The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

XVI. Webster

§ 7. Webster’s Developed Style

Here the thought is nothing, the style everything. No one can repeat those words and be deaf to their music or insensible to the rhythm and beauty of the prose with the Saxon words relieved just sufficiently by the Latin derivatives. The ease with which it is done may be due to training, but the ability to do it comes from natural gifts which, as Goethe says, “we value more as we get older because they can not be stuck on.” Possibly to some people it may seem very simple to utter such a sentence. One can only repeat what Scott says somewhere about Swift’s style, perhaps the purest and strongest we have in the language. “Swift’s style,” said Scott, “seems so simple that one would think any child might write as he does, and yet if we try we find to our despair that it is impossible.”

It is not easy to say how much Webster’s literary art was due to intentional cultivation and how far it was purely instinctive. Undoubtedly he had a natural gift as certainly as he had an ear for the arrangement and cadence of words; but we know that he cared for style and had strong preferences in the choice of the words he used to express his thought. We have the right to infer, therefore, that he was quite aware of the art which he practised so admirably. The highly conscious art which we see in Sterne, or in Walter Pater in our own time, to take two examples at random, and which is so effective in its results, is not apparent in Webster. He would probably not have been one of the greatest of orators if it had been, for then the writer would have absorbed the speaker. We are conscious of his art, although he does not seem to be conscious of it himself. Yet, however much we may speculate as to the proportions of intentional art and of unaided natural gifts in the style of all he said, there can be no question that he possessed and had mastered the rare combination which confers the lasting quality of literature upon the speech without losing the living force of the written word. It is this most rare achievement which gives to Webster, who never wrote book or essay or verse, his uncontested place in the history of American literature.