book cover imageAmerican Austen: The Forgotten Writing of Agnes Repplier
by Agnes Repplier,
Edited by John Lukacs.
Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2009.
Hardcover, 450 pages, $25.

Who remembers Agnes Repplier? From her first essay in 1881 to her death in 1938 this half-Southern Catholic woman produced some of the most admired prose in America. Ellery Sedgwick, her editor at the Atlantic Monthly, called her “a sort of contemporary ancestor, a summation of the best that has gone before.” Yet her books are entirely out of print. In his collection of Repplier’s essays, American Austen: The Forgotten Writings of Agnes Repplier, historian John Lukacs resurrects a lost American talent.

Repplier offers an embarrassment of riches for the editor. She wrote memoirs of convent life, biographies of missionaries, histories of laughter, of tea, of her hometown Philadelphia. But most of all she wrote essays, on topics as various as histories of the French Revolution, children’s suicide, women’s fashion, political dogmatism, the Liberty Bell, cats, the lives of the poets, and education reform, among others.

Since Repplier never wrote fiction, she isn’t exactly the “American Austen.” Rather, the label applies to her sensibility. Jane Austen’s style was double-edged; the apparently neutral opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” carries a biting irony. How universally? Who acknowledged? What truth? Austen hangs everything on that impersonal “It is,” the way that provincial morals can speak with the force of divine fiat. In the same way, Repplier’s sentences seem light and dainty, but are sturdy and bracing as iron.

She was not confessional writer; a niece claimed Repplier “lacked the human impulse to talk about herself.” There’s even debate about her birth year, whether it was 1855, 1857, or 1858. She has a remarkable disinterest in her own life—is it aristocratic restraint, or democratic humility? “The Chill of Enthusiasm” strikes this keynote of detachment: “Like simplicity, and candor, and other much-commended qualities, enthusiasm is charming until we meet it face to face, and cannot escape its charm.” Aphorisms from Talleyrand and Voltaire pepper the early essays, suiting her persona of worldly, bemused wit.

Thus, her anti-populist observation that “the mob, like the Minotaur, demanded its dole.” What does this metaphor suggest? The mob is a maneater, an illicit mixture of incoherent desires, maintained by a despot who squats half-afraid on top of them. It’s a grotesque, brutal identification, the sort of symbol that rises like bile from undigested sentiments. I was reminded of the Belgian futurist in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, who “claimed the right to bear arms in any battle anywhere against the lower classes.”

Still, no one is likely to take to the streets to defeat the Minotaur. Her metaphor concentrates meaning, but it also diffuses the resentment into classical allusion—the terrifying crowd suddenly seems a little quaint, like one of bedroom shadows that fairy tales warn us about.

She has sharp things to say about America—that “great pioneer department store.” Our political and moral life is consumed by education debates—but “not so much to acquire it as to bestow it.” Her stringent standards for culture begin to sound like another Pennsylvanian, the Modernist poet Ezra Pound: “When the standard of criticism is high, when the influence of classical and foreign literature is understood and appreciated, when slovenly and ill-digested work is promptly recognized as such, then, and then only, may we look for the expansion of a country’s genius.”

Between the Civil War and the 1920s, the polite essay, plantation novel, and circumspect poetry flourished in America, creating what the philosopher George Santayana called “the genteel tradition.” Repplier had more in common with Oscar Wilde, H. L. Mencken, and G. K. Chesterton, all of them delighting in irony, paradox, and upending conventional wisdom.

Surely Repplier would not have been so easily forgotten if she were a man. Women’s writing was assumed to be “light,” or else overearnest bluestocking prose. But more than that, her subdued rhetorical tone helped her to disappear. We tend to only remember the grandiose, outsized personalities from this period of literature. The plain style she favored rewards the patient and cultivated reader, but a casual skimmer will pass over the same pages without a moment’s pause.

It’s telling that one of the most moving essays is Repplier’s tribute to the Roman poet Horace, whom she calls “wholly disillusioned, and wholly good-tempered.” It is probably too much to say that she saw herself in him; she did not self-aggrandize or posture. But Horace is certainly an ideal. He lived quietly away from Rome, as Repplier lived outside Boston and New York, the centers of America’s literate culture. He refused any trendy extravagance in style but did not disavow his reading and cultivation, just as Repplier strove to write a plain yet allusive English.

But Horace was stained by history. His most famous line, “it is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country”—dulce et decorum est pro patria mori—was the most outrageous to the twentieth century. As Repplier knew, Wilfred Owen had turned this schoolboy Latin into a bitter poem, decrying the naive idealism that sent millions to their deaths in the trenches of World War I.

She leaves the line for the very end of the essay. She points out that “death for the pagan world was a dismal thing,” and thus was nothing sweet or honorable. “But Horace knew that he would triumph over death … He spoke as prophets speak, piercing the future.” Horace was not merely a propagandist for imperial Rome’s war machine—he was trying to argue for meaning that transcended the meager limits of the body, frail thing that it is. It is typical of Repplier that a personal metaphysical hope only emerges in discussion of a Latin poet.

As Repplier wrote elsewhere about choosing pieces for a collection, “the heartbreaking part is the exclusion of quite as many more.” Lukacs includes twenty-five essays, but I missed “Books That Have Hindered Me” and “Pleasure (A Heresy),” two delightful attacks on sermonizing art. In “The Temptation of Eve,” she’s one of the very first to seriously consider fashion as an aspect of history.

Or “The Girl Graduate,” which shrewdly observes the inhuman standard that celebrates narrowly talented men, but also jeers as women those who somehow aren’t experts in every single field. In this collection, an author who had a great deal to say about women’s intellectual life is reduced to a few sidelong jabs about women’s vanity and their “customary disregard for dull integrity.” When Repplier herself compiled a poetry anthology, she allowed herself barely two pages of introduction. Perhaps some of Lukacs’ sixty-page introduction could have been better spent including a few more essays.

Perhaps the most unusual editorial decision is the refusal to annotate Repplier’s text. Almost every page of Lukacs’ introduction has footnotes, sometimes filling half the page. She is not arcane, but her steady references to Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt, to Edmund Spenser and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, rely on habits of reading that are mostly gone. This is not to mention her habit of using English nobility as an inventory of moral examples.

Who can blame her? Essays are conversations in monologue. They’re likely to reach from the mental equivalents of the junk drawer in the kitchen, the hallway table where today’s mail has been dumped—everyday thoughts, commonplaces and their inversions. If her conversation sometimes appears strewn with knick-knacks of the nineteenth century, so much the worse for our illiteracy. And after all, in two hundred years, what will a reviewer find to care about in all our era’s thinkpieces and listicles?

Horace’s poems mentioned Falernian wine, but no reader complains that the grocery store doesn’t carry it. The idea that literature stores and transmits stuff has always been popular. But books are also not a junkhouse of odds and ends. Great writing manages something more than references. With an extraordinary talent like Repplier’s, even quaint curiosities provide “contact with a liberating mind.”  

Greg Morrison lives in Virginia. He comes on Twitter as @exam_times.