Cornelius Mathews (October 28, 1817 – March 25, 1889), was an American writer, best known for his crucial role in the formation of a literary group known as Young America in the late 1830s, with editor Evert Duyckinck and author William Gilmore Simms.
Mathews was born on October 28, 1817, in Port Chester, New York to Abijah Mathews and Catherine Van Cott. He attended Columbia College, graduated New York University in 1834. He then attended law school and passed the New York bar in 1837.
At the time, American literature was generally regarded as necessarily inferior to the British, and American authors were encouraged to follow English models closely. This at least was the view espoused by the literary elite of New York, who tended to orbit the influential and conservative editor of the Knickerbocker Magazine, Lewis Gaylord Clark. Mathews vehemently disagreed, and called for a new literary style that would express a distinctly American identity, although this style was not to be a populist or demotic one. Their politics was limited to a call for international copyright law, to curb the wholesale piracy of American literature in England. Stylistically, Mathews favored an approach that emphasized the cosmopolitan sweep and diversity of American society, bolder and more philosophical than the sort of cozy humor associated with the Knickerbocker Magazine (although Mathews did not refuse to appear in its pages), but not as abstruse and Germanic as the Transcendentalist literature of Boston. Mathews’ panacea was the emulation of Rabelais, whose Gargantua and Pantagruel, he believed, managed to advance philosophical penetration without etherializing its subject matter. For two years (1840–1842), Mathews and Duyckinck wrote for and co-edited Young America’s uneven journal, Arcturus, publishing also Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and James Russell Lowell.
Mathews coined the name for the Young America movement in an 1845 speech. As he described the movement, "Here, in New York, is the seat and strong-hold of this young power: but, all over the land, day by day, new men are emerging into activity, who partake of these desires, who scorn and espise the past pettiness of the country, and who are ready to sustain any movement toward a better and nobler condition".
Throughout the period of his principle literary activity, the 1840s and 1850s, Mathews contributed to and/or helped to edit all manner of American periodicals, including the New-Yorker, the Comic World, the New York Dramatic Mirror, the American Monthly Magazine, the New York Review, the New York Reveille, and a would-be rival to the Knickerbocker Magazine, the rapidly moribund Yankee Doodle. In 1853, he published A Pen-and-Ink Panorama of New York City, a collection of essays, character sketches, and sketches on the scenery of New York. Although he wrote several satirical plays, his most successful play was Witchcraft, or the Martyrs of Salem (1846), which was more serious in tone and written in blank verse.
Cornelius Mathews died in New York City in 1889.
Critical response and influence
Reviewing Mathews's Wakondah in Graham's Magazine Edgar Allan Poe wrote that it had "no merit whatever; while its faults... are of that rampant class which if any schoolboy could be found so uninformed as to commit them, any schoolboy should remorselessly be flogged for committing." Of Mathews's novel Puffer Hopkins, Poe called it "one of the most trashy novels that ever emanated from an American press".
Mathews was such a strong proponent of copyright law, he was considered a joke by some in the literary scene. Critic and anthologist Rufus Wilmot Griswold included Mathews in his Prose Writers of America (1847) but criticized his vehement push for nationalist literature. "Mr. Mathews", Griswold said, "wrote very good English and very good sense until he was infected with the disease of building up a national literature." Charles Frederick Briggs satirized Mathews in the novel Trippings of Tom Pepper, depicting him as a lawyer named Mr. Ferocious who frequently interrupts others to advocate literature which is "fresh, home-born" and free of foreign influence. Margaret Fuller, however, supported his advocacy for a national literature and said that Mathew's play Witchcraft was an example of "a true, genuine, invincible Americanism."
American literary historian Perry Miller, writing in The Raven and the Whale, suggested that Herman Melville was influenced by Mathew's Behemoth when writing Moby-Dick. Melville invited Mathews to his home in 1850.
Selected list of works
- The Motley Book (1838)
- Behemoth: A Legend of the Mound-Builders (1839)
- The Career of Puffer Hopkins (1842)
- Big Abel and the Little Manhattan (1845)
- Moneypenny: or, The Heart of the World (1849)
- Chanticleer: A Thanksgiving Story of the Peabody Family (1850)
- Wakondah: The Master of Life (1841)
- Poems on Man in His Various Aspects Under the American Republic (1843)
- The Indian Fairy Book (1855), reprinted in 1877 under the title The Enchanted Moccasins
- The Politician (1840, never produced)
- Witchcraft, or the Martyrs of Salem (1846)
- Jacob Leisler (1848)
- False Pretences; or, Both Sides of Good Society (1855)
- Nelson, Randy F. The Almanac of American Letters. Los Altos, California: William Kaufmann, Inc., 1981: 47. ISBN 0-86576-008-X
- Widmer, Edward L. Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999: 57. ISBN 0-19-514062-1
- Callow, James T. Kindred Spirits: Knickerbocker Writers and American Artists, 1807–1855. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1967: 149.
- Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance. Harper Perennial, 1991: 164 ISBN 0-06-092331-8.
- Duberman, Martin. James Russell Lowell. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1966: 49.
- Bayless, Joy. Rufus Wilmot Griswold: Poe's Literary Executor. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1943. p. 122
- Bayless, Joy. Rufus Wilmot Griswold: Poe's Literary Executor. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1943. p. 123
- Wallach, Glenn. Obedient Sons: The Discourse of Youth and Generations in American Culture, 1630-1860. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997: 129. ISBN 1-55849-057-4
- Von Mehren, Joan. Minerva and the Muse: A Life of Margaret Fuller. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994: 223. ISBN 1-55849-015-9
- Miller, Perry. The Raven and the Whale: The War of Words and Wits in the Era of Poe and Melville. New York: Harvest Book, 1956: 170.
- Miller, Perry. The Raven and the Whale: The War of Words and Wits in the Era of Poe and Melville. New York: Harvest Book, 1956: 82–83.
- Delbanco, Andrew. Melville, His World and Work. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005: 125. ISBN 0-375-40314-0
- Works by Cornelius Mathews at Project Gutenberg
- Works by or about Cornelius Mathews at Internet Archive
- Works by Cornelius Mathews at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)