« ForrigeFortsett »
ITERATURE AND LIFE IN THE HOMELAND
Look to the work the times reveal!
From one point of view, literature knows neither place nor time. The succession of the seasons, the relation of men to the forces of Nature, the mysteries of life and death, are the same to all peoples and in all times. Plato wrote in ancient Greece about love, justice, and ideal government, and what he wrote has value for us, more than twenty centuries after his death. Shakespeare wrote dramas for his countrymen three hundred and more years ago; we still see his plays performed in our theaters, study them in our schools, read them in our homes; they have been translated into other languages and have become a part of the literature of many peoples. English daffodils were lovely in the seventeenth century, and an English poet named Robert Herrick wrote some charming lines about them. Daffodils were lovely a century ago, and an English poet named William Wordsworth made them also the subject of a song. Both of these poems we read here in America when the first spring flowers come, and we find them as fresh and new as the flowers themselves. Through translations, great novels and poems and dramas, at first written in German, French, Russian, and other foreign languages, have become part of English literature. Literature knows no bounds of nationality or of the centuries. It has an immortality of life here on earth, and speaks to us, if we so desire, as if it had been written in our own language only yesterday.
But in another sense, literature is a form of the history of a race and of a definite period of time. Men do certain things, make and unmake governments or win prosperity for their
nations. The record of their achievements and failures is set down in history. But we find the reasons for these deeds not in the chronicles of events but in letters, speeches, poems, dramas-in literature. Literature reveals the soul of a people. It shows what were the ideals of justice, brotherhood, love, religion, government, in any period. It is one thing to know the facts about the Boston Tea Party: the date, the men who took part, and the value of the tea destroyed. But to understand why men who were by nature law-abiding and loyal should have done these things, we need to read poems and speeches and pamphlets of that period. Thomas Paine, writer, not a soldier, expressed in burning words the spirit that filled American patriots with courage during the darkest hours of the Revolution, and Washington ordered that some things he wrote should be read to every company of soldiers, knowing that such words were of more value for inspiring courage in the hearts of discouraged men than the addition of a regiment to their forces. “We hold these truths to be self-evident” -do you remember where these words occur, and what follows? “Rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Now compare with these words the verses written by a Scottish plowboy, Robert Burns—"A Man's a Man for A' That." The poem shows clearly the thoughts that were moving men's minds at that Revolutionary period, in Great Britain as well as in America, so that the poem becomes a way of understanding the soul of a past time.
Literature, then, has a twofold province: one that has nothing to do with space and time; the other presenting a form of history of a people. From the one point of view you have your fairy tales, which belong to no one language or century but to the children of every race and color. You have Ulysses, Greek hero of ancient times, and Beowulf, a hero of the early Germanic tribes along the North Sea, whose story was first written down in English, though in a language that we hardly recognize as English today. Both of these you add to your
group of heroes who are independent of time and nationality. You have Shakespeare's lovely fairy play, A Midsummer Night's Dream, written in England more than three centuries ago; but the world to which the fairy drama leads you is of no special place or time—it comes into being, as by a magic wand, whenever you take your book and give yourself up to its power.
On the other hand, when you wish to understand the period of American colonization, you may supplement your history by reading in literature poems and stories that will help you to realize what were the hardships, the manner of life, the types of manhood and womanhood that produced the colonies. You have your history of the Revolution; you may fill in the records of men and battles by reading what literature offers you. A history account of Concord and Lexington finds fuller meaning when you read Hawthorne's story, "The Gray Champion,” and Emerson's poem about the Concord Monument, and Whittier's poem about Lexington. In your history reading you learn about the great westward movement by which the millions of acres in the Louisiana Purchase were settled—the date and price paid and the seller and the constitutional questions involved, and the dates of the admission of Missouri and Kansas as members of the sisterhood of states. But these historical facts take on new meaning when in literature you read also Cooper's tales of Indian life, or Parkman's accounts of pioneer travel, or Longfellow's story of Evangeline, or Eggleston's Hoosier Schoolmaster, and many, many others.
In this section of your book some materials are given for acquiring an understanding of what America means and how her present grows out of the past. First you will find a group of poems and stories that will picture for you some typical American scenes, or unfold for you some of the famous legends that have come down from early colonial times. Next you will read a section called “American Literature of Lighter Vein," illustrating one of our national traits that has played no small