The Nation
[John William DeForest]
New York: 9 January 1868


  . . . We may be confident that the Great American Poem will not be written, no matter what genius attempts it, until democracy, the idea of our day and nation and race, has agonized and conquered through centuries, and made its work secure.

  But the Great American Novel—the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence—the American "Newcomes" or "Miserables" will, we suppose, be possible earlier. "Is it time?" the benighted people in the earthen jars or commonplace life are asking. And with no intention of being disagreeable, but rather with sympathetic sorrow, we answer, "Wait." At least we fear that such ought to be our answer. This task of painting the American soul within the framework of a novel has seldom been attempted, and has never been accomplished further than very partially—in the production of a few outlines. Washington Irving was too cautious to make the trial; he went back to fictions of Knickerbockers and Rip Van Winkles and Ichabod Cranes; these he did well, and we may thank him for not attempting more and failing in the attempt. With the same consciousness of incapacity Cooper shirked the experiment; he devoted himself to Indians, of whom he knew next to nothing, and to backwoodsmen and sailors, whom he idealized; or where he attempted civilized groups, he produced something less natural than the wax figures of Barnum's old museum. If all Americans were like the heroes and heroines of Cooper, Carlyle might well enough call us "eighteen millions of bores." As for a tableau of American society, as for anything resembling the tableaux of English society by Thackeray and Trollope, or the tableaux of French society by Balzac and George Sand, we had better not trouble ourselves with looking for it in Cooper.

  There come to us from the deserts of the past certain voices which "syllable men's names"—names that seem to sound like "Paulding," "Brown," "Kennedy"—and we catch nothing further. These are ghosts, and they wrote about ghosts, and the ghosts have vanished utterly. Another of these shadowy mediums, still living, if we are not misinformed, is W. Gilmore Simms, of whom the best and worst thing to be said is this—that he is nearly as good as Cooper, and deserves fame nearly as much.


  Thus do we arrive, without frequent stoppage, at our own times. Hawthorne, the greatest of American imaginations, staggered under the load of the American novel. In "The Scarlet Letter," "The House of the Seven Gables," and "The Blithedale Romance" we have three delightful romances, full of acute spiritual analysis, of the light of other worlds, but also characterized by only a vague consciousness of this life, and by graspings that catch little but the subjective of humanity. Such personages that Hawthorne creates belong to the wide realm of art rather than to our nationality. They are as probably natives of the furthest mountains of Cathay or of the moon as of the United States of America. They are what Yankees might come to be who should shut themselves up for life to meditate in old manses. They have no sympathy with this eager and laborious people, which takes so many newspapers, builds so many railroads, does the most business on a given capital, wages the biggest war in proportion to its population, believes in the physically impossible and does some of it. Hawthorne's characters cannot talk? Certainly not in the style of this western world; rather in the language of men who never expressed themselves but on paper, and on paper in dreams. There is a curious lack of natural dialogue in Hawthorne's books, and with this, of course, a lack of almost all other signs of the dramatic faculty. Besides, his company is so limited. New Englanders they profess to be: to be sure, they are of the queerest; men and women of the oddest, shyest, most recluse nature, and often creatures purely ideal; but they never profess to be other than New Englanders. The profoundest reverence for this great man need prevent no one from saying that he has not written "the Great American Novel."

  The nearest approach to the desired phenomenon is "Uncle Tom's Cabin." There were very noticeable faults in that story; there was a very faulty plot; there was (if idealism be a fault) a black man painted whiter than the angels, and a girl such as girls are to be, perhaps, but are not yet; there was a little village twaddle. But there was also a national breadth to the picture, truthful outlining of character, natural speaking, and plenty of strong feeling. Though comeliness of form was lacking, the material of the work was in many respects admirable. Such Northerners as Mrs. Stowe painted we have seen; and we have seen such Southerners, no matter what the people south of Mason and Dixon's line may protest; we have seen such negroes, barring, of course, the impeccable Uncle Tom—uncle of no extant nephews, so far as we know. It was a picture of American life, drawn with a few strong and passionate strokes, not filled in thoroughly, but still a portrait. It seemed, then, when that book was published, easy to have more American novels. But in "Dred" it became clear that the soul which a throb of emotion had enabled to grasp this whole people was losing its hold on the vast subject which had no stirred us. Then, stricken with timidity, the author shrank into her native shell of New England. Only certain recluse spirits, who dwell between the Dan and Beersheba of Yankeedom, can care much for Doctor Hopkins as he goes through his exercises in "The Minister's Wooing," while the attempt to sketch Aaron Burr as a contrast to the clerical hero shows most conclusively happy ignorance of the style of heartless men of the world. "The Pearl of Orr's Island" is far better. It is an exquisite little story, a thoroughly finished bit of work, but how small! There, microscope in hand over the niceties of Orr's Island, we wait for another cameo of New England life. But what special interest have Southerners and Westerners and even New Yorkers in Yankee cameos?