We notice this coarsely written little fiction, because it is one of a class which we see growing with pleasure. We see it with pleasure because, in its way, it is genuine. It is a transcript of the crimes, calumnies, excitements, half blind love of right, and honest indignation at the sort of wrong which it can discern, to be found in the class from which it emanates.
That class is a large one in our country villages, and these books reflect its thoughts and manners as half-penny ballads do the life of the streets of London. The ballads are not more true to the facts, but they give us, in coarser form, far more of the spirit than we get from the same facts reflected in the intellect of a Dickens, for instance, or of any writer far enough above the scene to be, properly, its Artist.
So in this book we find what Cooper, Miss Sedgwick, and Mrs. Kirkland might see, as the writer did, but could hardly believe in enough to speak of with such fidelity.
It is a current superstition that country people are more pure and healthy in mind and body than those who live in cities. It may be so in countries of old established habits where a genuine peasantry have inherited some of the practical wisdom and loyalty of the past with most of its errors. We have our doubts, though, from the stamp upon literature, always the nearest evidence of truth we can get, whether, even there, the difference between town and country life is as much in favor of the latter as is generally supposed. But in our land where the country is at present filled with a mixed population who come seeking to be purified by a better life and culture from all the ills and diseases of the worst forms of civilization, things often look worse than in the city, perhaps because men have more time and room to let their faults grow and offend the light of day.
There are exceptions, and not a few; but in a very great proportion of country villages the habits of the people, as to food, air, and even exercise, are ignorant and unhealthy to the last degree. Their want of all pure faith and appetite for coarse excitement, is shown by continued intrigues, calumnies and crimes.
We have lived in a beautiful village, where, more favorably placed than any other person in it, both as to withdrawal from bad associations and nearness to good, we heard, inevitably, from domestics, work-people, and school-children, more ill of human nature than we could possibly sift, were we to elect such a task, from all the newspapers in this city in the same space of time.
We believe the amount of ill circulated by means of anonymous letters, as described in this book, to be as great as can be imported in all the French novels, (and that is a bold word.) We know, ourselves, of two or three cases of morbid wickedness, displayed by means of anonymous letters, that may vie with what puzzled the best wits of France in a famous lawsuit not long since. It is true there is, to balance all this, a healthy rebound, a surprise and a shame, and heartily good people, such as are described in this book, who, having taken a direction upward, keep it, and cannot be bent downward nor aside.—But then the reverse of the picture is of a blackness that would appal one who came to it with any idyllic ideas of the purity and peaceful loveliness of agricultural life.
But what does this prove?—only the need of a dissemination of all that is best, intellectually and morally, through the whole people. Our groves and fields have no good fairies or genii who teach, by legend or gentle apparition, the truths, the principles that can alone preserve the village as the city from possession of the fiend. Their place must be taken by the school-master, and he must be one who knows not only readin’, ritin’ and ’rithmetic, but the service of God and the destiny of man. Our people require a thoroughly diffused intellectual life, a religious aim, such as no people at large ever possessed before, else must they sink till they become the dregs, rather than the cream of creation, which they are too apt to flatter themselves with the fancy of being already.
The most interesting fiction we have ever read, in this coarse, homely, but genuine class, is one called “Metallak.” It may be in circulation in this city, but we bought it in a country nook, and from a peddler, and it seemed to belong to the country. Had we met with it in any other way, it would, probably, have been to throw it aside again directly, for the author does not know how to write English, and the first chapters give no idea of his power of apprehending the poetry of life. But, happening to read on, we became fixed and charmed, and have retained from its perusal the sweetest picture of life lived in this Land, ever afforded us out of the pale of personal observation. That such things are, private observation has made us sure, but the writers of books rarely seem to have seen them; rarely to have walked alone in an untrodden path long enough to hold commune with the spirit of the scene.
In this book you find the very life, the most vulgar prose and the most exquisite poetry. You follow the hunter in his path, walking through the noblest and fairest scenes only to shoot the poor animals that were happy there, winning from the pure atmosphere little benefit except a good appetite, sleeping at night in the dirty hovels, with people who burrow in them to lead a life but little above that of the squirrels and foxes. There is in all that air of room enough, and free, if low, forms of human nature which, at such times, makes bearable all that would otherwise be so repulsive.
But when we come to the girl who is the presiding deity, or rather the tutelary angel of the scene, how are all discords harmonized, how all its latent music poured forth! It is a portrait from the life; it has the mystic charm of fulfilled reality, how far beyond the fairest ideals ever born of thought! Pure and brilliantly blooming as the flower of the wilderness, she, in like manner, shares, while she sublimes, its nature. She plays round the most vulgar and rude beings, gentle and caressing, yet unsullied; in her wildness there is nothing cold or savage; her elevation is soft and warm. Never have we seen natural religion more beautifully expressed, never so well discerned the influence of the natural Nun, who needs no veil or cloister to guard from profanation the beauty she has dedicated to God, and only attracts human love to hallow it into divine.
The lonely life of the girl after the death of her parents—her fearlessness, her gay and sweet enjoyment of Nature around, her intercourse with the old people of the neighborhood, her sisterly conduct toward her “suitors”—all seem painted from the life, but the death-bed scene seems borrowed from some sermons and is not in harmony with the rest.
In this connection we must try to make amends for the stupidity of an earlier notice of the novel called “Margaret, or the Real and Ideal,” &c. At the time of that notice we had only looked into it here and there, and did no justice to a work full of genius, profound in its meaning, and of admirable fidelity to Nature in its details. Since, we have really read it, and appreciated the sight and representation of “soul-realities,” we have lamented the long delay of so true a pleasure.
A fine critic said “This is a Yankee novel, or rather let it be called the Yankee novel, as nowhere else are the thought and dialect of our villages really represented.” Another discovered that it must have been written in Maine by the perfection with which peculiar features of scenery there are described.
A young girl could not sufficiently express her delight at the simple nature with which scenes of childhood are given, and especially at Margaret’s first going to meeting. She had never elsewhere found written down what she had felt.
A mature reader, one of the most spiritualized and harmonious minds we have ever met, admires the depth and fullness in which the workings of the spirit through the maiden’s life are seen by the author and shown to us, but laments the great apparatus with which the consummation of the whole is bought about, and the formation of a new church and state, before the time is yet ripe, under the banner of Mons. Christi.
But all these voices, all among those most worthy to be heard, find in the book a real presence, and draw from it auspicious omens, that an American literature is possible even in our day, because there are already in the mind here existent developments worthy to see the light—gold fishes amid the moss in the still waters.
For ourselves we have been most charmed with the way the Real and Ideal are made to interweave and shoot rays through one another, in which Margaret bestows on external nature what she receives through books, and wins back like gifts in turn, till the Pond and the Mythology are alternate sections of the same chapter. We delight in the teachings she receives through Chilion and his violin, till on the grave of “one who tried to love his fellow men” grows up the full white rose flower of her life. The ease with which she assimilates the city life when in it, making it a part of her imaginative tapestry, is a sign of the power to which she has grown. We have much more to say and think of the book as a whole and in parts, and, should the mood and Summer leisure ever permit a familiar and intimate acquaintance with it, trust they will be both thought and said. For the present we will only add, that it exhibits the same state of things and strives to point out such remedies as we have hinted at in speaking of the little book which heads this notice; itself a rude charcoal sketch, but, if read as hieroglyphics are, pointing to important meanings and results.*
“Ellen; or Forgive and Forget . . . ,” New-York Daily Tribune, 10 January 1846, p. 1.