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2009年2月24日  

2009-02-24 14:19:59|  分类: 默认分类 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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1. American Literature
By John Macy
  
         This vigorous survey of American letters is the first chapter of John Macy’s admirable volume The Spirit of American Literature, published in 1913—a book shrewd, penetrating and salty, which has unfortunately never reached one-tenth of the many readers who would find it permanently delightful and profitable. Mr. Macy has no skill in vaudeville tricks to call attention to himself: no shafts of limelight have followed him across the stage. But those who have an eye for criticism that is vivacious without bombast, austere without bitterness, keen without malice, know him as one of the truly competent and liberal-minded observers of the literary scene.
  Mr. Macy was born in Detroit, 1877; graduated from Harvard in 1899; did editorial service on the Youth’s Companion and the Boston Herald; and nowadays lives pensively in Greenwich Village, writing a good deal for The Freeman and The Literary Review. Perhaps, if you were wandering on Fourth Street, east of Sixth Avenue, you might see him treading thoughtfully along, with a wide sombrero hat, and always troubled by an iron-gray forelock that droops over his brow. You would know, as soon as you saw him, that he is a man greatly lovable. I like to think of him as I first saw him, some years ago, in front of the bright hearth of the charming St. Botolph Club in Boston, where he was usually the center of an animated group of nocturnal philosophers.
  The essay was written in 1912, before the very real reawakening of American creative work that began in the ’teens of this century. The reader will find it interesting to consider how far Mr. Macy’s remarks might be modified if he were writing to-day.
  The Spirit of American Literature has been reissued in an inexpensive edition by Boni and Liveright. It is a book well worth owning.

AMERICAN literature is a branch of English literature, as truly as are English books written in Scotland or South Africa. Our literature lies almost entirely in the nineteenth century when the ideas and books of the western world were freely interchanged among the nations and became accessible to an increasing number of readers. In literature nationality is determined by language rather than by blood or geography. M. Maeterlinck, born a subject of King Leopold, belongs to French literature. Mr. Joseph Conrad, born in Poland, is already an English classic. Geography, much less important in the nineteenth century than before, was never, among modern European nations, so important as we sometimes are asked to believe. Of the ancestors of English literature “Beowulf” is scarcely more significant, and rather less graceful, than our tree-inhabiting forebears with prehensile toes; the true progenitors of English literature are Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Italian, and French.

The Man Without a Country” is almost the only story there that one comes on with a thrill either of recognition or of discovery. autobiography, not art and of course not attempting to be, is better literature than most of our books in artistic forms, because of its intellectual integrity and the profound importance of the subject-matter.   17
  Our dreamers have dreamed about many wonderful things, but their faces have been averted from the mightier issues of life. They have been high-minded, fine-grained, eloquent in manner, in odd contrast to the real or reputed vigor and crudeness of the nation. In the hundred years from Irving’s first romance to Mr. Howells’s latest unromantic novel, most of our books are eminent for just those virtues which America is supposed to lack. Their physique is feminine; they are fanciful, dainty, reserved; they are literose, sophisticated in craftsmanship, but innocently unaware of the profound agitations of American life, of life everywhere. Those who strike the deeper notes of reality, Whitman, Thoreau, Mark Twain, Mrs. Stowe in her one great book, Whittier, Lowell and Emerson at their best, are a powerful minority. The rest, beautiful and fine in spirit, too seldom show that they are conscious of contemporaneous realities, too seldom vibrate with a tremendous sense of life.   18
  The Jason of Western exploration writes as if he had passed his life in a library. The Ulysses of great rivers and perilous seas is a connoisseur of Japanese prints. The warrior of ’Sixty-one rivals Miss Marie Corelli. The mining engineer carves cherry stones. He who is figured as gaunt, hardy and aggressive, conquering the desert with the steam locomotive, sings of a pretty little rose in a pretty little garden. The judge, haggard with experience, who presides over the most tragi-comic divorce court ever devised by man, writes love stories that would have made Jane Austen smile.   19
  Mr. Arnold Bennett is reported to have said that if Balzac had seen Pittsburgh, he would have cried: “Give me a pen!” The truth is, the whole country is crying out for those who will record it, satirize it, chant it. As literary material, it is virgin land, ancient as life and fresh as a wilderness. American literature is one occupation which is not over-crowded, in which, indeed, there is all too little competition for the newcomer to meet. There are signs that some earnest young writers are discovering the fertility of a soil that has scarcely been scratched.   20
  American fiction shows all sorts of merit, but the merits are not assembled, concentrated; the fine is weak, and the strong is crude. The stories of Poe, Hawthorne, Howells, James, Aldrich, Bret Harte, are admirable in manner, but they are thin in substance, not of large vitality. On the other hand, some of the stronger American fictions fail in workmanship; for example, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which is still vivid and moving long after its tractarian interest has faded; the novels of Frank Norris, a man of great vision and high purpose, who attempted to put national economics into something like an epic of daily bread; and Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” a madly eloquent romance of the sea. A few American novelists have felt the meaning of the life they knew and have tried sincerely to set it down, but have for various reasons failed to make first-rate novels; for example, Edward Eggleston, whose stories of early Indiana have the breath of actuality in them; Mr. E. W. Howe, author of “The Story of a Country Town”; Harold Frederic, a man of great ability, whose work was growing deeper, more significant when he died; George W. Cable, whose novels are unsteady and sentimental, but who gives a genuine impression of having portrayed a city and its people; and Stephen Crane, who, dead at thirty, had given in “The Red Badge of Courage” and “Maggie” the promise of better work. Of good short stories America has been prolific. Mrs. Wilkins-Freeman, Mrs. Annie Trumbull Slosson, Sarah Orne Jewett, Rowland Robinson, H. C. Bunner, Edward Everett Hale, Frank Stockton, Joel Chandler Harris, and “O. Henry” are some of those whose short stories are perfect in their several kinds. But the American novel, which multiplies past counting, remains an inferior production.   21
  On a private shelf of contemporary fiction and drama in the English language are the works of ten British authors, Mr. Galsworthy, Mr. H. G. Wells, Mr. Arnold Bennett, Mr. Eden Phillpotts, Mr. George Moore, Mr. Leonard Merrick, Mr. J. C. Snaith, Miss May Sinclair, Mr. William De Morgan, Mr. Maurice Hewlett, Mr. Joseph Conrad, Mr. Bernard Shaw, yes, and Mr. Rudyard Kipling. Beside them I find but two Americans, Mrs. Edith Wharton and Mr. Theodore Dreiser. There may be others, for one cannot pretend to know all the living novelists and dramatists. Yet for every American that should be added, I would agree to add four to the British list. However, a contemporary literature that includes Mrs. Wharton’s “Ethan Frome” and Mr. Dreiser’s “Jennie Gerhardt” both published last year, is not to be despaired of.   22
  In the course of a century a few Americans have said in memorable words what life meant to them. Their performance, put together, is considerable, if not imposing. Any sense of dissatisfaction that one feels in contemplating it is due to the disproportion between a limited expression and the multifarious immensity of the country. Our literature, judged by the great literatures contemporaneous with it, is insufficient to the opportunity and the need. The American Spirit may be figured as petitioning the Muses for twelve novelists, ten poets, and eight dramatists, to be delivered at the earliest possible moment.   23

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