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Studies in Philology
THE ENGLISH LITERARY HORIZON: 1815-1835
BY ROBERT E. SPILLER
"The Atlantic," said Nathaniel Parker Willis, "is to us a century." In other words, he assumed that the interval of some three thousand miles was equivalent to the passage of a hundred years, and that the American of about 1830 could therefore view the English literary horizon of that day with a clearness impossible to a native English observer. If this exceedingly novel idea had even a slight basis in reason, the literary opinions of those Americans who visited England have far more significance than has been attached to them.
Irving develops the theory even further in his essay on Campbell. "The vast ocean that rolls between us," he says, "like a space of time, removes us beyond the sphere of personal favor, personal prejudice, or personal familiarity. A European work, therefore, appears before us depending simply on its intrinsic merits. We have no private friendship, no party purpose to serve, by magnifying the author's merits; and, in sober sadness, the humble state of our national literature places us far below any feeling of national rivalship." 1
The natural place to turn for this American judgment of English literature would be the critical reviews of the time, but unfortunately there were none published in America which could, in the fullest sense, be called independent. The practices of clipping from English journals or deferring to English judgments were still dominant in American journalism in spite of the efforts of
Biographies and Miscellanies, N. Y., 1866, pp. 142-3.
the North American Review and to some extent the Port Folio and the Analectic. Even, the North American was modeled on lines laid down by the Edinburgh and the Quarterly.
The American traveler in England, however, was in a position to judge with far greater freedom. In the first place, unlike his English brother in America, he was a man of exceedingly broad culture and persistent energy. England sent her fops and adventurers to America; America sent her leaders of thought in all lines. to England: The English traveler felt that he was descending to a lower plane of civilization and was fully prepared with his quota of scorn; the American traveler frankly recognized his ascent to a higher, and for the most part took the step in order to learn rather than to criticize.
At the time when Irving and Willis wrote, many of America's best minds had made the trip on a variety of missions, had met and been entertained by England's most exclusive society, and had written their impressions home in the form of letters, journals, and travel books. Her outstanding statesmen, her leaders of industrial and religious thought, and by 1835 many of her literary men had become familiar with England's culture, not only from reading her literature, but from mingling intimately in her intellectual and social life as well. Irving himself traveled over much of Europe, including England, in 1804-5, and spent a large share of his time from 1815 to 1832 in London and Liverpool; Cooper took his entire establishment, including his servants, to England in 1828 and lived in London for several years; Emerson made his first trip in 1833; and in the same year Willis obtained his entrée to that circle of London wits and fashionables which gathered about the brilliant Lady Blessington, a group which included Disraeli, Tom Moore, Byron, Bulwer, and Campbell, as well as lords and ladies of no mean rank. By 1835 also, there had been published in America as many as thirty books of travels in England, and the distinguished American visitors who had left less formal records numbered many hundreds, among them Longfellow, Ticknor, John Quincy Adams, Edward Everett, and the artist, Washington Allston. The composite picture of literary England afforded by such a group as this could scarcely fail to be significant. George Ticknor, who was in England from 1815 to 1819 for the sole purpose of enlarging his own intellectual horizon, has
expressed perhaps better than any other the primary motive which brought the cultured and ambitious Americans to British soil. "In every literature," he says, "there are many things to be learnt besides the words and the language, which can never be learnt but on the spot, because they are preserved but as a kind of tradition." His objective consisted chiefly, as he puts it, in seeing many different persons, learning their opinions, modifying his own, and, in general, collecting that undefined and indefinite feeling respecting books and authors which existed then in Europe as a kind of unwritten tradition but was almost wholly lacking in America.2
It was with this viewpoint that the best of the American travelers made out their lists of English literary celebrities whom they thought worthy of visit. They had read countless English books, they were familiar with English history and philosophy, and they were eager to add, by personal contact with the great, to a culture of their own which they were frank to recognize as built solidly upon English foundations.
If we were to look back now over our histories of English literature to that period so commonly labeled "The Romantic Revolt," we should probably reach the conclusion that a visitor to England during the period 1815-35 would think first of Byron, Shelley and Keats, then of the Lake poets, Wordsworth, Coleridge and possibly Southey, certainly of Lamb, Hazlitt, and Scott, and probably of Jane Austen, Blake, Landor, Hunt, and De Quincey. At all events, if any one of us were privileged now to make a journey to the England of that day, we should seek out our authors in some such order.
It is somewhat surprising, therefore, to turn to the estimate of this self-appointed posterity, the American in England, and to find an entirely different order of rating. Cooper makes his Mr. Howell in Homeward Bound name Scott (with emphasis), Southey, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Moore, Bulwer, Disraeli, Rogers, Campbell, Horace Smith, Miss Landon, and Barry Cornwall as proper subjects for a visit, and this list is similar in its surprising inequalities to that of the average traveler from America.
Whether Scotland or Walter Scott first attracted the American, certain it is that the reputation of each augmented that of the
• Life, Letters and Journals, Boston, 1877, 1, 274-6.
other; and, as Scott was usually first on the list of English authors, so the literary society of Edinburgh was more appealing than any other. Perhaps because so many Americans had studied at the University of Edinburgh, or because the Scotch character and country were more like his own than England, or because he had read the Waverly novels from cover to cover and loved the background against which they were written and the author who wrote them-whatever the reason, the American, high or low, literary or not, sought out the north country as the first object of his pilgrimage. There is almost more about Scott, his haunts, and the scenes of his novels and poetry than about places connected with the names of all other English authors, living or dead, put together.
The society of Edinburgh was frankly and liberally of a literary cast and interest, chiefly centering about the University. Many literary salons were held by professors and by those with literary pretensions or interests. The one most frequently mentioned is that of Mrs. Grant of Laggan, one of the women that the world is willing to call meritorious to save themselves the trouble of making any inquiries about her."3 With a slight literary reputation of her own and a power of conversation which attracted even though it did not hold for long, she collected about her most of the interesting people of the town, and practically all of the Americans. Hers was typical of many such coteries, and was particularly congenial to the Americans because she was uniformly cordial to them.
It was in such society as this that the real lions of literary Scotland sometimes found their way and were trapped by the curious visitor. Scott, Jeffrey, Wilson, and Sydney Smith were often met for the first time at one of these formal but hospitable gatherings.
The life of Scott from the days when he was a clerk of the sessions in the parliament house of Edinburgh to the last days of his declining health and death at Abbotsford, as well as every foot of ground of which he wrote or on which he stepped, might be followed in these journals. A glimpse of him is caught in that "small dark room in the Court of Sessions," where he was introduced by Jeffrey to the plain American Quaker, John Griscom;
Letter to W. P. from Edinburgh, 1814, N. American Review, 1, 193-4.