scious than the heroes themselves . . . . I shall be quite content to have collected here merely the material for the Iliad that is yet to be written." Harte was acutely aware that he wrote of a vanishing scene.The heroic moment passed, it seems, or lay in the long future, and Bret Harte has been credited with having loosed a sea of local color--or discredited. Yet with all the local picturing that followed, some of it plainly mod eled upon effects which he had created, it cannot strictly be said that Harte was a primary influence in this direction. As he was writing on the Pacific Coast a further New Eng land localism came like a dramatic rejoinder in writings of Whittier and of Mrs. Stowe. Oldtown Folks--now too little known--was ostensibly a novel but actually a crowd of small, episodic sketches on a colorless string of story, full of pawky humor and packed with the spare hard back ground out of which that humor had sprung. Whittier, even in the elegiac mood, could portray local character trenchantly, and kept a low-keyed native satire, writing of
Church-goers, fearful of the unseen Powers
In both these writers the impulse toward localism had been of slow growth, as it was in Harte, who went to California in the early '50's and spent more than ten years there be fore he began writing of the California scene. The move toward localism was not new; localism had been the very base of the comic in America, even as con tinualforces of dispersal tended to draw it away from that base. But the tendency to look backward with nostalgia upon the narrow local scene was new; Whittier and Mrs. Stowe as well as Bret Harte saw this as from a distance; they were bent upon a recovery of the past, upon saving the vestiges of a tradition.
It is hardly fanciful to consider that this impulse deep ened on both coasts because of the great fulfillment in the West. Dispersal was to continue for many years, if it was ever to be concluded, but ultimate boundaries were at last defined. With all the continuing migrations a distinct flow back to a native regional life had begun, in terms of the imagination. Retrospect, recovery, the ample possession, were to have their long day. The years beginning in the late '60's and culminating in the '80's, so often considered an arid waste so far as creative expression is concerned, were in fact alive with a consistent purpose. It was as if a people were trying to bury itself in its deeper resources. "The great dialectic tracts," as Henry James called them, were explored. John Hay wrote comic ballads of the West, borrowing lingo and spirit. Crockett came to life on the stage, and characters from the interior of Arkansas who had been briefly pictured in the backwoods theater. "The Arkansas Traveller" perpetuated the story of the man who wouldn't mend his roof when it rained and needn't when it didn't. Cable's Old Creole Days appeared in 1879; later followed his revival of Creole music. In 1880 the ani mal fables of Uncle Remus joined with remnants of that Negro minstrelsy which had taken shape fifty years earlier. Out of the South came In Ole Virginia with a stringent local assertion, and from the Ohio valley the warm and mellow stories of Eggleston. In belated recognition, the Journal of American Folk Lore was founded; and Howells began to talk on the American language.
Even when pathos was added, the main level of this retrospect was comic, as if the resilient mood had survived the heavy surge of an outward movement and its return. The main set was toward primitive figures and primitive phases of American life. Tales of homely circumstance, like Eggleston's, singled out archetypal figures for commemora tion, such as the circuit rider. They were all likely to wear the air of legend. Through the new version of Rip Van Winkle the tall tale lived again in a transmuted mythology of death and dream and thunder. Still incomplete, the pro longed revival of this legend on the stage seemed only in part the result of Jefferson's impersonation. The small story had grown through fifty or sixty years in a dozen experimental versions; it had hardly been off the stage dur ing all this long period. It was now revived and re-created, partly, it seems, for the beauty of its local fable, partly because the meaning of that fable met the current feeling by picturing the sudden gulf of years. It was far from being great drama, though it contained the elements of great drama; indeed the story of Rip Van Winkle has never been finished, and still awaits a final imaginative re-creation.
Literature did not arise as an outcome of this concerted effort to recover the past; nothing appeared to compare with American writing of the '50's. This was a homely move ment, deliberate and unspectacular, unearthing rich mate rials rather than creating these anew in final forms. It found a transient resting-place in the theater; it employed the short story. In these years the short story took shape as an essential American form. The tale had always been part of the pioneer mode; and the comic impulse had tended to emphasize a sudden surprising thrust at the end. Poe had perfected the tale within the narrow range of his materials. Eventually the pattern was to grow rigid; the short story was often to seem hardly more than a carefully prepared ejaculation. But it is hardly true, as one argument has it, that the short story has had its prodigious vogue ire America because the audience has been incapable of sus tained attention. That audience was continually being scat tered; the brief tale, the yarn, the sketch, the monologue, could gain a hearing when the long handling of unknown materials could find no place for lack of common knowl edge; it was a form of communication. In an early day the Yankee exclamation "Do tell!" or the equally urgent "I want to know!" had been proof of an unsatisfied curiosity and an invincible wish; and the answer had been in kind. It still was; Lydia in The Lady of the Aroostook with her "I want to know!" was a symbol in the '70's and '80's as well. The abyss which lies between the short and the longer narrative is to be measured by more than length. It can be traversed only by means of a great accumulation of social knowledge and by the rich and solid rearing of a tradition. American stories of this whole period were short because only a fragmentary knowledge of native life and the native character was at hand.
The movement toward a recovery of the past represented an arduous effort, and offered proof of a new maturity. A war of words has been waged over the relative youth or age of the American nation; but whether one chooses the land ing of the Pilgrims or the Revolution as the beginning of the national life, surely a single circumstance is plain. The young lack memory. Memory is one of the possessions of age. The older individual, race, or nation has the great store; and the communal memory must necessarily be a long-established affair; many people, of many generations, roust join to create it. In settled communities of the older countries the store grows incredibly rich, with old songs, stories, dances, proverbs, and a traditional knowledge of old events. Life takes on an habitual air; communication can enjoy breadth. It is from such stores that the writers have drawn continually for the wider scope, as in the novel. These rich local materials, transmitted by memory, are stri ated through the whole sequence of the English novel; they belong to the greater completions of the drama and of English poetry.
By this test the American mind must be counted young; nor is it sufficient to say that individuals or even small clusters of individuals have had a rich remembrance and a heritage. For the race or the nation this must be deep, widespread, cumulative, and not only abundant but super abundant so that a largesse of memory is offered from which to draw. But in America none of that repose neces sary for the deepening of memory had been possible. Comnunal memory could hardly exist when ties with the past were constantly being broken, and vestiges of remembrance brought from the older countries quickly disappeared. Whittier wrote of the English custom, surviving in New England, by which the bees were told of a death in the house; but he told of this as a rarity. Old usages were lost; and even the brief accumulations of new local habit were quickly broken as migration began. One generation of change sufficed to wipe out all but the strongest heritage. Inevitably, then, the retrospect of the '60's, '70's, and '80's took the form of a brief notation. The accumulations of this period, in fact, though invaluable as traces, though immensely suggestive now to the creative imagination, were a small fund against the losses of time, thinly scattered as they were over many localities. Nor was the view often the long backward view captured a generation before in a more deliberate era by such writers as Bird and Simms. Memory was of the short length, mostly of a single generation. The purpose too was wholly conscious, and warped at times by regional assertiveness; memory in other peoples has grown unconsciously and has become richer for that reason. But the vanishing American scene hung like a bright mirage before many eyes, the purpose to recapture it was clear.
The purpose was stubborn, even heroic, since the cause seemed in a sense a lost cause. Time was not the only antagonist. Every large force in the nation seemed set against this effort. In the late '60's and early '70's primi tive comic tales were springing up as if the era of youth for the nation would never be ended. The Negro myth of John Henry was sung in the Carolinas, where it was to endure for many years, spreading far, celebrating a "natural man" whose hammer rang like silver, shone like gold, who blew down mountains, and achieved other lesser and comic ex ploits. The precise origins of the lumberjack stories of Paul Bunyan can perhaps never be fixed, but they must have begun within this period; they swept through great stretches of forest from Maine to California, with the familiar mock heroic outline, with magnification penetrated by a sly and concealed humor and by a naturalistic magic. Both cycles followed the long-established pattern of the tall tale; both partook of the generalizing tendency; neither was deeply localized. Nor was the great spate of comic or comic melancholy ballads which arose out of the West localized--the cowboy ballads, hobo ballads, ballads of the moun tains and the plains. Local touches appear and at times a local lingo, but they belonged to a widening region. With feet in the saddle, head in the sky," a generic American rides through many of them.
Primitive tendencies were still dominant; and the forces of dispersal seemed unbroken. In the '70's and '80's migra tion was steadily moving to the western plains, and con stantly breaking the fabric of local traditions. Perhaps the Civil War strengthened the sense of the local heritage in a measure, since a conscious sectionalism was a factor in its making; but the War had overturned one of the strongest of localized traditions, in altering the balance of southern and southwestern life. The violence of the War, which had been consistent with the violence of the frontie°, where the local heritage had been continually forgotten, seemed to extend the large nomadic pattern.
Memory might not strongly endure; maturity, if it came, might be enriched through other channels. Yet something permanent emerged from the antagonistic movements of the local and the nationalistic. All this tacit warfare had taken place before. It had begun as soon as the first great local figures had been sharply defined in the late '20's or early '30's. On a larger scale familiar forces were being renewed, of penetration and expansion, drawing with them tenden cies in the native character. If a lasting antithesis existed, it was no sterile energy which could attempt the legendary figure in The Gilded Age and produce the small close re gional color of Bret Harte's tales. In the same period another wide continuation appeared in the novels of Henry James.