Imagens das páginas
PDF
ePub

AMERICA AND THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE.

A misleading metaphor may do a great deal to beget and perpetuate confusion of thought; and such a metaphor, I suggest, is that which describes England as "the mother-country" of America. Tennyson has given it literary sanction in the line "Gigantic Daughter of the West," and Mr. William Watson, in his sonnet beginning "O towering daughter, Titan of the West," repeats the phrase without misgiving. Both poets ignore the flight of time, and mistake an historical for an actual relation. The America of to-day is not the daughter of the England of to-day. They are both daughters and co-heiresses of the England of the past, and especially, we may say, of seventeenth-century England. The same spirit which refused ship-money to Charles I. refused teamoney to George III.; the same spirit which drew up the Petition of Right dictated the Declaration of Independence. It was England's misconception of her true relation to her American

colonies that finally alienated them. She tried to be not only a mother-land, but a step-mother land, and the United States nobly and inevitably broke her leading-strings. And now, after the lapse of a century and a quarter, we have no shadow of an excuse for putting on maternal airs towards the transatlantic Republic. We, no less than the Americans, are revolted children of the England of North and Grenville, though our revolt has been a bloodless one. Surely, then, our relation is fraternal, not parental and filial. Or, since a significant personification-a remnant of either mythology or of chivalry-makes nations feminine of gender, let us say that we are sister commonwealths.

This is not the mere question of

terms it may at first sight appear. The false metaphor begets false feelings on both sides. England, as "the mothercountry," falls into all the besetting sins of parenthood-a pedagogic habit, and assumption of superior wisdom, experience, even virtue, and a resentful amazement at every manifestation of individuality on the part of her "offspring" that does not happen to be quite convenient. America, on the other hand, accepts the relationship in words, only to realize the more keenly the absence of any valid and essential fact behind it. "If 'mother' at all," she instinctively feels, "then 'stepmother'!" and the result is apt to be an embittered sense of friction, as between two people who stand just near enough each other to be forever treading on each other's toes. "Dear old long-estranged mother-in-law," said Lowell, thirty years ago, "since 1660, when you married again, you have been a stepmother to us." The modification of the false metaphor was very natural; but how much better to get rid of it altogether! Lowell's image is itself a little confused. A mother does not become a stepmother to her own children by marrying again; and England did not marry again in 1660, but returned to the spouse-Monarchy -whom she had rather summarily divorced ten years before. That, however, is not the point. Lowell intended his remark for a significant jest, not for a sober historical argument. I quote it to show how the "mother" metaphor, in its essential falsity, obscures, even in a mind like Lowell's, a sense of the true relationship between the two countries. Lowell evidently conceived that England, wedded to Monarchy, could not possibly be other than a stepmother to her republican daugh

ter. On the very same page he says. "I never blamed her for not wishing well to democracy,-how should she?" Now, with all respect-nay, with the warmest admiration-for Lowell, 1 cannot but say that he here buttressed up an imaginary, or at any rate a rap idly decaying, barrier between the two peoples. Whatever may divide us, it is not monarchy; nor can England be reasonably suspected of wishing other. wise than well to democracy as such. Lowell, I think, erred in attaching too much importance to the name and trappings of kingship. He accepted without due examination a current fallacy; and he was tempted to do so because it helped him to retort upon us, with an ingenious twist, our unfortunate "motherland" metaphor. How much better, I say again, to have disowned it entirely!

Great Britain and the United States, then, are sister commonwealths, enjoying the advantages and exposed to the dangers of sisterhood. The dangers are as real, though we trust not as great, as the advantages. Family quarrels are apt to be the bitterest; a chance word will seem unkind and unbearable from a near kinsman which, coming from a stranger, would carry no sting at all. As Lowell very truly said, "The common blood, and still more. the common language, are fatal instruments of misapprehension." To take a cue from Lowell's development of the "motherhood" metaphor, one is tempted to call England the maiden sister, while America has marriea, taking to herself a mate who is in the main (and not without good reason) inimical to England. Such a connection necessarily puts a severe strain on sisterly love, and will continue to do so until that enmity is pacified. The fact remains, however, that both sis ters have now come to years of di cretion, and are awakening not only to the advantages, but to the obliga

tions of kinship. It seems as though outward events were likely to bring them together in a closer community of interests than they have hitherto recognized. But even if this be a fallacious forecast-even if world-history should be switched on to a different line of rails from that on which it seems at present to be running-there would still remain all-powerful mo. tives for the recognition of kinship and the cultivation of sisterly amity. In essence we are not two "commonwealths," but one. The greatest wealth we possess is the wealth we hold in common-our common past, and its symbol and monument, our common language. It is true, as Lowell said, and as people are too apt to forget, that the common language, indiscreetly used, is a fruitful source of misunderstanding; but there is a far deeper, though obvious, truth behind that statement. We misunderstand because we understand; and it would be an extravagance of pessimism to doubt that, in the long run, understanding will carry the day. Light may dazzle here and bewilder there; but, after all, it is light and not darkness. We English and Americans hold a talisman that makes us at home over half, and more than half, the world; and we are not going to rob it of its virtue by renouncing our ties and wantonly declaring ourselves aliens to each other. Our unity of speech is such a com monplace that we scarcely notice it. But, rightly regarded, it is a thing to be rejoiced in with a great joy, and not without a certain sense of danger happily escaped. He would have been a bold man who should confi. dently have prophesied at the Revolution that American and English would remain the same tongue, and that at the end of the nineteenth century there I would not be the slightest perceptible fissure, or threat of ultimate diverg. ence. No doubt there were forces ob.

viously tending to preserve the linguistic unity of the two nations. There was the English Bible for one thing, and there was the whole body of English literature. The Americans, it might have been said, could scarcely be so foolish as deliberately to renounce their spiritual birthright, or let it little by little drift away from them. But, on the other hand, virulent and inveterate political enmity, had it arisen, might quite conceivably have led the Americans to make it a point of honor to differentiate their speech from ours, as many Norwegians are at this moment making it a point of honor to differentiate their language from the Danish, which was, until of late years, the generally accepted medium of literary expression. In the evolution of their literature, they might purposely have rejected our classical tradition, making their effort rather to depart from than to adhere to it. Again, an observer in 1776 could not have foreseen the practical annihilation, by steam and electricity, of that barrier which then appeared so formidable-the Atlantic Ocean. He might have foreseen the immense influx of men of every race and tongue into the unpeopled West; but he could scarcely have anticipated with confidence the ready absorption of all these alien elements (save one) into the dominant Anglo-Saxon polity. It was quite on the cards that a new American language might have developed from a fusion of all the diverse tongues of all the scattered races of the earth.

Nothing of the sort, as we know, has happened. The instinct of kinship from the first kept political enmity in check; the Atlantic has been practically wiped out; and English has easily absorbed, in America, all the other idioms which have been brought into contact, rather than competition, with it. The result is that the English language occupies a unique position among

the tongues of the earth. It is unique in two dimensions-in altitude and in expanse. It soars to the highest heights of human utterance, and it covers an unequalled area of the earth's surface. Undoubtedly it is the most precious heirloom of our race, and as such we must reverence and guard it. Nor must we islanders talk as though we held it in fee-simple, and allowed our transatlantic kinsfolk merely a conditional usufruct of it. Their property in it is as complete and indefeasible as our own; and we should rejoice to accept their aid in the conservation and renovation (equally indispensable processes) of this superb and priceless heritage.

English critics of the beginning of the century so convincingly set forth the reasons why America, absorbed in the conquest of nature and in material progress, could not produce anything great in the way of literature, that their arguments remain embedded in many minds even to this day, when events have conclusively falsified them. It is quite a commonplace with some people that America has not developed a great American literature. If this merely mean that, in casting off her allegiance to George III., America did not cast off her allegiance to Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Addison, Swift, Pope, the reproach, if it be one, must be accepted. If it be a humiliation to American authors to Own the traditions and standards established by these men, and thereby to enroll themselves in their immortal fellowship, why, then it must be owned that they have deliberately incurred that humiliation. One American of vivid originality tried to escape it, anð with what result? Simply that Whitman holds a place of his own, somewhat like that of Blake. one might say, in the literature of the English language, and has produced at least as much effect in England as in America.

If, on the other hand, it be implied that American literature feebly imitates English literature, and fails to present an original and adequate interpretation of American life, no reproach could well be more flagrantly unjust. It is not only the abstract merit of American literature, though that is very high, but precisely the Americanism of it, that gives it its value in the eyes of all thinking Englishmen. Only one American author of the first rank could possibly, at a superficial glance, appear-not so much English as-European, cosmopolitan. I mean, of course, Edgar Allan Poe, who has left perhaps a deeper impress upon literature outside the English-speaking countries than any other imaginative writer of the century, with the exception of Byron. Poe was a born idealist, a creature of pure intelligence. Whether in poetry or fiction, he was always solving problems; and it is hard to be distinctively national in an exercise of pure intelligence. We do not look for local color in, for example, the agreeable essays of Euclid. But Poe's intelligence was, at bottom, of a characteristically American type. He was the Edison of romance. As for the other great writers of America, what can be more patent than their Americanism? Speaking only, for the present, of those who have joined the majority, I would name two who seem to me to stand with Poe in the very front rank of original genius. They are Emerson, that starlike spirit, dwelling in a serener ether than ours, which, though we may never attain, it is yet a refreshment to look up to; and Hawthorne, not perhaps the greatest romancer in the English tongue, but certainly the purest artist in that sphere of fiction. Now, it is a mere truism to say that each of these men was, in his way, a typical product of New England, inconceivable as the offspring of any other soil in the world. Emer

son, it has been said, not without truth, was the first of the American humorists, carrying into metaphysics that gift of realistic vision and inspired hyperbole which has somehow been grafted upon the Anglo-Saxon character by the conditions of American life. As for Hawthorne, though he has felt and reproduced the physical charm of Rome more subtly than any other artist, his genius drew at once its strength and its delicacy from his Puritan ancestry and environment. To realize how intimately he smacks of the soil, we have but to think of that marvellous scene in "The Blithedale Romance," the search for Zenobia's body. From what does it derive its peculiar quality, its haunting savor? Simply from the presence of Silas Foster, that delightful incarnation of the New England yeoman. "If I thought anything had happened to Zenobia, I should feel kind o' sorrowful," said the grim Silas; and there never was a speech more dramatically true, or, in its context, more bitterly pathetic.

Even while English critics were proving that there could be no such thing as an American literature, Washington Irving and Fenimore Cooper were laying its foundations on a thoroughly American basis. Irving was none the less American for loving the picturesque traditions of his English ancestry; Cooper, a gallant and fertile genius, did his country and our language an inestimable service by adding a whole group of specifically American figures to the deathless aristocracy of the realms of romance. Then, in the generation which has just passed away, we have such men as Thoreau, racy of his native soil; Longfellow, in his day and way the chief interpreter of America to England; Whittier, the poet of Quaker Pennsylvania, as Longfellow was the poet of Puritan Massachusetts; Lowell, courtly, cultured, cosmopolitan,

and yet the creator of Hosea Biglow; Holmes, as American in his humor as Lamb was English, who justly ranks with Lamb and Goldsmith among the personally best-beloved writers of the English tongue. Prescott in the sphere of history paralleled the achievement of Cooper in fiction by giving literary form to the romance of the New World; while Motley was inspired (too ardently, perhaps) by the spirit of free America in writing the great epic of religious and political freedom in Europe. Finally, it must not be forgotten that in "Uncle Tom's Cabin," a tragically American production, Mrs. Beecher Stowe added to the literature of the English language the most potent, the most dynamic pamphlet ever hurled into the arena of national life.

Of all that a host of living Americans are doing for the literature of our common tongue, it is impossible to speak adequately, and it would be inpertinent to speak perfunctorily. Not the Americanism merely, but the localism of the dominant school of fiction is its chief, and to my thinking its most valuable characteristic. Every region of the Republic, one might almost say every State, has its interpreter, and generally a very able one: for example, Miss Wilkins in the North, Miss Murfree in the Middle states, and Mr. Cable in the South. And I cannot deny myself the pleasure of expressing my conviction that if a work of incontestable genius has been issued in the English language during the past quarter of a century, it is that brilliant romance of the great rivers, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.",

[blocks in formation]

picturesque reporter is a greater power in America than he is with us, we perhaps import more than we export of this particular commodity. But there can be no rational doubt, I think, that the English language has gained, and is gaining, enormously by its expansion over the American continent. The prime function of a language, after all, is to interpret the "form and pressure" of life-the experience, knowledge, thought, emotion and aspiration of the race which employs it. This being so, the more tap-roots a language sends down into the soil of life and the more varied the strata of human experience from which it draws its nourishment, whether of vocabulary or idiom, the more perfect will be its potentialities as a medium of expression. We must be careful, it is true, to keep the organism healthy, to guard against disintegration of tissue; but to that duty American writers are quite as keenly alive as we. It is not a source of weakness but of power and vitality to the English language that it should embrace a greater variety of dialects than any other civilized tongue. A new language, says the proverb, is a new sense; but a multiplicity of dialects means, for the possessors of the main language, an enlargement of the pleasures of the linguistic sense without the fatigue of learning a totally new grammar and vocabulary. So long as there is a po tent literary tradition keeping the core of the language one and indivisible, vernacular variations can only tend, in virtue of the survival of the fittest, to promote the abundance, suppleness and nicety of adaptation of the language as a literary instrument. The English language is no mere historic monument, like Westminster Abbey, to be religiously preserved as a relic of the past, and reverenced as the burial-place of a bygone breed of giants. It is a living organism, cease

« AnteriorContinuar »