SATIRE IN AMERICA
AN ESSAY BY JANET CARPENTER, CLASS OF ’92 AND HASTINGS COLLEGE FACULTY MEMBER FROM 1906 TO 1947
EDITOR’S NOTE: Previous to the present-day Invited Faculty Lectures (sponsored by the Artist Lecture Series’ Main Committee and presented by two faculty members who are chosen by the students from a list of five selected by the faculty), in the 1930s the College sponsored several invited faculty lectures each year. Speaking on March 8, 1938, Janet Carpenter was one of the first professors to be invited to lecture in this series. Professor Carpenter, born in Sturbridge, Massachusetts in 1871, entered Hastings College in 1889. Receiving her Baccalaureate Degree (with Honors) in 1892, she pursued graduate study at several universities, completing work for a Master’s Degree in 1895. She joined the faculty of her Alma Mater in 1906, where she headed up the Department of English from 1912 until her retirement in 1947.
Satire: A literary manner which blends a critical attitude with humor and wit to the end that human institutions may be improved. The true satirist is conscious of the frailty of institutions of man’s devising and attempts through laughter not so much to tear them down as to inspire a remodeling. If the critic simply abuses he is writing invective; if he is personal and splenetic he is writing sarcasm; if he is sad and morose over the state of society he is writing irony or mere gloom. As a rule modern satire spares the individual and follows Addison’s self-imposed rule: to ‘pass over a single foe to charge whole armies.’
Thrall and Hibbard: A Handbook to Literature
It is more than a little difficult for the present day American, who mingles his first cup of coffee with the pungent wit of the cartoons in his morning newspaper, to imagine a time when good-natured satire had no part in the intellectual life of America. So used are we to the tradition of the dry wit of New England, the noisy laughter of the Middle West, and the general good humor of Americans everywhere, that we find it hard to imagine that during the first somber hundred years in the northern colonies, save for one exotic soul, who lingered only a scant dozen years in that uncongenial climate, almost the only vestige of humor in the written records of the colonists was the unconscious humor of the inscriptions on their tombstones. If we can trust the records, public and private, our New England forebears were a deadly serious folk. Satire, it is true, rarely if ever appears in a primitive literature. But literature in America was never primitive. When we began to write on this side of the Atlantic, there already lay behind us more than ten centuries of English culture. Satire had not been indigenous to that culture. The forthright practicality and literalness of the Anglo-Saxon mind was poor soil from which to expect a crop of any kind of wit. That element was contributed by the Norman French, who in their hundred years of life in northern France had acquired much of the quick intelligence and lively wit of the Gallic people whose culture they had assimilated. From the time of the Conquest on, the element of satire was hardly ever lacking in English literature, although, as one might naturally expect, some periods were far more favorable to its appearance than were others.
The age of Elizabeth, the heyday of English letters, though not without its satirists, did not afford them a very favorable field. Life was too inviting, too full of adventure – possibly even too full of peril. The Elizabethan mind was objective, imaginative; England was alive with a new spirit of national enthusiasm. The age was creative, not critical. If there were social ills, few people were conscious of them. If Shakespeare indulged in satire, it went little further than a thrust at a sour-tempered Malvolio, who had no taste for cakes and ale, or a Justice Shallow, a remote progenitor of our own Mr. Milquestoast – a very light-hearted sort of satire. Only one outstandingly great satirist is numbered among the Elizabethans – Ben Jonson, who literary dictator though he was, seems somehow never quite at home in the Romantic England of Elizabeth.
The age that followed the Elizabethan, though boasting no great satirical writings itself, was destined to furnish abundant subject material for satire in the period that followed it. Puritanism, which had steadily been gaining head during Elizabeth’s reign, did not come to its full fruition until some years after the death of the Queen. It ushered in a period of controversy – of clashing ideas, both moral, religious, and political. The brilliance of England’s belated Renaissance gave way to the sober sternness and comparative sterility of an exaggerated Puritanism.
It was at this time, when the fullness of Elizabethan life had ebbed, that English culture was transplanted to the forbidding climate of North Atlantic America. There was no lack of learning among the men who emigrated to America in the early 1600s – perhaps, indeed, there was an overweight of it; but there was very little breadth of culture. And certainly, there was nothing in the milieu into which they passed that was likely to foster the spirit of genial tolerance so essential to the finest kind of satire; no possibility, either, that those who for the sake of religious independence had chosen to exchange the amenities of English life for the hardships of a pioneer life in a harsh climate would achieve the detached point of view that would enable them to see the ironical contradictions in their own way of life.
The New England colonists had left England at a time when political and religious controversy was rife. Settled in the wilds of New England, with local governments that verged on the theocratic, the colonists for the time being can hardly be said to have had any political interests. Neither, for the time being, were they under any necessity to defend their theological positions. They were at liberty to devote their energies to the two objects of greatest concert to them: to wresting a living out of a grudging soil, and to developing the religious and metaphysical implications of their Calvinistic faith. Their intellectual powers were absorbed in such studies. They had no time, as they had no inclination, to take a playful view of the foibles of human nature. Furthermore, the freedom from economic pressures and the almost total absence of social classifications, other than on purely intellectual grounds, resulted in a uniform decency and dignity of life that offered no justification for a literature of social protest. Society in the colonies was still too simple in its organization and the moral character of the people too generally high to allow the development of the social ills that call out satire. Altogether there seemed not the least likelihood of a satirical literature springing up among the New England colonists until the slow effects of climate and changing social, political, and economic conditions should have fundamentally altered the character and customs of the people.
It is something of a surprise, therefore, to find in Massachusetts within a quarter of a century after the coming of the Pilgrims, one of the ablest satirists of the first half of the seventeenth century: Nathaniel Ward. Ward can hardly be classed as an "American writer," for he remained in the colony only from 1634 to 1646. During that time, however, he wrote his famous pamphlet entitled "The Simple Cobbler of Agawam," a spirited attack on the ideas and institutions of the day that were not to his liking. In it he bestowed his satire liberally and without distinction on the flood of new opinions that threatened to inundate all the old positions of religious and political orthodoxy, both in the colonies and in England. On the title page of his pamphlet he informs us that he is "willing to help ’mend his native country, lamentably tattered both in the upper-leather and the sole, with all the honest stitches he can take."
The political and theological matters that called out Ward’s attack have long since ceased to interest us, but when he directs his satire at the foibles of human nature, and particularly at the fads and fashions of the day, he is on perpetually interesting ground. While he does not altogether neglect the gentlemen, nevertheless it is the ladies who are the chief objects of his spleen. After a scathing attack upon the styles of the day, he rises to a climax of scorn when he contemplates the ladies’ headgear. "It is no marvel," he declares, "that they wear drailes on the hinder parts of their heads, having nothing as it seems in the forepart, but a few squirrels’ brains to help them frisk from one ill-favored fashion to another." He does modify his wrath sufficiently to add that he is not referring to those who "follow fashions slowly, a flight shot or two off," but only those "light-heeled beagles that lead the chase so fast." This is no Addison, no polished man of the world, thinking to laugh men and women good-humoredly out of their foolishnesses. Here we have the chronic grouch, who amuses us as much by his own impatience as by the matters he holds up for ridicule. For him the times were sadly out of joint.
The Puritan colonial life proved too uncongenial for him, and in 1646 Ward returned to England, taking with him for publication the manuscript of his "Simple Cobbler," with which he hoped to help mend his lamentably tattered country.
It is hardly a matter of surprise to us that following Ward’s brief stay in America we should find the literature of the colonies quite devoid of satire for three quarters of a century. Meanwhile, seventy-five years of exposure to the salty New England air, together with the confidence engendered by successful pioneering, had made Americans out of the sons of the Englishmen who had landed on Plymouth Rock three generations before. By that time the always independent, and none too reverent, Franklin family had become established in Boston. James Franklin, elder brother of Benjamin, and Editor of the New England Courant, established in 1721, organized a group of daring young gentlemen under the engaging name of the "Hell-fire Club," and in company with them, undertook a campaign of satire against the Mather dynasty. If ever a family laid itself open to the attacks of satirists, it was the Mathers. One would look far to find their equals for ponderous pedantry, unrelieved by any vestige of wit or humor. So effective was the satire of James Franklin and his associates that Cotton Mather was moved to write in his diary that "warnings" were to be given to "the wicked Printer and his accomplices who every week publish a vile Paper to lessen and blacken the Ministers of the Town, and render their Ministry ineffectual. A wickedness never parallel’d anywhere upon the Face of the Earth." The "warnings" were effective, if not with the culprits, at all events with the Boston magistrates, who took measures to end such unseemly attacks. And so, as a consequence, James Franklin , the "Wicked Printer," languished for several weeks in the Boston common jail!
Possibly the one person of that period in our history best fitted to be the satirist par excellence is rarely thought of as a satirist at all. Benjamin Franklin, younger brother of James, had the wit, the shrewd insight into human nature, the emotional detachment, the poise, urbanity, and the tolerant kindliness indispensable to the writer who is to win highest honors in the field of satire. He had, too, lightness of touch, and a gift for pointed expression almost equal to that of Dean Swift. But the practical Benjamin, unlike the Hell-fire James, was as prudent as he was witty. Consequently, he was content to restrict his satire to keen but genial comment on the minor weaknesses of human nature. His satire is found mainly in his lighter sketches, and much of it has no doubt been lost with the bulk of his earlier work, which he unfortunately made no effort to preserve. His "Letters to Celia Single, Anthony Afterwit, and Alice Adder-tongue" have a distinctly Addison flavor. Always completely independent, but early-on convinced of the folly of giving offence needlessly, he became more and more completely the man of the world, freed from illusions, never self-deceived, observing humanity – himself included – with kindly amusement – an Addison with a far greater intelligence; a Swift with none of Swift’s bitter cynicism. If he had elected to be a man of letters, rather than a man of affairs, he might have been our greatest satirist.
Satire has not, in general, been a field favored by women writers; however, quite early in our literature we find one woman who, at least in her own day, gained considerable distinction in that field. This was Mistress Mercy Warren, sister of the distinguished Revolutionary lawyer, James Otis, and, according to John Adams, "the historical, philosophical, poetical, and satirical consort of…General James Warren of Plymouth" – a characterization which seems to suggest that Mr. Adams may have had his opinion of literary ladies. Madame Warren holds her position as satirist chiefly as the author of two plays, The Adulteress, published in 1773, and The Group, in 1775, both of them satires directed at the Royalists. Both plays are written in stiff and tiresome verse. She would have done much better to write in prose, for she wrote a prose that was vigorous and well fitted to convey the rather engaging vindictiveness with which she made her attacks upon the Royalists.
In the tone of her satire, Madame Warren only shares the general spirit of the times. The years just preceding the Revolutionary War were years of hot controversy, both political and theological, carried on with enormous pedantry and in very bad temper. Professor Tyler, in his History of American Literature of the Revolutionary Period, speaks of "the extravagance of misrepresentation, the anger, the coarseness, the barbarous incivility that they heaped upon those opinions with which they disagreed."
In this period there appeared a group of young writers who form a happy contrast to the general spirit of the times. These young men, later known as "Hartford Wits," had been reared in the old Puritan tradition and were possessed of the same fiery earnestness as their Puritan ancestors; but they had felt the liberalizing influence of the literature that was being read in contemporary England. Their tastes were being formed by Pope and Addison and Steele, and other famous wits of the eighteenth century. They were young men of parts: intellectually brilliant, cultured, high-spirited – most of them graduates of Yale.
Outstanding in the group was John Trumbull, a young man in his middle twenties at the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. How young Trumbull had ever escaped growing up into a second Cotton Mather is hard to explain. At the age of two he had begun to learn to read, and in six months had mastered the art. By the time he was four he had read the Bible through, and at the age of seven he passed the examinations for entrance to Yale, though fortunately his parents considered him too young for college and would not allow him to enter until he was thirteen. And believe it or not, this young prodigy lived – and lived to become the liveliest and wittiest of the Hartford Wits.
The earlier writings of Trumbull, both in form and spirit, show the strong influence of Addison. During three years of graduate study at Yale following his graduation in 1767, and later, while serving as a tutor at Yale, Trumbull produced a considerable amount of literary work, mainly in the form of light satirical essays. One of the most entertaining of the skits produced during this period is in the form of an advertisement prepared for the use of a young lady who, at the successful conclusion of her fourth annual campaign for the capture of a husband, is retiring from business and offering for sale her stock in trade.
Much of Trumbull’s satire during this period is directed at the writers of the day. Especially, does he attack their metaphysical maunderings, which he likens to "those vapory fires that appear by night in the meadows," leading their followers "into ponds and quagmires, from which they may thank their lucky stars if they ever get out again." Occasionally, his satire lights upon a subject of more profound import, as when he writes of human slavery and in stinging terms attacks the pious American Christians who were deriving a good part of their wealth from participation in the slave trade.
There must have been a laudable degree of academic freedom in those days, for it was while Trumbull was acting as a tutor at Yale that he wrote the trilogy in verse entitled "The Progress of Dullness," in the first part of which he satirizes the education of his day, particularly education for the ministry. Part One, "On the Adventures of Tom Brainless," opens in a New England farmhouse where Farmer Brainless is talking to his wife about the future of their son Tom, who is both stupid and lazy. The father intends that Tom shall never have to dig a laborious living out of New England soil, as he has been obliged to do, and so he decides that Tom must have a college education. Accordingly, Tom is prepared for college and eventually, by hook or by crook manages to pass the entrance examinations and is matriculated. The poem carries Tom through his college career and on into the ministry, where he "does little good and little harm," being too stupid and too lazy to do much of anything.
Part Two in the trilogy, "On the Life and Character of Dick Hairbrain," is a satire on the rich and dissipated young fop of the period, another type of which Yale already had its share.
Part Three, "On the Adventures of Miss Harriet Simper," is directed against what this young radical regarded as the folly of refusing higher education to women. Like so many young Americans whose natural inclinations were wholly toward a literary career, Trumbull presently decided to give up his first choice and enter a profession that was likely to afford him a more dependable living. Accordingly, he studied law, was admitted to the Connecticut Bar, and late in the year 1773 entered the Boston office of John Adams for an additional year of legal study.
But the tea ships with their cargoes of "high explosives" were even at that time on their way. In less than a month after his arrival in the city, the ships had reached port, the tea had been dumped into the harbor, and Boston had become the fiery center of a political turmoil that engulfed young Trumbull and converted him from a slightly apathetic lawyer with a strong hankering after the life of polite letters that he had reluctantly abandoned, into a zealous patriot ready to devote whatever powers he possessed to the cause of American independence.
A series of anonymous contributions to various newspapers were the first fruits of this conversion. Then, in January of 1776 appeared the mock-heroic "McFingal," since acclaimed by competent critics as one of the ablest satires of the eighteenth century, whether in England or America, and quite fit to stand comparison with the "Hudibras" of Samuel Butler. It was by far the finest piece of literary satire that had been produced by an American. Like all political satire, "McFingal" has lost much of its readableness with the passing into history of the occasion that called it forth; but for any student of the American Revolution it furnishes an authentic and diverting account of "the logic, the anger, and the humor" of a period in our history that can never cease to be of interest. Professor Tyler makes this comment on Trumbull’s famous satire:
Probably as many as forty editions of [McFingal] have been issued in this country and in England. It was one of the forces which drove forward that enormous movement of human thought and passion which we describe as the "American Revolution"; and in each of the great agitations of American thought and passion which have occurred since that time, occasioned by the French Revolution, by the War of 1812, and by the war which extinguished American slavery, this scorching satire against social reaction, this jeering burlesque on political obstructiveness, has been reedited, has been republished, has been sent forth again and again into the world, to renew its mirthful and scornful activity in the ever-renewing battle for human progress.
Two other satirists of the Revolutionary period must be mentioned: Francis Hopkinson and Philip Freneau – utterly unlike each other, though both were enlisted on the side of the revolutionary party. Freneau, strongly attracted in his earlier years toward the higher forms of poetry, felt that in the America of his day no poet could write anything but satire. It may be that an inner resentment against the conditions that dictated his choice of subjects accounts for the bitter tone of his satire. His attacks upon his opponents were fierce and relentless. He was not devoid of humor, but far too rarely was that humor allowed to lighten the bitter pessimism of his satire.
Very different in temperament is Francis Hopkinson, probably best known to most of us as one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, but well known in his own day as the author of A Pretty Story, a delightfully humorous allegory in which he set forth the situation of the colonists and the mother country under the names of "the New Farm" and "the Old Farm." The story, told in perfect good humor, is most amusing. He secures his effects without violence or display of emotion, disconcerting the enemy merely by making them appear absurd.
It is probably early in the writings of Hopkinson that we discover most clearly a new spirit that was entering into American letters. In his works, as well as in those of Trumbull, we are conscious of a deepening perspective, a greater poise, an increase of tolerance, even in a time of intense strife. We sense an increasing urbanity, developing in cultivated minds out of the growing – though only half conscious – feeling of nationalism. Irony, often playful, is coming to take the place of bitter invective. Here and there men are learning to write, even on controversial subjects, as Ben Jonson had once recommended, "without malice or heat."
It is not to be supposed that the satirists were all on the side of the Revolutionists. The Tories had their satirists as well, chief among them being Jonathan Odell, a man not unlike Freneau in the harshness of his satire. His writings were polished and powerful, but grim and scathing. His poems follow the models of the English classical satirists: Dryden, Pope, and Churchill. Some of his scenes are powerfully conceived, as for example, the scene (unmistakably suggested by Milton’s Paradise Lost), in which he represents the fallen angels from Hell, not only as masquerading in the forms of the Revolutionary leaders, but as inspiring the impious revolt against the mother country.
It would be impossible to leave this Revolutionary period in American literature without mentioning the crop of satirical ballads that sprang up in such abundance after the affair at Concord and Lexington. The hasty return to Boston of the much touted British Regulars following their first encounter with the "embattled farmers" let loose a gust of noisy and irreverent laughter. Any number of versifiers whose names have been forgotten joined in the sport, and the number of ballads multiplied. As time went on and the gravity of the situation became more evident, this ballad literature developed a tone of violent, and often coarse, derisiveness, but at the start it displayed the rough and ready, but good-natured, humor that later came to be regarded as "characteristically American."
Satire, which had flourished so largely in the years just preceding the Revolutionary War and during the period of that conflict, did not die out with the close of the War. Now, however, instead of dealing with the concrete issue of American independence, it turned to the discussion of social and economic theories. Noteworthy among the writers of the period is Lemuel Hopkins, a Connecticut doctor, described as "tall, lean, stooping, raw-boned, with coarse features and large brilliant eyes" – a typical Connecticut Yankee. His best known work, the "Anarchiad," is a bitter satire dealing with the struggle that sprang up in the republic between agrarianism and capitalism. Professor Parrington, in his Main Currents in American Thought, describes the poem as follows: "a slashing attack upon agrarian economics and democratic liberalism, a versified echo of the anger of creditors who were fighting the measures of populistic legislatures. The staple of the satire is the wickedness of all paper-money issues, with the State of Rhode Island as the chief of agrarian sinners."
The last writer of this period who calls for our notice is Hugh Henry Brackenridge, a western Pennsylvanian of Scotch birth, a graduate of Princeton University, who had tutored in the College, taught in an academy, studied theology, served as a chaplain in the Revolutionary army, and later studied law. He was a man of great independence of mind, a stout believer in democracy, though with no illusions as to its characteristic and most unlovely faults. The political system that he saw developing around him in this new country was a rough and tumble affair, well described by the term, "coonskin democracy." The sudden upsetting of traditional social and political levels called forth a great deal of loud-mouthed demagoguery and replaced many of the old leaders of state with political climbers of negligible ability and no breeding at all.
Many persons who had been ardent supporters of the theory of democracy were shocked by what they saw when the theory was put into practice. Not so, Brackenridge. His Scotch hardheadedness was proof against the disillusionment of the romantics. He still believed in democracy, though he saw no virtue in flourishing the coonskin cap. His most important satire, called Modern Chivalry, was published in part in 1792, and completed in 1802. The book is a series of adventures mixed with discussions, of one Captain John Farrago and his servant, Teague O’Regan. The Captain is a freelance critic, democratic in his sympathies, but unsparing in his attack upon inconsistencies and absurdities of all sorts. The career of Teague is a broad satire on proletarian ambition to rise to political leadership regardless of ability or preparation. It is sound and clever satire, and might well have continued to be read and heeded, at a considerably later day in American history. That later day did produce at least one satire on Jacksonian democracy: Quodlibet, written by John Pendleton Kennedy, a Southern Whig. The book is lively and mainly good-natured raillery, though with an undertone of the old aristocratic contempt for the political aspirations of the "common man."
To one who is endeavoring to trace the element of satire in American literature, the first half of the nineteenth century has little to offer. In New York in the early years of the century we find the "School of Knickerbocker Romantics," inaugurated by four young gentlemen whose clever sketches appealed to the tastes of polite society. "Bright young fellows," as Tyler characterizes them, "with a charming literary swagger, they aspired to be wits and exploit the amusing foibles of Broadway." Of the four, Fitz Greene Halleck attained the largest reputation as a wit, though even his reputation did not outlast his own day. Only Washington Irving remains to guarantee the standing of the Knickerbocker School, but while his writing abounds in humor, his claim to be regarded as a satirist rests solely on his youthful – and inimitable – History of New York, brought out in 1809 under the pseudonym of Diedrich Knickerbocker. The New York of the twentieth century, which regards itself – and is generally regarded – as the literary capital of America, had no prototype in the New York of a hundred years ago. Professor Barrett Wendell, in his Literary History of America, says of Irving and his contemporaries, "In the work of the earlier New York School,…nothing was produced which touched seriously on either God’s eternities or the practical conduct of life in the United States." Certainly in a literature that never touches seriously on the practical conduct of the life of its own day, it would be useless to look for much of satire, whether light or serious.
Perhaps, however, we should not pass without notice one other piece of satire by a New York writer. It is a curious and little known work by James Fenimore Cooper entitled The Monikins. The book wages a spirited attack on the stake-in-society theory of the eighteenth century. The satire is ill managed and easily misunderstood. The chief interest of the book lies in the revelation it gives of Cooper’s estimate of the human race – a bitterly cynical estimate worthy of Dean Swift himself.
Meanwhile in New England, there was taking place that remarkable late flowering of the Puritan mind that we know as "the New England Renaissance." Gradually, and largely unconsciously, the rigid Calvinism of an earlier day had been replaced by a tolerant, and not too active, Unitarianism. Theology had yielded to metaphysics. Actually, New England morals had not declined. Boston in the early 1800s was as well behaved as it had been in Governor Winthrop’s time, but the New England mind was adventuring along new paths. Harvard was liberalizing its curriculum. Scholarship had never been lacking in New England, but now it had begun to draw upon the resources of foreign cultures. New Englanders were traveling, not merely to England and France – they were traveling to Germany, to Italy, to Scandinavia. In the whole of history, one can hardly find a more eager awakening of a people’s mind.
Nor was this intellectual awakening experienced only at the upper social levels. When Sir Charles Lyell, the famous geologist, and the Swiss-American geologist/zoologist Louis Agassiz visited Boston in the 1840s, they were amazed at the universal interest in education. It was new in their experience to see crowds of workingmen listening to learned lectures on geology, zoology, Shakespeare, and Milton. Charles Dickens, in 1842, found the same astonishing situation among the factory girls in the mills at Lowell. And witness the case of Elihu Burritt, the Worcester blacksmith, that amazing lover of learning who mastered more than forty languages without a teacher, and recorded in his diary – only one among many similar entries – that on a certain Monday, June 18, in 1837, he had read forty pages of Georges Cuvier’s Theory of the Earth and sixty-four pages in French – this to the accompaniment of a headache – and besides had worked eleven hours at his forge. Not, as he modestly affirms, that he "affected" any "singularity"; he merely wished "to stand in the ranks of workingmen of New England and beckon them onward and upward to the full stature of intellectual men."
We need not wonder that the next twenty-five years witnessed the ablest literary production that America had yet achieved. However, the period produced almost no satire. Nor should we be surprised at that fact. What occasion was there for satire? The writers of that day were the young inheritors of a young nation. They had no doubts about America. They believed in their country. America had a mission to perform in the world, and they were eager to do their part in carrying out that mission. As Van Wyck Brooks put it in his history, The Flowering of New England: "They had inherited a nation from their fathers and they meant to make it a great nation." They went to school to European culture, but they went in no spirit of subservience. Europe was Europe, and America, America. Europe was already in the past, but America was all in the making, and they were ready to take their part in making America great. It was, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, one of those "heats and genial periods by which high tides are caused in the human spirit." For a time, at least, the American mind was free from both subservience and from boasting. A man like George Ticknor could travel in Europe, could be loaded with scholastic honors abroad (as he was), could meet the ablest representatives of ancient European aristocracies, whether of intellect or of social standing, with no sense of inferiority either on his personal account or as the representative of a nation with less than half a century of statehood to its credit. We see the same freedom from self-consciousness, the same natural independence, in Longfellow, lover of foreign cultures though he was, in Lowell, in Emerson, in Holmes, and in Thoreau. The New England mind was luxuriating in its newly awakened activity. The times made no bid for satire.
Only in Holmes and Lowell do we find the temper of the satirist. In Lowell that temper is not native; it grows chiefly out of his genuine indignation at conditions that were already moving toward the Civil War. Twice he is inspired to satire, once in The Biglow Papers, where the satire is political, and once in A Fable for Critics, where he makes good-natured fun of his own efforts to scale Mount Parnassus. In the case of Oliver Wendell Holmes – that cheerful student of human anatomy who, in his own words, never dared to be as funny as he could be – the satirical spirit is organic. It was part of his irrepressibly mischievous temperament. He found his fellow New Englanders, particularly those of the Brahmin caste to which he himself belonged, vastly amusing. There wasn’t a shadow of cynicism in Doctor Holmes. His satire was shrewd and penetrating, but always good-tempered. He was the kindly, but amused, observer, who felt no call to cure his fellow mortals – or himself – of the comical quirks in their make-ups.
This high tide in the literary life of New England was ebbing even before the outbreak of the Civil War, and the lowering of the tide became steadily more noticeable after that War. However, the lessening of the productive life was marked by none of the pessimism that might have bred satire.
Meanwhile, the frontiers of the new nation had been moving swiftly westward. Across the Appalachians the tide of American life had swept, along the river valleys and across the great plains of the Middle West, over a second and greater mountain barrier, and on to the shores of another ocean. Life took on a largeness and a sense of adventure that were bound to result, as they presently did, in a literature of romance. There was much of the melodramatic and sensational in this western literature; but satire does not flourish in the atmosphere of romance, whether that romance be genuine or spurious. It is after the first strong waves of pioneering energy have passed by – after the romance has disappeared and left the crude ugliness and dreary commonplaceness of a later phase of pioneer life – that we are faced with the pessimism of a Hamlin Garland or the sneering sarcasm of a Sinclair Lewis.
There was abundant humor connected with the westward movement of the frontier and the literature that grew out of that movement, but only here and there is the note of satire struck. In Charles Farrar Brown, better known as "Artemus Ward," that quaint showman, descendant of New England Puritans, who could convulse an audience by his droll personality before he ever opened his mouth, we have perhaps America’s greatest gift in the way of a sheer fun-maker. But we have much more than that. At heart he was a reformer. "Humorous writers," he once observed, "have always done the most toward helping virtue on its pilgrimage, and the truth has found more aid from them than from all the grave polemists and solid writers that have ever spoken or written." Fred Lewis Pattee, in his history of American Literature Since 1870, says of Brown: "Beneath his kindly, whimsical exterior there was a spirit that could be blown into an indignation as fierce even as Mark Twain’s." However, Charles Farrar Brown was never indignant at anything but immorality, snobbishness, or insincerity.
As for Mark Twain, first known in his own day as a humorist, but taking a far higher place in American letters in a later day as the one who caught and preserved the romance of an era in American life – the steamboat days on the Mississippi – Mark Twain once, in the time of his youth, wrote broad satire. The Innocents Abroad was not meant primarily as a humorous book; it was an honest book of travel. But in it the author makes prodigious sport of the humbugs of European travel and travelers. Though the style of humor in the book is largely out of date, it was in its day a most amusing piece of satire directed at the trumped-up enthusiasms of European travelers and the frauds perpetrated by Europeans in order to capitalize on the sentimentality and gullibility of those travelers. However, Mark Twain does not take rank among our major satirists, for the rollicking attacks upon insincerity and sentimentality gave place in his later work to sharp and cynical invective.
It seems a far cry from Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad, published in 1869, to Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, which appeared in 1915. During that interval of nearly fifty years, such satire as was produced in America was found in newspaper "columns" and cartoons, and in certain wholly humorous publications that made no claim to literary quality. Serious writers were devoting themselves to the novel and the short story, both of which were, for the time, mainly romantic. There is a wider interval, however, between The Innocents Abroad and The Spoon River Anthology than is accounted for by the actual years that separate them. The young American abroad, whose noisy fun-making at the expense of sentimental and gullible American tourists is interspersed with expressions of honest admiration for the really noble works of men, has nothing in common with the middle-aged criminal lawyer of Chicago, who reveals his estimate of the human race by making the inhabitants of Spoon River for one – and that by the way of their tombstones – tell the whole unlovely truth about themselves. It is the difference between youth – clear-sighted and quick in condemnation of the false, but still convinced of the worth of fundamental human nature – and a disillusioned middle-life, disappointed in itself, angry at the loss of its ideals, not yet arrived at the far vision and serene poise of age.
The change in the temper of American life and American letters had begun to make itself felt before the outbreak of the World War, though we were hardly conscious of it until after the War had ended. A sort of inverted idealism possessed us in those years following the War. In material ways America appeared to be riding on a full tide, but in matters of the mind and the spirit all was not well with us. No doubt the natural reaction from the emotional orgies of war had something to do with the situation, but the change had been coming on well before 1914. We had been so sure of ourselves in the earlier days. America had promised so much: a great continent to be possessed; a free people, well-born, intelligent, ready to set up a new and better type of human society. No lack of energy – no lack of resources – why should not America be the Utopia men had been imagining since long before Plato wrote his Republic? And here we were, hardly a century and a half from our beginnings: unhappy, discontented, no nearer the realization of the "Good Life" than the generations before us had been; engaged in the same old round that men had always followed, and no nearer satisfaction than our forefathers had been – indeed, nothing like so near. Had we fought one war to make us a nation and a second to keep us one, had we with incredible ingenuity and toil mastered the resources of a continent – only to prove once more that all is vanity and vexation of spirit?
Literature began to reflect the restless uncertainty and dissatisfaction of the time. Uncompromising realism became the all but universal manner of both novelists and poets. Human nature as it appeared in fiction began to display its least admirable qualities, and the American scene as it was depicted in novels became both startling and depressing. Probably we were right in refusing to believe that American life in any large area was as ugly as Theodore Dreiser represented it. And we were more than a little skeptical of the realism when the critic Ludwig Lewisohn said of Sherwood Anderson that into the pages of his stories he had "distilled the bitter, stale, lightless, and hopeless conditions of man’s essential life amid the masses of the Middle West." That was hardly the Middle West in which we had grown up. But the mood exemplified by Anderson and Dreiser – heavy, somber, painfully depressing – is infinitely to be preferred to the mood displayed by certain of the younger writers, notably by Ring Lardner, a mood of utter contemptuousness that passes beyond satire. Lardner’s stories repeat with the accuracy of a dictagraph the speech of certain American types of low mentality, chiefly of the variety denominated in the vernacular as "dumbbells" – "morons," too far down in the mental scale to be fit objects of satire. Dreiser’s picture of American life came out of a heart that at least knew pity, but Lardner’s came from a mind that knew only hatred and contempt.
Henry S. Canby, until 1936 editor of The Saturday Review of Literature since its founding in 1924, in a book entitled Seven Years’ Harvest, published at the close of his editorship, characterizes the attitude of the period we have been considering as that of "satiric discontent." There was, he says, "the dogged discontent of Ernest Hemingway, the mystic discontent of William Faulkner, the strong lyric discontent of Willa Cather, the sharp scoffing discontent of Sinclair Lewis, the powerful creative discontent of Robert Frost,…the burly self-satisfied discontent of H.L. Mencken.…"
Of all the writers mentioned by Mr. Canby, only Mencken and Lewis have been avowedly satirists, yet the ground of satire came to light in the writing of them all. Especially is this seen in the work of Willa Cather. The small Middle Western town and the young colleges and universities call out her sarcastic comment. A certain tone of bitterness in all such incidental comment in Miss Cather’s writings seems to argue a somewhat petty personal grudge against the conditions in which her own youth was spent rather than any sort of wider sympathy for other people who had been subjected to the same limiting conditions.
Very different from the discontent of Willa Cather are the noisy vituperations of Henry L. Mencken, that "Holy Terror" from Baltimore, as he has been characterized by one reviewer. Of all the critics of American life, no one else has laid about him with such fierce determination, as Mencken. He does not wield a rapier or even a broadsword; his weapons are the axe and the bludgeon. American democracy to Mr. Mencken is a monstrous thing. Somehow he had looked to see it bring forth the culture of ancient aristocracies, and instead it had brought forth nothing better than Sinclair Lewis’s Baptist churches in innumerable Gopher Prairies, Rotary Clubs, and Chambers of Commerce in a slightly smaller number of Zeniths, and the dictatorship of proletariat in the cities that had outgrown Zenith. We have in Mencken the curious spectacle of an ardent supporter of democracy in a furious rage against the natural products of that democracy. He is an "outraged sentimentalist." But his satire, based though it is on an absolute confusion of thought, has after all had a wholesome effect on the American public. Behind the poor taste and the noisiness of much of his writing one can hardly fail to discover the baffled idealist who has visions of an ordered society possessed of all the graces of an ancient culture, while at the same time every Tom, Dick, and Harry, regardless of his I.Q. or his upbringing, is to be allowed to "say his say," to put forth his scheme of the weal and woe. A Utopia, no doubt, and perhaps what many of us had hoped for, and still hope for, else why would we be making such persistent efforts to educate Harry and Dick and Tom?
The one-time "Holy Terror of Baltimore" grew quieter in his later years – he is now approaching sixty – whether because he has despaired of America’s democracy, or because, with the wisdom of years, he has discovered that the race – even the American race – can’t be perfected over night, I do not know. Since he has a genuine sense of humor, which not all satirists have, I opine that he still has hopes for America, in spite of Baptists and Rotarians and other of his pet abhorrences.
If it is ever safe to make predictions in regard to literary futures, it seems safe to prophesy that in retrospect the present scene in American letters will be dominated by the figure of Sinclair Lewis, not as a novelist but as a satirist. Whether or not we like Lewis’s books, we cannot fail to recognize the fact that he has put us once more on the map of international letters. If we have looked to find in Lewis a writer of realistic novels, we are headed for disappointment. In strictness, only one of his more important books can be classed as a novel. His characters, superficially realistic as they are, lack the breath of life that makes them human; they are symbols – where they are not caricatures. His scenes are not the scenes we live among. Babbit, that arch-Rotarian, does not live in our town, or in any American town. Babbitry does not exist; America may perhaps deserve the term an English writer has applied to it – a Babbit-warren; but there are no actual Babbits. There are no Zeniths in America, and, thank Heaven! no Gopher Prairies. Babbit is a brilliant caricature of the average middle-class business man – respectable, energetic, conventional, half-conscious of his own dullness and endeavoring to conceal it with a forced joviality and a noisy optimism. Babbit is the man we know in the bank or the store, minus that man’s honest enthusiasms for, say, music, or gardening, or whatnot, and the genuine neighborliness that makes him thoroughly human. Gopher Prairie is the average Iowa or Nebraska town somewhat smaller than Hastings, minus the elements of kindly intelligence and culture that are just as much a part of the place as the deadly intellectual dullness or the shoddy social life that drove Carol Kennicott to Washington.
Sinclair Lewis’s method as satirist is sound. The method of satire is exaggeration, deliberate omission, consciously misplaced emphasis. If Babbit were to be represented with his amiable and excellent qualities set over his stupidities, where would be the satire? It is not the method of Sinclair Lewis about which we should complain. He has written three notable satires – Babbit, Main Street, and Arrowsmith – and for that achievement we may not begrudge him the fame he has attained, even including the Nobel Prize. Perhaps, then, we are unreasonable when we complain of the "temper" in which he writes. Since the time of Dean Swift there has hardly been a satirist who has written with the violence and the fury of Sinclair Lewis. But in Swift there is a largeness of idea and of aim that lends dignity to his satire. Not so with Lewis. His satire is conceived in the spirit of extreme personal ill temper. He despises his characters. He lacks breadth of view and objectiveness; it is as if the qualities he satirizes in American character and American life were personal insults to him.
It may be that it is too soon to expect here in America that largeness of view or sense of perspective that has marked the works of the great satirists of world literature. We are still young in the arts. Perhaps it is our still surviving idealism that makes our satire so noisily vituperative. Bernard De Voto, commenting on a certain critic’s comparison of Sinclair Lewis with Mark Twain (considerably to the disadvantage of the earlier writer), remarks that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn "possesses, besides an infinitely deeper and wiser knowledge of America, a serenity that makes the anger of the Lewis novels seem a trivial and somewhat hysterical yell. In that serenity," he adds, "not elsewhere, immortality resides." The greatest art, in any field, is that which has at its heart a profound tranquility, a settled patience, born of faith in the ultimate worth of human life. Satire from its very nature can never be the highest or the most lasting form of literary art. Even so, it can approach greatness if it, too, is based on such a faith.
No candid observer will deny that there are many things in American life that call for reprobation – many things that might well be the objects of satire. Let us hope that as our national life continues and our experience deepens, there may arise from time to time writers of satire, men of wit and humor, who will not only undertake to laugh us out of our pardonable follies, but relentlessly, though without rancor, assail the rooted evils of our national life, always seeking despite her obvious failures the sure fulfillment of America’s earlier promise.