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greatest souls that have ever lived, to partake of their best, to be of their company, and at one with them. This is the opportunity which opens to every reader of this book. Here are presented the choicest portions of all that has been written in English. To read this book is to get a glimpse into the mind of Chaucer and Shakespeare and Milton, and to see by what steps our language rescued itself from choas and took on regularity and systematic form; here are gathered gems from every great poet who has sung in our language; here the reader may see with the eyes of Dickens the whimsical side of common life, or feel with him the pathos of want and suffering ; here may be found the masterpieces of our American literature—the stately verse of Bryant, the stirring lines of Whittier, Longfellow's pathetic story of Evangeline, the typical American poetry of Bret Harte and Whitcomb Riley and Will Carleton. Within these pages may be seen how noble is the achievement of our own countrymen, and how well the fruits of the hundred years of American literature compare with the garnered treasures of all the centuries of English culture. But while it may be well for some purposes to distinguish between American and English literature, and while there is a special meed of praise due to the genius of those great Americans whose works, here represented, compare so favorably with the best Old England's sons have produced, still it is to be remembered that English and Americans have a common language; that Shakespeare and Milton and Tennyson are a part of the inheritance of every American, while Whittier and Bryant and Longfellow are claimed as their own by our kin beyond the sea.
It is the purpose of this volume to present this literature of the two greatest nations of the world as far as may be in its entirety. To this end every author whose works deserve a place of honor on the tables in our American homes is here represented by a sketch of his life, an account of his principal works, a statement of his standing as a writer, and by choice selections from his writings. The work has been divided into two parts, because of the special interest that attaches to our distinctively American literature; but it is not intended by this means to suggest that there is any real difference between the work of Americans and that of Englishmen.
It has been well said that all true history is biography, and in the lives of English and American authors may be read not only the story of how our literature has grown from the abortive attempts at poetry in which our Saxon forefathers endeavored to express themselves, but also the history of the thought of our race. No story could be more interesting or more ennobling. This is not the history of wars, of statecraft, or of intrigue. Here are accounts of the lives of men and women who have bequeathed to us our noblest inheritance; here may be seen how they lived, what manner of people they were, by what means they grew to such stature as to overtop their fellows; what were their thoughts, what the objects for which they strove; how they succeeded and in what they failed. This may really be called a history of the activity of the human mind. Wolfe declared that he would rather be the writer of Gray's “ Elegy" than the conqueror of Quebec, and if his estimate of the comparative values of military glory and literary renown be the correct one, then this story of how the masterpieces of literature have been written deserves to rank as the noblest form of history.
Coupled with these biographies are selections from the writings of each author, the purpose being to provide in compact and accessible form as much of the best that has been written as can be crowded within the covers of a single book.
In thus joining the biographies of writers with extracts from their works, it is believed that several distinct advantages have been gained. In the first place, the book is made far more interesting. It is true that “ if you understand the character of an author the comprehension of his writings becomes easy,” and it is also true that “every author portrays himself in his works, even though it be against his will”; and so the union of writings and biography will not only give a better and more complete picture of the author, but will enable the reader to take up his writings with greater interest and with a better comprehension. It may reasonably be hoped, therefore, that this book will do much to further the cause of good literature. It will not only be read with interest; it will furnish the mind of the reader with more knowledge of authors and of literature. Here is spread out some share of all the feast that has been prepared; here is some of every sort; the reader may not only enjoy that with which he is familiar, but he will learn what else is to be had; he may not only gratify the taste which is already his, but it may reasonably be expected that he will cultivate a liking for new forms of literature. Herein is one of the greatest uses which any book can serve, and to which this book is especially adapted. Here is not only the literature which entertains, but here is also the literature which refines and ennobles. If the reader is led to read the book by love of the former, his greatest thanks will be for providing him with the latter. And, further, this book will be the “open sesame ” which, by spreading before the reader a vision of all that the world of literature affords, will open to him the door and admit him to wander at will. Helping him to form a taste, it will enable him to gratify it by telling him what is to be had outside its covers.
Here, then, the publishers have endeavored to provide accounts of the lives and writings of English and American authors, with a large portion of their best work, in the belief that there will come to the reader instruction as well as enjoyment, the culture of a taste for good literature, and the incentive to further explore the enticing realms of which a glimpse is here afforded. To further this purpose they have liberally illustrated these pages with portaits of authors, pictures of their homes, and of the scenes in which they lived. The cottage where Will Shakespeare courted Ann Hathaway; the noble ruins whose fame is celebrated in the immortal works of Walter Scott; the tomb where “rests his head upon the lap of earth,” the author of the unequaled “ Elegy”; the homes of Hawthorne and Longfellow; with many other pictures equally significant, will lend to these pages an interest impossible to obtain in any other way.
An Index of Authors and a Table of Contents have been added, with a List of Illustrations and one of selections suitable for Recitation. The mechanical execution is most excellent, and the book is now offered to the public with the hope that it may not only be of real service to the cause of literature, but promote the truest happiness and pleasure in the HOME.