In two volumes—the first for the text, the second for the bibliography—the LHUS appeared in 1948, to much acclaim: “the history is a landmark and itself becomes a part of our growing tradition,” declared the Saturday Review. Among the highlights are Spiller’s chapter on Emerson and Gilbert Chinard’s on “The American Dream.”
Emerson meant so much to Spiller that when the LHUS editors divvied up assignments, he “offered to resign if I couldn’t have Emerson.” In that chapter, Spiller defends the Sage of Concord against complaints about his loose prose style, the pithiest of which is Thomas Carlyle’s comparison of the typical Emersonian paragraph to “a beautiful square bag of duck-shot held together by canvas.” Spiller doesn’t deny this and stipulates further that those paragraphs don’t always link up very well. “But it would be a mistake,” he adds, “to conclude that form is lacking. Each paragraph, each essay, has the structure of the circle containing smaller circles within it and itself contained within larger circles. ‘The eye is the first circle,’ wrote Emerson in the shortest of his essays; ‘the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary form is repeated without end.’ His method is organic, a reflection of the structure of the universe as he sees it.”
(Spiller had many other trenchant things to say about Emerson, not only in the LHUS but also in “American Literature 1810-1860,” the course I took from him as a grad student in the fall of 1965.)
Chinard (1881-1972) was a French-born interpreter of French literature and Franco-American relations who taught at Brown and Princeton. In a passage on Benjamin Franklin from the “Dream” chapter, Chinard makes dazzling connections that would have escaped a less cosmopolitan mind:
“[In addition to his Autobiography] Franklin also contributed another important element to the composite portrait of America as it appears to European eyes. He stood, even more than [Robert] Fulton, as the embodiment of the spirit, bold in its aims and yet practical, which characterizes American science; and the great English physicist Humphry Davy praised his work as justifying not only pure scientific research, but the application of science to the service of man. Franklin was the first to give the impression that through science America could achieve the impossible. Thus was established a popular tradition which was reinforced through the pseudoscientific tales of Poe and carried out in the novels of Jules Verne, in which Americans conquer the interstellar spaces and travel to the moon. Later, the tradition, already well established, received a new confirmation in the inventions of Edison.”
Readers today will have little trouble spotting the LHUS’s shortcomings. It contains almost nothing on Native American influences and gives short shrift to blacks (nary a word on the Harlem Renaissance) and women (only one female contributor was recruited, the historian Adrienne Koch). The book is also dated, though not so much in facts as in interpretation. The section on Hart Crane, for example, opines that “partly in consequence of his early emotional insecurity, he was a homosexual,” whereas now we would assume it was the other way around: that Crane’s early sense of being different—and disapproved of for it—led to his emotional insecurity. We should bear in mind, though, that these blind spots mirror the LHUS’s era, which on the plus side was also blessedly innocent of academic jargon.
An incidental benefit of a book like the LHUS is to whet interest in worthy authors and titles that have fallen by the wayside. And so we have plugs for the young Washington Irving’s waggish History of New York (1809), supposedly written by the Dutch historian Diedrich Knickerbocker; Jeremiah Clemens’s Tobias Wilson (1865), a novel about Southern Unionists “which deserves to be rescued from the oblivion that has befallen it”; the explorer Clarence King’s nonfiction Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada (1872), which is called “completely charming … exciting, gay, vigorous, witty, and written in polished and perceptive prose” (in 1973, Mountaineering was republished as edited by my Penn classmate Barbara Messner Long Gr’75); Robert Herrick’s Waste (1924), a novel of “richness and tragic scope” about an engineer disillusioned by the Progressive movement; and Tristram (1927), a long poem on the Arthurian legends by Edward Arlington Robinson, said to be so intensely emotional that it “makes us view with critical eyes the analogous achievements of Tennyson, Arnold, Swinburne, and Hardy.”
Occasionally, too, the reader is warned away from a book or even, in the case of John Dewey, a whole body of work. “He had no ear,” Brand Blanshard writes of the philosopher. “He lacked that sense, partly logical, partly aesthetic, of economy of word to thought, which hits an idea off precisely and memorably; there is strangely little that is quotable in all the vast volume of his writing. The literary censor was lax, so lax as to pass innumerable paragraphs and pages that are awkward, verbose, and shuffling.” After that drubbing, the CliffsNotes version of Dewey sounds like the right way to take him, if take him you must.