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WHEN the first volume of the Hand-book of English Literature was published, some fifteen months ago, it was announced that a second volume, devoted to American authors, was nearly ready. But though the materials had been collected, the editor soon found it desirable to go over the ground again more thoroughly, and to consult original editions in all cases where it was practicable. The labor and perplexity involved in making the selections, and in furnishing biographical and critical notices, will hardly be over-estimated. Much of the labor led to no visible results; as, when a month's diligent reading sometimes failed to discover more than one or two authors that should be represented in the collection.
The rule of selection adopted, though clear as a general principle, is one that admits of some latitude in application, and has frequently led to results that were regretted by the editor. Writers of acknowledged genius are never very numerous, and it would be easy to make a small collection that would be considered judicious and fair. On the other hand, if it were desirable to make a new and complete cyclopædia of our literature, the delicate choice between authors of nearly equal rank would be avoided. It appeared to the editor that a collection, to be useful for “high schools, private students, and general readers,” should be fuller than an anthology, and should exhibit historically the growth of literature in its various departments; but it was not considered necessary to include in its pages specimens from cvery author. This Hand-book is accordingly the result of a compromise, and is believed to contain as large a quantity of specimens from as large a number of leading and representative authors as could be printed in one convenient volume.
The age and capacity of those who are most likely to use the work have been kept in mind; and in consequence the editor has printed some extracts (especially from philosophic writers) which are not the highest specimens of the powers of their authors. From similar considerations some eminent metaphysicans have not been represented at all, and a large proportion of humorous and entertaining articles has been chosen.
Those who expect to find this a compilation of altogether fresh pieces will be disappointed. The best productions of American authors are almost tediously familiar. Our literature is like our edifices so new that there is no chance for a forgotten closet, a cobwebbed garret, or a dark, vaulted cellar. There is very little here to reward the labors of the literary antiquary. In England, where five centuries of accumulations fill the libraries, the case is different, and there is room for variety in strictly historical collections of prose and
A friend who looked over the proof sheets of this volume objected to the insertion of Poe's Raven, because it had appeared in every previous collection, and was thoroughly worn out. The conversation that followed will serve to illustrate further the general principle of selection that has been referred to.
Put in Socratic form, it stands thus: Is Poe an author who should be included in the book? Decidedly, yes. — Is he distinguished in poetry or in prose? Greatly in both. - First, as to his poetry, is not The Raven his most striking poem? Certainly. — And shall not the new generations have the best poem of each author to read when it is practicable to print it? I suppose they should.
- Is the fact, then, that readers of the present generation have grown weary of its iteration a reason for omitting it? Probably not. Must it not have a place in an historical compilation? Yes. — Next, as to his prose, what does the bulk of it consist of? Of tales, mostly of a marvellous kind.- Are any of them of proper length for this book? They are too long. - Are they separable ? No; the interest is wholly in the development of the plot.Are there any short episodes, either of description, of poetical sentiment, of human feeling, or of moral reflection, that could be taken so that each could stand by itself? None worth the space that would have to be taken from other more estimable writers of prose.
Then we shall allow The Raven, and one or two minor pieces, to represent Poe? Probably that will be best.
With this illustration the editor leaves the subject, and prefers, as to other cases, to imitate the reticence of the judge who declined to give his reasons for a decision he had made, saying he knew his law was right, although his reasons might be wrong. The editor would add that the results here presented, including the critical estimates of
authors, have been the subject of careful and conscientious study.
It will be noticed that a few poems are printed at the end of the collection without preliminary biographical notes. These are such productions as the editor was unwilling to omit, but were either from authors who had not written much else suited to his purpose, or from those whose standing has yet to be established.
The editor has made frequent use of Duyckinck's Cyclopædia of American Literature, Griswold's Prose Writers of America, and Drake's American Biography, and other collections, for dates and other matters of fact.
He desires further to acknowledge his obligations to Mr. William A. Wheeler, Assistant Superintendent of the Boston Public Library, for aid and advice in making researches ; also to Mr. John S. White, Master in the Latin School, and to Dr. Thomas M. Brewer, for valuable notes.
Boston, July 15, 1872.