Text: Edgar Allan Poe, Review of Joseph Rocchietti Why a National Literature Cannot Flourish in the United States (Text-02), Broadway Journal, Vol. I, no. 6, February 8, 1845, 1:82-83


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THIS is a very imposing title page, in more senses than one, for it is a gross imposition upon the reader, since the l contents of the book do not offer any reasons why a National [page 83:] Literature cannot flourish in the United States. A work on a purely literary subject should, at least, be tolerably grammatical, but this book sets all conventional rules of composition at defiance. It is not written in English at all, but in broken English, and very badly broken too. Mr. Rocchietti, according to his own statement, has been fourteen years in America, and during that time a teacher of languages. Such being the fact, his ignorance of English is very puzzling. Out of one hundred American ladies who learned modern languages of me,” says Mr. Rocchietti, ” I cannot reckon five gentlemen.”

If Mr. Rocchietti had not assured us that he was an Italian we should have taken him for an Irishman, and as it is, we have doubts respecting his country. Notwithstanding there are many similar obscurities of expression in the book, it contains on the whole much wholesome counsel, which, if put in passable language, might do good. The author should have written it in his native tongue, and then procured a translation into English: in its present form it would be extremely difficult to render it in any spoken language. Mr. Rocchietti is fond of eggs, and moreover, a marvellous thing in a foreigner, he defends the American practice of eating them out of tumblers, because he likes them in that way himself.

“It is a pity in seeing writers finding fault with nations, because they do eat with a knife and fork, or because they do not eat three eggs in a tumbler. Knives and forks are convenient, when the meat is hot; and I, who am fond of eggs, like to crack four eggs in a tumbler, provided the present sensible American does not care of the puerile English observation. Besides, if I am pleased in looking at the fine architecture of an Italian palace, I am pleased also in seeing that the small, modest and nearly uniform houses of the United States of North America, have the blessed appearance of a nation, whose richest citizens do not outshine the poor. What right has he, the man of talent, or the handsome man, to ridicule he who has no talent, or he who is deformed? He who ridicules a nation shows his perfect ignorance of nations. Can we find a nation without faults?”

We judge from the following remarks that among the other virtues of the Italians, is a very strict regard for the fifth commandment; Mr. Rocchietti is the first gentleman that we ever knew, who considered it an honor to have an acquaintance with his own mother. It is putting a very literal construction upon “honor thy father and mother.”

“There are religious people in this world for whom, had I the mind of Voltaire, and obliged to live with them, I have no doubt they would have rendered me the most religious man: and among like blessed religious persons, my mother, and a few others I have the honor to be acquainted with, are of the number. But history, and the very fanaticism of the middle age, which we have witnessed lately in Philadelphia, are enough to make angels, and Sophy weep.”

Our author is both a politician and a prophet, as appears from the following passages.

“How can such a despotical state as Massachusetts, preach abolition against his slave, brother states of the south, it is what a sound mind cannot understand; unless we perceive in it the blind, uncharitable language of the self pocket interest, with which the north holds the tariff, against the interests of the south. The burning of the convent of those innocent Ursulines, and the little knowledge I have of this country, caused me to foretell the last horrors of Philadelphia. It was not a prophecy; it was but a coming event, not different from those we read of in ancient history. If from smoke we argue it must; be some fire; from fanaticism we must expect civil wars.”

We keep looking in vain for some reason why a National Literature cannot flourish in the United States, but we find almost everything besides. Mr. Rocchietti is as much vexed with American tourists in Italy, as we with English travellers in America. He takes hold of Mr. Headley, whom he handles without mittens, for very good reasons, as he states.

“No nation has yet reached the civilization for which God created us. As the lover of a little discrimination sees better the faults of the lady whom be loves, than the faults of them he does not love, a man of letters, who has at heart the improvements of society, sees the faults of all the countries, with which he feels an interest. Of the blind lovers of my country, I will say here nothing more, than I would of those, who had no kind feeling for Italy. Besides there are so many, who wrote on Italy, that, were I undertaking to comment [column 2:] on them, it would be a work too long for me, and unfit here. However, as such kind of writers form one of the most extensive branches of our present literature, I will take up “Italy and the Italians,” by J. T. Headley, for two good reasons. The first, it I find in it, the least to say against, and the second, because It is the most recent I know of on the subject.

“How could Mr. Headley entitle his short reflections of six months which he spent in that country, “Italy and the Italians,” I cannot understand. It seems to me, such a title is rather a too pompous one when we reflect at the same time, that Mr. Headley by this very confession, we learn, that he did not know, at that time, the Italian language.

“It was no more than one or two days had Mr. Headley stepped on a shore of Italy, Genoa, when he found himself offended by two individuals. The first was a mustached officer, who eyed him in askance as he passed; and the second, a black robed priest, not deigning him even a look, as he went. Here, I find the very logic of the wolf, disposed to eat the lamb at the water spring, — The officer offended the writer, because he looked at him; and the priest because he did not deign to look at him! Next, comes an elegantly drest woman, who, I suppose, having seen Mr. Headley offended, because the priest did not look at him, she lifted her quizzing glass, coolly scanning him from head to foot, and with a smile of self-satisfaction on her face, walked on. — For me I always like to see a lady looking at me: it is a sign of kind feeling, and innocence: and children not spoiled by too fond parents, look at strangers with like pleasing curiosity?’

The following remarks on the study of the dead languages, we have no doubt are very good; the great difficulty is to understand them.

“Out of one hundred American ladies, who learned modern languages from me, I cannot reckon five gentlemen. I have no doubt there must be good professors of Greek, and Latin, as well as among any other nation in the world; but, a dead language will always be a dead language, even from the mouth of the best professor; and a Buscheron, the deceased professor of the Latin language in Turin, Italy, was one of those rare birds which does not appear on this earth, but during one thousand years, if it does: and when it does, such a bird, I mean such a professor, might be unable to impart his Latin to others.”

We are glad to find an encouraging account of our Theatres, which appear to have been a particular object of study with Mr. Rocchietti.

“Ten years ago the theatres in America were thought immoral aces: and if Niblo’s theatre was frequented by the best class it vas for no other reason, but because it did pass under Niblo’s garden. Though every year the American theatre is gaining ground; and as it seems, time will bring it to the consideration which it deserves, it is still in a state of infancy to what it should be; and it is just because it is in a bad repute, that talented American writers did not yet display their genius in such a rich branch of literature.

“Good theatres are so necessary to a civilized country, and such an indisputable branch of literature, that when I met in America persons who did object to them, it seemed as if I had come into a barbarous country, and not in this very country, which can glory to possess the est government of our present century throughout the world.”

In the following passage Mr. Rocchietti echoes a thought which we have expressed elsewhere; it will appear heterodox to many, no doubt, but it contains more truth, than, at first blush will appear evident.

“If the English Theatre has not yet reached the Italian or French perfection, it is owing to a national religious veneration for everything written by Shakspeare; and when the English critic will not be awed by the great Shakspeare, and, really Shakspeare is great, I do not see by the English Theatre will not be as good as any.”

The only part of the book which has any pertinence to the subject on which it professes to treat, is a short chapter in International Copyright, wherein we find the main principles of the question simply set forth. We have read Mr. Rocchietti’s book on account of its title, which has a very king look; but the first page of it is enough to show that has no qualifications for the very serious labor which he is undertaken. If we were disposed to be merry over a well-meant performance, we could pick out fun enough from; pages to fill up our paper.





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