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Before Genius
by [?]

Every great man is, in a certain way, an Atlas, with the weight of the world upon him. And if one is to criticise at all, he may say that, if Carlyle had not been quite so conscious of this weight, his work would have been better done. Yet to whom do we owe more, even as Americans? Anti-democratic in his opinions, he surely is not so in spirit, or in the quality of his make. The nobility of labor and the essential nobility of man were never so effectively preached before. The deadliest enemy of democracy is not the warning or dissenting voice, but it is the spirit, rife among us, which would engraft upon our hardy Western stock the sickly and decayed standards of the expiring feudal world.

With two or three exceptions, there is little as yet in American literature that shows much advance beyond the merely conventional and scholastic,–little, I mean, in which one gets a whiff of the strong, unbreathed air of mountain or prairie, or a taste of rude, new power that is like the tonic of the sea. Thoreau occupies a niche by himself. Thoreau was not a great personality, yet his writings have a strong characteristic flavor. He is anti-scorbutic, like leeks and onions. He has reference, also, to the highest truths.

It is very likely true that our most native and original characters do not yet take to literature. It is, perhaps, too early in the day. Iron and lime have to pass through the vegetable before they can reach the higher organization of the animal, and maybe this Western nerve and heartiness will yet emerge on the intellectual plane. Let us hope that it will indeed be Western nerve and heartiness when it gets there, and not Eastern wit and epigram!

In Abraham Lincoln we had a character of very marked and lofty type, the most suggestive study or sketch of the future American man that has yet appeared in our history. How broad, unconventional, and humane! How democratic! how adhesive! No fine arabesque carvings, but strong, unhewn, native traits, and deep lines of care, toil, and human sympathy. Lincoln’s Gettysburg speech is one of the most genuine and characteristic utterances in our annals. It has the true antique simplicity and impressiveness. It came straight from the man, and is as sure an index of character as the living voice, or the physiognomy, or the personal presence. Indeed, it may be said of Mr. Lincoln’s entire course while at the head of the nation, that no President, since the first, ever in his public acts allowed the man so fully to appear, or showed so little disposition to retreat behind the featureless political mask which seems to adhere to the idea of gubernatorial dignity.

It would be hardly fair to cite Everett’s speech on the same occasion as a specimen of the opposite style, wherein ornate scholarship and the pride of talents dominate. Yet a stern critic would be obliged to say that, as an author, Everett allowed, for the most part, only the expurgated, complimenting, drawing-room man to speak; and that, considering the need of America to be kept virile and broad at all hazards, his contribution, both as man and writer, falls immeasurably short of Abraham Lincoln’s.

What a noble specimen of its kind, and how free from any verbal tricks or admixture of literary sauce, is Thoreau’s “Maine Woods”! And what a marked specimen of the opposite style is a certain other book I could mention in which these wild and grand scenes serve but as a medium to advertise the author’s fund of classic lore!

Can there be any doubt about the traits and outward signs of a noble character, and is not the style of an author the manners of his soul?

Is there a lyceum lecturer in the country who is above manoeuvring for the applause of his audience? or a writer who is willing to make himself of no account for the sake of what he has to say? Even in the best there is something of the air and manners of a performer on exhibition. The newspaper, or magazine, or book is a sort of raised platform upon which the advertiser advances before a gaping and expectant crowd. Truly, how well he handles his subject! He turns it over, and around, and inside out, and top-side down. He tosses it about; he twirls it; he takes it apart and puts it together again, and knows well beforehand where the applause will come in. Any reader, in taking up the antique authors, must be struck by the contrast.

“In Aeschylus,” says Landor, “there is no trickery, no trifling, no delay, no exposition, no garrulity, no dogmatism, no declamation, no prosing, . . . but the loud, clear challenge, the firm, unstealthy step, of an erect, broad-breasted soldier.”

On the whole, the old authors are better than the new. The real question of literature is not simplified by culture or a multiplication of books, as the conditions of life are always the same, and are not made one whit easier by all the myriads of men and women who have lived upon the globe. The standing want is never for more skill, but for newer, fresher power,–a more plentiful supply of arterial blood. The discoverer, or the historian, or the man of science, may begin where his predecessor left off, but the poet or any artist must go back for a fresh start. With him it is always the first day of creation, and he must begin at the stump or nowhere.