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CHARLES DUDLEY WARNER
THE RISE OF "THE ATLANTIC”
(Speech of Charles Dudley Warner at the “Whittier Dinner" in celebration of the poet's seventieth birthday and the twentieth birthday of “The Atlantic Monthly,” given by the publishers, Messrs. Houghton, Mifflin & Co., at Boston, Mass., December 17, 1877.)
MR. CHAIRMAN-It is impossible to express my gratitude to you for calling on me. There is but one pleasure in life equal to that of being called on to make an afterdinner speech, and that is not being called on. It is such an enjoyment to sit through the courses with this prospect like a ten-pound weight on your digestive organs! If it were ever possible to refuse anything in this world, except by the concurrence of the three branches of government—the executive, the obstructive, and the destructive, I believe they are called-I should hope that we might some time have our speeches first, so that we could eat our dinner without fear or favor.
I suppose, however, that I am called up not to grumble, but to say that the establishment of “The Atlantic Monthly was an era in literature. I say it cheerfully. I believe, nevertheless, it was not the first era of the sort. The sanguine generations have been indulging in them all along; and as
eras ” they are apt to flat out, or, as the editor of the “ Atlantic ” would say, they “peter out.” But the establishment of the “Atlantic” was the expression of a genuine literary movement. That movement is the most interesting because it was the most fruitful in our history. It was nicknamed transcendentalism. It was, in fact, a recurrence to realism. They who were sitting in Boston saw a great light. The beauty of this new realism was that it
required imagination, as it always does, to see truth. That was the charm of the Teufelsdröckh philosophy; it was also poetry. Mr. Emerson puts it in a plirase—the poet is the Seer. Most of you recall the intellectual stir of that time. Mr. Carlyle had spread the German world to us. Mr. Emerson lighted his torch. The horizon of English literature was broken, and it was not necessary any longer to imitate English models. Criticism began to assert itself. Mr. Lowell launched that audacious “ Fable for Critics”-a lusty colt, rejoicing in his yqung energy, had broken into the old-fashioned garden, aild unceremoniously trampled about among the rows of box, the beds of pinks and sweetwilliams, and mullen seed. I remember how all this excited the imagination of the college where I was. It was what that great navigator who made the "swellings from the Atlantic " called “a fresh-water college.” Everybody read “Sartor Resartus." The best writer in college wrote exactly like Carlyle—why, it was the universal opinion—without Carlyle's obscurity! The rest of them wrote like Jean Paul Richter and like Emerson, and like Longfellow, and like Ossian. The poems of our genius you couldn't tell from Ossian. I believe it turned out that they were Ossian's. [Laughter.] Something was evidently about to happen. When this tumult had a little settled the “Atlantic” arose serenely out of Boston Bay—a consummation and a star of promise as well.
The promise has been abundantly fulfilled. The magazine has had its fair share in the total revolution of the character of American literature-I mean the revolution out of the sentimental period; for the truth of this I might appeal to the present audience, but for the well-known fact that writers of books never read any except those they make themselves. [Laughter.] I distinctly remember the page in that first “ Atlantic "that began with—" If the red slayer thinks he slays—" a famous poem, that immediately became the target of all the small wits of the country, and went in with the “ Opinions," paragraphs of that Autocratic talk, which speedily broke the bounds of the “ Atlantic,” and the Pacific as well, and went round the world. [Applause.)
Yes, the “ Atlantic” has had its triumphs of all sorts.
The Government even was jealous of its power. It repeatedly tried to banish one of its editors, and finally did send him off to the court of Madrid [James Russell Lowell]. And I am told that the present editor (William Dean Howells] might have been snatched away from it, but for his good fortune in being legally connected with a person who is distantly related to a very high personage who was at that time reforming the civil service.
Mr. Chairman, there is no reason why I should not ramble on in this way all night; but then, there is no reason why I should. There is only one thing more that I desire to note, and that is, that during the existence of the “Atlantic," American authors have become very nearly emancipated from fear or dependence on English criticisms. In comparison with former days they care now very little what London says. This is an acknowledged fact. Whether it is the result of a sturdy growth at home or of a visible deterioration of the quality of the criticism—a want of the discriminating faculty—the Contributors' Club can, no doubt, point out.
[In conclusion, Mr. Warner paid a brief but eloquent tribute to the Quaker poet.]