A Celebration of Women Writers

"Evolution of American Literature." by Mrs. M. K. Craig.
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 198-202.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 198] 

EVOLUTION OF AMERICAN LITERATURE.

By MRS. M. K. CRAIG.

MRS. M. K. CRAIG.
Evolution implies priority, and in tracing the evolution of American literature, we acknowledge a common ancestry with the Chaucers, Miltons and Shakespeares of England; but evolution does not imply finality, and our end is not to be found in the literature of the Mother Country.

We claim the independent and organic development of American literature, and by American we mean and include only the authors of the United States, for no other authors on the American continent are known distinctly as American, and moreover, in the centuries that have elapsed since Columbus set foot on American soil, ours is the only nation of the New World that has developed an independent literature of high original thought.

To go back to the origin of our literature would be to go hand-in-hand with England's great men and women down the corridors of time, and follow the savage Teuton as he crosses the German Ocean, carrying with him in his frail bark the Scald and Saga men to cheer with song the hearts of the old Vikings. These long ago Scalds and Saga men were the germ of the geniuses that have passed down the torch of prose and poetic light until caught up by our own Emersons, Hawthornes, Irvings, Poes and Laniers.

Still American we are, born on American soil, struggling in infancy, Herculean-like, with the serpent of doubt, disputing in the temple of tradition with the English doctors, now standing forth in the young manhood of time, slaying the scorning Thackeray, Dickens and Edinburgh Goliaths. "Faulty"–"Why not? We have time in store."

The attempt in this limited paper shall be to prove that our nation has developed authors of peculiar merits, differing widely in style and ideals from the Tennysons, Swinburnes, Carlisles and Eliots of England. In order to do this it is necessary to open the book of time, and study the motives that prompted the settlement of the two colonies, Massachusetts and Virginia, and to show why we have seen two distinct lines of thought in the North and South for nearly three centuries. We must ever seek behind the deed for the motive; and when we trace the purpose that moved our forefathers to attempt the settlement of a new country, we probe the source of our literature

When we turn over the pages of history and pause at the landing of Capt. John Smith on a southern shore, we read in this heroic man, handcuffed and chained, the symbol of the bondage of the Old World to be broken by the spirit to be born in the New. When we follow the little band of Puritans borne in the frail Mayflower across [Page 199]  the stormy Atlantic, see them set foot upon the frozen shores of Massachusetts, we know that this resolute deed is no fanatical impulse of the hour, but is a deed born of the spirit of the age. From these two migrations sprang our ancestry; and to follow the development of American literature is to follow the East and South in the development of each in almost separate lines for nearly three centuries; and to account for the marked difference is not to attribute it to climate, as many have done, but to ancestry. Virginia was not settled, as some claim, by worthless, broken-down gentry, nor Massachusetts by blind fanatics. Bad men came over with all the colonists; but the ancestors of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Patrick Henry and Henry Clay could not have been entirely worthless, and neither could the ancestors of Franklin, Irving and Hawthorne have all been narrow fanatics. Yet there was a difference of character and purpose in the early colonists, the influence of which tells as greatly upon the sections of our country as do the character and purpose of the Scotch and English upon the sections of Great Britain. The Puritans, Quakers, Walloons, Salzburgers and Baptists were all dissenters, descendants of the Roundheads, the Luthers and Calvins of the Old World. They came to America as Moses went to Judea, dissatisfied with the church, the government and all the institutions of the Mother Country. They came to establish for themselves a new church and a new government. The Cavaliers came to America as men go West today, in order to better their fortunes. They came with hearts loyal to the Mother Country, with the intention of perpetuating her institutions, socially, politically and spiritually. The Dissenters settled north, and the Cavaliers settled south, and the influence of the two originated the differences in thought that have been evidenced in our speech and literature.

Colonial literature can hardly be called American, and even if it were so counted, it could not be called literature, for dry chronicles help to make history but not literature. Our colonial ancestors were too busy providing for the material necessities of their new life to find time for extensive reading or writing. White, in his "Philosophy of American Literature," says that the ideal of the Southerner was ever on a lower plane than that of the Northerner. Strange that a man should say this when a Southerner is called by his people, "the father of his country;" when a Southerner wrote the Declaration of Independence; when a Southerner is called "the father of the Constitution." He also speaks of the dearth of authors in the South.

The value of literature is determined by its quality and not by its quantity, and when we subtract the worthless, the histories and text-books from the authorship of the north, but few authors would be left of which she could boast.

The Puritan life was idealistic, and it was natural that it should develop writers. The Southerner was a man of deeds, developed the statesman, warrior, the orator and the colonizer of America. The one was as necessary to the building up of a nation as the other, and while we accord to the North the majority of authors, let it not be done to the disparagement of the South, which has contributed in other ways just as honorable and necessary as the contributions of the North.

New England established the first college, Virginia the first university and Georgia the first female college. The broad university training of the South has told upon the culture of her people, and the narrow intense, college training of the North told upon her Cotton Mathers and Edwards.

The Puritan spirit of New England developed theologians, psychologists and melancholy poets. Her narrow training has given us our text-book literature. The Cotton Mathers, Hopkins, Emersons, Dwights, Bradfords, Bradstreets, Edwards and Hookers have given us the greatest divines and metaphysical authors of America.

When man becomes extreme in thought, his extremity is God's opportunity, and out of the extreme Puritanism of Wigglesworth and John Cotton was evolved Benjamin Franklin, who was really the first man to show that the old life had done its work, that the persecutions and bigotry of the fathers had reacted in the broad spirit of a new man in a new world. Benjamin Franklin, the printer, lightning-rod man, stove man, newspaper man, author, statesman and diplomat, an all-around Yankee, a [Page 200]  typical American. A new spirit is born, the old eliminated, and with the period of Franklin we can begin to lay claim to American literature. To him can be traced the humor of our American authors, the birth of the "short story" in "Dogood Papers." His services were required along other lines than that of authorship, else we should have seen in Franklin an American Swift or Smollett.

Pre-revolutionary writers can be summed up in a few names. Men were busy making history then, and not literature, yet in the pamphlets of Tory and Whig we see the germ of our future authors.

For some time after the Revolution our people were absorbed in the work of framing the Constitution and in restoring order, and were too busy in the details of nation-forming to devote attention to literature. We should like to dwell upon the spirit of those days, but in a limited paper like this we can only point out the leading authors in American literature.

Charles Brockden Brown, who belongs to the early part of the nineteenth century, might be brought up as our first novelist of note. Freneau, Trumbull, Hopkinson, Barlow, Thomas Paine, Jefferson–all contributed their share in laying the foundation of American literature. We shall be disappointed if we expect to find any such legends in our early literature as the Arthurian or Carlovingian, for our people did not nurse their children to sleep with song of fairy, or quiet them with story of valiant knight. Our ancestors were stern, practical men and women; Indians, wolves and wild-cats were realities and not myths, and the Puritan religion forbade the little Franklins from believing even in Santa Claus.

The "doubting Thomases," Paine and Jefferson, the Prometheus Franklin, dealt with reality and cared little for romance. Yet we must not think that the germ of romance in Brockden Brown, or the ideal of Trumbull, was lost in political and military heroism, or in Franklin's utilitarianism. Though America had not the myths of the Old World she had her peculiar legends, and these Washington Irving invested with all the romance of Scott, and enlivened them with a humor known nowhere but among Americans–American authors. "The Legends of Sleepy Hollow" make up for the lack of an heroic people in our aborigines.

Cooper introduced the Indian into romance, but it was not the matter of his words so much as the form that made them popular. Neither the Indian or the negro is heroic, although Harriet Beecher Stowe at an opportune moment succeeded in introducing the latter into her novel, and Helen Hunt Jackson with the Indian worked upon the sympathies of her readers without appealing to their reason.

Edgar Allan Poe in this new life of American authors stands not only as a typical Southern poet, but as one of whom the world loves to hear. He was a master of verse, but he lacked that inspiration that will give him a seat "with those saints who see God." The weird charm, the strange fascination of Poe's verse is without rival. "His heart-strings are a lute, none sings so wildly nor so well."

For a while after Irving and Poe's period our country was so torn with sectional hate that there was no motive for high literature. The John C. Calhoun, Wendell Phillips and Garrison oratory; the Harriet Beecher Stowe romance; the Bryant, Father Ryan and Whittier poetry, were engaged too much in stirring up jealousy and hatred to inspire lofty thought. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Bryant, Father Ryan and Whittier, and even Longfellow, based their writings upon events that are not universal in significance, and, like Wigglesworth's writings, will meet their doom.

Rodman Drake, our American Keats, in his "Culprit Fay," kept alive the ideality and sincerity of the poet of this period.

From this great strife there was born an ethical spirit, and Emerson, an almost Christ-man, arose in strange contrast to the Garrisons and Calhouns of the day. The Alcotts, the Fullers, Thoreaus and Channings followed as disciples of Emerson.

Theories and speculations of all kinds set men's minds wild in those days, and as Irving worked up the follies and superstitions just anti-dating him so do we have Hawthorne evolved from the extremes of his age. As was Franklin evolved from the extreme Puritanism of the days of witchcraft, so was Hawthorne evolved from [Page 201]  the extreme Puritanism that overshadowed the North prior to the Civil War. Like Franklin, he could transcend the party spirit of his age; like Irving, he worked his people's follies into a moral; and Hawthorne, the master artist, remains the interpreter of his people in all that is high and holy for all time.

With the Civil War came the interregnum of authors that war naturally brings. After the war men were again busy reconstructing the nation–making the nation, but not literature. With the Centennial of 1876 was ushered in a new era, and while up to that period we had American authors, North and South, yet ours was not a national literature. The past is a book with seven seals, and there arises in the present a new generation to begin a new page in our literature's future work. The Centennial of 1876 reached out the hand of brotherhood to North, South, East and West; the New Orleans Exposition strengthened the bond of affection; the World's Fair at Chicago riveted it with the everlasting ties of love, and our people will now turn their attention to their own country, its tales and traditions, and, as Hawthorne and Irving, point them with morals worked from the souls of the people. We have traditions of the fore time, ruins of an old civilization, and buried temples; we have Nature in her freshness and beauty; we have pure domestic life molded by freedom; we have the spirit of the ages, the spirit of him who taught the equality of man and the elevation of woman. The South, with an institution no longer retarding her progress, is again being heard in song and romance.

Of Southern birth and education, the daughter of a slave-holder, I am ready to admit that slavery burdened literary growth, especially as we smarted under the sense of wrong done us by those who were as responsible for slavery as we. But now that feeling is sealed in the book of the past, and never since the days of Washington has there been as strong love for the Union and for the Stars and Stripes as is now felt in the South. The South will ever remain the picturesque part of the Union; its peculiar scenery, its picturesque laboring class, will give themes for poetry and romance. Despite many changes, our relations in society are greatly the same, with deferential black men and superior white men, with our ideas of dependence of woman still lingering, and, strange to say, the newcomer adopts our customs instead of introducing new ones

George Cable, Joel Chandler Harris, Thomas Nelson Page, Gottschalk, Thalberg, Henry Grady, James L. Allen, Father Ryan and Sydney Lanier could have been born under no other than our peculiar Southern institutions, and the South will continue to enrich American literature with song and story.

The South is not what it was before the war, as far as the old life is concerned; but its men and women are more than they were. Sorrow and sorrow's reflux of energy, the strong natures made better thus are awakening us to a new life; and as we turn over the pages of Eastern magazines, and see there recorded names from the South and West, we feel that now ours is a national literature, to the roll-call of which men and women answer from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the great lakes to the Gulf.

The sunny Southland yet tells of desolation. As the traveler passes through the broad plantations, ruins and negro cabins strangely impress him in their loneliness and emptiness. No young lovers promenade the broad piazzas with admiring negroes in the background. The cedars along the broad walks stand with breaking limbs, untrained and dying; the Doric pillars of the broad piazzas are stained by loose, untrained vines, and only a few negroes or white people are seen here and there. At night the jassmines and magnolias make fragrant the air, the warbling of mocking birds, the chirping of katydids–all remind the listener that much yet remains to inspire Southern literature and art.

The West, too, has joined the national brotherhood, and with her Egglestons, Ridpaths, Bret Hartes, Rileys and Monroes prophesies a glorious future in literature for the West. [Page 202] 

We would like to enlarge upon this era of good feeling of our Howells, Warners, Holmes, and all others of our authors, men and women; but the time is too short, and we can only breathe the wish that now the practicability of the East, the sentiment of the South, and the vigor of the West are combined, that no one section will be overbalanced by the other, but that with the strong warp of the North, filled in with the sparkle of the West, and shot with the beauty and colored with the warmth of the South, our nation may weave a garment fit for divinity to wear. A nation is a moral person, and to the authors is the soul of the people committed. We are imperfect; our mathematics as yet form but broken arcs, but time will shape them into perfect rounds. The heroic here is often too hard, the high too lofty, but the effort ascends to God, and will bless us by and by.

I have attempted to show you the qualities of each section, and now that we are united it remains for the future to decide the possibilities of American literature. Columbus found a new world, and Galileo found new heavens, and we with the microscope lay bare the secrets of nature, send messages upon the lightning with heaven's own bolt, bind the ends of the earth together; our knowledge of the conservation of energies makes eternity confirm the conception of the hour and time is no more. Foreigners look in vain for the standing-army of the United States, for our nation marshals her hosts in the hearts of her people, proclaiming that earth did rise and heaven did bend. America, sitting in the barge of state in Columbus fountain, facing the statue of Liberty, shows woman's elevation ever is man's, too. This consummation of science united with spirit Homer foretold mystically in his conception of God in man. Isaiah foretold Christ's reign on earth; Dante saw on top of Mount Purgatoria where a woman led him up, for when woman rises man follows. On our own new America we go not back to the mythical past for the Golden Age, but as Christ taught us Heaven is now, and the Golden Age of Love is ours, which began in the night of the Nativity, was hastened when Capt. John Smith and Miles Standish brought the gospel of liberty to our shores, was confirmed when the shackles of slavery fell from every hand in our Union, and when R. E. Lee signed the treaty of peace that binds North, South, East, and West in bonds of union that Puritan and Cavalier, not even Washington and Franklin, could understand; for they read not the liberty of the Gospel as did our Christian heroes, Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee, who have left with us the pattern of heroes of the greatest Christian drama that has ever been acted upon the stage of history.


[Page 198] 

Mrs. M. K. Craig is a native of Mississippi. She was born November 17, 1812. Her parents were Dr. W. J. and Mrs. E. M. Kittrell. She graduated at Wilcox Female Seminary, Camden, Ala., and has been a close student all her life. She has traveled in the Southern, Eastern and Middle States, and visited most of the large cities of the United States. She married E. E. Craig, a planter of Alabama, moved to Texas in 1873, her husband dying in 1891. Her profession is teacher in English and Latin. Her literary works are essays for literary clubs, and magazine articles. In religious faith she is Protestant, and a member of the Presbyterian Church. Her postoffice address is 256 Cadiz St., Dallas, Texas.

[Next]

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom