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I need not dwell upon the necessity of Literature and Art to a people's glory and happiness. History, with all her voices, joins in one judgment upon this subject. Our legislators, indeed, choose to consider them of no consequence, and while the States are convulsed by claims from the loom and the furnace for protection, the demands of the parents of freedom, the preservers of arts, the dispensers of civility, are treated with silence. But authors and artists have existed, and do exist here in spite of such outlawry. And notwithstanding the obstacles in our condition, and the discouragements of neglect, the Anglo-Saxon race in the United States have done as much in the fields of investigation, reflection, imagination, and taste, in the present century, as any other twelve millions of people-about our average number for this period—in the world.
Doubtless there are obstacles-great obstacles to the successful cultivation of letters here; but they are not so many nor so important as is generally supposed. The chief difficulty is a want of patriotism.
We have had no confidence in ourselves, and men who lack self-reliance are rarely successful. We have not looked into our own hearts. We have not inquired into our own necessities. When we have written, instead of giving a free voice to the spirit within us, we have endeavored to write after some foreign model. We have been so fearful of nothing else as of an Americanism in thought or expression. He has been deemed greatest who has copied some transatlantic author with most successful servility. And if one of our countrymen wins some reputation among his fellows, it is generally because he has been first praised abroad.
The commonly urged barriers to literary advancement supposed to exist in our form of government, the nature of our institutions, the restless and turbulent movements of our democracy, and the want of a wealthy and privileged class among us, deserve little consideration. Tumult and strife, the clashing of great interests and high excitements, are to be regarded rather as aids than as obstacles to intellectual progress. From Athens came the choicest literature and the finest art: her philosophers, so calm and profound, her poets, the dulcet strains of whose lyres still charm the ears of succeeding ages, wrote amid continual upturnings and overthrows. The best authors of Rome also were senators and soldiers. Miltonthe greatest of the prose-writers as well as the greatest of the poets of England-lived in the Commonwealth, and participated in all its political and religious controversies. And what repose had blind Mæonides, or Camoens, or Dante, or Tasso ? In the literature of Germany and France, too, the noblest works have been produced amid the shocks of contending elements. Nor is the absence of a wealthy class, with leisure for such tranquil pursuits, to be much lamented. The privileged classes of all ages have been drones.
To say truth, most of the circumstances usually set down as barriers to æsthetical cultivation here, are directly or indirectly advantageous. The real obstacles
. are generally of a transient kind. Many of them are silently disappearing ; and the rest would soon be unknown if we had a more enlightened love of country, and the making of our laws were not so commonly confided to men whose intellects are too mean, or whose principles are too wicked, to admit of their seeing or doing what is just and needful in the premises. Nevertheless, much has been accomplished ; great advancement has been made against the wind and tide ; and at this time (1842] the aspects and prospects of our affairs are auspicious of scarcely anything more than of the successful cultivation of National Literature and National Art.—Curiosities of American Literature.
PHILLIS WHEATLEY PETERS.
This “ daughter of the Murky Senegal," as she is styled by an admiring contemporary critic, we suppose may be considered as an American, since she was but six years of age when brought to Boston and sold in the slave-market of that city, in 1761. If not so great
a poet as the Abbé Grégoire contended, she was certainly a remarkable phenomenon, and her name is entitled to a place in the history of her race, of her sex, and of our literature. She was purchased by the wife of Mr. John Wheatley, a respectable merchant of Boston, who was anxious to superintend the education of a domestic to attend upon her person in the approaching period of old age. The amiable woman on visiting the market was attracted by the modest demeanor of a little child, in a sort of "fillibeg," who had just arrived, and taking her home, confided her instruction in part to a daughter, who, pleased with her good behavior and good abilities, determined to teach her to read and write.
The readiness with which she acquired knowledge surprised as much as it pleased her mistress, and it is probable that but few of the white children of Boston were brought up under circumstances better calculated for the full development of their natural abilities. Her ambition was stimulated ; she became acquainted with grammar, history, ancient and modern geography, and astronomy. She studied Latin so as to read Horace with such ease and enjoyment that her French biographer supposes the great Roman had considerable influence upon her literary tastes and the choice of her subjects of composition. A general interest was felt in the sooty prodigy; the best libraries were open to her; and she had opportunities for conversation with the most accomplished and distinguished persons in the city.
She appears to have had but an indifferent physical constitution; and when a son of Mr. Wheatley visited England in 1772, it was decided, by the advice of the family physician, that Phillis should accompany him for the benefit of the sea-voyage.
In London she was treated with great consideration ; was introduced to many of the nobility and gentry, and would have been received at Court but for the absence of the royal family from the metropolis. Her poems were published under the patronage of the Countess of Huntingdon, with a letter from her master, and an attestation of their genuineness, signed by the Governor, Lieutenant
governor, and many of the most distinguished citizens of Boston.
In 1774—the year after the return of Phillis to Boston-her mistress died; she soon lost her master and her younger mistress, his daughter ; and the son having married and settled in England, she was left without a protector or a home. The events which immediately preceded the Revolution now engrossed the attention of those acquaintances who in more peaceful and more prosperous times would have been her friends; and though she took an apartment, and attempted in some way to support herself, she saw with fears the approach of poverty, and at last, in despair, resorted to marriage as the only alternative of destitution.
Grégoire, who derived his information from M. Giraud, the French consul at Boston, states that her husband, in the superiority of his understanding to that of other negroes, was also a kind of phenomenon ; that he “became a lawyer, under the name of Doctor Peters, and plead before the tribunals the cause of the blacks ;” and that “the reputation he enjoyed procured him a fortune." But a later biographer of Phillis declares that Peters “kept a grocery in Court Street, and was a man of handsome person and manners, wearing a wig, carrying a cane, and quite acting the gentleman;" that he proved utterly unworthy of the distinguished woman who honored him with her alliance ; that he was unsuccessful in business, failing soon after their marriage, and “was too proud and too indolent to apply himself to any occupation below his fancied dignity.”
Whether Peters practised physic and law or not, it appears pretty certain that he did not make a fortune, and that the match was a very unhappy one, though we think the author last quoted—who is one of the family -shows an undue partiality for his maternal ancestor. Peters, in his adversity, was not very unreasonable in demanding that his wife should attend to domestic affairs-that she should cook his breakfast and darn his stockings; but she too had certain notions of “dignity,” and regarded as beneath her such unpoetical occupations. During the war they lived at Wilmington, in the interior of Massachusetts, and in this period
Phillis became the mother of three children. After the peace they returned to Boston and continued to live there, most of the time in wretched poverty, till the death of Phillis on December 5, 1794.
The intellectual character of Phillis Wheatley Peters has been much discussed, but chiefly by partisans. On the one hand, Mr. Jefferson declares that “the pieces published under her name are below the dignity of criticism," and that “the heroes of the Dunciad are to her as Hercules to the author of that poem ;” and on the other hand, the Abbé Grégoire, Mr. Clarkson, and many more, see in her works the signs of a genuine poetical inspiration. They seem to me to be quite equal to much of the contemporary verse that is admitted to be poetry by Phillis's severest judges. Though her odes, elegies, and other compositions are but harmonious commonplaces, it would be difficult to find in the productions of American women, for the hundred and fifty years that had elapsed since the death of Mrs. Bradstreet, anything superior in sentiment, fancy, or diction.-Female Poets of America.