The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

America Has Literature


Dear Unknown Friends:

The first American novel that impressed Europe was The Spy of 1821 by James Fenimore Cooper. This book is deeply ingenious; but one aspect of it has not been dealt with by the critics. Harvey Birch, who seems to spy both for the British and Americans, is an example of double personality that has taken an external form. Cooper himself was a mingling of naiveté and caution. He was gentle and irascible. Nevertheless, he had one of the greatest imaginations the world has seen.

It is important to relate a writer like James Fenimore Cooper to the young people in Henry James’s Turn of the Screw. Miles and Flora represent wickedness in a field of engaging innocence. Innocence and wickedness meet more deeply in the novels of Cooper than is recognized. There is a wicked Indian in Cooper’s novels, Magua; and a wicked Indian is like a wicked schoolboy. Chingachgook is an Indian who represents the virtue of the world.

A novelist earlier than Cooper is Charles Brockden Brown, the author of Wieland, which represents a double voice, or ventriloquism. Brown too was taken, as Dickens and Dostoevsky were, by the simultaneous existence of good and evil in every consciousness.

The problem that affected Mark Twain in The Mysterious Stranger and in The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg is a problem more keenly present in American literature than has been noted. The depth of Mark Twain’s feelings about evil helped to make him one of the saddest persons in America, as he lived in a house on Fifth Avenue.

1. America Searches for Evil

There is a relation between Charles Brockden Brown, 1771-1810, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne was born six years before Brown died, and it is likely that Hawthorne knew his work. However, a literature that has three great representatives of evil should be thought of as having depth and diversity.

The three writers I have in mind who have dealt with evil diversely and deeply are Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1804-1864; Edgar Allan Poe, 1809-1849; and Henry James, 1843-1916. Somehow, Hawthorne, Poe, and James seem a trio that for a while doesn’t have to include the person I mentioned earlier, Mark Twain. Kinship among Hawthorne, Poe, and James is deeper and stronger than Twain’s relation with the authors I have just mentioned.

Contemporary writers are as much interested in evil as in anything. Faulkner, in still perhaps his most read book, Sanctuary, is taken with evil in a manner different from the earlier authors I have described.

And here it is well to mention Horatio Alger, who made virtue and evil charming antitheses with virtue winning—the boy who steals is always unfortunate. However, with all of Alger’s naiveté, he can be said to have had a notion of evil which all persons interested in American thought should know about.

2. The Genial Writers

There are writers in America, as in all other countries, who have taken a genial, likable attitude to the world and the evil in it. However, there is no writer of much account who has not seen evil keenly. A writer a little older than James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving, is, with his Sketch Book and Bracebridge Hall, seen as a genial, hopeful, encouraging writer. Yet Washington Irving wrote one story, “The Stout Gentleman,” which is as deep as any story in America. The “stout gentleman” is portly, he seems at home in an inn; but he is never seen fully.

The sense of the partly seen is as great in this story of Washington Irving as anywhere. The world consists of the partly seen; and it may be said, furthermore, that we can’t be sure we have seen anything wholly. I regard this story of Washington Irving, “The Stout Gentleman,” which is to be found in a popular book of Irving, Bracebridge Hall, as honoring the unseen as well as St. Paul does in Corinthians.

There is something terrifying and welcome in Rip Van Winkle’s sleep of twenty years. The gauntness of Ichabod Crane in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and his flight from round objects—properly pumpkins—have in them the continuous fact that people are presumptuous and fearful at once. The terror of Ichabod Crane fleeing his pursuers is like the terror which all city dwellers and dwellers in rural places can have. The most complacent person in America has a fund of terror in him which the writing of the whole world is trying to keep up with.

The geniality of Washington Irving who, as I said, is a writer who honors terror also—this geniality was continued by later writers. I was taken years ago by the rather subtle calmness of a writer little known now, Donald Grant Mitchell, who used the pseudonym of Ike Marvel. Mitchell had a tendency to see the world as quiet and amiable; but as I remember it, his best known book, Reveries of a Bachelor, or a Book of the Heart, doesn’t miss some of the terror in reverie. Reverie is another word for dream, with a French tang. And the strangeness and some of the terror that dreams can make for are in this once popular book of Mitchell, published in 1850 when Mitchell was twenty-eight.

3. The Lovable in Our Literature

The lovable is on earth and can be found in a spring day and also in a profound cat or dog—and some cats and dogs are inescapably felt to be profound. The lovableness of dogs, with an impression of depth and power, is in the dog stories of Jack London. Buck also has the primitiveness of Long Tom Coffin in Cooper’s The Pilot. We can feel virtue in a forest seen for the first time. There is virtue in a cloud with the proper rotundity and ethereality.

The writings of Jonathan Edwards, 1703-1758, are clearly about evil, clearly about freedom, and clearly about the constant weakness of man. When one looks somewhat carefully at Edwards’s Original Sin and also at his work on Freedom of the Will, one meets the same evil that is in James’s Turn of the Screw, in Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher,” in Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil”; but it is evil now with its philosophic and religious and constant place in the world.

The world consists of what we know and what we have to think about when we're most terrified. The author that completes Edwards in the first half of the 18th century is Benjamin Franklin. In a choice between the moment and eternity, Edwards preferred eternity, with its terror and its failure to omit evil.

The evil that Franklin mostly saw was the evil that affected the average inhabitant of Philadelphia, Boston, and New York in their early days. Poor Richard’s Almanack is so different from Edwards’s Original Sin. It has seemed to some readers that the greatest sin Franklin saw was the squandering of one’s money—Franklin was interested in the possibilities of money adding to or taking from the life of man. Franklin is famous as the boy who, on his first day in Philadelphia, bought two large rolls and carried them through the streets. Occasionally, Franklin is oppressively sane. However, there was an awareness of this world that it would have been well for Edwards to have had too.

The war that Franklin knew about was the American Revolution, 1775-1783. He also felt deeply the defeat of Braddock in 1755 in what are called the French and Indian Wars of the 18th century. The two writers, however, whose emotions became great with war present are Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman. Lincoln was born in 1809, the same year as Charles Darwin and Edgar Allan Poe; Whitman was born ten years later, 1819. Some of the greatest music in literature is in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address and in some other speeches. The greatness of the poetic music in Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd” is present keenly, widely, personally.

4. Some Other Things

American literature is considered here with, I hope, thoughtful diversity. It is a literature that here and there is humorous, surprising, and profound. The Uncle Remus stories of Joel Chandler Harris are some of the most musical prose available in literature. There is occasional greatness in the rhythms of Artemus Ward. There is a grandeur in the early versions of “John Brown’s Body.”

And in the Civil War poem “We Are Coming, Father Abraham, Three Hundred Thousand More” by James Sloane Gibbons, there is also a grandeur which should be seen better. There is an occasional grandeur in many other aspects of American literature. With all the hard-workingness of Sinclair Lewis’s style, there is grandeur in the idea of studying a small town in the Middle West.

There are grandeur and naiveté in the rhythms of Huckleberry Finn, where Twain’s sense of evil did not interfere either with his disposition or his command of prose. When Dreiser thought of Frank Cowperwood, the financier, he saw the commingling of evil, finance, and romance.

William Dean Howells, with his various novels, presented the acquisitive mind of Silas Lapham and his beautifully conscientious mind; a Boston paint manufacturer can have both. The mind of William Dean Howells has been studied more lately; and it is an interesting example of the accepting mind and the complaining mind—both of which are common in the world.

Howells introduced American readers to the ethical concern and economic concern of Leo Tolstoy. He also pointed to the sometimes unbearable pictures of death and wounds in Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. He made America more conscious of the world depicting itself as fiction.

“The Diamond Lens” of Fitz-James O’Brien, telling of a girl seen in a drop of water with the aid of a most powerful microscope, is important because the smallness of reality is so honored in the O’Brien story.

It may be pointed out that along with the geniality of a writer like Donald Grant Mitchell, American literature has the delicacy and keenness of the stories of Sarah Orne Jewett. A work like The Sheltered Life of Ellen Glasgow shows that a mind can be feminine and have a powerful sense of structure.

A contrasting book to Ellen Glasgow’s The Sheltered Life is Evelyn Scott’s A Calendar of Sin, 1931. This is one of the great American novels, and shows life in America after the Civil War, keenly, unrelentingly, comprehensively.

Other women wrote differently from both Ellen Glasgow and Evelyn Scott. I am here thinking of one of the most popular novels in America, The Wide, Wide World by Elizabeth Wetherell, a work which has keenness, sentiment, and scope, simultaneously.

5. Contemporary Contemplations

I have said that the profit system in America and elsewhere is ending. It is no longer necessary; and many persons feel this clearly and with some power. Leo Tolstoy’s sense of religion was so deep that he opposed the profit system from a viewpoint ever so different from that of Karl Marx. And it was Leo Tolstoy who felt that one of the important writers of the 19th century was the New England woman, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Literature can be described as a mingling of the social endeavor of Harriet Beecher Stowe and the cool sense of ugliness and injustice had by Guy de Maupassant, another writer Tolstoy praised.

Tolstoy, whose sense of ethics bothered him more than nearly any other person was ever bothered, felt that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was one of the great books of the world. It did help to cause the Civil War, and the sense of ethics that is in it needs to be felt now that Bull Run and Appomattox are over.

Harriet Beecher Stowe comments on the rather different ethical writer, Jonathan Edwards. She comments on slavery as evil. Edwards deals with evil as such. The relation of slavery to evil is seen more deeply now; slavery is now seen as an inward affair arising in the mind of man. But Harriet Beecher Stowe and her Russian patron and admirer, Leo Tolstoy, still matter a great deal in the understanding of reality and ethics.

I have hinted that American literature has humor, charm, terror, surprise. American literature often sees reality itself as surprise. Reality in American literature is also a source of humor and charm; and grandeur too.

With love,

Eli Siegel