From Chapter 20

Kavanagh, A Tale, By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Boston: Ticknor, Reed and Fields, 1849)

  One evening, as he was sitting down to begin for at least the hundredth time the great Romance,--subject of so many resolves and so much remorse, so often determined upon but never begun,--a loud knock at the street-door, which stood wide open, announced a visitor. Unluckily, the study-door was likewise open; and consequently, being in full view, he found it impossible to refuse himself; nor, in fact, would he have done so, had all the doors been shut and bolted,--the art of refusing one's self being at that time but imperfectly understood in Fairmeadow. Accordingly, the visitor was shown in.

  He announced himself as Mr. Hathaway. Passing through the village, he could not deny himself the pleasure of calling on Mr. Churchill, whom he knew by his writings in the periodicals, though not personally. He wished, moreoever, to secure the cooperation of one already so favora-

[ Page 113]

bly known to the literary world, in a new Magazine he was about to establish, in order to raise the character of American literature, which, in his opinion, the existing reviews and magazines had entirely failed to accomplish. A daily increasing want of something better was felt by the public; and the time had come for the establishment of such a periodical as he proposed. After explaining in rather a florid and exuberant manner his plan and prospects, he entered more at large into the subject of American literature, which it was his design to foster and patronize.

  "I think, Mr. Churchill," said he, "that we want a national literature commensurate with our mountains and rivers,--commensurate with Niagara, and the Alleghanies, and the Great Lakes!"

  "Oh!"

  "We want a national epic that shall correspond to the size of the country; that shall be to all other epics what Banvard's Panorama of the Mississippi is to all other paintings,--the largest in the world!"

  "Ah!"

  "We want a national drama in which the scope enough shall be given to our gigantic ideas, and

[ Page 114]

to the unparalleled activity and progress of our people!"

  "Of course."

  "In a word, we want a national literature altogether shaggy and unshorn, that shall shake the earth, like a herd of buffaloes thundering over the prairies!"

  "Precisely," interrupted Mr. Churchill; "but excuse me!--are you not confounding things that have no analogy? Great has a very different meaning when applied to a river, and when applied to a literature. Large and shallow may perhaps be applied to both. Literature is rather an image of the spiritual world, than of the physical, is it not?--of the internal, rather than the external. Mountains, lakes, and rivers are, after all, only its scenery and decorations, not its substance and essence. A man will not necessarily be a great poet because he lives near a great mountain. Nor, being a poet, will he necessarily write better poems than another, because he lives nearer Niagara."

  "But, Mr. Churchill, you do not certainly mean to deny the influence of scenery on the mind?"

  "No, only to deny that it can create genius.

[ Page 115]

At best, it can only develop it. Switzerland has produced no extraordinary poet; nor, as far as I know, have the Andes, or the Himalaya mountains, or the Mountains of the Moon in Africa."

  "But, at all events," urged Mr. Hathaway, "let us have our literature national. If it is not national, it is nothing."

  "On the contrary, it may be a great deal. Nationality is a good thing to a certain extent, but universality is better. All that is best in the great poets of all countries is not what is national in them, but what is universal. Their roots are in their native soil; but their branches wave in the unpatriotic air, that speaks the same language unto all men, and their leaves shine with the illimitable light that pervades all lands. Let us throw all the windows open; let us admit the light and air on all sides; that we may look towards the four corners of the heavens, and not always in the same direction."

  "But you admit nationality to be a good thing?"

  "Yes, if not carried too far; still, I confess, it rather limits one's views of truth. I prefer what is natural. Mere nationality is often ridiculous. Every one smiles when he hears the Icelandic

[ Page 116]

proverb, 'Iceland is the best land the sun shines upon.' Let us be natural, and we shall be national enough. Besides, our literature can be strictly national only so far as our character and modes of thought differ from those of other nations. Now, as we are very like the English,--are, in fact, English under a different sky,--I do not see how our literature can be very different from theirs. Westward from hand to hand we pass the lighted torch, but it was lighted at the old domestic fireside of England."

  "Then you think our literature is never to be any thing but an imitation of the English?"

  "Not at all. It is not an imitation, but, as some one has said, a continuation."

  "It seems to me that you take a very narrow view of the subject."

  "On the contrary, a very broad one. No literature is complete until the language in which it is written is dead. We may well be proud of our task and of our position. Let us see if we can build in any way worthy of our forefathers."

  "But I insist upon originality."

  "Yes; but without spasms and convulsions. Authors must not, like Chinese soldiers, expect to win victories by turning somersets in the air."


[ Page 117]

  "Well, really, the prospect from your point of view is not very brilliant. Pray, what do you think of our national literature?"

  "Simply, that a national literature is not the growth of a day. Centuries must contribute their dew and sunshine to it. Our own is growing slowly but surely, striking its roots downward, and its branches upward, as is natural; and I do not wish, for the sake of what some people call originality, to invert it, and try to make it grow with its roots in the air. And as far as having it so savage and wild as you want it, I have only to say, that all literature, as well as all art, is the result of culture and intellectual refinement."

  "Ah! we do not want art and refinement; we want genius,--untutored, wild, original, free."

  "But, if this genius is to find any expression, it must employ art; for art is the external expression of our thoughts. Many have genius, but, wanting art, are for ever dumb. The two must go together to form the great poet, painter, or sculptor."

  "In that sense, very well."

  "I was about to say also that I thought our literature would finally not be wanting in a kind of universality.


[ Page 118]

  "As the blood of all nations is mingling with our own, so will their thoughts and feelings finally mingle in our literature. We shall draw from the Germans tenderness; from the Spaniards, passion; from the French, vivacity, to mingle more and more with our English solid sense. And this will give us universality, so much to be desired."

  "If that is your way of thinking," interrupted the visitor, "you will like the work I am now engaged upon."

  "What is it?"

  "A great national drama, the scene of which is laid in New Mexico. It is entitled Don Serafin, or the Marquis of the Seven Churches. The principle characters are Don Serafin, an old Spanish hidalgo; his daughter Deseadal and Fra Serapion, the Curate. The play opens with Fra Serapion at breakfast; on the table a game-cock, tied by the leg, sharing his master's meal. Then follows a scene at the cock-pit, where the Marquis stakes the remnant of his fortune--his herds and hacienda--on a favorite cock, and loses."

  "But what do you know about cock-fighting?"

[ Page 119]

demanded, rather than asked, the astonished and half-laughing school-master.

  "I am not very well informed on that subject, and I was going to ask you if you could not recommend some work."

  "The only work I am acquainted with," replied Mr. Churchill, "is the Reverend Mr. Pegge's Essay on Cock-fighting among the Ancients; and I hardly see how you could apply that to the Mexicans."

  "Why, they are a kind of ancients, you know. I certainly will hunt up the essay you mention, and see what I can do with it."

  "And all I know about the matter itself," continued Mr. Churchill, "is that Mark Antony was a patron of the pit, and that his cocks were always beaten by Caesar's; and that, when Themistocles the Athenian general was marching against the Persians, he halted his army to see a cock-fight, and made a speech to his soldiery, to the effect, that those animals fought not for the gods of their country, nor for the monuments of their ancestors, nor for glory, nor for freedom, nor for their children, but only for the sake of victory. On his return to Athens,

[ Page 120]

he established cock-fights in that capital. But how this is to help you in Mexico I do not see, unless you introduce Santa Anna, and compare him to Caesar and Themistocles."

  "That is it; I will do so. It will give historic interest to the play. I thank you for the suggestion."

  "The subject is certainly very original; but it does not strike me as particularly national."

  "Prospective, you see!" said Mr. Hathaway, with a penetrating look.

  "Ah, yes; I perceive you fish with a heavy sinker,--down, far down in the future,--among posterity, as it were."

  "You have seized the idea. Besides, I obviate your objection, by introducing an American circus company from the United States, which enables me to bring horses on the stage and produce great scenic effect."

  "That is a bold design. The critics will be out upon you without fail."

  "Never fear that. I know the critics root and branch,--out and out,--have summered them and wintered them,--in fact, am one of them myself. Very good fellows are the critics; are they not?"


[ Page 121]

  "O, yes; only they have such a pleasant way of talking down upon authors."

  "If they did not talk down upon them, they would show no superiority; and, of course, that would never do."

  "Nor is it to be wondered at, that authors are sometimes a little irritable. I often recall the poet in the Spanish fable, whose manuscripts were devoured by mice, till at length he put some corrosive sublimate into his ink, and was never troubled again."

  "Why don't you try it yourself?" said Mr. Hathaway, rather sharply.

  "O," answered Mr. Churchill, with a smile of humility, "I and my writings are too insignificant. They may gnaw and welcome. I do not like to have poison about, even for such purposes."

  "By the way, Mr. Churchill," said the visitor, adroitly changing the subject, "do you know Honeywell?"

  "No, I do not. Who is he?"

  "Honeywell the poet, I mean."

  "No, I never even heard of him. There are so many poets now-a-days!"

  "That is very strange indeed! Why, I con-

[ Page 122]

sider Honeywell one of the finest writers in the country,--quite in the front rank of American authors. He is a real poet, and no mistake. Nature made him with her shirt-sleeves rolled up."

  "What has he published?"

  "He has not published any thing yet, except in the newspapers. But, this Autumn, he is going to bring out a volume of poems. I could not help having my joke with him about it. I told him he had better print it on cartridge-paper."

  "Why so?"

  "Why, to make it go off better; don't you understand?"

  "O yes; now that you explain it. Very good."

  "Honeywell is going to write for the Magazine; he is to furnish a poem for every number; and as he succeeds equally well in the plaintive and didactic style of Wordsworth, and the more vehement and impassioned style of Byron, I think we shall do very well."

  "And what do you mean to call the new Magazine?" inquired Mr. Churchill.

  "We think of calling it The Niagara."


[ Page 123]

  "Why, that is the name of our fire-engine! Why not call it The Extinguisher?"

  "That is also a good name; but I prefer The Niagara, as more national. And I hope, Mr. Churchill, you will let us count upon you. We should like to have an article from your pen for every number."

  "Do you mean to pay your contributors?"

  "Not the first year, I am sorry to say. But after that, if the work succeeds, we shall pay handsomely. And, of course, it will succeed, for we mean it shall; and we never say fail. There is no such word in our dictionary. Before the year is out, we mean to print fifty thousand copies; and fifty thousand copies will give us, at least one hundred and fifty thousand readers; and, with such an audience, any author might be satisfied."

  He had touched at length the right strings in Mr. Churchill's bosom; and they vibrated to the touch with pleasant harmonies. Literary vanity!--literary ambition! The editor perceived it; and so cunningly did he play upon these chords, that, before he had departed, Mr. Churchill had promised to write for him a series of papers on Obscure Martyrs,--a kind of

[ Page 124]

tragic history of the unrecorded and life-long sufferings of women, which hitherto had found no historian, save now and then a novelist.

  Notwithstanding the certainty of success,--notwithstanding the fifty thousand subscribers and the one hundred and fifty thousand readers,--the Magazine never went into operation. Still the dream was enough to occupy Mr. Churchill's thoughts, and to withdraw them entirely from his Romance for many weeks together.