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CHRONOLOGY is the backbone of history — of the history of literature as of any other. Perhaps no tool is more useful to a student of literature than a well-made table of wellselected titles and dates. Of late years no better implement of this kind has been devised than Mr. Frederick Ryland's "Chronological Outlines of English Literature," published in 1890. Mr. Ryland planned a work which should occupy toward literary history the position a date-book holds toward political history. In his Part I. he sought to bring "the annals of English literature into connection with general European literature and with history, so that a glance enables us to see the position that a given work occupies in the line of development"; and in his Part II. he gave an alphabetical list of authors with their principal works. Mr. Ryland hoped that Part I. would perform in some degree “the same kind of service for the student of literary history as a map does for the student of geography,” while Part II. could be utilized in “studying literature from the biographical point of view.” That Mr. Ryland has been successful in his hope is the testimony of all who have had occasion to use his invaluable manual; and the more it has been used, the more fully are its merits recognized.
Nothing better showed Mr. Ryland's fitness for the exacting task he had undertaken than his omission of American authors from his main chronological table. As Mr. Ryland explained in his introduction, it was with considerable reluctance that he included occasional American books under foreign literature, declaring that “to have placed them with the English would have suggested a misleading conception of the two literatures.” Of course, in the broadest sense of the term, English literature includes all that is written in the English language, whether in Great Britain and Ireland, or in the United States of America, or anywhere in the scattered British colonies. Strictly speaking, American literature to-day and Australian literature to-morrow are parts of English literature; and that part of English literature which is now being produced in Great Britain is, strictly speaking, British literature. With the extraordinary expansion of the Englishspeaking race, the stream of English literature has of necessity been divided, and while the current flowing in the original channel is the fullest and strongest even at the end of the nineteenth century, at least one of the other divisions is swelling year by year into closer rivalry.
Very wisely Mr. Ryland paid little attention to these smaller streams after they left the main current, devoting himself wholly (in the nineteenth century) to the authors of Great Britain and Ireland. Thus he left the way open for any one who should desire to apply his method to the development of American literature. This is what Mr. Selden L. Whitcomb, Fellow in Literature of Columbia College, has attempted in the present volume. Mr. Whitcomb has modelled his book closely upon Mr. Ryland's, making only those modifications which were imposed upon him by the differences between the
literary history of Great Britain and the literary history of the United States. By putting his few notes at the foot of the page, Mr. Whitcomb has been able to find space for a column devoted to British literature. He has also greatly elaborated the list of books in other languages; he has noted the dates of certain masterpieces in the allied arts; and he has strengthened the column set apart for the record of salient facts in political history.
While Mr. Whitcomb has taken the scheme of Mr. Ryland's chronology, he has not adopted the same scale. The briefer history of American literature has allowed him to enlarge his list and to broaden his standard. It would be possible to maintain the thesis that American literature began in 1809 with the publication of Irving's “Knickerbocker's History of New York"; and certainly, with the exception of Franklin's “ Autobiography," the “Federalist,” and Brockden Brown's romances, scarcely any American book written before 1800 is to-day read for pleasure or by any one except special students. What was published in these United States while they were still colonies of England is of little interest from a literary point of view. Yet it is well that a chronological table should first record a few and the most typical of the many essays in religious polemics which were the chief product of the early American presses, and then that it should show also how political discussion thrust aside theological as the Revolution loomed nearer.
Mr. Whitcomb has also been more liberal than Mr. Ryland in cataloguing the writings of contemporary authors — and for this liberality the reason is sufficiently obvious, I think. Especially has he been careful to note freely the “local fiction," as it must be called, perhaps,- the frequent recent
efforts to lay the scene of a story in parts of the country where the landscape has never before served as a background for a narrative of human life. And he has also recorded a certain number of those spasmodic successes like “The Prince of the House of David " and "The Lamplighter" and "Rutledge" and “Helen's Babies,” – unique triumphs of the singlespeech Hamiltons of fiction, yet not without their significance as dates in the history of literary development. The impending revival of the drama in the literature of our language, more obvious now than it was five years ago when Mr. Ryland prepared his book, has led Mr. Whitcomb to give more space to the plays of the past decade or so.
Mr. Whitcomb requests me to say that his book - like Mr. Ryland's - is not a bibliography, and that it has carefully avoided completeness. Comprehensive it ought to be, of course, but its chief merit must be that it is a selection of the writings most truly representative. In any list of men of letters most worthy of record, many an author must be omitted; nor, except for good and sufficient reason, need all the works be catalogued of even the greatest author. Any principle of selection must needs be personal; and no doubt any lover of American literature will find in the following pages names omitted that seem to him to demand inclusion, and names included that, in his view, were better omitted. Yet the more the book is studied, the better satisfied the student will be, I believe, with Mr. Whitcomb's choice, and the more grateful for his immeasurable labour.