Story type: Essay
There are never, at any time and place, more than a few literary critics of genuine incision, taste, and instinct; and these qualities, rare enough in themselves, are further debilitated, in many cases, by excessive geniality or indigestion. The ideal literary critic should be guarded as carefully as a delicate thermal instrument at the Weather Bureau; his meals, friendships, underwear, and bank account should all be supervised by experts and advisedly maintained at a temperate mean. In the Almost Perfect State (so many phases of which have been deliciously delineated by Mr. Marquis) a critic seen to become over-exhilarated at the dining table or to address any author by his first name would promptly be haled from the room by a commissionaire lest his intellectual acuity become blunted by emotion.
The unfortunate habit of critics being also human beings has done a great deal to impair their value to the public. For other human beings we all nourish a secret disrespect. And therefore it is well that the world should be reminded now and then of the dignity and purity of the critic’s function. The critic’s duty is not merely to tabulate literary material according to some convenient scale of proved niceties; but to discern the ratio existing in any given work between possibility and performance; between the standard the author might justly have been expected to achieve and the standard he actually attained. There are hierarchies and lower archies. A pint pot, full (it is no new observation), is just as full as a bathtub full. And the first duty of the critic is to determine and make plain to the reader the frame of mind in which the author approached his task.
Just as a ray of sunshine across a room reveals, in air that seemed clear, innumerable motes of golden dancing dust and filament, so the bright beam of a great critic shows us the unsuspected floating atoms of temperament in the mind of a great writer. The popular understanding of the word criticize is to find fault, to pettifog. As usual, the popular mind is only partly right. The true critic is the tender curator and warden of all that is worthy in letters. His function is sacramental, like the sweeping of a hearth. He keeps the hearth clean and nourishes the fire. It is a holy fire, for its fuel is men’s hearts.
It seems to us probable that under present conditions the cause of literature is more likely to suffer from injudicious and excessive praise rather than from churlish and savage criticism. It seems to us (and we say this with certain misgivings as to enthusiasms of our own) that there are many reviewers whose honest zeal for the discovering of masterpieces is so keen that they are likely to burst into superlatives half a dozen times a year and hail as a flaming genius some perfectly worthy creature, who might, if he were given a little stiff discipline, develop into a writer of best-readers rather than best-sellers. Too resounding praise is often more damning than faint praise. The writer who has any honest intentions is more likely to be helped by a little judicious acid now and then than by cartloads of honey. Let us be candid and personal. When someone in The New Republic spoke of some essays of our own as “blowzy” we were moved for a few moments to an honest self-scrutiny and repentance. Were we really blowzy, we said to ourself? We did not know exactly what this meant, and there was no dictionary handy. But the word gave us a picture of a fat, ruddy beggar-wench trudging through wind and rain, probably on the way to a tavern; and we determined, with modest sincerity, to be less like that in future.
The good old profession of criticism tends, in the hands of the younger generation, toward too fulsome ejaculations of hurrahs and hyperboles. It is a fine thing, of course, that new talent should so swiftly win its recognition; yet we think we are not wholly wrong in believing that many a delicate and promising writer has been hurried into third-rate work, into women’s magazine serials and cheap sordid sensationalism, by a hasty overcapitalization of the reviewer’s shouts. For our own part, we do not feel any too sure of our ability to recognize really great work when we first see it. We have often wondered, if we had been journalizing in 1855 when “Leaves of Grass” appeared, would we have been able to see what it meant, or wouldn’t we have been more likely to fill our column with japeries at the expense of Walt’s obvious absurdities, missing all the finer grain? It took a man like Emerson to see what Walt was up to.
There were many who didn’t. Henry James, for instance, wrote a review of “Drum Taps” in the Nation, November 16, 1865. In the lusty heyday and assurance of twenty-two years, he laid the birch on smartly. It is just a little saddening to find that even so clear-sighted an observer as Henry James could not see through the chaotic form of Whitman to the great vision and throbbing music that seem so plain to us to-day. Whitman himself, writing about “Drum Taps” before its publication, said, “Its passion has the indispensable merit that though to the ordinary reader let loose with wildest abandon, the true artist can see that it is yet under control.” With this, evidently, the young Henry James did not agree. He wrote:
It has been a melancholy task to read this book; and it is a still more melancholy one to write about it. Perhaps since the day of Mr. Tupper’s “Philosophy” there has been no more difficult reading of the poetic sort. It exhibits the effort of an essentially prosaic mind to lift itself, by a prolonged muscular strain, into poetry. Like hundreds of other good patriots, Mr. Walt Whitman has imagined that a certain amount of violent sympathy with the great deeds and sufferings of our soldiers, and of admiration for our national energy, together with a ready command of picturesque language, are sufficient inspiration for a poet…. But he is not a poet who merely reiterates these plain facts ore rotundo. He only sings them worthily who views them from a height…. Mr. Whitman is very fond of blowing his own trumpet, and he has made very explicit claims for his book…. The frequent capitals are the only marks of verse in Mr. Whitman’s writing. There is, fortunately, but one attempt at rhyme…. Each line starts off by itself, in resolute independence of its companions, without a visible goal … it begins like verse and turns out to be arrant prose. It is more like Mr. Tupper’s proverbs than anything we have met…. No triumph, however small, is won but through the exercise of art, and this volume is an offence against art…. We look in vain through the book for a single idea. We find nothing but flashy imitations of ideas. We find a medley of extravagances and commonplaces.
We do not know whether H.J. ever recanted this very youthful disposal of old Walt. The only importance of it at this moment seems to us this: that appreciation of all kinds of art is so tenderly interwoven with inherited respect for the traditional forms of expression by which they are conveyed that a new and surprising vehicle quite unfits most observers for any reasonable assessment of the passenger.
As for Walt himself, he was quite unabashed by this or any other onslaught. He was not gleg at argument, and probably rolled up the issue of the Nation in his pocket and went down to Coney Island to lie on the sand and muse (but no, we forget, it was November!). In the same issue of the Nation he doubtless read, in the “Literary Notes,” that “Poems Relating to the American Revolution,” by Philip Freneau, was “in press under the scholarly editing of Evart A. Duyckinck to form a complete presentment of the genius of an author whose influence in the affairs of his time would alone impart a lasting value to his works.” At this Walt smiled gently to himself, wondered how soon “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed” would get into the anthologies, and “sped to the certainties suitable to him.”
These miscellaneous thoughts on the fallibility of critics were suggested to us by finding some old bound volumes of the Edinburgh Review on a bookstall, five cents each. In the issue for November, 1814, we read with relish what the Review had to say about Wordsworth’s “Excursion.” These are a few excerpts:
This will never do…. The case of Mr. Wordsworth, we perceive, is now manifestly hopeless; and we give him up as altogether incurable, and beyond the power of criticism … making up our minds, though with the most sincere pain and reluctance, to consider him as finally lost to the good cause of poetry…. The volume before us, if we were to describe it very shortly, we should characterize as a tissue of moral and devotional ravings, in which innumerable changes are rung upon a few very simple and familiar ideas.
The world of readers has not ratified Jeffrey’s savage comments on “The Excursion,” for (to reckon only by the purse) any frequenter of old bookshops can pick up that original issue of the Edinburgh Review for a few cents, while the other day we saw a first edition of the maligned “Excursion” sold for thirty dollars. A hundred years ago it was the critic’s pleasure to drub authors with cruel and unnecessary vigour. But we think that almost equal harm can be done by the modern method of hailing a new “genius” every three weeks.
For example, there is something subtly troublesome to us in the remark that Sinclair Lewis made about Evelyn Scott’s novel, “The Narrow House.” The publishers have used it as an advertising slogan, and the words have somehow buzzed their way into our head:
“Salute to Evelyn Scott: she belongs, she understands, she is definitely an artist.”
We have been going about our daily affairs, climbing subway stairs, dodging motor trucks, ordering platters of stewed rhubarb, with that refrain recurring and recurring. Salute to Evelyn Scott! (we say to ourself as we stand in line at the bank, waiting to cash a small check). She belongs, she understands. And then, as we go away, pensively counting the money (they’ve got some clean Ones down at our bank, by the way; we don’t know whether the larger denominations are clean or not, we haven’t seen any since Christmas), we find ourself mumbling, She is definitely an artist.
We wonder why that pronouncement annoys us so. We haven’t read all Mrs. Scott’s book yet, and doubt our strength to do so. It is a riot of morbid surgery by a fumbling scalpel: great powers of observation are put to grotesque misuse. It is crammed with faithful particulars neither relevant nor interesting. (Who sees so little as he who looks through a microscope?) At first we thought, hopefully, that it was a bit of excellent spoof; then, regretfully, we began to realize that not only the publishers but even the author take it seriously. It feels as though it had been written by one of the new school of Chicago realists. It is disheartening that so influential a person as Mr. Lewis should be fooled by this sort of thing.
So there is something intensely irritating to us (although we admire Mr. Lewis) in that “She belongs, she understands, she is definitely an artist.” In the first place, that use of the word artist as referring to a writer always gives us qualms unless used with great care. Then again, She belongs somehow seems to intimate that there is a registered clique of authors, preferably those who come down pretty heavily upon the disagreeable facts of life and catalogue them with gluttonous care, which group is the only one that counts. Now we are strong for disagreeable facts. We know a great many. But somehow we cannot shake ourself loose from the instinctive conviction that imagination is the without-which-nothing of the art of fiction. Miss Stella Benson is one who is not unobservant of disagreeables, but when she writes she can convey her satire in flashing, fantastic absurdity, in a heavenly chiding so delicate and subtle that the victim hardly knows he is being chidden. The photographic facsimile of life always seems to us the lesser art, because it is so plainly the easier course.
We fear we are not acute enough to explain just why it is that Mr. Lewis’s salute to Mrs. Scott bothers us so. But it does bother us a good deal. We have nourished ourself, in the main, upon the work of two modern writers: Robert Louis Stevenson and Joseph Conrad; we like to apply as a test such theories as we have been able to glean from those writers. Faulty and erring as we are, we always rise from Mr. Conrad’s books purged and, for the moment, strengthened. Apparent in him are that manly and honourable virtue, that strict saline truth and scrupulous regard for life, that liberation from cant, which seem to be inbred in those who have suffered the exacting discipline of the hostile sea. Certainly Conrad cannot be called a writer who has neglected the tragic side of things. Yet in his “Notes on Life and Letters,” we find this:
What one feels so hopelessly barren in declared pessimism is just its arrogance. It seems as if the discovery made by many men at various times that there is much evil in the world were a source of proud and unholy joy unto some of the modern writers. That frame of mind is not the proper one in which to approach seriously the art of fiction…. To be hopeful in an artistic sense it is not necessary to think that the world is good. It is enough to believe that there is no impossibility of its being made so…. I would ask that in his dealings with mankind he [the writer] should be capable of giving a tender recognition to their obscure virtues. I would not have him impatient with their small failings and scornful of their errors.
We fear that our mild protest is rather mixed and muddled. But what we darkly feel is this: that no author “belongs,” or “understands,” or is “definitely an artist” who merely makes the phantoms of his imagination paltry or ridiculous. They may be paltry, but they must also be pitiable; they may be ridiculous, but they must also be tragic. Many authors have fallen from the sublime to the ridiculous; but, as Mr. Chesterton magnificently said, in order to make that descent they must first reach the sublime.