Story type: Essay
To the northward of Hispaniola lies the island of Bimini. It may not be one of the spice islands, but it grows the best ginger to be found in the world. In it is a fair city, and beside the city a lofty mountain, at the foot of which is a noble spring called the ‘Fons Juventutis’. This fountain has a sweet savor, as of all manner of spicery, and every hour of the day the water changes its savor and its smell. Whoever drinks of this well will be healed of whatever malady he has, and will seem always young. It is not reported that women and men who drink of this fountain will be always young, but that they will seem so, and probably to themselves, which simply means, in our modern accuracy of language, that they will feel young. This island has never been found. Many voyages have been made in search of it in ships and in the imagination, and Liars have said they have landed on it and drunk of the water, but they never could guide any one else thither. In the credulous centuries when these voyages were made, other islands were discovered, and a continent much more important than Bimini; but these discoveries were a disappointment, because they were not what the adventurers wanted. They did not understand that they had found a new land in which the world should renew its youth and begin a new career. In time the quest was given up, and men regarded it as one of the delusions which came to an end in the sixteenth century. In our day no one has tried to reach Bimini except Heine. Our scientific period has a proper contempt for all such superstitions. We now know that the ‘Fons Juventutis’ is in every man, and that if actually juvenility cannot be renewed, the advance of age can be arrested and the waste of tissues be prevented, and an uncalculated length of earthly existence be secured, by the injection of some sort of fluid into the system. The right fluid has not yet been discovered by science, but millions of people thought that it had the other day, and now confidently expect it. This credulity has a scientific basis, and has no relation to the old absurd belief in Bimini. We thank goodness that we do not live in a credulous age.
The world would be in a poor case indeed if it had not always before it some ideal or millennial condition, some panacea, some transmutation of base metals into gold, some philosopher’s stone, some fountain of youth, some process of turning charcoal into diamonds, some scheme for eliminating evil. But it is worth mentioning that in the historical evolution we have always got better things than we sought or imagined, developments on a much grander scale. History is strewn with the wreck of popular delusions, but always in place of them have come realizations more astonishing than the wildest fancies of the dreamers. Florida was a disappointment as a Bimini, so were the land of the Ohio, the land of the Mississippi, the Dorado of the Pacific coast. But as the illusions, pushed always westward, vanished in the light of common day, lo! a continent gradually emerged, with millions of people animated by conquering ambition of progress in freedom; an industrial continent, covered with a network of steel, heated by steam, and lighted by electricity. What a spectacle of youth on a grand scale is this! Christopher Columbus had not the slightest conception of what he was doing when he touched the button. But we are not satisfied. Quite as far from being so as ever. The popular imagination runs a hard race with any possible natural development. Being in possession of so much, we now expect to travel in the air, to read news in the sending mind before it is sent, to create force without cost, to be transported without time, and to make everybody equal in fortune and happiness to everybody else by act of Congress. Such confidence have we in the power of a “resolution” of the people and by the people that it seems feasible to make women into men, oblivious of the more important and imperative task that will then arise of making men into women. Some of these expectations are only Biminis of the present, but when they have vanished there will be a social and industrial world quite beyond our present conceptions, no doubt. In the article of woman, for instance, she may not become the being that the convention expects, but there may appear a Woman of whom all the Aspasias and Helens were only the faintest types. And although no progress will take the conceit out of men, there may appear a Man so amenable to ordinary reason that he will give up the notion that he can lift himself up by his bootstraps, or make one grain of wheat two by calling it two.
One of the Biminis that have always been looked for is an American Literature. There was an impression that there must be such a thing somewhere on a continent that has everything else. We gave the world tobacco and the potato, perhaps the most important contributions to the content and the fatness of the world made by any new country, and it was a noble ambition to give it new styles of art and literature also. There seems to have been an impression that a literature was something indigenous or ready-made, like any other purely native product, not needing any special period of cultivation or development, and that a nation would be in a mortifying position without one, even before it staked out its cities or built any roads. Captain John Smith, if he had ever settled here and spread himself over the continent, as he was capable of doing, might have taken the contract to furnish one, and we may be sure that he would have left us nothing to desire in that direction. But the vein of romance he opened was not followed up. Other prospectings were made. Holes, so to speak, were dug in New England, and in the middle South, and along the frontier, and such leads were found that again and again the certainty arose that at last the real American ore had been discovered. Meantime a certain process called civilization went on, and certain ideas of breadth entered into our conceptions, and ideas also of the historical development of the expression of thought in the world, and with these a comprehension of what American really is, and the difficulty of putting the contents of a bushel measure into a pint cup. So, while we have been expecting the American Literature to come out from some locality, neat and clean, like a nugget, or, to change the figure, to bloom any day like a century-plant, in one striking, fragrant expression of American life, behold something else has been preparing and maturing, larger and more promising than our early anticipations. In history, in biography, in science, in the essay, in the novel and story, there are coming forth a hundred expressions of the hundred aspects of American life; and they are also sung by the poets in notes as varied as the migrating birds. The birds perhaps have the best of it thus far, but the bird is limited to a small range of performances while he shifts his singing-boughs through the climates of the continent, whereas the poet, though a little inclined to mistake aspiration for inspiration, and vagueness of longing for subtlety, is experimenting in a most hopeful manner. And all these writers, while perhaps not consciously American or consciously seeking to do more than their best in their several ways, are animated by the free spirit of inquiry and expression that belongs to an independent nation, and so our literature is coming to have a stamp of its own that is unlike any other national stamp. And it will have this stamp more authentically and be clearer and stronger as we drop the self-consciousness of the necessity of being American.