The New York School: of American Literary Theory

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      A NEW LITERARY CENTER.—We have seen that Massachusetts supplied the majority of the colonial writers before the French and Indian War. During the next period, Philadelphia came to the front with Benjamin Franklin and Charles Brockden Brown. In this third period, New York forged ahead, both in population and in the number of her literary men. Although in 1810 she was smaller than Philadelphia, by 1820 she had a population of 123,706, which was 15,590 more than Philadelphia, and 80,408 more than Boston.

The New York School
The New York School

      This increase in urban population rapidly multiplied the number of readers of varied tastes and developed a desire for literary entertainment, as well as for instruction. Works like those of Irving and Cooper gained wide circulation only because of the new demands, due to the increasing population, to the decline in colonial provincialism, and to the growth of the new national spirit. Probably no one would have been inspired, twenty-five years earlier, to write a work like Irving's Knickerbocker's History of New York. Even if it had been produced earlier, the country would not have been ready to receive it. This remarkable book was published in New York in 1809, and more than a quarter of a century had passed before Massachusetts could produce anything to equal that work.

      In the New York group there were three great writers whom we shall discuss separately: Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and William Cullen Bryant. Before we begin to study them, however, we may glance at two of the minor writers, who show some of the characteristics of the age.

      As we saw in the preceding chapter, WORDSWORTH and COLERIDGE at the close of the last century began to exert a new influence on literature. Wordsworth's new philosophy of nature can be traced in the work of Bryant. The other poets of this age belong to the romantic school. BYRON (1788-1824), the poet of revolt against the former world, shows the same influences that manifest themselves in the American and the French Revolution. He voices the complaints, and, to some extent, the aspirations of Europe. He shows his influence in Fitz-Greene Halleck's Marco Bozzaris. Shelley, who also belongs to the school of revolt, has a peculiar position as a poet of ethereal, evanescent, and spirit-like beauty. He is heard in the voice of the West Wind, the Cloud, the unseen Skylark, the "Spirit of Night," and "the white radiance of Eternity." Bryant's call in The Evening Wind (1829) to

 "… rouse
 The wide old wood from his majestic rest,
 Summoning from the innumerable boughs
 The strange, deep harmonies that haunt his breast,"

      May even have been suggested by Shelley's Ode to the West Wind (1819)

 "Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
 What if my leaves are falling like its own?
 The tumult of thy mighty harmonies
 Will take from both a deep autumnal tone."

      In the early part of this period, Wordsworth and Shelley were both making these harmonies of nature audible to ears which had hitherto not heard them. KEATS (1795-1821) is the poet of beauty, and he makes more of an appeal to the senses than Shelley. The favorite creed of Keats was:—

 "A thing of beauty is a joy forever."

      His influence will gradually extend to later American verse.

      SIR WALTER SCOTT was the great prose writer of the age preceding the Victorian. The first of his series of Waverley novels was published in 1814, and he continued until his death in 1832 to delight the world with his genius as a writer of romances. His influence may be traced in Cooper's work, although the American author occupies an original field. Readers are still charmed with the exquisite flavor and humor in the essays of CHARLES LAMB (1775-1834). The essays of DE QUINCEY (1785-1859) are remarkable for precision, stateliness, and harmony.

      With the publication of Irving's Knickerbocker's History of New York in 1809, the literary center of the United States shifted to New York, then the second city in the country. Drake and Halleck, two minor poets, calling themselves "The Croakers," issued a series of poems with the principal object of entertaining readers. Drake wrote a fine romantic poem called The Culprit Fay. Halleck's best works are the poems on the death of Drake and Marco Bozzaris.

      Washington Irving's chief fame is based on his original creation of the "Knickerbocker Legend" in his History of New York, Rip Van Winkle, and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. He is an unusually successful writer of short stories, of essays like those in Addison's Spectator, and of popular history and biography. He is the first American writer whose works are still read for pure pleasure. Humor and restrained sentiment are two of his pronounced qualities. While the subject matter of his best work is romantic, in his treatment of that matter he shows the restraint of the classical school. His style is simple and easy-flowing but not remarkable for vigor.

      James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales recreate in a romantic way the life of the pioneer in the forest and the wilderness. The Indian figures more largely in these Tales than in those of any preceding writer. Leatherstocking deserves a place in the world's temple of fame as a great original character in fiction. Cooper is also our greatest writer of stories of the sea. The Pilot and The Red Rover still fascinate readers with the magic of the ocean. The scenes of all of his best stories are laid out of doors. His style is often careless, and he sometimes does not take the trouble to correct positive errors, but his power of arousing interest is so great that these are seldom noticed. His romances are pure, and they inspire a love for what is noble and manly. Irving was almost as popular in England as in the United States, but Cooper was the first American author to be read widely throughout Europe.

      William Cullen Bryant is the first great American poet. He belongs to Wordsworth's school of nature poets. Bryant's verse, chiefly reflective and descriptive, is characterized by elevation, simplicity, and moral earnestness. His range is narrow. His communion with nature often leads him to the grave, but no other American poet invests it with as much majesty as is found in Thanatopsis. His strict Puritan training causes him to present the eternal verities in his poetry. Unlike Irving, Cooper, and the minor writers, his object is not entertainment.

      The influence of steam, the more rapid emigration westward, the increase of the democratic spirit, and the beginning of the modern era with its strenuous materialistic trend in the administration of Andrew Jackson marked a great change in the development of the nation. The taking of our vast southwest territory from Mexico was an event second only in importance to the Louisiana Purchase.

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