Somewhere along the line I acquired a copy of the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. It’s not in very good shape, but I’ve held on to it for years, not only because it is often spoken of as a high-water mark for excellence in encyclopedia writing but also because—having been published in 1910—it is out of copyright, meaning that everything in it, including the sparse but excellent illustrations, can be used as raw material for art projects without anxiety. Recently I was looking into it for a new project and I stumbled on the entry on American Literature. Although I’ve read a lot of American literature—it formed part of my college major—I didn’t recall ever having read the Britannica entry, so I sat down to take a look at what their editors thought of our literature at the turn of the last century.
In the end, I had to read it twice because the first time through I got thoroughly distracted by scorekeeping the ins and the outs. In: all three Mathers—Richard, Increase, and Cotton—who remembers there were three? Out: Emily Dickinson (really??), Kate Chopin, and Ambrose Bierce. Bronson Alcott in; Louisa May Alcott out. Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories in; Frederick Douglass out. Although books published as late as 1890 are mentioned, the editors seem to have set a cutoff for births around 1860 as there is no mention of anyone born after 1858. This excludes such important late 19th and early 20th century writers as Edith Wharton, Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, Jack London, and Booth Tarkington. (There is some tension between the literature entry and entries on individual authors: Crane, although excluded from American literature proper, is given a brief entry under his own name.)
I was most curious to find out which women (if any) were included in the entry, which runs to nearly 11 full pages. Initially, I was surprised at how many of them there were: beginning with the poet Anne Bradstreet and ending with the novelist Mary Noailles Murfree (who wrote under the pen name Charles Egbert Craddock), about 20 women are mentioned. But as these stand next to some 180 men, they represent just about 10% of all the American writers named. (It should be noted that the authorship of literature, as construed in this entry, embraces not only novelists, playwrights, and poets, but historians, scholars, ministers, orators, politicians, and humorists—professions mostly closed to women at that time.)
It was only on a second reading that I grasped this entry’s full peculiarity. It is signed “G.E.W.,” which the volume index identifies as the initials of George Edward Woodberry, professor of comparative literature at Columbia University between 1891 and 1904 and author of a book on Edgar Allan Poe. Woodberry evinces a deep disdain for the literature of his own country; so much so that I was astonished when I looked him up and discovered that he was not British, as I assumed, but American, born in Beverly, Massachusetts, and educated at Harvard University. Oh, a few writers do merit his praise: he writes at length and for the most part approvingly on Washington Irvine, James Fenimore Cooper, and William Cullen Bryant (his first holy trinity), on Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (his second holy trinity), and—no surprise—Poe. But even here there are barbs: although the Irvine-Cooper-Bryant trinity rates one and a half of the 11 pages, Woodberry does slap down Irving for being a humorist and Cooper for being clumsy. Irving: “The excellence of his work lies rather in the treatment then the substance.” Cooper: “He wrote voluminously and with great unevenness. His literary defects, both of surface and construction, are patent.” (p. 834). And Woodberry goes out of his way to praise both Poe and Henry James for their un-American qualities: Poe for taking his cues from English writers (“He had no American origins, but only American conditions of life,” p. 836) and James for being a “cosmopolitan writer [who] has no other connexion with America than the accident of birth” (p. 840).
Most of the time, though, it is impossible for Woodberry to discuss any individual American writer, movement, period, tendency, or genre without putting it down. Often this is done subtly, as in the Irving example above; Woodberry is a master of damning with faint praise, backhanded compliments, litotes, and other forms of polite derision. A few examples (italics mine):
“The older clergy were not inferior in power or learning to the leaders of their own communion in England” (p. 831).
“The first books of true excellence were experiments; they seem almost accidents” (p. 833).
“American Romanticism and thus began with these three writers [Irving, Cooper, and Bryant], who gave it characterization after all by only a few simple traits” (p. 835).
Individually, these are not so bad, but in their relentless march down the page, they add up to an overall verdict of dismissal. And it is the women who fare worst. Early on, he writes of two now largely forgotten writers, “Fiction had been earlier attempted by Mrs. Susanna Haswell Rowson, whose Charlotte Temple (1790) is remembered, and contemporaneously by Mrs. Hannah Webster Foster in The Coquette (1797)” (p. 833; italics mine). “Attempted by” suggests a failed attempt, and “is remembered” is weak, signaling evasion of a judgment—remembered for what?—that could not have been good.
Some other examples (italics mine):
In the course of writing off much of the first half of the 19th century, which Woodberry terms a period of “sentimentality”, he mentions Lydia Sigourney as “a prolific writer” and Maria Gowan Brooks as “a more ambitious aspirant” (p. 835).
The novelist Catharine Maria Sedgwick is said to have written “the best current fiction which was not to be incorporated in literature” (p. 836).
The historian Sarah Margaret Fuller (whose life was cut short at the age of 40 when the ship she was traveling on sank off Fire Island) is given as “a woman of extraordinary qualities and much usefulness, who is best remembered by her Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1844), but contributed no permanent work to literature” (p. 838).
Lydia Maria Child is tagged as one of a “line of notable American women who served their generation in literary ways” (p. 838).
A small flood of women— Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary Eleanor Wilkins, Mary Hallock Foote, Mary Noailles Murfree—are subsumed under this categorization: “The principal minor product of the novel lay in the provincial tale” (p. 840).
Julia Ward Howe is brought in as one of the 19th century’s “minor poets of less distinction” (p. 840).
My point here is not to champion these women as writers—there are many people much more versed in this material than I am who are doing the hard work of reassessment—but that the many male writers mentioned don’t draw anywhere near the same degree of head-patting even when Woodberry treats them as minor or peripheral figures. Woodberry has established a clear hierarchy here: among writers, women rank below men, and American men rank below the British (and Europeans more generally). America is criticized for having moved away from European culture while at the same failing to produce a literature from within itself. After all this, it comes as no surprise to read Woodberry’s cruel summary of the state of American literature ca. 1910: “The imaginative life is feeble, and when felt is crude; the poetic pulse is imperceptible” (p. 840).
Addendum: After I finished the first draft of this post and was looking further into the history of the 1910 edition—trying to get a grasp on why Woodberry, of all people, was chosen to write this entry—I stumbled on a very early critique of the 1910 Britannica by the writer Willard Huntington Wright, better known today as the author of the Philo Vance detective novels under the pseudonym S.S. Van Dyne. In 1917, Wright published the book Misinforming a Nation, a scathing 222-page dissection of the Britannica’s errors of prejudice, bias, omission, misstatement, misdirection, and misjudgment. I recommend Wright’s book as an excellent introduction to thinking about what an encyclopedia should be, by way of what it should not be. A pertinent sample from Chapter 2:
“The importance of English writers is constantly exaggerated at the expense of foreign authors….in the majority of cases outside of England, criticism, when offered at all, is cool and circumscribed and not seldom adverse…. When we come to the American literary division of the Britannica however, prejudice and neglect reach their highest point. Never have I seen a better example of the contemptuous attitude of England toward American literature than the Encyclopædia’s treatment of the novelists of the United States” (pp. 24-51).
I’m cheered by the thought that it’s not just 100 years of hindsight that makes the 1910 Britannica entry on American literature so hair-raising; its defects were evident to at least some contemporary readers.
Note: All quotes are from volume 1 of the 11th edition of Encyclopedia Britannica.