Page images




A SERIES of Hand-books intended to give a concise account of modern literature, must be incomplete without some brief review of books published in the United States. Many of the lighter productions of American writers have been lately reprinted, and rather widely circulated, in England; but we have no fair, general view of a literature, comparatively fertile when we consider its short time of cultivation, and already including such names as Edwards, Franklin, Hamilton, Irving, Bryant, Channing, Sparks, Bancroft, Prescott, and Ticknor. In the present manual, an attempt has been made to describe faithfully the various features of American Literature. In justice to many able writers, whose works could not be adequately noticed in a review designed for the use of the general reader, it must be observed, that the American Library is comparatively rich in its special departments, including works on the several sciences, and on law, politics, and divinity.

Among the writings found serviceable in the preparation of this manual, we must name a series of notices of American authors inserted in a reprint of the History of English Literature (Chambers's Educational Course); also, the biographical and critical notices accompanying Mr Griswold's selections from poets and prosewriters. In several instances, critical opinions have been borrowed -of course, with acknowledgment—from the North American Review


The present volume belongs to a series of Hand-books of Literature, and contains a brief review of American contributions to history, biography, poetry, prose-fiction, and other departments, during the period 1640–1854. American literature belongs almost entirely to our own times.

Several works possessing, at least, an historical interest were produced during the colonial period, and about the time of the Revolution-and these, with the early records and biographies of the States of New England, have seemed worthy of notice in our review; but the writings of the eighteenth century were mostly theological and political, and few books of the class commonly included in reviews of general literature were produced before the year 1820.

The North American Review (commenced in 1815) complained, during its early years, that it could scarcely find American books to be noticed. After the lapse of about twenty-five years, the same Review found a difficulty in keeping pace with the productiveness of the press. During this time, the departments of history and biography had been enriched by the writings of Prescott, Sparks, Bancroft, Wheaton, and other authors; Irving, Cooper, Ware, Kennedy, and many other writers, had appeared in the field of prose-fiction ; poetry had been represented by Bryant, Sprague, Halleck, and Longfellow; in mathematics, Dr Bowditch had produced his commentary on the Mécanique Céleste; the works of Audubon, Silliman, Bigelow, Morton, and other special authors, had extended the literature of science ; Webster, Duponceau, and Pickering, had published the results of their studies in philology; theology and Biblical criticism had been cultivated by Channing, Norton, Stuart, Robinson, and others too numerous to be mentioned here; while a very large proportion of educational works had made America, in this department, almost independent of the old country.

America, however, has few professional authors, excepting editors of newspapers. The best writers have wisely avoided dependence

on booksellers, and have been engaged in commercial pursuits. Their poems, essays, and reviews, have been written as recreations, after the cares of banking and bookkeeping. * Authorship,' says a reviewer, is the least lucrative profession in the United States. Every prudent man avoids it as he does a pestilence. A writer who attempts to live on the manufactures of his imagination, is continually coquetting with starvation.' That this should be the case to a greater extent in America than in England, is mainly owing to the want of international copyright law between the two countries. It is an unavoidable difficulty that American authors must write under the shade of the greatest names in English literature; but in the present system, they must also be discouraged by a competition altogether unfair. The stripling, if we may so speak, has to carry weight in his contest with a giant. In plainer words, the American author, or his publisher, must demand dollars as the price of a new book, while the best English works on the same topic may be offered at the cost of a few cents, because they have been seized and reprinted, without any payment made either to the writer or the original publisher. The injury thus inflicted on British authors, and other proprietors of copyrights, is indeed serious, yet can hardly be compared with its moral consequences on the other side of the Atlantic. It is a melancholy fact, that so many thousands of persons are found, after repeated remonstrance, willing to derive profit, instruction, and entertainment from the labour, enterprise, and commercial risk of neighbours to whom they will yield no remuneration. It is sad that a law as old as the world itself should be evaded or laughed at, simply because an expanse of water lies between the debtor and his creditor, and the latter, unhappily, has no power to enforce his claims. These remarks fairly represent the views of at least a majority of the best writers in the United States. With reference to the fatal labours of Sir Walter Scott-whose works have afforded delight to many thousands of American readersa reviewer has well expressed the sentiments of many of his more generous countrymen. The passage may be quoted, as a proof that the strongest and most earnest arguments have been urged in the States, as on this side of the water, in opposition to the system commonly styled piracy.

“We have no notion of human nature of just and generous human nature, at least, which we hold the American to be-if the

1 E. P. Whipple, one of the writers in The North American Review.

« PreviousContinue »