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The Library of American Biography. Conducted by JARED
SPARKS. Vol. 7th. Boston: Hilliard, Gray & Co., 1837.
During the last quarter we have received another volume of this truly national work, which continues to be regularly issued. We hope that its circulation is sufficient to compensate both editor and contributors for their labours. The paper and printing of this work would do honour to the British press. Our eastern brethren have reason to congratulate themselves upon the excellence to which the art has attained among them. Unlike the miserable editions which are usually put forth of our new books that seem but intended to announce the ephemeral character of their contents, this publication is issued in a style which commends it to the shelves of any library,
Its contents, too, are worthy of the manner in which it is got up. They embody a fund of biographical information connected with the colonization and revolutionary history of our country which should be accessible to all, and most of which no American scholar should be without. We fear (and it is not to our credit that the assertion may be made) that the publication in question is regarded with more interest in England than at home. This should not be so. Let it not be said that it is too valuable and substantial a work to be popular; or that solid encouragement is only extended to the trifles of the day.
This number contains four lives, all well written, viz.—those of Sir William Phips, Israel Putnam, Lucretia Maria Davidson, and David Rittenhouse. Each, except the third, has an appropriate dignity in its subject. In regard to it we may remark, that though the distinguished writer has made the most of her materials, and the lady seems to have been a sensitive and refined person, of great modesty and real worth, yet we are disposed to consider her as not entitled from her abilities to the niche in the library of American biography which has been assigned to her.
We trust that the series will proceed regularly to its completion.
Nick of the Woods, or the Jibbenainosay. 2 vols. By the
author of “Calavar.” Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Blanchard, 1837.
Dr. Bird has presented us with a novel of thrilling interest. Every thing, indeed, which touches upon the wild men of our western forests and prairies; which is connected with the early history; the rapid decay; the character and habits of the American Indian possess for us a very strong attraction. Genius has heretofore in the same field opened scenes and incidents of commanding interest; and our author is not behind his great predecessors in the same path, in his powers of engaging our attention. Fiction, however, in this department does not alone challenge our regards or awaken our sympathies—real life, as displayed in the career of adventurers among that people, affords as much of excitement and agitation of feeling as the most highly wrought picture of the novelist. In proof of this we would refer to the delightful narrative of Mr. Irving, which we reviewed in our last number.
Two estimates of the Indian character have generally been formed by writers upon the subject, widely different indeed in their results. By one of these, the North American Indians have been supposed to be possessed of almost every virtue which can ennoble human nature. Magnanimity, wisdom, generosity, bravery, independence, eloquence-have each and all been challenged for them by their admirers. On the other hand, their characters are alleged to be but a compound of treachery, cruelty, cowardice, ignorance, and conceit; and their boasted eloquence, a cheat. The truth, indeed, appears to be a compound of these two diverse opinions. That they are brave and wise-(probably cunning would be the more appropriate expression)--and high-spirited, we are inclined to admit." But we are also persuaded that they are eminently cruel and barbarous; selfish, treacherous, and revengeful. Of their powers of oratory we are extremely sceptical.
Dr. Bird adopts the unfavourable estimate of their qualities--not mingling with it a sufficient grain of allowance. On the whole, however, we regard him as more correct than those persons who look for the perfection or even a high standard of human nature amid the woods and wilds--or among any unchristianized, warlike tribes. We are glad that our author's book has been published, simply for this, if for no other reason, that something might be plausibly urged on both sides of the question. And this has been effected in a narrative which loses none of its interest because its hero has not been selected from a savage people.
Upon the beauties of the work we have not space to enlarge. They are doubtless familiar to our readers; for the novel must have been extensively perused by this time. Our duties as critics will be better discharged by pointing out what we consider a few of its defects.
The female characters possess no special interest. Indeed they are exceedingly tame. The delineation of feinale chaVOL. XXI.-NO. 42.
racter is not the writer's forte. There is a want of individuality about them without which no portrait can be attractive.
Again; we cannot but view Nathan as an unnatural sketch. While there is much force and originality in the conception of such a character, and while, as we admit, it is admirably sustained throughout and engages our continued admiration; yet we feel that the whole picture is forced and exaggerated--a caricature indeed of qualities which have a real separate existence, but which we cannot conceive as coexisting in the same individual. There is not about Nathan the close adherence to nature which we at once recognise and admire in Leatherstocking.
Dr. Bird, however, we consider in the direct path to the highest distinction as an American novelist. To American novels--if his powers be exclusively adapted to this department of literature--let him confine himself. In tales of mere imagination or feeling, or portraitures of individual character, we are inclined to think he would fail. He possesses strength, not grace--fire, not delicacy of tact--takes bold views rather than nicely discriminates. In description he excels. With the features of our country he is familiar; and he enters into the spirit of her history and politics. As Americans, we feel a strong interest in his success--as Philadelphians, doubly so.
Gleanings in Europe ; France. By the Author of the “Spy."
Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Blanchard, 1837.
We have regarded Mr. Cooper in most of his late works as merely playing with his unquestioned abilities--as not at all seriously putting forth his strength. He appears to have contented himself with a fame, brilliant indeed, but still not one (as no literary man's is) entirely above diminution or free from decay. The wisest may slip into dotage, and the brightest be darkened with a cloud.
It is no small matter to trifle with a reputation however high. A great man may readily outlive it. It is more easy still for one to write down his own fame. Even Sir Walter Scott was beginning to disparage his excellent repute as a novelist when death called him hence. Mr. Cooper should feel that it is still more in his power to do so than it was for the great Scotsman.
We concede that in the works we refer to, our distinguished countryman has written much that is sprightly and agreeable ; and that some of his descriptions of scenery are very fine. But we speak of them in mass; and as such we have no hesitation in pronouncing them unworthy of his powers. His politics (for
which we profess no admiration) he is exceedingly fond of mixing up with other matters altogether uncongenial; and there is, therefore, the appearance presented of a desire to establish his reputation not upon its intrinsic merit, but his standing as a party man. Literature and politics seldom lend permanent support to each other.
There is a bold egotism, too, about these books, neither graceful nor conciliating. This is barely tolerable, either in conversation or composition. It propels prejudices against the speaker or writer, which deprive him of so fair a chance as he might otherwise have of interesting others. There must exist very commanding abilities in the individual to do away with the effect of this vice.
The light talk, persiflage, scandal, and sarcasm, which appear to be his favourite passages in his “France,” are not to our taste. They do not sit easily upon him. There is neither great wit nor much grace about them. The author excels in other themes.
We are thus free in our strictures upon Mr. Cooper, because we are proud of his former fame, and are desirous to see him put forth something worthy of it. We wish to behold his reputation steadily advancing, and exalting with it that of his country. That he can do both we are persuaded; and are anxiously waiting for the first promise of it.