« PreviousContinue »
SECOND SERIES, NO, V.-WHOLE NO, XXXVII.
THE PROPER CHARACTER AND FUNCTIONS OF ANERICAN
By Rev. Leonard Bacon, Pastor of the First Church, New-Haven, Conn.
The subject proposed for this article may seem at first like one of the common places of magazine essays and anniversary orations.
Yet I am persuaded that the views which have suggested themselves to me in thinking of this theme, if not new, are at least worthy of a renewed consideration.
Ever since I can remember, American literature has been inquired after, and inquired about, in all quarters. It has been debated whether there is any such ihing, and if so, what are its merits—whether any such thing is likely to be, and if so, what it will be. The first of these questions is a question not of fact, nor even of speculation, but only of words. We have no national epic, no body of national dramatic poetry; and in this view of the matter, surely, we have no American literature. But we have books of American production, and these books have readers, and the number of such books and their readers is continually increasing; and in this sense there can be no dispute that American literature has already begun to exist. Thus far, however, it cannot be denied that the books written in this country, with some few distinguished exceptions, should be SECOND SERIES, VOL. III. NO. I,
considered rather as American contributions to the common literature of the English language, than as constituting even the germ of such a body of letters as shall reflect the national spirit and re-act for salutary ends upon the national mind.
I have announced then, without intending it, what I conceive to be the proper character and functions of American literature. In all its forms of history, philosophy, poetry, eloquence, its peculiar character must be that it breathes and manifests the national spirit ; and its one great function must be to re-act for salutary ends, upon the national mind from which it emanates. It must be essentially shaped and informed by the peculiar spirit of the American people, or it will always be a failure, a faint and cheap imitation of foreign models. However voluminous, however elaborate or elegant, may be the literature produced by writers born upon our soil, if it be not American in its tone and spirit, in the cast of its ideas and sentiments, it will always be to the American people as essentially foreign as translations from the French or German are to the people of Great Britain. Being thus deficient in the life and power of an original literature sprung from the soil, and intertwined with all the associations and habits of the people, it can have no sway over the heart of the people ; it will have no aim ; it will perform no part in history. And on the other hand, whenever literature in this country becomes conscious of the dignity of its function, and grapples in earnest with the national mind to lead it, to elevate it, to control it for worthy ends, it will immediately and without an effort, adapt itself to the people ; it will reflect of course, I do not say the opinions, but the intellectual habits, the sentiments, the peculiar character of those to whom it addresses itself.
This view let us attempt to develop. What is, and is to be, the peculiar national character with which American literature must harmonize, and upon which it ought to act, purifying and elevating the national mind ?
The character of a people, so far as it depends on other than geographical causes, such as climate, soil, sea-coast, rivers, mountains, and extent of territory,--is determined mostly by its origin, its history, its political organization, and its religious doctrines and institutions. These various influences are not only blended in the result, but are continually acting upon each other. The origin of a people, the blood of which it springs, affects all its history, more surely and
more powerfully than parentage affects the destiny of the individual. The history of a people determines its political organization, and its political organization in turn modifies the chances and changes of its history. Religion too exerts its strongest and steadiest influence upon a people, when it is blended with their historical recollections, when it has brought their laws and all the order of their civil state into harmony with itself; and on the other hand the character of a people, as determined by political and historical influ. ences, has much to do in moulding the forms of religious doctrine and directing the spirit of religious institutions. Any one of these causes, then, completely understood, will indicate with more or less exactness, what must be the peculiarities of the national character, and what ought to be the genius of the national literature.
For our present purpose, then, it may be sufficient to keep in mind the peculiar structure of society and of government in this country, and to ask what sort of a literature, breathing the national spirit, and elevating the national character, ought to grow up in a country thus organized ?
In pursuing this inquiry, my first position is, that there will be no place in American literature for certain sentiments, either entirely factitious or unnatural in their development, which, originating in the feudal structure of society, have had great influence upon the literature of Europe.
Take, for example, the sentiment of loyalty. We in this country know not what it is; we can hardly conceive of it but by a strong effort of imagination. Yet it is a sentiment so familiar to most Englishmen, that the absence of it from our common character as a people, puzzles and perplexes many an English traveller more than any thing else. Loyalty is a strictly feudal sentiment, the feeling of attachment to a feudal superior-a feeling like that with which a Highlander looks on the hereditary chieftain of his clan-the feeling with which a faithful vassal followed his superior to war, without ever a thought about the reason of the quarrel in which his all was perilled — the feeling with which a hearty Englishman naturally regards his lawful sovereign. The feeling is indeed continually decaying in most countries of Europe, but it is still vigorous under every old and stable government, and it is not extinct even where revolution, hke a deluge, has swept away the ancient landmarks. In the old world, it outlives the feudalism in which it originated,
we Prusaa upon hown wheir king Jed upo broken
and lingers—"the melancholy ghost of dead renown" — haunting with its shadowy presence the ivied castles and decaying tombs of the system to which it once gave life and beauty. But in this new world, it has never been naturalized. What do we know of the sentiment with which the whole Prussian people rose at the long expected opportunity, and rushed upon the French in grief and rage, to avenge, not so much their own wrongs, as the wrongs wbich Napoleon had inflicted upon their king, reducing him to vassalage, and the insulis which he had heaped upon their queen-wrongs and insults which had sent her broken hearted to the grave. Not long before the death of that high-minded but unhappy queen, when the clouds hung darkest around the royal house of Hohenzollern, she said, “ Posterity will not set down my naine among those of cele. brated women, but whoever knows the calamities of these tines, will say of me, she suffered much, and she suffered with constancy: may he be able to add, she gave birth to children who deserved better days, who struggled to bring them round, and at length succeeded." We can feel the eloquence of this, because every word of it comes from a suffering human heart, and strikes upon our human sympathies, but wbat do we know of the thrill with which the recital of these words, at the time, went through every loyal Prussian heart? What do we know of the peculiar tone of sentiment with which that whole people, arming at last for the avenging conflict, made the name of their dead queenLouisa -- their war-cry,-or of the grief, which, when their valor had restored their widowed king to his due rank and independence as a sovereign, saddened their triumph with the thought, "She has not lived to see it."
This sentiment of loyalty, in its various forms and relations, controls to a great extent the manners of Europe, and is every where in that old world one of the constituent elements of national character. It is therefore, in this connection, worth looking at a little more distinctly. Loyalty towards a sovereign is not simply the feeling of respect towards a chief magistrate, whose person represents for the time being the law and the state. Woe to our commonwealths when that feeling shall be unknown among us. The English shout, or song, "God save the King !" is uttered in a different note from the huzzas with which the butt-enders of the New York democracy greet their favorite president. Respect
for a chief magistrate must be combined with another element, before it becomes loyalty. You must feel that the chief magistrate is something more than a mag strate – that he is your sovereign-that you belong to him as his subject, so that he has a property in you—that he is your protector and lord, the fountain of power, justice, and honor,- and then you know what loyalty is, towards a sovereign. Does any body in England, save perhaps some speculative democrat, ever think of the young lady in Buckingham palace as simply a female chief magistrate? Or does the true English. man think of her rather as his royal mistress, and as having a personal right in him which she has inherited, and which is io descend like any other property to her heirs ? In something of the same spirit, do the peasantry on a great estate look up to their immediate superior. He is the proprietor of the soil which they cultivate; he is, or ought to be, their hereditary guardian and patron; they are not his slaves indeed, but they are in one sense a part of his property; all the fruit of their toil, beyond a meagre supply of comforts for themselves, is his; if he is benevolent and conscientiously bent on the improvement of their condition, they are happy; if he cares not for them, they can do little for themselves. So much of the feudal system remains, that the feeling of dependence and inferiority on the one hand, and of superiority and power on the other, runs through society. That radical element of the feudal system, the principle of the lower made for the higher, the many for the one, the cultivators of the soil for the proprietors of the soil, the peasantry for the aristocracy, the people for the sovereign.-- is not yet extinct even iu legislation. Far less is it extinct in respect to its is fluence on manners and national character. Feudal ism, in its various modifications, is the grand element in the history of every European people ; and therefore its influence cannot but be for ages to come one of the grand elements in the character of every European people. he constitution of society, even in the freest countries there, is still feudalisin at the foundation. The feudalism is reformed indeed, remodeled, broken up and reconstructed with large additions of new materials; securities are provided for human rights; guards are erected against the abuse of power; the great principle has been forced in, that though the many are made for the one, the one on the other hand is made for the many, and owes them duties as sacred as the duties