3. Dred; A Tale Of the Great Dismal Swamp. By Harriet Beecher Stowe. In two volumes. Boston: Phillips, Sampson and Company. 1856.
We do not regret the delay which attaches to a present notice of this now widely circulated work. It gives us a peculiar advantage
to record our conviction of its merits, at a time when the excitement attending the issue of a second book by the author of
Uncle Tom's Cabin, has measurably subsided. We feel sure that had a majority of the critics, whose judgments were hastily
thrown off, reserved the expression of their opinions as we have done, the general criticism of "Dred" would have been materially
different from what it now is—let us add, that it would have been far more creditable to the tastes and reputation of reviewers.
We know of nothing quite so unprecedented,
quite so emphatically in defiance of common sense, as the great proportion of the periodical notices of "Dred." The fundamental rule of criticism appears to have been, that unless Mrs. Stowe was sure to produce a second book equal to "Uncle Tom's Cabin," she would be decidedly injudicious in again appearing before the public as an author! And much of the criticism, when put in logical form, runs thus, "Dred is not equal to Uncle Tom's Cabin, therefore Dred should not have been published." Sagacious criticism, truly. What a misfortune that Shakspeare and Scott could not have enjoyed the benefits of such profound suggestion. In that case, we should not have been annoyed with the several tragedies that do not quite come up to Hamlet and Macbeth; and our libraries would not have been burthened with the large proportion of the Waverly novels that do not rival Ivanhoe and the Heart of Mid Lothian! And would it not be wise to collect all the works of all meritorious authors, and selecting for preservation the best work of each, commit the rest to the flames? Sincerely, we know of nothing in the history of literature that makes any approach to the absurd test of merit which has been applied to Mrs. Stowe's second novel. An old critic says of one of the plays of Shakspeare, that though poor for him, it was a great deal better than any thing any other author could produce. Our critics, whose test of merit we have under consideration, would have done well to ask, not whether Dred equalled Uncle Tom's Cabin, but whether any writer except Mrs. Stowe could have equalled Dred. Or, better than this, they might have asked whether Dred had intrinsic merit, merit enough to commend it to the favorable regard of the public, irrespective of what came before it.
The important truth simply is, that every genius is peculiar; in every person it has an
individuality; and this individuality must appear in every effort. True, the distinctive quality of genius will not express
itself with equal intensity in every intellectual exertion. Even Homer sometimes nods. But in every instance, genius must
express itself; and whether it acts with vigor, or proves comparatively languid, it never can express any other thing than
itself. That Mrs. Stowe is endowed with a genius of a very rare order, will not, we presume, be denied. She has inaugurated
a new era in fictitious writing. She is the originator of an anti-slavery literature; and she has no rival. She has consecrated
her extraordinary gifts to the lifting up of a despised and most cruelly injured race. She has moved the sympathy of the
civilized world in behalf of the down-trodden negro. We shall not see her as an author too often, And so far from joining
in the senseless cry that Dred is not equal to Uncle Tom's Cabin, and therefore unworthy of her, we
should rather say that it would be a sacrilegious waste of extraordinary faculties to withhold her pen, from the unworthy fear that she might not sustain her literary reputation.
Thus much we have said on the supposition that Dred is, in fact, what most reviewers assert, inferior to its great predecessor. We do not, however, admit the justice of the supposition. The two works are different,—each has a merit of its own. In dramatic effect, Dred makes no approach to Uncle Tom's Cabin. It does not, on so large a scale, deal in the language of passion. It does not, in an equal degree, work on the reader's sympathies; nor does it so often move our indignation by pictures of cruelty and brutality. As a whole, it is of a more quiet and simpler cast; and its effect is in the aggregate of argument, rather than in startling points. Tom Gordon is not such a monster as Legree; yet in his whole conduct he moves our disgust hardly less. There is no one scene so harrowing to our sensibilities as the murder of Uncle Tom; but the brutalizing effects of the institution, alike on the master and the slave, are made vivid and convincing by the artistic unity which characterizes the grouping of the various incidents and features of the plot. The biased reader may protest that Uncle Tom's Cabin is not true; but there is no possible occasion to justify a similar allegation against Dred. There are not so many marked characters portrayed in the second work; but nothing is wanting to complete those that are presented. The portrait of the selfish, self-righteous, whimpering Aunt Nesbit, is a copy of what is often seen in real life. And no pen can add a desirable trait to the honest, trusty, self-forgetting, considerate, and truly pious Uncle Tiff. Clayton, Nina, Uncle John, Harry, Father Dickson, have each a place in the picture gallery of memory, from which they will not soon be displaced. We have but to express the hope that as the subject accumulates fresh horrors, our gifted author will be seasonably prompt to make other contributions to our national literature, in calling further attention to the claims of a people whose wrongs cry to heaven for vengeance. E.