Literary Cyclopedia of Amateur Journalism

Truman J. Spencer, 1891


THE one word which would seem to rise involuntarily to the lips of anyone who takes even a cursory view of the literature of amateur journalism during the two first decades of its organized existence is ‘‘Progress.” There have been those who have laid it down as a dic­tum that amateur journalism never could improve in its literature, and it is not the purpose here to enter into argument upon the subject. But cogent as the reasons for this conclusion may have been, the undoubted facts of that literature itself seem to utterly disprove its truth. Nor is it the purpose to enter into a discussion of the means through which this improvement has been achieved. In spite, too, of the oft repeated cry as to the degeneracy of the institution in its latter days, an appeal to the records of its literature shows that broader and loftier and more profound results of the author’s pen are to be found in the second than in the first decade, and greater works in the last than in the first portion of the second half score of years. Nor is this to be accounted for upon the ground of the general prosperity of the cause. At no time in its history has amateur journalism contained so many papers, or has published in quantity such an amount of literature, or in the excitement of its political campaigns and the rivalry of its editors has been so much alive as during the last half of the first ten years. Indeed, it is a fact that much of the very highest and best in our literature saw the light of day in periods of the darkest gloom and amid surroundings which spoke only of decay.


True literature of the first few years is very scanty. An excellent reason for this will occur to the reader who considers the career of almost any one of our prominent authors. The first years of his con­nection with amateur journalism were not his bright ones; or, if, as in some cases, they have been, it simply shows that amateur journalism has no claim upon the light which shines forth from them. And so in the days when authors of experience were unknown in the ranks we have no right to look for ripened fruit. The very authors of those early years afterwards brought forth that which will live in the annals of the institution.


In 1876 there was written considerable that was worthy of the name of literature. It was in this year that Henry S. Barler, one of the natural singers of the times, wrote his best poems. It was in this year, too, that John Winslow Snyder began writing his famous essays, which gave to this period much of its literary lustre. Though undoubtedly overestimated, they evinced a profundity of thought rare in those days and seldom, if ever, equaled in matter, but not in style even in later times. “Feramorz” gave birth at this time to one or two compara­tively graceful verses. But the great mass of so-called literature was of no value whatever. The doggerel of Richard Gerner, the weak and preposterous detective stories of A. N. Demarest and others, and the trashy sentimentalism of the sketch writers of the day have long since faded into deserved oblivion. Charles K. Farley, “Yelraf,” however, towered far above his contemporaries, and wrote once in a great while such a real piece of poetical fancy as his “A Summer Idyl,’’ and in his great serials and shorter sketches gave the amateur public of the day a taste of what true fiction was like.


In 1877 there was a perceptible increase both in quality and quantity. Miss Adams did her greatest work in this year; Farley’s last serial, ‘‘Two Fair Bedouins,’’ appeared; James Austin Fynes, the most graceful and artistic writer of the first decade, wrote many of his poems, essays and light airy sketches, Miss Knapp gave evidence of much of her power, and “Caxton Stanley’’ wrote a few pieces near akin to true poetry.


In 1878 and 1879 there was no especial change. In March of the former year one of the great poetical works of amateur literature saw the light, ‘Music,’’ by George M. Huss. Snyder wrote much in these years. James L. Elderdice, too, wrote some of his best efforts, and Henry E. Legler produced most of his verse. S. S. Bartlett, “John Quilldriver,’’ a popular sketch writer of his day, and the best after Farley, and before Buckley, wrote most of his sketches in these years.


In 1880 there was a spirited contest for the poet laureateship. Miller, who was then just coming into prominence as a poet, Elgutter, Harrison, more poetical in spirit than in form, Elderdice, Palmer, whose lines possessed some dramatic fire, and Ludwig, being among the contestants. Mr. Miller, with his “Pastoral,’’ was successful, but it was an evidence of the paucity of true poems as compared with more recent times. S. A. Wood wrote a few trifles, and was the fore­runner of a not very valuable school of light verse that came after him, though not as a result of his efforts. Miss Stevens, “Rubina,’’ was more conspicuous in 1880 than in any other year, and her verse was a little above the standard of the day. Wm. F. Buckley, too, came prominently to the front as an essayist and writer of a superior class of fiction, in which latter field he has never been equaled.


The next year was largely one of preparation, although Mr. Buck­ley’s most noted serial, “Missoury,’’ was published in this year. Max A. Lesser flooded the papers with his so-called aestheticism in verse, and Thomas G. Watkins wrote poetry and sketches of a commonplace order. Miss Brown, though not reaching the acme of her career until a year or two later, wrote some commendable verse, and J. Rosevelt Gleason published one of the really fine poems of amateur literature in his “Lines on Breaking a Clay Pipe.” Miss Gage published in this year her narrative poem, “Jack’s Mistake.’’


The year 1882 was a notable one. In one sense, at least, the poetry of the institution reached the high water mark of excellence, in that in this year was published the greatest poem in its annals, C1ossey’s “Red Letter Days,” which won the laureateship, and stands unrivalled for its potent strains of thought, its wealth of poetic imagery, and its urgent appeal to the understanding of the reader. It was in this year also, that James J. O’Connell gave to amateur journalism his greatest work. His talents were greatly overestimated by his friends, and, on the other hand, he was thoroughly misunderstood by the masses. Although it might be maintained that it was the result of a misapprehension as to his real powers on the part of his followers, it is idle to deny that his influence upon amateur letters was both potent and beneficial. He published his “Stanzas and Sketches,” which was the finest book, both as regards contents and appearance, that had been issued up to that time. From the time of its appearance dates a new era in amateur literature, one which a well known critic has, not over-accurately, called the Renaissance. It was a primal awakening rather than a re­newal. Besides O’Connell’s polished prose, stinging criticisms, and readable stanzas, there were the carefully constructed sketches of Glea­son, with an occasional gem of verse from his pen, and the scholarly productions of Buckley. This year, in the persons of O’Connell and Schofield, and in the advent of Heywood and Edkins, realized the first real school of criticism, though it was not for a year or so that the latter two became prominent in this field. Arthur J. Huss, it is true, had written criticisms that could be truly dignified with the name, and he did good service in exposing the frailties of Gerner’s verse, but at most he was only a forerunner, and it is undoubtedly true that real literary criticism in amateur journalism dates from 1882. And this awakened in the authors of the day the true spirit of literary ambition. Literature became the study and the object of earnest and sincere endeavor on the part of many devotees, and the consequence was that there was ushered in a period of solid worth in the history of amateur literature.


For a year or two was experienced what has been called the golden age. New singers in the choir of melody began to make their appearance. Emery, Day, and Miss York sprang into deserved popu­larity, Batsford penned the first chapters of his great work, “Dr. Dick,” Miss Tardy gave forth her greatest work, and the smoothly written verses and carefully turned periods of Ralph Metcalf were compara­tively abundant. Shelp, also, published some of his clear-cut crystals in verse, and Antisdel’s wit blazed forth now and then, in an odd fancy or conceit.


But the high plane of literature was not to be maintained. Poetry, especially, seemed to lose somewhat of its individuality, and, indeed, this was but a natural result of existing conditions. And as it partook more of the nature of a general model it lost its vitality. It became artificial and its soul languished and nearly died of lack of nourish­ment, while its outward form was decked and decorated with a mass of gingerbread ornament which was typical of the falsely delicate nature of the prevailing school. Everything was sacrificed to outward show and form, and this influence seemed to pervade all classes, though when it reached the poet of real genius, instead of dragging him down to the general level, he raised it up so as to show some of the possibil­ities of even this light form of verse, as for instance, Miller’s “Ballade of Some Fair Women.” In this carnival of sound and form Stinson was one of the prime leaders, and, in this particular field, his verses have, perhaps, never been equaled. But the very vital spark of true poetry was wanting.


But in 1888 signs of a change in amateur literature were apparent. The spark struck from the anvil of Ernest A. Edkins kindled a blaze that was to burn with genuine poetic fire. Charles Heywood, who had done much by his caustic pen to mold and formulate and prune the poetry of the so-called golden age, now gave concrete exam­ples of what constituted true art. The sympathetic muse of Mrs. Grant made pure and soul-touching melody, and the tender reveries of Miss Fellows and the fine poetic instinct and bold metaphors of Miss Callender delighted the heart of the true lover of the pure and the beau­tiful. And a little later, those master spirits of the realms of poetic imagination, Misses Johnson and Parsons, added the products of their gifted brains to the general store of poetic wealth, making the greatest era in the annals of amateur verse. Nor were the other fields of litera­ture neglected. Edkins himself gave now and then a fragment of brilliant prose, Miss Johnson wrote sketches and essays, though still with the vision of a poet, Mrs. Miniter wrote stories full of human nature, though scarcely with her old-time vigor, and Woollen pro­duced studies of character worthy of much attention, while Bull painted picturesque landscapes with the hand of a true artist. Thus the second decade of organized amateur journalism closed with a literature infe­rior to that of its early days as regards quantity, but of a quality never equaled in its history.