Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vol. V: Literature of the Republic, Part II., 18211834
A Literary Leader
By Alexander Hill Everett (17901847)
[From Irvings Columbus in Critical and Miscellaneous Essays. 1846.]
A VAST continent was to be subdued and cultivated; all the branches of mechanical industry (as far as the mother country would permit us to exercise them) to be commenced. Here was business enough for the mass of the people. For minds of an elevated stamp, the liberal professions, education, public and private, and the high functions of government, opened fields of action, into which such minds could not hesitate to enter. The desk, the bench, the professors chair, the principal political and military offices, were not with us the patrimony of particular families, but the acknowledged property of merit and talent, which, as soon as they showed themselves, were summoned, by the loud and unanimous acclaim of the public, to enter in and take possession. Had our fathers been insensible to this high vocation, they would have shown that they were unworthy of it, and incapable of excellence in anything. Our Ovids and Martials were therefore lost in Franklins, Adamses, and Jeffersons, as were those of England in Murrays and Pulteneys; and the loss, we may well add, was exceeding gain.
It was not then the absence of talent or poetical inspiration, but the more imperious and urgent,let us not be unjust to our ancestors,the nobler and loftier nature of the call for active labor in the moral and political service of the public, that checked for a time the cultivation of the finer arts. The shepherd in Virgil, who was compelled to abandon at once his country and his favorite amusements, beheld with admiration, if not with envy, his comrade playing on his rustic pipe, under the shade of the accustomed beech tree. Our fathers, if they felt any emotions of regret, at quitting their literary and poetical pursuits, could at least console themselves with the reflection, that they made the sacrifice, not to quit but to serve their country; and, in obedience to her sacred voice, sprang with alacrity and pleasure into the walks of active life. We had men enough among us, who were smit with the love of sacred song: who in earlier life exhibited splendid proofs that their love was by no means an unrequited passion; and who, had they devoted themselves exclusively to letters, would have carried off the most brilliant honors in any department which they might have selected. Such were the persons, whose names we mentioned above honoris causâ; but they too fell under the general rule, and could not withstand those inducements to engage, in one way or another, in the public service, that wrought with irresistible force upon every generous soul. They were all, as is well known, employed in the highest, the gravest, the most absorbing political, moral, or military affairs; and we possess in their literary effusions either the unripe fruits of their youth, or the hasty and casual recreations, that amused the few leisure hours of their maturer years .
Finally, however, in the rapid progress of our population, wealth, and literary advantages, the period arrived when the calls of business no longer absorbed all the cultivated intellect existing in the country; when, after these were fully satisfied, there remained a portion of taste, zeal, and talent to be employed in purely literary and scientific pursuits; when the public mind was prepared to acknowledge and appreciate any really superior merit, that might present itself, in those departments; when in fact the nation, having been somewhat galled by the continual sneers of a set of heartless and senseless foreigners upon our want of literary talent, was rather anxious to possess some positive facts, which could be offered as evidence to the contrary, and was prepared of course to hail the appearance of a writer of undoubted talent, with a kind of patriotic enthusiasm; when finally, for all these reasons, the first example of success, that should be given in this way, would naturally be followed by an extensive development of the same sort of activity, throughout the country, in the persons of a host of literary aspirants, sometimes directly imitating their prototype, and always inspired and encouraged by his good fortune, who would make up together the front rank of what is commonly called a school of polite literature. To set this example was the brilliant part reserved, in the course of our literary history, for Mr. Washington Irving. His universal popularity among readers of all classes, on both sides of the Atlantic, resting exclusively on the purely literary merit of his productions, wholly independent of extraneous or interested motives, attested by repeated successes, in various forms of composition, and stamped by the concurrence and approbation of the most acute, judicious, and unsparing critics, justifies, beyond a shadow of doubt, his pretension to be viewed as the valorous knight, who was called, in the order of destiny, to break the spell which appeared, at least to our good-natured European brethren, to be thrown over us in this respect; to achieve the great and hitherto unaccomplished adventure of establishing a purely American literary reputation of the first order; and demonstrate the capacity of his countrymen to excel in the elegant, as they had before done in all the useful and solid branches of learning. To have done this is a singular title of honor, and will always remain such, whatever laurels of a different kind may hereafter be won by other pretenders.