Text: Rufus Wilmot Griswold, “The Intellectual History, Condition and Prospects of the Country,” Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, DC), August 30, 1845, p. 2, cols. 1-2


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Tale Writers.



Since the days of RICHARDSON, when novels were printed sometimes in five quartos and sometimes in ten octavos, their legitimate extent has been in England three duodecimo volumes. The Germans have gone back to the more ancient models, such as were furnished by BOCCACIO, and the authors of the Gesta Romanorum; and many things in our own country have tended to increase the tale's popularity. Partly in consequence of the demand, perhaps, our productions of this sort have been exceedingly numerous, and without the imprimatur of BLACKWOOD, BENTLEY, OR FRASER they have been read. It has been almost as astonishing, nevertheless, as it has been disgusting, the servility of habit and opinion manifested in regard to such of them as have been attributed to foreigners. The leading American literary magazines contain, every month, tales not inferior to those in the best foreign periodicals; and I have known several instances of stories, as well as of essays and poems, (received in silence or damned with faint praise by our newspaper critics on their first appearance here,) being stolen by British publishers, returned to us as by British authors, and then sent with extravagant laudations through half the gazettes of the Union — read as greedily by the “intelligent” sneerers at American literature as if they had been authenticated new revelations of the will of God.

Admitting, very readily, that it requires more application — more time and toil — to produce a three volume novel, it must not be supposed that the production of the tale is a very easy business. On the contrary, there is scarcely any thing more difficult, or demanding the exercise of finer genius, in the whole domain of prose composition.

The writers to whom I shall particularly refer are IRVING, DANA, HAWTHORNE, WILLIS, HOFFMAN, POE, and Mrs. SEBA SMITH, PAULDING, LEGGET, and Mesdames CHILD, EMBURY, and KIRKLAND, and other names, will recur to the reader: but to some I shall allude in different connexions, and others I may fail to notice only because, while possessing powers of a high order, there is but little if any thing in their works sufficiently peculiar to merit attention in so brief a review.

WASHINGTON IRVING is a name of which the country is very reasonably proud. His rich humor, fine sentiment, delicate perception of the beautiful, and taste, are apparent in almost every thing he has written. He has given us but little of a tender or romantic kind indeed, and less perhaps to show the possession of the inventive faculty. The Wife, The Broken Heart, the Widow and her Son, and the Pride of the Village, prove however that he could summon tears from their fountains as easily as he has wakened smiles. I speak of him thus briefly here, because it is not as a writer of such works as are now under observation that he is chiefly distinguished.

Next to IRVING, and perhaps before him in point of time, was RICHARD H. DANA. His stories published originally in The Idle Man, are among the most remarkable works of their class in modern literature. Paul Felton is a history of wild passion, in which the characters are portrayed with a master's skill, and there runs through it a strain of lofty and vigorous thought, and a knowledge of human life, which place it in the very first rank of ethical fictions. Edward and Mary, and the Son, are of a more pleasing and touching nature. In these, and indeed in all that this admirable author has produced, we see the feelings of childhood combined with the wisdom of manhood, power with gentleness, and simplicity with grandeur.

NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE is quite equal in every thing but a careful finish to IRVING. His stories have from time to time been published in the magazines, until there are enough of them, with what I may be permitted to call romantic essays, to fill some half a dozen stout duodecimos. They are various, and they all bear the marks of their author's peculiar and happy genius.

He is “most musical, most melancholy.” He controls his reader as the capricious air does the harp. The handkerchief, raised toward the eye to wipe away the blinding moisture there, is checked at the lips, to suppress a smile, summoned by some stroke of resistless humor. The indolent reader, amused by the play of his pleasant wit around a slumberous brain, is ever in danger of being startled by some sudden and powerful appeal to the virtue and humanity in his heart.

HAWTHORNE has wandered among the gone years. He has had chambers at the old Province House. He went with the pilgrims in search of the Great Carbuncle. With stern old Endicott, he invaded the Merry Mount. He was in the famous expedition to Louisburg. And he knew all the secrets recounted by the gossipping matrons and venerable maids of the colonial age in New England, which has imparted in quaint and curious legends, as remarkable and as felicitious as the best Dutch stories of Diedrich Knickerbocker. He has invention, imagination, fancy, humor, pathos — controlled, in every case, by the nicest taste. But how many are familiar with his works? how many of our drawing-room critics are acquainted even with his name? His Wedding Knell was almost unknown in America until it came back from England, as the production of some author there who had chosen to make our country the scene of his creations. His Celestial Railraod — the most exquisite allegory since the Pilgrim's Progress — was printed in the Democratic Review, and received hardly as passing notice from our newspaper critics, until by the juster appreciation in Europe its claims were recognised. It was republished in numberless editions in England, and translated in a few weeks into the principle languages of the continent. The copy before me while this is written is one of the standard series of the London Religious Tract Society, which adopted it before the American readers of Bentley's Miscellany and the Metropolitan knew of its existence.

Any person who has read the stories I have alluded to, or Wakefield, or the Gentle Boy, or The Hollow Tree of the Three Hills, or The Gray Champion, or Tales of the Province House, will agree with me that it would be difficult to praise NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE overmuch.

The characteristics of Mr. WILLIS are likewise very striking. Of their sort, his tales are the equal to any produced in this age. But they are such as an Englishman, of equal genius, would have written as readily as an American. His style is exceedingly felicitous, his language is varied and rich, his fancy exuberant and brilliant, and his wit of the finest quality. No author has described contemporary society with more vivacity, and I doubt whether, in certain of its phases, any have surpassed him in truthfulness of delineation.

HOFFMAN, in his shorter tales, has given s traditions of the French dominion in the Niagra region, sketches of life in the West, and traits and stories of the Aborigines. In reading his works, one might fancy him an indolent sportsman, who had become secretary to a club of boatmen and sagamores, and roused himself occassionally, while writing down their legends and adventures, to tell his strange companion tales of the metropolitan society he had deserted for the woods.

The tales of EDGAR A. POE are unlike any I have mentioned, and in some respects are different from any others with which I am acquainted. He belongs to the first class of tale writers who have appeared since the marvel-loving Arabian first attempted [column 2:] fabulous history. He has a great deal of imagination and fancy, and his mind is in the highest degree analytical. He is deficient in humor, but humor is a quality of a different sort of mind, and its absence were to him slight disadvantage, but for his occasional forgetfulness that he does not possess it.

The reader of Mr. POE's tales is compelled, almost at the outset, to surrender his mind to the author's control. As he goes forward, impalpable shadows are constantly darting on the shadows of his thought. Unlike that of the greater number of suggestive authors, his narrative is most minute; he has nothing superfluous — nothing which does not tend to the common centre — nothing which is not absolutely necessary to the production of the desired result. His stories seem to be written currente calamo, but, if examined, will be found to be the results of consummate art. No mosaics were ever piled with greater deliberation. In no painting was ever conception developed with more boldness and apparent freedom. Mr. POE resembles BROCKDEN BROWN in his intimacy with mental pathology but surpasses that author in delineation. No one ever delighted more or was more successful in oppressing the brain with anxiety or startling it with images of horror. GEORGE WALKER, ANN RADCLIFFE, MARIA ROCHE, could charm with dire chimeras, could lead their characters into difficulties and perils — but they extricated them so clumsily as to destroy every impression of reality. Mr. POE's scenes all seem to be actual. Taking into view the chief fact, and the characteristics of the dramatis personæ, we cannot understand how any of the subordinate incidents of his tales could have failed to happen.

I shall but refer, in support of what I have said of this author, to The Fate [[Fall]] of the House of Usher, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, and The Purloined Letter.

I have time to speak of Mrs. SEBA SMITH only as a woman of a most original and poetical mind, who has succeeded, perhaps, better than any other person, in appreciating, and developing the fitness of aboriginal tradition and mythology, for the purposes of romantic fiction.

I am, respectfully, your obedient servant,





In 1847, Griswold would incorporate much of this material as part of his introduction to The Prose Writers of America. The introduction, using the same title as the present essay, is undated, but the preface bears the date of January 15, 1847 and the copyright is dated as 1846.



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