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characters, are as fresh as the fields of his triumphs. His Harvey Birch, Leather Stocking, Long Tom Coffin, and other heroes, rise before the mind each in his clearly defined and peculiar lineaments as striking original creations, as actual coherent beings. His infinitely varied descriptions of the ocean ; his ships, gliding like beings of the air upon its surface ; his vast, solitary wildernesses; and indeed all his delineations of nature, are instinct with the breath of poetry. He is both the Horace Vernet and the Claude Lorraine of novelists. And through all his works are sentiments of genuine courtesy and honour, and an unobtrusive and therefore more powerful assertion of natural rights and dignity. I shall not pretend to say how far a good plot is essential to a good novel. Doubtless in a tale, as in a play, the interest, with the vulgar, is dependent in a large degree upon the plot; but the quality of interesting is of secondary importance in both cases. It must be confessed that Mr. Cooper's plots are sometimes of a common-place sort, that they are not always skilfully wrought, and that he has faults of style, and argument, and conclusion. But he is natural, he is original, he is American, and he has contributed more than any of his contemporaries to the formation of a really national literature.
The novels of Miss Sedgwick, attempered always by a cheerful philosophy, with portraits drawn with singular fidelity from life, and incidents so natural that the New Englander can scarcely doubt that they are portions of his village's history, are not less American than Mr. Paulding's. They are in many respects very different, but the difference is geographical.
The most voluminous of our novelists, next to Mr. Cooper, is Mr. Simms, and he has many attributes in common with that author. His descriptions are bold and graphic; and his characters have considerable individuality. He is most successful in sketches of rude border life, in bustling, tumultuous action. West, the greatest composer of modern times, seemed content with the demonstration in a few pictures that he was equal even to Corregio as a colourist and anatomist; he gave in too many cases his last touch to works which should have occupied a full decade, in a single year. So Mr. Simms, who is a poet, and has shown himself a master of the intricacies of rhetoric, throws off a volume while he should be engaged on a chapter. Though occasionally correct, animated and powerful, his style is too frequently abrupt, careless, and harsh. The scenes of Mr. Simms are generally in the Southern States, and the society and manners described are very unlike those of the North. One of the most marked of his peculiarities is a sectional feeling which he betrays on almost every occasion. His “true gentlemen,” such as they are, are of the country south of Washington; his clowns are direct from Long Island or Connecticut. The aim of a literary class should be to civilize mankind, to soften asperities, to abolish prejudices, to extend the dominion of gentleness. Mr. Simms appears to have thought differently. But with all their faults, of invention, manner and spirit, his works have some striking merits which entitle them to a higher consideration than they have received.
Mr. Hoffman has an eye for natural scenery. By this I do not mean simply a capacity of enjoying it, but a clear perception of its features and a cordial estimate of its peculiarities. With most persons woodland, stream and cloud leave but vague impressions, and in attempting to convey an idea of any prospect or range of country, either with the pen or in conversation, they find their memories or descriptive powers quite inadequate to the task. Mr. Hoffman is admirably organized for the appreciation both of scenery and character. There is a vivacity and actuality in his pictures of rural scenes, which has scarcely been equalled in this country. The heroes and heroines of his fictions have both freshness and individuality, and this is enough to render them not only attractive but natural.
The name of the author of Horse Shoe Robinson, Swallow Barn, Rob of the Bowl, and Quodlibet, is rarely heard by the lovers of good literature without a feeling of regret that politics should have allured from letters one whose genius and accomplishments fit him so well to shine in that field where are won the most enduring as well as the noblest reputations. Mr. Kennedy is more than any other of his contemporaries like Washington Irving. He has much of his graceful expression, quiet humour and cheerful philosophy, with more than he of the constructive faculty. His works abound in the best qualities which should distinguish our American romantic literature, and prove that the will only is necessary for him to secure a place among the great authors of our language.
Calavar and The Infidel were the first novels of Dr. Bird, and there are few American readers who need to be informed of their character or desert; though as their accomplished author has been so long in retirement, the inference is reasonable that their reception was equal neither to their merits nor his expectations. Dr. Bird has great dramatic power, and has shown in several instances considerable ability in the portraiture of character. His historical romances are deserving of that title. His scenes and events from actual life are presented with graphic force and an unusual fidelity. He had the rare merit of understanding his subjects as perfectly as it was possible to do so by the most persevering and intelligent study of all accessible authorities; and in the works I have mentioned has written in an elevated and effective style. In
Calavar, Robin Day, Nick of the Woods, The Hawks of Hawk Hollow, Peter Pilgrim, and Sheppard Lee, he has exhibited a manner as various as his genius, and shown that there is hardly a school of fiction in which he cannot excel.
There are very few works of their sort in the literature of any country comparable to the Zenobia, Probus, and Julian, of William Ware. Mrs. Child's beautiful story of Philothea, in which she has so happily depicted Athenian society in the age of Pericles, is the only American romance of a kind in any degree similar. Mr. Ware's characters are finely discriminated and skilfully executed; and his narratives have a just proportion and completeness. He writes like one perfectly at home amid the ancient grandeur and civilization of his scenes and eras, and in a style of Augustan elegance and purity.
Mr. Osborn's Sixty Years of the Life of Jeremy Levis and Confessions of a Poet are powerfully written and deeply interesting. The latter is more like Mr. Dana's Tom Thornton than any other American novel. It illustrates the metaphysics of passion, and in construction, and in all respects indeed, is superior to his first work, though both inculcate a questionable morality.
I shall have occasion elsewhere to refer to the works in this department by Mr. Allston, Mr. Irving, Mr. Longfellow, Mr. Hall, Mr. Thomas, Mr. Mathews and some other writers.
Since the days of Richardson, when novels were printed sometimes in five quartos and sometimes in ten octavos, their legitimate extent has been in England three duodecimo volumes. The Germans have gone back to the more ancient models, such as were furnished by Boccacio and the authors of the Gesta Romanorum, and many things in our own country have tended to increase the popularity of the tale. Partly in consequence of the demand, perhaps, our productions of this sort have been exceedingly numerous, and without the imprimatur of any foreign publisher they have been read. It has sometimes been amusing, however, to observe the servility of habit and opinion manifested in regard to such of them as have been attributed to foreign writers. In many instances the contents of our magazines, received in silence or with faint praise on their first appearance here, have been copied by British publishers, returned as by British authors, and then sent with extravagant commendations through half the gazettes of the Union.
Admitting, very readily, that it requires more application—more time and toil—to produce a three volume novel, it must not be supposed that the production of the tale is a very easy business. On the contrary, there is scarcely any thing more difficult, or demanding the exercise of finer genius, in the whole domain of prose composition.
Washington Irving is a name of which the country is very reasonably proud. His rich humour, fine sentiment, delicate perception of the beautiful, and taste, are apparent in almost every thing he has written. He has given us but little of a tender or romantic kind indeed, and less perhaps to show the possession of the inventive faculty. The Wife, The Broken Heart, the Widow and her Son, and the Pride of the Village, prove however that he could summon tears from their fountains as easily as he has wakened smiles. I speak of him thus briefly here, because it is not as a writer of such works as are now under observation that he is chiefly distinguished.
Next to Irving, and perhaps before him in point of time, was Richard H. Dana. His stories published originally in The Idle Man, are among the most remarkable works of their class in modern literature. Paul Felton is a history of wild passion, in which the characters are portrayed with a master's skill, and there runs through it a strain of lofty and vigorous thought, and a knowledge of human life, which place it in the very first rank of ethical fictions. Edward and Mary, and the Son, are of a more pleasing and touching nature, and are scarcely less deserving of praise.
Nathaniel Hawthorne has published some half a dozen volumes of tales and romantic essays, various in their character, but all marked with his peculiar and happy genius. He is “most musical, most melancholy.” He controls his reader as the capricious air does the harp. The handkerchief, raised toward the eye to wipe away the blinding moisture there, is checked at the lips, to suppress a smile, summoned by some touch of delicate and felicitous humour. He has the most unaffected simplicity and sincerity, with the deepest insight into man's nature and the secrets of his action. His style is remarkable for elegance, clearness, and ease, while it is imaginative and metaphysical; and his themes, chosen most frequently from the legends of our colonial age, though occasionally from those of a later period, or from the realm of allegory, are not more national than almost every thing in his fanciful illustrations and quaint and beautiful philosophy. His Twice Told Tales and Mosses from an Old Manse are the perfection of pensive, graceful, humorous writing, quite equal to the finest things of Diedrich Knickerbocker or Geoffrey Crayon, and superior to all else of a similar description in the English language.
The characteristics of Mr. Willis are very striking, and his tales are probably not inferior to any of their kind. His style is felicitous, his fancy warm and exuberant, and he has a ready and sparkling wit. No author has described contemporary society with more vivacity, and in some of its phases perhaps no one has delineated it with more fidelity.
The tales of Mr. Poe are peculiar and impressive. He has a great deal of imagination and fancy, and his mind is in the highest degree analytical. He is deficient in humour, but humour is a quality of a different sort of minds, and its absence were to him slight disadvantage, but for his occasional forgetfulness that he does not possess it. The reader of Mr. Poe's tales is compelled almost at the outset to surrender his mind to his author's control. Unlike that of the greater number of suggestive authors his narrative is most minute, and unlike most who attend so carefully to detail he has nothing superfluousnothing which does not tend to the production of the desired result. His stories seem to be written currente calamo, but if examined will be found to be results of consummate art. No mosaics were ever piled with greater deliberation. In no painting was ever conception developed with more boldness and apparent freedom. Mr. Poe resembles Brockden Brown in his intimacy with mental pathology, but surpasses that author in delineation. No one ever delighted more or was more successful in oppressing the brain with anxiety or startling it with images of horror. George Walker, Anne Radcliffe, or Maria Roche, could alarm with dire chimeras, could lead their characters into difficulties and perils, but they extricated them so clumsily as to destroy every impression of reality. Mr. Poe's scenes all seem to be actual. Taking into view the chief fact, and the characteristics of the dramatis persona, we cannot understand how any of the subordinate incidents in his tales could have failed to happen.
Mrs. Elizabeth Okes Smith is a woman of a most original and poetical mind, who has succeeded, perhaps better than any other person, in appreciating and developing the fitness of aboriginal tradition and mythology for the purposes of romantic fiction.
The tales of Mr. Bryant, Mr. Leggett, Mr. Hoffman, Mr. Simms, Mrs. Child, Mrs. Kirkland, and several others, will be remembered as possessing various and peculiar merits.
I come now to the consideration of the Humorous, the Comic, and the Satirical. It has been so frequently asserted by men of little observation that these qualities are almost or utterly unknown among us, that I should feel some hesitation in speaking of them were the proofs of their existence here less abundant and satisfactory. It is true that we have no Lucian, no Rabelais, no Molière; but the gay, the witty, and the facetious, have nevertheless borne a