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J. R. LOWELL.
Response to a toast at the banquet in New York, April 30, 1889, given in commemoration of the hundredth anniversary of Washington's inauguration.
A needful frugality, benignant alike to both the participants in human utterance, has limited the allowance of each speaker this evening to ten minutes. Cut in thicker slices, our little loaf of time would not suffice for all. This seems 5 a meagre ration, but if we give to our life the Psalmist's measure of seventy years, and bear in mind the population of the globe, a little ciphering will show that no single man and brother is entitled even to so large a share of our attention as this. Moreover, how few are the men in any genIo eration who could not deliver the message with which their good or evil genius has charged them in less than the sixth part of an hour.
On an occasion like this, a speaker lies more than usually open to the temptation of seeking the acceptable rather than 15 the judicial word. And yet it is inevitable that public anniversaries, like those of private persons, should suggest self-criticism as well as self-satisfaction. I shall not listen
for such suggestions, though I may not altogether conceal that I am conscious of them. I am to speak for literature, 20 and of our own as forming now a recognized part of it. This is not the place for critical balancing of what we have done or left undone in this field. An exaggerated estimate, and that indiscriminateness of praise which implies a fear to speak the truth, would be unworthy of myself or of you.
1 Reprinted by permission of Houghton, Mifflin & Co. from Lowell's Prose Works, VI, p. 222.
I might indeed read over a list of names now, alas, carven on headstones, since it would be invidious to speak of the living. But the list would be short, and I could call few of the names great as the impartial years measure greatness. I shall prefer to assume that American literature was not 5 worth speaking for at all if it were not quite able to speak for itself, as all others are expected to do.
I think this a commemoration in which it is peculiarly fitting that literature should take part. For we are celebrating to-day our true birthday as a nation, the day when our 10 consciousness of wider interests and larger possibilities began. All that went before was birth-throes. The day also recalls us to a sense of something to which we are too indifferent. I mean that historic continuity, which, as a factor in moulding national individuality, is not only power- 15 ful in itself, but cumulative in its operation. In one of these literature finds the soil, and in the other the climate, it needs. Without the stimulus of a national consciousness, no literature could have come into being; under the conditions in which we then were, none that was not parasitic 20 and dependent. Without the continuity which slowly incorporates that consciousness in the general life and thought, no literature could have acquired strength to detach itself and begin a life of its own. And here another thought suggested by the day comes to my mind. Since that pre- 25 cious and persuasive quality, style, may be exemplified as truly in a life as in a work of art, may not the character of the great man whose memory decorates this and all our days, in its dignity, its strength, its calm of passion restrained, its inviolable reserves, furnish a lesson which our literature 30 may study to great advantage? And not our literature alone.
Scarcely had we become a nation when the only part of the Old World whose language we understood began to ask in various tones of despondency where was our litera- 35 ture. We could not improvise Virgils, or Miltons, though
we made an obliging effort to do it. Failing in this, we thought the question partly unfair and wholly disagreeable. And indeed it had never been put to several nations far older than we, and to which a vates sacer had been longer 5 wanting. But, perhaps it was not altogether so ill-natured as it seemed, for, after all, a nation without a literature is imperfectly represented in the parliament of mankind. It implied, therefore, in our case the obligation of an illustrious blood.
With a language in compass and variety inferior to none 10 that has ever been the instrument of human thought or passion or sentiment, we had inherited also the forms and precedents of a literature altogether worthy of it. But these forms and precedents we were to adapt suddenly to novel conditions, themselves still in solution, tentative, formless, 15 atom groping after atom, rather through blind instinct than with conscious purpose. Why wonder if our task proved as long as it was difficult? And it was all the more difficult that we were tempted to free ourselves from the form as well as from the spirit. And we had other notable hindrances. 20 Our reading class was small, scattered thinly along the seaboard, and its wants were fully supplied from abroad, either by importation or piracy. Communication was tedious and costly. Our men of letters, or rather our men with a natural impulsion to a life of letters, were few and isolated, and I 25 cannot recollect that isolation has produced anything in literature better than monkish chronicles, except a Latin hymn or two, and one precious book, the treasure of bruised spirits. Criticism there was none, and what assumed its function was half provincial self-conceit, half patriotic re30 solve to find swans in birds of quite another species. Above all, we had no capital toward which all the streams of moral and intellectual energy might converge to fill a reservoir on which all could draw. There were many careers open to ambition, all of them more tempting and 35 more gainful than the making of books.
Our people were
of necessity largely intent on material ends, and our acces
sions from Europe tended to increase this predisposition. Considering all these things, it is a wonder that in these hundred years we should have produced any literature at all; a still greater wonder that we have produced so much of which we may be honestly proud. Its English descent is and must always be manifest, but it is ever more and more informed with a new spirit, more and more trustful in the guidance of its own thought. But if we would have it become all that we would have it be, we must beware of judging it by a comparison with its own unripe self alone. 10 We must not cuddle it into weakness or wilfulness by overindulgence. It would be more profitable to think that we have as yet no literature in the highest sense than to insist that what we have should be judged by other admitted standards, merely because it is ours. In these art matches we 15 must not only expect but rejoice to be pitted against the doughtiest wrestlers, and the lightest-footed runners of all countries and of all times.
Literature has been put somewhat low on the list of toasts, doubtless in deference to necessity of arrangement, but per- 20 haps the place assigned to it here may be taken as roughly indicating that which it occupies in the general estimation. And yet I venture to claim for it an influence whether for good or evil, more durable and more widely operative than that exerted by any other form in which human genius has 25 found expression. As the special distinction of man is speech, it should seem that there can be no higher achievement of civilized men, no proof more conclusive that they are civilized men, than the power of moulding words into such fair and noble forms as shall people the human mind 30 forever with images that refine, console and inspire. It is no vain superstition that has made the name of Homer sacred to all who love a bewitchingly simple and yet ideal picture of our human life in its doing and its suffering. And there are books which have kept alive and transmitted the 35 spark of soul that has resuscitated nations. It is an old
wives' tale that Virgil was a great magician, yet in that tale survives a witness of the influence which made him, through Dante, a main factor in the revival of Italy after the one had been eighteen and the other five centuries in their 5 graves.
I am not insensible to the wonder and exhilaration of a material growth without example in rapidity and expansion, but I am also not insensible to the grave perils latent in any civilization which allows its chief energies and interests to be 10 wholly absorbed in the pursuit of a mundane prosperity. Rejoice O young man, in thy youth; and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth: but know thou that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment."
I admire our energy, our enterprise, our inventiveness, our 15 multiplicity of resource, no man more; but it is by less visibly remunerative virtues, I persist in thinking, that nations chiefly live and feel the higher meaning of their lives. Prosperous we may be in other ways, contented with more specious successes, but that nation is a mere horde supplying figures to the 20 census which does not acknowledge a truer prosperity and a richer contentment in the things of the mind. Railways and telegraphs reckoned by the thousand miles are excellent things in their way, but I doubt whether it be of their poles and sleepers that the rounds are made of that ladder by which 25 men or nations scale the cliffs whose inspiring obstacle interposes itself between them and the fulfilment of their highest purpose and function.
The literature of a people should be the record of its joys and sorrows, its aspirations and its short-comings, its wisdom 30 and its folly, the confidant of its soul. We cannot say that as yet our own suffices us, but I believe that he who stands, a hundred years hence, where I am standing now, conscious that he speaks to the most powerful and prosperous community ever devised or developed by man, will speak of our 35 literature with the assurance of one who beholds what we hope for and aspire after, become a reality and a possession forever.