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erroneous estimate; that they have formed a very hasty and unwarrantable conclusion. This distinction is made from the idea, that just criticism produces the uniform effect, of advancing the cause of learning; and, if the influence which is able to foster national literature, to elevate and extend its field, to exercise a sort of creative power, is greater than that which can but retard or destroy, then, certainly, that can hardly be called “an exaggerated estimate," which would attribute to criticism a destructive influence
an influence less powerful than it really does exert. What we shall next endeavour then to show is, that the most impartial justice always exercised towards American publications, in judging of their merits, and giving this judgment to the public, will have the same effect in this country which it has ever had in others; viz. that of promoting the advancement of learning. But our remarks will not be limited in their application to the literature of the United States; the same principles, in regard to the effects of criticism, apply universally.
We have spoken of the manner in which the interests of the community at large, the reading community, would be affected by a system of indiscriminate flattery of authors. It remains to be determined whether, at the same time that endeavours were thus made to cherish our national literature at the expense of the public, there would not be a powerful reflex influence exerted, entirely destructive to this literature. The perusal of inferior works, when we know them to be such, can do us little injury, excepting as time, never to be recalled, is thrown away. But when such works come into our hands commended by the unqualified praises of an accredited and able critic, then it is that a more injurious result may be anticipated, especially if we have not yet formed any fixed and distinct ideas respecting literary merit. In the latter case, it may reasonably be thought that our taste will be vitiated, and that we will soon be prepared to lavish, in our turn, praises upon all that is low and groveling in literature, but with more honesty than those patriotic and sagacious critics, to whom we are beholden for the “ cherished" obliquity of our judgment. It is easy to understand that when a vitiated taste pervades society, and when the senseless productions of mere tyros and scribblers can greedily, and with relish, be devoured by readers of all classes, who, at the same time, are unable to appreciate the excellence of real genius, no adequate encouragement will be given to the labours of the latter; and when all incentive to intellectual exertion is wanting; when the cold hand of neglect presses with paralysing effect upon the brow of genius; the noblest mental gifts, the finest sensibility of soul depart, leaving but a feebly animated body, fit only for the intercourse of an icy world. On the contrary, the effect of criticism is to form and refine the public taste for literary productions, to render the reading community more difficult to be
pleased, and, at the same time, more willing to reward that merit, which it is able both to distinguish and to admire.
It is an established maxim of civil government, “ Judex damnatur cum nocens absolvitur.” And what would be the consequence were this maxim disregarded? Would that judge be held pardonable, who should be in the habit of treating criminals with lenity, simply because they were fellow creatures, or fellow countrymen, or because he supposed that such a course would have the unprecedented result of retarding the progress of crime? He would be committing in this case a double injustice; first, to the community at large, by neglecting to punish offenders, and by turning them loose, to renew their offences; and, secondly, to all innocent persons brought before his bar. For what pleasure would an innocent man feel in his acquittal, when the criminal shared in the same joy? Though conscious of his freedom from guilt, yet, in his very release, must he feel himself associated with the guilty. The same is the case with the author arraigned before the tribunal of the critic, who praises all on whom he sits in judgment; in consequence of which, the loftiest mind receives the same meed of applause as the most groveling; a reward which it cannot value; which excites it not to greater efforts. It may indeed be said, that flattering alike all literary productions, would increase the number of writers, for that hundreds would, in all probability, be induced to write, from the simple consideration of its being so easy to please the public: but this would be an increase of scribblers only, not of instructive and amusing authors; an increase of those, whose works would be better adapted to illumine the hearth than the head.
It is a great mistake too to suppose, that less severity should be employed in reproving the occasional failures of writers, who may have already gained some degree of celebrity by their productions, who “occupy a prominent place in the public esteem, their reputation being then a part of the reputation of the country itself.” No mistake can be more dangerous than this, especially to the character which we sustain abroad. How much better that we should show ourselves perfectly qualified to form a sound judgment in every case, than that we should appear servilely bowing down to a celebrated name, and dazzled by its splendour, unable to discover the most palpable shade cast upon its brightness. An author, so long as he sustains a high reputation, sheds a lustre upon the literature of his country; but when his mental powers decline, or wander, that literature does not necessarily suffer, unless he be its only luminary. What estimate are other nations to make respecting our claims as a literary people, when one, who is reputed to stand among the first of our writers, sends forth into the world a work which is either totally devoid of genius, or at least presents no redeeming excellence, but which, notwithstanding its defects, is received and perused with every expression of satisfac
VOL. XVII.NO. 34.
tion, and is greeted, both by the reviewer and by the public, with the same full praise to which the ablest work would be entitled? Well might they reason—if this be the chef d'æuvre of their boasted author, what can be the productions of those who are his inferiors in genius? What can be the general literature of such a people? Hence it is, that in order to sustain our literary reputation, it is even more necessary to censure the failures of good, than those of indifferent authors.
We said in the commencement of these remarks, that the sentiments contained in the passage which we had quoted, were not perhaps free from error; and if the views which we have taken in the preceding pages be correct, one error at least is very apparent. The author seems to take for granted, that if American literature were any " longer a sickly and sorry bantling," it “must be kept alive by being ever held on the knee, and fed with the milk of encouragement, or the pap of flattery." If, however, the effects of able criticism be such as we have represented, it would always, in every possible condition-even in the infant state of literature, produce the beneficial result of reforming the public taste, of causing a due appreciation and reward of genius, and, at the same time, of discountenancing, as far as might be possible, by stern severity, every useless and injurious production. But as regards this, we do not believe that the most severe censure, much less undeserved flattery, is able to do much toward the discouragement of petty book-makers, who always form comparatively so large a class. Literary ardour is not so easily damped as we might at first suppose; and indeed, it may be remarked, that bad writers are generally discouraged with the most difficulty: and even a superior author is often found to defend, with the greatest degree of spirit and determination, the most deformed child of his genius. It is when they are labouring under an overwhelming load of censure, that we find writers most resolute, and most tenacious of their imagined rights. All that can be done by criticism, in most cases, is to elevate the standard of real excellence, to increase the number of those who come up to this standard, and, as we have just said, to improve the public taste. With this we finish our remarks upon the effects and importance of criticism. The inference which we would draw from them is simply this, that we may venture to express a candid opinion in regard to the publication, under the title of which we write, without fear of being judged either unpatriotic, or unconcerned in the encouragement of American literature.
But before proceeding we must ask another question. Not how Americans should be treated, but what is equally important, how much deference should be paid to a lady, in bringing her before the public, in the pages of a review? Even if we should escape the charge of wanting patriotism or prudence, may we not
be obnoxious to that of being deficient in gallantry, if any thing not strictly complimentary should escape! As “ Ladies' Books, ” “ Mothers' Magazines,” and other similar periodicals, devoted to the "fair sex,” are constantly making their appearance, we hope the day is not far distant, when a Ladies' Review, conducted by some favoured editress, supplied with matter principally or entirely by female critics, and having for its object the revision of the literary productions of the rapidly increasing sisterhood of American authoresses, will show its “ illuminated” pages, and meet with proper encouragement. When that day arrives, it will no longer be necessary for the other sex to interfere; but until then we must endeavour, however lamely and ungallantly the task may be performed, to supply the deficiency.
Mrs. Sigourney is doubtless one of those whose “ reputation is a part of the reputation of the country itself.” Her poetical genius, in particular, has given her a high rank among American authors, and her countrymen have justly appreciated her merits. This, however, as it has before been said, renders it only the more necessary, that when arraigned at the critics' bar, she should be judged with strict impartiality. It should be remembered that her writings, with all their excellence, are not the standard of genius; and though many of them may have come fully up to the real standard, the possibility of partial and temporary, or even of entire and continued failure, is not thereby precluded. It may be thought from such an exordiurn, that we intend to express ourselves in terms of unmeasured severity and censure in regard to the volume, the title of which is placed at the head of these remarks. But we hasten to correct such an anticipation. Were we thus to express ourselves, we should feel, as many others undoubtedly would, that impartiality at least could not be our boast
, though we had avoided that indulgent flattery, which we have before so much deprecated. There are certainly many things in this volume which do credit to the lady; but still
, as a whole, we must think it unworthy of her former reputation; and though singly, it may have little effect upon her literary character, a few such publications must give the impression, not that Mrs. Sigourney is devoid of genius (for the contrary has been already satisfactorily established,) but that she manifests great inequality of genius. Our chief objection to this book is, that it ever was a book. A sweeping objection truly. But we proceed to explain ourselves We certainly do not mean to say, that the tales of which it is composed should never have been made public. They would have suited very well the ephemeral pages of a newspaper, or of a miscellaneous magazine, where they would have made a less pretending appearance, would have been examined less critically, and would sooner have been forgotten. Here they might have pleased; and if high expectations had not been excited by
the name of the authoress, might have been read without disappointment. But when they assume the more permanent, we may add, the more imposing form of a separate volume, with the name of a favourite writer emblazoned upon its title, “ Sosiorum pumice mundus," greater pretensions to merit are always supposed, and greater disappointment is the consequence of failure to excite interest. What, it may be asked, is it the cloth and boards of a binding, or the embellishment of a title-page, which excite expectation in regard to the literary character of a work? What can they have to do with any preconceived estimate of talent? Even a binding, or a title-page, speak to the public. They often tell the author's own opinion of the product of his labours; and if this author stands high in the esteem of any, with them his opinion passes for something, though it be in regard to his own work. When a writer chooses to embody his productions in a book, rather than to publish them in a more “fugitive” manner, does it not imply that he supposes they have sufficient merit to indemnify him for the additional trouble and expense of the undertaking, or that they are calculated to adorn the more conspicuous place which they will thus take among the publications of the day? It is true, that Mrs. Sigourney's work comes to us under the apparently unassuming name of “ Sketches;" but even “ Sketches” should be of sterling excellence, to merit this style of publication.
We will now speak more particularly of this volume, and endeavour, in the course of a brief " sketch” of its contents, to point out some of those faults which we have observed, and at the same time, as justice and impartiality require, to commend to notice whatever beauties it may contain; for we have already remarked, that it is not entirely devoid of merit. And first we may observe, that it is without advertisement, preface, or introduction. This of course is noticed, not as a defect of genius, but merely of judgment. To some it may appear too trifling to deserve mention; but certainly the usual practice of authors sanctions the opinion, that such an “ avant courier" to a work is not without its uses. The object of an exordium, says the Roman orator, is “ Reddere auditores, benevolos, attentos, dociles," and we think the same may be said of a preface: if so, its importance is obvious. We may also remark, that in a preface, the author seems to present himself more immediately to the reader. It is here that he is seen unshaded by his subject-a corporeal, instead of a mere imaginative or intellectual being. But to proceed;
these “ Sketches” are six in number. The first is entitled “ The Father," and its object is to portray paternal affection, “ the love of a father for a daughter.” The subject of this tale is uninteresting, because it is common-place, and there is not enough incident to feed the reader's imagination. The authoress seems here to have aimed rather at beauty of style, than