From Molière to America

In 1922, the Western writer and novelist Owen Wister postulated an interesting thesis: that America’s most famous “writers” were not primarily writers at all, not in the way that (for example) Shakespeare was.

Wister notes that America’s most famous words globally had come from the pens of those like Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and Abraham Lincoln:

America has produced neither a Molière nor a Shakespeare as yet… If such are to be found at all, I think we shall discover the best of them in pages written by our men of action.

He who identified lightning with electricity changed science, and his sayings have made the Bonhomme Richard [Poor Richard’s Almanac] remembered. In his day they were translated into almost every tongue, and some still live on the tips of men. He remains our greatest intellect, and he was first and foremost a man of action.

Then, he who wrote a certain Farewell Address which we count among our few classics, was another man of action. And he who wrote “with malice toward none, with charity for all,” left us in that, as well as in his Gettysburg address, two more classics. Each of those three has written enduring pages more widely known today outside their country, and of more intrinsic weight, than any that I can recall by our men of letters.

In an interesting tidbit to modern eyes, Wester then references four works of American literature which had achieved some level of international acclaim, three of which are still widely known today — and one of which has been almost completely forgotten.

It is true that Leatherstockings walked in other lands, that Hester Prynne has made her way beyond English speech, that the gambler of the California mines and the boy on his raft in the Mississippi have voyaged beyond their native shores.

The first, second, and fourth references were to James Fenimore Cooper’s 1828 The Last of the Mohicans (“Leatherstockings”), Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 The Scarlet Letter (“Hester Prynne”), and Mark Twain’s 1884 Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (“the boy on his raft in the Mississippi”). But what is “the gambler of the California mines”?

Googling ‘California mines gambler novel,’ the answer appears to be Bret Harte’s 1868 short story The Luck of Roaring Camp, which Wikipedia says “helped push Harte to international prominence.” Maybe at the time, but that’s the one of the four referenced works which has truly faded to obscurity over the years. You never can predict what will last in the cultural zeitgeist.

From Molière to America (PDF)

Published: Sunday, April 30, 1922

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Written by Jesse Rifkin

May 1st, 2022 at 12:31 pm

Posted in Literature

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