IX. Round Up

THE pattern created for an American literature had been touched with poetry again and again; it had often been grounded in a primitive poetry. The exultant "I" appearing at the very center of popular comedy had promised the sudden narrow intensity of the lyric; and here and there the lyric fragment had appeared. But the pure lyric rests upon that final freedom by which the single mind loses association with the crowd at least for the intense moment; and in America the individual had often seemed nearer to the crowd than to himself; among highly emotional talents expression was likely to be public and general, running to oratory. Social preoccupations seemed to prevent that deep arrogant convergence of personal feeling and experience by which the lyric is produced. Poe wrote a few flawless lyrics, but he too was constrained to follow the bent of the time and formulated in prose the emotions which had been part of the communal experience, or else ventured into that other province toward which the American temperament had consistently turned, that of inner fantasy.

Emily Dickinson was not predictable; yet the comic sense, widely abroad, upsetting many stabilities, was bound at last to break that tie holding the poet within the bondage of social preoccupation. Emily Dickinson was not only a lyric poet; she was in a profound sense a comic poet in the American tradition. She possessed the sense of scale and caught this within her small compass. A little tippler, she leaned against the sun. The grave for her was a living place whose elements grew large in stone. Purple mountains moved for her; a train, clouds, a pathway through a valley became huge and animate. Much of her poetry is in the ascending movement, full of morning imagery, of supernal mornings: seraphim tossing their snowy hats on high might be taken as her symbol. Her poetry is also comic in the Yankee strain, with its resilience and sudden unprepared ironical lines. Her use of an unstressed irony in a soft blank climax is the old formula grown almost fixed, yet fresh because it was used with a new depth--

Faith is a fine invention
For gentlemen who see;
But microscopes are prudent
In an emergency!

She could cap tragedy with tragi-comedy.

Drowning is not so pitiful
As the attempt to rise.
Three times, 'tis said, a sinking man
Comes up to face the skies,
And then declines forever
To that abhorred abode
Where hope and he part company
For he is grasped of God.
The Maker's cordial visage,
However good to see,
Is shunned, we must admit it,
Like an adversity.

She was concerned with eternal verities; yet her elastic and irreverent rebellion broke forth again and again--

"Heavenly Father," take to thee
The supreme iniquity,
Fashioned by thy candid hand
In a moment contraband.
Though to trust us seem to us
More respectful--"We are dust."
We apologize to Thee
For thine own Duplicity.

Occasionally her wit turned mordantly upon earthly matters: "Menagerie to me my neighbor be." She saw the small and futile motions in a house to which death had come. And she could double ironically upon herself as well as upon the Deity. In the end--or at least in the composite, for the end is hardly known--she contrived to see a changing universe within that acceptant view which is comic in its profoundest sense, which is part reconciliation, part knowledge of eternal disparity. If she did not achieve the foundation of a divine comedy she was at least aware of its elements; its outlines are scattered through the numberless brief notations of her poems.

Like Poe and Hawthorne and Henry James, though with a simpler intensity than theirs, Emily Dickinson trenched upon those shaded subtleties toward which the American imagination long had turned. "I measure every grief I meet with analytic eyes." Anger, hope, remorse, the weight of the past, the subtle incursions of memory, the quality of despair, and fear, cleavages in the mind, all came under her minute scrutiny--
One need not be a chamber to be haunted,
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
Material place.

Even her glances toward an exterior world at their finest are subjective. Her poetry was indwelling in a final sense; she used that deeply interior speech which is soliloquy, even though it was in brief song.

She never lost a slight air of struggle; this appeared persistently in her sudden flights to new verbal and tonal keys, in her careless assonances which still seemed half intentional, in the sudden muting of her rhymes. She verged toward the dramatic, as others in the tradition had done before her; almost invariably her poems concentrate upon a swift turn of inner drama: yet like the others she sheered away from pure drama. Her language is bold, humorously and defiantly experimental, as if she had absorbed the inconsequence in regard to formal language abroad during her youth in the '50's when Whitman was writing; yet often she achieved only a hasty anarchy in meaning and expression, and created hardly more than a roughly carven shell.

She seemed to emerge afresh as from a chrysalis in each lyric or even in each brief stanza; and the air was one which had been evident before in the sequence of American expression. Emerson had it, as Santayana noted, in everything he wrote. Whitman had it, and was aware of the quality: it was that of improvisation. In one way or another every major American writer had shown its traces, except perhaps Henry James in the broad spaces of his early novels, but he too turned toward experiment in the end. Emily Dickinson was another--perhaps the last--of those primary writers who had slowly charted an elementary American literature; and she possessed both the virtues and the failings of her position. Her poetry has an abounding fresh intensity, a touch of conquering zeal, a true entrance into new provinces of verbal music; but incompletion touches her lyricism. Often--indeed most often--her poems are only poetic flashes, notes, fragments of poetry rather than a final poetry. Yet like the others who had gone before her--Whitman, Hawthorne, Emerson, James--she set a new outpost, even though like them she had no immediate effect upon American literature. It was not until ten years after her death that the early poetry of Edwin Arlington Robinson appeared; and the space widens if the '40's are remembered as formative years for Emily Dickinson, the '80's for Robinson. Nor does he show any perceptible trace of her influence. But if not by her power, then by some profound stress in the American character, the gates were being slowly opened for an ample poetry.


For more than a century the poetic temper had been dominant in the country, nourished by a sense of legend. The American imagination had invested the commonest preoccupations and homeliest characters with an essential poetry. Now as the areas of a literature were fairly defined the poetic strain arose as the major strain. For nearly twenty years after the publication of The Children of the Night in 1896, poetry comprised the only notable American literature.

The appearance of Robinson marks a turn, not only because he was the first of a group of poets and even of a new literary movement, but because he has used American traditions with freedom and fullness. For companions in the legendary village of Tilbury Town he has chosen types recurrent throughout early American comedy, ne'er-dowells, liars, the quirky, the large-hearted and lost, spendthrifts of time and money and love. Robinson is master of that unobtrusive irony that has belonged to the Yankee; like the older Yankee he turns constantly to a dry metaphor--"an old vanity that is half as rich in salvage as old ashes." He has all but created a new form of blank verse; and not the least of the elements which have gone into its making is the rhythm of a taut, yet slowly moving Yankee speech. Burlesque appears in his use of rolling measures for mock romance; understated comedy lies beneath many of the shorter poems--"He missed the medieval grace of iron clothing." A reticent humor runs through much of Robinson's poetry, so quietly as to pass unnoticed by many readers, yet producing a constant lighting and relief and change, with a balancing of forces against the impending tragedy. Tragedy has become his great theme; he uses that groundwork of defeat which had come slowly into the American consciousness: yet the outcome is not always wholly tragic; it is likely to be neither death nor destruction but a stripped acceptance of fate: within this range comes the great play of Robinson's perception of character.

Character had always been the great American subject--character enwrapped in legend, from the Yankee of the fables and the fabulous Crockett to the novels of Henry James. Character is of course Robinson's great subject, seen in legendary aspects, though the nationalistic bias, which had often warped an earlier approach, is now gone. His main concern has been with those elements of the mind which have made an almost continuous American preoccupation. For a poet he is singularly unengaged by the outer world: the look of his people, like his touches of landscape or other effects of setting, is drawn in a few brief, intense passages: his genuine subject is fantasy, the evocation, the obsession, the complex and indwelling emotion. He has placed the psychological narrative within the realm of poetry in a new and modern sense, and is an heir of both Hawthorne and Henry James, following too that homelier tradition for the monologue verging upon soliloquy which had long been part of the popular tradition. Even though his longer poems enclose a narrative--most often a highly dramatic narrative--they have the air of soliloquies, not in the single mood but in many moods. Conflicts take place within the mind or among a group of minds--as in Lancelot--or move into the realm of "supernatural surmisings" far beyond common experience, as in Cavender's House and The Man Who Died Twice.

At the same time Robinson has laid an English ghost. That haunting sense of English standards which had taken so many obsessive forms in an early day both in and out of the realm of literature had by no means died by the latter end of the century: small groups of minor writers were still appearing who sought to imitate English writers; American literature was still, at the most hopeful, regarded as a province of English literature. Robinson is the first American poet to make free and unembarrassed use of English traditions as if these were part of a natural heritage, even while he keeps an unmistakable American groundwork. His poetry could never be mistaken for English poetry by any sensitive reader; the tone, the idiom, the latent sound of the voice are American.

Before Robinson only Henry James had used both a literary and a popular American tradition; and in James the signs of an American literary heritage were scant; he belonged to the small vanguard who were creating a literary groundwork. In a profound sense Robinson is also an originator; only a poet of fresh power could have emerged from the minor poetry of the '80's and '90's as he did with The Children of the Night. But in feeling and intention he is essentially a traditional writer; and the change which he embodies has great significance in the history of the American imagination. It is only when traditions are deeply established that a whole literature can be created. After slow and even reluctant ventures, a period of fulfillment seemed to begin. The change was marked; it grows clear in the work of other poets who followed Robinson in time. Lindsay, Frost, Masters, Sandburg all have revealed characters, fantasies, and patterns of mind or feeling that appear in an early comic folk-lore.

Lindsay is a latter-day gamecock of the wilderness who betrays at times a genteel cast, which he seems to have learned from the literary dilettantism mentioned by Emerson long ago. Fays are likely to appear in his poetry, along with Johnny Appleseed or John Brown or Andrew Jackson; and he has kept a primitive nationalistic feeling.

Andrew Jackson was eight feet tall.
His arm was a hickory limb and a maul.
His sword was so long he dragged it on the ground.
Every friend was an equal. Every foe was a hound.

Andrew Jackson was a Democrat.
Defying kings in his old cocked hat.
His vast steed rocked like a hobby horse.
But he sat straight up. He held his course.

He licked the British at Noo Orleans;
Beat them out of their elegant jeans.
He piled the cotton bales twenty feet high,
And he snorted "freedom," and it flashed from his eye.

And the American Eagle swooped through the air,
And cheered when he heard the Jackson swear:--
"By the Eternal, let them come.
Sound Yankee Doodle. Let the bullets hum."

And his wild men, straight from the woods fought on
Till the British fops were dead and gone.

The piece ends with a bellicose assertion which could hardly have been matched in the days of the red-white-and-blue Yankee; and it is prefaced by a futile rallying-cry for the renascence of American traditions: "It is for us to put the iron dog and deer back upon the lawn, the John Rogers group back into the parlor, and get new inspiration from these and from Andrew Jackson ramping in bronze replica in New Orleans, Nashville, and Washington, and add to them a sense of humor till it becomes a sense of beauty that will resist the merely dulcet and affettuoso."

With his belligerent assertion of the noisier and cruder phases of the American inheritance Lindsay seems a throwback to some of the earlier comedians of the last century. He is often oratorical, theatrical, evangelical. But when he began to write, about 1910, that fundamental past had receded farther away than the Revolution; bringing this into view, he may be counted one of those writers who sustain a tradition and in large measure re-create it, for at his best he succeeds in finding a fresh poetry. In the first two movements of the Booker Washington Trilogy and in The Congo he has caught enduring Negro rhythms within a simple pictorial style of genuinely primitive largeness and force; he overflows with the exuberant story-telling of the West; and he has achieved a bold lyricism in The Broncho That Would Not Be Broken. Scattered through his immense and unchecked abundance are brief, deeply moving lyrics like Heart of God. Then he has turned, like the earlier comic poets, toward the creation of new myths, as in his Bryan and General Booth Enters into Heaven. Lindsay appears as a slightly conscious reincarnation of the early fabulous era; he has the fathomless good humor and the inconsequent air of surprise that belonged there. Fantasy--a wild comic fantasy, infusing many materials--belongs to his poetry, in the extravagant oral style of the past.

Untroubled by the effort to establish a tradition, Robert Frost has used familiar elements as his own, by the slightest, surest indications rather than by transcription. Old patterns of speech appear, in the familiar Yankee rhythms, unobtrusive and slow; old voices are heard, as in The Generations of Men, and bits of regional remembrance. Character is drawn in the habitual Yankee fashion, almost always with an indirect beginning, scant emphasis, a slow unraveling. "Never show surprise!" says one of the characters in North of Boston, "this book of people." Frost has kept the native humor, often deepened to a bitter irony, but delicately infused; most of his humor, like that of the early Yankee tradition, is so deeply inwoven with his further speech as to be almost inseparable from it. There is no touch of frontier coloring here, only furtherance of a tendency which had been implicit in the Yankee monologues, that toward soliloquy. Frost's lyrics are soliloquies, as are his drawings of people. This is a poetry which is acutely and sensitively self-conscious, turning to deep account the old self-consciousness that had been constant in the American mind and character, finally moving beyond the local, beyond New England people, New England pastures, or snowy roads, or houses black with rain, into sensitive human revelation.

Something of antiphony was sounded as Lindsay spoke out of the West after the far quieter voice of Robinson had been heard; it sounded again as the Spoon River Anthology was placed against the New England poems of Frost. In the long and many-sided poem of Masters are drawn elderly children of those loud-spoken backwoodsmen who belonged to the small river towns and villages of the '30's and '40's; the people of Spoon River keep the habit of the monologue, even in death. Perspective grows through death and its decisions; defeat is upon these people; humor is turned to irony and joined with that tenderness that had belonged to Whitman and often seems to replace stronger emotion in American writing. Freedom of form in the Anthology came through Whitman, with a revelation of a basic living speech like that in Robinson, Lindsay, Frost, which derives from a race of talkers and oral story-tellers. For all the brevity of the single speeches the scale is the legendary scale; again--as in popular comedy and in an early literature--it is less the single character that is evoked than the village, the aggregate type, a way of living.

Again in the poetry of Carl Sandburg speech is dominant, taking free poetic forms; his poetry loses from merely visual reading. Like that of Whitman it is often improvisation, containing notations for poetry rather than poetry itself; but Sandburg's rhythms are his own; they spring from the speech of a late day and a mixed people. No other poet has given such direct glimpses of the immediate American scene--of the land, its look from the Shenandoah Valley to the Ohio and the Great Lakes, from the mid West to the coast of California, its cities and prairies, its weeds and flowers and cornfields, backyards and birds, rains and winds and people. The notations are brief; again and again they make a "little album." Humor pervades them, an exhilarated, inflated humor that belongs to the West, as in Many Hats, or an elementary overflowing good humor, or a simple irony--

The lavender lilies in Garfield Park lay lazy in the morning sun.
A cool summer wind flicked at our eyebrows and the pansies
fixed their yellow drops and circles for the day's show.
The statue of Lincoln, an ax in his hand, a bronze ax, was
a chum of five bluejays crazy and calling, "Another
lovely morning, another lovely morning."
And the headline of my newspaper said, "Thirty dead in race riots."
And Lincoln with the ax, and all the lavender lilies and
the cool summer wind and the pansies, the living lips
of bronze and leaves, the living tongues of bluejays,
all they could say was, "Another lovely morning,
another lovely morning."

This freshly caught observation is newer than it sometimes seems; the character of the land--the look of the broad scene--had never been appropriated by American writers; it had been revealed in the briefest notes, often only in the single metaphor, or in generalization; even Whitman had generalized it. Only one other American had attempted observation on a broad scale; this was Audubon--the Audubon who was the wandering backwoods adventurer, strolling through the wilderness and along the rivers, playing the flageolet, making comical notes, painting portraits, or decorations for river steamers, drawing birds, moving at last up and down the whole breadth of the land. Sandburg is akin to this errant adventurer. His sense of scale--more benign than Audubon's--has a touch of similar mischief. He often uses the highly American form of rhapsody, and breaks at times into the pure lyric. But for the most part his inclusions are too wide for the lyric, his emotion communal rather than individual. The print of the pioneer lies deep upon his poetry, the pioneer who knew the land, and was forever captured by fresh scenes, moving toward them.


IT is a gauge of the national temper that the first modern approaches to character and the native scene should have been made in poetry rather than in that form which has most commonly contained them, the novel. Strictly speaking, the novel has not developed in America. Above all the novel is a copious form, copious in its handling of the human theme, copious for the most part in its sequences; the English novel has developed in group after foliated group, embracing multitudes of characters, many and variable scenes. This abundance has always been largely concerned with an immediate era, with immediate materials; often it has sprung from provincial life and has remained embedded in provincial life, though its finer residuum may have nothing to do with time or place. But the single real novelist whom America had produced, Henry James, had turned away from the immediate scene; in more than one sense his view was the far view; he was bent, as were his characters, upon establishing a relationship with the European past. That local literature which began with the conquest of California and continued through the '70's and '80's had also been largely concerned with retrospect. When retrospect was not dominant something generalized had taken its place, manifest in the long sequences of comic myth-making, which was grounded in the immediate and circumstantial but moved quickly into the typical and fanciful.

These tendencies have remained unbroken; the distant, the retrospective, the legendary have prevailed even in the new period. It is not the novel which has developed but the romance, the cumulative tale, the saga, even the allegory. A touchstone for the writing of Willa Cather exists in the fact that it is easier to compare her with poets than with novelists. As a regional writer she may be linked with Frost, though her themes belong to the West and the farther Southwest. Fine craftsman as she is in prose, her narratives are shaped to those simple, close outlines which belong to the basic forms; her characters never abound either in numbers or in closely packed experiences as in the older novel; and her prevailing intention is one which has belonged to legend: enshrinement of the past. In O Pioneers and My Antonia the figures-human as they are-become all but prototypical in the backward look upon pioneer life of the prairies. In A Lost Lady, with all the clear focusing upon character, it is equally a lost phase of American existence, a cluster of people who are also types, and a way of living, that are recovered and remain unforgettable. In The Professor's House, within the portrayal of an intricate and sensitive mind, it is something quite outside human relations that leaves the last print, the little city in stone high up on the mesa. In Death Comes for the Archbishop, with characters who already belong to legend, the theme widens into a primary retrospect of spiritual adventure in a strange and beautiful land. All these narratives disengage and capture some primary element in a past existence; the touch of a distant magic is upon them. With a modern view of character, a modern sense of circumstance, they are romances. Rolvaag's Giants in the Earth possesses the same legendary quality within a single large compass; and his characters take on legendary stature. A deeply possessed native experience--the pioneer experience--that has been woven into the common consciousness, is here evoked by familiar elements, the journey, the quest for a home, the contest with the land, with hunger, storms, and heat.

This latter-day legend-making seems hard-won, like many another aspect of American literature; only rarely has it come into full and beautiful form. But the legendary or fabulistic temper persists, plain in the long sequence of Cabell's allegories and romances, appearing even in An American Tragedy, in which Dreiser attempted to create a sweeping allegory out of materials that could rightly lend themselves only to the working out of a few narrow destinies. In that flood of books written by newcomers in the land who have tried to crystallize some fresh aspect of American existence, the impulse has been toward the autobiography rather than the novel. The portions which have enduring worth in these narratives are almost invariably those which have to do either with an anterior life in an older country, retreating into the glamorous or legendary, or with early passages of a new existence in America; that retain a simple and elementary force. Scattered through contemporary literature are innumerable other narratives that seek to recover the past, that of New York of the '50's or New Orleans of an earlier day, of the Kentucky wilderness or of Indian life; they are not historical novels in the sense that Esmond is a historical novel; their purpose is to recover if possible the essence of the past, some lost quality, a vanished stream: with all the stress upon a warping circumstance their mood is that of glamour.

Retrospect has deepened in these narratives, spreading over a wider area than in the '70's and '80's, finding closer human values; fancy has taken new forms. The comic is no longer the single prevailing impulse, but has receded to a simpler and more casual, perhaps a more natural place, as in the later poetry; the harsh emotions of an early day are mingled with others of more varied character. But even with the widening range, which might seem to permit the easier and more direct view, the immediate scene has not been penetrated with imaginative force and fullness. With one exception none of those definitive novelists have appeared who make an aspect of contemporary life their own and leave it with the color of their imagination upon it forever afterward.

The exception of course is Sinclair Lewis; he possesses the copious touch; and people of the present day fill his pages. Yet with all his grasp of an immediate life, Lewis remains within the older American tradition; he is primarily a fabulist. In Main Street he stresses his intention at the outset. "On a hill by the Mississippi where Chippewas had camped two generations ago, a girl stood in relief against the cornflower blue of Northern sky. She saw no Indians now; she saw flour-mills and the blinking windows of skyscrapers in Minneapolis and St. Paul. . . . A breeze which had crossed a thousand miles of wheatlands bellied her taffeta skirt in a line so graceful, so full of animation and moving beauty, that the heart of a chance watcher on the lower road tightened to wistfulness over her quality of suspended freedom . . . ., The days of pioneering, of lassies in sunbonnets, and bears killed with axes in piney clearings, are deader now than Camelot; and a rebellious girl is the spirit of that bewildered empire called the American Middlewest."

Even occasional digressions from immediate circumstance in Main Street have the fabulous touch, like the wind that blows a thousand miles, or the eras of history brought to bear upon the Kennicott's courtship. Later in the book Lewis changes his definition of the pioneer, declaring that the farmers--"those sweaty wayfarers"--whose lands surround Gopher Prairie and stretch into the farther distance, are pioneers, "for all their telephones and bank-accounts and automatic pianos and co-operative leagues." In the end Gopher Prairie itself takes on aspects of a pioneer existence, half shaped, inarticulate, pressed against an uncertain void. Then once again the theme enlarges, and Main Street becomes a national street, its existence a pervasive American existence.

This is that highly circumstantial fable-making which had been a characteristic American gift; and the prevailing tone is one which had appeared within the whole line of American fabulists, particularly those of the frontier. The material is prosaic, the mood at bottom romantic; gusto infuses the whole, with an air of discovery. Even the derision is not a new note; this had appeared again and again in American attitudes toward American life, and is part of the enduring native self-consciousness; it is seen here, as before, in a close tie with the comic. Lewis uses homely metaphors that might have been spoken by Yankee Hill, describing "an old farmer, solid, wholesome, but not clean--his face like a potato fresh from the earth." The familiar biting understatement appears, and the inflation; the western strain is as strong in Lewis as the Yankee. "She sat down as though it were a gymnasium exercise." "He was always consulting John Flickerbaugh, who handled more real estate than law, and more law than justice." The American gift for comic mimicry seems concentrated in Lewis, and his people seem to possess the unfailing native passion for the monologue: flood-gates of their talk are opened at a touch. Sights, sounds, the look of things and of people, as well as speech, are crowded against one another with tireless fluency. Nothing halts this movement in Main Street; nothing halts the cumulative intention; episode is piled on episode. The movement lengthens, and finally be comes in the large flow sagalike. The outcome is to portray the generic; the human situation steadily diminishes in force. At the beginning it is clear that the division between Carol and Kennicott is emotional, not civic : but the human circumstance is pushed aside by an urgent intention to reveal a comprehensive aspect of American life. The pre occupation is the familiar social preoccupation. Lewis displays a detachment which never belonged to the early fabulists. Babbitt's shrewd traction dealings are seen with an appraising eye instead of with that exhilara tion by which earlier artists had been carried away, viewing similar triumphs. An unmitigated nationalism is slit by the same penetrative view; and that primitive desire for co hesion which had risen strongly through early comedy is shown to have become the crudest of mass instincts. Lewis turns his abundant fables into critiques and challenges, but the transcendent effect is the traditional effect: the Ameri can portrait, a comic portrait once more, has been drawn in amplitude. Babbitt takes a place beside the archetypal Yankee; and for the first time an archetypal native scene is drawn in Main Street. The response too has been the habit ual response. Bitterly as the direct seizure of American life has been resented, it has offered the portrait; the mirror was upheld, and the American with his invincible curiosity about himself could not fail to gaze therein.

There is a sense in which Lewis may be considered the first American novelist. In his unflagging absorption of detail and his grasp of the life about him he suggests Defoe; and it may be that like Defoe in England lie will prove to have opened a way for the development of the novel in America. The impact of his scrutiny lies all about; the American scene and the American character can never slide back into the undifferentiated state of an earlier view. Yet the novel may not develop at all in America in the older sense. In England it arose out of an immensely long preparation even before Defoe; for a century its growth was gradual; in the Victorian period it came to a great completion. If the word Victorias means anything on the English side it is a rich and settled stability within which traditions, long rooted, could come into bloom; the outlines of the Victorias period were sot straitened but hospitable, so that the most divergent motives and move ments found comfortable quarters there. No mere spatial invitation of a continent could offer the saine breadth or depth. No such accumulation of effort and tradition has been possible in the short and broken cycle of American life; traditions are even now only beginning to take a coherent shape. Part of the vexing judgment of American literature has corne from the expectation on the American side, born of an exhilarated fancy, that American literature could match English literature.

Whether or sot it cas ever do so, the pace of each, and perhaps the direction, has been wholly different; the move ment of each has necessarily been conditioned by profound differences in the national history. Perhaps the great stability that produced the Victorias novel will never be repeated, either in England or elsewhere. The English novel in the past has dealt for the most part with societies or distinctly outlined social groups; and everywhere these seem to be breaking up; in America they have hardly existed. By ose of those ellipses which sometimes occur in the life of nations as well as in that of individuals, a stage may have been omitted in American development, that which would have allowed a slow accumulation and enrichment. American expression has always moved toward the theatrical or the dramatic; it may be that these rather than the fuller courses of the novel will become a char acteristic American form. Perhaps, as Virginia Woolf has suggested, the older novel will disappear, moving toward poetry. The American narrative has at least verged toward the poetical, though its poetry is not yet a poetry of con temporary life.

A full and imaginative penetration of contemporary life would seem to be required if maturity in literature is to be reached; but the glance backward, beginning early, con tinuing long, holds no implication of flight or evasion; it need not suggest that a present existence is too ugly or too difflcult for the imaginative view. The mood of retrospect seems indeed the soundest of possible instincts, fulfilling a purpose against which almost every large force in the country seemed to war upon, that to take root. The ellipses created by migration and change may never be filled; much of the past is now gone forever; yet through retrospect and the legendary approach a basis may be created out of which an ample sense of the present may at last spring.


POPULAR fantasies in familiar patterns still exist in abun dant strength in America. The popular oracle has never died. In the wake of the stage Irishman of earlier years and the later Gallagher and Shean, or lesser figures, came Mr. Dooley : "Well, sir, afther a long argymint between th' dhriver an' the horses, conducted I thought, with an onnecessary display iv temper be Mike, but with th' ca'm ness iv ripe ol' age be the horses, these chargers consinted to dhraw us away fr'm th' railroad property befure we cud be run in as threspassers. It was plain that th' horses did not want to go back to th' hotel, although they did not take their meals there. Annyhow we dashed on an' on an' up an' down, through th' heart iv th' city, an' at a place which I guessed must be the spinal colyum Mike cried `Ho,' yanked frantically at th' reins, an' applied th' brakes. But too late. Th' horses had already stopped, an' we found oursilves in front iv a buildin' that I instantly recognized fr'm th' pitcher be what Mike told me as th' Wild Waves hotel; but O! how changed fr'm th' time whin it set f'r its photygraft. It was th' same hotel, but th' blush had fled fr'm its shingles. Th' flags flew no more, but had flown. Th' lake had gone back three miles an' its site was occypied be a coalyard, th' tennis coort had moved around to th' back yard an' was full iv clotheslines, th' little girl with th' hoop had grown up, got married, an' wint to Sheboygan to live, an' th' prancin' bays pranced no longer. On th' spacyous veranda, or front stoop, th' on'y s'ciety lady I cud see was wan iv about me own age an' figure who was settin' in a rockin' chair rockin' . . . ."

For a brief space in the '80's the oracle had gone into a partial eclipse, but in Mr. Dooley he rose again as if this homely figure stirred a deep-seated popular passion. In the American short memory the earlier oracles were forgotten; the Yankee, Hoosier, and backwoods ancestors slipped from the general view. Like many another creature of the Ameri can fancy he seemed--for a time--new born. But a change had come over this oracle and the others who have come after him; except for brief excursions such as that to the Wild Waves Hotel many of them are sedentary; they no longer rove over the country in person or in fancy. Mr. Dooley's monologues were delivered to Hennessey inside a shop. This may mean the beginning of the end of their homely sway, or the opposite--a fresh lease on life and a subtler wisdom. The subjects are the old subjects, national foibles, "peace and war," and politicians; and the audience has been national.

After Mr. Dooley came a flock of Jewish caricaturists, with further oracles like Abe and Mawruss, and finally Mrs. Feitlebaum on domestic topics, whose linguistic ac complishments outstrip those of any exponent of the early dialectic tracts. "Nize Baby, itt opp all de rize witt milk so momma'll gonna tell you a Ferry Tail from de Pite Piper of Hemilton. Wance upon a time was a willage from de name from Hemilton. So it was ronning along avveryting smooth witt Ho K--accept wot it was one acception: Was dere a hobnoxious past from rets. Hrn! sotch a pasts wot dey was de rets."

Will Rogers, rover, lecturer, cowboy, showman, is an ad viser in high places, a hundred years after Jack Downing. Blackface entertainers have appeared in duologue with the patter of minstrelsy which occasionally runs to the oracular and keeps the monologue of one speaker to the fore. The speech of country oracles is still syndicated in papers of the smaller towns throughout the country, even though the character presented is fast disappearing. In the larger cities the columnists have come forward, highly urban, the sharp est and most irreverent of social critics, keeping the mono logue. ne comic monologue seems as settled a convention as the Greek chorus; and it still embodies a familiar habit, that of the complete revelation which tells everything, tells little, and unfolds the outlines of a character.

In a different vein Ring Lardner has pictured purveyors of this full, free, but blank self-portrayal, among baseball players, caddies, song-writers, wives, the nurse in Zone of Quiet. In one of his tales two of these talkers meet, each trying to drown out the other, the beaten one seeking a pos sible silent listener. Most of these people could talk indefi nitely; the stories are only loosely seized sections of their talk, snatches of their ceaseless voices: the continuing over tones can be heard even when the story is finished. "Well girlie you see how busy I have been and am libel to keep right on being busy as we are not going to let the grass grow under our feet but as soon as we have got this number placed we will get busy on another one as a couple like that will put me on Easy st. even if they don't go as big as we expect but even 25 grand is a big bunch of money and if a man could only turn out one hit a year and make that much out of it I would be on Easy st. and no more hammering on the old music box in some cabaret . . . ."

After the long sway of the mechanized short story Lardner fias turned back to prime materials in their old and sprawling personal form. His mimicry, like that of Lewis, is in the native tradition, close and truthful, yet with a leaning toward large rhythms and typical effects. He commands verbiage in the old style, jargon and the American delight in jargon, and the flattest Yankee manner. "Maysville was a town of five thousand inhab itants, and its gas company served eight hundred homes, offices, and stores." He even uses the favored mode of comic misspelling in the monologue which goes back to the almanacs and was perfected by Artemus Ward. "Well fie swang and zowie away went the bail pretty near 8 inches distants wile the head of the club broke off clean and saled 50 yds down the course."

Like the characters of the early comic tales, his people are nomads. They have just moved into a neighborhood and are soon to move away; they lacÚ backgrounds, they are only seen in pairs or trios, seen without families often, or with only a boresome friend. Old couples out of their native habitats sun their bories among other old couples just as homeless along the curbs or in the parks of Florida winter resorts. Even those tales which have to do with a group are projected against a void, or against some transi tory scene like a hotel, a train, a baseball park. Here indeed are familiar subjects, familiar turns of story-telling, with intensifications of mood and a considerable difference in the effect of final character and the sense of character. The earlier wanderers of comedy were always foot-loose. These, their descendants, are continually netted by circum stance, by baseball contracts, importunate hostesses, or old age. Their orbit is far smaller; and the colored, the local background of an earlier time is gone : none of the inter woven look and feeling of place belongs to them, as it belonged to the comic figures of an earlier time. That process of amalgamation which has seemed a determined purpose of the comic sense might have wreaked its worst upon them. These people might be a final product of a humor that had worn away idiosyncrasies, taking with it all the edged elements of character. They are American; they are nothing but American, and essential to all parts of the country. That is the single outcome; that is the triumph too of Lardner's portrayal.

All his stories turn on humor; practical jokes make the substance of many situations as in an earlier day, but in the end the brutality which underlies them is exposed. That innocence which once was made a strong strain in American portrayals is seen uncombined with shrewdness and re vealed as abysmal stupidity. At times the old comic ferocity appears, as in Hair Cut; but this has grown several sided and in the end more human, for it is subjected by understatement to a withering blast of feeling. Lardner has pushed the monologue or the brief comic tale to an ultimate revelation by a series of negations; his tie is with that Yankee art which gained its effects by negation and a pervasive underlying theme. Derision becomes an outward shell covering a multitude of submerged emotions, rage, fear, bewilderment, an awkward love; the blank formula takes on intensity; emotion is still inarticulate, as earlier under the comie sway, but it surges toward the surface.

Elsewhere the same amplitude appears in the monologue, as in the tense and bitter humiliation revealed by Ander son's I'm a Fool, whose form is that of comedy, whose out come tragi-comedy. A latter-day story-telling seems to have returned to the older and freer mode, and is at its best either in the monologue, or the brief tale that has the air of remembrance or improvisation. Often indeed these modern tales are flawed, as by the torment of a style in Dreiser's Lost Phoebe, a beautiful and deeply moving story, touched by that tenderness which seems an American gift, particularly among writers handling homely materials. In Sherwood Anderson's stories, incomparable as they are for remembrance or for significant phases of mid-western life and character, infused too at times with tenderness, there is almost always the unwarranted personal intrusion the vestiges of the monologue where the monologue has no place. Yet these tales of Anderson and Dreiser possess a human warmth that has been lacking in many American narratives; they press toward emotion, when emotion has been insuffciently expressed. Humor plays through them; and they restore an element which had been dominant in the long American tradition, that of speech: their air of improvisation is not accidental; many of thern are told as if spoken. Some of them could easily belong to the theater. Lardner's Travelogue, with its defeated hero who has had a tooth pulled and points to the cavity and tells how long the roots were, obviously belongs to the theater. I'm a Fool could be spoken there. The monologue as soliloquy has invaded the contemporary stage in Strange Interlude, joining with a long tendency in American imaginative expression, that which explores inner fantasies.

Many familiar intentions are seen, with changes of mood or stress. The Jew is moving out of caricature into the realm of humanized drawing, on the stage and in the narrative. After a long submergence the Negro has corne into a broad portrayal. In the main the Negro had ap peared as a comic character in the stories of the '80's; but gradually other elements have been added until a many sided and diversified type has been evoked, with a few richly drawn characters, often overtaken by tragedy. The change seems all but inevitable; it has occurred in litera ture before. A figure enters as comic; then gradually, when the full light of comedy has been cast upon him, human lineaments begin to appear, and he is included in a larger realization. In carly American comedy this blaze of light was intense, so that tragi-comedy was often an immediate element there. Now after a long lapse that ample scrutiny seems to be returning with freedom.

For the most part these alterations have taken place within the tale or on the stage. Occasionally drama has been achieved, but not in sufcient abundance to fulfill the promise of a folk-theater which would be indeed not one theater but many, focusing and illuminating the many sided native character, drawing upon the diverse strains in the American tradition. The lighter theater is still a deeply ingrained American form, fresh and characteristic, a place of overflow and experiment, revealing as in primary sketches many a large turn of the American character, the effervescences of the moment, current obsessions, popular reactions, momentary phases of humor. It is gay, and full of the "lively arts"; triumphant humor still survives there. It has become immensely accomplished, particularly in dancing and broad impersonation; yet it has not used the long and many traditions which lie behind it; it has not commanded that light, full, authoritative handling which means that the imagination is soundly at work. With all its accumulation of a brilliant technique and an illusory finish the lighter theater is still for the most part an affair of changing fragments; its most complete accomplishment is likely to be in the realm of burlesque, which leans upon the established production. It has borrowed sophistication, but it is seldom really sophisticated. This theater has remained primitive without falling into those strongly marked and simple patterns which belong to a primitive theater. Its tire less vigor and kaleidoscopic exterior changes seem a phase of young experiment. New fantasies, rough drawings of character, juxtapositions of native feeling, come out of it, perhaps to be drawn upon as in the past by other arts of expression.


HUMOR has been a fashioning instrument in America, cleaving its way through the national life, holding tena ciously to the spread elements of that life. Its mode has often been swift and coarse and ruthless, beyond art and beyond established civilization. It has engaged in warfare against the established heritage, against the bonds of pio neer existence. Its objective--the unconscious objective of a disunited people--has seemed to be that of creating fresh bonds, a new unity, the semblance of a society and the rounded completion of an American type. But a society has not been palpably defined either in life or in literature. If literature is a gauge, only among expatriates has its strong semblance existed, without genuine mots, and mixed with the tragical. The other social semblance which has come into the common view is that of Main Street.

Nor has a single unmistakable type emerged; the Ameri can character is still split into many characters. The comic upset has often relaxed rigidities which might have been more significant if taut; individualism has sometimes seemed to wear away under a prolonged common laughter. The solvent of humor has often become a jaded formula, the comic rebound automatic--"laff that off"--so that only the uneasy habit of laughter appears, with an acute sensitivity and insecurity beneath it as though too much had been laughed away. Whole phases of comedy have become empty; the comic rejoinder has become every man's tool. From the comic the American bas often moved to a cult of the comic. But a characteristic humor has emerged, quiet, explosive, competitive, often grounded in good humor, still theatrical at bottom and full of large fantasy. The note of triumph has diminished as the decades have proved that the land is not altogether an Eden and that defeat is a common human portion. Humor has moved into more difhcult areas and has embraced a subtler range of feeling; exaltation of the common American as the national type has been de flated. Yet what must still be called a folk strain has been dominant; perhaps it is still uppermost; the great onset of a Negro art, the influence of Negro music, and popular re sponses to the more primitive aspects of Negro expression suggest that the older absorption in such elements is un broken. If the American character is split and many-sided at least a large and shadowy outline has been drawn by the many ventures in comedy.

A consistent native tradition has been formed, spreading over the country, surviving cleavages and dispersals, often growing underground, but rising to the surface like some rough vine. This ruthless effort has produced poetry, not only in the sense that primitive concepts are often poetic, but keeping the poetic strain as a dominant strain. Not the realistic sense, which might have been expected of a people who call themselves practical, but the poetic sense of life and of character has prevailed. With all the hasty experi ment this tradition has revealed beauty, and wry engaging human twists. It has used subtle idioms, like the quieter Yankee idiom; it has contained the dynamic serenity of Whitman and the sensitive discovering genius of Henry James. With all the explosions its key has often remained low; this tradition has shown an effect of reserve, as if in immediate expression and in its large elements something were withheld, to be drawn upon again. It has produced two major patterns, the rhapsodic and the understated, whose outlines may be traced through the many sequences of popular comedy and through American literature; regional at first, they have passed far beyond the regional.

Clear courses have been drawn, yet these have been full of the vagaries that come from complex experiment. New themes have often been upturned and penetrated only in part. The epical promise has never been completely ful filled. Though extravagance has been a major element in all American comedy, though extravagance may have its incomparable uses with flights and inclusions denied the more equable view, the extravagant vein in American humor has reached no ultimate expression. The comedy of Rabelais provides a gauge, or that of Ulysses. On the other hand little equability has appeared, only a few aspects of social comedy; and emotion remains, as earlier, submerged, or shaded and subtle and indwelling. T. S. Eliot has voiced an insistent mood.

Well! and what if she should die some afternoon,
Afternoon gray and smoky, evening yellow and rose;
Should die and leave me sitting pen in hand
With the smoke coming down above the housetops;
Doubtful, for quite a while
Not knowing what to feel or if I understand . . . .

Set against this self-consciousness and disillusionment are further primitive elements of American life, showing them selves in the continuance of the cults, in lodges, parades, masquerades, as in earlier years, in shouts like "Hallelujah! I'm a bum !" and in a simple persistent self-portraiture not unlike that to which the American was first given. He still envisages himself as an innocent in relation to other peoples; he showed the enduring conviction during the Great War. He is still given to the rhapsody, the mono logue, the tale, in life as in literature. Of late has corne one of those absorptions in homely retrospect to which the American mind has periodically been devoted; common and comic characters, pioneers, orators, evangelists, hoboes, hold-up men, have come to the fore with a stream of old story and song, often engaging the saine Americans who turn to Eliot or Robinson or Henry James.

These oddly matched aspects of the American character are often at variance. Together or separated, they have found no full and complete expression. Who can say what will bring fulfillment2 If this comes it may be conditioned by many undetermined elements in the national life and character, by outside impingements even--since Americans are acutely aware of these--like that which weighed heavily in earlier years, the burden of British opinion. Its effects are still not altogether resolved; it has been noted that the sharp critiques offered in an earlier day by visiting foreigners are now defined by Americans, often as though they had merely borrowed the attitude. The involvement with the older countries is genuine; and the task looms for literature of absorbing traditions of the older world as part of the natural American heritage. The alliances must be instinctive or the fabric will be seamy. In general the American creative mind has lacked the patience and humility to acquire them, or it has been fearful of alienation from American sources.

Against full use of the native tradition many factors are set. That nomadic strain which has run through all Ameri can life, deeply influencing the American character, is now accented by the conditions of modern life; and the native character seems to grow more generalized, less specially American. Within the space of a lifetime Henry James saw something of the kind happen; in later years he remarked of the heroine of Pandora's Box that she could no longer "pass for quaint or fresh or for exclusively native to any one tract of Anglo-Saxon soil." Yet the main outlines of the American character still persist; American types can be found far from their native habitat and unmistakable in outline, homeless Yankees in Nebraska or frontiersmen in Monte Carlo, and others who may show an erosion due to alien places so that the original grain has grown dim, but who show that grain.

For the creative writer the major problem seems to be to know the patternings of the grain; and these can hardly be discovered in rich color without understanding of the many sequences of the American tradition on the popular side as well as on purely literary levels. The writer must know, as Eliot has said, "the mind of his own country--a mind which lie learns in time to be much more important than his own private mind." A favored explanation for the slow and spare development of the arts in America has Tain in stress upon the forces of materialism. But these have existed in every civilization; they have even at times seemed to assist the processes of art. The American failure to value the productions of the artist has likewise been cited; but the artist often seems to need less of critical persuasion and sympathy than an unstudied association with his natural inheritance. Many artists have worked supremely well with little encouragement; few have worked without a rich traditional store from which consciously or uncon sciously they have drawn. The difficult task of discovering and diffusing the materials of the American tradition many of them still buried-belongs for the most part to criticism; the artist will steep himself in the gathered light. In the end lie may use native sources as a point of radical departure; he may seldom be intent upon early materials; but lie will discover a relationship with the many streams of native character and feeling. The single writer-the single production-will no longer stand solitary or aggressive but within a natural sequence.

Go To "Bibliographical Note"

Back To Contents