October 28, 2011

Birth of Mathews: Man of the Future!

Perhaps no man who was once so influential is now so forgotten as Cornelius Mathews, born October 28, 1817 in Port Jefferson, New York. He was a journalist, an editor, a poet, a novelist, and a leading member of the Young America movement centered in New York. Perhaps his greatest claim to contemporary fame, however, was his demand for a distinctly American identity, one which could be reflected in literature, as a break-away from Old World ties.

To Mathews, the major problems of the day were the lack of international copyright and the wholesale piracy of foreign books. Stifling the American author financially, he said, would also ruin American creativity. Yet, a focus on books would doom an American to "the tranquility of a sure, though not always a speedy, oblivion." All authors ("any hand that has ever raised a pen"), Mathews hopes, will understand that the problems of literature in America are worth solving, however, and he urges writers to continue writing: "Let whoever can speak and write go on, in the stout heart and hopeful spirit, writing and uttering what Nature teaches. He will not, even in so great a din, be altogether unheard." From his poem, "The Reformer":

Man of the Future! on the eager headland standing,
  Gazing far off into the outer sea,
Thine eye, the darkness and the billows rough commanding,
  Beholds a shore, bright as the Heaven itself may be;
    Where temples, cities, homes and haunts of men,
  Orchards and fields spread out in orderly array,
    Invite the yearning soul to thither flee,
And there to spend in boundless peace its happier day...

But, the reformer is sudden borne "by passion" and "earnest thought" to a place where earth and heaven meet. There, he learns his new duty: to deliver the truth to his fellow men. But first, he must "seize by its horns the shaggy Past," and cast its carcass into the abyss. Even despite this violent image, Mathews warns, the truth will come slowly. As such, the reformer is told not to beat down "the 'stablished bulwarks" but allow kindness to soften the transition.

Wake not at midnight and proclaim the day,
When lightning only flashes o'er the way:
Pauses and starts and strivings towards an end,
Are not a birth, although a god's birth they portend.
  Be patient therefore like the old broad earth
    That bears the guilty up, and through the night
    Conducts them gently to the dawning light—
Thy silent hours shall have as great a birth!

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