[from] A Fable for Critics

James Russell Lowell (1819-1891)

Segment of a much longer poem satirizing American authors.

Originally published anonymously in 1848.

Here’s Cooper, who’s written six volumes to show

He’s as good as a lord: well, let’s grant that he’s so;

If a person prefers that description of praise,

Why, a coronet’s certainly cheaper than bays;

But he need take no pains to convince us he’s not

(As his enemies say) the American Scott.

Choose any twelve men, and let C. read aloud

That one of his novels of which he’s most proud,

And I’d lay any bet that, without ever quitting

Their box, they’d be all, to a man, for acquitting.

He has drawn you one character, though, that is new,

One wildflower he’s plucked that is wet with the dew

Of this fresh Western world, and, the thing not to mince,

He has done naught but copy it ill ever since;

His Indians, with proper respect be it said,

Are just Natty Bumpo daubed over with red,

And his very Long Toms are the same useful Nat,

Rigged up in duck pants and a sou’-wester hat,

(Though, once in a Coffin, a good chance was found

To have slipt the old fellow away underground.)

All his other men-figures are clothes upon sticks,

The dernier chemise of a man in a fix,

(As a captain besieged, when his garrison’s small,

Sets up caps upon poles to be seen o’er the wall;)

And the women he draws from one model don’t vary,

All sappy as maples and flat as a prairie.

When a character’s wanted, he goes to the task

As a cooper would do in composing a cask;

He picks out the staves, of their qualities heedful,

Just hoops them together as tight as is needful,

And, if the best fortune should crown the attempt, he

Has made at the most something wooden and empty.

Don’t suppose I would underrate Cooper’s abilities,

If I thought you’d do that, I should feel very ill at ease;

The men who have given to one character life

And objective existence, are not very rife,

You may number them all, both prose-writers and singers,

Without overrunning the bounds of your fingers,

And Natty won’t go to oblivion quicker

Than Adams the parson or Primrose the vicar.

There is one thing in Cooper I like, too, and that is

That on manners he lectures his countrymen gratis;

Not precisely so either, because, for a rarity,

He is paid for his tickets in unpopularity.

Now he may overcharge his American pictures,

But you’ll grant there’s a good deal of truth in his strictures;

And I honor the man who is willing to sink

Half his present repute for the freedom to think,

And, when he has thought, be his cause strong or weak,

Will risk t’other half for the freedom to speak,

Caring naught for what vengeance the mob has in store,

Let that mob be the upper ten thousand or lower.

There are truths you Americans need to be told,

And it never’ll refute them to swagger and scold;

John Bull, looking o’er the Atlantic, in choler

At your aptness for trade, says you worship the dollar;

But to scorn such i-dollar-try’s what very few do,

And John goes to that church as often as you do.

No matter what John says, don’t try to outcrow him,

Like most fathers, Bull hates to see Number One

Displacing himself in the mind of his son,

And detests the same faults in himself he’d neglected

When he sees them again in his child’s glass reflected;

To love one another you’re too like by half,

If he is a bull, you’re a pretty stout calf

And tear your own pasture for naught but to show

What a nice pair of horns you’re beginning to grow.