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The Knickerbocker Group

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The Knickerbocker Group


The Knickerbocker Group

At the turn of the nineteenth century, New York had exceeded Boston as a center of population and social activity. At the hub of the city's and the nation's literary life were the Knickerbockers, a loose association of professional and amateur literati. It was perhaps their greatest luminary, Washington Irving, who had made famous the name "Knickerbocker" in the persona of Diedrich Knickerbocker, narrator of A History of New York (1809). These writers' activity spans the period from around 1807, the year their original literary journal, Salmagundi, was first published, to 1865, when the last issue of The Knickerbocker Magazine, their final representative publication, appeared. But the first third of the century was the period in which the Knickerbockers achieved their greatest popular notoriety and critical acclaim. It was then that the three original and most illustrious Knickerbockers—Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and William Cullen Bryant—flourished, leaving their permanent mark on American letters. The genius and success of Irving and Cooper especially stimulated the talent and ambition of a number of lesser lights who would help carry on the Knickerbocker name through the middle of the century. Of these writers, spanning the entire Knickerbocker period, the more prominent were James Kirke Paulding, Joseph Rodman Drake, Fitz-Greene Halleck, Gulian Verplanck, John Howard Payne, Samuel Woodworm, and George P. Morris.

The members of the group were associated chiefly by social class, literary sensibility, the social and intellectual confines of New York City, and a respect for each other's work. With no intention of organizing themselves into a formal school, they published the representative journals mentioned above in which their own and others' writings regularly appeared. As a group, the Knickerbockers were remarkably prolific, publishing in a broad range of literary genres: journalism, editorship, literary criticism, travel sketches that included the American and Canadian frontiers as well as the conventional Old World cities, novels, short stories, dramas, operas, and translations from the classics. After their heyday, the Knickerbockers' popularity steadily declined until, a generation after Irving, Cooper, and Bryant, their work was largely forgotten or ignored.

Twentieth-century critical appreciation has focused mainly on the Knickerbockers' literary criticism and their own literary art. It is generally agreed that the best of Knickerbocker criticism helped raise the standards of literary criticism in the early nineteenth century, which was narrowly moralistic and often ruled by the reviewer's personal or political regard for the author. A wide array of critical opinion existed among the Knickerbockers, ranging within two broad literary attitudes. The most common in the early period of Knickerbocker literature was the eighteenth-century neo-classical attitude in the tradition of Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, and Joseph Addison, which extolled disciplined and judicial analysis of the merits of a work according to exacting rules that were supposed to determine good literature. Others of the Knickerbockers adopted the new Romantic standard of criticism, following the English Romantics such as William Wordsworth, Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, and Thomas De Quincey. They distrusted the rational and analytical and inclined much more to the critic's subjective appreciation of a work, relying in their judgments on the impression a work made. In the 1830s and 1840s, Romantic, impressionistic criticism was becoming increasingly common, but it was tempered by the growing influence in America of German criticism as reflected in the writings of Thomas Carlyle and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in England; it strove to include both the analytical and the impressionistic and was supposed to achieve a balance between the two extremes.

Knickerbocker literature varies widely in form, subject, and style. One finds classical gravity as well as the absurdities and fatuities of modern burlesque, or the realistic and urbane attitudes of the neo-classical outlook along with the maudlin sentiments and naturalism of the romantic outlook. But certain unmistakable influences from England gave the Knickerbocker literature, at different periods, a common identity. In the early stages of its development, Knickerbocker literature was indebted, not surprisingly, to eighteenth-century writers like Pope, Addison, Oliver Goldsmith, and Johnson; in its middle years it imbibed heavily the influence of Walter Scott, Lord Byron, and Lamb among others; and in its decline, Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, and lesser writers prevailed. An identity emerged as well from the considerable influence the individual Knickerbockers, especially Irving and Cooper, exerted on one another. They shared common interests, read many of the same books—including each others'—and wrote for the same journals, all of which helped produce, in broad outline at least, a common character. Their love of humor, especially satire, foreign places, and landscapes and their basic conservatism, especially in Cooper and Paulding, pervade their writings so much so as to be almost traditional in Knickerbocker literature.

In spite of the Knickerbockers' use of the English models they knew so well and their mutual influence, they demonstrated a considerable degree of independence and originality and were powerful forces in the creation of a native literary tradition. Irving's contribution is the most remarkable. His sketchbooks—including The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent (1819-20) and Bracebridge Hall (1822)—were largely responsible for establishing a new and peculiarly American literary genre, the short story, because they exceeded in quality and popularity everything of its kind. The Knickerbockers often wrote contemptuously of the predominance of British influence in American letters, despite and because of their own indebtedness, and many tried to foster a genuinely national literature by choosing specifically American themes, subjects, and language, particularly from the frontier. For such authors as James Kirke Paulding, it was a supreme embarrassment that American writers looked to England at all for their inspiration.

Though their contribution to American literature was considerable, it was a contribution appreciated by almost exclusively twentieth-century critics, in whose estimation they nevertheless remain only minor figures in American literary history, with the exception of Irving and Cooper.

Representative Works

James Gordon Brooks

The Rivals of Este, and Other Poems (poetry) 1829

William Cullen Bryant

"The Skeleton's Cave" (short story) 1832; published in Tales of the Glauber-Spa

Letters of a Traveller; or, Notes of Things Seen in Europe and America (travel sketches) 1850

Discourse on the Life and Genius of Cooper (criticism) 1852

A Discourse on the Life, Character, and Genius of Washington Irving (criticism) 1860

Letters from the East (travel sketches) 1869

A Popular History of the United States from the First Discovery of the Western Hemisphere . . . to the End of the First Century of the Union of the States. 4 vols. (history) 1876-81

The Poetical Works of William Cullen Bryant (poetry) 1878

Lewis Gaylord Clark

The Knickerbocker Sketch-Book (short stories) 1845

The Poetical Writings of Lewis Gaylord Clark (poetry) 1846

Knick-Knacks from an Editor's Table (essays) 1852

McDonald Clarke

The Gossip; or, A Laugh with the Ladies, a Grin at the Gentlemen, and Burlesques on Byron, a Sentimental Satire (poetry) 1823

Sketches (short stories) 1826

Poems of McDonald Clarke (poetry) 1836

James Fenimore Cooper


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The Nation, New York

SOURCE: "Knickerbocker Literature," in The Nation, New York, Vol. V, No. 127, December 5, 1867, pp. 459-61.

[This unsigned essay from 1867 provides a brief, first-hand look at the critical regard for the Knickerbockers and their writings, revealing how, only a generation after their own time, the writings of the Knickerbockers were largely forgotten or dismissed by the critics.]

Fitz Greene Halleck, who left us the other day, was a writer whose works are a favorable specimen of what, speaking roughly, may be called the Knickerbocker literature. Of the school of writers which produced this literature it is true to say that it was composed of authors whom we all remember as forgotten. Their names are well enough remembered, but the present generation knows little of them except their names, that they very properly acknowledged Washington Irving as their leader and master, and that they lived in or about New York. Charles Fenno Hoffman was one of them, James Kirke Paulding was another, Halleck and Joseph Rodman Drake were two more, and besides these there were Robert C. Sands, John Sanderson, the two Clarks—Willis Gaylord and Lewis Gaylord—Nathaniel Parker Willis, perhaps, and, in a sense, Cooper the novelist. Two men, for a time classed among these by the popular voice, are Mr. Bancroft and Mr. Bryant; but these have both escaped. Mr. Bryant deserved his good fortune. For what saddens him a man can hardly return gratitude; but respect, very genuine if not profound, every reader of Mr. Bryant's poems must, it seems to us, accord their author. The spirit of his poetry is melancholic almost to sombreness; there is in it nothing to delight. It might be compared to a chill wind which blows softly—not out of graveyards; it possesses hardly so much of human interest as that—which blows over graves that have long been forgotten, where lies, undistinguished from the common earth, the dust of disappeared races—unremembered nations and tribes resolved into earth. From such a soil grow all Mr. Bryant's lonesome, sad flowers of poetry. But though the impression produced by his poetry is not a pleasant one, and therefore not in the highest sense pleasing, still it is powerful, and he produces it of himself. Small faults of imitation he has, but the aspect of nature of which we have spoken—nature as seen from a solitary Indian mound sepulchre—is his own property, and at once he becomes independent of the Knickerbockers. Mr. Bancroft—who is to American history what Mr. Paulding is to American belles-lettres literature—came to New York from New England too late to be thoroughly identified with the old Knickerbocker people. A good many other names might be added to those we have mentioned, but they would be names, and no more at all, meaning nothing to this generation.

Doctor Rufus Wilmot Griswold, however, ought not to be passed by in silence, being, as he was, the Knickerbocker Boswell of our Knickerbocker Johnsons, in whose books they are perhaps more plainly to be seen than in any of their own works. Cotton Mather, during his sojourn here below, or above, produced three hundred and eighty-two books big and little; then comes Doctor Griswold, and praises him as "the first American Fellow of the Royal Society." It seems to us that in this critical judgment on so extremely literary an American as Mather was we find the clue which, if any clue were needed, would more surely than any other lead us to the right appreciation of the Knickerbocker literature. Indeed, it is so true as to be truismatically true that to the end of their days the writers who produced it were colonists and provincials; as literary men they had no right to any Fourth of July. Provincial they were even in the often-made assertion of their political independence and nationality, as any one may see to his abundant satisfaction who will look into the works of Paulding and see how that author, "lying supinely on his back," as somebody makes Patrick Henry say, "while his enemy binds him hand and foot"—writing stiffly in the manner of Swift with the matter of Paulding—insisted, with much illtemper, not that America was America, but that it was not England, was much better than England and bigger than England; that the Mississippi is a larger river than the Thames; that The Quarterly Review was not infallible, and in a variety of ways rapped British knuckles with a yardstick that after all was British. The case was of a less inflammatory character, but, perhaps, even more hopeless, when Paulding and his compeers were not engaged in being patriotic. As Doctor Griswold flatteringly says, Mr. Hoffman was our Knickerbocker Moore—with the breadth of the Atlantic between him and the Irish one; Mr. Cooper was Scott whenever he could be, so far as he could be, and was himself only when he came to backwoods and prairies which Sir Walter had not seen; Verplanck and Sanderson had not, to be sure, remembered enough, but certainly they had not forgotten enough of the essayists of Queen Anne's time and the reviewers of The Edinburgh. Willis's reputation is dead, not because he was essentially an imitator but because he was essentially a slight man in his books. But even though Willis did not reflect English literature, he was driven to putting into his books English literary men and English society. At any rate he did so, and found his account in it. Drake died young, but lived long enough to imitate the versification of Byron and Moore, and to make it pretty evident that he would never have emancipated himself. Lewis Gaylord Clark came again to the surface the other day after a perfectly characteristic fashion—a fashion characteristic, at any rate, of the school of which he was one, not, perhaps, characteristic of him; we know next to nothing about him—in a letter written à propos of Mr. Dickens's arrival. Of course Mr. Samuel Rogers figured in it; so did the library at Sunny-side, Sidney Smith, Henry Brevoort, Mr. Bryant, and Mr. Halleck. "I think," says Mr. Clark, "it was Mr. Bryant who, in this connection, mentioned the fact to Rogers that Halleck when in England had passed his house near Hyde Park. 'Tell him,' said Rogers, 'when he is next in England that the author of "Marco Bozzaris" must not pass my house again; he must come in.'" We love to think that probably Doctor Griswold had heard this anecdote a couple of hundred times. It would have done him such a world of good. "Rogers's house," he would say to himself, "and near Hyde Park! Rogers knew him as the author of 'Marco Bozzaris!'" And we can imagine with what scorn he would have gazed on the young person who after that declined to believe Mr. Halleck "one of the first poets of the age." He would have leaned back in his chair and proceeded to relate that "Mr. Bryant once said to Rogers, the poet-banker, that Mr. Halleck"—and so on. Then, it is possible, he grasped his pen firmly, and continued his biography of the poet: "One evening in the spring of 1819, as Halleck was on the way home from his place of business, he stopped at a coffee-house then much frequented by young men, in the vicinity of Columbia College. A shower had just fallen, and a brilliant sunset was distinguished by a rainbow of unusual magnificence. In a group about the door half-a-dozen had told what they would wish, could their wishes be realized, when Halleck said, looking at the glorious spectacle above the horizon: 'If I could have any wish, it should be to lie in the lap of that rainbow and read 'Tom Campbell.' A handsome young fellow standing near suddenly turned to him and exclaimed, 'You and I must be friends.'"

It was Joseph Rodman Drake who, thus impressed by a bit of imagery worthy of his own "Culprit Fay," thus proffered friendship, which was accepted on the spot. We have no need to imagine what sort of a man it was who could form the wish above recorded; it is still possible to turn to Halleck's works and discern plainly what Campbell, with the help of others, made of him. "Gem of the crimson-colored even," Campbell says, "Companion of retiring day," and Halleck follows after with "Twilight;" Byron, without at all meaning it, wrote "Fanny." Scott and Scott's parodists wrote for him "Alnwick Castle;" "Burns" Halleck himself had a finger in, and it was he, too, who wrote the energetic and obsolescent "Marco Bozzaris." Parts of the lastmentioned poem are, however, hardly yet obsolescent, and will hardly become so. It is the only poem of his in which he for a little while forgot himself—a feat of great difficulty for him; by which is meant not that he habitually carried undue self-consciousness into his poetry; but when he forgot himself he had to forget so many people.

The imitative character of Irving, also, the head and front of the school, is very generally, though it is not yet universally, recognized. There are still among us men of the generation whose hearts glowed within them when The Edinburgh praised "Bracebridge Hall," and who confuse the pleasure they got from Irving's works with the patriotic pleasure they got from the reviews of them. And then, unoriginal as he is, yet, speaking carefully, one would not so readily say of him that, born near the Tappan Zee, he closely imitated Addison, as one would say that he was a sort of a kind of an Addison—to speak after the New England fashion—who, by the bad accident of birth, happened to see the light in these Western wilds. As has often been said, his humor is imitative of the humor of the Anne-Augustan age; but it has a local color, and less often a local flavor, which proves it the fruit not of a graft merely, but of a tree in some respects sui generis. With this not very great amount of eulogy his admirers will be obliged, we suppose, to rest content; that seems to be the opinion on which criticism has for some time settled. For our own part, we should make this much abatement of the praise just given—his humor was constantly alloyed by a coarseness, sometimes with a knowing air half-concealed, sometimes not concealed at all, from which Addison kept himself more pure.

What has been said of the essentially imitative and colonial character of our Knickerbocker authors is not to be said, as nothing is to be said, without some limitations. Not much, however, is necessary in the way of limitation. Mr. Willis, for example, was the author of one or two little poems which possess the underived beauty of natural sentiments expressed in fine verse. Mr. Paulding is recognizable as an American patriot. Cooper, among his many utterly unreadable books, has one or two in which are one or two characters that are original with him, and that may be supposed natural. It is hard to tell. Indiscriminate praise was heaped on him; all of it that came from the other side of the water was bestowed by ignorant critics; most of it given him here was given by patriotically enthusiastic men, the mass of whom, we suppose, were as ignorant as their English brethren of the true Indian and true backwoodsman. We know nobody who gets through the books twice. However, the characters we have mentioned are, in a way, a success, and are, beyond a doubt, of Cooper's invention, unless we say that the backwoodsman was a discovery rather than an invention. What is true of Willis is to a less extent true of Morris, and so on of some of the others. But it remains true, too, that imitation was the life and breath of the Knickerbocker literature, and that it is now pretty much dead.

A few writers still linger among us who have sat at meat with the masters and disciples of it, and keep alive for a while longer its traditions in their own memories and the memories of the rest of us. Indeed, one or two of the disciples themselves are with us yet, and Halleck, but just gone, was even a master. Mr. L. G. Clark, who once edited The Knickerbocker Magazine—"Maga" and "Knick" they used to call it, with jocoseness—is, ex officio, of that other world. Mr. Tuckerman appears to be a connecting link between that one and ours. Mr. D. G. Mitchell smacks of it, and there are several other contemporary writers who, by some inexplicable, or explicable, association of ideas suggest to us the old days, though it would not be possible to bring them within our definition of the Knickerbocker author, or to make his description apply at all accurately to them.

Beyond a doubt it would be wrong to pass upon these writers whom we have been glancing at a sentence of unmitigated condemnation. They were once the hoast of their countrymen while yet Longfellow, Emerson, Hawthorne, Lowell, all our really best men, were considered but 'prentice hands, and while it was unsuspected that almost our only really good names in literature—names that have, at any rate, thrown into utter eclipse the renown of the Knickerbocker men—were those of writers who knew not Irving. Once, we say, they were very eminent, and they have since so thoroughly lost their former distinction that we do not know where to look for a case parallel to theirs. The master of them all died after Sumter was fired on, and already it seems as if he had lived two hundred years ago. But nevertheless they served a most useful purpose. They were our first crop—to borrow a figure—and very properly were ploughed in, and though nothing of the same sort has come up since, and we may be permitted to hope that nothing of just the same sort will ever again come up, yet certainly they did something toward fertilizing the soil from the products of which we are now getting a part of our food. Certainly they cherished in our not wholly civilized community a love for things not materialistic. Halleck, for instance, if he did but little for literature pure and simple, did more and better for American civilization than if he had wholly devoted himself to "the cotton trade and sugar line" or to his duties as John Jacob Astor's agent. Our young men in Wall street and the streets adjacent may better trust themselves to his influence, though he never "swung a railroad," as they say in the West, than to the influence of Commodore Vanderbilt, if we may name names, in whose eyes business, it would seem, is war, and the war-cry is vœ victis. It cannot be expected of the average critic of to-day to say that as literary men our Knickerbocker literature is a very fine thing or a very valuable thing, but as Americans, if we are not sorry that it exists no longer, we may very well be glad that it once existed.

George Edward Woodberry

SOURCE: "Knickerbocker Era of American Letters," in Harper's Magazine, Vol. CV, No. 629, October, 1902, pp. 677-83.

[In this brief essay, Woodberry discusses the Knickerbocker era of American letters in its heyday under the bright lights of Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and William Cullen Bryant, and afterward under the lesser lights who presided over the decline of that era. The critic touches generally upon the literary conditions and atmosphere in early America and early New York that helped give the work of the Knickerbockers its general character, as well as upon the features that distinguished them as literary artists.]

Father Knickerbocker was the first literary creation of our country. The little old man in the old black coat and cocked hat who strayed from his lodgings, and was near being advertised for by the police of that day, and who left behind him the curious history that was to be sold for his debts, was destined by the spirit of humor to be the eldest child of our originality, and he proved his title deeds of true birth so well that the estate of New York proudly received and owned him, and gave him the island and river realm, and took to itself and its belongings the name of its droll saint. He was a myth, like all our types; for American genius has never yet created a man or a woman so much of nature's stamp as to live in our memories and affections like one of ourselves, as Uncle Toby or Hamlet or Pickwick does; but, like all true myths, he had a root in the soil. It was characteristically American, premonitory of a land of many races, that this Dutch grotesque, so pure in his racial strain as to incorporate all the old traditional blood in his small figure, should have issued from a brain half Scotch and half English, the first-born of Irving's invention; but Diedrich Knickerbocker could hardly have seen himself in Dutch eyes, and so from the very first it was the blending of the stocks that gave literary consciousness and set up the reactions that breed imagination and humor.

The city, nevertheless, was pure-blooded in those early days, at least by comparison with its later conglomerations; and it was, in fact, the expression of local pride of race in Dr. Mitchell's Picture of New York that gave occasion to the graceless half-breed, this young Irving, to amuse himself and the town with its author's vanity and heaviness. The Knickerbocker History was the sort of broad travesty that the victim calls coarse caricature and it might not have survived so long and so acceptably if the victorious English race had not grown with the city and continued the local temper that most enjoyed the humor. Certainly the old Dutch town cannot be credited with producing Irving, except on the theory of opposites; it furnished the material, but the hand that wrought it was English by blood and breeding. It belonged to the situation that the observer should be of a different kind; the subject gained by his aloofness from it. If one to the manner born could never have seen the broad humor of it, neither could he have touched the Knickerbocker world with that luminous sentiment which by another smile of fortune made Rip Van Winkle immortal. Individuality has played an uncommonly large part in our literature, and its part is always greater than is usually allowed; and, after all, Irving created this past; he was the medium through whom it became visible; and it still lies there in the atmosphere of his genius, not in the crudity of its own bygone fact. He found the old Dutch life there in the little city, and up and down the waterways, in his cheerful, tender, and warm youth; he laughed at it and smiled on it; and what it was to his imagination it came to be as reality almost historic to his countrymen.

It is all a colonial dream, like Longfellow's Acadie; and the witchery of literature has changed it into a horizon of our past where it broods forever over the reaches of the Hudson north ward. Hawthorne's Puritan past is not more evasive; but a broad difference is marked by the contrast of The Scarlet Letter and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow; the absence of the moral element is felt in the latter; and a grosser habit of life, creature comfort, a harmless but unspiritual superstition, a human warmth, a social comradery, are prominent in Irving's lucubrations, and these are traits of the community ripened and sweetened in him. Irving must have been a charming boy, and in his young days he laid the bases of his life in good cheer, happy cordiality, the amiableness of a sensitive and pleasurable temperament, which he developed in the kindly and hospitable homes of the city. He was all his days a social creature, and loved society, masculine and feminine; and going from New York to a long European experience of social life, he returned to be one of the finest types of a man so bred, fit to be one of the historic literary figures of a commercial and cosmopolitan city.

Irving, however, thorough American of his day though he was, bore but little relation to the life of the nation. He was indebted to his country for some impulses of his genius and much material which he reworked into books; but he gave more than he received. Our early literary poverty is illustrated by the gifts he brought. He was a pioneer of letters, but our literary pioneers, instead of penetrating further into the virgin wilderness, had to hark back to the old lands, and come again with piratical treasures; and in this he was only the first of a long line of Continental adventurers. Much of American literary experience, which comes to us in our few classics, was gained on foreign soil; and, in fact, it must be acknowledged that, like some young wines, American genius has been much improved by crossing the seas. Irving was the first example. Commerce naturally leads to travel, and he went out as a man in trade to stay a few months. He remained seventeen years. It was not merely that he received there an aristocratic social training and opportunity peculiarly adapted to ripen his graces—and the graces of his style and nature are essentially social graces—but subjects were given to him and his sympathies drawn out and loosed by both his English and his Spanish residences.

Sentiment and romance were more to him than humor, and grew to be more with years; and in the old lands his mind found that to cling to and clamber over that otherwise might not have come to support his wandering and sympathetic mood. Genius he had, the nature and the faculty of an imaginative writer; what he needed was not power, but opportunity; and at every new chance of life he answered to the time and place, and succeeded. He alone of men not English-born has added fascination to English shrines and given them that new light that the poet brings; and he has linked his name indissolubly for all English-reading people with the Alhambra and Granada. It was because of his American birth that he wrote of Columbus, and perhaps some subtle imaginative sympathy always underlies the attraction of Spain, which is so marked, for American writers; but it was not unfitting that in his volumes of travel sketches the romantic after-glow of Spain should bloom in our western sky. By such works, more than by his English scenes, which will always seem an undivided part of English literature, he gave to our early literature a romantic horizon, though found in the history and legend of a far country, which it had hitherto lacked; and it is a striking phenomenon to find our writers, on whom the skies shut down round the shores of the New World, lifting up and opening out these prospects into the picturesque distance of earth's space and the romantic remoteness of history, as if our literary genius were gone on a voyage of discovery. It shows the expansion of the national mind, the cessation of the exiguous exile of the colonial days, the beginning of our reunion with the nations of the world, which still goes on; and in this reunion, necessary for our oneness with man, literature led the way in these romantic affections of our first travelled man of letters, Irving, in whose wake the others followed.

The third point of contact that Irving's genius found with the larger life of his native land was in the realm of exploration. It was long now since the human tide had swept from the shores and inlets of the sea through the great forests and down the Appalachian slopes and broken in broad streams upon the open prairie; and the adventures were already threading the thin trails of the desert and high mountain solitudes. Here was the new and unused material of national experience, and to this day its riches have gone to waste, so far as literature is concerned. Irving, however, on his late return home, was struck with admiration at the vast progress made into the western wilderness; and he perceived its literary utility. A journey he made in the southwest gave him the near view he always needed to stimulate his descriptive power and to wake his eye for incident, and in his Tour of the Prairies he wrote down our best literary impression of the actual scene. It was no more than a traveller's journal, but it remains unique and interesting. Unfortunately his temperament was not such as to respond with creative power over this new world.

The theme did not pass beyond the realistic stage of treatment, just as in the case of Poe, who also saw the subject in his Julius Rodman, though Irving's handling far surpasses Poe's by virtue of his personality and the charm that radiates from it. Even less in Astoria and Captain Bonneville did Irving win the heart from this western mystery. The matter remained crude, fine in its facts, but unimaginative, unwakened, unbreathedon by the spirit that giveth life. The Americanization of the wilderness was going on, but its literature was like that of the settlement of the coast in the earlier time, a mass of contemporary, rudely recorded experience and memory; the routes of the furtraders still led only to and from the Astor counting-room; Irving observed and noted, and made a book or two of the discovery, but his imagination was not of the sort to draw out the romance of it, for it had no element of the past, and the past was his mother muse.

It was the second writer who sprang up in the old city of New York, Cooper, who was to create in this broad field of national expansion, though in narrowly limited ways far from adequate to the vast sweep and variety of its immensely efficient life. Cooper subdued for literature the forest and the sea, and brought them into the mind's domain; but it was rather as parts of nature than as the theatre of men. The power of the scenery is most felt in his work, and prevails over the human element. It is a just perspective, nevertheless, and true to the emotion of the time and place.

He began very naturally. His first interest was in character, the personality that he immortalized as Harvey Birch, and in the events so near in memory to him and so close in locality, the Revolutionary scene as it was in Westchester; and out of these he made a historical tale that was the corner-stone of a great literary reputation. But it was not long before he went deeper into the sources of his own experience for theme and feeling, and his most characteristic work was a part of himself, and that self which had shared most widely in the novel and broad experience of American life. He had grown up under the shadow of the wild forest and in the sunlight of the lake and clearing, in close contact with nature all his boyish days; familiarity with the forest gave him at a later time of youth the open secret of the sea, so much the same are the ground tones of nature; and ceasing to be midshipman and lieutenant, he had, so to speak, made the rounds of the great elements in whose primitive simplicities he set his story. There was something of the artist in him, but nothing of the poet, and he felt the impressiveness of nature, its opposition to society and law and man, as our common humanity feels them, not in Wordsworthian aloofness and spiritual interpretation, but as a real presence, an actuality, a thing of fact. His popular vogue in France was prepared for him by a pre-established harmony between the eloquent French dream of the life of nature and his narrative where nature still brooded as in a lake, so near was he to her presence; but what was to the foreigner a new Areadia only, an illusion of the heart, was to him a [familiar] world.

Being a novelist, he concentrated this vague emotion of the free majesty of nature in a character of fiction, Leather Stocking, one of the great original types of romanticism in the past century. Yet Leather Stocking, like Knickerbocker, is pure myth, though with a root in the soil too; an incarnation of the forest border, a blend of nature and man in a human form, thoroughly vitalized, impressive, emotional, an ideal figure. It is characteristic of our greater writers, even our humorists, to be nearer to the American idea than to anything concretely American. The infusion of grandeur—the word is not inappropriate—in Cooper's work is what gives it distinction, and most in its most imaginative portions. It is true that he invented the sea novel, as was not unnatural in view of his experience of our maritime life and of the great place of that life in our national activity and consciousness; and he used colonial, Revolutionary, and border history out of our stores to weave incident, plot, and scene; but it is not these things that make him national, but the American breath that fills his works; and where this is least, the scene grows mean, petty, awkward, inept, feeble; and where it is greatest, there the life is found, in The Pathfinder, The Deerslayer, The Prairie. He was abroad, like Irving, for many years, and gained thereby, perhaps through contrast and detachment merely, a truer conception and deeper admiration of democracy, its principles, aims, and energies; but he was national, when Irving was international; and if Irving, in his literary relation to his country, is rather thought of as an influence upon it, Cooper was its effluence, the American spirit in forest, sea, and man taking on form, feature, and emotion first in his world, sentimentalized, idealized, pictorial though it was. The best that literature achieves is a new dream; this was the first dream of American life, broad and various, in its great new solitudes of sea and land.

Irving and Cooper were the two writers of the first rank in our letters. Sharply contrasted in their careers as well as in character, and curiously overlapping in their experience and writings, neither of them was a true product of the city, or bound to it except in ephemeral ways. The one beloved, the other hated, their reputations were alike national. American literature, which was in no sense provincial, began with them. A third great name, which is as large in tradition, at least, is linked with theirs in the city's literary fame. Bryant was a New-Englander by birth and remained one in nature all his life, but his name lingers where he had his career, in the metropolis. It belongs to a city in which, of all the cities of the earth, nativity is the least seal of citizenship to appropriate justly the works of its foster-children; and Bryant illustrates, as a New-Yorker, its assimilation of the sons of all the nation. In the Niagara of life that forever pours into its vast human basin there has been a constant current from New England, important in the city's life and control. What Beecher was in religion, Bryant was in poetry, an infusion of highly liberalized moral power. Irving said there was nothing Puritanical in him, nor had he any sympathy with Puritanism; and Cooper hated the New England type, though he was pietistic to an uncommon degree. Between them they represented the temper of the New York community on both its worldly and evangelical side. Bryant, however, offers a sharp contrast to them, for he had precisely that depth of moral power that was his heritage from Puritanism, and marked in the next generation the literature of New England, setting it off from the literature of New York. Depth, penetration, intensity, all that religious fervor fosters and spirituality develops, was what Irving and Cooper could lay no claim to. In Bryant something of this, in an early, primitive, and simple form of liberalism, came into the city, though it was not naturalized there. So lonely is it, indeed, that it is almost impossible for the mind to identify Bryant the poet with Bryant the editor. He himself kept the two lives distinct, and his distance and coldness was the aloofness of the poet in him from the world about him.

It is hard in any case to localize Bryant, not merely in the city, but in America, because he is so elemental in his natural piety. That something Druidical that there is in his aspect sets him apart; he was a seer, or what we fancy a seer to be, in his verse, a priest of the holy affections of the heart in communion with nature's God, one whose point of view and attitude suggest the early ministration of adoring Magians, the intuition of Indian sages, or the meditations of Greek philosophers. A sensitive mind can hardly rid itself of this old world or early world impression in respect to Bryant. The hills and skies of Berkshire had roofed a temple for him, and the forest aisled it, and wherever he moved he was within the divine precincts. Eternity was always in the same room with him. It was this sense of grandeur in nature and man, the perpetual presence of a cosmic relation, that dignified his verso and made its large impression; even his little blue gentian has the atmosphere of the whole sky. He was a master of true style, as refined in its plainness as was Irving's in its grace. If he was not national in a comprehensive sense, he was national in the sense that something that went to the making of the nation went to the making of him; the New England stock which had spread into the west and veined the continent with its spirit as ore veins the rock was of the same stuff as himself, and the rare manifestation of its fundamental religious feeling in his pure and uncovenanted poetry was the same as in Channing's universality. Present taste may forget his work for a time, but its old American-spirit has the lasting power of a horizon peak; from those uplands he came, and some of the songs sung there the nation will long carry in its heart. He was the last of the early triad of our greater writers, and his presence is still a memory in the city streets; but the city that was greater for his presence, as for that of Irving and Cooper who had passed away before him, is also greater for their memory.

Between the greater and the lesser gods of the city there is a broad gulf fixed. Irving, Cooper, and Bryant were on the American scale; they were national figures. There were almost none who could be described as second to them. Every metropolis, however, breeds its own race of local writers, like mites in a cheese, numerous and active, the literary coteries of their moment. To name one of them, there was Willis; he was gigantic in his contemporaneousness. He is shrunk now, as forgotten as a fashion-plate, though once the cynosure of the literary town. He was the man that Irving by his richer nature escaped being, the talented, clever, frivolous, sentimental, graceful artifice of a man, the town-gentleman of literature; he was the male counterpart of Fanny Fern and Grace Greenwood; he outlasted his vogue, like an old beau, and was the super-annuated literary journalist. Yet in no other city was he so much at home as here, and in the memoirs of the town he would fill a picturesque and rightful place. A court would have embalmed him, but in a democracy his oblivion is scaled.

One or two other early names had a sad fortune in other ways. Drake and Halleck stand for our boyish precocity; death nipped the one trade sterilized the other; there is a mortuary suggestion in the memory of both. Halleck long survived, a fine outside of a man, with the ghost of a dead poet stalking about in him, a curious experience to those who met him, with his old-fashioned courtesy and the wonder of his unliterary survival. Of the elder generation these are the names that bring back the old times, Willis, Drake, and Halleck; and they all suggest the community in a more neighborly way than the national writers.

There was a culture in the old city, and a taste for letters such as grows up where there are educated men of the professions and a college to breed them. The slight influence of Columbia, however, and the main fact that it developed professional and technical schools instead of academic power, point to the controlling factor in the city's life, its preoccupation with practical and material interests. Literature was bound in such a modern community to be bottomed on commerce; whatever else it might be, it was first an article of trade to be used as news, circulated in magazines, sold in books. It has become, at present, largely an incident of advertising. New York was a great distributing centre, and editors, publishers, and writers multiplied exceedingly. The result was as inevitable here as in London or Paris, but the absence of a literary past and of a society of high-bred variety made a vast difference in the tone and in the product. Parnassus became a receding sentimental memory, fit for a child's wonder-book like Hawthorne's; but Bohemia was thronged, and its denizens grew like mushrooms in a cellar. There was, too, from the beginning, something bibulous and carnivorous in the current literary life; the salon did not flourish, but there was always a Bread-and-Cheese Club in the city, and indeed its literary legend from the days of Irving's youthful suppers, not excluding its greater names, might be interestingly and continuously told by a series of memories of its convivial haunts. The men who frequented them and kept each other in countenance were as mortal, for the most part, as Pfaff's, for instance, once the Mermaid of the town wits. Such resorts, too, are hot-houses for the development of clever lads; and literature suffered by the overproduction of small minds. When in the history of letters gregariousness begins, one may look out for mediocrity. Great writers have found themselves in exile, in prison, in solitudes of all sorts; and great books are especially written in the country. Literature, too, is naturally exogamous; it marries with the remote, the foreign, the strange, and requires to be fertilized from without; but Bohemia, shut in its own petty frivolities, breeds the race of those manikins of Manhattan whose fame Holmes gibed at as having reached Harlem. Open Griswold and find their works; open Poe's Literati and find their epitaphs; of such is the kingdom of the Bohemians the world over. Such a race is incidental to a metropolitan literature. Nor were they altogether inferior men; many of them led useful lives and won local eminence; some even achieved the honors of diplomacy. They contributed much to their own gayety, and enlivened life with mutual admiration and contempt. Poe stirred up the swarm considerably. But no satire embalmed them in amber, and they are forgotten even by their own successors.

The city grew to be, through these middle years of the century, an ever-increasing mart of literary trade. The people, with their schools and Sunday-schools and habits of home reading, were to be supplied with information and entertainment; and New York, like Philadelphia, became a great manufactory of books. The law of demand and supply, however, has a limited scope in literature; it can develop quantity, but not quality. Textbooks, encyclopedias, popular knowledge, travel, and story all spawned in great numbers; but the literature of creation and culture continued to be sparse. It might have been thought that the literature of amusement, at least, would have flourished, and songs and plays have abounded; in fact, they did not exist except in the mediocre state. This infertility of the metropolis in the lasting forms of literature brings home to us the almost incredible famine of the time more sharply than even the tales that are told of the lack of expectation of any appreciation felt by the first great writers.

Irving's discovery that he could live by literature was a surprise to him; he had begun with an experiment rather than an ambition, and, having thus found his humor, he went on to make trial of sentiment, pathos, and romance. Cooper had no confidence, scarcely a hope, that an American novel would be accepted by his own countrymen. They had become so used to their lack of native productions as to mistake it for a permanent state. It was almost an accident that Cooper ever finished The Spy, and he did it much as the writer of a poem of classic rank to-day would complete it, in the scorn of circumstance and probably in ignorance of its reception.

The success of the greater writers was immediate and great; the city gave them dinners and has reared their statues, and was proud of them at the time in a truly civic way; but a cold obstruction of genius has set in ever since. The lesser writers approached them only on their feeblest side. Perhaps the bulk of emotional writing in every kind was of the sentimental sort. The men produced a good deal of it, but the women revelled and languished in it. "Ben Bolt," the popular concert-hall tune of its day, was a fair example of its masculine form; and such writers as Mrs. Osgood and the Cary sisters illustrate its feminine modes. Sentimentality is apt to seem very foolish to the next generation in its words, but in character it survives with a more realistic impression; and in Poe, in his relations to these literary women, one sees the contemporary type. He was mated with Willis as the dark with the sunny, and as misery with mirth. He enchanted the poetesses, and was enchanted, finding in each one a new lost Lenore. All his female figures, in their slightly varied monotone, Annabel and Annie, are in the realm of this sentimentality gone maudlin in him, as it had gone silly in others. It was most wholesome when it stayed nearest to nature and domestic life; but here, too, it was feeble and lachrymose. The breath of the civil war put an end to it for the time; but even that great passion left few traces of itself in our letters. The writings of Dickens favored sentimentality, and much more the poems of Mrs. Browning and the early verse of Tennyson. We had our "little Dickenses," but it is significant of the temperament of our literature that we had not even a "little" Thackeray. Just above this level there was here and there a cultivated author, reminiscent of sentiment in its purer forms—of Lamb and Irving, for example—of whose small number Curtis stands eminent for cheerfulness, intrinsic winningness, and unfailing grace. He was the last of the line that began with Irving, through which the literary history of the city can be traced as if in lineal descent. In him sentiment was what it should always be, a touch, not the element itself.

It is quite in the order of things that in a literature so purely romantic as our own has been in the greater writers, sentimentality should characterize those of lesser rank, for it naturally attends romanticism as an inferior satellite. It has all vanished now, and left Lenore and Annie and Annabel its lone survivors. We are a romantic and sentimental nation, as is well known, and we are also a nation of efficiency. The literary energies of the nation, apart from its genius, have been immense, in reality; they have gone almost wholly into popular education in its varied forms, and in no city upon such a scale as in New York. The magazines and the great dailies exhibit this activity in the most striking ways, both for variety and distinction; and on the side of literature, in the usual sense, from the days of the old Mirror, Knickerbocker, and Democratic, the growth has been steady, and has carried periodical writing to its height of popular efficiency both for compass and power. The multitude of writers in the service have been substantially occupied with the production of news in the broadest sense. The poem and the essay have been rather a thing conceded than demanded, and make a small part in the whole; but the news of the artistic, literary, and scientific worlds—fact, event, personality, theory, and performance—all this has been provided in great bulk. The writers strive to engage attention, to interest, and the matter of prime interest in such a city is the news of the various world. Even in the imaginative field something of the same sort is to be observed in the usual themes and motives. The popularity of the detective story, for example, and of Japanese or other foreign backgrounds, and of the novel of adventure; and the travel and animal sketches, and the like, have an element of news; and the entire popularization of knowledge belongs in the same region of interest.

Thought, reflection, meditation, except on political and social subjects, does not flourish; that brooding on life and experience out of which the greatest literature emerges has not been found, whatever the reason may be, and in fact it is rather a matter of original endowment than of the environment. The literary craft, however, if it lacked genius, has been characterized by facile and versatile talent, and its product has been very great in mass and of vast utility. In no other city is the power of the printed word more impressive. The effective literature of the city is in reality, and has long been, its great dailies; they are for the later time what the sermons of the old clergy were in New England, the mental sphere of the community; and in them are to be found all the elements of literature except the qualities that secure permanence.

Kendall B. Taft

SOURCE: Introduction to Minor Knickerbockers, American Book Company, 1947, pp. xliii-cx.

[In the following excerpt, Taft provides a thoroughly documented examination of those Knickerbockers who succeeded the founders of the Group (Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and William Cullen Bryant), discussing their theories and standards as well as their own work as the principal literary critics and writers of early nineteenth-century America.]


In describing the contributions of the Knickerbocker writers to American literary thought, historians have tended to use such epithets as "timid," "insular," "moralistic," "genteel," "bourgeois," "uncritical," and "sterile."1 Perhaps the vision of a cultural wasteland evoked by such terms is not without a basis in fact, but the picture, in certain important aspects, needs to be modified. although it is probably true that more and better literary criticism came out of New England—especially during its remarkable "flowering" in the late thirties, the forties, and the fifties2—New York's share in the intellectual development of the new nation should not therefore be denigrated.

Granting that there were few critical giants in New York during the Knickerbocker period, one may with some justice maintain that the literary criticism produced was more extensive, more varied, and—possibly—more influential than has commonly been admitted. In the matter of critical periodicals, alone, New York was not inferior to other centers of literary activity: between 1817 and 1840 there were at least twenty such publications established in the city,3 and the more general magazines, such as the Mirror and the Knickerbocker, devoted much of their space to literary notices, book reviews, and critical articles. It is true that relatively few volumes of formal literary criticism (by American authors) were published in New York during the period, but the same generalization can be made, of course, for the country as a whole. For statements of critical theory, the student of our pre-Civil War literature must depend largely on periodicals, prefaces, satires, and remarks made in letters, public lectures, and recorded conversations.

Critical standards in Knickerbocker New York, as elsewhere in the United States, were of the most diverse kinds, coming, as they did, from many sources. On its lower levels, indeed, Knickerbocker criticism may be said to have had no standards. This was particularly true in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, when critical or even semi-critical periodicals were relatively scarce and when the literature itself was striving, somewhat painfully, to outgrow its adolescence. In these earlier years there were occasional attempts on the part of reviewers—and others—to render judgments based on some kind of general principles, but such attempts were often confused or puerile, or both. In these earlier years, also, what may be called pseudo-criticism flourished—literary notices and book reviews prompted almost solely by feelings of friendship or of enmity for the author. The feelings might be either personal4 or political;5 whatever the basis, the "criticism" produced was likely to be a nonsensical farrago, consisting of fulsome flattery, at one extreme, and virulent abuse, at the other. This kind of reviewing, it hardly needs to be said, had not disappeared by 1825, or by 1835, for that matter. By the thirties, however, the better periodicals were frowning upon the practice,6 and reviewing based on at least elementary critical standards tended to be the rule, rather than the exception.

It may be desirable at this point to survey, briefly, the various attitudes toward the purpose of literature—and, incidentally, toward the function of criticism—expressed by the Knickerbocker writers who did concern themselves with critical standards. One does not have to read between the lines to detect several steps or stages in the Knickerbocker approach to critical theory.

As might be expected, the principle of moral utility had a prominent place among the dicta of the earlier critics. That religious, moral, and economic objections to the arts persisted well into the nineteenth century is, of course, a truism. It is not surprising, then, that advocates of literature, and of the arts generally, often thought it necessary to take a defensive or a conciliatory attitude. Typical of this attitude are some remarks made by Gulian C. Verplanck, in 1824, at the opening of the tenth exhibition of the American Academy of the Fine Arts:

Among a people situated like this, to whom comparative freedom from those more pressing cares of life, which weigh heavily and incessantly upon the most numerous class of society in many other countries, leaves much leisure, is it not wise, is it not prudent, is it not consonant to the nature of man, to provide for him some occupations and objects, far lower, we willingly admit, than the exercise of his religious and social duties and affections, but as far above the vicious gratification of grosser appetites—something, that, while it engages and employs his faculties in innocence, at the same time invigorates his mind, and enlarges his conceptions?

Whatever utility in this regard may be justly claimed for elegant literature, or speculative science, may, on the same grounds, be ascribed to taste and knowledge in the fine arts. If, however, some stern and severe moralist should yet doubt whether society derives any real benefit from either source, we may at least ask him, if the time thus employed is not well redeemed from coarse sensuality, from the calumnies and slanders of malicious insolence, from ostentatious luxury, from the dull, dull round of fashionable amusement, or from the feverish strife of personal ambition?7

And in reviewing Catharine Sedgwick's Redwood, in the same year, George Pope Morris reflected a similar attitude when he said:

. . . this excellent novel receives increased value from the pure spirit of morality which breathes through every page. She [the author] places before us our blessed religion, in her most winning garb. . . . The story displays the permanent pleasures of morality, and the inevitable degradation of vice.8

Eleven years later, the editors of the Mirror were much pleased to find their "own opinion as to the utility of fictitious writings" confirmed by the Reverend Sharon Turner, whose Sacred History of the World contained such observations as:

The peculiar susceptibility of the young mind to poetry, to works of felling, to imaginative narrations, and to reading or hearing of romantic incidents, or of supernatural fictions, is striking; and this is so natural and so universal . . . that we cannot err in presuming that it is an effect which was intended to take place. . . . My belief is, that all romantic fiction, which does not actually and purposely paint and praise vice and vicious characters, and seek to make them attractive or imitated, acts advantageously on the mind, and especially on the well-educated spirit, and most certainly adds to the happiness of life.9

The ideas expressed by Verplanck, Morris, and Turner are duplicated throughout the period in many reviews, articles, and books. So often are they duplicated, in fact, that they give a moralistic tinge to the whole body of Knickerbocker criticism. It would be fruitless to argue that the New York critics did not share in the literary gentility common to the time,10 but it may be suggested that this was precisely the attitude forced upon them by the religio-moral objections already mentioned. Before "profane" literature could be criticized from any artistic viewpoint, it had to be granted the right to exist. Hence the insistence of authors, editors, and critics upon the moral value of literature. Hence their frequent—and, one is tempted to add, shrewdly calculated—remarks on poetry, fiction, and drama as valuable adjuncts to the "pure spirit of morality" and to "our blessed religion."11

Related to the principle of moral utility is the notion (it can hardly be called a principle) that the excellence of a work of art depends upon the "moral character" of its creator. A few of the Knickerbocker critics made this notion an article of their literary faith,12 but others dismissed it as a fallacy long since exploded.13 William Cox expressed a fairly general attitude on this question when he objected to having "the obloquy attached to Byron as a man . . . most unjustly brought to bear upon his works, whenever the latter did not, in themselves, furnish matter sufficient for vindictive censure."14

Also akin to the principle of moral utility is the doctrine of the social responsibility of the artist. As the New York critics expounded this doctrine, it had one major implication: since literature may influence the thoughts and the conduct of many readers, it is the obligation of the writer to express—and of course to exemplify—the "highest principles" of religion, morality, patriotism, and so on. "Literature," said one writer, ". . . is perhaps the most powerful of agents upon human character. . . . It most exalts and purifies; or corrupts and destroys. Hence, the importance of the ingredients and complexion of books, particularly the popular or favourite species such as tales and romances."15 The same idea is implicit in a comment made by the anonymous reviewer of a volume of Samuel Woodworth's verse: "It is exactly what American poetry always ought to be—patriotic, moral, chaste, and republican."16 And it is explicit in Verplanck's statement:

The author or artist who has the power of pleasing, has committed to his charge a vast control over the tastes, feelings, and sentiments of all within his reach. But he is himself re-acted upon by those whom he influences. He that hopes to please must accommodate his talent to the tastes and habits of those whom he addresses.17

Deferent though the New York writers were to the readymade principle of moral utility and its corollaries, they were, in general, much more interested in other aspects of literature. Although they frequently gave homage to the idea of its moral value, they paid more attention to its other values—amusement, escape, instruction, and artistry.18 In placing emphasis on these other values, they distinguished themselves from their New England contemporaries, whose main critical concern was likely to be either ethical or philosophical.19

Shortly before he came to New York as an associate editor of the Mirror, N. P. Willis published some hints to writers for periodicals. "Do not be grave," he said. "It is one of the great faults of American magazine writers. Periodical readers expect to be amused, and would exchange all the dignity of a number for a witticism."20 Willis's avowal of amusement as a legitimate function of literature was echoed frequently by other New York writers. "I have seen enough of the world, and of the people of the world," remarked Paulding, "to know that, beautiful as wisdom is, if she would only sometimes condescend to smile, she would be irresistible."21 The pages of the Mirror and the Knickerbocker were always open to amusing verse, sketches, tales, and articles, and the editors of these most representative of New York periodicals consistently defended the value of "light reading."22 The Knickerbocker love of social amusement, of gaiety and conviviality, has already been noted;23 it was only natural that something of the same spirit should appear in the attitude toward literature. Nor was it especially remarkable that many of the local writers should take a somewhat self-conscious delight in the "literature of pleasure . . . at a time when, Lowell said, all New England was a pulpit."24

On the possibilities of literature as escape, the New York writers were almost unanimous in agreement. One of the chief values of good literature, said Verplanck, is that it "emancipates the soul from the bondage of the world, lifting it above the desires, the cares, the meanness, and the follies of the present."25 According to Samuel Woodworm, "this tangible, physical world, with a few exceptions, is a miserable place. . . . But the world of mind, of fancy, of imagination, of invention, oh, that is truly delightful!"26 Even Halleck, who jeered at many of the current sentimentalities, declared that

. . . the weary heart can find repose
From its own pains in fiction's joys or woes.


William Cox epitomized a general point of view when he wrote:

My blessing on books! the quietest of friends, the most unobtrusive of companions; the healthy man's enjoyment, and the sick man's solace! When all goes well and merrily they are a pleasure—when it is otherwise, a consolation. Better than the physician can they "minister to a mind diseased"; and if they cannot "pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow," they are at least "a sweet oblivious antidote" to a thousand petty cares and small vexations, that might fret and irritate—and then corrode and fester in many minds, were it not for the sweet companionship of books!28

Although they admitted the potentialities of literature as an escape from the dullness and vexations of everyday life, the Knickerbocker writers also recognized that certain kinds of literary expression might have a very immediate, practical value. The literature of politics, of commerce, of theology, of history, of science, of manual instruction—all these and other types of instructive writing were read, reviewed, and admired. Most of the Knickerbocker writers commented at one time or another on the pre-eminently "practical genius" of New York City.29 When Willis came down from Boston, in 1831, he was impressed by the fact that "the one broad and long picture stamped upon the face of every street, creature, and countenance" in New York was "gain." And yet he was "agreeably disappointed" to discover that the mercantile society of the city possessed many cultured men and an equal number of charming, accomplished women. "Every day," he said, "I have stumbled . . . upon some self-cultivated and unsuspected scholar, with whom a book was a topic to be mentioned in a suppressed tone, but still a topic well understood and well talked upon."30 Lecture courses were popular in the city throughout the Knickerbocker period,31 and other efforts toward self-improvement were encouraged. In such an environment it was to be expected that the literature of practical knowledge would thrive. As early as 1817, Paulding observed this tendency, and remarked: "Aided by the vast magazine of knowledge contained in books accessible to every one at this present time, the aspiring genius has ample means and opportunities for self-cultivation, the best of all possible cultivation."32

It was toward problems of artistry, however, that the Knickerbocker writers—especially those who ventured into the field of criticism—directed their most frequent remarks. That much of their criticism was crude, stumbling, and, from the standpoint of the twentieth century, jejune, does not alter the main fact: the New York writers were more interested in the art of literature than in (what to them were) its secondary or incidental characteristics. This does not mean that they thought of literature—that is, of belles-letters—as something divorced from life.33 Nor does it mean that there were no dissenting voices among them; there was Cooper, for instance, who used the novel mainly as a medium for social criticism and apparently believed that literary art was less important than a "message."34 It is of considerable significance that few of Cooper's New York contemporaries understood his intention or agreed with his thesis.35 As we have seen, the Knickerbocker critics sometimes raised the questions: What morally useful end does this work serve? Does it inculcate the "highest principles of truth and virtue"? Is it, perhaps, designed merely to "amuse an idle hour"? Or does it convey some form of useful knowledge? But far more often they asked: How well, artistically, has the author performed his task? Their answers to this last question reflect a variety of critical standards.36

Probably the most common critical attitude was one inherited from the eighteenth century. Criticism should be judicial: an author's excellencies and defects should be weighed, and if the merits exceed the faults, the work may be pronounced good.37 Many of the Knickerbocker critics agreed with Addison, however, in believing that more attention should be given to excellencies than to defects. Writing an article on criticism in 1831, Theodore S. Fay approvingly quoted Addison's statement:

"A true critic ought to dwell rather upon excellencies than imperfections, to discover the concealed beauties of a writer, and communicate to the world such things as are worth their observation. The most exquisite words, and finest strokes of an author, are those which very often appear the most doubtful and exceptionable to a man who wants a relish for polite learning; and they are these, which a sour undistinguishing critic generally attacks with the greatest violence."38

A number of years later, C. F. Hoffman expressed very much the same idea when he remarked: "That criticism is most true which rather seeks the good than the evil, albeit not ta shun our defects or to deny them where they exist. A book, like a man, should be judged by its goodness rather than its badness, unless the latter predominate, when it must soon condemn itself."39 It was Hoffman, also, who commented on an inherent weakness of judicial—or, indeed, of any other—criticism as practiced in America during the early nineteenth century.

The standard of criticism adopted in this country [he said], is, for the most part, equally unjust, and incorrect. Our criticism is comparative, not absolute! We praise a book, because we fancy that it bears some faint resemblance to some other book be praised in London—for a similar reason we condemn another—and we betide the author, whose book we can compare to nothing.40

Hoffman did not bother to distinguish carefully between absolute and comparative criticism, nor did he suggest ways in which absolute standards might be achieved.41 But Edward S. Gould,42 a contemporary of Hoffman's, was more explicit. He not only indicated some of the principles upon which a competent judicial critic should proceed, but gave an example of "the perfection to which [such] criticism may attain." According to Gould:

[Our critics] evince no interest in the welfare of our literature, by expending time or talent in its revision. Their criticisms are, for the most part, superficial in every particular. They very seldom descend to the analysis of merit and demerit, in detail. They give no reasons why this is pronounced excellent; or that, execrable. They deal chiefly in general terms, and hyperbole; seize some one prominent feature, and make that the criterion for their verdict; and, by means of extracts, fill up a large space with the sentiments of the author, which should be occupied by their own. . . . But . . . it is still incontrovertibly true, that criticism is itself a high department of literature, and capable of displaying a degree of intellectual power equal to almost any kind of writing whatever. Johnson's Review of Milton may, perhaps, be cited as a proof of the perfection to which criticism may attain, and of the talent it may embody. It is an illustrious specimen of impartial analysis both of the defects and the beauties of an author; and it transmits to the reader in distant ages the privilege of studying that great master of verse with the comprehensive intelligence and the disciplined judgment of Johnson's gigantick mind.43

Gould gives a none too flattering account of American critical writing in 1836,44 but his article—with its emphasis on a reasoned "analysis of merit and demerit" and its reference to the "comprehensive intelligence" and "disciplined judgment" of Johnson—exhibits his admiration for the neo-classical ideal of judicial criticism. And, despite Gould's strictures, it is clear that many of his New York contemporaries shared this admiration.45 Even when they condemned the social and political morality of the English neo-classicists, some of the Knickerbocker writers were still able to admire their literary and critical ability.46 In any event, and whatever its immediate background in British literary culture,47 much of the criticism published in New York during the Knickerbocker period may be described as judicial criticism.

Some of the Knickerbockers, however, had small use for measured judgments of writers and literature. Distrusting the analytical methods of traditional criticism, they were inclined to rely more on "feeling" than on intellectual appraisal; to them, the emotional effect produced was more important than the instrument used. Like their more judicial compeers, they were concerned with problems of artistry, but in a less precise way. In short, their criticism was subjective, impressionistic, and appreciative.

This kind of criticism appeared with increasing frequency in the thirties and forties, although it was not altogether lacking in the earlier part of the period. Washington Irving, Professor Pochmann tells us, "was, by and large, a sympathetic impressionist before impressionism became popular."48 Appreciative criticism as practiced by the English romanticists was slow to gain a wide audience in this country,49 but such writers as Lamb, Hazlitt, and DeQuincey had individual admirers here and there, and, more important still, romanticism was "in the air" in America well before 1830. It was but a step from political and religious liberalism to literary individualism:50 the practice of a criticism based on personal tastes, feelings, and reactions was certain to attract some of the New York writers who had grown to maturity in the age of Byron and Shelley.

"The volume before us," said a reviewer of George Hill's The Ruins of Athens, "might have been better. There are points obviously open to improvement, a few thoughts which should have been omitted, others capable of enlargement, and, in one or two instances, imitations . . . which are injudicious, and may provoke the wrath of the stop-watch people; but there are also numerous passages of fervid fancy and graceful simple feeling, which, we trust, will not be overlooked by the reading public."51

When the reviewer made these comments, he was not only speaking to a sentimental generation—although he was obviously doing that. He was also speaking for himself. He was saying, in effect: "I like this book of verse. Even though judicial critics may not approve, it appeals to my sensibilities, and you—the reader—will probably feel the same way about it." This is not a lofty critical standard, perhaps, but it was from some such assumption as this that the great bulk of early subjective criticism proceeded. It offered a convenient formula for the criticism of romance, especially of sentimental romance, and it was bound to appeal to those writers who shrank from the formalities of judicial analysis.

Of the minor Knickerbockers, the most successful practitioners of impressionism were Willis, Cox, and Fay. To the pages of his American Monthly Magazine (1829-31) Willis contributed numerous appreciative essays on books and authors,52 and his later literary comments were of the same general variety.53 A fairly typical Willis review begins: "We love this rambling, familiar gossip. It is the undress of the mind. There are few people who possess the talent of graceful trifling, either in writing or conversation. Study may make anything but this. It is like naïveté in character,—nature let alone."54 And his attitude toward the purpose of criticism is rather clearly indicated in this statement: "For myself, I am free to confess I am one of those who like to take the first taste of an author in a good review. I look upon the reviewer as a sensible friend, who came before me to the feast, and recommends me the dish that has most pleased him."55 William Cox, although endowed with subtler literary perceptions than Willis, had a similar attitude toward criticism.56 His own critical essays, usually devoted to giving his personal reactions to the books he had read or the plays he had seen, were often warmly appreciative.57 On reading these essays, one of Cox's New York contemporaries was reminded of "the poetical eloquence of Hazlitt, and the quaint humour and eccentric tastes of Charles Lamb."58 Theodore Fay, a slighter figure than either Willis or Cox, was inclined at times to be judicial in his estimates of literature,59 but in some of his critical writing he made use of the impressionist technique. This tendency reveals itself, for instance, when he says, in a review of Irving's Alhambra: "The reader must admire the works of Washington Irving as the perfection of refined and elegant writing. He will scarce detect a word out of place—a deficiency, or a superfluity. He will find imagination chastened by taste—humor purified by delicacy, and blended with pathos. In perusing them, many will have smiles on their lips and tears in their eyes."60

In the latter part of the period critical theory and practice show signs of greater maturity, especially in the approach to problems of artistry. Influenced, perhaps, by the German theories of expressionistic criticism through their reading of Coleridge and Carlyle,61 certain New York writers began to develop a "new" critical philosophy. An inclination to discard the "rules" of the older judicial criticism was paralleled by a growing distrust of mere impressionism. There were increasingly frequent demands for a complete criticism—a criticism that would take into account not only the outward form of a literary work but also its inner significance, its motivation, its "essence." This quest is adumbrated, in 1835, in a Mirror editorial on the subject of criticism. "The critic who reviews a book," said the writer, ". . . should first discover what the author proposed and intended to perform, and then examine how he has fulfilled his undertaking. He may indeed go farther than this; he may discuss the question whether that which the author undertook to do was right and proper to be done; but nothing can be more unjust, or more absurd, than to censure the non-performance of what was never undertaken; to find fault because a certain purpose is not effected, which formed no part of the author's plan and for which he has made no effort."62 Only a few years later, in an article on the poetry of Charles Sprague, there appeared a more cogent and far more complete statement of the need for an inclusive criticism. The writer, looking for a guide to a just appraisal of the poet's work, found it in Carlyle's statement of "the principles of German criticism":

Carlyle in his Essay on German literature, gives a clear sketch of the principles of German criticism. "It is not," says he, "a question concerning the qualities of diction, the coherence of metaphors, the fitness of sentiments, the general logical truth, in a work of art, as it was some half century ago, among most criticks; neither is it a question mainly of a psychological sort, to be answered by discovering, and delineating the peculiar nature of the poet from his poetry, as is usual with the best of our own criticks at present; but it is, not indeed exclusively, but inclusively of these two other questions, properly and ultimately, a question of the essence and peculiar life of the poetry itself. The first of these questions, as we see it answered, for instance, in the criticisms of Johnson and Karnes, relates, strictly speaking, to the garment of poetry; the second, indeed, to its body and material existence, a much higher point; but only the last to its soul and spiritual existence, by which alone, can the body in its movements and phases be informed with significance and rational life."

This is true criticism. It gives the author his just deserts. It considers, rather the ideas, than the words in which they are clothed; it examines, more the correctness of opinion, the originality and brilliancy of thought, the beauty of sentiment, than the coherence of metaphor, or even the sequence of logick. Such a critick must possess the "mens divinier," not merely a knowledge of the rules of Karnes and Blair—he must have a kindred feeling with the poet—he must be a poet, and not a cold calculating measurer and inspector of words and sentences.63

The drift toward a more comprehensive criticism was manifested, also, in the increasing tendency to preface articles and reviews with a summary statement of the principles by which the work or the writer is being criticized. By the end of our period, it was no longer safe for a critic to assume that he could "express his function as a mere attitude."64 Thus we find James in an article on Lawson, the poetry of Halleck,65 specifying his critical point of view: "To estimate the poet justly, it is necessary to consider, first, the quality of his mind, and the depth of its resources; second, his enthusiasm, his invention, and truth in delineation; and lastly, the language in which he expresses his thoughts and emotions. In these, so essential to the great poet, few indeed have reached a high degree of excellence."66 Thus, too, we find Charles Fenno Hoffman writing, in a spirited defense of Scott's poetry: "If creative power be the first great element of poetry, and if such thorough mastery of the reader that he shall believe he is reading a mere animated description of things that belong to all poets in common, be the highest test of skill, 'The Lady of the Lake' is one of the most perfect poems ever written. For it is a creation which every one reads as an actual narrative done into verse, which verse is constantly calling up poetic feeling without the reader's ever dreaming that it is poetry itself."67 One does not have to agree with these opinions to recognize that they are more original, more thoughtful, and more mature than the critical dicta current in the first two or three decades of the century.

About the various forms of literature the Knickerbockers, collectively, had a great deal to say.68 It will be possible here to give only a brief resumé of their theories of poetry, drama, and fiction.

In their thinking about poetry, as in their general literary thought, they were of course influenced by many forces. At the beginning of the period, English neo-classical attitudes toward the form and function of poetry were...

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Knickerbocker Periodicals

William Irving, James Kirke Paulding, and Washington Irving

SOURCE: "Publisher's Notice. Shakespeare Gallery, New York. Saturday, January 24, 1807," in Salmagundi; or, The Whimwhams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq., and Others, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1860.

[In this 1807 preface to the Knickerbockers' magazine Salmagundi (reprinted in book form in 1860) the editors display the wit and playfulness characteristic of the writing in that magazine and indicative of the spirit of cultured amusement in which the editors wished it to be regarded by their reading public]

As everybody knows, or ought to know, what a Salmagund is, we shall...

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Writers And Artists

James T. Callow

SOURCE: "Landscape: Similar Techniques and Mutual Publications," in Kindred Spirits: Knickerbocker Writers and American Artists, 1807-1855, The University of North Carolina Press, 1967, pp. 144-72.

[In this excerpt, Callow demonstrates how the Knickerbocker writers and the American painters of the Hudson River School, as a result of their philosophical and aesthetic affinities, used similar methods in their work to portray (especially American) landscapeseven to the point of collaboration on certain picture books.]

The Knickerbocker writers and the American painters used analogous methods to develop their landscapes....

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Further Reading

Aderman, Ralph M. Critical Essays on Washington Irving. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1990, 276 p.

Covering a period of 180 years, contains a broad selection of critical essays on the work of Washington Irving.

Adkins, Nelson Frederick. Fitz-Greene Halleck: An Early Knickerbocker Wit and Poet. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1930, 461 p.

A critical biography of one of the most popular and respected members of the Knickerbockers; it is also an excellent study of the whole of Knickerbocker literature and of the literary tradition in which Halleck wrote.


(The entire section is 807 words.)