Scribner & Company have just published a "Literary History of America," by Professor Wendell, which is the out-growth of his work last year as lecturer in English 20h. The book is the third volume in a series being published by Scribers to include finally literary histories of India, Ireland and the Jews. As a text book and book of reference it will undoubtedly take a position of importance in this country such as Bonnetievre's "Literary History" occupies in France.
The volume is divided into seven parts, and, in point of time, it ranges from the early part of the seventeenth century up to the present time. Each book is followed by an exceedingly helpful summary.
Professor Wendell's book is, first of all, historical. It is the history of America seen through its literary temperament. According to the scheme of the book, the literary history of each century is prefaced by an actual chronicle of the chief historical events. The author's main purpose is to show how American literature differentiates itself from English. The American temperament in regarded as growing more and more distant from the English up to the eighteenth century; accordingly, the most distinctive American expression is in the first half of the nineteenth century. Since then, in the last fifty years, American literature has been, on the whole, less markedly different from English.
The method of treating individuals is notable. Professor Wendell does not take Holmes, Bryant, Whitman, and Longfellow and treat them as unrelated individuals, but takes the work of each as a special medium through which to see American character. The great fault of previous looks on American literature has been that they have over-estimated the merits of American authors. Professor Wendell, though thoroughly American in spirit, is almost too reluctant in his praise of our best literature.
One admirable quality of the book is that it may be used in schools, like the handbooks that have preceded it, as a work of reference; and at the same time it contains the most mature and most distinctive literary appreciation of American authors that has yet been printed in methodical form.
One of the most striking parts of the book is the discussion of Calvinism and Unitarianism. The philosophy of these two movements, with their relations to history, and their literary results, have nowhere else been so carefully studied. On the other hand, Professor Wendell fails to understand Thoreau and Emerson. Grouping Thoreau with Alcott under the lesser men of Concord is clearly a lapse of judgment. The subject of transcendentalism is also handied in a somewhat superficial manner. The spirit of Emerson is also missed, perhaps because of over-emphasis on the "Yankee" element in Emerson. Mr. John J. Chapman is, on the whole, a surer critic of the Concord prophet.
The author's conception of the New England movement as renascent is very illuminating. It helps one to understand what, at a superficial glance, is very puzzling:--that is,--why the great writers of America should have been all New Englanders and of about the same generation. This and kindred topics are treated in a manner wonderful for its fine sanity.
Professor Wendell has no author or group of authors that he is especially bent on praising or dispraising. Some individuals, as is natural, he handles better than others. His estimate of Edgar Allen Poe is excellent for its swift comprehension. And it is quite in contrast with the treatment that Poe has received from many impressionistic critics. This chapter and Professor Gates's essay supplement each other.
The grouping of the authors, the large relations of individuals to each other and to historical movements--for example, the relations of Whittier and Whitman to the Civil war--the geographical divisions, which one feels mark real divisions of throughout; the total impression of the American spirit which the book leaves with one, make it a very notable study of American life and letters.