Friday, October 18, 2013

Gone but forgotten

My home library contains an 1894 textbook by Mildred C. Watkins called American Literature. It's a tiny thing, smaller than a typical mass market paperback of today and just 224 pages long. Watkins writes in a preface that her objective was "avoiding on the one hand the verbiage of the larger manuals for schools, and on the other the prattle of the so-called first books for children. Brevity rather than condensation has been sought ..." Basically it is a literature primer unencumbered with actual literature, other than a few brief excerpts here and there.

One thing in American Literature that I found interesting is a chapter on "a group of minor writers." Watkins writes, "There is one common feature several writers of this period (before 1850) possessed: they did not fulfill the brilliant promise they seemed to give." In other words, they were popular in their own day but, by the end of the 19th century, were largely forgotten.

James K. Paulding
She lists three reasons for their fall into obscurity: 1) they were overrated to begin with, 2) they turned their attention to other things and 3) "we demand more to-day from writers than was demanded of them then." In other words, literary tastes change. Some writers, like Herman Melville, gain in reputation in the years after their deaths, while others fall into obscurity.

The writers Watkins mentions in this chapter, mostly poets, include James K. Paulding, Joseph Rodman Drake, Fitz-Greene Halleck, Samuel Woodworth, George P. Morris, Nathaniel P. Willis, Peter Parley, Washington Allston, John Howard Payne, Richard Henry White, Francis Scott Key and Clement C. Moore. Except for the latter two men, whom we remember for writing the Star-Spangled Banner and A Visit from St. Nicholas, respectively, these writers ring no bells with me.

Some of those Watkins mentions as significant writers in 1894 are, like Paulding, Drake, Halleck and the others, also mostly forgotten today. These include Bayard Taylor, Josiah Gilbert Holland, Helen Hunt Jackson, Margaret Preston, Frank R. Stockton and Edward Payson Roe.

In one chapter, Watkins discusses several then-contemporary novelists, admitting "it is hard to tells whose books will be read twenty or even ten years from now, and whose will be forgotten." Some she mentions, such as Henry James, William Dean Howells and Rudyard Kipling, are still remembered. Others, like F. Mason Crawford, Frank R. Stockton, Brander Matthews and Thomas A. Janvier have, in fact, been forgotten.

Having one's name on the cover of a book is no ticket to immortality, not even if that book happens to be a best-seller. Which of today's writers will still be remembered a few decades from now? As Mildred C. Watkins understood, there is just no way to know.

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