Tuesday, December 29, 2015
The Literature of the American Revolution by Moses Tyler 1897
The Literature of the American Revolution by By Moses Coit Tyler 1897
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The chief trait of American literature during the [Revolution] now under view is this: its concern with the problems of American society, and of American society in a peculiar condition—aroused, inflammable, in a state of alarm for its own existence, but also in a state of resolute combat for it. The literature which were are not to inspect is not, then, a literature of tranquility, but chiefly a literature of strife, or, as the Greeks would have said, of agony, and of course, it must take those forms in which intellectual and impassioned debate can be most effectually carried on. The literature of our Revolution has almost everywhere the combative note; its habitual method is argumentative, persuasive, appealing, rasping, retaliatory; the very brain of man seems to be in armor; his wit is in the gladiator's attitude of offense and defense. It is a literature indulging itself in grimaces, in mockery, in scowls: a literature accented by earnest gestures meant to convince people, or by fierce blows meant to smite them down. In this literature we must not expect to find art used for art's sake. Nay, art itself, so far as it is here at all, is swept into the universal conscription, and enrolled for the service of the one party or of the other in the imperiled young Republic. No man is likely to be in the mood for aesthetics who has an assassin's pistol at his head. Even the passion for the beautiful has been known to yield to the instinct for self-preservation.
Looking, then, into this period of great civic trouble, and being content that the authentic literary product of it should also have a troubled look—a look of anxiety and wrath and combat—our next discovery is the rather notable one that such a period actually had a literary product very considerable in amount. Even in those perturbed years between 1763 and 1783, there was a large mass of literature produced in America. This fact will perhaps bring to us a surprise, almost a perplexity. Is it credible? How can this be? Certainly, great deeds were done in those years, and great words spoken—words that had the quality of great deeds; and yet, as we shall be tempted to say, that was a time for fighting, not for writing: it was a time for a game of politics astute, robust, unrelenting; for the courage of a creative statesmanship, for a diplomacy with wit enough to confront and conciliate a world; for a generalship that could make an army look military, though dressed in rags, that could make that army march though it had no shoes, that could make it formidable though destitute of gunpowder; for a daily and a nightly warfare, on the part of two or three millions of people, against starvation, and rags, and bankruptcy; and it may well seem incredible that, under such circumstances, any people could produce writings which should have any quality that now entitles them to literary remembrance, or which it would not be a barbarous ingratitude for us to subject to criticism.
This is the first view of the situation. Let us now look a little deeper, and we shall see that, within the range of those literary forms capable of articulating the moods of a period of civil and military conflict, large literary production is the very result to be expected. For on what does any sort of literary production depend? Of course, it depends on the quickening of man's nature, especially of his intellect and his emotions. And what is a period of war, and especially of civil war, and more especially of revolutionary civil war, but an extraordinary quickening of the intellectual and emotional energies of man?
The turbulence of the time may, indeed, become so great as to drive out from the human spirit all sense of security; but in that case, the only certain result on literature will be to drive out the tranquil forms of literary expression, leaving all the forces of the quickened life of the people free to concentrate themselves upon those forms of literary expression which are not tranquil, that is, which are combative.
Moreover, in the case of the American Revolution, literary production within the special range thus indicated, was likely to be the greater for the reason that that Revolution was pre-eminently a revolution caused by ideas, and pivoted on ideas. Of course, all revolutions are in some sense caused by ideas and pivoted on them; but in the case of most revolutions, the ideal causes of them are not generally perceived, and therefore are not generally acted upon until those ideal causes become fully interpreted through real evils, generally through a long experience of real evils. This was the case, for example, with the French Revolution. But in the case of the American Revolution, the people did not wait until ideal evils had become real evils. With a political intelligence so alert and so sensitive as to discern those evils while still afar off, they made their stand, not against tyranny inflicted, but only against tyranny anticipated. They produced the Revolution, not because they were as yet actual sufferers, but because they were good logicians, and were able to prove that, without resistance, they or their children would some day become actual sufferers. As was said of them by a great contemporary statesman in England, they judged "of the pressure of the grievance by the badness of the principle." They augured "misgovernment at a distance." They snuffed "the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze." Hence, more than with most other epochs of revolutionary strife, our epoch of revolutionary strife was a strife of ideas: a long warfare of political logic; a succession of annual campaigns in which the marshalling of arguments not only preceded the marshalling of armies, but often exceeded them in impression upon the final result.
An epoch like this, therefore,—an epoch in which nearly all that is great and dear in man's life on earth has to be argued for, as well as to be fought for, and in which ideas have a work to do quite as pertinent and quite as effective as that of bullets,—can hardly fail to be an epoch teeming with literature, with literature, of course, in the particular forms suited to the purposes of political co-operation and conflict.
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