American Literature in Exile by William Dean
A recently lecturing Englishman is reported to have noted the unenviable
primacy of the United States among countries where the struggle for
material prosperity has been disastrous to the pursuit of literature.
He said, or is said to have said (one cannot be too careful in
attributing to a public man the thoughts that may be really due to an
imaginative frame in the reporter), that among us, "the old race of
writers of distinction, such as Longfellow, Bryant, Holmes, and
Washington Irving, have (sic) died out, and the Americans who are most
prominent in cultivated European opinion in art or literature, like
Sargent, Henry James, or Marion Crawford, live habitually out of America,
and draw their inspiration from England, France, and Italy."
If this were true, I confess that I am so indifferent to what many
Americans glory in that it would not distress me, or wound me in the sort
of self-love which calls itself patriotism. If it would at all help to
put an end to that struggle for material prosperity which has eventuated
with us in so many millionaires and so many tramps, I should be glad to
believe that it was driving our literary men out of the country. This
would be a tremendous object-lesson, and might be a warning to the
millionaires and the tramps. But I am afraid it would not have this
effect, for neither our very rich nor our very poor care at all for the
state of polite learning among us; though for the matter of that, I
believe that economic conditions have little to do with it; and that if a
general mediocrity of fortune prevailed and there were no haste to be
rich and to get poor, the state of polite learning would not be
considerably affected. As matters stand, I think we may reasonably ask
whether the Americans "most prominent in cultivated European opinion,"
the Americans who "live habitually out of America," are not less exiles
than advance agents of the expansion now advertising itself to the world.
They may be the vanguard of the great army of adventurers destined to
overrun the earth from these shores, and exploit all foreign countries to
our advantage. They probably themselves do not know it, but in the act
of "drawing their inspiration" from alien scenes, or taking their own
where they find it, are not they simply transporting to Europe "the
struggle for material prosperity," which Sir Lepel supposes to be fatal
to them here?
There is a question, however, which comes before this, and that is the
question whether they have quitted us in such numbers as justly to alarm
our patriotism. Qualitatively, in the authors named and in the late Mr.
Bret Harte, Mr. Harry Harland, and the late Mr. Harold Frederic, as well
as in Mark Twain, once temporarily resident abroad, the defection is very
great; but quantitatively it is not such as to leave us without a fair
measure of home-keeping authorship. Our destitution is not nearly so
great now in the absence of Mr. James and Mr. Crawford as it was in the
times before the "struggle for material prosperity" when Washington
Irving went and lived in England and on the European continent well-nigh
half his life.
Sir Lepel Griffin—or Sir Lepel Griffin's reporter—seems to forget the
fact of Irving's long absenteeism when he classes him with "the old race"
of eminent American authors who stayed at home. But really none of those
he names were so constant to our air as he seems—or his reporter seems
—to think. Longfellow sojourned three or four years in Germany, Spain,
and Italy; Holmes spent as great time in Paris; Bryant was a frequent
traveller, and each of them "drew his inspiration" now and then from
alien sources. Lowell was many years in Italy, Spain, and England;
Motley spent more than half his life abroad; Hawthorne was away from us
nearly a decade.
If I seem to be proving too much in one way, I do not feel that I am
proving too much in another. My facts go to show that the literary
spirit is the true world-citizen, and is at home everywhere. If any good
American were distressed by the absenteeism of our authors, I should
first advise him that American literature was not derived from the
folklore of the red Indians, but was, as I have said once before,
a condition of English literature, and was independent even of our
independence. Then I should entreat him to consider the case of foreign
authors who had found it more comfortable or more profitable to live out
of their respective countries than in them. I should allege for his
consolation the case of Byron, Shelley, and Leigh Hunt, and more latterly
that of the Brownings and Walter Savage Landor, who preferred an Italian
to an English sojourn; and yet more recently that of Mr. Rudyard Kipling,
who voluntarily lived several years in Vermont, and has "drawn his
inspiration" in notable instances from the life of these States. It will
serve him also to consider that the two greatest Norwegian authors,
Bjornsen and Ibsen, have both lived long in France and Italy. Heinrich
Heine loved to live in Paris much better than in Dusseldorf, or even in
Hamburg; and Tourguenief himself, who said that any man's country could
get on without him, but no man could get on without his country, managed
to dispense with his own in the French capital, and died there after he
was quite free to go back to St. Petersburg. In the last century Rousseau
lived in France rather than Switzerland; Voltaire at least tried to live
in Prussia, and was obliged to a long exile elsewhere; Goldoni left fame
and friends in Venice for the favor of princes in Paris.
Literary absenteeism, it seems to me, is not peculiarly an American vice
or an American virtue. It is an expression and a proof of the modern
sense which enlarges one's country to the bounds of civilization.
I cannot think it justly a reproach in the eyes of the world, and if any
American feels it a grievance, I suggest that he do what he can to have
embodied in the platform of his party a plank affirming the right of
American authors to a public provision that will enable them to live as
agreeably at home as they can abroad on the same money. In the mean
time, their absenteeism is not a consequence of "the struggle for
material prosperity," not a high disdain of the strife which goes on not
less in Europe than in America, and must, of course, go on everywhere as
long as competitive conditions endure, but is the result of chances and
preferences which mean nothing nationally calamitous or discreditable.