“If the diplomacy at Washington continues in its present trend, under your great President McKinley, your country will not allow herself to be dragged into the quarrels of Europe. We older nations might well learn a lesson from your present government.”
“Oh!” I cried, “how good of you to say that. It is the first time in all Europe that I have heard our government praised for its diplomacy, and coming from you, I am so grateful.”
Jimmie and the consul also beamed at Tolstoy’s complimentary comment.
“Now, about your men of letters?” said Tolstoy. “It is some time since I have had such direct news from America. What are the great names among you now?”
At this juncture Countess Tolstoy drew nearer to Bee and Mrs. Jimmie, and our groups somewhat separated.
“Our great names?” I repeated. “Either we have no great names now, or we are too close to them to realise how great they are. We seem to be between generations. We have lost our Lowell, and Longfellow, and Poe, and Hawthorne, and Emerson, and we have no others to take their places.”
“But a young school will spring up, some of whom may take their places,” said Tolstoy.
“It has already sprung up,” I said, “and is well on the way to manhood. One great drawback, however, I find in mentioning the names of all of them to a European, or even to an Englishman, is the fact that so many of our characteristic American authors write in a dialect which is all that we Americans can do to understand. For instance, take the negro stories, which to me are like my mother tongue, brought up as I was in the South. Thousands of Northern people who have never been South are unable to read it, and to them it holds no humour and no pathos. To the ordinary Englishman, it is like so much Greek, and to the continental English-speaking person it is like Sanskrit. In the same way the New England stories, which are written in Yankee dialect, cannot be understood by people in the South who have never been North. How then can we expect Europeans to manage them?”
“How extraordinary,” said Tolstoy. “And both are equally typical, I suppose?”
“Equally so,” I replied.
“The reason she understands them both,” broke in Jimmie, “is because her mother comes from the northernmost part of the northernmost State in the Union, and her father from a point almost equally in the South. There is but one State between his birthplace and the Gulf of Mexico.”
“About the same distance,” said Tolstoy, “as if your mother came from Petersburg and your father from Odessa.”
“But there are others who write English which is not distorted in its spelling. James Lane Alien and Henry B. Fuller are particularly noted for their lucid English and literary style; Cable writes Creole stories of Louisiana; Mary Hartwell Catherwood, stories of French Canadians and the early French settlers in America; Bret Harte, stories of California mining camps; Mary Hallock Foote, civil engineering stories around the Rocky Mountains; Weir Mitchell, Quaker stories of Pennsylvania; and Charles Egbert Craddock lays her plots in the Tennessee mountains. Of all these authors, each has written at least two books along the lines I have indicated, and I mention them, thinking they would be particularly interesting to you as descriptive of portions of the United States.”