FAR from having no childhood, the American nation was having a prolonged childhood, extended as the conditions for young and uncertain development were extended and spatially widened by the opening of wilderness after wilderness, the breaking down of frontier after frontier. The whole movement westward had a youthful illusory character, like one of those blind migrations of other peoples over the older continents. Popular expression had taken forms that have belonged to the childhood of nations: singing, dancing, brief story-telling, a ritualistic celebration. Humor had kept that prime resilience which is more than half physical. Character was drawn in simple and legendary outline, both on and off the stage, in and out of current story-telling.
This primitive drawing was maintained as though some essential search were under way for an intrinsic substance. Other characters were sketched beside the comic trio. The quicksilver talent of Tyrone Power had brought a handful of comedies into vogue in the early '30's, which were Irish in scene, glossy and romantic, and full of dancing and singing. In the '40's with the renewed movement for Irish freedom came Irish plays that were nationalistic and historical. Presently these were broken up into portrait sketches of the Irish boy and the Irish girl, set in America; and a few slight stories and sketches drew them into happy conjunction with Yankee men or women, creating an emblem of that mergence of national types which had been seen elsewhere. Irish humor had always had a way of becoming American humor on American soil: it seemed that a new admixture might be on the way. But the effect was transitory; the Irish type--slow to appear--remained distinct, and was to be seen in many guises down the years, as Gallagher and Shean and a host of others offered new sketches. The character was not deepened or explored, but remained as a kind of puzzled, offhand experiment.
Still another figure emerged at the end of the '40's who was undoubtedly Irish in general ancestry but who soon merged with the riffraff of the New York streets and water fronts. This was the "b'hoy," known by his swagger, his soaplocks, his fireman's red flannel shirt. In the stage portraits he was Mose; he bobbed up everywhere like the Yankee, in California, in China, though he belonged unmistakably to New York. Impudent, full of racy and belligerent opinion, he appeared in the public view at a moment when national feeling had gone rampant with the outbreak of the Mexican War, with the acquisition of the far western empire of California, and the sudden discovery there of gold. In Mose was centered all the arrogance of an acute national self-esteem. He bragged, he was always on top, he waved a national flag whose texture was particularly coarse, and gained his constituency by this means and by a gutter wit.
Whether the "b'hoy" was drawn directly from characters on the New York streets or whether similar characters took on bolder outlines in life when they saw themselves egregiously celebrated on the stage can never be known. The diarists, the memoir makers, the writers of autobiographies, either had their heads in the air or their minds fixed upon their own portraits, or they feared the growing tendency to reveal the American as a common fellow. At least they did not trouble to notice city scalawags. But the living character existed, and rose to an acute self-consciousness. Perhaps because the theater had patronized the "b'hoys," the "b'hoys" patronized the theater, taking up posts in the galleries. Their hisses and outspoken comments were the terror of actors; their applause was a coveted guarantee of success.
Their devotion to the muscular histrionics of Edwin Forrest was particularly strong; in the Astor Place riots they took a cue from Forrest's jealousy of Macready and gave impetus to a current fury of anti-British feeling for which Macready was only the accidental stimulus. No doubt the riots were maneuvered for the benefit of an ambitious political group who saw an opportunity to bring themselves into the foreground, but the situation soon passed into the realm of hysterical popular fantasy. When Macready had been showered with eggs and the first act of Macbeth had been played in dumb show, when the theater had been cleared by the police and the militia stationed outside with orders to fire, the familiar consciousness of the British rose to monstrous heights; in the end thirty people were killed. "WORKINGMEN! Shall Americans or English rule this city?" ran an irrelevant query on hundreds of posters. "Fire"' yelled a grimy one who knelt with a stone between his knees. He tore open the bosom of his red shirt with an opulent gesture. "Fire into this!" he shouted. "Take the life of a free-born American for a bloody British actor! Do it! Ay, you darsen't!"
Theatricalism had run to a considerable extreme in the American character with this exhibition. But Mose was a transient figure; by the middle '50's he had ceased to exist on the stage. He had made one strong divergence from the accumulated American myth: he was- urban. The Irishman of the stage gradually became urban. The comical German was soon drawn in the Hans Breitmarm ballads and on the stage; and he too belonged to the cities. The Jew followed some years later, and was always urban. Popular portraiture seemed to move farther and farther away from the earlier characters. Yet all these figures possessed certain simple traits in common with the comic trio. Like the Yankee, the backwoodsman, the Negro, they sprang from humble life; like the trio they represented contentious elements in the American scene. They were all on the off-side; all were looked down upon or scorned by some one, often by whole sections of society, as the Yankee had been scorned by the backwoodsman and the backwoodsman by the Yankee. They were disparate characters, and warring; they formed the hard and bony understructure of the nation.
The pioneer mythologizing habit remained unbroken. These new figures were no nearer the intimate and human than were the ritualistic figures of Negro minstrelsy. They wore the same air of masquerade; comic triumph was their creed. Though they never rivaled the original trio in scope or popularity or in long life, they made a cluster of small half-deities who embodied persistent obsessions.
WOMEN had played no essential part in the long sequence of the comic spirit in America. Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind Crockett could stand as a symbol: the women were gross counterparts of the men. An exception lay beyond and somewhat above these figures in the shadowy but persistent rise of the American bluestocking within the Yankee fables. The heroine of The Contrast was noticeably fond of reading; and against all tradition in that anterior English comedy which might have been an influence, this habit of hers was presented without ridicule. In the early American view ladies who read were not considered strange or amusing; they were in fact regarded with serious reverence.
In the Downing papers another bluestocking appeared in one of the rural cousins; and Aunt Nabby offered a plaintive remonstrance. "I don't believe you are happy for trying to no so much; ever since you took to study I see you don't laugh half so hearty as you used to, and you look sober three times as often. I'm afraid you'll be a spoilt girl for the country, Sarah." The reproach was unheeded; and the slight studious touch was repeated elsewhere. A few of the heroines of the later fables of the contrast exhibited a modicum of learning; and Gertrude in Fashion was a governess.
Feminine culture thus rose on the American horizon in a cloud no larger than a lady's book; and though this heroine was not comic she was placed in the realm of comedy. Those who believe that life copies art or that art is premonitory may perhaps find there intimations of a phenomenon which later was to come into enormous bloom, with a forecast of a division in the national temper: for the lady in these fables was lost in culture and the presiding masculine genius stood apart from it. The Yankee had little or nothing to do with these learned ladies. They belonged for the most part to a remote sentimental story in which he had but a small share.
Obviously social comedy could not develop when women remained shadowy- serious figures. Nor could social comedy develop among a citizenry of half-gods. Mythologies do not lend themselves to small or delicate comic intricacies. A human society is required for social comedy, and none had been imaged for the native view. No doubt societies existed in provincial towns like Salem or Newburyport or Lexington, or in such entrenched older cities as Boston and Philadelphia and Richmond, but these were never drawn for the imagination; they remained at best few in number and widely scattered. Along the wide western trackways no social structure could be formed lasting and secure enough to hold an integrated group; there was neither time mood for that leisurely sinking of the plumb-line which yields a knowledge of the slighter human foibles and idiosyncrasies. In more than one sense the comic trio remained as emblems of the national life, since they appeared always as single figures, or merely doubled and multiplied, never as one of a natural group, never as part of a complex human situation, always nomadic.
So the English social comedy offered by James Wallack at the beginning of the '50's was a novelty. Wallack had cherished a vision through fire and flood and hardship as he traveled up and down the Mississippi like any gambling adventurer, taking chances with casual companies in ramshackle theaters, playing before flatboatmen and backwoodsmen and desperadoes drawn from the levee at New Orleans or Natchez-under-the-Hill. Suave and handsome, wearing fawn color and exquisite mustaches, a pattern of elegant manners, he was convinced even in these surroundings that others like him would come to life on the stage creating a picture of charming amenities. He proved them worth of patience and fancy. In 1851 he found himself in New York with a theater of his own.
Probably no society was ever so finicking-finished as that which now existed on paper in the ready-made lines. Bulwer-Lytton seemed the many-handed author of these plays: if he did not write them, he inspired them; they were already popular in England. They belonged to comedy because of an effect of high spirits and wit, and because of smooth triumph of the hero and heroine over adverse circumstances. Above all they pictured a fashionable society, self-contained and aloof, in which both men and women had a natural part. Women--unstudious and charming--flourished there. Many of them all but centered upon the character of women.
The whole array might have been expected to provoke ridicule in an American audience. Fashion was still being well received, with its broadside of satire directed against foreign civilizations and fashionable notions. The fine English creatures of Wallack's plays belonged to the group which had been touched with burlesque in every American portrayal from the early Dimple to Lord Fitzdaddle. But a complete reversal took place, one of those capricious reversals not uncommon in American feeling. These English ladies and gentlemen of an artificial world were received with applause and even rapture. Shabby minor actors played the parts in small rough theaters in the Mississippi valley. Revivals began of the older English social comedy such as The School for Scandal and She Stoops to Conquer, with their air of splendor.
Perhaps the tension created by British criticism was somewhat relaxed in this later day, though it had by no means disappeared. The basic tie had always been binding; now at last it seemed indirectly acknowledged. Yet the deepest reason for the warm reception of these pictorial plays may have come from the fact that they represented a society, when the American effort to achieve a society had been scattered and ineffectual. This effort had taken the crudest forms, in the amalgamation created by a gross comedy, in the communal associations of the revivals: it had been in the main ineffectual or transitory, but it had existed none the less. Here at last lay the happy semblance in easy patterns, offering a sense of completion.
The sequence initiated by Wallack was continued, as if the pleasure in completed outlines endured: but the plays were never again to have the pristine freshness of the first few years or to command so ardent an enthusiasm. The concerns of a vigorous comic spirit remained elsewhere. In the midst of Wallack's portrayals a portent arose in Our American Cousin.
The old fable of the contrast lived again in this play, transferred to an English scene. It had been tried out in London with the Yankee in the habitual blue coat, redstriped trousers, and bell-crowned white hat. The English characters announced that their American relatives were of enormous height, with long black hair reaching down to their heels and with a dark copper-colored skin; they were said to fight with tomahawks and scalping-knives. Again the composite Yankee-backwoodsman appeared: "I'm Asa Trenchard, born in Vermont, suckled on the banks of Muddy Creek, about the tallest gunner, slickest dancer, and generally the loudest critter in the State." He called the butler "old shoat" and "old hoss"; when asked for his card he said he had a whole pack in his valise and if the butler liked, he would play a game of seven up. "I'm dry as a sap tree in August," he exclaimed with American candor and the habitual simile. Shaking drinks, he discussed the relative merits of brandy smash, cherry cobbler, whiskey skin, and Jersey lightning.
Jefferson played the "long, simple, uncouth, shrewd Vermonter," but a caricature of the foppish Englishman captured the play, Lord Dundreary, a lineal descendant of Dimple in The Contrast. Touch by extravagant touch Sothern built up the portrait, mincing, tripping, lisping, stuttering, hopelessly silly: Dundreary was indeed the largest, the most complete, the most finished, of all the delineations in a long sequence. His figure submerged the action and the other characters; even the Yankee was all but lost. Jefferson used a far more human touch than had hitherto been seen in Yankee portraiture; perhaps for this reason his acting failed to carry against the archetypal drawing of Sothern. The mythological had the greater hold; and the obsessive interest in the British character came again to the fore with the familiar derision and the implicit American triumph.
The American fancy returned with immense gusto to these familiar figments. Few plays in America have had such a run; Sothern acted his famous part almost without a break for more than ten years. Others captured the play, keeping the original version, with the Yankee as the large and archetypal figure. In 1865 the original play with the Yankee stress could still be made an occasion which the President would attend. It was at Ford's Theatre, watching Our American Cousin, that Lincoln was assassinated. Lincoln seems to have enjoyed its early passages as these unrolled before him. He would have liked the talk and the Yankee character with its backwoods admixture, for his own humor contained many of the same elements. In that dark and bitter era something of solace may have been created for him and for the public by the broad fantasy, the effect of reminiscence, the familiar tang.
WITH the wealth of tradition wrapped about the trio of comic figures and the inevitable Englishman, they might have belonged to a latter-day commedia dell' arte, joining in an eternal or even only a richly local comedy as puppets. But this would have required a close sense of situation. Instead, these figures took on a large and lawless air, as in Our American Cousin, avoiding situation almost altogether. Character in terms of extravagance or even extravaganza was still the major concern.
In the '50's extravaganza appeared that was most often a colored fairy tale of vast proportions, half poetry, half burlesque, as in The Deep Deep Sea, which was filled with Yankee tars, Yankee jokes, Yankee monologues, as well as by semi-mythical characters. Few of these pieces were memorable; they were likely to bulge, to overflow, to mount in one direction or another regardless of any single situation. They were dominated by the monologue, the song and dance, the enlarged portrait or caricature. They captivated their public by these diversions and by their gaiety.
The theater was still a truant mode, an accidental form, full of humor, fragmentary stories, legendary figures, persistent fantasies. Nothing in the way of American social comedy was created, nothing of realistic native portraiture. The native theater had slight traffic with the real world; its medium was a rude and incompleted poetry. Even its portraiture belonged to poetry--a broad and experimental comic poetry.
The wayward form spread, reaching far beyond the stage, making an habitual approach to new and old experiences. From the '30's onward, in those prophetic handbooks of wind and weather, the almanacs, a long series of brief tales appeared whose theme was strange adventure at sea. Some in a fashion hugged the coast, like that of the Flying Island off Kennebunk, considered the Elysian Fields of the Indians, or the stories which had to do with the treasure of Captain Kidd. But for the most part these tales described wild adventures on farther seas. There was an account of a specter whaleman in a small boat, pursuing the captain, who had left him to drown. Many brief, strange stories of the whale fishery were told. A marked drift of interest was shown in the South Seas, as in the later Crockett legends, which during the same period were reaching farther and farther toward the western horizon. An early story was told of a ship's crew who buried their boatswain on an island in the South Seas and later saw the skeleton walking off with his head under his arm. The adventures of Crockett's companion, Ben Hardin, with a mermaid, were matched by the tale of a mutineer who escaped to a submarine cave with a girl of the Tonga Islands, where he lived for many years amid fine mats, flowers, and succulent food, behind the green and watery wall.
Most of these tales had Yankees for heroes--a "captain from Salem," "a whaler from Nantucket." Most of them had a strong supernatural strain; some were tales of cruelty and horror. But they were likely to appear in close relationship with grotesque and comic fairy tales, like that of wharf rats--monstrous creatures--that manned a ship in a French port. Indian tales of terror were told: but even these often contained a submerged comedy. The whole nexus was embedded in a broad context which heightened comic and grotesque effects. The illustrative woodcuts might have been devised to fit half-comic fairy stories and legends. Sometimes these cuts took on the mythological scale, showing great precipices, or snakes that were gigantic monsters standing on their tails. The adventurer of the story would be grotesquely tiny, swung from a limb and decapitating the snake with a deliberate security. Here and there a drastic burlesque of the tall tale was shown in illustration.
In loose alliance with these brief tales were innumerable stories of the sea, headed by those of Dana; they joined again with those told by the Yankee tar on the stage, and made a large, broken cycle that moved from moods of terror to burlesque. The Crockett legends were coming into their freest growth at the same time, likewise forming a loose sequence all but linked with these scattered sea tales, for Crockett, like the mutineer, explored the floor of the ocean and penetrated to submarine eaves in the South Seas.
LIKE the later tales of Crockett or with them, these sea stories moved toward the epical in magnitude of fancy and in their persistent stress upon the animistic or supernatural; they were comic or embedded in a matrix of comedy; and they possessed a rude but authentic poetry. But the coalescence into some single striking outline which seemed imminent did not take place, at least on popular levels; they remained, like the fantasies of the theater, in brief and ephemeral forms. They were part of a national habit of story-telling which had grown in compass through fifty years or more, and was seen now mixed with the commonest preoccupations. The tale was told for its own sake; it was a mode of conversation, of rejoinder, of offering farewell, as limits were reached.
This invincible habit reached one high climax, in the familiar stories of Lincoln. Stories ran through all his talk; many of them have been lost; hundreds have been saved. They make no sequence; yet they draw together memories and fantasies of a whole region--perhaps more than one region--and yield a hardy comic poetry that has become part of a popular lore.
When "The Hunters of Kentucky" began to stir an exhilarated spirit in the West, Lincoln was a boy of thirteen. Before he was twenty he went down the Mississippi in a flatboat; Mike Fink was still on the waters, and Crockett was coming, into his first fame. One of Lincoln's first cases arose out of the opposition of the flatboatmen to the building of a bridge across the Mississippi; he must have heard their lingo and their tales from his boyhood through many years; like most of them he was a prime wrestler. As a young lawyer he joined in those meetings of the bar where its members and the gathering litigants exchanged tall stories and offered treasures of odd expression gathered from the backwoods. He pored over old joke-books, relished the stories and songs of Negro minstrels, and liked such primitive sports as cock-fighting. He possessed, moreover, those strangely mixed emotions which seemed to make a groundwork for the humor of the time and place. Even in youth his was that melancholy akin to romantic feeling, which was otherwise evoked and revealed in this region by the black romantic plays. He had the characteristic rebound, and often the quick move into depression again.
As a story-teller Lincoln used the entire native strain; he was consistently the actor, the mimic, caricaturist, and even a maker of burlesque. He used stories as weapons, matching his gifts against those of his adversaries, to mow them down, to win an audience. In a political contest in 1840 he mimicked his opponent on the platform in gesture and voice and walk and the smallest idiosyncrasies of manner with so bitter a ridicule that at the end the man was reduced to tears. At the bar he used the same tactics; his famous "Skin defendant" meant an outpouring of personal satire. Personal ridicule belonged to Lincoln's armory throughout his career, and was usually offered with the favorite guileless air. He used it as an habitual form of reply to admonitory speeches made to him by pretentious citizens during the war. "Why, Mr. Harvey, what tremendous great calves you have!" he exclaimed at the end of one of these. He took a bottle from a shelf and gave it to another gentleman who had long outstayed his time, a bald-headed man, and told him it would grow hair on a pumpkin. Lincoln contrived many jokes and stories about pumpkins and pumpkin-heads, and applied the rude metaphor when Seward and Chase were finally induced to resign. "Now I can ride, for I have a pumpkin in each bag."
Lincoln belonged indeed to a hardy and contentious school of humor, even though his manner could become elaborately gentle, as in his well-known ridicule of Douglas. "I had understood before that Mr. Douglas had been bound out to learn the cabinet-making business, which is all well enough, but I was not aware until now that his father was a cooper. I have no doubt, however, that he was one, and I am certain also that he was a very good one, for"--and here Lincoln bowed gravely to Douglas--"he has made one of the best whiskey casks I have ever seen.
Often Lincoln's stories were drawn from a homely backwoods experience, as in the story of the little boy at a backwoods school who blundered over reading the names of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and later set up a wail as he saw his turn approaching again. "Look there, marster--there comes them same damn three fellers again!" As Lincoln told the story he stood at a window overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue. As he finished he pointed to three men on their way to the White House. They were Sumner, Stevens, and Wilson. The episode became a metaphor; and the three figures, after Lincoln's slow reminiscence, took on rather more than human energy and size.
In Lincoln two of the larger strains of American comedy seemed to meet. He showed the western ebullience, even in brief fragments. He was likely to call a. bowie-knife a scythe. He told of a fight in which a man fought himself out of one coat and into another. But his economy of speech and his laconic turn seemed derived from the Yankee strain that belonged to his ancestry, and no doubt was strengthened by many encounters with Yankees in the West. In a debate against the Mexican War he mentioned an Illinois farmer who declared, "I ain't greedy about land. I only want what jines mine." The narrow phrasing was Yankee; the concealed inflation belonged to the West. No doubt the Bible had a deep influence upon Lincoln's style in speech and in writing; perhaps it was from the Bible that he drew his deep-seated sense of fable and figure. The Bible may have been an anterior influence for all western speech and western story-telling, as for that which came out of New England. But its traces seem to have altered and re-shaped. Those metaphors abundant in all American comedy--"slick as a snake out of a blackskin"--came from a native earth; often they belonged to special regions. The form and the substance of American story-telling seem derived from the life out of which it sprang.
Poetry belonged to most of Lincoln's stories--an earthy poetry; he used the fable, the allegory, the tale grounded in metaphor. The artist was often at work there: but with all the praise bestowed upon them, upon the Gettysburg speech and in a less knowledgeable fashion upon his other writings, Lincoln has rarely been described as a literary figure. Irony lurks in this relinquishment. Yet perhaps the uncertain view has fitness, for his alliance with the simple and primitive phases of American life remained strong.
MEREDITH declared that to produce the comic poet, "a society of cultivated men and women is required, wherein ideas are current and the perception quick, that he may be supplied with matter and an audience. The semi-barbarism of merely giddy communities, and feverish emotional periods, repel him." The long period out of which American comedy sprang might easily be called feverish and emotional; and surely the communities within which it was produced were often giddy and semi-barbaric. No society of cultivated men and women had supplied a subject matter, though it might perhaps be granted that such a society had sometimes formed an audience.
"They have the basis of the Comic in them: an esteem for common sense," Meredith said of the English. So far as their humor was a sign the Americans had singularly little regard for common sense. American comedy might be aggressive or competitive; it often tied hard knots: but these elements were transformed by extravagant purposes.
"To know comedy you must know the real world," said Meredith: but American comedy had stepped outside the real world into that of fantasy.
For purposes of candor American comedy of the long period which stretched from the Revolution to the year 1860 may be described in a series of negations. Little of the purely human was contained within it, no deepening of the portrayal of character, nothing of a wide and interwoven web of thought and feeling where wit might freely play and the whole be gently lighted. Lincoln had revealed a human touch, but not too frequently; and this was shown for the most part toward the end of his life. Little or nothing of the philosophical element had developed even in Lincoln's stories. Satire had persistently appeared, sometimes directed toward highly focused ends, often showing only the flare of quick attack. This humor was highly competitive even in its quiet Yankee turns. To look upon the comedy of this time was to conclude that the Americans were a nation of wild and careless myth-makers, aloof from the burdens of pioneer life, bent upon proving a triumphant spirit. Yet comic these fantasies were in spite of the strictures of Meredith. If they failed to exhibit subtlety, fineness, balance, they had created laughter and had served the ends of communication among a people unacquainted with themselves, strange to the land, unshaped as a nation; they had produced a shadowy social coherence.
No comic poet had arisen on these levels; yet comic poetry was present in abundance, keeping that archetypal largeness which inheres in the more elementary poetic forms, with the inevitable slide into figure and that compact turn with unspoken implications which is the essence of poetic expression. Since it had been produced on many levels this comic poetry could not be called folk-poetry, but it had the breadth and much of the spontaneous freedom of a folk-poetry; in a rough sense its makers had been the nation. Full of experiment and improvisation, it did not belong to literature; but it used the primary stuffs of literature, the theater that lies behind the drama, the primitive religious ceremony that has been anterior to both, the tale that has preceded both the drama and the novel, the monologue that has been a rudimentary source for many forms. It constantly hung on the verge of a wider or deeper expression; yet it had been drawn back, as if magnetized, to the primitive and archaic. Its largest movement had been toward the epical, the heroic, or as it might have turned out, the mock heroic on the epical scale.
"To make up a heroic age there must be two factors," said Jane Harrison, "the new and the old; the young, vigorous warlike people must seize on, appropriate, in part assimilate, an old and wealthy civilization. It almost seems as if we might go a step further and say that for every great movement in art or literature we must have the same conditions, a contact of new and old, of a new spirit seizing or appropriated by an old established order." But the American comic legends, retrospective though they often were, could hardly be called old. As by a concerted impulse the American had cut himself off from the older traditions; the natural heritage of England and the continent had been cast away so far as a gesture could accomplish this feat. Perhaps the romanticism of the pioneer in relation to the Indian was part of that instinct by which new peoples attempt to enrich themselves from old; the Indian possessed established tribal unities which the American lacked. Even the American absorption of Negro lore may have been an effort in the same direction. But the Negro could offer only the faint and distorted reflection of a primal culture; and the quest for that of the Indian bad been abortive.
Nothing of fertilizing contact between new and old occurred in this long period; the comic spirit remained a restless spirit, constantly moving into new areas. Perhaps there could be no large fulfillment until all frontiers were broken and the far western movement ended, until the land was peopled and the long slow process accomplished by which a nation becomes genuinely coherent. The wonder was that with so little to draw upon except its own momentum the comic impulse had moved constantly toward large outlines. To have formulated the simplest of traditions in the midst of a continual and heedless movement was a triumph. Comedy had pictured significant elements in the American character and consciousness. If it failed to attain its own completion it had created a roughly homogeneous groundwork out of which a wider expression, even a literature, might spring.
Such preludes have existed for all literatures, in songs and primitive ballads and a folk-theater and rude chronicles. Great writers have often drawn directly from these sources; inevitably genius embraces popular moods and formulations even when it seems to range furthest afield. From them literature gains immensely; without them it can hardly be said to exist at all. The primitive base may be full of coarse and fragmentary elements, full of grotesquerie or brutality; it may seem remote from the wide and tranquil concepts of a great art: but it provides materials and even the impulse for fresh life and continuance.
WRITING in his journal in 1834 on the cultural dependence of America on England, Emerson verged upon prophecy. "I suppose the evil may be cured by this rankrabble party, the Jacksonism of the country, heedless of English and all literature--a stone cut out of the ground without hands:--they may root out the hollow dilettantism of our cultivation in the coarsest way, and the newborn may begin again, to frame their world with greater advantage." Though the American scene had been drawn, an American literature was hardly definable in 1834. Twittering poetasters and essayists, pretty story-tellers and studious novelists were springing up by the dozen as if to refute the classic charge that the Americans were coarse. There was a great effervescence of what may be called the falsefeminine; a thin sweep of genteel writing, dreary to read, easy to destroy by a touch of satire, came on like a weedy second growth when forests are cut. The dilettantism mentioned by Emerson was to continue for many years. In the field of criticism and even in the general view that involvement with British opinion which had appeared in the Yankee fables was repeated: the difference was that at last the tie was openly acknowledged; it was in fact made the single binding tie. English literature was accepted as the single great American heritage; and American literature was counted one of its provinces.
Gentility was assuaging; it was a convenient means by which recognition of native literature could be avoided. The American strain was new, recognition was not easy. Emerson himself never saw the difficulties involved in the establishment of an American sequence. He never saw the problems created by the weight and pressure of the inheritance--the many inheritances--from across the sea. In the end the dissevering gesture might not serve; that mingling of old and new of which Jane Harrison has written might prove essential. Yet even as he wrote, the rankrabble party had found a voice, and Jacksonism was proving to be something more than political. Popular comedy had arisen in full force at the beginning of the Jacksonian democracy. The strain was coarse, "a stone cut out of the ground without hands," but it was strong: Emerson himself belonged to it.
Scant, fitful, sporadic as American literature has proved to be, it has had roots in common soil. Through the interweaving of the popular strain with that of a new expression on other levels a literature has been produced which, like other literatures, is related to an anterior popular lore that must for lack of a better word be called a folk-lore. No literal sequence followed from the comic mythologies, no simple, orderly completion. Extravagantly and willfully, as though it were possessed by the very essence of the comic spirit, American literature turned aside from these materials for the most part, and discovered others of its own. The wealth of a native mythology was left behind, except as Melville used this, and a few other writers. Yet the Yankee, the backwoodsman in minstrelsy--though the influence there was less direct--the strollers of the theater and of the cults and revivals, the innumerable comic storytellers and myth-makers, had made a groundwork for this literature. Its forms were those which had been slowly channeled out by humor: they were the monologue, the rhapsody, the tale. Its color was drawn from comedy or from that other dark mixed mood from which comedy had arisen in relief. Comic lore had been but little concerned with persons; its great preoccupation had been with types or the crowd; it had never been embedded in societies. In the same fashion American literature in this primary phase was for the most part unconcerned with closely drawn individuals or a stable group, though it often turned toward legendary characters. Improvisation had been abundant on popular levels: it spread again through literature; this remained incomplete, like a first venture. The epical scope was again approached--and transiently attained; with this went that tendency toward the conscious, the self-aware, toward the inner view, the inner fantasy, which belonged to the American comic sense. Genius necessarily made its own unaccountable revelations. Many external influences were at work. But the basic patterns, those flowing unconscious patterns of mind and feeling which create fundamental outlines in expression, had been amply developed in a native comic lore. The same character was at work on both levels.