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´╗┐Title: Definitions: Essays in Contemporary Criticism [First Series]
Author: Canby, Henry Seidel
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Definitions: Essays in Contemporary Criticism [First Series]" ***

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Editor of _The Literary Review_ of _The New York Evening Post_, and a
member of the English Department of Yale University.



The author wishes to acknowledge the courtesy of _The Atlantic
Monthly, Harper's Magazine, The Century Magazine, The Literary
Review of The New York Evening Post, The Bookman, The Nation, and
The North American Review_ for permission to reprint such of
these essays as have appeared in their columns.


The unity of this book is to be sought in the point of view of the
writer rather than in a sequence of chapters developing a single
theme and arriving at categorical conclusions. Literature in a
civilization like ours, which is trying to be both sophisticated
and democratic at the same moment of time, has so many sources and
so many manifestations, is so much involved with our social
background, and is so much a question of life as well as of art,
that many doors have to be opened before one begins to approach an
understanding. The method of informal definition which I have
followed in all these essays is an attempt to open doors through
which both writer and reader may enter into a better comprehension
of what novelists, poets, and critics have done or are trying to
accomplish. More than an entrance upon many a vexed controversy
and hidden meaning I cannot expect to have achieved in this book;
but where the door would not swing wide I have at least tried to
put one foot in the crack. The sympathetic reader may find his own
way further; or may be stirred by my endeavor to a deeper
appreciation, interest, and insight. That is my hope.

New York, April, 1922.




















The Oriental may be inscrutable, but he is no more puzzling than
the average American. We admit that we are hard, keen, practical,
--the adjectives that every casual European applies to us,--and yet
any book-store window or railway news-stand will show that we
prefer sentimental magazines and books. Why should a hard race--if
we are hard--read soft books?

By soft books, by sentimental books, I do not mean only the kind
of literature best described by the word "squashy." I doubt
whether we write or read more novels and short stories of the
tear-dripped or hyper-emotional variety than other nations.
Germany is--or was--full of such soft stuff. It is highly popular
in France, although the excellent taste of French criticism keeps
it in check. Italian popular literature exudes sentiment; and the
sale of "squashy" fiction in England is said to be threatened only
by an occasional importation of an American "best-seller." We have
no bad eminence here. Sentimentalists with enlarged hearts are
international in habitat, although, it must be admitted,
especially popular in America.

When a critic, after a course in American novels and magazines,
declares that life, as it appears on the printed page here, is
fundamentally sentimentalized, he goes much deeper than
"mushiness" with his charge. He means, I think, that there is an
alarming tendency in American fiction to dodge the facts of life--
or to pervert them. He means that in most popular books only red-
blooded, optimistic people are welcome. He means that material
success, physical soundness, and the gratification of the emotions
have the right of way. He means that men and women (except the
comic figures) shall be presented, not as they are, but as we
should like to have them, according to a judgment tempered by
nothing more searching than our experience with an unusually
comfortable, safe, and prosperous mode of living. Every one
succeeds in American plays and stories--if not by good thinking,
why then by good looks or good luck. A curious society the
research student of a later date might make of it--an upper world
of the colorless successful, illustrated by chance-saved collar
advertisements and magazine covers; an underworld of grotesque
scamps, clowns, and hyphenates drawn from the comic supplement;
and all--red-blooded hero and modern gargoyle alike--always in
good humor.

I am not touching in this picture merely to attack it. It has been
abundantly attacked; what it needs is definition. For there is
much in this bourgeois, good-humored American literature of ours
which rings true, which is as honest an expression of our
individuality as was the more austere product of antebellum New
England. If American sentimentality does invite criticism,
American sentiment deserves defense.

Sentiment--the response of the emotions to the appeal of human
nature--is cheap, but so are many other good things. The best of
the ancients were rich in it. Homer's chieftains wept easily. So
did Shakespeare's heroes. Adam and Eve shed "some natural tears"
when they left the Paradise which Milton imagined for them. A
heart accessible to pathos, to natural beauty, to religion, was a
chief requisite for the protagonist of Victorian literature. Even
Becky Sharp was touched--once--by Amelia's moving distress.

Americans, to be sure, do not weep easily; but if they make
equivalent responses to sentiment, that should not be held against
them. If we like "sweet" stories, or "strong"--which means
emotional--stories, our taste is not thereby proved to be
hopeless, or our national character bad. It is better to be
creatures of even sentimental sentiment with the author of "The
Rosary," than to see the world _only_ as it is portrayed by the pens
of Bernard Shaw and Anatole France. The first is deplorable; the
second is dangerous. I should deeply regret the day when a simple
story of honest American manhood winning a million and a sparkling,
piquant sweetheart lost all power to lull my critical faculty and warm
my heart. I doubt whether any literature has ever had too much of
honest sentiment.

Good Heavens! Because some among us insist that the mystic rose of
the emotions shall be painted a brighter pink than nature allows,
are the rest to forego glamour? Or because, to view the matter
differently, psychology has shown what happens in the brain when a
man falls in love, and anthropology has traced marriage to a care
for property rights, are we to suspect the idyllic in literature
wherever we find it? Life is full of the idyllic; and no
anthropologist will ever persuade the reasonably romantic youth
that the sweet and chivalrous passion which leads him to mingle
reverence with desire for the object of his affections, is nothing
but an idealized property sense. Origins explain very little,
after all. The bilious critics of sentiment in literature have not
even honest science behind them.

I have no quarrel with traffickers in simple emotion--with such
writers as James Lane Allen and James Whitcomb Riley, for example.
But the average American is not content with such sentiment as
theirs. He wishes a more intoxicating brew, he desires to be
persuaded that, once you step beyond your own experience, feeling
rules the world. He wishes--I judge by what he reads--to make
sentiment at least ninety per cent efficient, even if a dream-
America, superficially resemblant to the real, but far different
in tone, must be created by the obedient writer in order to
satisfy him. His sentiment has frequently to be sentimentalized
before he will pay for it. And to this fault, which he shares with
other modern races, he adds the other heinous sin of
sentimentalism, the refusal to face the facts.

This sentimentalizing of reality is far more dangerous than the
romantic sentimentalizing of the "squashy" variety. It is to be
found in sex-stories which carefully observe decency of word and
deed, where the conclusion is always in accord with conventional
morality, yet whose characters are clearly immoral, indecent, and
would so display themselves if the tale were truly told. It is to
be found in stories of "big business" where trickery and rascality
are made virtuous at the end by sentimental baptism. If I choose
for the hero of my novel a director in an American trust; if I
make him an accomplice in certain acts of ruthless economic
tyranny; if I make it clear that at first he is merely subservient
to a stronger will; and that the acts he approves are in complete
disaccord with his private moral code--why then, if the facts
should be dragged to the light, if he is made to realize the exact
nature of his career, how can I end my story? It is evident that
my hero possesses little insight and less firmness of character.
He is not a hero; he is merely a tool. In, let us say, eight cases
out of ten, his curve is already plotted. It leads downward--not
necessarily along the villain's path, but toward moral

And yet, I cannot end my story that way for Americans. There _must_ be
a grand moral revolt. There must be resistance, triumph, and not only
spiritual, but also financial recovery. And this, likewise, is
sentimentality. Even Booth Tarkington, in his excellent "Turmoil," had
to dodge the logical issue of his story; had to make his hero exchange
a practical literary idealism for a very impractical, even though a
commercial, utopianism, in order to emerge apparently successful at
the end of the book. A story such as the Danish Nexo's "Pelle the
Conqueror," where pathos and the idyllic, each intense, each
beautiful, are made convincing by an undeviating truth to experience,
would seem to be almost impossible of production just now in America.

It is not enough to rail at this false fiction. The chief duty of
criticism is to explain. The best corrective of bad writing is a
knowledge of why it is bad. We get the fiction we deserve,
precisely as we get the government we deserve--or perhaps, in each
case, a little better. Why are we sentimental? When that question
is answered, it is easier to understand the defects and the
virtues of American fiction. And the answer lies in the
traditional American philosophy of life.

To say that the American is an idealist is to commit a
thoroughgoing platitude. Like most platitudes, the statement is
annoying because from one point of view it is indisputably just,
while from another it does not seem to fit the facts. With regard
to our tradition, it is indisputable. Of the immigrants who since
the seventeenth century have been pouring into this continent a
proportion large in number, larger still in influence, has been
possessed of motives which in part at least were idealistic. If it
was not the desire for religious freedom that urged them, it was
the desire for personal freedom; if not political liberty, why
then economic liberty (for this too is idealism), and the
opportunity to raise the standard of life. And of course all these
motives were strongest in that earlier immigration which has done
most to fix the state of mind and body which we call being
American. I need not labor the argument. Our political and social
history support it; our best literature demonstrates it, for no
men have been more idealistic than the American writers whom we
have consented to call great. Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne,
Whitman--was idealism ever more thoroughly incarnate than in them?

And this idealism--to risk again a platitude--has been in the air of
America. It has permeated our religious sects, and created
several of them. It has given tone to our thinking, and even more
to our feeling. I do not say that it has always, or even usually,
determined our actions, although the Civil War is proof of its
power. Again and again it has gone aground roughly when the ideal
met a condition of living--a fact that will provide the
explanation for which I seek. But optimism, "boosting," muck-
raking (not all of its manifestations are pretty), social service,
religious, municipal, democratic reform, indeed the "uplift"
generally, is evidence of the vigor, the bumptiousness of the
inherited American tendency to pursue the ideal. No one can doubt
that in 1918 we believed, at least, in idealism.
Nevertheless, so far as the average individual is concerned, with
just his share and no more of the race-tendency, this idealism
has been suppressed, and in some measure perverted. It is this
which explains, I think, American sentimentalism.

Consider, for example, the ethics of conventional American
society. The American ethical tradition is perfectly definite and
tremendously powerful. It belongs, furthermore, to a population
far larger than the "old American" stock, for it has been
laboriously inculcated in our schools and churches, and
impressively driven home by newspaper, magazine, and book. I shall
not presume to analyze it save where it touches literature. There
it maintains a definite attitude toward all sex-problems: the
Victorian, which is not necessarily, or even probably, a bad one.
Man should be chaste, and proud of his chastity. Woman must be so.
It is the ethical duty of the American to hate, or at least to
despise, all deviations, and to pretend--for the greater prestige
of the law--that such sinning is exceptional, at least in America.
And this is the public morality he believes in, whatever may be
his private experience in actual living. In business, it is the
ethical tradition of the American, inherited from a rigorous
Protestant morality, to be square, to play the game without
trickery, to fight hard but never meanly. Over-reaching is
justifiable when the other fellow has equal opportunities to be
"smart"; lying, tyranny--never. And though the opposites of all
these laudable practices come to pass, he must frown on them in
public, deny their rightness even to the last cock-crow--
especially in the public press.

American political history is a long record of idealistic
tendencies toward democracy working painfully through a net of
graft, pettiness, sectionalism, and bravado, with constant
disappointment for the idealist who believes, traditionally, in
the intelligence of the crowd. American social history is a
glaring instance of how the theory of equal dignity for all men
can entangle itself with caste distinctions, snobbery, and the
power of wealth. American economic history betrays the pioneer
helping to kick down the ladder which he himself had raised toward
equal opportunity for all. American literary history--especially
contemporary literary history--reflects the result of all this for
the American mind. The sentimental in our literature is a direct

The disease is easily acquired. Mr. Smith, a broker, finds himself
in an environment of "schemes" and "deals" in which the quality of
mercy is strained, and the wind is decidedly not tempered to the
shorn lamb. After all, business is business. He shrugs his
shoulders and takes his part. But his unexpended fund of native
idealism--if, as is most probable, he has his share--seeks its
due satisfaction. He cannot use it in business; so he takes it out
in a novel or a play where, quite contrary to his observed
experience, ordinary people like himself act nobly, with a success
that is all the more agreeable for being unexpected. His wife, a
woman with strange stirrings about her heart, with motions toward
beauty, and desires for a significant life and rich, satisfying
experience, exists in day-long pettiness, gossips, frivols,
scolds, with money enough to do what she pleases, and nothing
vital to do. She also relieves her pent-up idealism in plays or
books--in high-wrought, "strong" novels, not in adventures in
society such as the kitchen admires, but in stories with violent
moral and emotional crises, whose characters, no matter how
unlifelike, have "strong" thoughts, and make vital decisions;
succeed or fail significantly. Her brother, the head of a
wholesale dry-goods firm, listens to the stories the drummers
bring home of night life on the road, laughs, says to himself
regretfully that the world has to be like that; and then, in
logical reaction, demands purity and nothing but aggressive purity
in the books of the public library.

The hard man goes in for philanthropy (never before so frequently
as in America); the one-time "boss" takes to picture-collecting;
the railroad wrecker gathers rare editions of the Bible; and tens
of thousands of humbler Americans carry their inherited idealism
into the necessarily sordid experiences of life in an imperfectly
organized country, suppress it for fear of being thought "cranky"
or "soft," and then, in their imagination and all that feeds their
imagination, give it vent. You may watch the process any evening
at the "movies" or the melodrama, on the trolley-car or in the
easy chair at home.

This philosophy of living which I have called American idealism
is in its own nature sound, as is proved in a hundred directions
where it has had full play. Suppressed idealism, like any other
suppressed desire, becomes unsound. And here lies the ultimate
cause of the taste for sentimentalism in the American _bourgeoisie._
An undue insistence upon happy endings, regardless of the premises of
the story, and a craving for optimism everywhere, anyhow, are sure
signs of a "morbid complex," and to be compared with some justice to
the craving for drugs in an alcoholic deprived of liquor. No one can
doubt the effect of the suppression by the Puritan discipline of that
instinctive love of pleasure and liberal experience common to us all.
Its unhealthy reaction is visible in every old American community. No
one who faces the facts can deny the result of the suppression by
commercial, bourgeois, prosperous America of our native idealism.
The student of society may find its dire effects in politics, in
religion, and in social intercourse. The critic cannot overlook
them in literature; for it is in the realm of the imagination that
idealism, direct or perverted, does its best or its worst.

Sentiment is not perverted idealism. Sentiment _is_ idealism,
of a mild and not too masculine variety. If it has sins, they are
sins of omission, not commission. Our fondness for sentiment
proves that our idealism, if a little loose in the waist-band and
puffy in the cheeks, is still hearty, still capable of active
mobilization, like those comfortable French husbands whose plump
and smiling faces, careless of glory, careless of everything but
thrift and good living, one used to see figured on a page whose
superscription read, "Dead on the field of honor."

The novels, the plays, the short stories, of sentiment may prefer
sweetness, perhaps, to truth, the feminine to the masculine
virtues, but we waste ammunition in attacking them. There never
was, I suppose, a great literature of sentiment, for not even "The
Sentimental Journey" is truly great. But no one can make a diet
exclusively of "noble" literature; the charming has its own cozy
corner across from the tragic (and a much bigger corner at that).
Our uncounted amorists of tail-piece song and illustrated story
provide the readiest means of escape from the somewhat uninspiring
life that most men and women are living just now in America.

The sentimental, however,--whether because of an excess of
sentiment softening into "slush," or of a morbid optimism, or of a
weak-eyed distortion of the facts of life,--is perverted. It needs
to be cured, and its cure is more truth. But this cure, I very
much fear, is not entirely, or even chiefly, in the power of the
"regular practitioner," the honest writer. He can be honest; but
if he is much more honest than his readers, they will not read
him. As Professor Lounsbury once said, a language grows corrupt
only when its speakers grow corrupt, and mends, strengthens, and
becomes pure with them. So with literature. We shall have less
sentimentality in American literature when our accumulated store
of idealism disappears in a laxer generation; or when it finds due
vent in a more responsible, less narrow, less monotonously
prosperous life than is lived by the average reader of fiction in
America. I would rather see our literary taste damned forever than
have the first alternative become--as it has not yet--a fact. The
second, in these years rests upon the knees of the gods.

All this must not be taken in too absolute a sense. There are
medicines, and good ones, in the hands of writers and of critics,
to abate, if not to heal, this plague of sentimentalism. I have
stated ultimate causes only. They are enough to keep the mass of
Americans reading sentimentalized fiction until some fundamental
change has come, not strong enough to hold back the van of
American writing, which is steadily moving toward restraint,
sanity, and truth. Every honest composition is a step forward in
the cause; and every clear-minded criticism.

But one must doubt the efficacy, and one must doubt the
healthiness, of reaction into cynicism and sophisticated
cleverness. There are curious signs, especially in what we may
call the literature of New York, of a growing sophistication that
sneers at sentiment and the sentimental alike. "Magazines of
cleverness" have this for their keynote, although as yet the
satire is not always well aimed. There are abundant signs that the
generation just coming forward will rejoice in such a pose. It is
observable now in the colleges, where the young literati turn up
their noses at everything American,--magazines, best-sellers, or
one-hundred-night plays,--and resort for inspiration to the
English school of anti-Victorians: to Remy de Gourmont, to Anatole
France. Their pose is not altogether to be blamed, and the men to
whom they resort are models of much that is admirable; but there
is little promise for American literature in exotic imitation. To
see ourselves prevailingly as others see us may be good for
modesty, but does not lead to a self-confident native art. And it
is a dangerous way for Americans to travel. We cannot afford such
sophistication yet. The English wits experimented with cynicism in
the court of Charles II, laughed at blundering Puritan morality,
laughed at country manners, and were whiffed away because the
ideals they laughed at were better than their own. Idealism is not
funny, however censurable its excesses. As a race we have too much
sentiment to be frightened out of the sentimental by a blase

At first glance the flood of moral literature now upon us--social-
conscience stories, scientific plays, platitudinous "moralities"
that tell us how to live--may seem to be another protest against
sentimentalism. And that the French and English examples have been
so warmly welcomed here may seem another indication of a reaction
on our part. I refer especially to "hard" stories, full of
vengeful wrath, full of warnings for the race that dodges the
facts of life. H. G. Wells is the great exemplar, with his
sociological studies wrapped in description and tied with a plot.
In a sense, such stories are certainly to be regarded as a protest
against truth-dodging, against cheap optimism, against "slacking,"
whether in literature or in life. But it would be equally just to
call them another result of suppressed idealism, and to regard
their popularity in America as proof of the argument which I have
advanced in this essay. Excessively didactic literature is often a
little unhealthy. In fresh periods, when life runs strong and both
ideals and passions find ready issue into life, literature has no
burdensome moral to carry. It digests its moral. Homer digested
his morals. They transfuse his epics. So did Shakespeare.

Not so with the writers of the social-conscience school. They are
in a rage over wicked, wasteful man. Their novels are bursted
notebooks--sometimes neat and orderly notebooks, like Mr.
Galsworthy's or our own Ernest Poole's, sometimes haphazard ones,
like those of Mr. Wells, but always explosive with reform. These
gentlemen know very well what they are about, especially Mr.
Wells, the lesser artist, perhaps, as compared with Galsworthy,
but the shrewder and possibly the greater man. The very
sentimentalists, who go to novels to exercise the idealism which
they cannot use in life, will read these unsentimental stories,
although their lazy impulses would never spur them on toward any
truth not sweetened by a tale.

And yet, one feels that the social attack might have been more
convincing if free from its compulsory service to fiction; that
these novels and plays might have been better literature if the
authors did not study life in order that they might be better able
to preach. Wells and Galsworthy also have suffered from suppressed
idealism, although it would be unfair to say that perversion was
the result. So have our muck-rakers, who, very characteristically,
exhibit the disorder in a more complex and a much more serious
form, since to a distortion of facts they have often enough added
hypocrisy and commercialism. It is part of the price we pay for
being sentimental.

If I am correct in my analysis, we are suffering here in America,
not from a plague of bad taste merely, nor only from a lack of
real education among our myriads of readers, nor from decadence--
least of all, this last. It is a disease of our own particular
virtue which has infected us--idealism, suppressed and perverted.
A less commercial, more responsible America, perhaps a less
prosperous and more spiritual America, will hold fast to its
sentiment, but be weaned from its sentimentality.


What impresses me most in the contemporary short story as I find
it in American magazines, is its curious sophistication. Its bloom
is gone. I have read through dozens of periodicals without finding
one with fresh feeling and the easy touch of the writer who writes
because his story urges him. And when with relief I do encounter a
narrative that is not conventional in structure and mechanical in
its effects, the name of the author is almost invariably that of a
newcomer, or of one of our few uncorrupted masters of the art.
Still more remarkable, the good short stories that I meet with in
my reading are the trivial ones,--the sketchy, the anecdotal, the
merely adventurous or merely picturesque; as they mount toward
literature they seem to increase in artificiality and constraint;
when they propose to interpret life they become machines, and
nothing more, for the discharge of sensation, sentiment, or
romance. And this is true, so far as I can discover, of the
stories which most critics and more editors believe to be
successful, the stories which are most characteristic of magazine
narrative and of the output of American fiction in our times.

I can take my text from any magazine, from the most literary to
the least. In the stories selected by all of them I find the
resemblances greater than the differences, and the latter seldom
amount to more than a greater or a less excellence of workmanship
and style. The "literary" magazines, it is true, more frequently
surprise one by a story told with original and consummate art; but
then the "popular" magazines balance this merit by their more
frequent escape from mere prettiness. In both kinds, the majority
of the stories come from the same mill, even though the minds that
shape them may differ in refinement and in taste. Their range is
narrow, and, what is more damning, their art seems constantly to
verge upon artificiality.

These made-to-order stories (and this is certainly not too strong
a term for the majority of them) are not interesting to a critical
reader. He sticks to the novel, or, more frequently, goes to
France, to Russia, or to England for his fiction, as the sales-
list of any progressive publisher will show. And I do not believe
that they are deeply interesting to an uncritical reader. He reads
them to pass the time; and, to judge from the magazines
themselves, gives his more serious attention to the "write-ups" of
politics, current events, new discoveries, and men in the public
eye,--to reality, in other words, written as if it were fiction,
and more interesting than the fiction that accompanies it,
because, in spite of its enlivening garb, it is guaranteed by
writer and editor to be true. I am not impressed by the perfervid
letters published by the editor in praise of somebody's story as a
"soul-cure," or the greatest of the decade. They were written, I
suppose, but they are not typical. They do not insult the
intelligence as do the ridiculous puffs which it is now the
fashion to place like a sickly limelight at the head of a story;
but they do not convince me of the story's success with the
public. Actually, men and women, discussing these magazines,
seldom speak of the stories. They have been interested,--in a
measure. The "formula," as I shall show later, is bound to get
that result. But they have dismissed the characters and forgotten
the plots.

I do not deny that this supposedly successful short story is easy
to read. It is--fatally easy. And here precisely is the trouble.
To borrow a term from dramatic criticism, it is "well made," and
that is what makes it so thin, so bloodless, and so unprofitable
to remember, in spite of its easy narrative and its "punch." Its
success as literature, curiously enough for a new literature and a
new race like ours, is limited, not by crudity, or
inexpressiveness, but by form, by the very rigidity of its
carefully perfected form. Like other patent medicines, it is
constructed by formula.

It is not difficult to construct an outline of the "formula" by
which thousands of current narratives are being whipped into
shape. Indeed, by turning to the nearest textbook on "Selling the
Short Story," I could find one ready-made. (There could be no
clearer symptom of the disease I wish to diagnose than these many
"practical" textbooks, with their over-emphasis upon technique and
their under-estimate of all else that makes literature.) The story
_must_ begin, it appears, with action or with dialogue. A mother packs
her son's trunk while she gives him unheeded advice mingled with
questions about shirts and socks; a corrupt and infuriated director
pounds on the mahogany table at his board meeting, and curses the
honest fool (hero of the story) who has got in his way; or, "'Where
did Mary Worden get that curious gown?' inquired Mrs. Van Deming,
glancing across the sparkling glass and silver of the hotel terrace."
Any one of these will serve as instance of the break-neck beginning
which Kipling made obligatory. Once started, the narrative must move,
move, move furiously, each action and every speech pointing directly
toward the unknown climax. A pause is a confession of weakness. This
Poe taught for a special kind of story; and this a later generation,
with a servility which would have amazed that sturdy fighter,
requires of all narrative. Then the climax, which must neatly,
quickly, and definitely end the action for all time, either by a
solution you have been urged to hope for by the wily author in
every preceding paragraph, or in a way which is logically correct
but never, never suspected. O. Henry is responsible for the vogue
of the latter of these two alternatives,--and the strain of living
up to his inventiveness has been frightful. Finally comes a last
suspiration, usually in the advertising pages. Sometimes it is a
beautiful descriptive sentence charged with sentiment, sometimes a
smart epigram, according to the style of story, or the "line"
expected of the author. Try this, as the advertisements say, on
your favorite magazine. This formula, with variations which
readers can supply for themselves or draw from textbooks on the
short story, is not a wholly bad method of writing fiction. It is,
I venture to assert, a very good one,--if you desire merely
effective story-telling. It is probably the best way of making the
short story a thoroughly efficient tool for the presentation of
modern life. And there lies, I believe, the whole trouble. The
short story, its course plotted and its form prescribed, has
become too efficient. Now efficiency is all that we ask of a
railroad, efficiency is half at least of what we ask of
journalism; but efficiency is not the most, it is perhaps the
least, important among the undoubted elements of good literature.

In order to make the short story efficient, the dialogue, the
setting, the plot, the character development, have been squeezed
and whittled and moulded until the means of telling the story fit
the ends of the story-telling as neatly as hook fits eye. As one
writer on how to manufacture short stories tells us in discussing
character development, the aspirant must--

"Eliminate every trait or deed which does not help peculiarly to
make the character's part in the particular story either
intelligible or open to such sympathy as it merits;

"Paint in only the 'high lights,' that is...never qualify or
elaborate a trait or episode, merely for the sake of preserving
the effect of the character's full reality." And thus the story
is to be subdued to the service of the climax as the body of man
to his brain. But what these writers upon the short story do not
tell us is that efficiency of this order works backward as well as
forward. If means are to correspond with ends, why then ends must
be adjusted to means. Not only must the devices of the story-
teller be directed with sincerity toward the tremendous effect he
wishes to make with his climax upon you and me, his readers; but
the interesting life which it is or should be his purpose to write
about for our delectation must be maneuvered, or must be chosen or
rejected, not according to the limitation which small space
imposes, but with its suitability to the "formula" in mind. In
brief, if we are to have complete efficiency, the right kind of
life and no other must be put into the short-story hopper. Nothing
which cannot be told rapidly must be dropped in, lest it clog the
smoothly spinning wheels. If it is a story of slowly developing
incongruity in married life, the action must be speeded beyond
probability, like a film in the moving pictures, before it is
ready to be made into a short story. If it is a tale of
disillusionment on a prairie farm, with the world and life
flattening out together, some sharp climax must be provided
nevertheless, because that is the only way in which to tell a
story. Indeed it is easy to see the dangers which arise from
sacrificing truth to a formula in the interests of efficiency.

This is the limitation by form; the limitation by subject is quite
as annoying. American writers from Poe down have been fertile in
plots. Especially since O. Henry took the place of Kipling as a
literary master, ingenuity, inventiveness, cleverness in its
American sense, have been squandered upon the short story. But
plots do not make variety. Themes make variety. Human nature
regarded in its multitudinous phases makes variety. There are only
a few themes in current American short stories,--the sentimental
theme from which breed ten thousand narratives; the theme of
intellectual analysis and of moral psychology favored by the
"literary" magazines; the "big-business" theme; the theme of
American effrontery; the social-contrast theme; the theme of
successful crime. Add a few more, and you will have them all. Read
a hundred examples, and you will see how infallibly the authors--
always excepting our few masters--limit themselves to conventional
aspects of even these conventional themes. Reflect, and you will
see how the first--the theme of sentiment--has overflowed its
banks and washed over all the rest, so that, whatever else a story
may be, it must somewhere, somehow, make the honest American heart
beat more softly.

There is an obvious cause for this in the taste of the American
public, which I do not propose to neglect. But here too we are in
the grip of the "formula," of the idea that there is only one way
to construct a short story--a swift succession of climaxes rising
precipitously to a giddy eminence. For the formula is rigid, not
plastic as life is plastic. It fails to grasp innumerable stories
which break the surface of American life day by day and disappear
uncaught. Stories of quiet homely life, events significant for
themselves that never reach a burning climax, situations that end
in irony, or doubt, or aspiration, it mars in the telling. The
method which makes story-telling easy, itself limits our variety.

Nothing brings home the artificiality and the narrowness of this
American fiction so clearly as a comparison, for better and for
worse, with the Russian short story. I have in mind the works of
Anton Tchekoff, whose short stories have now been translated into
excellent English. Fresh from a reading of these books, one feels,
it is true, quite as inclined to criticize as to praise. Why are
the characters therein depicted so persistently disagreeable, even
in the lighter stories? Why are the women always freckled, the men
predominantly red and watery in the eye? Why is the country so
flat, so foggy, so desolate; and why are the peasants so lumpish
and miserable? Russia before the Revolution could not have been so
dreary as this; the prevailing grimness must be due to some mental
obfuscation of her writers. I do not refer to the gloomy, powerful
realism of the stories of hopeless misery. There, if one
criticizes, it must be only the advisability of the choice of such
subjects. One does not doubt the truth of the picture. I mean the
needless dinginess of much of Russian fiction, and of many of
these powerful short stories.

Nevertheless, when one has said his worst, and particularly when
he has eliminated the dingier stories of the collection, he
returns with an admiration, almost passionate, to the truth, the
variety, above all to the freedom of these stories. I do not know
Russia or the Russians, and yet I am as sure of the absolute truth
of that unfortunate doctor in "La Cigale," who builds up his
heroic life of self-sacrifice while his wife seeks selfishly
elsewhere for a hero, as I am convinced of the essential
unreality, except in dialect and manners, of the detectives, the
"dope-fiends," the hard business men, the heroic boys and lovely
girls that people most American short stories. As for variety,--
the Russian does not handle numerous themes. He is obsessed with
the dreariness of life, and his obsession is only occasionally
lifted; he has no room to wander widely through human nature. And
yet his work gives an impression of variety that the American
magazine never attains. He is free to be various. When the mood of
gloom is off him, he experiments at will, and often with
consummate success. He seems to be sublimely unconscious that
readers are supposed to like only a few kinds of stories; and as
unaware of the taboo upon religious or reflective narrative as of
the prohibition upon the ugly in fiction. As life in any
manifestation becomes interesting in his eyes, his pen moves
freely. And so he makes life interesting in many varieties, even
when his Russian prepossessions lead him far away from our Western

Freedom. That is the word here, and also in his method of telling
these stories. No one seems to have said to Tchekoff, "Your
stories must move, move, move." Sometimes, indeed, he pauses
outright, as life pauses; sometimes he seems to turn aside, as
life turns aside before its progress is resumed. No one has ever
made clear to him that every word from the first of the story must
point unerringly toward the solution and the effect of the plot.
His paragraphs spring from the characters and the situation. They
are led on to the climax by the story itself. They do not drag the
panting reader down a rapid action, to fling him breathless upon
the "I told you so" of a conclusion prepared in advance.

I have in mind especially a story of Tchekoff's called "The Night
Before Easter." It is a very interesting story; it is a very
admirable story, conveying in a few pages much of Russian
spirituality and more of universal human nature; but I believe
that all, or nearly all, of our American magazines would refuse
it; not because it lacks picturesqueness, or narrative suspense,
or vivid characterization--all of these it has in large measure.
They would reject it because it does not seem to move rapidly, or
because it lacks a vigorous climax. The Goltva swollen in flood
lies under the Easter stars. As the monk Jerome ferries the
traveler over to where fire and cannon-shot and rocket announce
the rising of Christ to the riotous monastery, he asks, "Can you
tell me, kind master, why it is that even in the presence of great
happiness a man cannot forget his grief?" Deacon Nicholas is dead,
who alone in the monastery could write prayers that touched the
heart. And of them all, only Jerome read his "akaphists." "He used
to open the door of his cell and make me sit by him, and we used
to read....His face was compassionate and tender--" In the
monastery the countryside is crowding to hear the Easter service.
The choir sings "Lift up thine eyes, O Zion, and behold." But
Nicholas is dead, and there is none to penetrate the meaning of
the Easter canon, except Jerome who toils all night on the ferry
because they had forgotten him. In the morning, the traveler
recrosses the Goltva. Jerome is still on the ferry. He rests his
dim, timid eyes upon them all, and then fixes his gaze on the rosy
face of a merchant's wife. There is little of the man in that long
gaze. He is seeking in the woman's face the sweet and gentle
features of his lost friend.

The American editor refuses such a story. There is no plot here,
he says, and no "punch." He is wrong, although an imperfect
abstract like mine cannot convict him. For the narrative presents
an unforgettable portrait of wistful hero-worship, set in the dim
mists of a Russian river against the barbaric splendor of an
Easter midnight mass. To force a climax upon this poignant story
would be to spoil it. And when it appears, as it will, in reprint,
in some periodical anthology of current fiction, it will not fail
to impress American readers.

But the American editor must have a climax which drives home what
he thinks the public wants. If it is not true, so much the worse
for truth. If it falsifies the story, well, a lying story with a
"punch" is better than a true one that lacks a fire-spitting
climax. The audience which judge a play by the effect of its
"curtain," will not complain of a trifling illogicality in
narrative, or a little juggling with what might happen if the
story were life. Of what the editor wants I find a typical example
in a recent number of a popular magazine. The story is well
written; it is interesting until it begins to lie; moreover it is
"featured" as one of the best short stories of the year. An
American girl, brought up in luxury, has fed her heart with
romantic sentiment. The world is a Christmas tree. If you are good
and pretty and "nice," you have only to wait until you get big
enough to shake it, and then down will come some present--respect
from one's friends and family, perhaps a lover. And then she wakes
up. Her father points out that she is pinching him by her
extravagance. Nobody seems to want her kind of "nice-ness"; which
indeed does no one much good. There is nothing that she can do
that is useful in the world, for she has never learned. She begins
to doubt the Christmas tree. There enters a man--a young
electrical engineer, highly trained, highly ambitious, but caught
in the wheels of a great corporation where he is merely a cog;
wanting to live, wanting to love, wanting to be married, yet
condemned to labor for many years more upon a salary which perhaps
would little more than pay for her clothes. By an ingenious device
they are thrown together in a bit of wild country near town, and
are made to exchange confidences. So far, no one can complain of
the truth of this story; and furthermore it is well told. Here are
two products of our social machine, both true to type. Suppose
they want to marry? What can we do about it? The story-teller has
posed his question with a force not to be denied.

But I wish we had had a Tchekoff to answer it. As for this author,
he leads his characters to a conveniently deserted house, lights a
fire on the hearth, sets water boiling for tea, and in a few pages
of charming romance would persuade us that with a few economies in
this rural residence, true love may have its course and a
successful marriage crown the morning's adventure. Thus in one
dazzling sweep, the greatest and most sugary plum of all drops
from the very tip of the Christmas tree into the lap of the lady,
who had just learned that happiness in the real world comes in no
such haphazard and undeserved a fashion. Really! have we
degenerated from Lincoln's day? Is it easy now to fool all of us
all of the time, so that a tale-teller dares to expose silly
romance at the beginning of his story, and yet dose us with it at
the end? Not that one objects to romance. It is as necessary as
food, and almost as valuable. But romance that pretends to be
realism, realism that fizzles out into sentimental romance--is
there any excuse for that? Even if it provides "heart interest"
and an effective climax?

The truth is, of course, that the Russian stories are based upon
life; the typical stories of the American magazines, for all their
realistic details, are too often studied, not from American life
but from literary convention. Even when their substance is fresh,
their unfoldings and above all their solutions are second-hand. If
the Russian authors could write American stories I believe that
their work would be more truly popular than what we are now
getting. They would be free to be interesting in any direction and
by any method. The writer of the American short story is not free.

I should like to leave the subject here with a comparison that
any reader can make for himself. But American pride recalls the
past glory of our short story, and common knowledge indicates the
present reality of a few authors--several of them women--who are
writing fiction of which any race might be proud. The optimist
cannot resist meditating on the way out for our enslaved short

The ultimate responsibility for its present position must fall, I
suppose, upon our American taste, which, when taken by and large,
is unquestionably crude, easily satisfied, and not sensitive to
good things. American taste does not rebel against the "formula."
If interest is pricked it does not inquire too curiously into the
nature of the goad. American taste is partial to sentiment, and
antagonistic to themes that fail to present the American in the
light of optimistic romance. But our defects in taste are slowly
but certainly being remedied. The schools are at work upon them;
journalism, for all its noisy vulgarity, is at work upon them. Our
taste in art, our taste in poetry, our taste in architecture, our
taste in music go up, as our taste in magazine fiction seems to go

But what are the writers of short stories and what are the editors
and publishers doing to help taste improve itself until, as Henry
James says, it acquires a keener relish than ever before?

It profits nothing to attack the American writer. He does, it may
fairly be assumed, what he can, and I do not wish to discuss here
the responsibility of the public for his deficiencies. The editor
and the publisher, however, stand in a somewhat different
relationship to the American short story. They may assert with
much justice that they are public servants merely; nevertheless
they _do_ control the organs of literary expression, and it is through
them that any positive influence on the side of restriction or
proscription must be exerted, whatever may be its ultimate source. If
a lack of freedom in method and in choice of subject is one reason for
the sophistication of our short story, then the editorial policy of
American magazines is a legitimate field for speculation.

I can reason only from the evidence of the product and the
testimony of authors, successful and unsuccessful. Yet one
conclusion springs to the eye, and is enough in itself to justify
investigation. The critical basis upon which the American editor
professes to build his magazine is of doubtful validity. I believe
that it is unsound. His policy, as stated in "editorial
announcements" and confirmed by his advertisements of the material
he selects, is first to find out what the public wants, and next
to supply it. This is reasonable in appearance. It would seem to
be good commercially, and, as a policy, I should consider it good
for art, which must consult the popular taste or lose its
vitality. But a pitfall lies between this theory of editorial
selection and its successful practice. The editor must really know
what the public wants. If he does not, he becomes a dogmatic
critic of a very dangerous school.

Those who know the theater and its playwrights, are agreed that
the dramatic manager, at least in America, is a very poor judge of
what the public desires. The percentage of bad guesses in every
metropolitan season is said to be very high. Is the editor more
competent? It would seem that he is, to judge from the stability
of our popular magazines. But that he follows the public taste
with any certainty of judgment is rendered unlikely, not only by
inherent improbability, but also by three specific facts: the
tiresome succession of like stories which follow unendingly in the
wake of every popular success; the palpable fear of the editor to
attempt innovation, experiment, or leadership; and the general
complaint against "magazine stories." In truth, the American
editor plays safe, constantly and from conviction; and playing
safe in the short story means the adoption of the "formula," which
is sure to be somewhat successful; it means restriction to a few
safe themes. He swings from the detective story to the tale of the
alien, from the "heart-interest" story to the narrative of "big
business." When, as has happened recently, a magazine experimented
with eroticism, and found it successful, the initiative of itseditor
was felt to be worthy of general remark.

If one reduces this imperfect sketch of existing conditions to
terms of literary criticism, the result is interesting. There are
two great schools of criticism: the judicial and the
impressionistic. The judicial critic--a Boileau, a Matthew
Arnold--bases his criticism upon fundamental principles. The
impressionistic critic follows the now hackneyed advice of Anatole
France, to let his soul adventure among masterpieces, and seeks
the reaction for good or bad of a given work upon his own finely
strung mind. The first group must be sure of the breadth, the
soundness, and the just application of their principles. The
second group must depend upon their own good taste.

The American editor has flung aside as archaic the fundamental
principles of criticism upon which judicial critics have based
their opinions. And yet he has chosen to be dogmatic. He has
transformed his guess as to what the public wants into a fundamental
principle, and acted upon it with the confidence of an Aristotle. He
asserts freely and frankly that, in his private capacity, such and
such a story pleases _him_, is _good_ (privately he is an impressionist
and holds opinions far more valid than his editorial judgment, since
they are founded upon taste and not upon intuition merely); but that
"the public will not like it," or "in our rivalry with seventy other
magazines we cannot afford to print this excellent work." He is
frequently right. He is also frequently wrong.

I speak not from personal experience, since other reasons in my
own case have usually, though not always, led me to agree with the
editor's verdict, when it has been unfavorable; but from the
broader testimony of many writers, the indisputable evidence of
works thus rejected which have later attained success, and the
failure of American short fiction to impress permanently the
reading public. Based upon an intuition of the public mind,
changing with the wind,--always after, never before it,--such
editorial judgment, indeed, must be of doubtful validity; must
lead in many instances to unwise and unprofitable restrictions
upon originality in fiction.

I am well aware that it is useless to consider current American
literature without regard to the multitude of readers who, being,
like all multitude, mediocre, demand the mediocre in literature.
And I know that it is equally foolish to neglect the popular
elements in the developing American genius--that genius which is
so colloquial now, and yet so inventive; so vulgar sometimes, and
yet, when sophistication is not forced upon it, so fresh. I have
no wish to evade the necessity for consulting the wishes and the
taste of the public, which good sense and commercial necessity
alike impose upon the editor. I would not have the American editor
less practical, less sensitive to the popular wave; I would have
him more so. But I would have him less dogmatic. All forms of
dogmatism are dangerous for men whose business it is to publish,
not to criticize, contemporary literature. But an unsound and
arbitrary dogmatism is the worst. If the editor is to give the
people what they want instead of what they have wanted, he must
have more confidence in himself, and more belief in their capacity
for liking the good. He should be dogmatic only where he can be
sure. Elsewhere let him follow the method of science, and
experiment. He should trust to his taste in practice as well as in
private theory, and let the results of such criticism sometimes,
at least, dominate his choice.

In both our "popular" and our "literary" magazines, freer fiction
would follow upon better criticism. The readers of the "literary"
magazines are already seeking foreign-made narratives, and
neglecting the American short story built for them according to
the standardized model. The readers of the "popular" magazines
want chiefly journalism (an utterly different thing from
literature); and that they are getting in good measure in the non-
fiction and part-fiction sections of the magazines. But they also
seek, as all men seek, some literature. If, instead of imposing
the "formula" (which is, after all, a journalistic mechanism--and
a good one--adapted for speedy and evanescent effects), if,
instead of imposing the "formula" upon all the subjects they
propose to have turned into fiction, the editors of these
magazines should also experiment, should release some subjects
from the tyranny of the "formula," and admit others which its cult
has kept out, the result might be surprising. It is true that the
masses have no taste for literature,--as a steady diet; it is
still more certain that not even the most mediocre of multitudes
can be permanently hoodwinked by formula.

But the magazines can take care of themselves; it is the short
story in which I am chiefly interested. Better criticism and
greater freedom for fiction might vitalize our overabundant,
unoriginal, unreal, unversatile,--everything but unformed short
story. Its artifice might again become art. Even the more careful,
the more artistic work leaves one with the impression that these
stories have sought a "line," and found an acceptable formula. And
when one thinks of the multitudinous situations, impressions,
incidents in this fascinating whirl of modern life, incapable
perhaps of presentation in a novel because of their very
impermanence, admirably adapted to the short story because of
their vividness and their deep if narrow significance, the voice
of protest must go up against any artificial, arbitrary
limitations upon the art. Freedom to make his appeal to the public
with any subject not morbid or indecent, is all the writer can
ask. Freedom to publish sometimes what the editor likes and the
public may like, instead of what the editor approves because the
public has liked it, is all that he needs. There is plenty of
blood in the American short story yet, though I have read through
whole magazines without finding a drop of it.

When we give literature in America the same opportunity to invent,
to experiment, that we have already given journalism, there will
be more legitimate successors to Irving, to Hawthorne, to Poe and
Bret Harte. There will be more writers, like O. Henry, who write
stories to please themselves, and thus please the majority. There
will be fewer writers, like O. Henry, who stop short of the final
touch of perfection because American taste (and the American
editor) puts no premium upon artistic work. There will be fewer
stories, I trust, where sentiment is no longer a part, but the
whole of life. Most of all, form, _the_ form, the _formula,_ will
relax its grip upon the short story, will cease its endless tapping
upon the door of interest, and its smug content when some underling
(while the brain sleeps) answers its stereotyped appeal. And we may
get more narratives like Mrs. Wharton's "Ethan Frome," to make us feel
that now as much as ever there is literary genius waiting in America.


If only the reader of novels would say what he thinks about
fiction! If only the dead hand of hereditary opinion did not grasp
and distort what he feels! But he exercises a judgment that is not
independent. Books, like persons, he estimates as much by the
traditional reputation of the families they happen to be born in
as by the merits they may themselves possess, and the traditional
reputation of the novel in English has been bad.

Poetry has a most respectable tradition. Even now, when the
realistic capering of free verse has emboldened the ordinary man
to speak his mind freely, a reviewer hesitates to apply even to
bad poetry so undignified a word as trash. The essay family is
equally respectable, to be noticed, when noticed at all, with some
of the reverence due to an ancient and dignified art. The sermon
family, still numerous to a degree incredible to those who do not
study the lists of new books, is so eminently respectable that few
dare to abuse even its most futile members. But the novel was
given a bad name in its youth that has overshadowed its successful

Our ancestors are much to blame. For centuries they held the novel
suspect as a kind of bastard literature, probably immoral, and
certainly dangerous to intellectual health. But they are no more
deeply responsible for our suppressed contempt of fiction than
weak-kneed novelists who for many generations have striven to
persuade the English reader that a good story was really a sermon,
or a lecture on ethics, or a tract on economics or moral
psychology, in disguise. Bernard Shaw, in his prefaces to the
fiction that he succeeds in making dramatic, is carrying on a
tradition that Chaucer practised before him:

    And ye that holden this tale a folye,--
     As of a fox, or of a cok and hen,--
     Taketh the moralite, good men.

And that was the way they went at it for centuries, always
pretending, always driven to pretend, that a good story was not
good enough to be worth telling for itself alone, but must convey
a moral or a satire or an awful lesson, or anything that might
separate it from the "just fiction" that only the immoral and the
frivolous among their contemporaries read or wrote. Today we pay
the price.

William Painter, her Majesty Queen Elizabeth's clerk of ordnance
in the Tower, is an excellent instance. Stricken by a moral panic,
he advertised that from his delectable "Palace of Pleasure" the
young might "learne how to avoyde the ruine, overthrow,
inconvenience and displeasure, that lascivious desire and wanton
evil doth bring to their suters and pursuers"--a disingenuous sop
to the Puritans. His contemporary,

Geoffrey Fenton, who also turned to story-making, opines that in
histories "the dignitye of vertue and fowelenes of vice appereth
muche more lyvelye then in any morall teachynge," although he knew
that his "histories" were the sheerest, if not the purest, of
fiction, with any moral purpose that might exist chiefly of his
own creating. A century and more later Eliza Haywood, the
ambiguous author of many ambiguous novels of the eighteenth
century, prefaces her "Life's Progress Through the Passions" (an
ambiguous title) with like hypocrisy: "I am enemy to all romances,
novels, and whatever carries the air of them. . . . It is a
_real_, not a _fictitious_ character I am about to present"--which is
merely another instance of fiction disguising itself, this time, I
regret to say, as immorality in real life. And so they all go, forever
implying that fiction is frivolous or immoral or worthless, until it
is not surprising that, as Mr. Bradsher has reminded us, the elder
Timothy Dwight of Yale College was able to assert, "Between the Bible
and novels there is a gulf fixed which few novel-readers are willing
to pass." Richardson was forced to defend himself, so was Sterne, so
was Fielding, so was Goldsmith. Dr. Johnson was evidently making
concessions when he advised romances as reading for youth. Jeffrey,
the critic and tyrant of the next century, summed it all up when he
wrote that novels are "generally regarded as among the lower
productions of our literature." And this is the reputation that the
novel family has brought with it even down to our day.

The nineteenth century was worse, if anything, than earlier
periods, for it furthered what might be called the evangelistic
slant toward novel-reading, the attitude that neatly classified
this form of self-indulgence with dancing, card-playing, hard
drinking, and loose living of every description. It is true that
the intellectuals and worldly folk in general did not share this
prejudice. Walter Scott had made novel-reading common among the
well-read; but the narrower sectarians in England, the people of
the back country and the small towns in America, learned to regard
the novel as unprofitable, if not positively leading toward
ungodliness, and their unnumbered descendants make up the vast
army of uncritical readers for which Grub Street strives and
sweats to-day. They no longer abstain and condemn; instead, they
patronize and distrust.

All this--and far more, for I have merely sketched in a long and
painful history--is the background seldom remembered when we
wonder at the easy condescension of the American toward his
innumerable novels.

The fact of his condescension is not so well recognized as it
deserves to be. Indeed, condescension may not seem to be an
appropriate term for the passionate devouring of romance that one
can see going on any day in the trolley-cars, or the tense
seriousness with which some readers regard certain novelists whose
pages have a message for the world. True, the term will not
stretch thus far. But it is condescension that has made the
trouble, as I shall try to prove; for all of us, even the tense
ones, do patronize that creative instinct playing upon life as it
is which in all times and everywhere is the very essence of

How absurd that here in America we should condescend toward our
fiction! How ridiculous in a country even yet so weak and poor and
crude in the arts, which has contributed so little to the world's
store of all that makes fine living for the mind! What a laughable
parallel of the cock and the gem he found and left upon the dung-
heap, if we could be proved not to be proud of American fiction!
For if the novel and the short story should be left out of
America's slender contribution to world literature, the offering
would be a small one. Some poetry of Whitman's and of Poe's, some
essays of Emerson, a little Thoreau, and what important besides?
Hawthorne would be left from the count, the best exemplar of the
fine art of moral narrative in any language; Henry James would be
left out, the master of them all in psychological character
analysis; Poe the story-teller would be missing, and the art of
the modern short story, which in English sterns from him; Cooper
would be lost from our accounting, for all his crudities the best
historical novelist after Scott; Mark Twain, Howells, Bret Harte,
Irving! The attempt to exalt American literature is grateful if
one begins upon fiction.

And how absurd to patronize, to treat with indifferent superiority
just because they are members of the novel family, books such as
these men have left us, books such as both men and women are
writing in America to-day! Is there finer workmanship in American
painting or American music or American architecture than can be
found in American novels by the reader willing to search and
discriminate? A contemporary poet confessed that he would have
rather written a certain sonnet (which accompanied the confession)
than have built Brooklyn Bridge. One may doubt the special case,
yet uphold the principle. Because a novel is meant to give
pleasure, because it deals with imagination rather than with facts
and appeals to the generality rather than to the merely literary
man or the specialist, because, in short, a novel is a novel, and
a modern American novel, is no excuse for priggish reserves in our
praise or blame. If there is anything worth criticizing in
contemporary American literature it is our fiction.

Absurd as it may seem in theory, we have patronized and do
patronize our novels, even the best of them, following too surely,
though with a bias of our own, the Anglo-Saxon prejudice
traditional to the race. And if the curious frame of mind that
many reserve for fiction be analyzed and blame distributed, there
will be a multitude of readers, learned and unlearned, proud and
humble, critical and uncritical, who must admit their share.
Nevertheless, the righteous wrath inspired by the situation shall
not draw us into that dangerous and humorless thing, a general
indictment. There are readers aplenty who, to quote Painter once
more, find their novels "pleasant to avoyde the griefe of a
Winters night and length of Sommers day," and are duly
appreciative of that service. With such honest, if un-exacting,
readers I have no quarrel; nor with many more critical who
respect, while they criticize, the art of fiction. But with the
scholars who slight fiction, the critics who play with it, the
general reader who likes it contemptuously, and the social
enthusiast who neglects its better for its worser part, the issue
is direct. All are the victims of hereditary opinion; but some
should know better than to be thus beguiled.

The Brahman among American readers of fiction is of course the
college professor of English. His attitude (I speak of the type;
there are individual variations of note) toward the novel is
curious and interesting. It is exhibited perhaps in the title by
which such courses in the novel as the college permits are usually
listed. "Prose fiction" seems to be the favorite description, a
label designed to recall the existence of an undeniably
respectable fiction in verse that may justify a study of the baser
prose. By such means is so dubious a term as novel or short story
kept out of the college catalogue!

Yet even more curious is the academic attitude toward the novel
itself. Whether the normal professor reads many or few is not the
question, nor even how much he enjoys or dislikes them. It is what
he permits himself to say that is significant. Behind every assent
to excellence one feels a reservation: yes, it is good enough for
a novel! Behind every criticism of untruth, of bad workmanship, of
mediocrity (alas! so often deserved in America!) is a sneering
implication: but, after all, it is only a novel. Not thus does he
treat the stodgy play in stodgier verse, the merits of which,
after all, may amount to this, that in appearance it is literary;
not thus the critical essay or investigation that too often is
like the parasite whose sustaining life comes from the greater
life on which it feeds. In the eyes of such a critic the author of
an indifferent essay upon Poe has more distinguished himself than
if he had written a better than indifferent short story. Fiction,
he feels, is the plaything of the populace. The novel is "among
the lower productions of our literature." It is plebeian, it is
successful, it is multitudinous; the Greeks in their best period
did not practise it (but here he may be wrong); any one can read
it; let us keep it down, brethren, while we may. Many not
professors so phrase their inmost thoughts of fiction and the

And in all this the college professor is profoundly justified by
tradition, if not always by common sense. To him belongs that
custody of the classical in literature which his profession
inherited from the monasteries, and more remotely from the
rhetoricians of Rome. And there is small place for fiction, and
none at all for the novel and the short story as we know them, in
what has been preserved of classic literature. The early
Renaissance, with its Sidney for spokesman, attacked the rising
Elizabethan drama because it was unclassical. The later
Renaissance, by the pen of Addison (who would have made an
admirable college professor), sneered at pure fiction, directly
and by implication, because it was unclassical. To-day we have
lost our veneration for Latin and Greek as languages, we no longer
deprecate an English work because it happens to be in English;
nevertheless the tradition still grips us, especially if we happen
to be Brahmanic. Our college professors, and many less excusable,
still doubt the artistic validity of work in a form never
dignified by the practice of the ancients, never hallowed, like
much of English literature besides, by a long line of native
productions adapting classic forms to new ages and a new speech.
The epic, the lyric, the pastoral, the comedy, the tragedy, the
elegy, the satire, the myth, even the fable, have been classic,
have usually been literature. But the novel has never been a
preserve for the learned, although it came perilously near to that
fate in the days of Shakespeare; has ever been written for cash or
for popular success rather than for scholarly reputation; has
never been studied for grammar, for style, for its "beauties"; has
since its genesis spawned into millions that no man can classify,
and produced a hundred thousand pages of mediocrity for one
masterpiece. All this (and in addition prejudices unexpressed and
a residuum of hereditary bias) lies behind the failure of most
professors of English to give the good modern novel its due. Their
obstinacy is unfortunate; for, if they praised at all, they would
not, like many hurried reviewers, praise the worst best.

I will not say that more harm has been done to the cause of the
novel in America by feeble reviewing than by any other
circumstance, for that would not be true; bad reading has been
more responsible for the light estimation in which our novel is
held. Nevertheless it is certain that the ill effects of a
doubtful literary reputation are more sadly displayed in current
criticism of the novel than elsewhere. An enormous effusion of
writing about novels, especially in the daily papers, most of it
casual and conventional, much of it with neither discrimination
nor constraint, drowns the few manful voices raised to a pitch of
honest concern. The criticism of fiction, taken by and large, is
not so good as the criticism of our acted drama, not so good as
our musical criticism, not so good as current reviewing of poetry
and of published plays.

Are reviewers bewildered by the coveys of novels that wing into
editorial offices by every mail? Is the reviewing of novels left
to the novice as a mere rhetorical exercise in which, a subject
being afforded, he can practise the display of words? Or is it
because a novel is only a novel, only so many, many novels, for
which the same hurried criticism must do, whether they be bad or
mediocre or best? The reviewing page of the standard newspaper
fills me with unutterable depression. There seem to be so many
stories about which the same things can be said. There seems to be
so much fiction that is "workmanlike," that is "fascinating," that
"nobly grasps contemporary America," that will "become a part of
permanent literature," that "lays bare the burning heart of the
race." Of course the need of the journalist to make everything
"strong" is behind much of this mockery; but not all. Hereditary
disrespect for fiction has more to do with this flood of bad
criticism than appears at first sight.

Far more depressing, however, is the rarity of real criticism of
the novel anywhere. As Henry James, one of the few great critics
who have been willing to take the novel seriously, remarked in a
now famous essay, the most notable thing about the modern novel in
English is its appearance of never having been criticized at all.
A paragraph or so under "novels of the day" is all the novelist
may expect until he is famous, and more in quantity, but not much
more in quality, then. As for critical essays devoted to his work,
discriminating studies that pick out the few good books from the
many bad, how few they are (and how welcome, now that they are
increasing in number), how deplorably few in comparison with the
quantity of novels, in comparison with the quality of the best

And what of the general public, that last arbiter in a democracy,
whose referendum, for a year at least, confirms or renders null
and void all critical legislation good or bad? The general public
is apparently on the side of the novelist; to borrow a slang term
expressive here, it is "crazy" about fiction. It reads so much
fiction that hundreds of magazines and dozens of publishers live
by nothing else. It reads so much fiction that public libraries
have to bait their serious books with novels in order to get them
read. It is so avid for fiction that the trades whose business it
is to cultivate public favor, journalism and advertising, use
almost as much fiction as the novel itself. A news article or an
interview or a Sunday write-up nowadays has character, background,
and a plot precisely like a short story. Its climax is carefully
prepared for in the best manner of Edgar Allan Poe, and truth is
rigorously subordinated (I do not say eliminated) in the interest
of a vivid impression. Advertising has become half narrative and
half familiar dialogue. Household goods are sold by anecdotes,
ready-made clothes figure in episodes illustrated by short-story
artists, and novelettes, distributed free, conduct us through an
interesting fiction to the grand climax, where all plot
complexities are untangled by the installation of an automatic
water-heater. I am not criticizing the tendency--it has made the
pursuit of material comfort easier and more interesting,--but what
a light it throws upon our mania for reading stories!

Alas! the novel needs protection from its friends. This vast
appetite for fiction is highly uncritical. It will swallow
anything that interests, regardless of the make-up of the dish.
Only the inexperienced think that it is easy to write an
interesting story; but it is evident that if a writer can be
interesting he may lack every other virtue and yet succeed. He can
be a bad workman, he can be untrue, he can be sentimental, he can
be salacious, and yet succeed.

No one need excite himself over this circumstance. It is
inevitable in a day when whole classes that never read before begin
to read. The danger lies in the attitude of these new
readers, and many old ones, toward their fiction. For they, too,
condescend even when most hungry for stories. They, too, share the
inherited opinion that a novel is only a novel, after all, to be
read, but not to be respected, to be squeezed for its juices, then
dropped like a grape-skin and forgotten. Perhaps the Elizabethan
mob felt much the same way about the plays they crowded to see;
but their respect, the critics' respect, Shakespeare's respect,
for the language of noble poesy, for noble words and deeds
enshrined in poetry, is not paralleled to-day by an appreciation
of the fine art of imaginative character representation as it
appears in our novel and in all good fiction.

Is it necessary to prove this public disrespect? The terms in
which novels are described by their sponsors is proof enough in
itself. Seemingly, everything that is reputable must be claimed
for every novel--good workmanship, vitality, moral excellence,
relative superiority, absolute greatness--in order to secure for
it any deference whatsoever. Or, from another angle, how many
readers buy novels, and buy them to keep? How many modern novels
does one find well bound, and placed on the shelves devoted to
"standard reading"? In these Olympian fields a mediocre biography,
a volume of second-rate poems, a rehash of history, will find
their way before the novels that in the last decade have equaled,
if not outranked, the rest of our creative literature.

If more proof were needed, the curious predilections of the
serious-minded among our novel-readers would supply it. For not
all Americans take the novel too lightly; some take it as heavily
as death. To the school that tosses off and away the latest comer
is opposed the school which, despising all frivolous stories
written for pleasure merely, speaks in tense, devoted breath of
those narratives wherein fiction is weighted with facts, and
pinned by a moral to the sober side of life. It is significant
that the novels most highly respected in America are studies of
social conditions, reflexes of politics, or tales where the
criticism of morals overshadows the narrative. Here the novel is
an admirable agent. Its use as a purveyor of miscellaneous ideas
upon things in general is no more objectionable than the cutting
of young spruces to serve as Christmas-trees. For such a function
they were not created, but they make a good end, nevertheless. The
important inference is rather that American readers who do pretend
to take the novel seriously are moved not so much by the fiction
in their narratives as by the sociology, philosophy, or politics
imaginatively portrayed. They respect a story with such a content
because it comes as near as the novel can to not being fiction at
all. And this, I imagine, is an unconscious throw-back to the old
days when serious-minded readers chose Hannah More for the place
of honor, because her stories taught the moralist how to live and

The historically minded will probably remark upon these general
conclusions that a certain condescension toward some form of
literature has ever been predictable of the general reader; the
practically minded may add that no lasting harm to the mind of man
and the pursuit of happiness seems to have come of it. The first I
freely admit; the second I gravely doubt for the present and
distrust for the future. Under conditions as we have them and will
increasingly have them here in America, under democratic
conditions, condescension toward fiction, the most democratic of
literary arts, is certainly dangerous. It is dangerous because it
discourages good writing. In this reading society that we have
made for ourselves here and in western Europe, where much
inspiration, more knowledge, and a fair share of the joy of living
come from the printed page, good writing is clearly more valuable
than ever before in the history of the race. I do not agree with
the pessimists who think that a democratic civilization is
necessarily an enemy to fine writing for the public. Such critics
underrate the challenge which these millions of minds to be
reached and souls to be touched must possess for the courageous
author; they forget that writers, like actors, are inspired by a
crowded house. But the thought and the labor and the pain that lie
behind good writing are doubly difficult in an atmosphere of easy
tolerance and good-natured condescension on the part of the
readers of the completed work.

The novel is the test case for democratic literature. We cannot
afford to pay its practitioners with cash merely, for cash
discriminates in quantity and little more. Saul and David were
judged by the numbers of their thousands slain; but the test was a
crude one for them and cruder still for fiction. We cannot afford
to patronize these novelists as our ancestors did before us. Not
prizes or endowments or coterie worship or, certainly, more
advertising is what the American novelist requires, but a greater
respect for his craft. The Elizabethan playwright was frequently
despised of the learned world, and, if a favorite with the vulgar,
not always a respected one. Strange that learned and vulgar alike
should repeat the fallacy in dispraising the preeminently popular
art of our own times! To Sir Francis Bacon "Hamlet" was presumably
only a playactor's play. If the great American story should arrive
at last, would we not call it "only a novel"?


You might suppose that popular literature was a modern invention.
Cultivated shoulders shrug at the mention of "best sellers" with
that air of "the world is going to the devil" which just now is
annoyingly familiar. Serious minded people write of _The Saturday
Evening Post_ as if it represented some new fanaticism destined to
wreck civilization. The excessive popularity of so many modern novels
is felt to be a mystery.

Of course there are new elements in literary popularity. The wave
of interest used to move more slowly. Now thousands, and sometimes
millions, read the popular story almost simultaneously, and see
it, just a little later on the films. Millions, also, of the class
which never used to read at all are accessible to print and have
the moving pictures to help them.

But popularity has not changed its fundamental characteristics.
The sweep of one man's idea or fancy through other minds, kindling
them to interest, has been typical since communication began. The
Greek romances of Heliodorus may be analyzed for their popular
elements quite as readily as "If Winter Comes." "Pilgrim's
Progress" and "The Thousand and One Nights" could serve as models
for success, and the question, What makes popularity in fiction?
be answered from them with close, if not complete, reference to
the present. However, the results of an inquiry into popularity
will be surer if we stick to modern literature, not forgetting its
historical background. Human nature, which changes its essence so
slowly through the centuries, nevertheless shows rapid alterations
of phase. The question I propose, therefore, is, What makes a
novel popular in our time?

I do not ask it for sordid reasons. What makes a novel sell
100,000 copies, or a short story bring $1000? may seem the same
query; but it does not get the same answer, or, apparently, any
answer valuable for criticism. A cloud descends upon the eyes of
those who try to teach how to make money out of literature and
blinds them. Their books go wrong from the start, and most of them
are nearly worthless. They propose to teach the sources of
popularity, yet instead of dealing with those fundamental
qualities of emotion and idea which (as I hope to show) make
popularity, their tale is all of emphasis, suspense, beginnings
and endings, the relativity of characters, dialogue, setting--
useful points for the artisan but not the secret of popularity,
nor, it may be added, of greatness in literature. Technique is
well enough, in fact some technique is indispensable for a book
that is to be popular, but it is the workaday factor in
literature, of itself it accomplishes nothing.

But technique can be taught. That is the explanation of the
hundred books upon it, and their justification. You cannot teach
observation, or sympathy, or the background of knowledge which
makes possible the interpretation and selection of experience--not
at least in a lesson a week for nine months. Hence literary
advisers who must teach something and teach it quickly are drawn,
sometimes against their better judgment, to write books on
technique by which criticism profits little. Technical perfection
becomes their equivalent for excellence and for popularity. It is
not an equivalent. More than a mason is required for the making of
a statue.

I disclaim any attempt to teach how to be popular in this essay,
although deductions may be made. I am interested in popularity as
a problem for criticism. I am interested in appraising the
pleasure to be got from such popular novels as "The Age of
Innocence," "Miss Lulu Bett," "If Winter Comes," or "The Turmoil"
--and the not infrequent disappointments from others equally
popular. I am especially interested in the attempt to estimate
real excellence, an attempt which requires that the momentarily
popular shall be separated from the permanently good; which
requires that a distinction be made between what must have some
excellence because so many people like it, and what is good in a
book whether many people like it or not. Such discrimination may
not help the young novelist to make money, but it can refine
judgment and deepen appreciation.

As for the popularity and its meaning, there need be no quarrel
over that term. Let us rule out such accidents as when a weak book
becomes widely known because it is supposed to be indecent, or
because it is the first to embody popular propaganda, or because
its hero is identified with an important figure of real life, or
for any other casual reason. If a novel, because of the intrinsic
interest of its story, or on account of the contagion of the idea
it contains, is widely read by many kinds of readers, and if these
readers on their own initiative recommend the book they have read
to others, that is popularity, and a sufficient definition.

Perfection of form is not enough to make a book popular. A story
has to move or few will read it, but it is doubtful whether a
greater technical achievement than this is required for
popularity. "Samson Agonistes" is technically perfect, but was
never popular, while, to pass from the sublime to its opposite,
"This Side of Paradise" was most crudely put together, and yet was
popular. The best-built short stories of the past decade have not
been the most popular, have not even been the best. No popular
writer but could have been (so I profoundly believe) more popular
if he had written better. But good writing is not a specific for
unpopularity. The excellent writing of Howells could not give him
Mark Twain's audience. The weak and tedious construction of
Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra," the flat style of Harold
Bell Wright's narratives, has not prevented them from being liked.
Form is only a first step toward popularity.

Far more important is an appeal to the emotions, which good
technique can only make more strong. But what is an appeal to the
emotions? "Uncle Tom's Cabin" appealed to the emotions, and so
does "Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford." To what emotions does the
popular book appeal? What makes "Treasure Island" popular? Why did
"Main Street" have such an unexpected and still reverberating

"Treasure Island" is popular because it stirs and satisfies two
instinctive cravings of mankind, the love of romantic adventure,
and the desire for sudden wealth. This is not true, or rather it
is not the whole, or even the important, truth, in "Main Street."
There the chief appeal is to an idea not an instinct. We left the
war nationally self-conscious as perhaps never before, acutely
conscious of the contrasts between our habits, our thinking, our
pleasures, our beliefs, and those of Europe. When the soldiers
oversea talked generalities at all it was usually of such topics.
The millions that never went abroad were plucked from their Main
Streets, and herded through great cities to the mingled
companionship of the camps. "Main Street," when it came to be
written, found an awakened consciousness of provincialism, and a
detached view of the home town such as had never before been
shared by many. Seeing home from without was so general as to
constitute, not a mere experience, but a mass emotion. And upon
this new conception, this prejudice against every man's Main
Street, the book grasped, and thrived. In like manner, "Uncle
Tom's Cabin" grew great upon its conception of slavery. "Robert
Elsmere" swept the country because of its exploitation of freedom
in religious thought. No one of these books could have been
written, or would have been popular if they had been written,
before their precise era; no one is likely long to survive it,
except as a social document which scholars will read and
historians quote.

Roughly then, the appeal which makes for popularity is either to
the instinctive emotions permanent in all humanity, though
changing shape with circumstances, or to the fixed ideas of the
period, which may often and justly be called prejudice. A book may
gain its popularity either way, but the results of the first are
more likely to be enduring. "Paradise Lost," the least popular of
popular poems, still stirs the instinctive craving for heroic
revolt, and lives for that quite as much as for the splendors of
its verse. Dryden's "Hind and the Panther," which exploited the
prejudices of its times, and was popular then, is almost dead.

What are these instinctive cravings that seek satisfaction in
fiction and, finding it, make both great and little books popular?
Let me list a few without attempting to be complete.

First in importance probably is the desire to escape from reality
into a more interesting life. This is a foundation, of course, of
all romantic stories, and is part of the definition of the
romantic, but it applies to much in literature that is not usually
regarded as romance. A more interesting life than yours or mine
does not mean one we should wish actually to live, otherwise it
would be difficult to account for the taste for detective stories
of many sedentary bank presidents; nor does it mean necessarily a
beautiful, a wild, a romantic life. No, we wish to escape to any
imagined life that will satisfy desires suppressed by
circumstance, or incapable of development in any attainable

This desire to escape is eternal, the variety differs with the
individual and still more with the period. While youthful love, or
romantic adventure as in "Treasure Island," has been an acceptable
mode for literature at least as far back as the papyrus tales of
the Egyptians, more precise means of delivery from the intolerable
weight of real life appear and disappear in popular books. In the
early eighteen hundreds, men and women longed to be blighted in
love, to be in lonely revolt against the prosaic well-being of a
world of little men. Byron was popular. In the Augustan age of
England, classic antiquity was a refuge for the dreaming spirit;
in Shakespeare's day, Italy; in the fifteenth century, Arthurian
romance. Just at present, and in America, the popularity of a
series of novels like "The Beautiful and Damned," "The Wasted
Generation," "Erik Dorn," and "Cytherea," seems to indicate that
many middle-aged readers wish to experience vicariously the
alcoholic irresponsibility of a society of "flappers," young
graduates, and country club rakes, who threw the pilot overboard
as soon as they left the war zone and have been cruising wildly
ever since. We remember that for a brief period in the England of
Charles II, James II, and William and Mary, rakishness in the
plays of Wycherley and Congreve had a glamour of romance upon it
and was popular. Indeed, the novel or drama that gives to a
generation the escape it desires will always be popular. Test
Harold Bell Wright or Zane Grey, Rudyard Kipling or Walter Scott,
by this maxim, and it will further define itself, and ring true.
Another human craving is the desire to satisfy the impulses of
sex. This is much more difficult to define than the first because
it spreads in one phase or another through all cravings. Romance
of course has its large sex element, and so have the other
attributes to be spoken of later. However, there is a direct and
concentrated interest in the relations between the sexes which, in
its finer manifestations, seeks for a vivid contrast of
personalities in love; in its cruder forms desires raw passion; in
its pathological state craves the indecent. A thousand popular
novels illustrate the first phase; many more, of which the cave-
man story, the desert island romance, "The Sheik" and its
companions are examples, represent the second; the ever-surging
undercurrent of pornography springs to satisfy the third.

Many sex stories are popular simply because they satisfy
curiosity, but curiosity in a broader sense is a human craving
which deserves a separate category. Popular novels seldom depend
upon it entirely, but they profit by it, sometimes hugely. A novel
like Dos Passos's "Three Soldiers," or Mrs. Wharton's "Age of
Innocence," or Mrs. Atherton's "Sleeping Fires," makes its first,
though not usually its strongest, appeal to our curiosity as to
how others live or were living. This was the strength of the
innumerable New England, Creole, mountaineer, Pennsylvania Dutch
stories in the flourishing days of local color. It is a prop of
the historical novel and a strong right arm for the picture
melodrama of the underworld or the West. Indeed, the pictures, by
supplying a photographic background of real scenes inaccessible to
the audience have gained a point upon the written story.

Curiosity is a changeable factor, a sure play for immediate
popularity, but not to be depended upon for long life. It waxes
and wanes and changes its object. Just now we are curious about
Russia, the South Sea Islanders, and night life on Broadway; to-
morrow it may be New Zealand and Australia, the Argentine
millionaire, and quite certainly the Chinese and China. Books
appealing to the craving for escape have a longer life, for a
story that takes a generation out of itself into fairyland keeps
some of its power for the next. Nevertheless, the writer who
guesses where curious minds are reaching and gives them what they
want, puts money in his purse.

A fourth craving, which is as general as fingers and toes, is for
revenge. We laugh now at the plays of revenge before "Hamlet,"
where the stage ran blood, and even the movie audience no longer
enjoys a story the single motive of which is physical revenge.
Blood for blood means to us either crime or rowdyism. And yet
revenge is just as popular in literature now as in the sixteenth
century. Only its aspect has changed. Our fathers are not
butchered in feuds, our sons are not sold into slavery, and except
in war or in street robberies we are not insulted by brute
physical force. Nevertheless we are cheated by scoundrels,
oppressed by financial tyranny, wounded by injustice, suppressed
by self-sufficiency, rasped by harsh tempers, annoyed by snobbery,
and often ruined by unconscious selfishness. We long to strike
back at the human traits which have wronged us, and the satiric
depiction of hateful characters whose seeming virtues are turned
upside down to expose their impossible hearts feeds our craving
for vicarious revenge. We dote upon vinegarish old maids, self-
righteous men, and canting women when they are exposed by
narrative art, and especially when poetic justice wrecks them. The
books that contain them bid for popularity. It happens that in
rapid succession we have seen three novels in which this element
of popular success was strong: Miss Sinclair's "Mr. Waddington of
Wyck," "Vera," by the author of "Elizabeth in Her German Garden," and
Mr. Hutchinson's "If Winter Comes." The first two books focus
upon this quality, and their admirable unity gives them superior
force; but it is noteworthy that "If Winter Comes," which adds
other popular elements in large measure to its release of hate,
has been financially the most successful of the three.

To these deep cravings of the heart must be added another of major
importance. I mean aspiration, the deep desire of all human
without exception sometimes to be better, nobler, finer, truer.
Stories of daring in the face of unconquerable odds, stories of
devotion, above all stories of self-sacrifice are made to gratify
this emotion. They are purges for the restless soul. Some critic
of our short story discovered not long ago that the bulk of the
narratives chosen for reprinting had self-sacrifice as theme. This
is precisely what one would expect of comfortable, ease-loving
peoples, like the Germans before the empire and the Americans of
our generation. When no real sacrifice of goods, of energy, of
love, or of life is necessary, then the craving for stories of men
who give up all and women who efface themselves is particularly
active. The hard, individualistic stories of selfish characters--
Ben Hecht's for example, and Scott Fitzgerald's--have been written
after a war period of enforced self-sacrifice and by young men who
were familiar with suffering for a cause. But most American
readers of our generation live easily and have always lived
easily, and that undoubtedly accounts for the extraordinary
popularity here of aspiring books. Reading of a fictitious hero
who suffers for others is a tonic for our conscience, and like
massage takes the place of exercise. By a twist in the same
argument, it may be seen that the cheerful optimist in fiction,
who Pollyannawise believes all is for the best, satisfies the
craving to justify our well-being. I do not, however, mean to
disparage this element of popularity. It is after all the
essential quality of tragedy where the soul rises above
misfortune. It is a factor in noble literature as well as in
popular success.

So much for some of the typical and instinctive cravings which cry
for satisfaction and are the causes of popularity. To them may be
added others of course, notably the desire for sudden wealth,
which is a factor in "Treasure Island" as in all treasure stories,
and the prime cause of success in the most popular of all plots,
the tale of Cinderella, which, after passing through feudal
societies with a prince's hand as reward, changed its sloven
sister for a shopgirl and King Cophetua into a millionaire, and
swept the American stage. To this may also be added simpler
stimulants of instinctive emotion, humor stirring to pleasant
laughter, pathos that exercises sympathy, the happy ending that
makes for joy. Stories which succeed because they stir and satisfy
in this fashion are like opera in a foreign tongue, which moves us
even when we do not fully understand the reason for our emotion.
They differ from another kind of popular story, in which a popular
idea rather than an instinctive emotion is crystallized, and which
now must be considered.

Each generation has its fixed ideas. A few are inherited intact by
the generation that follows, a few are passed on with slight
transformation, but most crumble or change into different versions
of the old half-truths. Among the most enduring of prejudices is
the fallacy of the good old times. Upon that formula nine-tenths
of the successful historical romances are built. That American
wives suffer from foreign husbands, that capital is ruthless, that
youth is right and age wrong, that energy wins over intellect,
that virtue is always rewarded, are American conceptions of some
endurance that have given short but lofty flights to thousands of
native stories.

More important, however, in the history of fiction are those wide
and slow moving currents of opinion, for which prejudice is
perhaps too narrow a name, which flow so imperceptibly through the
minds of a generation or a whole century that there is little
realization of their novelty. Such a slow-moving current was the
humanitarianism which found such vigorous expression in Dickens,
the belief in industrial democracy which is being picked up as a
theme by novelist after novelist to-day, or the sense of the value
of personality and human experience which so intensely
characterizes the literature of the early Renaissance.

If a novel draws up into itself one of these ideas, filling it
with emotion, it gains perhaps its greatest assurance of immediate
popularity. If the idea is of vast social importance, this
popularity may continue. But if it is born of immediate
circumstance, like the hatred of slavery in "Uncle Tom's Cabin,"
or if it is still more transient, say, the novelty of a new
invention, like the airplane or wireless, then the book grows
stale with its theme. The like is true of a story that teaches a
lesson a generation are willing to be taught--it lives as long as
the lesson. What has become of Charles Kingsley's novels, of the
apologues of Maria Edgeworth? "Main Street" is such a story; so
was "Mr. Britling Sees It Through"; so probably "A Doll's House."
Decay is already at their hearts. Only the student knows how many
like tales that preached fierily a text for the times have died in
the past. But I am writing of popularity not of permanence. In
four popular novels out of five, even in those where the appeal to
the instinctive emotions is dominant, suspect some prejudice of
the times embodied and usually exploited. It is the most potent of
lures for that ever increasing public which has partly trained
intelligence as well as emotions.

Perhaps it is already clear that most popular novels combine many
elements of popularity, although usually one is dominant. Among
the stories, for instance, which I have mentioned most frequently,
"Main Street" depends upon a popular idea, but makes use also of
the revenge motive. It is not at all, as many hasty critics said,
an appeal to curiosity. We know our Main Streets well enough
already. And therefore in England, which also was not curious
about Main Streets, and where the popular idea that Sinclair Lewis
seized upon was not prevalent, the book has had only a moderate
success. "If Winter Comes" combines the revenge motive with
aspiration. Scott Fitzgerald's first novel made its strong appeal
to curiosity. We had heard of the wild younger generation and were
curious. His second book depends largely upon the craving for sex
experience, in which it resembles Mr. Hergesheimer's "Cytherea,"
but also plays heavily upon the motive of escape, and upon sheer
curiosity. "Miss Lulu Bett" was a story of revenge. Booth
Tarkington's "Alice Adams"--to bring in a new title--is a good
illustration of a story where for once a popular novelist slurred
over the popular elements in order to concentrate upon a study of
character. His book received tardy recognition but it disappointed
his less critical admirers. Mr. White's "Andivius Hedulio" depends
for its popularity upon curiosity and escape.

The popular story, then, the financially successful, the
immediately notorious story, should appeal to the instinctive
emotions and may be built upon popular prejudice. What is the
moral for the writer? Is he to lay out the possible fields of
emotion as a surveyor prepares for his blue print? By no means.
Unless he follows his own instinct in the plan, or narrates
because of his own excited thinking he will produce a thinly clad
formula rather than a successful story. There is no moral for the
writer, only some rays of light thrown upon the nature of his
achievement. The way to accomplish popularity, if that is what you
want, is to write for the people, and let formula, once it is
understood, take care of itself. As an editor, wise in popularity,
once said to me, "Oppenheim and the rest are popular because they
think like the people not for them."

What is the moral of this discussion for the critical reader? A
great one, for if he does not wish to be tricked constantly by his
own emotions into supposing that what is timely is therefore fine,
and what moves him is therefore great, he must distinguish between
the elements of popularity and the essence of greatness. It is
evident, I think, from the argument that every element of
popularity described above may be made effective upon our weak
human nature with only an approximation to truth. The craving for
escape may be, and usually is, answered by sentimental romance,
where every emotion, from patriotism to amorousness, is mawkish
and unreal. Every craving may be played upon in the same fashion
just because it is a craving, and the result be often more popular
for the exaggeration. Also it is notorious that a prejudice--or a
popular idea, if you prefer the term--which is seized upon for
fiction, almost inevitably is strained beyond logic and beyond
truth, so much so that in rapid years, like those of 1916 to 1920
which swept us into propaganda and out again, the emphatic falsity
of a book's central thesis may be recognized before the first
editions are exhausted. It would be interesting to run off, in the
midst of a 1922 performance, some of the war films that stirred
audiences of 1918. It will be interesting to reread some of the
cheaper and more popular war stories that carried even you, O
judicious reader, off your even balance not five years ago to-day!

We have always known, of course, that a novel can be highly
popular without being truly excellent. Nevertheless, it is a
valuable discipline to specify the reasons. And it is good
discipline also in estimating the intrinsic value of a novel to
eliminate as far as is possible the temporal and the accidental;
and in particular the especial appeal it may have to your own
private craving--for each of us has his soft spot where the pen
can pierce. On the contrary, if the highly speculative business of
guessing the probable circulation of a novel ever becomes yours,
then you must doubly emphasize the importance of these very
qualities; search for them, analyze them out of the narrative,
equate them with the tendencies of the times, the new emotions
stirring, the new interests, new thoughts abroad, and then pick
best sellers in advance.

Yet in eliminating the accidental in the search for real
excellence, it would be disastrous to eliminate all causes of
popularity with it. That would be to assume that the good story
cannot be popular, which is nonsense. The best books are nearly
always popular, if not in a year, certainly in a decade or a
century. Often they spread more slowly than less solid
achievements for the same reason that dear things sell less
rapidly than cheap. The best books cost more to read because they
contain more, and to get much out the reader must always put much
in. Nevertheless, the good novel will always contain one or more
of the elements of popularity in great intensity. I make but one
exception, and that for those creations of the sheer intellect,
like the delicate analyses of Henry James, where the appeal is to
the subtle mind, and the emotion aroused an intellectual emotion.
Such novels are on the heights, but they are never at the summit
of literary art. They are limited by the partiality of their
appeal, just as they are exalted by the perfection of their
accomplishment. They cannot be popular, and are not.

The "best seller" therefore may be great but does not need to be.
It is usually a weak book, no matter how readable, because
ordinarily it has only the elements of popularity to go on, and
succeeds by their number and timeliness instead of by fineness and
truth. A second-rate man can compound a best seller if his sense
for the popular is first-rate. In his books the instinctive
emotions are excited over a broad area, and arise rapidly to sink
again. No better examples can be found than in the sword-and-
buckler romance of our 'nineties which set us all for a while
thinking feudal thoughts and talking shallow gallantry. Now it is
dead, stone dead. Not even the movies can revive it. The emotions
it aroused went flat over night. Much the same is true of books
that trade in prejudice, like the white slave stories of a decade
ago. For a moment we were stirred to the depths. We swallowed the
concept whole and raged with a furious indigestion of horrible
fact. And then it proved to be colic only.

With such a light ballast of prejudice or sentiment can the
profitable ship popularity be kept upright for a little voyage,
and this, prevailingly, is all her cargo. But the wise writer, if
he is able, as Scott, and Dickens, and Clemens were able, freights
her more deeply. As for the good reader, he will go below to
investigate before the voyage commences; or, if in midcourse he
likes not his carrier, take off in his mental airplane and seek
another book.




I remember a talk in Dublin with an Irish writer whose English
prose has adorned our period. It was 1918, and the eve of forced
conscription, and his indignation with English policy was intense.
"I will give up their language," he said, "all except Shakespeare.
I will write only Gaelic." Unfortunately, he could read Gaelic
much better than he could write it. In his heart, indeed, he knew
how mad he would have been to give up the only literary tradition
which, thanks to language, could be his own; and in a calmer mood
since he has enriched that tradition with admirable translations
from the Irish. He was suffering from a mild case of Anglomania.

Who is the real Anglomaniac in America? Not the now sufficiently
discredited individual with a monocle and a pseudo-Oxford accent,
who tries to be more English than the English. Not the more subtly
dangerous American who refers his tastes, his enthusiasms, his
culture, and the prestige of his compatriots to an English test
before he dare assert them. The real Anglomaniac is the American
who tries to be less English than his own American tradition. He
is the man who is obsessed with the fear of "Anglo-Saxon

How many Anglomaniacs by this definition are at large in America
each reader may judge for himself. Personally, I find them
extraordinarily numerous, and of so many varieties, from the mere
borrower of opinions to the deeply convinced zealot, that it seems
wiser to analyze Anglomania than to discuss the various types that
possess it. And in this analysis let us exclude from the beginning
such very real, but temporary, grievances against the English as
spring from Irish oppressions, trade rivalries, or the
provocations which always arise between allies in war. All such
causes of anti-English and anti-"Anglo-Saxon" sentiment belong in
a different category from the underlying motives which I propose
to discuss.

These new Anglomaniacs, with their talk of Anglo-Saxon domination,
cannot mean English domination. That would be absurd, although
even absurdities are current coin in restless years like these.
At least one Irishman of my acquaintance _knows_ that King George
cabled Wilson to bring America into the war, and that until that cable
came Wilson dared not act. I can conceive of an English influence upon
literature that is worth attacking, and also worth defending. I can
conceive of a far less important English influence upon our social
customs. But in neither case, domination. That England dominates our
finance, our industry, our politics, is just now, especially, the
suspicion of a paranoiac, or the idea of an ignoramus.

"Anglo-Saxon domination," even in an anti-British meeting, cannot
and does not mean English domination; it can mean only control of
America by the so-called Anglo-Saxon element in our population.
The quarrel is local, not international. The "Anglo-Saxon" three
thousand miles away who cannot hit back is a scapegoat, a whipping
boy for the so-called "Anglo-Saxon" American at home.

What is an "Anglo-Saxon" American? Presumably he is the person
familiar in "want" advertisements: "American family wants boarder
for the summer. References exchanged." But this does not help us
much. He is certainly not English. Nothing is better established
than the admixture of bloods since the earliest days of our
nationality. That I, myself, for example, have ancestral portions
of French, German, Welsh, and Scotch, as well as English blood in
my veins, makes me, by any historical test, characteristically
more rather than less American. Race, indeed, within very broad
limits, is utterly different from nationality, and it is usually
many, many centuries before the two become even approximately
identical. The culture I have inherited, the political ideals I
live by, the literature which is my own, most of all the language
that I speak, are far more important than the ultimate race or
races I stem from, obviously more important, since in thousands of
good Americans it is impossible to determine what races have gone
to their making. There is no such thing as an Anglo-Saxon
American--and so few English Americans that they are nationally

An American with a strong national individuality there certainly
is, and it is true that his traditions, irrespective of the race
of his forbears, are mainly English; from England he drew his
political and social habits, his moral ideas, his literature, and
his language. This does not make him a "slave to England," as our
most recent propagandists would have it; it does not put him in
England's debt. We owe no debt to England. Great Britain, Canada,
Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and ourselves are deeply in
debt to our intellectual, our spiritual, our aesthetic ancestors
who were the molders of English history and English thought, the
interpreters of English emotion, the masters of the developing
English _mores_ that became our _mores_, and have since continued
evolution with a difference. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Spenser, and
Milton, Wycliffe, Bunyan, Fox, and Wesley, Elizabeth, Cromwell, and
the great Whigs, these made the only tradition that can be called
Anglo-Saxon, and if we have an American tradition, as we assuredly
have, here are its roots. This is our "Anglo-Saxon domination."

But if the roots of this tradition are English, its trunk is
thoroughly American, seasoned and developed through two centuries
of specifically American history. As we know it to-day it is no
longer "Anglo-Saxon," it is as American as our cities, our soil,
our accent upon English. If we are going to discuss "domination"
let us be accurate and speak of the domination of American
tradition. It is against the American tradition that the new
Anglomaniac actually protests.

Dominating this American tradition is, dominating, almost
tyrannical, for one reason only, but that a strong one, a fact not
a convention, a factor, not a mere influence--dominating because
of the English language.

In our century language has become once again as powerful as in
the Roman Empire--and its effects, thanks to printing and easy
transportation, are far more quickly attained. Hordes from all
over Europe have swarmed into the domain of English. They have
come to a country where the new language was indispensable. They
have learned it, or their children have learned it. English has
become their means of communication with their neighbors, with
business, with the state. Sooner or later even the news of Europe
has come to them through English, and sometimes unwillingly, but
more often unconsciously, they have come under the American, the
real "Anglo-Saxon" domination.

For a language, of course, is more than words. It is a body of
literature, it is a method of thinking, it is a definition of
emotions, it is the exponent and the symbol of a civilization. You
cannot adopt English without adapting yourself in some measure to
the English, or the Anglo-American tradition. You cannot adopt
English political words, English literary words, English religious
words, the terms of sport or ethics, without in some measure
remaking your mind on a new model. If you fail or refuse, your
child will not. He is forcibly made an American, in ideas at
least, and chiefly by language.

I submit that it is impossible for an alien _thoroughly_ to absorb and
understand Lincoln's Gettysburg Speech or Hawthorne's "Scarlet Letter"
without working a slight but perceptible transformation in the brain,
without making himself an heir of a measure of English tradition. And
the impact of English as a spoken tongue, and the influence of its
literature as the only read literature, are great beyond ordinary
conception. Communities where a foreign language is read or spoken
only delay the process, they cannot stop it.

The foreigner, it is true, has modified the English language
precisely as he has modified the American tradition. Continental
Europe is audible in the American tongue, as it is evident in the
American mind; but it is like the English or the Spanish touch
upon the Gothic style in architecture--there is modification, but
not fundamental change.

Many a foreign-born American has been restless under this
domination. The letters and memoirs of the French immigrants from
revolutionary France express discomfort freely. The Germans of
'48, themselves the bearers of a high civilization, have often
confessed an unwilling assimilation. The Germans of earlier
migrations herded apart like the later Scandinavians, in part to
avoid the tyranny of tongue.

Imagine a German coming here in early manhood. His tradition is
not English; he owes nothing to a contemporary England that he but
dimly knows. Speaking English, perhaps only English, he grows
impatient with a tongue every concept of which has an English
coloring. The dominance of the language, and especially of its
literature, irks him. He no longer wants to think as a German; he
wants to think as an American; but the medium of his thought must
be English. His anger often enough goes out against English
history, English literature. He is easily irritated by England.
But it is the American past that binds and is converting him. Such
consciousness of the power of environment is perhaps rare, but the
fact is common. In our few centuries of history millions have been
broken into English, with all that implies. Millions have
experienced the inevitable discomfort of a foreign tradition which
makes alien their fatherlands, and strangers of their children.
This is an "Anglo-Saxon" domination. But it is useless to struggle
against it.

There is a similar discomfort among certain American authors,
especially just now, when, for the first time since the Civil War
and the materialism that succeeded it, we are finding our national
self once again in literature. Mr. Mencken and Mr. Dreiser have
vigorously expressed this annoyance with American tradition. They
wish to break with it--at least Mr. Dreiser does--break with it
morally, spiritually, aesthetically. Let the dotards, he says, bury
their dead.

Mr. Mencken wishes to drive us out of Colonialism. He says that
Longfellow has had his day, and that it is time to stop imitating
Addison, time to be ashamed of aping Stevenson, Kipling, or John
Masefield. He is right.

But when it comes to disowning English literature and the past of
American literature (as many a writer directly or by implication
would have us) in order to become 100 per cent American, let us
first take breath long enough to reflect that, first, such a
madcap career is eminently undesirable, and, second, utterly
impossible. It is a literature which by general admission is now
the richest and most liberal in the world of living speech.
English is a tongue less sonorous than Italian, less fine than
French, less homely than German, but more expressive, more
flexible, than these and all others. Its syntax imposes no
burdens, its traditions are weighty only upon the vulgar and the
bizarre. Without its literary history, American literature in
general, and usually in particular, is not to be understood. That
we have sprung from a Puritanical loin, and been nourished in the
past from the breast of Victorianism, is obvious. In this we have
been not too much, but too narrowly, English. We have read
Tennyson when it might have been better to have read Shakespeare
or Chaucer. But to wish to break with English literature in order
to become altogether American is like desiring to invent an
entirely new kind of clothes. I shall not give up trousers because
my fourth great-grandfather, who was a Yorkshireman, wore them,
and his pattern no longer fits my different contour. I shall make
me a pair better suiting my own shanks--yet they shall still be
trousers. But in any case, language binds us.

Indeed, in this welter of newcomers here in America, whose children
learn, read, write only English, the tradition of Anglo-
American literature is all that holds us by a thread above chaos.
If we could all be made to speak German, or Italian, or Spanish,
there would be cause, but no excuse, for an attempted revolution.
But English is dominant here and will remain so. Could we hope to
make an American literary language without dependence on English
literature, a protective tariff on home-made writing, or an
embargo against books more than a year old, or imported from
across the Atlantic, would be worth trying; but the attempts so
far are not encouraging. This has not been the way in the past by
which original literatures have been made. They have sucked
nourishment where it could best be found, and grown great from the
strength that good food gave them.

One can sympathize with the desire to nationalize our literature
at all costs; and can understand lashings out at the tyranny of
literary prestige which England still exercises. But the real
question is: shall the English of Americans be good English or bad
English; shall a good tradition safeguard change and experiment,
or shall we have chaotic vulgarity like the Low Latin of the late
Roman Empire?

The truth is that our language is tradition, for it holds
tradition in solution like iron in wine. And here lie the secret
and the power of American, "Anglo-Saxon" domination.

What is to be done about it? Shall anything be done about it? The
Anglomaniac is helpless before the fact of language. The most he
can do is to attack, and uproot if he can, the American tradition.

There is nothing sacrosanct in this American tradition. Like all
traditions it is stiff, it will clasp, if we allow it, the future
in the dead hand of precedent. It can be used by the designing to
block progress. But as traditions go it is not conservative.
Radicalism, indeed, is its child. Political and religious
radicalism brought the Pilgrims to New England, the Quakers to
Pennsylvania; political and economic radicalism made the
Revolution against the will of American conservatives; political
and social radicalism made the Civil War inevitable and gave it
moral earnestness. Radicalism, whether you like it or not, is much
more American than what some people mean by "Americanism" to-day.
And its bitterest opponents in our times would quite certainly
have become Nova Scotian exiles if they had been alive and
likeminded in 1783.

Nor is this American tradition impeccable in the political ideas,
the literary ideals, the social customs it has given us. We must
admit a rampant individualism in our political practices which is
in the very best Anglo-American tradition, and yet by no means
favorable to cooperative government. We admit also more Puritanism
in our standard literature than art can well digest; and more
sentiment than is good for us; nor is it probable that the
traditions and the conventions which govern American family life
are superior to their European equivalents. We should welcome (I
do not say that we do) liberalizing, broadening, enriching
influences from other traditions. And whether we have welcomed
them or not, they have come, and to our great benefit. But to
graft upon the plant is different from trying to pull up the

We want better arguments than the fear of Anglo-Saxon domination
before the root pulling begins. We wish to know what is to be
planted. We desire to be convinced that the virtue has gone out of
the old stock. We want examples of civilized nations that have
profited by borrowing traditions wholesale, or by inventing them.
We wish to know if a cultural, a literary sans-culottism is
possible, except with chaos as a goal. Most of all, we expect to
fight for and to hold our Anglo-American heritage.

It is not surprising that discontent with our own ultimately
English tradition has expressed itself by a kind of Freudian
transformation in anti-English sentiment. Every vigorous nation
strains and struggles with its tradition, like a growing boy with
his clothes, and this is particularly true of new nations with old
traditions behind them. Our pains are growing pains--a malady we
have suffered from since the early eighteenth century at the
latest. Tradition, our own tradition, pinches us; but you cannot
punch tradition for pinching you, or call it names to its face,
especially if it proves to be your father's tradition, or your
next-door neighbor's. Therefore, since that now dim day when the
Colonies acquired a self-consciousness of their own, many good
Americans have chosen England and the English to symbolize
whatever irked them in their own tradition. It is from England and
the English that we have felt ourselves growing away, from which
we had to grow away in order to be ourselves and not a shadow--
imitators, second-bests, Colonials. England and the English have
had our vituperation whenever the need to be American has been
greatest. And when an English government like Palmerston's, or
Salisbury's, or Lloyd George's, offends some group or race among
us, a lurking need to assert our individuality, or prove that we
are not Colonials, leads thousands more to join in giving the
lion's tail an extra twist.

This may be unfortunate, but it argues curiously enough respect
and affection rather than the reverse, and it is very human. It is
a fact, like growing, and is likely to continue until we are fully
grown. It will reassert itself vehemently until upon our English
tradition we shall have built an American civilization as
definitely crystallized, a literature as rich and self-sufficing,
as that of France and England to-day. Three-quarters of our
national genius went into the creating of our political system.
Three-quarters of our national genius since has gone into the
erecting of our economic system. Here we are independent--and
thick skinned. But a national civilization and a national
literature take more time to complete.

Cool minds were prepared for a little tail-twisting after the
great war, even though they could not foresee the unfortunate
Irish situation in which a British government seemed determined to
make itself as un-English as possible. If there had not been the
patriotic urge to assert our essential Americanism more strongly
than ever, there still would have been a reaction against all the
pledging and the handshaking, the pother about blood and water,
the purple patches in every newspaper asserting Anglo-Saxonism
against the world. I remember my own nervousness when, in 1918,
after the best part of a year in England, in England's darkest
days, I came back full of admiration for the pluck of all England
and the enlightenment of her best minds in the great struggle, to
hear men who knew little of England orating of enduring
friendship, and to read writers who had merely read of England,
descanting of her virtues. I felt, and many felt, that excess of
ignorant laudation which spells certain reaction into ignorant
dispraise. No wonder that Americans whose parents happened to be
Germans, Italians, Jews, or Irish grew weary of hearing of the
essential virtues of the Anglo-Saxon race. There never was such a
race. It was not even English blood, but English institutions that
created America; but Liberty Loan orators had no time to make fine
distinctions of that kind. They talked, and even while the cheers
were ringing and the money rolled in dissent raised its tiny head.

Dissent was to be expected; antagonism against a tradition made by
English minds and perpetuated in English was natural after a war
in which not merely nationalism, but also every racial instinct,
has been quickened and made sensitive. But _tout comprendre, c'est
tout pardonner_, is only partly true in this instance. We should
understand, and be tolerant with, the strainings against tradition of
folk to whom it is still partly alien; we should diagnose our own
growing pains and not take them too seriously. Nevertheless, the
better more violent movements of race and national prejudice are
understood, the less readily can they be pardoned, if by pardon one
means easy tolerance.

It is not inconceivable that we shall have to face squarely a
split between those who prefer the American tradition and those
who do not, although where the cleavage line would run, whether
between races or classes, is past guessing. There are among us
apparently men and women who would risk wars, external or
internal, in order to hasten the discordant day; although just
what they expect as a result, whether an Irish-German state
organized by German efficiency and officered by graduates of
Tammany Hall, or a pseudo-Russian communism, is not yet clear. In
any case, the time is near when whoever calls himself American
will have to take his stand and do more thinking, perhaps, than
was necessary in 1917. He will need to know what tradition is,
what his own consists of, and what he would do without it. He will
need especially to rid himself of such simple and fallacious ideas
as that what was good enough for his grandfather is good enough
for him; or that, as some of our more reputable newspapers profess
to think, the Constitution has taken the place once held by the
Bible, and contains the whole duty of man and all that is
necessary for his welfare. He will need to think less of 100
percent Americanism, which, as it is commonly used means not to
think at all, and more of how he himself is molding American
tradition for the generation that is to follow. If he is not to be
a pawn merely in the struggle for American unity, he must think
more clearly and deeply than has been his habit in the past.

But whatever happens in America (and after the sad experiences of
prophets in the period of war and reconstruction, who would
prophesy), let us cease abusing England whenever we have
indigestion in our own body politic. It is seemingly inevitable
that the writers of vindictive editorials should know little more
of England as she is to-day than of Russia or the Chinese
Republic; inevitable, apparently, that for them the Irish policy
of the Tory group in Parliament, Indian unrest, and Lloyd George,
are all that one needs to known about a country whose liberal
experiments in industrial democracy since the war, and whose
courage in reconstruction, may well make us hesitate in dispraise.
But it is not inevitable that Americans who are neither headline
and editorial writers, nor impassioned orators, regardless of
facts, should continue to damn the English because their ancestors
and ours founded America.


No one tendency in life as we live it in America to-day is more
characteristic than the impulse, as recurrent as summer, to take
to the woods. Sometimes it disguises itself under the name of
science; sometimes it is mingled with hunting and the desire to
kill; often it is sentimentalized and leads strings of gaping
"students" bird-hunting through the wood lot; and again it
perilously resembles a desire to get back from civilization and go
"on the loose." Say your worst of it, still the fact remains that
more Americans go back to nature for one reason or another
annually than any civilized men before them. And more Americans, I
fancy, are studying nature in clubs or public schools--or, in
summer camps and the Boy Scouts, imitating nature's creatures, the
Indian and the pioneer--than even statistics could make

What is the cause? In life, it is perhaps some survival of the
pioneering instinct, spending itself upon fishing, or bird-
hunting, or trail hiking, much as the fight instinct leads us to
football, or the hunt instinct sends every dog sniffing at dawn
through the streets of his town. Not every one is thus atavistic,
if this be atavism; not every American is sensitive to spruce
spires, or the hermit thrush's chant, or white water in a forest
gorge, or the meadow lark across the frosted fields. Naturally.
The surprising fact is that in a bourgeois civilization like ours,
so many are affected.

And yet what a criterion nature love or nature indifference is. It
seems that if I can try a man by a silent minute in the pines, the
view of a jay pirating through the bushes, spring odors, or
December flush on evening snow, I can classify him by his
reactions. Just where I do not know; for certainly I do not put
him beyond the pale if his response is not as mine. And yet he
will differ, I feel sure, in more significant matters. He is not
altogether of my world. Nor does he enter into this essay. There
are enough without him, and of every class. In the West, the very
day laborer pitches his camp in the mountains for his two weeks'
holiday. In the East and Middle West, every pond with a fringe of
hemlocks, or hill view by a trolley line, or strip of ocean beach,
has its cluster of bungalows where the proletariat perform their
_villeggiatura_ as the Italian aristocracy did in the days of
the Renaissance. Patently the impulse exists, and counts for
something here in America.

It counts for something, too, in American literature. Since our
writing ceased being colonial English and began to reflect a race
in the making, the note of woods-longing has been so insistent
that one wonders whether here is not to be found at last the
characteristic "trait" that we have all been patriotically

I do not limit myself in this statement to the professed "nature
writers" of whom we have bred far more than any other race with
which I am familiar. In the list--which I shall not attempt--of
the greatest American writers, one cannot fail to include Emerson,
Hawthorne, Thoreau, Cooper, Lowell, and Whitman. And every one of
these men was vitally concerned with nature, and some were
obsessed by it. Lowell was a scholar and man of the world, urban
therefore; but his poetry is more enriched by its homely New
England background than by its European polish. Cooper's ladies
and gentlemen are puppets merely, his plots melodrama; it is the
woods he knew, and the creatures of the woods, Deerslayer and
Chingachgook, that preserve his books. Whitman made little
distinction between nature and human nature, perhaps too little.
But read "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" or "The Song of the
Redwood-Tree," and see how keen and how vital was his instinct for
native soil. As for Hawthorne, you could make a text-book on
nature study from his "Note-Books." He was an imaginative moralist
first of all; but he worked out his visions in terms of New
England woods and hills. So did Emerson. The day was "not wholly
profane" for him when he had "given heed to some natural object."
Thoreau needs no proving. He is at the forefront of all field and
forest lovers in all languages and times.

These are the greater names. The lesser are as leaves in the
forest: Audubon, Burroughs, Muir, Clarence King, Lanier, Robert
Frost, and many more--the stream broadening and shallowing
through literary scientists and earnest forest lovers to romantic
"nature fakers," literary sportsmen, amiable students, and tens of
thousands of teachers inculcating this American tendency in
another generation. The phenomenon asks for an explanation. It is
more than a category of American literature that I am presenting;
it _is_ an American trait.

The explanation I wish to proffer in this essay may sound
fantastical; most explanations that explain anything usually do--
at first. I believe that this vast rush of nature into American
literature is more than a mere reflection of a liking for the
woods. It represents a search for a tradition, and its capture.

Good books, like well-built houses, must have tradition behind
them. The Homers and Shakespeares and Goethes spring from rich
soil left by dead centuries; they are like native trees that grow
so well nowhere else. The little writers--hacks who sentimentalize
to the latest order, and display their plot novelties like
bargains on an advertising page--are just as traditional. The only
difference is that their tradition goes back to books instead of
life. Middle-sized authors--the very good and the probably
enduring--are successful largely because they have gripped a
tradition and followed it through to contemporary life. This is
what Thackeray did in "Vanity Fair," Howells in "The Rise of Silas
Lapham," and Mrs. Wharton in "The House of Mirth." But the back-
to-nature books--both the sound ones and those shameless exposures
of the private emotions of ground hogs and turtles that call
themselves nature books--are the most traditional of all. For they
plunge directly into what might be called the adventures of the
American sub-consciousness.

It is the sub-consciousness that carries tradition into
literature. That curious reservoir where forgotten experiences lie
waiting in every man's mind, as vivid as on the day of first
impression, is the chief concern of psychologists nowadays. But it
has never yet had due recognition from literary criticism. If the
sub-consciousness is well stocked, a man writes truly, his
imagination is vibrant with human experience, he sets his own
humble observation against a background of all he has learned and
known and forgotten of civilization. If it is under-populated, if
he has done little, felt little, known little of the traditional
experiences of the intellect, he writes thinly. He can report what
he sees, but it is hard for him to create. It was Chaucer's rich
sub-consciousness that turned his simple little story of
Chauntecleer into a comment upon humanity. Other men had told that
story--and made it scarcely more than trivial. It is the
promptings of forgotten memories in the sub-consciousness that
give to a simple statement the force of old, unhappy things, that
keep thoughts true to experience, and test fancy by life. The sub-
consciousness is the governor of the waking brain. Tradition--
which is just man's memory of man--flows through it like an
underground river from which rise the springs of every-day
thinking. If there is anything remarkable about a book, look to
the sub-consciousness of the writer and study the racial tradition
that it bears.

Now, I am far from proposing to analyze the American sub-
consciousness. No man can define it. But of this much I am
certain. The American habit of going "back to nature" means that
in our sub-consciousness nature is peculiarly active. We react to
nature as does no other race. We are the descendants of pioneers--
all of us. And if we have not inherited a memory of pioneering
experiences, at least we possess inherited tendencies and desires.
The impulse that drove Boone westward may nowadays do no more than
send some young Boone canoeing on Temagami, or push him up Marcy
or Shasta to inexplicable happiness on the top. But the drive is
there. And furthermore, nature is still strange in America. Even
now the wilderness is far from no American city. Birds, plants,
trees, even animals have not, as in Europe, been absorbed into the
common knowledge of the race. There are discoveries everywhere for
those who can make them. Nature, indeed, is vivid in a surprising
number of American brain cells, marking them with a deep and endurable
impress. And our flood of nature books has served to
increase her power.

It was never so with the European traditions that we brought to
America with us. That is why no one reads early American books.
They are pallid, ill-nourished, because their traditions are
pallid. They drew upon the least active portion of the American
sub-consciousness, and reflect memories not of experience,
contact, live thought, but of books. Even Washington Irving, our
first great author, is not free from this indictment. If,
responding to some obscure drift of his race towards humor and the
short story, he had not ripened his Augustan inheritance upon an
American hillside, he, too, would by now seem juiceless, withered,
like a thousand cuttings from English stock planted in forgotten
pages of his period. It was not until the end of our colonial age
and the rise of democracy towards Jackson's day, that the rupture
with our English background became sufficiently complete to make
us fortify pale memories of home by a search for fresher, more
vigorous tradition.

We have been searching ever since, and many eminent critics think
that we have still failed to establish American literature upon
American soil. The old traditions, of course, were essential. Not
even the most self-sufficient American hopes to establish a brand-
new culture. The problem has been to domesticate Europe, not to
get rid of her. But the old stock needed a graft, just as an old
fruit tree needs a graft. It requires a new tradition. We found a
tradition in New England; and then New England was given over to
the alien and her traditions became local or historical merely. We
found another in border life; and then the Wild West reached the
Pacific and vanished. Time and again we have been flung back upon
our English sources, and forced to imitate a literature sprung
from a riper soil. Of course, this criticism, as it stands, is too
sweeping. It neglects Mark Twain and the tradition of the American
boy; it neglects Walt Whitman and the literature of free and
turbulent democracy; it neglects Longfellow and Poe and that
romantic tradition of love and beauty common to all Western races.
But, at least, it makes one understand why the American writer has
passionately sought anything that would put an American quality
into his transplanted style.

He has been very successful in local color. But then local color
is _local_. It is a minor art. In the field of human nature he has
fought a doubtful battle. An occasional novel has broken through into
regions where it is possible to be utterly American even while writing
English. Poems too have followed. But here lie our great failures. I
do not speak of the "great American novel," yet to come. I refer to
the absence of a school of American fiction, or poetry, or drama, that
has linked itself to any tradition broader than the romance of the
colonies, New England of the 'forties, or the East Side of New York.
The men who most often write for all America are mediocre. They strike
no deeper than a week-old interest in current activity. They aim to
hit the minute because they are shrewd enough to see that for "all
America" there is very little continuity just now between one minute
and the next. The America they write for is contemptuous of tradition,
although worshipping convention, which is the tradition of the
ignorant. The men who write for a fit audience though few are too
often local or archaic, narrow or European, by necessity if not by

And ever since we began to incur the condescension of foreigners
by trying to be American, we have been conscious of this weak-
rootedness in our literature and trying to remedy it. This is why
our flood of nature books for a century is so significant. They
may seem peculiar instruments for probing tradition--particularly
the sentimental ones. The critic has not yet admitted some of the
heartiest among them--Audubon's sketches of pioneer life, for
example--into literature at all. And yet, unless I am mightily
mistaken, they are signs of convalescence as clearly as they are
symptoms of our disease. These United States, of course, are
infinitely more important than the plot of mother earth upon which
they have been erected. The intellectual background that we have
inherited from Europe is more significant than the moving spirit
of woods and soil and waters here. The graft, in truth, is less
valuable than the tree upon which it is grafted. Yet it determines
the fruit. So with the books of our nature lovers. They represent
a passionate attempt to acclimatize the breed. Thoreau has been
one of our most original writers. He and his multitudinous
followers, wise and foolish, have helped establish us in our new

I may seem to exaggerate the services of a group of writers who,
after all, can show but one great name, Thoreau's. I do not think
so, for if the heart of the nature lover is sometimes more active
than his head, the earth intimacies he gives us are vital to
literature in a very practical sense. Thanks to the modern science
of geography, we are beginning to understand the profound and
powerful influence of physical environment upon men. The
geographer can tell you why Charleston was aristocratic, why New
York is hurried and nervous, why Chicago is self-confident. He can
guess at least why in old communities, like Hardy's Wessex or the
North of France, the inhabitants of villages not ten miles apart
will differ in temperament and often in temper, hill town varying
from lowland village beneath it sometimes more than Kansas City
from Minneapolis. He knows that the old elemental forces--wind,
water, fire, and earth--still mold men's thoughts and lives a
hundred times more than they guess, even when pavements, electric
lights, tight roofs, and artificial heat seem to make nature only
a name. He knows that the sights and sounds and smells about us,
clouds, songs, and wind murmurings, rain-washed earth, and fruit
trees blossoming, enter into our sub-consciousness with a power
but seldom appraised. Prison life, factory service long continued,
a clerk's stool, a housewife's day-long duties--these things stunt
and transform the human animal as nothing else, because of all
experiences they most restrict, most impoverish the natural
environment. And it is the especial function of nature books to
make vivid and warm and sympathetic our background of nature. They
make conscious our sub-conscious dependence upon earth that bore
us. They do not merely inform (there the scientist may transcend
them), they enrich the subtle relationship between us and our
environment. Move a civilization and its literature from one
hemisphere to another, and their adapting, adjusting services
become most valuable. Men like Thoreau are worth more than we have
ever guessed.

No one has ever written more honest books than Thoreau's "Walden,"
his "Autumn," "Summer," and the rest. There is not one literary
flourish in the whole of them, although they are done with
consummate literary care; nothing but honest, if not always
accurate, observation of the world of hill-slopes, waves, flowers,
birds, and beasts, and honest, shrewd philosophizing as to what it
all meant for him, an American. Here is a man content to take a
walk, fill his mind with observation, and then come home to think.
Repeat the walk, repeat or vary the observation, change or expand
the thought, and you have Thoreau. No wonder he brought his first
edition home, not seriously depleted, and made his library of it!
Thoreau needs excerpting to be popular. Most nature books do. But
not to be valuable!

For see what this queer genius was doing. Lovingly, laboriously,
and sometimes a little tediously, he was studying his environment.
For some generations his ancestors had lived on a new soil, too
busy in squeezing life from it to be practically aware of its
differences. They and the rest had altered Massachusetts.
Massachusetts had altered them. Why? To what? The answer is not
yet ready. But here is one descendant who will know at least what
Massachusetts _is_--wave, wind, soil, and the life therein and
thereon. He begins humbly with the little things; but humanly, not
as the out-and-out scientist goes to work, to classify or to
study the narrower laws of organic development; or romantically as
the sentimentalist, who intones his "Ah!" at the sight of dying
leaves or the cocoon becoming moth. It is all human, and yet all
intensely practical with Thoreau. He envies the Indian not because
he is "wild," or "free," or any such nonsense, but for his
instinctive adaptations to his background,--because nature has
become traditional, stimulative with him. And simply, almost
naively, he sets down what he has discovered. The land I live in
is like this or that; such and such life lives in it; and this is
what it all means for me, the transplanted European, for us,
Americans, who have souls to shape and characters to mold in a new
environment, under influences subtler than we guess. "I make it my
business to extract from Nature whatever nutriment she can furnish
me, though at the risk of endless iteration. I milk the sky and
the earth." And again: "Surely it is a defect in our Bible that it
is not truly ours, but a Hebrew Bible. The most pertinent
illustrations for us are to be drawn not from Egypt or Babylonia,
but from New England. Natural objects and phenomena are the
original symbols or types which express our thoughts and feelings.
Yet American scholars, having little or no root in the soil,
commonly strive with all their might to confine themselves to the
imported symbols alone. All the true growth and experience, the
living speech, they would fain reject as 'Americanisms.' It is the
old error which the church, the state, the school, ever commit,
choosing darkness rather than light, holding fast to the old and
to tradition. When I really know that our river pursues a
serpentine course to the Merrimac, shall I continue to describe it
by referring to some other river, no older than itself, which is
like it, and call it a meander? It is no more meandering than the
Meander is musketaquiding."

This for Thoreau was going back to nature. Our historians of
literature who cite him as an example of how to be American
without being strenuous, as an instance of leisure nobly earned,
are quite wrong. If any man has striven to make us at home in
America, it is Thoreau. He gave his life to it; and in some
measure it is thanks to him that with most Americans you reach
intimacy most quickly by talking about "the woods."

Thoreau gave to this American tendency the touch of genius and the
depth of real thought. After his day the "back-to-nature" idea
became more popular and perhaps more picturesque. Our literature
becomes more and more aware of an American background. Bobolinks
and thrushes take the place of skylarks; sumach and cedar begin to
be as familiar as heather and gorse; forests, prairies, a clear,
high sky, a snowy winter, a summer of thunderstorms, drive out the
misty England which, since the days of Cynewulf, our ancestors had
seen in the mind's eye while they were writing. Nature literature
becomes a category. Men make their reputations by means of it.

No one has yet catalogued--so far as I am aware--the vast
collection of back-to-nature books that followed Thoreau. No one
has ever seriously criticized it, except Mr. Roosevelt, who with
characteristic vigor of phrase, stamped "nature-faking" on its
worser half. But every one reads in it. Indeed, the popularity of
such writing has been so great as to make us distrust its serious
literary value. And yet, viewed internationally, there are few
achievements in American literature so original. I will not say
that John Muir and John Burroughs, upon whom Thoreau's mantle
fell, have written great books. Probably not. Certainly it is too
soon to say. But when you have gathered the names of Gilbert
White, Jeffries, Fabre, Maeterlinck, and in slightly different
_genres_, Izaak Walton, Hudson, and Kipling from various literatures
you will find few others abroad to list with ours. Nor do our men owe
one jot or title of their inspiration to individuals on the other side
of the water.

Locally, too, these books are more noteworthy than may at first
appear. They are curiously passionate, and passion in American
literature since the Civil War is rare. I do not mean sentiment,
or romance, or eroticism. I mean such passion as Wordsworth felt
for his lakes, Byron (even when most Byronic) for the ocean, the
author of "The Song of Roland" for his Franks. Muir loved the
Yosemite as a man might love a woman. Every word he wrote of the
Sierras is touched with intensity. Hear him after a day on Alaskan
peaks: "Dancing down the mountain to camp, my mind glowing like
the sunbeaten glaciers, I found the Indians seated around a good
fire, entirely happy now that the farthest point of the journey
was safely reached and the long, dark storm was cleared away. How
hopefully, peacefully bright that night were the stars in the
frosty sky, and how impressive was the thunder of icebergs,
rolling, swelling, reverberating through the solemn stillness! I
was too happy to sleep."

Such passion, and often such style, is to be found in all these
books when they are good books. Compare a paragraph or two of the
early Burroughs on his birch-clad lake country, or Thoreau upon
Concord pines, with the "natural history paragraph" that English
magazines used to publish, and you will feel it.

Compare any of the lesser nature books of the mid-nineteenth
century--Clarence King's "Mountaineering in the Sierras," for
example--with the current novel writing of the period and you will
feel the greater sincerity. A passion for nature! Except the New
England passion for ideals, Whitman's passion for democracy, and
Poe's lonely devotion to beauty, I sometimes think that this is
the only great passion that has found its way into American

Hence the "nature fakers." The passion of one generation becomes
the sentiment of the next. And sentiment is easily capitalized.
The individual can be stirred by nature as she is. A hermit thrush
singing in moonlight above a Catskill clove will move him. But the
populace will require something more sensational. To the sparkling
water of truth must be added the syrup of sentiment and the cream
of romance. Mr. Kipling, following ancient traditions of the
Orient, gave personalities to his animals so that stories might be
made from them. Mr. Long, Mr. Roberts, Mr. London, Mr. Thompson-
Seton, and the rest, have told stories about animals so that the
American interest in nature might be exploited. The difference is
essential. If the "Jungle Books" teach anything it is the moral
ideals of the British Empire. But our nature romancers--a fairer
term than "fakers," since they do not willingly "fake"--teach the
background and tradition of our soil. In the process they inject
sentiment, giving us the noble desperation of the stag, the
startling wolf-longings of the dog, and the picturesque outlawry
of the ground hog,--and get a hundred readers where Thoreau got

This is the same indictment as that so often brought against the
stock American novel, that it prefers the gloss of easy sentiment
to the rough, true fact, that it does not grapple direct with
things as they are in America, but looks at them through
optimist's glasses that obscure and soften the scene.
Nevertheless, I very much prefer the sentimentalized animal story
to the sentimentalized man story. The first, as narrative, may be
romantic bosh, but it does give one a loving, faithful study of
background that is worth the price that it costs in illusion. It
reaches my emotions as a novelist who splashed his sentiment with
equal profusion never could. My share of the race mind is willing
even to be tricked into sympathy with its environment. I would
rather believe that the sparrow on my telephone wire is swearing
at the robin on my lawn than never to notice either of them!

How curiously complete and effective is the service of these
nature books, when all is considered. There is no better instance,
I imagine, of how literature and life act and react upon one
another. The plain American takes to the woods because he wants
to, he does not know why. The writing American puts the woods into
his books, also because he wants to, although I suspect that
sometimes he knows very well why. Nevertheless, the same general
tendency, the same impulse, lie behind both. But reading nature
books makes us crave more nature, and every gratification of
curiosity marks itself upon the sub-consciousness. Thus the clear,
vigorous tradition of the soil passes through us to our books, and
from our books to us. It is the soundest, the sweetest, if not the
greatest and deepest inspiration of American literature. In the
confusion that attends the meeting here of all the races it is
something to cling to; it is our own.


It would be a wise American town that gave up paying "boosters"
and began to support its artists. A country is just so much
country until it has been talked about, painted, or put into
literature. A town is just so many brick and wood squares,
inhabited by human animals, until some one's creative and
interpretative mind has given it "atmosphere," by which we mean

America was not mere wild land to the early colonists: it was a
country that had already been seen through the eyes of
enthusiastic explorers and daring adventurers, whose airs were
sweeter than Europe's, whose fruits were richer, where forest and
game, and even the savage inhabitant, guaranteed a more exciting
life, full of chance for the future.

New England was not just so much stony acre and fishing village
for the men of the 'twenties and 'forties. It was a land haloed by
the hopes and sufferings of forefathers, where every town had its
record of struggle known to all by word of mouth or book.
And when the New Englanders pushed westward, it was to a
wilderness which already had its literature, along trails of which
they had read, and into regions familiar to them in imagination.

Say what you please, and it is easy to say too much, of the
imitativeness of American literature as Irving, Cooper, Hawthorne,
Longfellow, Thoreau, Twain, and Howells wrote it, nevertheless, it
was more than justified by the human significance it gave to mere
land in America; and it is richer and more valuable than much
later writing just because of this attempt. Without Hawthorne and
Thoreau, New England would have lost its past; without Cooper and
Parkman the word "frontier" would mean no more than "boundary" to
most of us.

It is foolish to lay a burden on art, and to say, for example,
that American novelists must accept the same obligation to cities
and country to-day. But we may justly praise and thank them when
they do enrich this somewhat monotonous America that has been
planed over by the movies, the _Saturday Evening Post_, quick
transportation, and the newspaper with its syndicated features,
until it is as repetitive as a tom-tom.

After the Civil War every one began to move in America, and the
immigrants, moving in, moved also, so that roots were pulled up
everywhere and the town one lived in became as impersonal as a
hotel, the farm no more human than a seed-bed. Literature of the
time shows this in two ways: the rarity of books that give a local
habitation and a name to the familiar, contemporary scene; and a
romantic interest, as of the half-starved, in local color stories
of remote districts where history and tradition still meant
something in the lives of the inhabitants.

It is encouraging to see how rapidly all this is changing. In
poetry the Middle West and New England have been made again to
figure in the imagination. Rural New Hampshire and Illinois are
alive to-day for those who have read Masters, Lindsay, and Frost.
In prose Chicago, New York, New Haven, Richmond, Detroit, San
Francisco, and the ubiquitous Main Street of a hundred Gopher
Prairies have become wayfares for the memory of the reader, as
well as congeries of amusement and trade. In particular our
universities, which in the 'eighties and 'nineties were darkly lit
by a few flaring torches of mawkish romance, have been illumined
for the imagination by a series of stories that already begin to
make the undergraduate comprehend his place in one of the richest
streams of history, and graduates to understand their youth.
Poole's "The Harbor" (which served both college and city), Owen
Johnson's "Stover at Yale," Norris's "Salt," Fitzgerald's "This
Side of Paradise," Stephen Benet's "The Beginning of Wisdom"--
these books and many others have, like the opening chapters of
Compton Mackenzie's English "Sinister Street," given depth, color,
and significance to the college, which may not increase its
immediate and measurable efficiency but certainly strengthen its
grip upon the imagination, and therefore upon life.

Planners, builders, laborers, schemers, executives make a city, a
county, a university habitable, give them their bones and their
blood. Poets and novelists make us appreciate the life we live in
them, give them their souls. The best "boosters" are artists,
because their boosting lasts.


[Footnote: This lecture was, in fact, delivered in the summer of
1918 at Cambridge University as part of a summer session devoted
to the United States of America. It is reprinted in lecture form
in order that the point of view may carry its own explanation.]

The analysis of conditions and tendencies in contemporary American
literature which I wish to present in this lecture, requires
historical background, detailed criticism, and a study of
development. I have time for reference to none of these, and can
only summarize the end of the process. If, therefore, I seem to
generalize unduly, I hope that my deficiencies may be charged
against the exigencies of the occasion. But I generalize the more
boldly because I am speaking, after all, of an English literature;
not in a Roman-Greek relationship of unnaturalized borrowings (for
we Americans imitate less and less), but English by common
cultural inheritance, by identical language, and by deeply
resembling character. Nevertheless, the more American literature
diverges from British (and that divergence is already wide) the
more truly English, the less colonial does it become. A Briton
should not take unkindly assertions of independence, even such
ruffled independence as Lowell expressed in "The Biglow Papers":

      I guess the Lord druv down Creation's spiles
      'Thout no _gret_ helpin' from the British Isles,
      An' could contrive to keep things pooty stiff
      Ef they withdrawed from business in a miff;
      I han't no patience with such swelling fellers ez
      Think God can't forge 'thout them to blow the bellerses.

I desire neither to apologize for American literature, nor to
boast of it. No apology is necessary now, whatever Sydney Smith
may have thought in earlier days: and it is decidedly not the time
to boast, for so far literature has usually been a by-product in
the development of American aptitudes. But it may be useful to
state broadly at the beginning some of the difficulties and the
closely related advantages that condition the making of literature
in the United States.

The critic of American literature usually begins in this fashion:
America, in somewhat over a century, has built up a political and
social organization admittedly great. She has not produced,
however, a great literature: great writers she has produced, but
not a great literature. The reason is, that so much energy has
been employed in developing the resources of a great country, that
little has been left to expend in creative imagination. The
currents of genius have flowed toward trade, agriculture, and
manufacturing, not aesthetics.

This explanation is easy to understand, and is therefore
plausible, but I do not believe that it is accurate. It is not
true that American energy has been absorbed by business. Politics,
and politics of a creative character, has never lacked good blood
in the United States. Organization, and organization of a kind
requiring the creative intellect, has drawn enormously upon our
energies, especially since the Civil War, and by no means all of
it has been business organization. Consider our systems of
education and philanthropy, erected for vast needs. And I venture
to guess that more varieties of religious experience have arisen
in America than elsewhere in the same period. After all, why
expect a century and a half of semi-independent intellectual
existence to result in a great national literature? Can other
countries, other times, show such a phenomenon?

No, if we have been slow in finding ourselves in literature, in
creating a school of expression like the Elizabethan or the
Augustan, the difficulties are to be sought elsewhere than in a
lack of energy.

Seek them first of all in a weakening of literary tradition. The
sky changes, not the mind, said Horace, but this is true only of
the essentials of being. The great writers of our common English
tradition--Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and many others--are as
good for us as they are good for you. It is even whispered that
our language is more faithful to their diction than is yours. But
the conditions of life in a new environment bring a multitude of
minor changes with them. To begin with little things, our climate,
our birds, our trees, our daily contact with nature, are all
different. Your mellow fluting blackbird, your wise thrush that
sings each song twice over, your high-fluttering larks we do not
know. Our blackbird creaks discordantly, our plaintive lark sings
from the meadow tussock, our thrush chimes his heavenly bell from
forest dimness. And this accounts, may I suggest in passing, for
the insistence upon nature in American writing, from Thoreau down.
Our social and economic experience has been widely different also;
and all this, plus the results of a break in space and time with
the home country of our language, weakened that traditional
influence which is so essential for the production of a national
literature. It had to be; good will come of it; but for a time we
vacillated, and we still vacillate, like a new satellite finding
its course.

Again, the constant shift of location within America has been a
strong delaying factor. Moving-day has come at least once a
generation for most American families since the days of William
Penn or _The Mayflower_, The president of a Western university, who
himself, as a baby, had been carried across the Alleghenies in a
sling, once told me the history of his family. It settled in Virginia
in the seventeenth century, and moved westward regularly each
generation, until his father, the sixth or seventh in line, had
reached California. On the return journey he had got as far as
Illinois, and his son was moving to New York! The disturbing effect
upon literature of this constant change of soils and environment is
best proved by negatives. Wherever there has been a settled community
in the United States--in New England of the 'forties and again in the
'nineties, in the Middle West and California to-day--one is sure to
find a literature with some depth and solidity to it. The New England
civilization of the early nineteenth century, now materially altered,
was a definable culture, with five generations behind it, and strong
roots in the old world. From it came the most mature school of
American literature that so far we have possessed.

Still another difficulty must be added. The social. Pessimists,
who see in our Eastern states a mere congeries of all the white
races, and some not white, bewail the impossibility of a real
nation in America. But the racial problem has always been with us,
nor has it by any means always been unsolved. Before the
Revolution, we were English, Scottish, Welsh, Low German,
Huguenot, Dutch, and Swedish. Before the Civil War, we were the
same plus the Irish and the Germans of '48. And now we add Slavs,
Jews, Greeks, and Italians. I do not minimize the danger. But let
it be understood that while our civilization has always been
British (if that term is used in its broadest sense) our blood has
always been mixed, even in Virginia and New England. This has made
it hard for us to feel entirely at home in the only literary
tradition we possessed and cared to possess. We have been like the
man with a ready-made suit. The cloth is right, but the cut must
be altered before the clothes will fit him.

And finally, America has always been decentralized intellectually.
It is true that most of the books and magazines are published in
New York, and have always been published there, or in Boston or
Philadelphia. But they have been written all over a vast country
by men and women who frequently never see each other in the flesh.
There has been no center like London, where writers can rub elbows
half-a-dozen times a year. Boston was such a capital once; only,
however, for New England. New York is a clearing-house of
literature now; but the writing is, most of it, done elsewhere. It
is curious to speculate what might have happened if the capital of
the United States had been fixed at New York instead of

From this decentralization there results a lack of literary self-
confidence that is one of the most important factors in the
intellectual life of America. The writer in Tucson or Minneapolis
or Bangor is dependent upon his neighbors to a degree impossible
in Manchester or Glasgow or York. He is marooned there, separated
in space and time, if not in mind, from men and women who believe,
as he may believe, in the worth of literary standards, in the
necessity of making not the most easily readable book, but the
best. Here is one cause of the feebleness of many American
"literary" books.

Nevertheless, this very decentralization may have, when we reach
literary maturity, its great advantages. It is difficult to over-
estimate the color, the variety, the _verve_ of American life. And
much of this comes not from the push and "hustle" and energy of
America--for energy is just energy all the world over--but is rather
to be found in the new adjustments of race and environment which are
multiplying infinitely all over the United States. It is true that
American civilization seems to be monotonous--that one sees the same
magazines and books, the same moving-picture shows, the same drug-
stores, trolley cars, and hotels on a New York model, hears the same
slang and much the same general conversation from New Haven to Los
Angeles. But this monotony is superficial. Beneath the surface there
are infinite strainings and divergences--the peasant immigrant working
toward, the well-established provincial holding to, the wide-ranging
mind of the intellectual working away from, this dead level of
conventional standards. Where we are going, it is not yet possible
to say. Quite certainly not toward an un-British culture. Most
certainly not toward a culture merely neo-English. But in any
case, it is because San Francisco and Indianapolis and Chicago and
Philadelphia have literary republics of their own, sovereign like
our states, yet highly federalized also in a common bond of
American taste and ideals which the war made stronger--it is this
fact that makes it possible to record, as American writers are
already recording, the multifarious, confused development of
racial instincts working into a national consciousness.
Localization is our difficulty; it is also the only means by which
literature can keep touch with life in so huge a congeries as
America. If we can escape provincialism and yet remain local, all
will be well.

So far I have been merely defining the terms upon which literature
has been written in America. Let me add to these terms a
classification. If one stretches the meaning of literature to
cover all writing in prose or verse that is not simply
informative, then four categories will include all literary
writing in America that is in any way significant. We have an
aristocratic and a democratic literature; we have a dilettante
and a vast bourgeois literature.

In using the term aristocratic literature I have in mind an
intellectual rather than a social category. I mean all writing
addressed to specially trained intelligence, essays that imply a
rich background of knowledge and taste, stories dependent upon
psychological analysis, poetry which is austere in content or
complex in form. I mean Henry James and Sherwood Anderson, Mr.
Cabell, Mr. Hergesheimer, and Mrs. Wharton, Agnes Repplier, Mr.
Crothers, Mr. Sherman, and Mr. Colby.

By democratic literature I mean all honest writing, whether crude
or carefully wrought, that endeavors to interpret the American
scene in typical aspects for all who care to read. I mean Walt
Whitman and Edgar Lee Masters; I mean a hundred writers of short
stories who, lacking perhaps the final touch of art, have
nevertheless put a new world and a new people momentarily upon the
stage. I mean the addresses of Lincoln and of President Wilson.

With dilettante literature I come to a very different and less
important classification: the vast company--how vast few even
among natives suspect--of would-be writers, who in every town and
county of the United States are writing, writing, writing what
they hope to be literature, what is usually but a pallid imitation
of worn-out literary forms. More people seem to be engaged in
occasional production of poetry and fiction--and especially of
poetry--in America, than in any single money-making enterprise
characteristic of a great industrial nation. The flood pours
through every editorial office in the land, trickles into the
corners of country newspapers, makes short-lived dilettante
magazines, and runs back, most of it, to its makers. It is not
literature, for the bulk is bloodless, sentimental, or cheap, but
it is significant of the now passionate American desire to express
our nascent soul.

My chief difficulty is to explain what I mean by bourgeois
literature. The flood of dilettante writing is subterranean; it is
bourgeois literature that makes the visible rivers and oceans of
American writing. And these fluid areas are like the lakes on maps
of Central Asia--bounds cannot be set to them. One finds magazines
(and pray remember that the magazine is as great a literary force
as the book in America), one finds magazines whose entire function
is to be admirably bourgeois for their two million odd of readers.
And in the more truly literary and "aristocratic" periodicals, in
the books published for the discriminating, the bourgeois creeps
in and often is dominant. The bourgeois in American literature is
a special variety that must not be too quickly identified with the
literary product that bears the same name in more static
civilizations. It is nearly always clever. Witness our short
stories, which even when calculated not to puzzle the least
intelligence nor to transcend the most modest limitations of
taste, must be carefully constructed and told with facility or
they will never see the light. And this literature is nearly
always true to the superficies of life, to which, indeed, it
confines itself. Wild melodrama is more and more being relegated
to the "movies," soft sentimentality still has its place in the
novel, but is losing ground in the people's library, the
magazines. Life as the American believes he is living it, is the
subject of bourgeois literature. But the sad limitation upon this
vast output is that, whether poetry, criticism, or fiction, it
does not interpret, it merely pictures; and this is the inevitable
failure of pages that must be written always for a million or more
of readers. It is standardized literature; and good literature,
like the best airplanes, cannot be standardized.

Now the error made by most English critics in endeavoring to
estimate the potentialities or the actualities of American
literature, is to judge under the influence of this crushing
weight of clever, mediocre writing. They feel, quite justly, its
enormous energy and its terrible cramping power. They see that the
best of our democratic writers belong on its fringe; see also that
our makers of aristocratic literature and our dilettante escape
its weight only when they cut themselves off from the life beat of
the nation. And therefore, as a distinguished English poet
recently said, America is doomed to a hopeless and ever-spreading

With this view I wish to take immediate issue upon grounds that
are both actual and theoretical. There is a fallacy here to begin
with, a fallacious analogy. It is true, I believe, in Great
Britain, and also in France, that there are two separate publics;
that the readers who purchase from the news stands are often as
completely unaware of literary books for literary people as if
these bore the imprint of the moon. But even in England the
distinction is by no means sharp; and in America it is not a
question of distinctions at all, but of gradations. In our better
magazines are to be found all the categories of which I have
written--even the dilettante; and it is a bold critic who will
assert that pages one to twenty are read only by one group, and
pages twenty to forty only by another. We are the most careless
readers in the world; but also the most voracious and the most

And next, let us make up our minds once for all that a bourgeois
literature--by which, let me repeat, I mean a literature that is
good without being very good, true without being utterly true,
clever without being fine--is a necessity for a vast population
moving upward from generation to generation in the intellectual
scale, toward a level that must be relatively low in order to be
attainable. Let us say that such a literature cannot be real
literature. I am content with that statement. But it must exist,
and good may come of it.

This is the critical point toward which I have been moving in this
lecture, and it is here that the hopeful influence of the American
spirit, as I interpret it today, assumes its importance. That
spirit is both idealistic and democratic. Idealistic in the sense
that there is a profound and often foolishly optimistic belief in
America that every son can be better than his father, better in
education, better in taste, better in the power to accomplish and
understand. Democratic in this sense, that with less political
democracy than one finds in Great Britain, there is again a
fundamental belief that every tendency, every taste, every
capacity, like every man, should have its chance somehow,
somewhere, to get a hearing, to secure its deservings, to make, to
have, to learn what seems the best.

A vague desire, you say, resulting in confusion and mediocrity.
This is true and will be true for some time longer; but instead of
arguing in generalities let me illustrate these results by the
literature I have been discussing.

When brought to bear upon the category of the dilettante, it is
precisely this desire for "general improvement" that has
encouraged such a curious outpouring from mediocre though
sensitive hearts. The absence of strong literary tradition, the
lack of deep literary soil, has been responsible for the
insipidity of the product. The habit of reference to the taste of
the majority has prevented us from taking this product too
seriously. Without that instinctive distrust of the merely
literary common to all bourgeois communities, we might well be
presenting to you as typical American literature a gentle weakling
whose manners, when he has them, have been formed abroad.

Aristocratic literature has suffered in one respect from the
restraints of democracy and the compulsions of democratic
idealism. It has lacked the self-confidence and therefore the
vigor of its parallels in the old world. Emerson and Thoreau rose
above these restrictions, and so did Hawthorne and Poe. But in
later generations especially, our intellectual poetry and
intellectual prose is too frequently though by no means always
less excellent than yours. Nevertheless, thanks to the influence
of this bourgeois spirit upon the intellects that in American
towns must live with, if not share it; thanks, also, to the
magazines through which our finer minds must appeal to the public
rather than to a circle or a clique, the nerves of transfer
between the community at large and the intellectuals are active,
the tendons that unite them strong. I argue much from this.

Now theoretically, where you find an instinctive and therefore an
honest passion for the ideals of democracy, you should find a
great literature expressing and interpreting the democracy. I have
given already some reasons why in practice this has not yet become
an actuality in America. Let me add, in discussing the bearing of
this argument upon the third category of American literature, the
democratic, one more.

I doubt whether we yet know precisely what is meant by a great
democratic literature. Democracy has been in transition at least
since the French Revolution; it is in rapid transition now. The
works which we call democratic are many of them expressive of
phases merely of the popular life, just as so much American
literature is expressive of localities and groups in America.

And usually the works of genius that we do possess have been
written by converted aristocrats, like Tolstoy, and have a little
of the fanaticism and over-emphasis of the convert. Or they
represent and share the turgidity of the minds they interpret,
like some of the work of Walt Whitman. All this is true, and yet a
careful reader of American literature must be more impressed by
such prose as Lincoln's, by such poems as Whitman's, such fiction as
Mark Twain's at his best, than by many more elegant works of
polite literature. For these--and I could add to them dozens of
later stories and poems, ephemeral perhaps but showing what may be
done when we burst the bourgeois chain--for these are discoveries
in the vigor, the poignancy, the color of our democratic national

I have already hinted at what seems to me the way out and up for
American literature. It will not be by fine writing that borrows
or adapts foreign models, even English models which are not
foreign to us. It will not come through geniuses of the backwoods,
adopted by some coterie, and succeeding, when they do succeed, by
their strangeness rather than the value of the life they depict.
That might have happened in the romantic decades of the early
nineteenth century; but our English literary tradition was a
saving influence which kept us from _gaucherie_, even if it set limits
upon our strength. Our expectation, so I think, is in the slowly
mounting level of the vast bourgeois literature that fills not
excellently, but certainly not discreditably, our books
and magazines. There, and not in coteries, is our school of
writing. When originality wearies of stereotypes and conventions,
when energy and ability force the editorial hand, and appeal to
the desire of Americans to know themselves, we shall begin a new
era in American literature. Our problem is not chiefly to expose
and attack and discredit the flat conventionality of popular
writing. It is rather to crack the smooth and monotonous surface
and stir the fire beneath it, until the lava of new and true
imaginings can pour through. And this is, historically, the
probable course of evolution. It was the Elizabethan fashion. The
popular forms took life and fire then. The advice of the
classicists, who wished to ignore the crude drama beloved of the
public, was not heeded; it will not be heeded now. Our task is to
make a bourgeois democracy fruitful. We must work with what we have.

Much has been said of the advantage for us, and perhaps for the
world, which has come from the separation of the American colonies
from Great Britain. Two systems of closely related political
thinking, two national characters, have developed and been
successful instead of one. Your ancestors opened the door of
departure for mine, somewhat brusquely it is true, but with the
same result, if not the same reason, as with the boys they sent
away to school--they made men of us.

So it is with literature. American literature will never, as some
critics would persuade us, be a child without a parent. In its
fundamental character it is, and will remain, British, because at
bottom the American character, whatever its blood mixture, is formed
upon customs and ideals that have the same origin and a
parallel development with yours. But this literature, like our
political institutions, will not duplicate; like the seedling, it
will make another tree and not another branch. In literature we
are still pioneers. I think that it may be reserved for us to
discover a literature for the new democracy of English-speaking
peoples that is coming--a literature for the common people who do
not wish to stay common. Like Lincoln's, it will not be vulgar;
like Whitman's, never tawdry; like Mark Twain's, not empty of
penetrating thought; like Shakespeare's it will be popular. If
this should happen, as I believe it may, it would be a just return
upon our share of a great inheritance.


What is the use of criticizing modern literature unless you are
willing to criticize modern life? And how many Americans are
willing to criticize it with eyes wide open?

The outstanding fact in mass civilization as it exists in America
and Western Europe to-day is that it moves with confidence in only
one direction. The workers, after their escape from the industrial
slavery of the last century, have only one plan for the future
upon which they can unite, a greater share in material benefits.
The possessors of capital have only one program upon which they
agree, a further exploitation of material resources, for the
greater comfort of the community and themselves. The professional
classes have only one professional instinct in common, to discover
new methods by which man's comfort may be made secure.

In this way of life, as the Buddhist might have called it, all our
really effective energy discharges itself. Even the church is most
active in social service, and philosophy is accounted most
original when it accounts for behavior. Theology has become a
stagnant science, and, to prove the rule by contraries, the main
problem of man's spiritual relation to the universe, his end in
living, and the secret of real happiness is left to a sentimental
idealism in which reason, as the Greeks knew it, has less and less
place, and primitive instinct, as the anthropologists define it,
and the Freudian psychologists explain it, is given more and more

The flat truth is that, as a civilization, we are less sure of
where we are going, where we want to go, how and for what we wish
to live, than at any intelligent period of which we have full
record. This is not pessimism. It is merely a fact, which is
dependent upon our failure to digest the problems that democracy,
machinery, feminism, and the destruction of our working dogmas by
scientific discovery, have presented to us. All these things are
more likely to be good than bad, all bear promise for the future,
but all tend to confuse contemporary men. New power over nature
has been given them and they are engaged in seizing it. New means
of testing preconceived opinion are theirs, and they are using
them. The numbers which can be called intelligent are tremendously
augmented and the race to secure material comforts has become a
mass movement which will not cease until the objective is won.

In the meantime, there is only one road which is clear--the road
of material progress, and whether its end lies in the new
barbarism of a mechanistic state where the mental and physical
faculties will decline in proportion to the means discovered for
healing their ills, or whether it is merely a path where the
privileged leaders must mark step for a while until the
unprivileged masses catch up with them in material welfare, no one
knows and few that are really competent care to inquire.

Now this obsession with material welfare is the underlying premise
with which all discussion of contemporary literature, and
particularly American literature, must begin. Ours is a literature
of an age without dogma, which is to say without a theory of
living; the literature of an inductive, an experimental period,
where the really vital attempt is to subdue physical environment
(for the first time in history) to the needs of the common man. It
is an age, therefore, interested and legitimately interested in
behavior rather than character, in matter and its laws rather than
in the control of matter for the purposes of fine living.

Therefore, our vital literature is behavioristic, naturalistic,
experimental--rightly so I think--and must be so until we seek
another way. That search cannot be long deferred. One expects its
beginning at any moment, precisely as one expects, and with
reason, a reaction against the lawless thinking and unrestrained
impulses which have followed the war. One hopes that it will not
be to Puritanism, unless it be that stoic state of mind which lay
behind Puritanism, for no old solution will serve. The neo-
Puritans to-day abuse the rebels, young and old, because they have
thrown over dogma and discipline. The rebels accuse Puritanism for
preserving the dogma that cramps instead of frees. It is neither
return to the old nor the destruction thereof that we must seek,
but a new religion, a new discipline, a new hope, and a new end
which can give more significance to living than dwellers in our
industrial civilization are now finding.

In the meantime, those who seek literary consolation are by no
means to be urged away from their own literature, which contains a
perfect picture of our feverish times, and has implicit within it
the medicine for our ills, if they are curable. But they may be
advised to go again and more often than is now the fashion to the
writings of those men who found for their own time, a real
significance, who could formulate a saving doctrine, and who could
give to literature what it chiefly lacks to-day, a core of ethical
conviction and a view of man in his world _sub specie aeternitatis_.
It is the appointed time in which to read Dante and Milton,
Shakespeare, and Goethe, above all Plato and the great tragedies of
Greece. Our laughter would be sweeter if there were more depth of
thought and emotion to our serious moods.


Readers who like magazines will be pleased, those who do not like
them perhaps distressed, to learn, if they are not already aware
of it, that the magazine as we know it to-day is distinctly an
American creation. They may stir, or soothe, their aroused
emotions by considering that the magazine which began in England
literally as a storehouse of miscellanies attained in mid-
nineteenth century United States a dignity, a harmony, and a
format which gave it preeminence among periodicals. _Harper's_ and
_The Century_ in particular shared with Mark Twain and the sewing
machine the honor of making America familiarly known abroad.

I do not wish to overburden this essay with history, but one of
the reasons for the appearance of such a dominating medium in a
comparatively unliterary country is relevant to the discussion to
follow. The magazine of those days was vigorous. It was vigorous
because, unlike other American publications, it was not oppressed
by competition. Until the laws of international copyright were
completed, the latest novels of the Victorians, then at their
prime, could be rushed from a steamer, and distributed in editions
which were cheap because no royalties had to be paid. Thackeray
and Dickens could be sold at a discount, where American authors of
less reputation had to meet full charges. And the like was true of
poetry. But the magazine, like the newspaper, was not
international; it was national at least in its entirety, and for
it British periodicals could not be substituted. Furthermore, it
could, and did, especially in its earlier years, steal
unmercifully from England, so that a subscriber got both homebrew
and imported for a single payment. Thus the magazine flourished in
the mid-century while the American novel declined.
A notable instance of this vigor was the effect of the growing
magazine upon the infant short story. Our American magazine made
the development of the American short story possible by creating a
need for good short fiction. The rise of our short story, after a
transitional period when the earliest periodicals and the
illustrated Annuals sought good short stories and could not get
them, coincides with the rise of the family magazine. It was such
a demand that called forth the powers in prose of the poet, Poe.
And as our magazine has become the best of its kind, so in the
short story, and in the short story alone, does American
literature rival the more fecund literatures of England and

That a strong and native tendency made the American magazine is
indicated by the effect of our atmosphere upon the periodical
which the English have always called a review. Import that form,
as was done for _The North American_, _The Atlantic Monthly_, _The
Forum_, or _The Yale Review_, and immediately the new American
periodical begins to be a little more of a magazine, a little more
miscellaneous in its content, a little less of a critical survey.
Critical articles give place to memoirs and sketches, fiction or near
fiction creeps in. There is always a tendency to lose type and be
absorbed into the form that the mid-century had made so successful: a
periodical, handsomely illustrated, with much fiction, some
description, a little serious comment on affairs written for the
general reader, occasional poetry, and enough humor to guarantee
diversion. This is our national medium for literary expression--an
admirable medium for a nation of long-distance commuters. And it is
this "family magazine" I wish to discuss in its literary aspects.

The dominance of the family magazine as a purveyor of general
literature in America has continued, but in our own time the
species (like other strong organisms) has divided into two genres,
which are more different than, on the surface, they appear. The
illustrated _literary magazine_ (the family magazine _par
excellence_) must now be differentiated from the illustrated
_journalistic_ magazine, but both are as American in origin
as the review and the critical weekly are English.

It was the native vigor of the family magazine that led to the
Great Divergence of the 'nineties, which older readers will
remember well. The literary historian of that period usually gives
a different explanation. He is accustomed to say that the old-time
"quality" magazines, _Harper's_, _Scribner's_, and the rest, were
growing moribund when, by an effort of editorial genius, Mr. McClure
created a new and rebellious type of magazine, which was rapidly
imitated. We called it, as I remember, for want of a better title, the
fifteen-cent magazine. In the wake of _McClure's_, came _Collier's_,
_The Saturday Evening Post_, _The Ladies Home Journal_, and all the
long and profitable train which adapted the McClurean discovery to
special needs and circumstances.

I do not believe that this is a true statement of what happened in
the fruitful 'nineties. _McClure's_ was not, speaking biologically, a
new species at all; it was only a mutation in which the recessive
traits of the old magazine became dominant while the invaluable type
was preserved. To speak more plainly, the literary magazine, as
America knew it, had always printed news, matured news, often stale
news, but still journalism. Read any number of _Harper's_ in the
'seventies for proof. And, _pari passu_, American journalism was
eagerly trying to discover some outlet for its finer products, a
medium where good pictures, sober afterthoughts, and the finish that
comes from careful writing were possible. _Harper's Weekly_ in Civil
War days, and later, was its creation.

And now it was happily discovered that the family magazine had a
potential popularity far greater than its limited circulation.
With its month-long period of incubation, its elastic form, in
which story, special article, poetry, picture, humor, could all be
harmoniously combined, only a redistribution of emphasis was
necessary in order to make broader its appeal. Mr. McClure
journalized the family magazine. He introduced financial and
economic news in the form of sensational investigations, he bid
for stories more lively, more immediate in their interest, more
journalistic than we were accustomed to read (Kipling's journalistic
stories for example, were first published in America in _McClure's_).
He accepted pictures in which certainty of hitting the public eye was
substituted for a guarantee of art. And yet, with a month to prepare
his number, and only twelve issues a year, he could pay for
excellence, and insure it, as no newspaper had ever been able to do.
And he was freed from the incubus of "local news" and day-by-day
reports. In brief, under his midwifery, the literary magazine gave
birth to a super-newspaper.

Needless to say, the great increase in the number of American
readers and the corresponding decline in the average intelligence
and discrimination of the reading public had much to do with the
success of the journalistic magazine. Yet it may be stated, with
equal truth, that the rapid advance in the average intelligence of
the American public as a whole made a market for a super-newspaper
in which nothing was hurried and everything well done. The
contributions to literature through this new journalism have been
at least as great during the period of its existence as from the
"quality" magazine, the contributions toward the support of
American authors much greater. Like all good journalism, it has
included real literature when it could get and "get away with it."

Birth, however, in the literary as in the animal world, is
exhausting and often leaves the parent in a debility which may
lead to death. The periodical essay of the eighteenth century bore
the novel of character, and died; the Gothic tale of a later date
perished of the short story to which it gave its heart blood. The
family magazine of the literary order has been debile, so radical
critics charge, since its journalistic offspring began to sweep
America. Shall it die?

By no means. An America without the illustrated literary magazine,
dignified, respectable, certain to contain something that a reader
of taste can peruse with pleasure, would be an unfamiliar America.
And it would be a barer America. In spite of our brood of special
magazines for the _literati_ and the advanced, which Mr. Ford
Madox Hueffer praises so warmly, we are not so well provided with
the distributive machinery for a national culture as to flout a
recognized agency with a gesture and a sneer. But the family
magazine has undeniably lost its vigorous appeal, and must be
reinvigorated. The malady is due to no slackening of literary
virility in the country; indeed there has probably not been so
much literary energy in the country since the 'forties as now--not
nearly so much. Nor is it due to a lack of good readers. Nor, in
my opinion, to the competition of the journalistic magazine. The
literary magazine does not compete, or at least ought not to
compete, with its offspring, for it appeals either to a different
audience or to different tastes.

Roughly stated, the trouble is that the public for these excellent
magazines has changed, and they have not. Their public always was,
and is, the so-called "refined" home public. Homes have changed,
especially "refined" homes, and a new home means a new public.

The refined home nowadays has been to college. (There are a
million college graduates now in the United States.) Forty years
ago only scattered members had gone beyond the school. I do not
propose to exaggerate the influence upon intelligence of a college
education. It is possible, nay, it is common, to go through
college and come out in any real sense uneducated. But it is not
possible to pass through college, even as a professional amateur
in athletics or as an inveterate flapper, without rubbing off the
insulation here and there, without knowing what thought is
stirring, what emotions are poignant, what ideas are dominant
among the fraction of humanity that leads us. Refined homes may
not be better or happier than they used to be, but if they are
intellectual at all, they are more vigorously intellectual.

This means at the simplest that home readers of the kind I have
been describing want stimulating food, not what our grandfathers
used to call "slops." Sometimes they feed exclusively upon highly
spiced journalism, but if they are literary in their tastes they
will be less content with merely literary stories, with articles
that are too solid to be good journalism, yet too popular to be
profound, less content, in short, with dignity as a substitute for

What should be done about it specifically is a question for
editors to answer. But this may be said. If the old literary
omnibus is to continue, as it deserves, to hold the center of the
roadway, then it must be driven with some vigor of the intellect
to match the vigor of news which has carried its cheaper
contemporary fast and far. By definition it cannot embrace a cause
or a thesis, like the weeklies, and thank Heaven for that! It is
clearly unsafe to stand upon mere dignity, respectability, or
cost. That way lies decadence--such as overcame the old
Quarterlies, the Annuals, and the periodical essayists. Vigor it
must get, of a kind naturally belonging to its species, not
violent, not raucous, not premature. It must recapture its public,
and this is especially the "old American" (which does _not_
mean the Anglo-Saxon) element in our mingled nation.

These old Americans are not moribund by any means, and it is
ridiculous to suppose, as some recent importations in criticism
do, that a merely respectable magazine will represent them. A good
many of them, to be sure, regard magazines as table decorations,
and for such a clientele some one some day will publish a monthly
so ornamental that it will be unnecessary to read it in order to
share its beneficent influences. The remainder are intellectualized,
and many of them are emancipated from the conventions of the last
generation, if not from those of their own. These demand a new
vitality of brain, emotion, and spirit in their literary magazine, and
it must be given to them.

No better proof of all this could be sought than the renaissance
in our own times of the reviews and the weeklies, probably the
most remarkable phenomenon in the history of American publishing
since the birth of yellow journalism. By the weeklies I do not
mean journals like _The Outlook_, _The Independent_, _Vanity Fair_,
which are merely special varieties of the typically American magazine.
I refer, of course, to _The New Republic_, _The Nation_, _The
Freeman_, _The Weekly Review_ in its original form, periodicals formed
upon an old English model, devoted to the spreading of opinion, and
consecrated to the propagation of intelligence. The success of
these weeklies has been out of proportion to their circulation.
Like the old _Nation_, which in a less specialized form was
their predecessor, they have distinctly affected American
thinking, and may yet affect our action in politics, education,
and social relations generally. They are pioneers, with the faults
of intellectual pioneers, over-seriousness, over-emphasis,
dogmatism, and intolerance. Yet it may be said fairly that their
chief duty, as with the editorial pages of newspapers, is to be
consistently partisan. At least they have proved that the American
will take thinking when he can get it. And by inference, one
assumes that he will take strong feeling and vigorous truth in his
literary magazines.

The reviews also show how the wind is blowing. The review, so-
called, is a periodical presenting articles of some length, and
usually critical in character, upon the political, social, and
literary problems of the day. The distinction of the review is
that its sober form and not too frequent appearance enable it to
give matured opinion with space enough to develop it.

Clearly a successful review must depend upon a clientele with time
and inclination to be seriously interested in discussion, and that
is why the review, until recently, has best flourished in England
where it was the organ of a governing class. In America, an
intellectual class who felt themselves politically and socially
responsible, has been harder to discover. We had one in the early
days of the Republic, when _The North American Review_ was founded. It
is noteworthy that we are developing another now and have seen _The
Yale Review_, the late lamented _Unpartisan Review_, and others join
_The North American_, fringed, so to speak, by magazines of excerpt
(of which much might be written), such as _The Review of Reviews_,
_Current Opinion_, and _The Literary Digest_, in which the function
of the review is discharged for the great community that insists
upon reading hastily.

The review has come to its own with the war and reconstruction;
which, considering its handicaps, is another argument that the
family magazine should heed the sharpening of the American
intellect. But, except for the strongest members of the family, it
is still struggling, and still dependent for long life upon
cheapness of production rather than breadth of appeal.

The difficulty is not so much with the readers as the writers. The
review must largely depend upon the specialist writer (who alone
has the equipment for specialist writing), and the American
specialist cannot usually write well enough to command general
intelligent attention. This is particularly noticeable in the
minor reviews where contributions are not paid for and most of the
writing is, in a sense, amateur, but it holds good in the
magazines and the national reviews also. The specialist knows his
politics, his biology, or his finance as well as his English or
French contemporary, but he cannot digest his subject into words
--he can think into it, but not out of it, and so cannot write
acceptably for publication. Hence in science particularly, but
also in biography, in literary criticism, and less often in
history, we have to depend frequently upon English pens for our

The reasons for this very serious deficiency, much more serious
from every point of view than the specialists realize, are well
known to all but the specialists, and I do not propose to enter
into them here. My point is that this very defect, which has made
it so difficult to edit a valid and interesting review (and so
creditable to succeed as we have in several instances succeeded),
is a brake also upon the family magazine in its attempt to regain
virility. The newspaper magazines have cornered the market for
clever reporters who tap the reservoirs of special knowledge and
then spray it acceptably upon the public. This is good as far as
it goes, but does not go far. The scholars must serve us
themselves--and are too often incapable.

Editorial embarrassments are increased, however, by the difficulty
of finding these intellectualized old Americans who have drifted
away from the old magazines and are being painfully collected in
driblets by the weeklies and the reviews. They do not,
unfortunately for circulation, all live in a London, or Paris.
They are scattered in towns, cities, university communities,
lonely plantations, all over a vast country. Probably that
intellectualized public upon which all good magazines as well as
all good reviews must depend, has not yet become so stratified and
homogeneous after the upheavals of our generation that a
commercial success of journalistic magnitude is possible, but it
can and must be found.

The success of _The Atlantic Monthly_ in finding a sizable and
homogeneous public through the country is interesting in just this
connection. It has, so it is generally understood, been very much a
question of _finding_--of going West after the departing New Englander
and his children, and hunting him out with the goods his soul desired.
One remembers the Yankee peddlers who in the old days penetrated the
frontier with the more material products of New England, pans,
almanacs, and soap. But an observer must also note a change in the
character of _The Atlantic_ itself, how it has gradually changed from
a literary and political review, to a literary and social magazine,
with every element of the familiar American type except illustrations
and a profusion of fiction; how in the attempt to become more
interesting without becoming journalistic it has extended its
operations to cover a wider and wider arc of human appeal. It has both
lost and gained in the transformation, but it has undoubtedly proved
itself adaptable and therefore alive. This is not an argument that the
reviews should become magazines and that the old-line magazine
should give up specializing in pictures and in fiction. Of course
not. It is simply more proof that vigor, adaptability, and a keen
sense of existing circumstances are the tonics they also need. The
weekly lacks balance, the review, professional skill in the
handling of serious subjects, the family magazine, a willingness
to follow the best public taste wherever it leads.

It has been very difficult in this discussion, which I fear has
resembled a shot-gun charge rather than a rifle bullet, to keep
the single aim I have had in mind. The history of the periodical
in American literary thinking has not yet been written. The
history of American literature has but just been begun. My object
has been to put the spotlight for a moment upon the typical
American magazine, with just enough of its environment to make a
background. What is seen there can best be summarized by a
comparison. The American weekly is like the serious American play
of the period. It has an over-emphasis upon lesson, bias, thesis,
point. The review is like much American poetry. It is worthy, and
occasionally admirable, but as a type it is weakened by amateur
mediocrity in the art of writing. The family magazine is like the
American short story. It has conventionalized into an often
successful immobility. Both must move again, become flexible,
vigorous, or their date will be upon them. And the family
magazine, the illustrated literary magazine, is the most
interesting vehicle of human expression and interpretation that we
Americans have created. With a new and greater success, it will
draw all our other efforts with it. If it fails, hope for the
interesting review, the well-balanced weekly, is precarious. If
they all submerge, we who like to read with discrimination and
gusto will have to take to books as an exclusive diet, or make our
choice between boredom and journalism.




We have talked about the younger generation as if youth were a new
phenomenon that had to be named and described, like a strange
animal in the Garden of Eden. No wonder that our juniors have
become self-conscious and have begun to defend themselves.
Nevertheless, the generation born after the 'eighties has had an
experience unique in our era. It has been urged, first by men and
then by events, to discredit the statements of historians, the
pictures of poets and novelists, and it has accepted the
challenge. The result is a literature which speaks for the younger
writers better, perhaps, than they speak for themselves, and this
literature no reader whose brain is still flexible can afford to
neglect; for to pass by youth for maturity is sooner or later to
lose step with life.

In recent decades the novel especially, but also poetry, has
drifted toward biography and autobiography. The older poets, who
yesterday were the younger poets, such men as Masters, Robinson,
Frost, Lindsay, have passed from lyric to biographic narrative;
the younger poets more and more write of themselves. In the novel
the trend is even more marked. An acute critic, Mr. Wilson
Follett, has recently noted that the novel of class or social
consciousness, which only ten years ago those who teach literature
were discussing as the latest of late developments, has already
given way to a vigorous rival. It has yielded room, if not given
place, to the novel of the discontented person. The young men, and
in a less degree the young women, especially in America, where the
youngest generation is, I believe, more vigorous than elsewhere,
have taken to biographical fiction. Furthermore, what began as
biography, usually of a youth trying to discover how to plan his
career, has drifted more and more toward autobiography--an
autobiography of discontent.

There is, of course, nothing particularly new about biographical
fiction. There is nothing generically new about the particular
kind of demi-autobiographies that the advanced are writing just
now. The last two decades have been rich in stories that need only
a set of notes to reveal their approximate faithfulness to things
that actually happened. But there is an emphasis upon revolt and
disillusion and confusion in these latest novels that is new. They
are no longer on the defensive, no longer stories of boys
struggling to adapt themselves to a difficult world (men of forty-
odd still write such stories); their authors are on the offensive,
and with a reckless desire to accomplish their objectives, they
shower us with such a profusion of detail, desert the paths of use
and wont in fiction so freely, and so often disregard the comfort,
not to speak of the niceties, of the reader, that "the young
realists" has seemed a fair, although, as I think, a misleading
title, for their authors. To a critic they are most interesting,
for the novel of the alleged young realist is like a fresh country
boy on a football field, powerful, promising, and utterly wasteful
of its strength.

Recent American literature has been especially rich in such
novels. There was, for example, Fitzgerald's ragged, but
brilliant, "This Side of Paradise," which conducted aimless and
expansive youth from childhood through college. There was the much
more impressive "Main Street," biographic in form, but with teeth
set on edge in revolt. There was the vivid and ill-controlled sex
novel "Erik Dorn," and Evelyn Scott's "The Narrow House," in which
the miseries of a young girl caught in the squalid and the
commonplace had their airing. There was Stephen Benet's "The
Beginning of Wisdom," where the revolt was a poet's, and the
realist's detail selected from beauty instead of from ugliness;
and Aikman's "Zell," in which youth rubs its sore shoulders
against city blocks instead of university quadrangles. There was
Dos Passos's "Three Soldiers," in which the boy hero is crushed by
the war machine his elders have made. These are type examples,
possibly not the best, certainly not the worst, drawn from the
workshops of the so-called young realists.

What is the biography of this modern youth? His father, in the
romantic 'nineties, usually conquered the life of his elders,
seldom complained of it, never spurned it. His son-in-the-novel is
born into a world of intense sensation, usually disagreeable.
Instead of a "Peter Ibbetson" boyhood, he encounters disillusion
after disillusion. At the age of seven or thereabout he sees
through his parents and characterizes them in a phrase. At
fourteen he sees through his education and begins to dodge it. At
eighteen he sees through morality and steps over it. At twenty he
loses respect for his home town, and at twenty-one discovers that
our social and economic system is ridiculous. At twenty-three his
story ends because the author has run through society to date and
does not know what to do next. Life is ahead of the hero, and
presumably a new society of his own making. This latter, however,
does not appear in any of the books, and for good reasons.

In brief, this literature of the youngest generation is a
literature of revolt, which is not surprising, but also a
literature characterized by a minute and painful examination of
environment. Youth, in the old days, when it rebelled, escaped to
romantic climes or adventurous experience from a world which some
one else had made for it. That is what the hacks of the movies and
the grown-up children who write certain kinds of novels are still
doing. But true youth is giving us this absorbed examination of
all possible experiences that can come to a boy or girl who does
not escape from every-day life, this unflattering picture of a
world that does not fit, worked out with as much evidence as if
each novel were to be part of a brief of youth against society.
Indeed, the implied argument is often more important than the
story, when there is a story. And the argument consists chiefly of
"_this_ happened to me," "I saw _this_ and did not like it," "I was
driven to _this_ or _that_," until the mass of circumstantial incident
and sensation reminds one of the works of Zola and the scientific
naturalists who half a century ago tried to put society as an organism
into fiction and art.

No better example has been given us than Dos Passos's "Three
Soldiers," a book that would be tiresome (and is tiresome to many)
in its night after night and day after day crammed with every
possible unpleasant sensation and experience that three young men
could have had in the A. E. F. And that the experiences recorded
were unpleasant ones, forced upon youth, not chosen by its will,
is thoroughly characteristic. If it had not been for the
rebellious pacifism in this book, it is questionable whether
readers who had not been in France, and so could not relish the
vivid reality of the descriptions, would have read to the end of
the story.

The cause of all this is interesting, more interesting than some
of the results. The full result we can scarcely judge yet, for
despite signs of power and beauty and originality, only one or two
of these books have reached artistic maturity; but we can prepare
to comprehend it.

Here, roughly, is what I believe has happened, and if I confine my
conclusions to fiction, it is not because I fail to realize that
the effects are and will be far broader.

The youths of our epoch were born and grew up in a period of
criticism and disintegration. They were children when the attack
upon orthodox conceptions of society succeeded the attack upon
orthodox conceptions of religion. We know how "the conflict
between religion and science" reverberated in nineteenth-century
literature and shaped its ends. The new attack was quite
different. Instead of scrutinizing a set of beliefs, it
scrutinized a method of living. Insensibly, the intelligent youth
became aware that the distribution of wealth and the means of
getting it were under attack; that questions were raised as to the
rights of property and the causes and necessity of war. Soon moral
concepts began to be shaken. He learned that prostitution might be
regarded as an economic evil. He found that sex morality was
regarded by some as a useful taboo; psychology taught him that
repression could be as harmful as excess; the collapse of the
Darwinian optimists, who believed that all curves were upward,
left him with the inner conviction that everything, including
principle, was in a state of flux. And his intellectual guides,
first Shaw, and then, when Shaw became _vieux jeu_, De Gourmont,
favored that conclusion.

Then came the war, which at a stroke destroyed his sense of
security and with that his respect for the older generation that
had guaranteed his world. Propaganda first enlightened him as to
the evil meanings of imperialistic politics, and afterward left
him suspicious of all politics. Cruelty and violent change became
familiar. He had seen civilization disintegrate on the
battlefield, and was prepared to find it shaky at home.

Then he resumed, or began, his reading and his writing. His
reading of fiction and poetry, especially when it dealt with
youth, irritated him. The pictures of life in Dickens, in "The
Idylls of the King," in the Henty books, in the popular romantic
novels and the conventional social studies, did not correspond
with his pictures. They in no sense corresponded with the
descriptions of society given by the new social thinkers whose
ideas had leaked through to him. They did not square with his own
experience. "The Charge of the Light Brigade" rang false to a
member of the 26th Division. Quiet stories of idyllic youth in New
England towns jarred upon the memories of a class-conscious
youngster in modern New York. Youth began to scrutinize its own
past, and then to write, with a passionate desire to tell the real
truth, all of it, pleasant, unpleasant, or dirty, regardless of
narrative relevance.

The result was this new naturalism, a propaganda of the experience
of youth, where the fact that mother's face was ugly, not angelic,
is supremely important, more important than the story, just
because it was the truth. And as the surest way to get all the
truth is to tell your own story, every potential novelist wrote
his own story, enriching it, where sensation was thin, from the
biographies of his intimates. Rousseau was reborn without his
social philosophy. Defoe was reincarnated, but more anxious now to
describe precisely what happened to him than to tell an effective

This is a very different kind of truth-telling from, let us say,
Mrs. Wharton's in "The Age of Innocence" or Zona Gale's in "Miss
Lulu Bett." It does not spring from a desire to tell the truth
about human nature.

These asserters of youth are not much interested in any human
nature except their own, not much, indeed, in that, but only in
the friction between their ego and the world. It is passionate
truth, which is very different from cool truth; it is subjective,
not objective; romantic, not classical, to use the old terms which
few nowadays except Professor Babbitt's readers understand. Nor is
it the truth that Wells, let us say, or, to use a greater name,
Tolstoy was seeking. It is not didactic or even interpretative,
but only the truth about the difference between the world as it is
and the world as it was expected to be; an impressionistic truth;
in fact, the truth about _my_ experiences, which is very different
from what I may sometime think to be the truth about mankind.

It will be strange if nothing very good comes from this impulse,
for the purpose to "tell the world" that my vision of America is
startlingly different from what I have read about America is
identical with that break with the past which has again and again
been prelude to a new era. I do not wish to discuss the alleged
new era. Like the younger generation, it has been discussed too
much and is becoming evidently self-conscious. But if the
autobiographical novel is to be regarded as its literary herald
(and they are all prophetic Declarations of Independence), then we
may ask what has the new generation given us so far in the way of
literary art.

Apparently the novel and the short story, as we have known them,
are to be scrapped. Plot, which began to break down with the
Russians, has crumbled into a maze of incident. You can no longer
assume that the hero's encounter with a Gipsy in Chapter II is
preparation for a tragedy in Chapter XXIX. In all probability the
Gipsy will never be heard from again. She is irrelevant except as
a figment in the author's memory, as an incident in autobiography.
Setting, the old familiar background, put on the story like wall-
paper on a living-room, has suffered a sea change also. It comes
now by flashes, like a movie-film. What the ego remembers, that it
describes, whether the drip of a faucet or the pimple on the face
of a traffic policeman. As for character, there is usually but
one, the hero; for the others live only as he sees them, and fade
out when he looks away. If he is highly sexed, like Erik Dorn, the
other figures appear in terms of sex, just as certain rays of
light will bring out only one color in the objects they shine

The novel, in fact, has melted and run down into a diary, with
sometimes no unity except the personality whose sensations are
recorded. Many of us have wished to see the conventional story
forms broken to bits. It was getting so that the first sentence ofa
short story or the first chapter of a novel gave the whole show
away. We welcomed the English stories of a decade ago that began
to give the complexities of life instead of the conventions of a
plot. But this complete liquidation rather appals us.
The novels I have mentioned so far in this article have all
together not enough plot to set up one lively Victorian novel.
Benet, Dos Passos, Fitzgerald--the flood-gates of each mind have
been opened, and all that the years had dammed up bursts forth in
a deluge of waters, carrying flotsam and jetsam and good things
and mud.

It is not surprising that, having given up plot, these writers
escape from other restraints also. The more energetic among them
revel in expression, and it seems to make little difference
whether it is the exquisite chiaroscuro of Chicago they are
describing, or spots on a greasy apron. The less enthusiastic are
content to be as full of gritty realistic facts as a fig of seeds;
but with all of them everything from end to beginning, from bottom
to top, must be said.

And just here lies the explanation of the whole matter. As one
considers the excessive naturalism of the young realists and asks
just why they find it necessary to be so excessively, so
effusively realistic, the conviction is inborn that they are not
realists at all as Hardy, Howells, even James were realists; they
are romanticists of a deep, if not the deepest, dye, even the
heartiest lover of sordid incident among them all.

I am aware, of course, that "romantic" is a dangerous word, more
overworked than any other in the vocabulary of criticism, and very
difficult to define. But in contrast with its opposites it can be
made to mean something definite. Now, the romanticism of the
juniors is not the opposite of realism; it sometimes embraces
realism too lovingly for the reader's comfort. But it is the
opposite of classicism. It is emotional expansiveness as
contrasted with the classic doctrine of measure and restraint. By
this, the older meaning of romanticism, we may put a tag upon the
new men that will help to identify them. Their desire is to free
their souls from the restraints of circumstance, to break through
rule and convention, to let their hearts expand.

But they do not fly into Byronic melancholy or Wordsworthian
enthusiasm for the mysterious abstract; they are far more likely
to fly away from them. Byron and Wordsworth do not interest them,
and Tennyson they hate. Romantic in mood, they are realistic,
never classical, in their contact with experience. In poetry they
prefer free verse, in prose they eschew grand phrases and sonorous
words. It has been the hard realism of an unfriendly world that
has scraped them to the raw, and they retaliate by vividly
describing all the unpleasant things they remember. Taught by the
social philosophers and war's disillusions that Denmark is
decaying, they do not escape to Cathay or Bohemia, but stay at
home and passionately narrate what Denmark has done to them.
Romantic Zolas, they have stolen the weapons of realism to fight
the battle of their ego. And the fact that a few pause in their
naturalism to soar into idyllic description or the rapture of
beauty merely proves my point, that they are fundamentally
romantics seeking escape, and that autobiographical realism is
merely romanticism _a la mode_.

Let us criticize it as such, remembering that we may be reading
the first characteristic work of a new literary era. Let us give
over being shocked. Those who were shocked by Byron, the apostle
of expansiveness, merely encouraged him to be more shocking. Nor
is it any use to sit upon the hydrant of this new expansiveness.
If a youth desires to tell the world what has happened to him, he
must be allowed to do so, provided he has skill and power enough
to make us listen. And these juniors have power even when skill
has not yet been granted them. What is needed is a hose to stop
the waste of literary energy, to conserve and direct it. Call for
a hose, then, as much as you please, but do not try to stop the
waters with your Moses's rod of conservative indignation.

 It is no crime to be a romantic,--it is a virtue, if that is the
impulse of the age,--but it is a shame to be a wasteful romantic.
Waste has always been the romantic vice--waste of emotion, waste
of words, the waste that comes from easy profusion of sentiment and
the formlessness that permits it. Think of "The Excursion," of
Southey, and of the early poems of Shelley, of Scott at his
wordiest. And these writers also are wasteful, in proportion to
their strength.

They waste especially their imagination. Books like "The Three
Soldiers" spill over in all directions--spill into poetry,
philosophy, into endless conversation, and into everything
describable. Books like "The Beginning of Wisdom" are still more
wasteful. Here is the poignant biography of a boy who loves his
environment even when it slays him, plus a collection of prose
idylls, plus a group of poems, plus a good piece of special
reporting, plus an assortment of brilliant letters; and imbedded
in the mass, like a thread of gold in a tangle of yarn, as fresh
and exquisite a love-story as we have had in recent English. Of
course I do not mean that all these elements cannot be woven into,
made relevant to, a theme, a story. Stendhal, himself a romantic,
as these men are romantics, could do it. But our romantics do not
so weave them; they fling them out as contributions to life's
evidence, they fail to relate them to a single interpretation of
living, and half of the best incidents are waste, and clog the
slow-rolling wheels of the story.

They waste their energy also. So keenly do they love their own
conception of true living that their imaginations dwell with a
kind of horrid fascination upon the ugly things that thwart them.
Hence in a novel like "Main Street," the interest slackens as one
begins to feel that the very vividness of the story comes from a
vision strained and aslant, unable to tear eyes from the things
that have cramped life instead of expanding it. The things that
these writers love in life often they never reach until the last
chapter, and about them they have little to say, being exhausted
by earlier virulence.

Waste, of course, is a symptom of youth and vitality as well as of
unbridled romanticism, but that is no reason for praising a book
because it is disorderly. We do not praise young, vigorous states
for being disorderly. Life may not be orderly, but literature must
be. That is a platitude which it seems necessary to repeat.

It is difficult to estimate absolute achievement except across
time, and the time has been too brief to judge of the merits of
the young romanticists. My guess is that some of them will go far.
But the diagnosis at present seems to show an inflammation of the
ego. The new generation is discovering its soul by the pain of its
bruises, as a baby is made aware of its body by pin-pricks and
chafes. It is explaining its dissatisfactions with more violence
than art.

Therefore at present the satirists and the educators hold the best
cards, and most of them are elderly. No one of _les jeunes_ writes
with the skill, with the art, of Mrs. Wharton, Miss Sinclair,
Tarkington, Galsworthy, or Wells. It should not long be so in a
creative generation. In sheer emotion, in vivid protest that is not
merely didactic, the advantage is all with the youngsters. But they
waste it. They have learned to criticize their elders, but not
themselves. They have boycotted the books of writers who were young
just before themselves, but they have not learned to put a curb on
their own expansiveness. We readers suffer. We do not appreciate their
talents as we might, because we lose our bearings in hectic words or
undigested incident. We lose by the slow realization of their art.

Youth is a disease that cures itself, though sometimes too late.
The criticism I have made, in so far as it refers to youthful
impetuosity, is merely the sort of thing that has to be said to
every generation, and very loudly to the romantic ones. But if
these autobiographians are, as I believe, expansive romanticists,
that is of deeper significance, and my hope is that the definition
may prove useful to them as well as to readers who with an amazed
affection persist in following them wherever they lead.


When anything goes wrong in politics the American practice is to
charge it against the Administration. In literature all grievances
are attributed to the Puritans. If a well-written book does not
sell, it is because the Puritans warped our sense of beauty; if an
honest discussion of sex is attacked for indecency, it is the
fault of the Puritan inheritance; if the heroes and heroines of
new narratives in prose or verse jazz their way to destruction or
impotence, it is in protest against the Puritans.

Who is this terrible Puritan? Apparently he is all America's
ancestor, and whether you were born in Delaware or in South
Carolina, in Montana or in Jugoslavia, you must adopt him as
great-great-grandfather or declare yourself alien.

What was he, or rather, what did he stand for, and inflict upon
us, to-day? Here there is some confusion. According to one set of
critics he is not so much a hater of the arts as indifferent to
their charms, not so much a Milton scornful of easy beauty, as a
Philistine, deaf and blind to the aesthetic. But these writers have
apparently confounded Great-great-grandfather Puritan with Grandpa
Victorian, the Victorian that Matthew Arnold scolded and Shaw made
fun of. He is a type as different from the real Puritan as the
slum dweller from the primitive barbarian. "Milton, thou shouldst
be living at this hour" to flay such ignorant traducers of those
who knew at least the beauty of austerity and holiness.

According to a less numerous but more clear-headed group of
enemies the Puritan is to be censured chiefly for the rigidity of
his conscience. He will not let us enjoy such "natural" pleasures
as mirth, love, drinking, and idleness without a bitter antidote
of remorse. He keeps books dull and reticent, makes plays
virtuously didactic, and irritates all but the meek and the godly
into revolt.

I am not an uncritical admirer of the Puritan, although I believe
he is more nearly on the side of the angels than is his opposite.
I deprecate the smug virtuosity which his kind often favor, I
dislike a vinegar morality, and am repelled by the monstrous
egoism of the idea that redeeming one's soul is such a serious
matter that every moment spared from contemplating the sins of
others or the pieties of oneself is irretrievably wasted.

But I object still more strongly to the anti-Puritans. Those
rebels who make unconventionality their only convention, with
their distrust of duty because they see no reason to be dutiful,
and their philosophic nihilism, which comes to this, that all
things having been proved false except their own desires, their
desires become a philosophy, those anti-Puritans, as one sees
them, especially in plays and on the stage, are an obstreperous,
denying folk that seldom know their own minds to the end of the
story. In fiction, distrusting what the Puritans call duty, they
are left gasping in the last chapter, wondering usually what they
are to do next; while the delightful lack of conscience that makes
the flappers audacious and the young men so unremorsefully naughty
leads to nothing at the end but a passionate desire to discover
some new reason for living (which I take to mean, a new
conscience) even if homes and social utility are wrecked in the

Why has duty become so unpopular in American literature? Is it
because she is, after all, just what that loftiest if not most
impeccable of Puritans called her, stern daughter of the voice of
God? Is there to be no more sternness in our morals now we
understand their psychology, no voice commanding us to do this or
not to do that because there is a gulf set between worth and
worthlessness? Is it true that because we are not to be damned for
playing golf on Sunday, nothing can damn us? That because the
rock-ribbed Vermont ancestor's idea of duty can never be ours, we
have no duty to acknowledge? Is it true that if we cease being
Puritans we can remain without principle, swayed only by impulse
and events?

When these questions are answered to the hilt, we shall get
something more vital than anti-Puritanism in modern American


The American Academy of Arts and Letters says a word for the Older
Generation now and then by choosing new academicians from its
ranks. No one else for a long while now has been so poor as to do
it reverence. Indeed, the readers of some of our magazines must
have long since concluded that there are no fathers and mothers in
the modern literary world, but only self-created heralds of the
future who do not bother even to be rebellious against a
generation they condemn.

The older generation is in a difficult situation, because,
apparently, no one knows precisely who and what it is. The younger
generation, of course, is made up of every one who dislikes
Tennyson, believes in realism, reads De Gourmont, and was not
responsible for the war. That is perfectly definite. We are
somewhat puzzled by the uncounted hordes of the youthful in
appearance who support the movies, are stolidly conservative in
the colleges, never heard of De Gourmont, and have forgotten the
war. But perhaps that is some other younger generation which no
one has taken the trouble to write about--yet.

As for the older generation, what actually is it, and who in
reality are they? The general impression seems to be that they are
the Victorians, they are Howells and his contemporaries, they are
the men and women who created the family magazine, invented
morality, revived Puritanism, and tried to impose evolution on a
society that preferred devolution by international combat. But
these men are all dead, or have ceased writing. They are not
_our_ older generation. It is true that they are famous and so
convenient for reference, but it is not accurate nor fair to
drag them from their graves for purposes of argument.

The true older generation, of which one seldom hears in current
criticism except in terms of abuse, remains to be discovered, and
we herewith announce its personnel, so that the next time the
youthful writer excoriates it in the abstract all may know just
whom he means. Among the older generation in American literature
are H. L. Mencken and Mrs. Edith Wharton, Booth Tarkington and
Stuart P. Sherman, Miss Amy Lowell and Mr. Frank Moore Colby,
Robert Frost and Edwin Arlington Robinson, Vachel Lindsay and Carl
Sandburg, Mrs. Gerould and Professor William Lyon Phelps, Edgar
Lee Masters, Joseph Hergesheimer, and most of the more radicaleditors
of New York. Here is this group of desiccated Victorians,
upholders of the ethics of Mr. Pickwick, and the artistic theories
of Bulwer-Lytton. Here are the bogies of outworn conservatism,
numbered like a football team. Mark their names, and know from now
on that most of the books that you have supposed were solid in
artistry and mature in thought, though perhaps novel in tone or in
method, were written by the older generation.

Perhaps when the younger generation pretend to confuse their
immediate predecessors with Ruskin and Carlyle, with Browning,
Emerson, Hawthorne, Longfellow, and Matthew Arnold, they are
merely strategic. For it is still dangerous to assault the
citadels of the great Victorians with no greater books than the
youthful volumes of 1918-1921, no matter how many breaches the war
has left in the walls of their philosophy. It is far easier to
assume that they are still alive in pallid survival, and to attack a
hypothetic older generation, which, representing nothing real,
can therefore not strike back.

Let the younger generation go back to its muttons, let it attend
to its most pressing business, which is to create. It is vigorous,
prolific, and, to my judgment, full of promise, but so far has
done little or nothing not summarized in these words. It must pay
its debt to time before it grows much older, or go down among
expectations unrealized. It has few hours to waste upon attacking
an older generation which, as it is described, does not exist
except in youthful imagination, a generation actually of the
middle-aged which in the meantime is bearing the burden of
invention, creation, revolution in art while the youngsters are

I should like to see less about the younger and more of this older
generation in literary criticism. It is a fresh subject, scarcely
touched by writers, and full of surprises. The jaded reader should
be told that, in spite of rumors to the contrary, the middle-aged
still exist.


I have pursued the discussions of the new American realism through
university gatherings and literary inquests. Stripped of all
metaphysics and relieved of all subtlety the conclusion of the
matter is inescapable. It is not the realism of the realists, or
the freedom of free verse, or the radicalism of the radical that
in itself offends the critics, it is the growing ugliness of
American literature. The harsh and often vulgar lines of Masters
(so they say) seem to disdain beauty. Vachel Lindsay's shouted
raptures are raucous. Miss Lowell's polyphonies have intellectual
beauty, but the note is sharp, the splendors pyrotechnic. Robert
Frost's restrained rhythms are homely in the single line. The
"advanced" novelists, who win the prizes and stir up talk, are
flat in style when not muddy in their English. They do not lift.
An eighteenth century critic would call American literature ugly,
or at least homely, if he dipped into its realities, rococo if he
did not.

This is the sum of a criticism so strongly felt that it raises a
barrier to appreciation, almost a gate shut against knowledge
between the good American readers and the progressives in our
literature. Sandburg and Lindsay between them will cause more
acrimony in a gathering of English teachers than even Harold Bell
Wright. Miss Lowell carries controversy with her, triumphantly
riding upon it. Their critics wish form as they have known form,
want beauty such as they possess in riper literatures, want
maturity, richness, suavity, grace, and the lift of noble
thinking, nobly expressed. It may be remarked, in passing, that
they also would like to live in English manors in gardened
landscapes and have French cathedrals rise above their perfect

It ought to be clear that we shall never get beauty of this kind,
or of any absolute kind, in American writing until there is more
beauty in American life. Amidst the vulgarities of signboards,
cries of cheap newspapers, noisy hustle of trivial commercialism,
and the flatness of standardized living, it is hard to feel
spiritual qualities higher than optimism and reform. In general,
wherever we have touched America we have made it uglier, as a
necessary preliminary perhaps to making it anything at all, but
uglier nevertheless. There was more hardship perhaps but also more
clear beauty in Colonial days than in our own. More clear beauty,
we say, because the present has its own vigorous beauty, more
complex than what went before, but not yet clarified from the ugly
elements that are making it. The forests and the skyscrapers are
beautiful in America, but pretty much everything else below and
between is soiled or broken by progress and prosperity.

And it is of the things in between, of America in the making, that
these new writers, whose lack of pure beauty we deplore, and whose
occasional gratuitous ugliness we dislike, are writing. They are
protesting against its sordidness and crudity far more effectively
than the cloistered reader who recites Shelley, saying "Why can't
they write as he does." Like all that is human they share the
qualities of their environment, like all fighters they acquire the
faults of the enemy. They hate, often enough, the ugliness which a
generation of progress has implanted in their own minds. They have
been educated, perhaps, by the movies, Main Street conversation,
formalized schools, and stale Methodism, and they hate their
education. Or like the poets mentioned above they are moved by the
pathos, the injustice, the confused beauty, the promise, not of
some land of the past, but of the country under their feet, and
write of what stirs them in terms that fit.

It is only when one understands this new American writing to be a
literature of protest, that one begins to sympathize with its
purposes, admire its achievements, and be tolerant of its
limitations. For such a literature has very definite limitations.
It is preparative rather than ultimate. The spaciousness of great
imagination is seldom in it, and it lacks those grand and simple
conceptions which generalize upon the human race. It is cluttered
with descriptions of the enemy, it is nervous, or morbid, or
excited, or over-emphatic. That it strikes out occasional sparks
of vivid beauty, and has already produced masterpieces in poetry,
is to be wondered at and praised.

But some one had to begin to write of the United States as it is.
We could not go on with sentimental novels and spineless lyrics
forever. Some writers had to refocus the instrument and look at
reality again. And what the honest saw was not beautiful as
Tennyson knew beauty, not grand, not even very pleasant. It is
their job to make beauty out of it, beauty of a new kind probably,
because it will accompany new truth; but they must have time.
Surprise, shock, experiment, come first. The new literature
deserves criticism, but it also deserves respect. Contempt for it
is misplaced, aversion is dangerous since it leads to ignorance,
wholesale condemnation such as one hears from professional
platforms and reads in newspaper editorials is as futile as the
undiscriminating praise of those who welcome novelty just because
it is new.


The liberal mind, which just now is out of a job in politics,
might very well have a look at the present state of literature. A
task is there ready for it.

Our literature is being stretched and twisted or hacked and hewed
by dogmatists. Most of the critics are too busy gossiping about
plots and the private lives of authors to devote much attention to
principles. But the noble few who still can write about a book
without falling into it, or criticize an author's style without
dragging in his taste in summer resorts, are chiefly concerned
with classifications. Is our author conservative or radical? Are
his novels long or short skirted? Does he write for _Harper's_
or _The Dial_? They have divided America chronologically  into the old
and the new and geographically into East or West of the Alleghanies,
or North or South of Fourteenth Street in New York. Such creative
writers as have a definite philosophy of composition are equally
categorical. And both are calling upon liberal minds, who are supposed
to have no principles of their own, to umpire the controversy.

The liberal mind, which I believe in, though I hesitate to define
it, has too much work before it to umpire in a dispute over the
relative taste of the decayed and the raw. In literature, as in
pretty much everything else, the central problem is not the
struggle of the old with the new; it is the endless combat of
civilization (which is old _and_ new) against barbarism. Under which
banner our writers are enlisting is the vital question. Whether they
are radical or conservative will always in the view of history be
interesting, but may be substantially unimportant. And the function of
the liberal mind, with its known power to dissolve illiberal
dogmatism, is to discover the barbarian wherever he raises his head,
and to convert or destroy him.

The Greeks had a short way of defining the barbarian which we can
only envy. To them, all men not Greeks were barbarians. By this
they meant that only the Greeks had learned to desire measure in
all things, liberty safeguarded by law, and knowledge of the truth
about life. Men not desiring these things were barbarous, no
matter how noble, how rich, and how honest. The ancient and highly
conservative Egyptians were barbarous; the youthful and new-
fangled Gauls were barbarous. An Egyptian in nothing else
resembled a Gaul, but both in the eyes of the Greek were

Evolution and devolution have intervened. The Gaul has become one
of the standards of civilization; the Egyptian has died of his
conservatism; but the problem of the barbarian remains the same.
There are neo-Gauls to-day and neo-Egyptians.

These gentry do not belong to the welter of vulgar barbarism, the
curse of a half educated, half democratized age. They are found
among the upper classes of the intellect, and can rightly be
called by such names as conservative or radical, which show that
they are part of the minority that thinks. Indeed, they are not
barbarous at all in the harsh modern sense of the word; yet the
Greeks would have condemned them.

The barbarism of the neo-Gaul is unrestraint ("punch" is the
nearest modern equivalent). The neo-Gaul is an innovator and this
is his vice. It is a byproduct of originality and a symptom of a
restless desire for change. The realist who makes a poem, not on
his lady's eyebrows but her intestines, is a good current example.
The novelist who shovels undistinguished humanity, just because it
is human, into his book is another. The versifier who twists and
breaks his rhythm solely in order to get new sounds is a third. A
fourth is the stylist who writes in disjointed phrases and
expletives, intended to represent the actual processes of the

The realist poet, so the Greeks would have said, lacks measure. He
destroys the balance of his art by asking your attention for the
strangeness of his subject. It is as if a sculptor should make a
Venus of chewing gum. The novelist lacks self-restraint. Life
interests him so much that he devours without digesting it. The
result is like a moving picture run too fast. The versifier also
lacks measure. He is more anxious to be new than to be true, and
he seeks effects upon the reader rather than forms for his
thought. The bizarre stylist misses truth by straining too much to
achieve it. Words are only symbols. They never more than roughly
represent a picture of thought. A monologue like this, as the
heroine goes to shop: Chapel Street...the old hardware
shop...scissors, skates glittering, moonlight on the ice...old Dr.
Brown's head, like a rink. Rink...a queer word! Pigeons in the air
above the housetops--automobiles like elephants. Was her nose
properly powdered?...  Had she cared to dance with him after all? is
not absolutely true: it is not the wordless images that float
through the idle mind, but only a symbol of them, more awkward and
less informative than the plain English of what the heroine felt
and thought.

All these instances are barbarous in the Greek sense, and their
perpetrators, no matter how cultivated, how well-meaning, how
useful sometimes as pioneers and pathbreakers, are barbarians.
Some of them should be exposed; some chided; some labored with,
according to the magnitude and the nature of their offense. The
critics who uphold and approve them should be dealt with likewise.
And it is the reader with the liberal mind who is called to the
task. He is in sympathy, at least, with change, and knows that the
history of civilization has been a struggle to break away from
tradition and yet not go empty-handed; he can understand the
passion to express old things in a new and better way, or he is
not intellectually liberal. It takes a liberal mind to distinguish
between barbarism and progress.

Next there is the _rigor mortis_ of the neo-Egyptians, the barbarism
of the dead hand, called by the unkind and the undiscriminating,
academic barbarism.

Let us humor the Menckenites by so calling it, and then add that
it is by no means confined to the colleges, although it is a vice
more familiar in critics than in creative artists. A Ph.D. is
quite unnecessary in order to be academic in this sense, just as
one does not have to be a scholar in order to be pedantical. To
stand pat in one's thinking (and this is the neo-Egyptian fault)
is to be barbarous, whatever the profession of the thinker. True,
the victims of this hardening of the brain are precisely those men
and women most likely to fling taunts at the moderns, just those
who would rather be charged with immorality than barbarism. And
yet, to be bound to the past is as barbarous in the Greek sense as
to be wholly immersed in the present. The Egyptians for all their
learning were barbarians.

Barbarian is not as rude a word as it sounds. Most of the great
romanticists had strains of the barbarous in them--the young
Shakespeare among them. Indeed, much may be said for sound
barbarian literature, until it becomes self-conscious, though not
much for barbarian criticism. Nevertheless, I do not intend in
this sally against the slavish barbarism of the merely academic
mind to hurl the epithet recklessly. Lusty conservatives who
attack free verse, free fiction, ultra realism, "jazzed" prose,
and the socialistic drama as the diseases of the period have my
respect and sympathy, when it is a disease and not change as
change that they are attacking. And, often enough, these
manifestations _are_ symptoms of disease, a plethoric disease
arising from too high blood pressure. Hard-hitting conservatives
were never more needed in literature than now, when any one can
print anything that is novel, and find some one to approve of it.
But there are too many respectable barbarians among our American
conservatives who write just what they wrote twenty years ago, and
like just what they liked twenty years ago, because that is their
nature. In 1600 they would have done the same for 1579. Without
question men were regretting in 1600 the genius of the youthful
Shakespeare of the '80's, later quenched by commercialism (see the
appeals to the pit and the topical references in "Hamlet"); and
good conservatives were certainly regretting the sad course of the
drama which, torn from the scholars and flung to the mob, had
become mad clowning. What we need in the Tory line is not such
ice-bound derelicts but men who are passionate about the past
because they find their inspiration there, men and women who
belabor the present not for its existence, but because it might
have been better if it had been wiser.

They must, in short, be Greeks, not barbarians. It is the reverse
of barbarous to defend the old, but the man who can see no need,
no good, no hope in change is a barbarian. He flinches from the
truth physical and the truth spiritual that life is motion. I
particularly refer to the literary person who sneers at novels
because they are not epics, and condemns new poems or plays unread
if they deal with a phase of human evolution that does not please
him. I mean the critic who drags his victim back to Aristotle or
Matthew Arnold and slays him on a text whose application Aristotle
or Arnold would have been the first to deny. I mean the teacher
who by ironic thrust and visible contempt destroys the faith of
youth in the literary present without imparting more than a pallid
interest in the past. I mean the essayist who in 1911 described
Masefield as an unsound and dangerous radical in verse, and in
1921 accepts him as the standard "modern" poet by whom his
degenerate successors are to be measured.

All this is barbarism because it is ignorance or denial of the
laws of growth. It belongs anthropologically with totemism,
sacerdotalism, neo-ritualism, and every other remnant of the
terrible shackles of use and wont which chained early man to his
past. It is Egyptian. Its high priests are sometimes learned but
their minds are frozen. Beware of them.

In England, so far as I am able to judge, this variety of
barbarism shows itself usually in a rather snobbish intolerance of
anything not good form in literature. The universities still
protect it, but its home is in London, among the professional
middle class.

In America its symptom is well-disguised fear. Some of us are
afraid of our literary future just as many of us are afraid of
democracy. Poetry and criticism (we feel) which used to be written
by classicists and gentlemen are now in the hands of the corn-fed
multitude, educated God knows how or where. Fiction, once a
profession, has become a trade, and so has the drama. The line
between journalism and literature is lost. Grub Street has become
an emporium. Any one, anything can get into a story or a

The Greek of to-day (as we venture to define him) views all this
with some regret, and more concern. He sees that fine traditions
are withering, that fine things are being marred by ignorant
handling. He fears debasement, he hates vulgarity, and his realist
soul admits the high probability of both in a society whose
standards are broader than they are high. But he also sees new
energies let loose and new resources discovered; he recognizes new
forms of expression, uncouth or colloquial perhaps, but capable of
vitality and truth, and not without beauty. He bends his mind
toward them, knowing that if he ignores them their authors will
ignore him and his kind.

The Egyptian is afraid. He pulls his mantle closer about him and
walks by on the other side.

Here again is work for the liberal mind. If it is really liberal--
which means that training and disposition have made it free to
move through both the past and the present--it can cope with this
Egyptian barbarism; for liberal-minded lovers of literature, by
performing a very simple operation in psychoanalysis, can
understand how love for the good old times may cause fear lest we
lose their fruits, and how fear blinds the critic's eye, makes his
tongue harsh, and his judgment rigid as death.

Liberalism in politics is sulking just now, like Achilles in his
tent, its aid having been invited too early, or too late. But the
liberal spirit can never rest, and we solicit its help in
literature. I have mentioned the Gauls and the Egyptians as the
enemies within the camp of the intellectual, but beyond them lie
the uncounted numbers of the outer barbarians, the mass of the
unillumined, to whom neither tradition nor revolt, nor anything
which moves and has its being in the intellect has any
significance. Here is the common enemy of all, who can be
conquered only by converting him. When the Gaul and the Egyptian
are liberalized, the real job begins.

"If we compose well here, to Parthia."




Criticism, in one respect, is like science: there is pure science,
so-called, and applied science; there is pure criticism and
applied criticism, which latter is reviewing. In applied science,
principles established elsewhere are put to work; in reviewing,
critical principles are, or should be, put to work in the analysis
of books, but the books, if they are really important, often make
it necessary to erect new critical principles. In fact, it is
impossible to set a line where criticism ceases and reviewing
begins. Good criticism is generally applicable to all literature;
good reviewing is good criticism applied to a new book. I see no
other valid distinction.

Reviewing in America has had a career by no means glorious. In the
early nineteenth century, at the time of our first considerable
productivity in literature, it was sporadic. The great guns--
Lowell, Emerson--fired critical broadsides into the past; only
occasionally (as in "A Fable for Critics") were they drawn into
discussions of their contemporaries, and then, as in the Emerson-
Whitman affair, they sometimes regretted it. Reviewing was carried
on in small type, in the backs of certain magazines. Most of it
was verbose and much of it was worthless as criticism. The belated
recognition of the critical genius of Poe was due to the company
he kept. He was a sadly erratic reviewer, as often wrong, I
suppose, as right, but the most durable literary criticism of the
age came from his pen, and is to be found in a review, a review of
Hawthorne's short stories.

After the Civil War the situation did not immediately improve. We
had perhaps better reviewing, certainly much better mediums of
criticism, such, for example, as _The Nation_, and, later, _The
Critic_, but not more really excellent criticism. The magazines and
newspapers improved, the weekly, as a medium of reviewing, established
itself, though it functioned imperfectly; the individuals of force and
insight who broke through current comment into criticism were more
plentiful, but not more eminent.

The new era in reviewing, our era, began with two phenomena, of
which the first had obscure beginnings and the second can be
exactly dated.

The first was modern journalism. Just when journalism became
personal, racy, and inclusive of all the interests of modern life,
I cannot say. Kipling exhibits its early effects upon literature,
but Kipling was an effect, not a cause. No matter when it began,
we have seen, in the decade or two behind us, reviewing made
journalistic, an item of news, but still more a means of

The journalistic reviewer, who is still the commonest variety, had
one great merit. He was usually interesting. Naturally so, since
he wrote not to criticize the book that had been given him, but to
interest his readers. Yet by the very nature of the case he
labored under a disadvantage which forever barred him from calling
himself critic as well as reviewer. He was a specialist in
reporting, in making a story from the most unpromising material,
and also in the use of his mother tongue, but a specialist,
usually, in no other field whatsoever. Fiction, poetry, biography,
science, history, politics, theology--whatever came to his mill
was grist for the paper, and the less he knew of the subject and
the less he had read and thought, the more emphatic were his

The club and saber work of Pope's day and Christopher North's has
gone--advertising has made it an expensive luxury, and here at
least commercialism has been of service to literature. It was
wholesale and emphatic praise that became a trademark of
journalistic reviewing. First novels, or obscure novels, were
sometimes handled roughly by a reviewer whose duty was to prepare
a smart piece of copy. But when books by the well known came to
his desk it was safer to praise than to damn, because in damning
one had to give reasons, whereas indiscriminate praise needed
neither knowledge nor excuse. Furthermore, since the chief object
was to have one's review read, excessive praise had every
advantage over measured approval. Who would hesitate between two
articles, one headed "The Best Book of the Year," and the other,
"A New Novel Critically Considered"!

Thus, journalism _per se_ has done little for the cause of
American reviewing, and directly or indirectly it has done much
harm, if only by encouraging publishers who found no competent
discussions of their wares to set up their own critics, who poured
out through the columns of an easy press commendations of the new
books which were often most intelligent, but never unbiased.

The newspapers, however, have rendered one great service to
criticism. In spite of their attempts to make even the most
serious books newsy news, they, and they alone, have kept pace
with the growing swarm of published books. The literary
supplement, which proposed to review all books not strictly
technical or transient, was a newspaper creation. And the literary
supplement, which grew from the old book page, contained much
reviewing which was in no bad sense journalistic. Without it the
public would have had only the advertisements and the publishers'
announcements to classify, analyze, and in some measure describe
the regiment of books that marches in advance of our civilization.

We were not to be dependent, however, upon the budding supplements
and the clever, ignorant reviewing, which, in spite of notable
exceptions, characterized the newspaper view of books. The
technical critic of technical books had long been practising, and
his ability increased with the advance in scholarship that marked
the end of the nineteenth century. The problem was how to make him
write for the general intelligent reader. For years the old _Nation_,
under the editorship of Garrison and of Godkin, carried on this
struggle almost single-handed. For a generation it was the only
American source from which an author might expect a competent review
of a serious, non-technical book. But the weight of the endeavor was
too much for it. Fiction it largely evaded, as the London _Times
Literary Supplement_ does to-day. And with all the serious books in
English awaiting attention in a few pages of a single weekly, it is no
wonder that the shelves of its editorial office held one of the best
modern libraries in New York! Or that Christmas, 1887, was the time
chosen to review a gift edition of 1886! The old _Dial_ had a like
struggle, and a resembling difficulty.

It was in 1914 that _The New Republic_ applied a new solution to the
problem, and from its pages and from the other "intellectual weeklies"
which have joined it, has come not merely some of the best reviewing
that we have had, but also a distinct lift upwards in the standard of
our discussion of contemporary books of general interest. After 1914
one could expect to find American reviews of certain kinds of books
which were as excellent as any criticisms from England or from France.

But the solution applied was of such a character as to limit
definitely its application. _The New Republic_, the present _Nation_,
_The Freeman_, _The Weekly Review_, and, in a little different sense,
_The Dial_, were founded by groups held together, with the exception
of _The Dial_ coterie, not by any common attitude towards literature,
or by any specific interest in literature itself, but rather by a
common social philosophy. These journals, again with the one
exception, were devoted primarily to the application of their
respective social philosophies. Even when in reviews or articles there
was no direct social application, there was a clear irradiation from
within. When _The New Republic_ is humorous, it is a social-liberal
humor. When _The Freeman_ is ironic there is usually an indirect
reference to the Single Tax. And _The Dial_ will be modern or perish.

As a result of all this the space given to books at large in the
social-political journals was small. And in that space one could
prophesy with some exactness the reviewing to be expected. Books
of social philosophy, novels with a thesis, poetry of radical
emotion, documented history, and the criticism of politics or
economic theory have had such expert reviewing as America has
never before provided in such quantity. But there was a certain
monotony in the conclusions reached. "Advanced" books had
"advanced" reviewers who approved of the author's ideas even if
they did not like his book. Conservative books were sure to be
attacked in one paragraph even if they were praised in another.
What was much more deplorable, good, old-fashioned books, that
were neither conservative nor radical, but just human, had an
excellent chance of interesting no one of these philosophical
editors and so of never being reviewed at all. Irving, Cooper of
the Leatherstocking Series, possibly Hawthorne, and quite
certainly the author of "Huckleberry Finn" would have turned over
pages for many a day without seeing their names at all.

Thus the intellectual weekly gave us an upstanding, competentcriticism
of books with ideas in them--when the ideas seemed
important to the editors; a useful service, but not a
comprehensive one; the criticism of a trend rather than a
literature; of the products of a social group rather than the
outspeaking of a nation. Something more was needed.

Something more was needed; and specifically literary mediums that
should be catholic in criticism, comprehensive in scope, sound,
stimulating, and accurate.

To be catholic in criticism does not mean to be weak and
opinionless. A determination to discuss literature honestly and
with insight, letting conclusions be what they must, may be
regarded as a sufficient editorial stock in trade. It is
fundamental, but it is not sufficient. Just as there is
personality behind every government, so there should be a definite
set of personal convictions behind literary criticism, which is
not a science, though science may aid it. Sterilized, dehumanized
criticism is almost a contradiction in terms, except in those rare
cases where the weighing of evidential facts is all that is
required. But these cases are most rare. Even a study of the text
of Beowulf, or a history of Norman law, will be influenced by the
personal emotions of the investigator, and must be so criticized.
Men choose their philosophy according to their temperament; so do
writers write; and so must critics criticize. Which is by no means
to say that criticism is merely an affair of temperament, but
rather to assert that temperament must not be left out of account
in conducting or interpreting criticism.

Ideally, then, the editors of a catholic review should have
definite convictions, if flexible minds, established principles,
if a wide latitude of application. But although a review may thus
be made catholic, it cannot thus attain comprehensiveness. There
are too many books; too many branches upon the luxuriant tree of
modern knowledge. No editorial group, no editorial staff, can
survey the field competently unless they strictly delimit it
by selection, and that means not to be comprehensive. Yet if the
experts are to be called in, the good critics, the good scholars,
the good scientists, until every book is reviewed by the writer
best qualified to review it, then we must hope to attain truth by
averages as the scientists do, rather than by dogmatic edict. For
if it is difficult to guarantee in a few that sympathy with all
earnest books which does not preclude rigid honesty in the
application of firmly held principles, it is more difficult with
the many. And if it is hard to exclude bias, inaccuracy, over-
statement, and inadequacy from the work even of a small and chosen
group, it is still harder to be certain of complete competence if
the net is thrown more widely.

In fact, there is no absolute insurance against bad criticism
except the intelligence of the reader. He must discount where
discount is necessary, he must weigh the authority of the
reviewer, he must listen to the critic as the protestant to his
minister, willing to be instructed, but aware of the fallibility
of man.

Hence, a journal of comprehensive criticism must first select its
reviewers with the greatest care and then print vouchers for their
opinions, which will be the names of the reviewers. Hence it must
open its columns to rebuttals or qualifications, so that the
reader may form his own conclusions as to the validity of the
criticism, and, after he has read the book, judge its critics.

All this is a world away from the anonymous, dogmatic reviewing of
a century ago, But who shall say that in this respect our practice
is retrograde?

It is a great and sprawling country, this America, with all manner
of men of all manners in it, and the days of patent medicines have
passed, when one bottle was supposed to contain a universal cure.
But in this matter of reading, which must be the chief concern of
those who support a critical journal, there is one disease common
to most of us that can be diagnosed with certainty, and one sure,
though slow-working, remedy, that can be applied. We are
uncritical readers. We like too readily, which is an amiable
fault; we dislike too readily, which is a misfortune. We accept
the cheap when we might have the costly book. We dislike the new,
the true, the accurate, and the beautiful, because we will not
seek, or cannot grasp, them. We are afflicted with that complex of
democracy--a distrust of the best. Nine out of ten magazines, nine
out of ten libraries, nine out of ten intelligent American minds
prove this accusation.

And the cure is more civilization, more intellectuality, a finer
and stronger emotion? One might as well say that the cure for
being sick is to get well! This, indeed, is the cure; but the
remedy is a vigorous criticism. Call in the experts, let them name
themselves and their qualifications like ancient champions, and
then proceed to lay about with a will. Sometimes the maiden
literature, queen of the tournament, will be slain instead of the
Knight of Error, and often the spectators will be scratched by the
whir of a sword. Nevertheless, the fight is in the open, we know
the adversaries, and the final judgment, whether to salute a
victor or condemn an impostor, is ours.

Thus, figuratively, one might describe the proper function in
criticism of a liberal journal of catholic criticism to-day. One
thing I have omitted, that its duty is not limited to criticism,
for if it is to be comprehensive, it must present also vast
quantities of accurate and indispensable facts, the news of
literature. And one prerequisite I have felt it unnecessary to
dwell upon. Unless its intent is honest, and its editors
independent of influence from any self-interested source, the
literary tournament of criticism becomes either a parade of the
virtues with banners for the favorites, or a melee where rivals
seek revenge. Venal criticism is the drug and dishonest criticism
the poison of literature.


As a reviewer of books, my experience has been lengthy rather than
considerable. It is, indeed, precisely twenty-two years since I
wrote my first review, which ended, naturally, with the words "a
good book to read of a winter evening before a roaring fire." I
remember them because the publishers, who are lovers of
platitudes, quoted them, to my deep gratification, and perhaps
because I had seen them before. Since then I have reviewed at
least twice as many books as there are years in this record--about
as many, I suppose, as a book-page war-horse in racing trim could
do in a month, or a week. My credentials are not impressive in
this category, but perhaps they will suffice.

As an author, my claim to enter upon this self-contained symposium
which I am about to present is somewhat stronger. Authors, of
course, read all the reviews of their books, even that common
American variety which runs like the telegraphic alphabet: quote--
summarize--quote--quote--summarize--quote, and so on up to five
dollars' worth, space rates. I have read all the reviews of my
books except those which clipping bureaus seeking a subscription
or kind friends wishing to chastise vicariously have neglected to
send me. As an author I can speak with mingled feelings, but
widely, of reviews.

Editorially my experience has been equally poignant. For ten years
I have read reviews, revised and unrevised, in proof and out of
it. I have cut reviews that needed cutting and meekly endured the
curses of the reviewer. I have printed conscientiously reviews
that had better been left unwritten, and held my head bloody but
unbowed up to the buffets of the infuriated authors. As an editor
I may say that I am at home, though not always happy, with
reviewing and reviewers.

And now, when in one of those rare moments of meditation which
even New York permits I ask myself why does every man or woman
with the least stir of literature in them wish to review books, my
trinitarian self--critic, author, editor--holds high debate. For a
long time I have desired to fight it out, and find, if it can be
found, the answer.

As an author, I have a strong distaste for reviewing. In the
creative mood of composition, or in weary relaxation, reviewing
seems the most ungrateful of tasks. Nothing comes whole to a
reviewer. Half of every book must elude him, and the other half he
must compress into snappy phrases. I watch him working upon that
corpus, which so lately was a thing of life and movement--my book--
and see that he cannot lift it; that he must have some hand-hold
to grip it by--my style or my supposed interest in the Socialist
Party, or the fact that I am a professor or a Roman Catholic.
Unless he can get some phrase that will explain the characters of
my women, the length of my sentences, and the moral I so carefully
hid in the last chapter, he is helpless. Sometimes I find him
running for a column without finding a gate to my mind, and then
giving it up in mid-paragraph. Sometimes he gets inside, but
dashes for the exit sign and is out before I know what he thinks.
Sometimes he finds an idea to his liking, wraps up in it, and goes
to sleep.

I recognize his usefulness. I take his hard raps meekly and even
remember them when next I begin to write. I do not hate him much
when he tells the public not to read me. There is always the
chance that he is right for _his_ public; not, thank heavens,
for mine. I am furious only when it is clear that he has not read
me himself. But I cannot envy him. It is so much more agreeable to
make points than to find them. It is so much easier, if you have a
little talent, to build some kind of an engine that will run than
to explain what precise fault prevents it from being the best.
When I am writing a book I cannot understand the mania for
criticism that seems to infect the majority of the literary kind.

As a reviewer I must again confess, although as an editor I may
bitterly regret the confession, that the passion for reviewing is
almost inexplicable. Reviewing has the primal curse of hard labor
upon it. You must do two kinds of work at once, and be adequately
rewarded for neither. First you must digest another man's
conception, assimilate his ideas, absorb his imagination. It is
like eating a cold dinner on a full stomach. And then when you
have eaten and digested, you must tell how you feel about it--
briefly, cogently, and in words that cannot be misunderstood.
Furthermore, your feelings must be typical, must represent what a
thousand stomachs will feel, or should feel, or could feel if they
felt at all, or instead of being hailed as a critic you will be
accused of dyspepsia.

The mere mental labor of picking up the contents of a book as you
proceed with your criticism, and tucking them in here and there
where they fit, is so great that, speaking as a reviewer, I should
give up reviewing if there were no more compelling reasons than
requests to write criticism. There are, there must be; and still
speaking as a reviewer I begin to glimpse one or two of them.
Revenge is not one. Critics have written for revenge, quoting
gleefully, "O that mine enemy would write a book!" Pope is our
classic example. But publishers have made that form of literary
vendetta unprofitable nowadays, and I am glad they have done so.
Much wit, but little criticism, has been inspired by
revenge.  Furthermore, I notice in my own case, and my editorial self
confirms the belief, that the reviewer craves books to extol, not
books to condemn. He is happiest when his author is sympathetic to
his own temperament. Antipathetic books must be forced upon him.

Which leads me to the further conclusion that the prime motive for
reviewing is the creative instinct. We all of us have it, all of
the literary folk who make up a most surprising proportion of
every community in the United States. It works on us constantly.
Sometimes it comes to a head and then we do a story or a poem, an
essay or a book; but in the meantime it is constantly alive down
below, drawn toward every sympathetic manifestation without,
craving self-expression and, in default of that, expression by
others. If a book is in us we write; if it is not, we seize upon
another man's child, adopt it as ours, talk of it, learn to
understand it, let it go reluctantly with our blessing, and depart
vicariously satisfied. That is the hope, the ever-renewed hope,
with which the besotted reviewer takes up reviewing.

The creative instinct indeed is sexed, like the human that
possesses it. It seeks a mystical union with the imaginings of
others. The poet, the novelist, the essayist, seek the mind of the
reader; the critic seeks the mind of the writer. That we get so
much bad reviewing is due to incompatibility of temperament or
gross discrepancy in the mating intellects. Yet reviewers (and
authors), like lovers, hope ever for the perfect match.

I know one critic who tore his review in pieces because it
revealed the charlatanism of his beloved author. I know an author
who burnt his manuscript because his friend and critic had
misunderstood him. I see a thousand reviews (and have written
several of them) where book and reviewer muddle along together
like the partners of everyday marriages. But next time, one always
hopes, it will be different.

As an editor, I confess that I view all this effusion with some
distrust. One plain fact stands high and dry above the discussion:
books are being published daily, and some one must tell the busy
and none too discriminating public what they are worth--not to
mention the librarians who are so engaged in making out triple
cards and bibliographies and fitting titles to vague recollections
that they have no time left to read. Furthermore, if reviewing is
a chore at worst, and at best a desire to gratify a craving for
the unappeasable, editing reviews is still more chorelike, and
seeking the unobtainable--a good review for every good book--is
quite as soul-exhausting as the creative instinct.

And, again as an editor, the perfect marriage of well attuned
minds is well enough as an ideal, but as a practicable achievement
I find myself more often drawn toward what I should call the
liaison function of a reviewer. The desire to be useful (since we
have excluded the desire to make money as a major motive) is, I
believe, an impulse which very often moves the reviewer. The
instinct to teach, to reform, to explain, to improve lies close to
the heart of nine out of ten of us. It is commoner than the
creative instinct. When it combines with it, one gets a potential

The reviewer as a liaison officer is a homelier description than
soul affinity or intellectual mate, but it is quite as honorable.
Books (to the editor) represent, each one of them, so much
experience, so much thought, so much imagination differently
compounded in a story, poem, tractate on science, history, or
play. Each is a man's most luminous self in words, ready for
others. Who wants it? Who can make use of it? Who will be dulled
by it? Who exalted? It is the reviewer's task to say. He grasps
the book, estimates it, calculates its audience. Then he makes the
liaison. He explains, he interprets, and in so doing necessarily
criticizes, abstracts, appreciates. The service is inestimable,
when properly rendered. It is essential for that growing
literature of knowledge which science and the work of specialists
in all fields have given us. Few readers can face alone and
unaided a shelf of books on radio-activity, evolution, psychology,
or sociology with any hope of selecting without guidance the best,
or with any assurance that they dare reject as worthless what they
do not understand. The house of the interpreter has become the
literary journal, and its usefulness will increase.

A liaison of a different kind is quite as needful in works of
sheer imagination. Here the content is human, the subject the
heart, or life as one sees it. But reading, like writing, is a
fine art that few master. Only the most sensitive, whose minds are
as quick as their emotions are responsive, can go to the heart of
a poem or a story. They need an interpreter, a tactful
interpreter, who will give them the key and let them find their
own chamber. Or who will wave them away from the door, or advise a
brief sojourn. To an editor such an interpreter is an ideal
reviewer. He will desire to be useful, and passionately attempt
it. He will feel his responsibility first to art and next to the
public, and then to his author, and last (as an editor I whisper
it) to the publisher. Reviewers forget the author and the public.
Their mandate comes from art (whose representative in the flesh
is, or should be, the editor). But their highest service is to
make a liaison between the reader and his book.

And the conclusion of this debate is, I think, a simple one.
Reviewing is a major sport, fascinating precisely because of
its difficulty, compelling precisely because it appeals to strong
instincts. For most of us it satisfies that desire to work for
some end which we ourselves approve, regardless of costs. The
editor, sardonically aware of a world that refuses to pay much for
what men do to please themselves or to reform others, sees here
his salvation, and is thankful.


I have known thousands of reviewers and liked most of them, except
when they sneered at my friends or at me. Their profession, in
which I have taken a humble share, has always seemed to me a
useful, and sometimes a noble one; and their contribution to the
civilizing of reading man, much greater than the credit they are
given for it. We divide them invidiously into hack reviewers and
critics, forgetting that a hack is just a reviewer overworked, and
a critic a reviewer with leisure to perform real criticism. A good
hack is more useful than a poor critic, and both belong to the same
profession as surely as William Shakespeare and the author of
a Broadway "show."

The trouble is that the business of reviewing has not been
sufficiently recognized as a profession. Trades gain in power and
recognition in proportion as their members sink individuality in
the mass and form a union which stands as one man against the
world. Professions are different. They rise by decentralization,
and by specializing within the group. They gain distinction not
only by the achievements of their individual members but by a
curious splitting into subtypes of the species. Law and medicine
are admirable examples. Every time they develop a new kind of
specialist they gain in prestige and emolument.

A reviewer, however (unless he publishes a collected edition and
becomes a critic), has so far remained in the eyes of the public
just a reviewer. In fiction we have been told (by the reviewers)
of romancers and realists, sociologists and ethicists, naturalists
and symbolists, objectivists and psychologists. Are there no
adjectives, no brevet titles of literary distinction for the men
and women who have made it possible to talk intelligently about
modern fiction without reading it?

My experience with reviewers has led me to classify them by
temperament rather than by the theories they possess; and this is
not so unscientific as it sounds, for theories usually spring from
temperaments. No man whose eliminatory processes function
perfectly is ever a pessimist, except under the compulsion of hard
facts. No sluggish liver ever believes that joy of living is the
prime quality to be sought in literary art. And by the same
eternal principle, moody temperaments embrace one theory of
criticism; cold, logical minds another. I identify my classes of
reviewers by their habits, not their dogmas.

But in order to clear the ground let me make first a larger
distinction, into mythical reviewers, bad but useful reviewers,
bad and not useful reviewers, and good reviewers. Like the
nineteenth century preacher I will dispose of the false, dwell
upon the wicked, and end (briefly) with that heaven of literary
criticism where all the authors are happy and all the reviewers

The reviewer I know best never, I profoundly believe, has existed,
and I fear never will exist. He is the familiar figure of English
novels--moderately young, a bachelor, with a just insufficient
income in stocks. Oxford or Cambridge is his background, and his
future is the death of a rich aunt or a handsome marriage. In the
meantime, there is always a pile of books waiting in his chambers
to be reviewed at "a guinea a page," when he has leisure, which is
apparently only once or twice a week. The urban pastoral thus
presented is one which Americans may well be envious of--_otium
cum dignitate_. But I have never encountered this reviewer in
London. I fear he exists only for the novelists, who created him
in order to have a literary person with enough time on his hands
to pursue the adventures required by the plot. Yet in so far as he
is intended as a portrait of a critic, he stands as an ideal of
the leisured view of books. There has been no leisured view of
books in America since Thoreau, or Washington Irving. Even Poe was
feverish. Our books are read on the subway, or after the theater,
and so I fear it is in London--in London as it is.

Coldly, palpably real is the next critic of my acquaintance, the
academic reviewer. He does not write for the newspapers, for he
despises them, and they are rather scornful of his style, which is
usually lumbering, and his idea that 1921 is the proper time in
which to review the books of 1920. But you will find him in the
weeklies, and rampant in the technical journals.

The academic reviewer is besotted by facts, or their absence. The
most precious part of the review to him is the last paragraph in
which he points out misspellings, bad punctuation, and
inaccuracies generally. Like a hound dog in a corn field, he never
sees his books as a whole, but snouts and burrows along the trail
he is following. If he knows the psychology of primitive man,
primitive psychology he will find and criticize, even in a book on
the making of gardens. If his specialty is French drama, French
drama he will find, even in a footnote, and root it out and nuzzle
it. I remember when a famous scholar devoted the whole of his
review of a two volume _magnum opus_ upon a great historical
period, to the criticism of the text of a Latin hymn cited in a
footnote! The academic reviewer (by which I do _not_ mean the
university reviewer, since many such are not academic in the bad
sense which I am giving to the word) demands an index. His reviews
usually end with, "There is no index," or, "There is an excellent
index." The reason is plain. The index is his sole guide to
reviewing. If he finds his pet topics there he can hunt them down
remorselessly. But if there is no index, he is cast adrift
helpless, knowing neither where to begin nor where to end his
review. I call him a bad reviewer, but useful, because, though
incapable of estimating philosophies or creations of the
imagination, he is our best guarantee that writers' facts are

My acquaintance with the next bad, but occasionally useful,
reviewer is less extensive, but, by the circumstances of the case,
more intimate. I shall call him the ego-frisky reviewer. The term
(which I am quite aware is a barbarous compound) I am led to
invent in order to describe the phenomenon of a critic whose ego
frisks merrily over the corpus of his book. He is not so modern a
product as he himself believes. The vituperative critics of the
Quarterlies and, earlier still, of Grub Street, used their
enemies' books as a means of indulging their needs for self-
expression. But it was wrath, jealousy, vindictiveness, or
political enmity which they discharged while seated on the body of
the foe; whereas the ego-friskish critic has no such bile in him.

He is in fact a product of the new advertising psychology, which
says, "Be human" (by which is meant "be personal") "first of all."
He regards his book (I know this, because he has often told me so)
as a text merely, for a discourse which must entertain the reader.
And his idea of entertainment is to write about himself, his
tastes, his moods, his reactions. Either he praises the book for
what it does to his ego, or damns it for what it did to his ego.
You will never catch him between these extremes, for moderation is
not his vice.

The ego-frisky reviewer is not what the biologist would call a
pure form. He (or she) is usually a yellow journalist, adopting
criticism as a kind of protective coloration. The highly personal
critic, adventuring, or even frolicking among masterpieces, and
recording his experiences, is the true type, and it is he that the
ego-friskish imitate. Such a critic in the jovial person of Mr.
Chesterton, or Professor Phelps, or Heywood Broun, contributes
much to the vividness of our sense for books. But their imitators,
although they sometimes enliven, more often devastate reviewing.

Alas, I am best acquainted among them all with the dull reviewer,
who is neither good nor useful. The excellent books he has
poisoned as though by opiates! The dull books he has made duller!
No one has cause to love him unless it be the authors of weak
books, who thank their dull critics for exposing them in reviews
so tedious that no one discovers what the criticism is about.

The dull reviewer has two varieties: the stupid and the merely
dull. It is the stupid reviewer who exasperates beyond patience
the lover of good books. He is the man who gets a book wrong from
the start, and then plods on after his own conception, which has
no reference whatsoever to the author's. He is the man who takes
irony seriously, misses the symbolism when there is any, and
invariably guesses wrong as to the sources of the characters and
the plot.

There are not many really stupid reviewers, for the most indolent
editor cleans house occasionally, and the stupid are the first to
go out the back door. But merely dull reviewers are as plentiful
as fountain pens. The dull reviewer, like Chaucer's drunken man,
knows where he wants to go but doesn't know how to get there. He
(or she) has three favorite paths that lead nowhere, all equally

The first is by interminable narrative. "When Hilda was blown into
the arms of Harold Garth at the windy corner of the Woolworth
building, neither guessed at what was to follow. Beginning with
this amusing situation, the author of 'The Yellow Moon' develops a
very interesting plot. Garth was the nephew of Miles Harrison,
Mayor of New York. After graduating from Williams, etc., etc.,
etc." This is what he calls summarizing the plot.

Unfortunately, the art of summary is seldom mastered, and a bad
summary is the dullest thing in the world. Yet even a bad summary
of a novel or a book of essays is hard to do; so that when the
dull reviewer has finished, his sweaty brow and numbed fingers
persuade him that he has written a review. There is time for just
a word of quasi-criticism: "This book would have been better if it
had been shorter, and the plot is not always logical.
Nevertheless, 'The Yellow Moon' holds interest throughout." And
then, finis. This is botchery and sometimes butchery, not

The dullest reviewers I have known, however, have been the long-
winded ones. A book is talk about life, and therefore talk about a
book is one remove more from the reality of experience. Talk about
talk must be good talk, and it must be sparing of words. A concise
style is nearly always an interesting style: even though it repel
by crudity it will never be dull. But conciseness is not the
quality I most often detect in reviewing. It is luxurious to be
concise when one is writing at space rates; and it is always harder
to say a thing briefly than at length, just as it is easier
for a woman to hit a nail at the third stroke than at the first.

I once proposed a competition in a college class in English
composition. Each student was to clip a column newspaper article
of comment (not facts) and condense it to the limit of safety.
Then editorials gave up their gaseous matter in clouds, chatty
news stories boiled away to paragraphs, and articles shrank up to
their headlines.

But the reviews suffered most. One, I remember, came down to "It
is a bad book," or to express it algebraically, it is a bad book.
Another disappeared entirely. On strict analysis it was discovered
that the reviewer had said nothing not canceled out by something
else. But most remained as a weak liquor of comment upon which
floated a hard cake of undigested narrative. One student found a
bit of closely reasoned criticism that argued from definite
evidences to a concrete conclusion. It was irreducible; but this
was a unique experience.

The long-winded are the dullest of dull reviewers, but the most
pernicious are the wielders of cliches and platitudes. Is there
somewhere a reviewer's manual, like the manual of correct social
phrases which some one has recently published? I would believe it
from the evidence of a hundred reviews in which the same phrases,
differently arranged, are applied to fifty different books. I
would believe it, except for the known capacity of man to borrow
most of his thoughts and all of his phrases from his neighbor. I
know too well that writers may operate like the Federal Reserve
banks, except that in literature there is no limit to inflation. A
thousand thousand may use "a novel of daring adventure," "a poem
full of grace and beauty," or "shows the reaction of a thoughtful
mind to the facts of the universe," without exhausting the supply.
It is like the manufacture of paper money, and the effect on
credit is precisely the same.

So much for the various types of reviewers who, however
interesting they may be critically, cannot be called good. The
good reviewers, let an uncharitable world say what it will, are,
thank heaven! more numerous. Their divisions, temperamental and
intellectual, present a curious picture of the difficulties and
the rewards of this profession. Yet I cannot enter upon them here,
and for good reasons.

The good reviewer is like the good teacher and the good preacher.
He is not rare, but he is precious. He has qualities that almost
escape analysis and therefore deserve more than a complimentary
discussion. He must hold his book like a crystal ball in which he
sees not only its proper essence in perfect clarity, but also his
own mind mirrored. He must--... In other words, the good reviewer
deserves an essay of his own. He is a genius in a minor art, which
sometimes becomes major; a craftsman whose skill is often
exceptional. I will not put him in the same apartment with
reviewers who are arid, egoistic, or dull.


America is the land of cherished illusions. Americans prefer to
believe that they are innocent, innocent of immorality after
marriage, innocent of dishonesty in business, innocent of
incompatibility between husbands and wives. Americans do not
like to admit the existence (in the family) of passion, of
unscrupulousness, of temperament. They have made a code for what
is to be done, and what is not to be done, and whatever differs is
un-American. If their right hands offend them they cut them off
rather than admit possession. They believed in international
morality when none existed, and when they were made to face the
disagreeable fact of war, cast off the nations of the earth, and
continued to believe in national morality.

In America prostitution is tolerated in practice, but forbidden in
print. All homes are happy unless there is proof to the contrary,
and then they are un-American. In its wilful idealism America is
determined that at all costs we shall appear to be innocent. And a
novel which should begin with the leaders in social conformity,
who keep hard and clean the code, and should sweep through the
great middle classes that may escape its rigors themselves, but
exact them of others, might present the pageant, the social
history, the epic of America.

Of course, Mrs. Wharton's novel does nothing of the sort. This is
how Tolstoy, or H. G. Wells, or Ernest Poole would have written
"The Age of Innocence." They would have been grandiose, epical;
their stories would have been histories of culture. It would have
been as easy to have called their books broad as it is to call
Mrs. Wharton's fine novel narrow. Tendencies, philosophies,
irrepressible outbursts would have served as their protagonists,
where hers are dwellers in Fifth Avenue or Waverly Place--a
cosmopolitan astray, a dowager, a clubman yearning for
intellectual sympathy.

And yet in the long run it comes to much the same thing. The epic
novelists prefer the panorama: she the drawing-room canvas. They
deduce from vast philosophies and depict society. She gives us the
Mingotts, the Mansons, the Van der Luydens--society, in its little
brownstone New York of the '70's--and lets us formulate
inductively the code of America. A little canvas is enough for a
great picture if the painting is good.

Indeed, the only objection I have ever heard urged against Mrs.
Wharton's fine art of narrative is that it is narrow--an art of
dress suit and sophistication. And this book is the answer. For,
of course, her art is narrow--like Jane Austen's, like Sheridan's,
like Pope's, like Maupassant's, like that of all writers who
prefer to study human nature in its most articulate instead of its
broadest manifestations. It is narrow because it is focussed, but
this does not mean that it is small. Although the story of "The
Age of Innocence" might have been set in a far broader background,
it is the circumstances of the New York society which Mrs. Wharton
knows so well that give it a piquancy, a reality that "epics"
lack. They are like the accidents of voice, eye, gesture which
determine individuality. Yet her subject is America.

This treating of large themes by highly personal symbols makes
possible Mrs. Wharton's admirable perfection of technique. Hers is
the technique of sculpture rather than the technique of
architecture. It permits the fine play of a humor that has an eye
of irony in it, but is more human than irony. It makes possible an
approach to perfection. Behold Mrs. Manson Mingott, the
indomitable dowager, Catherine:

The immense accretions of flesh which had descended on her in
middle life, like a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed
her... into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon.
She had accepted this submergence as philosophically as all her
other trials, and now, in extreme old age, was rewarded by
presenting to her mirror an almost unwrinkled expanse of firm pink
and white flesh, in the center of which the traces of a small face
survived as if awaiting excavation.... Around and below, wave
after wave of black silk surged away over the edges of a capacious
armchair, with two tiny white hands poised like gulls on the
surface of the billows.

Her art is restrained, focussed upon those points where America,
in its normality and in its eccentricity, has become articulate.
Therefore it is sharp and convincing.

Who is the central figure in this story where the leaven of
intellectual and emotional unrest works in a society that has
perfected its code and intends to live by it? Is it Newland
Archer, who bears the uncomfortable ferment within him? Is it his
wife, the lovely May, whose clear blue eyes will see only
innocence? Is it the Countess Olenska, the American who has seen
reality and suffered by it, and sacrifices her love for Newland in
order to preserve his innocence? No one of these is the center of
the story, but rather the idea of "the family," this American
"family," which is moral according to its lights, provincial,
narrow--but intensely determined that its world shall appear
upright, faithful, courageous, in despite of facts, and regardless
of how poor reality must be tortured until it conforms. And the
"family" as Mrs. Wharton describes it is just the bourgeois
Puritanism of nineteenth century America.

Was May right when, with the might of innocence, she forced
Newland to give up life for mere living? Was the Countess right
when, in spite of her love for him, she aided and abetted her,
making him live up to the self-restraint that belonged to his
code? The story does not answer, being concerned with the
qualities of the "family," not with didacticism.

It says that the insistent innocence of America had its rewards as
well as its penalties. It says, in so far as it states any
conclusion definitely, that a new and less trammeled generation
must answer whether it was the discipline of its parents that
saved the American family from anarchy, or the suppressions of its
parents that made it rebellious. And the answer is not yet.

"The Age of Innocence" is a fine novel, beautifully written, "big"
in the best sense, which has nothing to do with size, a credit to
American literature--for if its author is cosmopolitan, this
novel, as much as her earlier "Ethan Frome," is a fruit of our

November 6, 1920.


Mrs. Wharton found the age of innocence in the 1870's; Mr.
Hergesheimer discovers an age of no innocence in the 1920's. In
"The Age of Innocence," the lovely May, a creature of society's
conventions, loses her husband and then regains the dulled
personality left from the fire of passion. In "Cytherea" the less
lovely, but equally moral Fanny loses her Lee because she cannot
satisfy his longings and nags when she fails. But she does not
regain him when his love chase is over, because he is burned out.
Athene and Aphrodite, the graces of the mind, the seductions of
the person of the Countess Olenska, together draw Newland Archer,
husband of May; but it is Aphrodite only, Cytherean Aphrodite,
who, being sex incarnate, is more than mere temptations of the
flesh, that wrecks Fanny's home.

In the '70's the poor innocents of society believed their code of
honor impregnable against sex. They dressed against sex, talked
against sex, kept sex below the surface. The suppression froze
some of them into rigidity and stiffened all. But they had their
compensations. By sacrificing freedom for personal desire they
gained much security. Good husbands required more than a lure of
the body to take them off. And when they gave up a great romance
for respectability, like Newland Archer, at least they remained
gentlemen. There was a tragedy of thwarted development, of
martyred love, of waste; but at least self-respect, however
misguided, remained.

Not so with this trivial, lawless country club set of the 1920's,
drunk part of the time and reckless all of it, codeless, dutiless,
restless. For the virtuous among them Aphrodite, a vulgar,
shameless Aphrodite, was a nightly menace; for the weak among them
(such as Peyton Morris), a passion to be resisted only by fear;
for the wayward, like Lee, she was the only illusion worth
pursuing. To resist for a woman was to become "blasted and twisted
out of her purpose," to be "steeped in vinegar or filled with
tallow"; to resist for a man was to lose the integrity of his
personality. There were no moral compensations, for there is no
morality but self-development, at least in Mr. Hergesheimer's town
of Eastlake. There is no god for a man in love but Cytherea.

And this is one way of describing Mr. Hergesheimer's study of love
in idleness in the 1920's. Another way would be to call it an
essay upon insecurity, although the word essay is too dry to use
in a story which is fairly awash with alcohol. The war, the story
seems to say, sapped our security of property and comfort and
life. But insecurity is an insidious disease that spreads, like
bacteria, where strength is relaxed. It infects the lives of those
who have lost their certainties and become doubtful of their
wills. In this relaxed society of the 1920's, where nothing seemed
certain but the need of money and a drink, insecurity spread into
married life. Not even the well-mated were secure in the general
decline of use and wont. A home wrecked by vague desires running
wild--that is the theme of "Cytherea."

Or take a third view of this provocative book. The triangle we
have had tiresomely with us, but it is woman's love that is,
perversely, always the hero. Hergesheimer studies the man, studies
him not as will, or energy, or desire a-struggle with duty or
morality, but merely as sex. Man's sex in love, man's sex
dominated by Cytherea, is his theme. This is new, at least in
fiction, for there man is often swept away, but seldom dominated
by sex. And indeed Hergesheimer has to find his man in the relaxed
society to which I have referred, a society wearied by unchartered
freedom, where business is profitable but trivial, where duty and
religion exist only as a convention, disregarded by the honest,
upheld by the hypocritical, a society where Cytherea marks and
grips her own. Even so, it is an achievement.

Cytherea in the story is a doll with a glamorous countenance,
bought and cherished by Lee Randon as a symbol of what he did not
find in his married life, what no man finds and keeps, because it
is an illusion. Cytherea is Lee Randon's longing for emotional
satisfaction, a satisfaction that is not to be of the body merely.
And when he meets Savina Grove, a pathological case, whose violent
sex emotions have been inhibited to the bursting point, he thinks
(and fears) that he has found his heart's desire. In the old, old
stories their elopement would have been their grand, their tragic
romance. In this cruel novel it is tragic, for she dies of it; but
she is not Cytherea; she is earthly merely; it is felt that she is
better dead.

It is a cruel story, cruel in its depiction of an almost worthless
society with just enough of the charm of the Restoration to save
it from beastliness; cruel in its unsparing analyses of man's sex
impulses (by all odds the most valuable part of the story); cruel
particularly because the ruined Lee Randon is a good fellow,
honester than most, kinder than he knows to individuals, although
certain that there is no principle but selfishness, and that it is
folly to limit desire for the sake of absolutes, like
righteousness, or generalities, like the human race. It is a cruel
study of women, for Fanny, the model of the domestic virtues, has
lost her innocent certainties of the triumph of the right and at
the first conflict with Cytherea becomes a common scold; cruel to
Savina Grove, who, in spite of her exquisiteness, is only a
psychoanalyst's problem; cruel to us all in exposing so ruthlessly
how distressing it is to live by stale morality, yet how
devastating to act with no guide but illusory desire.

All this is not new in outline. One can find the essence of this
story in monkish manuals. There the menace of Cytherea was not
evaded. There the weaknesses of man's sex were categoried with
less psychology but more force. What is new in Hergesheimer's book
is merely the environment in which his characters so disastrously
move and an insight into the mechanism of their psychology which
earlier writers lacked. I have called it a story of the age of no
innocence, but that would be the author's term, not mine; for
indeed his characters seem to display as naive an innocence as
Mrs. Wharton's of the laws of blood and will, and they know far
less of practical morality. The "Age of Moral Innocence" I should
rechristen Hergesheimer's book.

Critics will raise, and properly, a question as to the worth of
his materials. He is not studying a "ripe" society, as was Mrs.
Wharton, but the froth of the war, the spume of country clubs, the
trivialities of the strenuous but unproductive rich. This is a
just criticism as far as it goes, and it lessens the solidity, the
enduring interest, of his achievement. True, it was in such a
society that he could best pursue the wiles of Cytherea. He has a
right to pitch his laboratory where he pleases, and out of some
very sordid earth he has contrived some beauty. Nevertheless, you
cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, skilled though you
may be.

I should be more inclined, however, in a comparison with Mrs. Wharton,
to criticize his lack of detachment. That able novelist,
who is bounded so exclusively in her little social world,
nevertheless stands apart from it and sees it whole. Mr.
Hergesheimer has his feet still deep in the soil. He is too much a
part of his country club life. He means, perhaps, to be ironical,
but in truth he is too sympathetic with the desires, emotional and
aesthetic, that he expresses to be ironical until the close. There
is a surprise, too sharp a surprise, at the end of his novel, when
one discovers that the moral is not "do and dare," but "all is
vanity." He is so much and so lusciously at home with cocktails,
legs, limousine parties, stair-sittings, intra-matrimonial
kissings (I mention the most frequent references) that one
distrusts the sudden sarcasm of his finale. It would have been
better almost if he had been a Count de Gramont throughout, for he
has a _flair_ for the surroundings of amorous adventure and
is seldom gross; better still to have seen, as Mrs. Wharton saw,
the picture in perspective from the first. His book will disgust
some and annoy others because its art is muddied by a lingering
naturalism and too highly colored by the predilections of the

It is a skilful art, nevertheless, and "Cytherea" confirms a
judgment long held that Mr. Hergesheimer is one of the most
skilful craftsmen in English in our day. And this I say in spite
of his obvious failure to grasp inevitably the structure of the
English sentence. He is one of the most honest analysts of a
situation, also; one of the most fearless seekers of motives; one
of the ablest practisers of that transmutation of obscure emotion
into the visible detail of dress, habit, expression, which is the
real technique of the novelist. His fault is a defect in sympathy,
a lack of spiritual appreciation, if I may use and leave undefined
so old-fashioned a term. His virtue lies in the rich garment of
experience which careful observation and skilful writing enable
him to wrap about his imaginative conceptions. It is this which
makes his novels so readable for the discriminating at present,
and will make them useful historical records in the future. One
aspect of a troublesome period when the middle generation achieved
the irresponsibility without the earnestness of youth he has
caught in "Cytherea." It is unfortunate that it is a partial
portrait of important motives in people who themselves are of
little importance; and it is doubly unfortunate that he has been
too much a part of his muddy world to be as good an interpreter as
he is a witness of its life.

January 21, 1922.




I have looked through more essays upon poetry than I care to
remember without finding anywhere a discussion of poetry for the
unpoetical. A recent writer, it is true, has done much to show
that the general reader daily indulges in poetry of a kind without
knowing it. But the voluminous literature of poetics is well-nigh
all special. It is written for students of rhythm, for instinctive
lovers of poetry, for writers of verse, for critics. It does not
treat of the value of poetry for the average, the unpoetical man--
it says little of his curious distaste for all that is not prose,
or of the share in all good poetry that belongs to him.

By the average man, let me hasten to say, I mean in this instance
the average intelligent reader, who has passed through the usual
formal education in literature, who reads books as well as
newspapers and magazines, who, without calling himself a
litterateur, would be willing to assert that he was fairly well
read and reasonably fond of good reading. Your doctor, your
lawyer, the president of your bank, and any educated business man
who has not turned his brain into a machine, will fit my case.

Among such excellent Americans, I find that there exists a double
standard as regards all literature, but especially poetry. Just as
the newspapers always write of clean politics with reverence--
whatever may be the private opinions and practices of their
editorial writers--so intelligent, though unpoetic, readers are
accustomed to speak of poetry with very considerable respect. It
is not proper to say, "I hate poetry," even if one thinks it. To
admit ignorance of Tennyson or Milton or Shakespeare is bad form,
even if one skimmed through them in college and has never
disturbed the dust upon their covers since. I have heard a
whispered, sneering remark after dinner, "I don't believe he ever
_heard_ of Browning," by one who had penetrated about as far
into Browning's inner consciousness as a fly into the hickory-nut
it crawls over. I well remember seeing a lady of highly
respectable culture hold up her hands in horror before a college
graduate who did not know who Beowulf was. Neither did she, in any
true sense of knowing. But her code taught her that the "Beowulf,"
like other "good poetry," should be upon one's list of

What these Americans really think is a very different matter. The
man in the trolley-car, the woman in the rocking-chair, the clerk,
the doctor, the manufacturer, most lawyers, and some ministers
would, if their hearts were opened, give simply a categorical
negative. They do not like poetry, or they think they do not like
it; in either case with the same result. The rhythm annoys them
(little wonder, since they usually read it as prose), the rhyme
seems needless, the inversions, the compressions perplex their
minds to no valuable end. Speaking honestly, they do not like
poetry. And if their reason is the old one,

      I do not like you, Dr. Fell;
      The reason why I cannot tell,

it is none the less effective.

But the positive answers are no more reassuring. Here in America
especially, when we like poetry, we like it none too good. The
"old favorites" are almost all platitudinous in thought and
monotonous in rhythm. We prefer sentiment, and have a weakness for
slush. Pathos seems to us better than tragedy, anecdote than wit.
Longfellow was and is, except in metropolitan centres, our
favorite "classical" poet; the poetical corner and the daily poem
of the newspapers represent what most of us like when we do go in
for verse. The truth is that many of the intelligent in our
population skip poetry in their reading just because it _is_
poetry. They read no poetry, or they read bad poetry occasionally,
or they read good poetry badly.

This sorry state of affairs does not trouble the literary critic.
His usual comment is that either one loves poetry or one does not,
and that is all there is to be said about it. If the general
reader neglects poetry, why then he belongs to the Lost Tribes and
signifies nothing for Israel.

I am sure that he is wrong. His assertion is based on the theory
that every man worthy of literary salvation must at all times love
and desire the best literature, which is poetry--and this is a
fallacy. It is as absurd as if he should ask most of us to dwell
in religious exaltation incessantly, or to live exclusively upon
mountain peaks, or to cultivate rapture during sixteen hours of
the twenty-four. The saints, the martyrs, the seers, the seekers,
and enthusiasts have profited nobly by such a regime, but not we
of common clay. To assume in advocating the reading of poetry that
one should substitute Pope for the daily paper, Francis Thompson
for the illustrated weekly, _The Ring and the Book_ for a
magazine, and read "The Golden Treasury" through instead of a
novel, needs only to be stated to be disproved. And yet this is
the implication of much literary criticism.

But the sin of the general reader who refuses all poetry is much
more deadly, for it is due not to enthusiasm, but to ignorance. It
is true that the literary diet recommended by an aesthetic critic
would choke a healthy business man; but it is equally true that
for all men whose emotions are still alive within them, and whose
intelligence permits the reading of verse, poetry is quite as
valuable as fresh air and exercise. We do not need fresh air and
exercise constantly. We can get along very comfortably without
them. But if they are not essential commodities, they are
important ones, and so is poetry--a truth of which modern readers
seem to be as ignorant as was primitive man of fire until he
burned his hand in a blazing bush.

I do not mean for an instant to propose that every one should read
poetry. The man whose imagination has never taken fire from
literature of any kind, whose brain is literal and dislikes any
embroidery upon the surface of plain fact, who is deaf to music,
unresponsive to ideas, and limited in his emotions--such a man in
my opinion is unfortunate, although he is often an excellent
citizen, lives happily, makes a good husband, and may save the
state. But he should not (no danger that he will) read poetry. And
for another class there is nothing in poetry. The emotionally
dying or dead; the men who have sunk themselves, their
personalities, their hopes, their happiness, in business or
scholarship or politics or sport--they, too, are often useful
citizens, and usually highly prosperous; but they would waste
their time upon literature of any variety, and especially upon

There are a dozen good arguments, however, to prove that the
reading of poetry is good for the right kind of general reader,
who is neither defective nor dead in his emotions; and this means,
after all, a very large percentage of all readers. If I had space
I should use them all, for I realize that the convention we have
adopted for poetry makes us skip, in our magazines, as naturally
from story to story over the verse between as from stone to stone
across the brook. However, I choose only two, which seem to me as
convincing for the unpoetical reader (the dead and defective
excepted) as the ethical grandeur of poetry, let us say, for the
moralist, its beauty for the aesthete, its packed knowledge for the

The first has often been urged before and far more often
overlooked. We everyday folk plod year after year through routine,
through fairly good or fairly bad, never quite realizing what we
are experiencing, never seeing life as a whole, or any part of it,
perhaps, in complete unity. Words, acts, sights, pass through our
experience hazily, suggesting meanings which we never fully grasp.
Grief and love, the most intense, perhaps, of sensations, we
seldom understand except by comparison with what has been said of
the grief and love of others. Happiness remains at best a diffused
emotion--felt, but not comprehended. Thought, if in some moment
of intense clarity it grasps our relationship to the stream of
life, in the next shreds into trivialities. Is this true? Test it
by any experience that is still fresh in memory. See how dull, by
comparison with the vivid colors of the scene itself, are even now
your ideas of what it meant to you, how obscure its relations to
your later life. The moment you fell in love, the hour after your
child had died, the instant when you reached the peak, the quarrel
that began a misunderstanding not yet ended, the subtle household
strain that pulls apart untiringly though it never sunders two who
love each other--all these I challenge you to define, to explain,
to lift into the light above the turbid sea of complex currents
which is life.

And this, of course, is what good poetry does. It seizes the
moment, the situation, the thought; drags it palpitating from life
and flings it, quivering with its own rhythmic movement, into
expression. The thing cannot be done in mere prose, for there is
more than explanation to the process. The words themselves, in
their color and suggestiveness, the rhythms that carry them,
contribute to the sense, even as overtones help to make the music.

All this may sound a little exalted to the comfortable general
reader, who does not often deal in such intense commodities as
death and love. And yet I have mentioned nothing that does not at
one time or another, and frequently rather than the opposite, come
into his life, and need, not constant, certainly, but at least
occasional, interpretation. Death and love, and also friendship,
jealousy, courage, self-sacrifice, hate--these cannot be avoided.
We must experience them. So do the animals, who gain from their
experiences blind, instinctive repulsions or unreasoning likes and
distrusts. There are many ways of escaping from such a bovine
acquiescence, content to have felt, not desirous to grasp and know
and relate. Poetry, which clears and intensifies like a glass held
upon a distant snowpeak, is one of the best.

But there is another service that poetry, among all writing, best
renders to the general reader, _when he needs it_; a service
less obvious, but sometimes, I think, more important. Poetry
insures an extension of youth.

Men and women vary in their emotional susceptibility. Some go
through life always clouded, always dull, like a piece of glass
cut in semblance of a gem, that refracts no colors and is empty of
light. Others are vivid, impressionable, reacting to every
experience. Some of us are most aroused by contact with one
another. Interest awakens at the sound of a voice; we are most
alive when most with our kind. Others, like Thoreau, respond best
in solitude. The very thrush singing dimly in the hemlocks at
twilight moves them more powerfully than a cheer. A deep meadow
awave with headed grass, a solemn hill shouldering the sky, a
clear blue air washing over the pasture slopes and down among the
tree-tops of the valley, thrills them more than all the men in all
the streets of the world. It makes no difference. To every one,
dull and vivid, social and solitary, age brings its changes. We
may understand better, but the vividness is less, the emotions are
tamer. They do not fully respond, as the bell in the deserted
house only half tinkles to our pulling.

      Si jeunesse savait,
      Si vielliesse pouvait.

But to be able comes before to know. We must react to experiences
before it is worth while to comprehend them. And after one is well
enmeshed in the routine of plodding life, after the freshness of
the emotions (and this is a definition of youth) is gone, it is
difficult to react. I can travel now, if I wish, to the coral
islands or the Spanish Main, but it is too late.

Few willingly part with the fresh impressionability of youth.
Sometimes, as I have already suggested, the faculties of sensation
become atrophied, if indeed they ever existed. I know no more
dismal spectacle than a man talking shop on a moonlit hill in
August, a woman gossipping by the rail of a steamer plunging
through the sapphire of the Gulf Stream, or a couple perusing
advertisements throughout a Beethoven symphony. I will not advance
as typical a drummer I once saw read a cheap magazine from cover
to cover in the finest stretch of the Canadian Rockies. He was not
a man, but a sample-fed, word-emitting machine. These people,
emotionally speaking, are senile. They should not try to read

But most of us--even those who are outwardly commonplace,
practical, unenthusiastic, "solid," and not "sensitive"--lose our
youthful keenness with regret. And that is why poetry, except for
the hopelessly sodden, is a tonic worthy of a great price. For the
right poetry at the right time has the indubitable power to stir
the emotions that experience is no longer able to arouse. I cannot
give satisfactory instances, for the reaction is highly personal.
What with me stirs a brain cell long dormant to action will leave
another unmoved, and vice versa. However, to make clear my
meaning, let us take Romance, the kind that one capitalizes, that
belongs to Youth, also capitalized, and dwells in Granada or
Sicily or the Spanish Main. The middle-aged gentleman on a winter
cruise for his jaded nerves cannot expect a thrill from sights
alone. If it is not lost for him utterly, it is only because Keats
has kept it, in--

     ... Magic casements, opening on the foam
      Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn, q and Nashe in--

     Brightness falls from the air;
      Queens have died young and fair.

Or consider the joy of travel renewed in Kipling's--

      Then home, get her home, where the drunken rollers comb,
        And the shouting seas drive by,
      And the engines stamp and ring, and the wet bows reel and
        And the Southern Cross rides high!
      Yes, the old lost stars wheel back, dear lass,
        That blaze in the velvet blue.

Or the multitudinous experiences of vivid life that crowd the
pages of men like Shakespeare, or Chaucer, who thanked God that he
had known his world as in his time. Even in these shopworn
quotations the power still remains.

Somewhere in poetry, and best in poetry because there most
concentrated and most penetrative, lies crystallized experience at
hand for all who need it. It is not difficult to find, although no
one can find it for you. It is not necessarily exalted, romantic,
passionate; it may be comfortable, homely, gentle or hearty,
vigorous and cheerful; it may be anything but commonplace, for no
true emotion is ever commonplace. I have known men of one poet;
and yet that poet gave them the satisfaction they required. I know
others whose occasional dip into poetry leads to no rapture of
beauty, no throbbing vision into eternity; and yet without poetry
they would be less alive, their minds would be less young. As
children, most of us would have flushed before the beauty of a
sunrise on a tropic ocean, felt dimly if profoundly--and
forgotten. The poet--like the painter--has caught, has
interpreted, has preserved the experience, so that, like music, it
may be renewed. And he can perform that miracle for greater things
than sunrises. This, perhaps, is the best of all reasons why every
one except the emotionally senile should sometimes read poetry.

I know at least one honest Philistine who, unlike many
Philistines, has traveled through the Promised Land--and does not
like it. When his emotional friends talk sentimentalism and call
it literature, or his aesthetic acquaintances erect affectations
and call them art, he has the proper word of irony that brings
them back to food, money, and other verities. His voice haunts me
now, suggesting that, in spite of the reasons I have advanced, the
general reader can scarcely be expected to read modern poetry, and
that therefore his habit of skipping must continue. He would say
that most modern poetry is unreadable, at least by the average
man. He would say that if the infinitely complex study of
emotional mind-states that lies behind the poetry of Edwin
Arlington Robinson, or the eerie otherworldliness of Yeats, or the
harsh virility of Sandburg is to be regarded as an intensification
and clarification of experience, he begs to be excused. He would
say that if the lyrics of subtle and passionate emotion and the
drab stories of sex experience that make up so many pages of
modern anthologies represent a renewal and extension of youth, it
was not _his_ youth. He prefers to be sanely old rather than
erotically young. He will stick to the daily paper and flat prose.

Well, it is easy to answer him by ruling out modern poetry from
the argument. There was more good poetry, neither complex, nor
erotic, nor esoteric, written before our generation than even a
maker of anthologies is likely to read. But I am not willing to
dodge the issue so readily. There _is_ modern poetry for every reader
who is competent to read poetry at all. If there is none too much of
it, that is his own fault. If there is much that makes no appeal to
him, that is as it should be.

It is true that a very large proportion of contemporary poetry is
well-nigh unintelligible to the gentleman whose reading, like his
experience, does not often venture beyond the primitive emotions.
Why should it not be? The modern lyric is untroubled by the social
conscience. It is highly individual, for it is written by men of
intense individuality for readers whose imaginations require an
intimate appeal. Such minds demand poetry prevailingly, just as
the average reader demands prose prevailingly. They profit by
prose now and then, just as, occasionally, he profits by poetry.
We talk so much of the enormous growth of the mass of average
readers in recent years that we forget the corresponding growth in
the number of individualities that are not average. Much modern
poetry is written for such readers, for men and women whose minds
are sensitive to intricate emotional experience, who can and do
respond to otherworldliness, to the subtly romantic, the finely
aesthetic, and the intricately ideal. They deserve whatever poetry
they may desire.

The important point to note is that they do not get it. It is
they--far more than the Philistines--who complain that modern
poetry is insufficient for their needs. The highly personal lyric
is probably more perfected, more abundant, and more poignant in
its appeal to living minds now than ever before in the history of
our civilization. But it occupies only one province of poetry. A
lover of poetry desires, far more keenly than the general reader,
to have verse of his own day that is more Shakespearian, more
Miltonic, more Sophoclean than this. He wants poetry that lifts
spacious times into spacious verse, poetry that "enlumynes," like
Petrarch's "rhetorike sweete," a race and a civilization. He
desires, in addition to what he is already getting, precisely that
poetry so universal in its subject-matter and its appeal, which
the general reader thinks he would read if he found it instead of
"lyrical subtleties" in his pages.

Well, they do not get it very abundantly to-day, let us admit the
fact freely. But the fault is not altogether the poets'. The fault
is in the intractable mediocrity of the age, which resists
transference into poetry as stiff clay resists the hoe of the
cultivator. The fault lies in the general reader himself, whose
very opposition to poetry because it _is_ poetry makes him a
difficult person to write for. Commercialized minds, given over to
convention, denying their sentiment and idealism, or wasting them
upon cheap and meretricious literature, do not make a good
audience. Our few poets in English who have possessed some
universality of appeal have had to make concessions. Kipling has
been the most popular among good English poets in our time; but he
has had to put journalism into much of his poetry in order to
succeed. And Kipling is not read so much as a certain American
writer who discovered that by writing verse in prose form he could
make the public forget their prejudice against poetry and indulge
their natural pleasure in rhythm and rime.

A striking proof of all that I have been writing is to be found in
so-called magazine verse. Sneers at magazine poetry are unjust
because they are unintelligent. It is quite true that most of it
consists of the highly individualistic lyric of which I have
spoken above. But in comparison with the imaginative prose of the
typical popular magazine, it presents a most instructive contrast.
The prose is too frequently sensational or sentimental, vulgar or
smart. The verse, even though narrow in its appeal, and sometimes
slight, is at least excellent in art, admirable in execution, and
vigorous and unsentimental in tone. Regarded as literature, it is
very much more satisfactory than the bulk of magazine prose.
Indeed, there is less difference between the best and the worst of
our magazines than between the verse and the prose in any one of

And if this verse is too special in its subject-matter to be
altogether satisfactory, if so little of it appeals to the general
reader, is it not his fault? He neglects the poetry from habit
rather than from conviction based on experience. Because he skips
it, and has skipped it until habit has become a convention, much
of it has become by natural adaptation of supply to demand too
literary, too narrow, too subtle and complex for him now. The
vicious circle is complete.

This circle may soon be broken. A ferment, which in the 'nineties
stirred in journalism, and a decade later transformed our drama,
is working now in verse. The poetical revival now upon us may be
richer so far in promise than in great poetry, but it is very
significant. For one thing, it is advertising poetry, and since
poetry is precisely what Shakespeare called it, caviare to the
general--a special commodity for occasional use--a little
advertising will be good for it. Again, the verse that has sprung
from the movement is much of it thoroughly interesting. Some of it
is as bizarre as the new art of the futurists and the vorticists;
some is merely vulgar, some merely affected, some hopelessly
obscure; but other poems, without convincing us of their
greatness, seem as original and creative as were Browning and
Whitman in their day. Probably, like the new painting, the
movement is more significant than the movers.

Nevertheless, if one is willing to put aside prejudice, suspend
judgment, and look ahead, _vers libre_, even when more _libre_ than
_vers_, is full of meaning--poetic realism, even when more real than
poetry, charged with possibility. For with all its imperfections much
of this new poetry is trying to mean more than ever before to the
general reader. I am not sure that the democracy can be interpreted
for him in noble poetry and remain the democracy he knows. And yet I
think, and I believe, that, in his sub-consciousness at least, he
feels an intense longing to find the everyday life in which we all
live--so thrilling beneath the surface--interpreted, swung into that
rhythmic significance that will make it part of the vast and flowing
stream of all life. I can tolerate many short, rough words in poetry,
and much that we have been accustomed to regard as prose, on the way
to such a goal.

For I honestly believe that it is better to read fantastic poetry,
coarse poetry, prosaic poetry--anything but vulgar and sentimental
poetry--than no poetry at all. To be susceptible to no revival of
the vivid emotions of youth, to be touched by no thoughts more
intense than our own, to be accessible to no imaginative
interpretation of the life we lead--this seems to me to be a heavy
misfortune. But to possess, as most of us do, our share of all
these qualities, and then at no time, in no fitting mood or
proffered opportunity, to read poetry--this can only be regarded
as deafness by habit and blindness from choice.


Our eyes are more civilized than our ears, and much more civilized
than our minds; that is the flat truth, and it accounts for a good
deal that puzzles worthy people who wish to reform literature.

Consider the musical comedy of the kind that runs for a year and
costs the price of two books for a good seat. Its humor is either
good horseplay or vulgar farce, and its literary quality nil. Its
music is better, less banal than the words, and, sometimes, almost
excellent. But its setting, the costumes, the scenic effects, the
stage painting, and, most of all, the color schemes are always
artistic and sometimes exquisite. They intrigue the most
sophisticated taste, which is not surprising; yet, at the same
time, the multitude likes them, pays for them, stays away if they
are not right. Eye is an aesthete, ear is, at least, cultivated,
mind is a gross barbarian, unwilling to think, and desirous only
of a tickle or a prod.

Or to localize the scene and change the angle a trifle, compare
the New York ear for music with the New York taste for reading.
The audiences who hear good concerts, good operas, good oratorios,
and thoroughly appreciate them, far outrun in number the readers
of equally artistic or intellectual books. Ear is more cultivated
than mind, musical appreciation keener than literary taste. A good
stage set on a first night in this same metropolis of the arts,
will get a round of applause, when not only often, but usually,
perfection of lines, or poignancy of thought in the dialogue, will
miss praise altogether. Eye detects sheer beauty instantly, mind
lags or is dull to it.

This is a fact; the cause of it let psychologists explain, as they
can, of course, very readily. It is a rather encouraging fact, for
it seems to indicate that our members educate themselves one at a
time, and yet, as parts of a single body corporate, must help each
other's education. If we grow critical of the sped-up background
of a movie scene, we may grow critical of its sped-up plot. Eye
may teach the ear, ear lift the mind to more strenuous
intellectual efforts.

And, of course, it explains why the literary reformers have such
difficulties with the multitude. Why, they say, do these women,
whose dress is admirably designed and colored, whose living rooms
are proportioned and furnished in taste, who know good music from
bad, and enjoy the former--why do they read novels without the
least distinction, without beauty or truth, barely raised above
vulgarity? Why, they say, does this man who cooperates with his
architect in the building of a country house which would have been
a credit to any period, who is a connoisseur in wine and cigars,
and unerring in his judgment of pictures, why does he definitely
prefer the commonplace in literature? Eye, ear, and tongue are
civilized; intellect remains a gross feeder still. Good reading
comes last among the arts of taste.

This is not an essay in reform; it is content to be a question
mark; but one bit of preaching may slip in at the end. Why give
eye and ear all the fine experiences? Why not do something for
poor, slovenly mind? The truth is that we are lazy. In a stage
full of shimmering beauty, in a concert of chamber music, in a
fine building, or an admirable sketch, others do the work, we have
only to gaze or listen in order to pluck some, at least, of the
fruits of art. But fine novels take fine reading; fine essays take
fine thinking; fine poetry takes fine feeling. We balk at the
effort, and ask, like the audience at the movies, that eye should
take the easier way. And hence the American reader still faintly
suggests the Fiji Islander, who wears a silk hat and patent
leathers on a tattooed naked body.

For all we can tell, that may be the direction of Progress. In
2021 New Yorkers may be gazing at a city beautiful, where even the
subways give forth sweet sounds; and reading novelized movies in
words of one syllable. Eye may win the race and starve out the
other members. It would be a bad future for publishers and
authors; and I am against it, even as a possibility. Hence my
energies will be devoted to poking, thrilling, energizing,
tonicking that lazy old organism, half asleep still--Mind.


A few years ago drums and trumpets in American magazines and
publishers' advertisements announced that the essay was coming to
its own again. We were to vary our diet of short stories with
pleasing disquisitions, to find in books of essays a substitute
for the volume of sermons grown obsolete, and to titillate our
finer senses by graceful prose that should teach us without
didacticism, and present contemporary life without the incumbrance
of a plot.

The promise was welcome. American literature has been at its very
best in the essay. In the essay, with few exceptions, it has more
often than elsewhere attained world-wide estimation. Emerson,
Thoreau, Oliver Wendell Holmes were primarily essayists. Hawthorne
and Irving were essayists as much as romancers. Franklin was a
common sense essayist. Jonathan Edwards will some day be presented
(by excerpt) as a moral essayist of a high order. And there was

Have they had worthy successors? In the years after the Civil War
certainly none of equal eminence. But it is too early to say that
the trumpets and drums of the last decade were false heralds. The
brilliant epithets of Chesterton, the perfect sophistication of
Pearsall Smith (an American, but expatriated), the placid depth of
Hudson's nature studies, are not paralleled on this side of the
water, yet with Crothers, Gerould, Repplier, Colby, Morley,
Strunsky, we need not fear comparison in the critical genre,
unless it be with the incomparable Max Beerbohm.

Two kinds of expository writing are natural for Americans. The
first is a hard-hitting statement, straight out of intense feeling
or labored thought. That was Emerson's way (in spite of his
expansiveness), and Thoreau's also. You read them by pithy
sentences, not paragraphs. They assail you by ideas, not by
insidious structures of thought. The second is an easy-going
comment on life, often slangy or colloquial and frequently so
undignified as not to seem literature. Mark Twain and Josh
Billings wrote that way; Ring Lardner writes so to-day.

When the straight-from-the-shoulder American takes time to finish
his thought, to mold his sentences, to brain his reader with a
perfect expression of his tense emotion, then he makes literature.
And when the easy-going humorist, often nowadays a column conductor,
or a contributor to _The Saturday Evening Post_, takes time to deepen
his observation and to say it with real words instead of worn symbols,
he makes, and does make, literature. More are doing it than the
skeptical realize. The new epoch of the American essay is well under

But the desire to "make literature" in America is too often
wasted. The would-be essayist wastes it in pretty writing about
trivial things--neighbors' back yards, books I have read, the
idiosyncrasies of cats, humors of the streets--the sort of
dilettantish comment that older nations writing of more settled,
richer civilizations can do well--that Anatole France and occasional
essayists of _Punch_ or _The Spectator_ can do well and most of us do
indifferently. We are a humorous people, but not a playful one. Light
irony is not our forte. Strength and humorous exaggeration come more
readily to our pens than grace. We are better inspired by the follies
of the crowd, or the errors of humanity, than by the whims of culture
or aspects of pleasant leisure. And when we try to put on style in the
manner of Lamb or Hazlitt, Stevenson or Beerbohm, we seldom exceed the
second rate.

When the newspaper and magazine humorists of democracy learn to
write better; when the moralists and reformers and critics of
American life learn to mature and perfect their thought until what
they write is as good as their intentions--then the trumpets and
drums may sound again, and with justification. Many have; may
others follow.

And perhaps then we can scrap a mass of fine writing about nothing
in particular, that calls itself the American literary essay, and
yet is neither American in inspiration, native in style, nor good
for anything whatsoever, except exercise in words. Out with the
dilettantes. We are tired of the merely literary; we want real
literature in the essay as elsewhere.


SOME time ago a writer protested against the taboo on "beautiful
prose." He asserted that the usual organs of publication,
especially in America, reject with deadly certainty all
contributions whose style suggests that melodious rhythm which De
Quincey and Ruskin made fashionable for their generations, and
Stevenson revived in the 'nineties. He complained that the writer
is no longer allowed to write as well as he can; that he must
abstract all unnecessary color of phrase, all warmth of
connotation and grace of rhythm from his style, lest he should
seem to be striving for "atmosphere," instead of going about his
proper business, which is to fill the greedy stomach of the public
with facts.

Unfortunately, this timely fighter in a good cause was too
enamored of the art whose suppression he was bewailing. He so far
forgot himself as to make his own style "beautiful" in the old-
time fashion, and thus must have roused the prejudice of the
multitude, who had to study such style in college, and knew from
sad experience that it takes longer to read than the other kind.

But there are other and safer ways of combating the taste for flat
prose. One might be to print parallel columns of "newspaper
English" (which they threaten now to teach in the schools) until
the eye sickened of its deadly monotony. This is a bad way. The
average reader would not see the point. Paragraphs from a dozen
American papers, all couched in the same utilitarian dialect,--
simple but not always clear, concise yet seldom accurate, emphatic
but as ugly as the clank of an automobile chain,--why, we read
thousands of such lines daily! We think in such English; we talk
in it; to revolt from this style, to which the Associated Press
has given the largest circulation on record, would be like
protesting against the nitrogen in our air.

Books and magazines require a different reckoning. The author is
still allowed to let himself go occasionally in books--especially
in sentimental books. But the magazines, with few exceptions, have
shut down the lid, and are keeping the stylistic afflatus under
strict compression. No use to show them what they might publish
if, with due exclusion of the merely pretty, the sing-song, and
the weakly ornate, they were willing to let a little style escape.
With complete cowardice, they will turn the general into the
particular, and insist that in any case they will not publish
_you_. Far better, it seems to me, to warn editors and the
"practical public" as to what apparently is going to happen if
ambitious authors are tied down much longer to flat prose.

It is not generally known, I believe, that post-impressionism has
escaped from the field of pictorial art, and is running rampant in
literature. At present, Miss Gertrude Stein is the chief culprit.
Indeed, she may be called the founder of a coterie, if not of a

Her art has been defined recently by one of her admirers, who is
also the subject, or victim, of the word-portrait from which I
intend later to quote in illustration of my argument. "Gertrude
Stein," says Miss Dodge, "is doing with words what Picasso is
doing with paint. She is impelling language to induce new states
of consciousness, and in doing so language becomes with her a
creative art rather than a mirror of history." This, being written
in psychological and not in post-impressionist English, is fairly
intelligible. But it does not touch the root of the matter. Miss
Stein, the writer continues, uses "words that appeal to her as
having the meaning they _seem_ to have [that is, if "diuturnity"
suggests a tumble downstairs, it _means_ a tumble downstairs]. To
present her impressions she chooses words for their inherent quality
rather than their accepted meaning."

Let us watch the creative artist at her toil. The title of this
particular word-picture is "Portrait of Mabel Dodge at the Villa
Curonia." As the portrait itself has a beginning, but no middle,
and only a faintly indicated end, I believe--though in my
ignorance of just what it all means I am not sure--that I can
quote at random without offense to the impressions derivable from
the text.

Here then are a few paragraphs where the inherent quality of the
words is said to induce new states of consciousness:--

"Bargaining is something and there is not that success. The
intention is what if application has that accident results are
reappearing. They did not darken. That was not an adulteration....
There is that particular half of directing that there is that
particular whole direction that is not all the measure of any
combination. Gliding is not heavily moving. Looking is not
vanishing. Laughing is not evaporation.

"Praying has intention and relieving that situation is not solemn.
There comes that way.

"There is all there is when there has all there has where there is
what there is. That is what is done when there is done what is
done and the union is won and the division is the explicit visit.
There is not all of any visit."

After a hundred lines of this I wish to scream, I wish to burn the
book, I am in agony. It is not because I know that words
_cannot_ be torn loose from their meanings without insulting
the intellect. It is not because I see that this is a prime
example of the "confusion of the arts." No, my feeling is purely
physical. Some one has applied an egg-beater to my brain.

But having calmed myself by a sedative of flat prose from the
paper, I realize that Miss Stein is more sinned against than
sinning. She is merely a red flag waved by the _Zeitgeist_.

For this is the sort of thing we are bound to get if the lid is
kept down on the stylists much longer. Repression has always bred
revolt. Revolt breeds extravagance. And extravagance leads to
absurdity. And yet even in the absurd, a sympathetic observer may
detect a purpose which is honest and right. Miss Stein has
indubitably written nonsense, but she began with sense. For words
_have_ their sound-values as well as their sense-values, and
prose rhythms _do_ convey to the mind emotions that mere
denotation cannot give. Rewrite the solemn glory of Old Testament
diction in the flat colorless prose which just now is demanded,
and wonder at the difference. Translate "the multitudinous seas
incarnadine" into "making the ocean red,"--or, for more pertinent
instances, imagine a Carlyle, an Emerson, a Lamb forced to exclude
from his vocabulary every word not readily understood by the
multitude, to iron out all whimseys, all melodies from his
phrasing, and to plunk down his words one after the other in the
order of elementary thought!

I am willing to fight to the last drop of ink against any attempt
to bring back "fine writing" and ornate rhetoric into
prose.  "Expression is the dress of thought," and plain thinking and
plain facts look best in simple clothing. Nevertheless, if we must write
our stories, our essays, our novels, and (who knows) our poems in
the flat prose of the news column,--if the editors will sit on the
lid,--well, the public will get what it pays for, but sooner or
later the spirit of style will ferment, will work, will grow
violent under restraint. There will be reaction, explosion,
revolution. The public will get its flat prose, and--in addition--
not one, but a hundred Gertrude Steins.




THE appearance of the definitive edition of Joseph Conrad, with
his interesting critical prefaces included, was a provocation to
read and reread his remarkable series of books, the most
remarkable contribution to English literature by an alien since
the language began. But is it a reason for writing more of an
author already more discussed than any English stylist of our
time? For myself, I answer, yes, because I have found no adequate
definition of the difference between Conrad and us to whom English
thinking is native, nor a definition of his place, historically
considered, in the modern scheme; no definition, that is, which
explains my own impressions of Conrad. And therefore I shall
proceed, as all readers should, to make my own.

If you ask readers why they like Conrad, two out of three will
answer, because he is a great stylist, or because he writes of the
sea. I doubt the worth of such answers. Many buy books because
they are written by great stylists, but few read for just that
reason. They read because there is something in an author's work
which attracts them to his style, and that something may be study
of character, skill in narrative, or profundity in truth, of which
style is the perfect expression, but not the thing itself. Only
connoisseurs, and few of them, read for style. And, furthermore, I
very much doubt whether readers go to Conrad to learn about the
sea. They might learn as much from Cooper or Melville, but they
have not gone there much of late. And many an ardent lover of
Conrad would rather be whipped than go from New York to Liverpool
on a square-rigged ship.

In any case, these answers, which make up the sum of most writing
about Conrad, do not define him. To say that an author is a
stylist is about as helpful as to say that he is a thinker. And
Conrad would have had his reputation if he had migrated to Kansas
instead of to the English sea.

In point of fact, much may be said, and with justice, against
Conrad's style. It misses occasionally the English idiom, and
sometimes English grammar, which is a trivial criticism. It
offends more frequently against the literary virtues of
conciseness and economy, which is not a trivial criticism. Conrad,
like the writers of Elizabethan prose (whom he resembles in
ardency and in freshness), too often wraps you in words, stupefies
you with gorgeous repetition, goes about and about and about,
trailing phrases after him, while the procession of narrative
images halts. He can be as prolix in his brooding descriptions as
Meredith with his intellectual vaudeville. Indeed, many give him
lip service solely because they like to be intoxicated, to be
carried away, by words. A slight change of taste, such as that
which has come about since Meredith was on every one's tongue,
will make such defects manifest. Meredith lives in spite of his
prolixities, and so will Conrad, but neither because they are
perfect English stylists.

I am sure also that Conrad, at his very best, is not so good as
Melville, at his best, in nautical narrative; as Melville in, say,
the first day of the final chase of Moby Dick; I question whether
he is as good in sea narrative as Cooper in the famous passage of
Paul Jones's ship through the shoals. Such comparisons are, of
course, rather futile. They differentiate among excellences, where
taste is a factor. Nevertheless, it is belittling to a man who,
above almost all others in our language, has brooded upon the
mysteries of the mind's action, to say that he is great because he
describes so well the sea.

We must seek elsewhere for a definition of the peculiar qualities
of Conrad. And without a definition it is easy to admire but hard
to estimate and understand him.

I believe, first of all, that Conrad has remained much more a Slav
than he, or any of us, have been willing to admit. A friend of
mine, married to a Slav, told me of her husband, how, with his cab
at the door, and dinner waiting somewhere, he would sit brooding
(so he said) over the wrongs of his race. It is dangerous to
generalize in racial characteristics, but no one will dispute a
tendency to brood as a characteristic of the Slav. The Russian
novels are full of characters who brood, and of brooding upon the
characters and their fates. The structure of the Russian story is
determined not by events so much as by the results of passionate
brooding upon the situation in which the imagined characters find

So it is with Conrad, always and everywhere. In "Nostromo" he
broods upon the destructive power of a fixed idea; in "The Rescue"
upon the result of flinging together elemental characters of the
kind that life keeps separate; in "Youth" upon the illusions, more
real than reality, of youth. No writer of our race had ever the
patience to sit like an Eastern mystic over his scene, letting his
eye fill with each slightest detail of it, feeling its contours
around and above and beneath, separating each detail of wind and
water, mood and emotion, memory and hope, and returning again and
again to the task of description, until every impression was
gathered, every strand of motive threaded to its source.

Henry James, you will say, was even more patient. Yes, but James
did not brood. His work was active analysis, cutting finer and
finer until the atom was reached. His mind was Occidental. He
wished to know why the wheels went round. Conrad's, in this
respect, is Oriental. He wants to see what things essentially are.
Henry James refines but seldom repeats. Conrad, in such a story as
"Gaspar Ruiz" for example, or in "Chance," gives the impression of
not caring to understand if only he can fully picture the mind
that his brooding imagination draws further and further from its
sheath. It is incredible, to one who has not counted, how many
times he raises the same situation to the light--the Garibaldean
and Nostromo, Mrs. Travers marveling at her knowledge of Lingard's
heart--turns it, opens it a little further, and puts it back
while he broods on. Here is the explanation of Conrad's prolixity;
here the reason why among all living novelists he is least a slave
to incident, best able to let his story grow as slowly as life, and
still hold the reader's interest. As we read Conrad we also
brood; we read slowly where elsewhere we read fast. Turns of
style, felicities of description, as of the tropic ocean, or the
faces of women, have their chance. And, of course, the excellence,
the charm of Conrad's style is that in its nuances, its slow
winding paragraphs, its pausing sentences, and constant suggestion
of depths beyond depths, it is the perfect expression of the
brooding mind that grasps its meaning by the repetition of images
that drop like pebbles, now here, now there, in a fathomless pool.

This is to define Conrad in space, but not in time. In time, he
may be Slav or English, but certainly is modern of the moderns.
The tribute of admiration and imitation from the youth of his own
period alone might prove this. But it is easier to prove than to
describe his modernity. To say that he takes the imagination
afield into the margins of the world, where life still escapes
standardization and there are fresh aspects of beauty, is to fail
to differentiate him from Kipling or Masefield. To say that he
strikes below the act and the will into realms of the sub-
conscious, and studies the mechanism as well as the results of
emotion, is but to place him, where indeed he belongs, among the
many writers who have learned of Henry James or moved in parallels
beside him.

To get a better perspective of Conrad's essential modernity I
should like to propose a more cogent comparison, and a more
illuminating contrast, with a man whose achievements were in
Conrad's own province, who challenges and rewards comparison,
Herman Melville.

It may be that others have set "Moby Dick" beside the works of
Conrad. Some one must have done it, so illuminating in both
directions is the result. Here are two dreamers who write of the
sea and strange men, of the wild elements and the mysterious in
man; two authors who, a half century apart, sail the same seas and
come home to write not so much of them as what they dream when
they remember their experiences. Each man, as he writes,
transcends the sea, sublimates it into a vapor of pure
imagination, in which he clothes his idea of man, and so doing
gives us not merely great literature, but sea narrative and
description unsurpassed:

And thus, through the serene tranquillities of the tropical seas,
among waves whose hand-clappings were suspended by exceeding
rapture, Moby Dick moved on, still withholding from sight the full
terrors of his submerged trunk, entirely hiding the wretched
hideousness of his jaw.

Melville, writer of vivid descriptions of the South Seas,
"Typee," "Omoo," which were perfect of their kind, but still only
superlative travel books, distinguished in style but seldom
lifting beyond autobiography, began another reminiscent narrative
in "Moby Dick." In spite of his profound intellectual growth away
from the cool and humorous youth who paddled the Marquesan lake
with primitive beauties beside him, he seems to have meant in "The
White Whale" to go back to his earlier manner, to write an
accurate though highly personal account of the whaler's life, and
to that end had assembled a mass of information upon the sperm
whale to add to his own memories. Very literally the story begins
as an autobiography; even the elemental figure of the cannibal,
Queequeg, with his incongruous idol and harpoon in a New Bedford
lodging house, does not warn of what is to come. But even before
the _Pequod_ leaves sane Nantucket an undercurrent begins to
sweep through the narrative. This brooding captain, Ahab (for
Melville also broods, though with characteristic difference), and
his ivory leg, those warning voices in the mist, the strange crew
of all races and temperaments--the civilized, the barbarous, and
the savage--in their ship, which is a microcosm, hints that creep
in of the white whale whose nature is inimical to man and arouses
passions deeper than gain or revenge--all this prepares the reader
for something more than incident. From the mood of Defoe one
passes, by jerks and reversions, to the atmosphere of "The Ancient
Mariner" and of "Manfred."

When Conrad could not manage his story he laid it aside, sometimes
for twenty years, as with "The Rescue." But Melville was a wilder
soul, a greater man, and probably a greater artist, but a lesser
craftsman. He lost control of his book. He loaded his whaling
story with casks of natural history, deck loaded it with essays on
the moral nature of man, lashed to its sides dramatic dialogues on
the soul, built up a superstructure of symbolism and allegory,
until the tale foundered and went down, like the _Pequod_.
And then it emerged again a dream ship searching for a dream
whale, manned by fantastic and terrible dreams; and every now and
then, as dreams will, it takes on an appearance of reality more
vivid than anything in life, more real than anything in Conrad--
the meeting with the _Rachel_ and her captain seeking his
drowned son, the rising of Moby Dick with the dead Parsee bound to
his terrible flank, the grim dialogues of Ahab....

In this bursting of bounds, in these epic grandeurs in the midst
of confusion, and vivid realities mingled with untrammeled
speculation, lies the secret of Melville's purpose, and, by
contrast, the explanation of Conrad's modern effect beside him.
Melville, friend of Hawthorne and transcendentalist philosopher on
his own account, sees nature as greater and more terrible than
man. He sees the will of man trying to control the universe, but
failing; crushed if uncowed by the unmeasured power of an evil
nature, which his little spirit, once it loses touch with the will
of God, vainly encounters. Give man eyes only in the top of his
head, looking heavenward, says Ahab, urging the blacksmith, who
makes him a new leg buckle, to forge a new creature complete. He
writes of man at the beginning of the age of science, aware of the
vast powers of material nature, fretting that his own body is part
of them, desirous to control them by mere will, fighting his own
moral nature as did Ahab in his insensate pursuit of Moby Dick,
and destroyed by his own ambitions, even as Ahab, the
_Pequod_, and all her crew went down before the lashings and
charges of the white whale.

"Oh, Life," says Ahab, "here I am, proud as a Greek god, and yet
standing debtor to this blockhead [the carpenter] for a bone to
stand on!... I owe for the flesh in the tongue I brag with." And
yet as they approach the final waters "the old man's purpose
intensified itself. His firm lips met like the lips of a vise; the
Delta of his forehead's veins swelled like overladen brooks; in
his very sleep his ringing cry ran through the vaulted hull:
'Stern all! The white whale spouts thick blood!'"

Conrad comes at the height of the age of science. The seas for him
are full of dark mysteries, but these mysteries are only the
reflections of man. Man dominates the earth and sea, man conquers
the typhoon, intelligent man subdues the savage wills of the
barbarians of the shallows, man has learned to master all but his
own heart. The center of gravity shifts from without to within.
The philosopher, reasoning of God and of nature, gives place to
the psychologist brooding over an organism that is seat of God and
master of the elements. Melville is centrifugal, Conrad
centripetal. Melville's theme is too great for him; it breaks his
story, but the fragments are magnificent. Conrad's task is easier
because it is more limited; his theme is always in control. He
broods over man in a world where nature has been conquered,
although the mind still remains inexplicable. The emphasis shifts
from external symbols of the immensities of good and evil to the
behavior of personality under stress. Melville is a moral
philosopher, Conrad a speculative psychologist.

The essentially modern quality of Conrad lies in this transference
of wonder from nature to the behavior of man, the modern man for
whom lightning is only electricity and wind the relief of pressure
from hemisphere to hemisphere. Mystery lies in the personality
now, not in the blind forces that shape and are shaped by it. It
is the difference, in a sense, between Hawthorne, who saw the
world as shadow and illusion, symbolizing forces inimical to
humanity, and Hardy, who sees in external nature the grim
scientific fact of environment. It is a difference between eras
more marked in Conrad than in many of his contemporaries, because,
like Melville, Hawthorne, and Poe, he avoids the plain prose of
realism and sets his romantic heroes against the great powers of
nature--tempests, the earthquake, solitude, and grandeur. Thus
the contrast is marked by the very resemblance of romantic
setting. For Conrad's tempests blow only to beat upon the mind
whose behavior he is studying; his moral problems are raised only
that he may study their effect upon man.

If, then, we are to estimate Conrad's work, let us begin by
defining him in these terms. He is a Slav who broods by racial
habit as well as by necessity of his theme. He is a modern who
accepts the growing control of physical forces by the intellect
and turns from the mystery of nature to brood upon personality.
From this personality he makes his stories. External nature bulks
large in them, because it is when beat upon by adversity, brought
face to face with the elemental powers, and driven into strange
efforts of will by the storms without that man's personality
reaches the tensest pitch. Plot of itself means little to Conrad
and that is why so few can tell with accuracy the stories of his
longer novels. His characters are concrete. They are not symbols
of the moral nature, like Melville's men, but they are
nevertheless phases of personality and therefore they shift and
dim from story to story, like lanterns in a wood. Knowing their
hearts to the uttermost, and even their gestures, one nevertheless
forgets sometimes their names, the ends to which they come, the
tales in which they appear. The same phase, indeed, appears under
different names in several stories.

Melville crossed the shadow line in his pursuit of the secret of
man's relation to the universe; only magnificent fragments of his
imagination were salvaged for his books. Conrad sails on an open
sea, tamed by wireless and conquered by steel. Mystery for him
lies not beyond the horizon, but in his fellow passengers. On them
he broods. His achievement is more complete than Melville's; his
scope is less. When the physicists have resolved, as apparently
they soon will do, this earthy matter where now with our
implements and our machinery we are so much at home, into
mysterious force as intangible as will and moral desire, some new
transcendental novelist will assume Melville's task. The sea,
earth, and sky, and the creatures moving therein again will become
symbols, and the pursuit of Moby Dick be renewed. But now, for a
while, science has pushed back the unknown to the horizon and
given us a little space of light in the darkness of the universe.
There the ego is for a time the greatest mystery. It is an
opportunity for the psychologists and, while we are thinking less
of the soul, they have rushed to study the mechanics of the brain.
It was Conrad's opportunity also to brood upon the romance of
personality at the moment of man's greatest victory over dark
external force.


To those interested in the meaning of the generation that has now
left us quivering on the beach of after war, Thomas Hardy's books
are so engrossing that to write of them needs no pretext; yet the
recent publication of an anniversary edition with all his prefaces
included is a welcome excuse for what I propose to make, not so
much an essay as a record of a sudden understanding. Long
familiarity with Hardy's novels had led to an afternoon of
conversation with the author himself in the mildness of old age.
But he remained for me a still inexplicable figure, belonging to
an earlier century, yet in other respects so clearly abreast, if
not ahead, of the emotions of our own times, that at eighty he saw
the young men beginning to follow him. It was a reading of "The
Dynasts," in the tall, red volumes of the new edition, that
suddenly and unexpectedly seemed to give me a key.

The danger, so I had thought and think, is that Hardy bids fair to
become a legendary figure with an attribute, as is the way with
such figures, better known than the man himself. "Hardy, oh, yes,
the pessimist" threatens to become all the schoolboy knows and all
he needs to know of him, and his alleged philosophy of gloom is
already overshadowing the man's intense interest in strong and
appealing life. It has been the fate of many a great artist to get
a nickname, like a boy, and never be rid of it.

I do not wish by any ingenious fabrication to prove that Hardy was
not a pessimist. He is the father of the English school that
refuse to be either deists or moralists, and, like them, pushes
his stories to an end that is often bitter. His temperament is
cast in that brooding, reflective mood that concerns itself less
readily with jollity than with grief, and is therefore ever
slanting toward pessimism. This, even his style indicates. Like
the somber Hawthorne's, his style is brooding, adumbrative, rather
than incisive or brilliant, and it often limps among the facts of
his story like a man in pain. Indeed, Hardy is seldom a stylist,
except when his mood is somber; therefore it is by his sadder
passages that we remember him. Yet the most important fact about
Hardy is not that he is pessimistic.

His manner of telling a story, however, helps to confirm the
popular impression. Hardy's plots are a series of accidents, by
which the doom of some lovely or aspiring spirit comes upon it by
the slow drift of misfortune. Tess, Grace, Eustacia, Jude--it is
clear enough to what joys and sorrows their natures make them
liable. But the master prepares for them trivial error, unhappy
coincidence, unnecessary misfortune, until it is not surprising if
the analytic mind insists that he is laboring some thesis of
pessimism to be worked out by concrete example.

Nevertheless, this is incomplete definition, and it is annoying
that the dean of letters in our tongue should be subjected to a
sophomoric formula in which the emphasis is wrongly placed. The
critics, in general, have defined this pessimism, stopped there,
and said, this is Hardy. But youth that does not like pessimism
reads Hardy avidly. More light is needed.

Mr. Hardy himself does not suggest the simple and melancholy
pessimist. A mild old man, gentleness is the first quality one
feels in him, but at eighty he still waxed his mustache tips, and
his eyes lit eagerly. I remember how earnestly he denied knowledge
of science, piqued, I suppose, by the omniscient who had declared
that his art consisted of applying the results of scientific
inquiry to the study of simple human nature. If his treatment of
nature was scientific, as I affirmed, his wife agreed, and he did
not deny, then, he implied, his knowledge came by intuition, not
by theory. The war was still on when I talked with him. It had
lifted him to poetry at first, but by 1918 no longer interested
him vitally. "It is too mechanical," he said. His novels, where
fate seems to operate mechanically sometimes, he was willing that
day to set aside as nil. Poetry, he thought, was the only proper
form of expression. The novel was too indirect; too wasteful of
time and space in its attempt to come at real issues. Yet these
real issues, it appeared as we talked, were not theories. Ideas,
he said, if emphasized, destroy art. Writers, he thought, in the
future would give up pure fiction (serious writers, I suppose he
meant). Poetry would be their shorthand; they would by intenser
language cut short to their end.

What was _his_ end? Not mechanical, scientific theories, that
was clear. Not mere realistic description of life. He told me he
had little faith in mere observation, except for comic or quaint
characterization. He had seldom if ever studied a serious
character from a model. One woman he invented entirely (was it
Tess?) and she was thought to be his best. What, then, was this
essence which the novelist, growing old, would convey now in
concentrated form by poetry which to him, so he said, was story-
telling in verse.

It is easier to understand what he meant if one thinks how
definitely Hardy belongs to his age, the latter nineteenth
century, in spite of his reachings forward. On the one hand, his
very gentleness is characteristic of a period that was above all
others humane, On the other, his somber moods sprang from a
generation that was the first to understand the implications of
the struggle for life in the animal world all about them. They, to
be sure, deduced from what they saw a vague theory of evolution in
which the best (who were themselves) somehow were to come out best
in the end. He, though gentle as they were, deduced nothing so
cheerful, saw rather the terrible discrepancies between fact and
theory, so that his very gentleness made him pessimistic, where
Browning was optimistic. Then, like Hawthorne in the generation
before him, Hardy went back to an earlier, simpler life than his
own, and there made his inquiries. Hawthorne, who did not accept
the theology of Puritanism, was yet strangely troubled by the
problem of sin. Hardy, accepting the implacability of evolution
without its easy optimism, was intensely moved to pity. This is
his open secret.

The clearest statement is in his poetry, where again and again, in
our conversation that day, he seemed to be placing it--most of
all, I think, in "The Dynasts."

"The Dynasts" was published too soon. We English speakers, in
1904-1906, were beginning to read plays again, under the stimulus
of a dramatic revival, and the plays we read were successful on
the stage. As I recollect the criticism of "The Dynasts," much of
it at least was busied with the form of the drama, its great
length and unwieldiness. We thought of it not as a dramatic epic,
but as a dramatized novel--a mistake. We thought that Hardy was
taking the long way around, when in truth he had found a short cut
to his issues. That "The Dynasts," considering the vastness of its
Napoleonic subject, was far more concise, more direct, clearer
than his novels, did not become manifest, although the sharper-
eyed may have seen it.

In "The Dynasts" I find all of Hardy. The Immanent Will is God, as
Hardy conceives Him, neither rational nor entirely conscious,
frustrating His own seeming ends, without irony and without
compassion, and yet perhaps evolving like His world, clearing like
men's visions, moving towards consistency. The Sinister Angel and
the Ironic Angel are moods well known to Hardy, but not loved by
him. The Spirit of the Years that sees how poor human nature
collides with accident, or the inevitable, and is bruised, is
Hardy's reasoned philosophy. The Spirit of Pities (not always, as
he says, logical or consistent) is Hardy's own desire, his will,
his faint but deep-felt hope. I quote, from the very end of the
great spectacle, some lines in which the Spirits, who have watched
the confused tragedy of the Napoleonic age, sum up their thoughts:



    Thus doth the Great Foresightless mechanize
     Its blank entrancement now as evermore
     Its ceaseless artistries in circumstance....
     Yet seems this vast and singular confection
    Wherein our scenery glints of scantest size,
     Inutile all--so far as reasonings tell.


    Thou arguest still the
    Inadvertent Mind.
    But, even so, shall blankness be for aye?...


    What wouldst have hoped and had the
    Will to be?...


    Nay;--shall not
      Its blindness break?
    Yea, must not
      Its heart awake,
        Promptly tending
        To its mending
    In a genial germing purpose,
      and for loving-kindness' sake?


    Should It never
      Curb or cure
    Aught whatever
      Those endure

    Whom It quickens,
    Let them darkle
    To extinction
      Swift and sure,


    But--a stirring thrills the air
    Like to sounds of joyance there
      That the rages
      Of the ages

    Shall be cancelled, and
    Deliverance offered
      From the darts that were,

    Consciousness the
    Will informing, till
      It fashions all things fair!

The Spirit of the Years (which is another name for Hardy's
reflections upon life and history) planned in sad conviction of
the "blank entrancement" of the Great Foresightless Will, those
sad narratives in which innocence, as in "Tess of the
d'Ubervilles," is crushed, or vivid personality frustrated, as in
"The Return of the Native." It is the Spirit of Pities in Hardy
which wrote the stories. Philosophy constructed them, but pity
worked them out.

The characters that Hardy loved--Grace, Marty South, Jude, Tess--
are life, brooding, intense, potential, and lovely, struggling
against a fate which they help to draw upon themselves, but which
is, nevertheless, not necessary, not rational. The cruelty of this
fate he assumes and depicts, but the stories are not told to
describe it. It is his creatures that get the color, the interest;
they are valuable to us, and would be to him, whatever the truth
of his philosophy. But because he loves life, the living thing,
even the lizard in the woods, he broods upon their frustrations.

Pessimistic Hardy is, as any gentle heart would be who chose to
study misfortune; yet pessimist is not the right term for him.
Realist he is clearly, in the philosophic sense of one who is
willing to view things as they are without prejudice. I seek a
term for a mild spirit who sees clearly that the sufferer is more
intelligible than his fate, and so is pitiful even when most
ruthless in the depiction of misfortune. Pity for the individual,
not despair of the race, is his motive. And pity makes his gentle
style, pity makes him regardless of artifice, and gives his often
clumsy novels an undercurrent which sweeps them beyond technical
masterpieces whose only merit is sharpness of thought. It is
instructive to compare the relative fortunes of Hardy and
Meredith, once always bracketed--the apostle of pity in comparison
with the most subtle and brilliant mind of his time. Hardy has
outranked him.

Already it begins to appear that the inconsistent, half-conscious
Will that was the sum and substance of Hardy's pessimism was given
certain attributes of gloom that scarcely belonged to it. The
ruthless struggle for life by which the fittest for the
circumstances of the moment, and by no means the best, survive at
the expense of the others is no longer conceived as the clear law
of human life. Science, with the rediscovery of Mendelism and its
insistence upon psychological factors has submitted important
qualifications to this deduction which Hardy, in common with
others intellectually honest of his age, was forced to make. But
it is not Hardy's philosophy, sound or unsound, that counts in his
art? except in so far as it casts the plan of his stories, or
sometimes, as in "Tess," or "The Woodlanders," gives too much play
to cruel accident, and therefore an air of unreality to the tenser
moments of the plots. Our critical emphasis in the past has been
wrong. It should, to follow Hardy's own words, be set not upon the
idea, the suggested explanation of misfortune, but upon the living
creatures in his novels and poems alike. It is the characters he
wrought in pity, and, it would appear, in hope, that make him a
great man in our modern world, although only once did he pass
beyond the bounds of his primitive Wessex. The novelist of pity
and its poet, not the spokesman for pessimism, is the title I
solicit for him.


It has always surprised Europeans that Henry James, the most
intellectual of modern novelists, should have been an American;
for most Europeans believe, as does Lowes Dickinson, that we are
an intelligent but an unintellectual race. Was the fact so
surprising after all? The most thoroughgoing pessimists come from
optimistic communities. Henry James, considered as a literary
phenomenon, represented a sensitive mind's reaction against the
obviousness of the life that one finds in most American "best
sellers." I suppose that he reacted too far. I feel sure of it
when he is so unobvious that I cannot understand him. And yet
every American writer must feel a little proud that there was one
of our race who could make the great refusal of popularity, sever,
with those intricate pen strokes of his, the bonds of interest
that might have held the "general reader," and write just as well
as he knew how.

Whether his novels and short stories gained by this heroic
"highbrowism," is another question. Certainly they did not always
do so. To get a million of readers is no sure sign of greatness;
but to find only thousands, as did Henry James in his later books,
is to be deplored. In "Daisy Miller" and "The Bostonians" he was
a popular novelist of the best kind, a novelist who drew the best
people to be his readers. But men read "The Golden Bowl" and "The
Wings of the Dove" because they were skilful rather than because
they were interesting. They were novelists' novels, like the
professional matinees that "stars" give on Tuesday afternoons for
the benefit of rivals and imitators in art.

But to stop here would be to misunderstand totally the greatest
craftsman that has come out of America. The flat truth is that
Henry James was not a novelist at all, at least in the good, old-
fashioned sense that we usually give to the word. He was primarily
a critic; the greatest American critic since Poe. Sometimes he
criticized literature with supreme success, as in his "Notes on
Novelists" of 1914; but ordinarily he criticized life. His later
novels are one-fifth story, one-fifth character creation, and the
rest pure criticism of life.

There is a curious passage in his "A Small Boy and Others"-the
biography of the youth of William James and himself-telling how as
a child in the hotels and resorts of Europe he spent his time in
looking on at what was happening about him. He never got into the
game very far, because he preferred to think about it. That is
what Henry James did all his life long. He looked on, thought
about life with that wonderfully keen, and subtle, and humorous
mind of his, turned it into criticism; then fitted the results
with enough plot to make them move,--and there was a so-called
novel. Every one knows how in his last edition he rewrote some of
his early stories to make them more subtle. It would have been
amusing if he had seen fit to rewrite them altogether as critical
essays upon international life! I wonder how much they would have
suffered by the change.

This is why so many readers have been very proud of Henry James,
and yet unable to defend him successfully against critics who
pulled out handfuls of serpentine sentences from his latest novel,
asking, "Do you call this fiction?" It was not fiction, not
fiction at least as she used to be written; it was subtle,
graceful, cunning analysis of life. Fiction is synthesis--
building up, making a Becky Sharp, inventing a Meg Merrilies,
constructing a plot. Criticism is analysis--taking down, Henry
James was not so good at putting together as at taking to pieces.
He was able in one art, but in the other he was great.

The current tendency to make every new figure in world literature
conform to Greatness of a recognized variety or be dismissed, is
unfortunate and misleading. We are to be congratulated that the
greatness of Henry James was of a peculiar and irregular kind, a
keen, inventing greatness, American in this if in nothing else.
Unnumbered writers of the day, of whom Mr. Kipling is not the
least eminent, have profited by his influence, and learned from
him to give the final, subtle thought its final form. If that form
in his own case was tortuous, intricate, difficult, why so was the
thought. If it makes hard reading, his subject at least got hard
thinking. Before you condemn that curious style of his-so easy to
parody, so hard to imitate--ask whether such refinement of
thought as his could be much more simply expressed. Sometimes he
could have been simpler, undoubtedly; it was his fault that he did
not care to be; but that "plain American" would usually have
served his purpose, is certainly false.

Henry James must yield first honors as a novelist, it may be, to
others of his century if not of his generation. As a writer, above
all as a writer of fine, imaginative criticism of the intellect as
it moves through the complexities of modern civilization, he
yields to no one of our time. Whether he has earned his
distinction as an American writer I do not know, although I am
inclined to believe that he is more American than the critics
suspect; but as a master of English, and as a great figure in the
broad sweep of international English literature, his place is

Samuel Butler's "Erewhon" has passed safely into the earthly
paradise of the so-called classics. It has been recommended by
distinguished men of letters, reprinted and far more widely read
than on its first appearance; it has passed, by quotation and
reference, into contemporary literature, and been taught in
college classes. "Erewhon Revisited," written thirty years after
"Erewhon," is less well known.

Mr. Moreby Acklom (whose name, let me assure the suspicious
reader, is his own and not an Erewhonian inversion), in a most
informing preface to a new edition, makes two assertions which may
serve as my excuse for again endeavoring to explain the
fascination for our generation of the work of Samuel Butler.
College professors, he avers, have an antipathy for Samuel Butler;
the chief interest of Butler, he further states, was in theology.
Now I am a college professor without antipathy to Samuel Butler,
with, on the contrary, the warmest admiration for his sardonic
genius. And furthermore Butler's antipathy for college professors,
which is supposed to have drawn their fire in return, is based
upon a ruling passion far deeper than his accidental interest in
theology, a passion that gives the tone and also the key to the
best of his writings and which brought him into conflict with the
"vested interests" of his times. It is his passion for honest
thinking. If Butler's mark had been theology merely, his books
would have passed with the interest in his target. He would be as
difficult reading to-day as Swift in his "Tale of a Tub."

Like most of the great satirists of the world, Butler's saeva
indignatio was aroused by the daily conflicts between reason and
stupidity, between candor and disingenuousness, with all their
mutations of hypocrisy, guile, deceit, and sham. In "Erewhon" it
was human unreason, as a clever youth sees it, that he was
attacking. We remember vividly the beautiful Erewhonians, who knew
disease to be sin, but believed vice to be only disease. We
remember the "straighteners" who gave moral medicine to the
ethically unwell, the musical banks, the hypothetical language,
the machines that threatened to master men, as in the war of 1914-
1918 and in the industrial system of to-day they have mastered men
and made them their slaves. There was a youthful vigor in
"Erewhon," a joyous negligence as to where the blow should fall, a
sense of not being responsible for the world the author flicked
with his lash, which saved the book from the condemnation that
would have been its fate had the Victorians taken it seriously. It
was an uneven book, beginning with vivid narrative in the best
tradition of Defoe, losing itself finally in difficult argument,
and cut short in mid-career.

"Erewhon Revisited" is much better constructed. The old craftsman
has profited by his years of labor in the British Museum. He has a
story to tell, and tells it, weighting it with satire judiciously,
as a fisherman weights his set line. If his tale becomes unreal it
is only when he knows the author is ready to hear the author in
person. If the Erewhon of his first visit does not fit his new
conception he ruthlessly changes it. One misses the satiric _tours de
force_ of the first "Erewhon." There is nothing so brilliant as the
chapters on disease and machines which for fifty years since life has
been illustrating. But "Erewhon Revisited" is a finished book; it has
artistic unity.

And why does Butler revisit Erewhon? Not because he was trained as
a priest and must have an excuse to rediscuss theology, although
the story of the book suggests this explanation. Higgs, the
mysterious stranger of "Erewhon," who escaped by a balloon, has
become a subject for myth. In Erewhon he is declared the child of
the sun. Miracles gather about the supreme miracle of his air-born
departure. His "Sayings," a mixture of Biblical quotation and
homely philosophy, strained through Erewhonian intellects, become
a new ethics and a new theology. His clothes are adopted for
national wear (although through uncertainty as to how to put them
on one part of the kingdom goes with buttons and pockets behind).
Sunchildism becomes the state religion. The musical banks, which
had been trading in stale idealism, take it over and get new life;
and the professors of Bridgeford, the intellectuals of the
kingdom, capitalize it, as we say to-day, and thus tighten their
grip on the public's mind and purse.

Butler's purpose is transparent. It is not, as Longmans, who
refused the work, believed, to attack Christianity. It is rather
to expose the ease with which a good man and his message (Higgs
brought with him to Erewhon evangelical Christianity) can become
miraculous, can become an instrument for politics and a cause of
sham. Indeed, Butler says in so many words to the Anglicans of his
day: "Hold fast to your Christianity, for false as it is it is better
than what its enemies would substitute; but go easy with
the miraculous, the mythical, the ritualistic. These 'tamper with
the one sure and everlasting word of God revealed to us by human

All this is permanent enough, but I cannot believe, as most
commentators do, that it is the heart of the book; or if it is the
heart of the book, it is not its fire. The satiric rage of Butler,
who in the person of Higgs returns to Erewhon to find himself
deified, does not fall upon the fanatic worshipers of the
sunchild, nor even upon the musical banks who have grown strong
through his cult. It kindles for the ridiculous Hanky and Panky,
professors respectively of worldly wisdom and worldly unwisdom at
Bridgeford, and hence, according to Mr. Acklom, the antipathy
toward Butler of all college professors.

But it is not because they are professors that Butler hates Hanky
and Panky; it is because they represent that guaranteed authority
which in every civilization can and does exploit the passions and
the weaknesses of human nature for its own material welfare.
Butler had been conducting a lifelong warfare against scholars who
defended the _status quo_ of the church and against scientists who
were consolidating a strategic (and remunerative) position for
themselves in the universities. He saw, or thought he saw, English
religion milked for the benefit of Oxford and Cambridge graduates
needful of "livings"; and Darwinism and the new sciences generally
being swept into the maw of the same professionally intellectual
class. A free lance himself, with a table in the British Museum, some
books and a deficit instead of an income from his intellectual labors,
he attacked the vested interests of his world.

He exposed the dangers which wait upon all miraculous religions,
the shams which they give birth to. But not because he was
obsessed with theology. If he had lived in the nineteen hundreds
he would have studied, I think, sociology and economics instead of
theology and biology. He would have attacked, in England, the
House of Lords instead of Oxford, and had an eye for the
intellectuals who are beginning to sway the mighty power of the
labor unions. He would have been a Radical-Conservative and voted
against both the British Labor party and the Coalition. In America
he would have lashed the trusts, execrated the Anti-Saloon League,
admired and been exasperated by Mr. Wilson, hated the Republican
party, and probably have voted for it lest worse follow its
defeat. He would have been, in short, a liberal of a species very
much needed just now in America, a bad party man, destructive
rather than constructive, no leader, but a satirist when, God
knows, we need one for the clearing of our mental atmosphere.

And unless I am wrong throughout this brief analysis, Samuel
Butler, who mentally and spiritually is essentially our
contemporary, would not, if he were writing now, concern himself
with theology at all, but with the shams and unreasons which are
the vested tyrannies set over us to-day. Erewhon, when we last
hear of it, is about to become a modern colonial state. Its
concern is with an army and with economics. Chow-Bok, the savage,
now become a missionary bishop, is about to administer its
ecclesiastical system. Its spiritual problems no longer center
upon the validity of miraculous tradition and the logic of a
theological code. But the vested interests (represented by Pocus,
the son of Hanky) remain. These Butler would attack in the needed
fashion. These remain the enemy.




I am well aware that literature or even such an inconsiderable
part of literature as this gay book on my desk or the poem on the
printed page, as a whole is indefinable. Every critic of
literature from Aristotle down has let some of it slip between his
fingers. If he describes the cunning form of a play or a story,
then the passion in it, or the mood behind it, eludes him. If he
defines the personality of the writer, the art which makes all the
difference between feeling and expression escapes definition. No
ten philosophers yet agree as to whether beauty is an absolute
quality, or simply an attribute of form, whether a poem is
beautiful because it suggests and approaches an archetype, or
whether it is beautiful because it perfectly expresses its

And yet when the ambition to explain and describe and define
everything is humbly set aside there remains a good honest job for
the maker of definitions, and it is a job that can be done. I may
not be able to tell what art is, but I can tell what it isn't. I
may fail to make a formula for literature, but I can try at least
to tell what Thomas Hardy has chiefly accomplished, define
Conrad's essential quality, point out the nature of romantic
naturalism, and distinguish between sentiment and sentimentality.
And if such things were ever worth doing they are worth doing now.

Only a prophet dares say that we are at the beginning of a great
creative period in the United States, but any open-eyed observer
can see that an era of American literary criticism is well under
way. The war, which confused and afterward dulled our thinking,
stirred innumerable critical impulses, which are coming to the
surface, some like bubbles and others like boils, but some as new
creations of the American intellect. The new generation has shown
itself acrimoniously critical. It slaps tradition and names its
novels and poetry as Adam named the animals in the garden, out of
its own imagination. The war shook it loose from convention, and
like a boy sent away to college, its first impulse is to disown
the Main Street that bore it. Youth of the 90's admired its elders
and imitated them unsuccessfully. Youth of the nineteen twenties
imitates France and Russia of the 70's, and contemporary England.
It may eventually do more than the 90's did with America; in the
meantime, while it flounders in the attempt to create, it is at
least highly critical. Furthermore, the social unrest, beginning
before the war and likely to outlast our time, has made us all
more critical of literature. Mark Twain's "Yankee in King Arthur's
Court" turned the milk of Tennyson's aristocratic "Idylls" sour.
The deep drawn undercurrent of socialistic thinking urges us
toward a new consideration of all earlier writing, to see what may
be its social significance. The "churl," the "hind," the
"peasant," the "first servant" and "second countryman," who were
the mere transitions of earlier stories now are central in
literature. They come with a challenge, and when we read
Galsworthy, Wells, Sinclair, Dreiser, Hardy's "The Dynasts,"
Bennett--we are conscious of criticizing life as we read. The pale
cast of thought has sicklied modern pages. The more serious works
of art are also literary criticism. Again, there is the mingling
of the peoples, greatest of course in America. Our aliens used to
be subservient to the national tradition. They went about becoming
rich Americans and regarded the Anglo-American culture as a
natural phenomenon, like the climate, to which after a while they
would accustom themselves. Their children were born in it. But now
it is different. The Jews particularly, who keep an Oriental
insistence upon logic even longer than a racial appearance, have
passed the acquisitive stage and begin to throw off numerous
intellectuals, as much at home in English as their fellow
Americans, but critical of the American emotions, and the American
way of thinking, as only a brain formed by different traditions
can be. Soon the Mediterranean races domiciled here will pass into
literary expressiveness. It is as impossible that we should not
have criticism of the national tradition expressed in our
literature as that an international congress should agree upon
questions of ethics or religion.

And of course the new internationalism, which is far more vigorous
than appears on the surface, favors such criticism. The war
brought America and Europe two thousand miles closer, and the
habit of interest in what Europeans are thinking, once acquired,
is not likely to be lost. No American writer of promise can hope
now to escape comparison with the literatures of Western Europe,
and comparison means a new impulse to criticism.

Fundamental, creative criticism--like Sainte-Beuve's, Matthew
Arnold's, Walter Pater's, like Dryden's, Brunetiere's, De
Gourmont's, or Croce's--will presumably come. The conditions, both
of publication and of audience, are ripe for it now in the United
States. But there is a good deal of spade work in the study of
literature to be done first, and still more education of the
reading American mind. One reason why Lowell was not a great
critic was because his scholarship was defective, or, to put it
more fairly, because the scholarship of his contemporaries, with
whose knowledge he might have buttressed his own, was incomplete.
And if a twentieth century Sainte-Beuve should begin to write for
general American readers, it is doubtful whether they would accept
his premises. Says the intellectual, why _should_ he write for the
general public? I answer that if he writes for coteries only, if he is
disdainful of the intelligent multitude, he will never understand
_them,_ and so will not comprehend the national literature which it is
his function to stimulate, interpret, and guide.

The spade work of criticism is research, investigation into the
facts of literature and into its social background. The scholar is
sometimes, but not often, a critic. He finds out what happened,
and often why it happened. He analyzes, but he does not usually
make a synthesis. He writes history, but he cannot prophesy, and
criticism is prophecy implied or direct. Few outside the
universities realize the magnitude of American research into
literature, even into American literature, which has been
relatively neglected. A thousand spades have been at work for a
generation. We are getting the facts, or we are learning how to
get them.

But before we may expect great criticism we must educate our
public, and ourselves, in that clear vision of what is and what is
not, which from Aristotle down has been the preliminary to
criticism. A humble, but a useful, way to begin is by definition.

I use definition in no pedantic sense. I mean, in general, logical
definition where the class or _genus_ of the thing to be
described--whether best-selling novel or sentimental tendency--is
first made clear, and then its _differentia,_ its differences
from the type analyzed out and assorted. But this process in
literature cannot be as formal as logic. Good literature cannot be
bound by formulas. Yet when a poem charged with hot emotion, or a
story that strays into new margins of experience, is caught and
held until one can compare it with others, see the curve on which
it is moving, guess its origin and its aim, forever after it
becomes easier to understand, more capable of being thought about
and appreciated. And when the current of taste of some new
generation that overflows conventions and washes forward, or
backward, into regions long unlaved, is viewed as a current, its
direction plotted, its force estimated, its quality compared, why
that is definition, and some good will come of it.

Some general definition of that intellectual emotion which we call
good reading is especially needed in America. Most of us, if we
are native born, have been educated by a set of literary
conventions arranged in convenient categories. That is more or
less true of all literary education, but it is particularly true
in the United States, where the formal teaching of English
literature _per se_ began, where, as nowhere else in the
world, there was a great and growing population eager to become
literate and with no literary traditions behind it. The student
from a bookless home learned to think of his literature as
primarily something to be studied; the teacher who had to teach
thousands like him was forced to reduce living literature to dead
categories in order that a little of it at least should be taught.
Thousands of Americans, therefore, of our generation emerged from
their training with a set of literary definitions which they
assumed to be true and supposed to be culture. Only true
definitions of what literature really is can break up such
fossilized defining.

On the other hand, that large proportion of our best reading
population which is not native in its traditions offers a
different but equally important problem. How can the son of a
Russian Jew, whose father lived in a Russian town, who himself has
been brought up in clamorous New York, understand Thoreau, let us
say, or John Muir, or Burroughs, or Willa Cather, without some
defining of the nature of the American environment and the
relation between thought and the soil? How is an intelligent
German-American, whose cultural tradition has been thoroughly
Teutonic, to make himself at home in a literature whose general
character, like its language, is English, without some defining of
the Anglo-American tradition? Lincoln must be defined for him;
Milton must be defined for him; most of all perhaps Franklin must
be defined for him. I have chosen elementary examples, but my
meaning should be sufficiently clear.

And the American critic--by which I mean you, O discriminating
reader, as well as the professional who puts pen to paper--is
equally in need of the art of definition. The books we read and
write are on different planes of absolute excellence or
unworthiness. There is--to take the novel--the story well
calculated to pass a pleasant hour but able to pass nothing else;
there is the story with a good idea in it and worth reading for
the idea only; there is the story worthless as art but usefully
catching some current phase of experience; and there is the fine
novel which will stand any test for insight, skill, and truth. Now
it is folly to apply a single standard to all these types of
story. It can be done, naturally, but it accomplishes nothing
except to eliminate all but the shining best. That is a task for
history. In the year in which we live--and it is sometimes
necessary to remind the austerer critic that we always live in the
present--there are a hundred books, of poetry, of essays, of
biography, of fiction, which are by no means of the first rank and
yet are highly important, if only as news of what the world, in
our present, is thinking and feeling. They cannot be judged, all
of them, on the top plane of perfect excellence; and if we judge
them all on any other plane, good, better, best get inextricably

For example, consider once more a novel which at the moment of
this writing is a best-seller, and which with reference to its
popularity I have discussed in an earlier essay. I mean Mr.
Hutchinson's "If Winter Comes." This book is essentially the
tragedy of a good and honest soul thrown by harsh circumstance
into an environment which is bound to crush him. He has the wrong
wife, he has the wrong business associates, the girl he loves
is separated from him by moral barriers. If he breaks through these
he injures irreparably his own sense of what is due to his God and
his fellow man. His instincts of charity, humor, and love rebound
upon him. He is too Christian for England, and too guileless for
life. This is a worthy theme, and yet if we judge this novel on
the highest plane it fails miserably. For Mr. Hutchinson stacks
the cards. He gives his hero his way and his salvation, after much
suffering, by a series of lucky accidents. He destroys the problem
he creates, by forging an answer.

But this novel should not be finally judged on the highest plane.
It is not a tragedy, it is a romance. It belongs on the plane
below, the plane of stories told to meet the secret desires of
humanity, which have little to do with reality, and are quite
oblivious to fact. On this plane "If Winter Comes" ranks highly,
for it is poignantly told, there is life in its characters, and
truth in the best of its scenes. Definition saves us from calling
a good novel great; it spares us the unnecessary error of calling
a good and readable story bad because it is not a triumph of
consistent art.

It is hard enough in all conscience to see that a given book is
good for _this_ but not good for _that;_ may be praised for its plot,
but certainly has not character enough to get long life. But when the
difficulty of adjusting standards is increased by the irresponsible
hullabaloo of commercial appreciation, no wonder that sensible people
estimate foolishly, and critics of standing are induced to write for
publication remarks that some day will (or should) make them sick. For
the publishers' "blurb" confuses all standards. Every book is
superlative in everything. And the hack reviewer, when he likes a
book, likes everything and applies Shakespearian adjectives and
Tolstoyan attributes to creatures of dust and tinsel, or blunders
helplessly into dispraise of scholarship, restraint, subtlety, taste,
originality--anything that he does not understand.

There is no help except to set books upon their planes and assort
them into their categories--which is merely to define them before
beginning to criticize. This is elementary work as I have said,
which may lead the critic only so far as the threshold, and cannot
always give the reader that complete and sympathetic comprehension
of what he has read which is the final object of literary
criticism. However, in an age when overemphasis has been
commercialized, and where the powerful forces of print can be
mobilized and sent charging everywhere to bowl down contrary
opinions, it is indispensable.

Scholarly books have been dispraised because they were not
exciting; fine novels have been sneered at because they were hard
to read; cheap stories have been proclaimed great because they
wore a pretense of seriousness; sentimentality has been welcomed
because it was warm hearted; indecency has been condemned for
immorality; immorality has slipped through as romance; daring has
been mistaken for novelty; painstaking dulness, for careful art;
self-revelation, for world knowledge; pretty writing, for
literature; violence, for strength; and warped and unhealthy
egoism for the wise sincerity which is the soul of literature. In
all such instances definition is the prophylactic, and often the

Writers, most of all, need to define their tasks. I do not mean
their technical problems merely, although I cannot conceive that a
dramatist or playwright, who has his subject well in mind, can
possibly be hurt by thinking out his methods with the most
scrupulous care. Lubbock's recent book on "The Craft of Fiction"
has emphasized an art of approach and point of view in the great
novelists which was thoroughly conscious, even though they may
never have tried to formulate it in words. I mean particularly the
defining of their themes, their objectives. Many modern novels of
the better class, and a great many modern poems, seem to me awash
and wallowing like derelicts on the high seas. They are successful
enough in this, excellent in that, but they get nowhere, because
the writers had felt the emotion that made them, or suffered the
experience, but never defined it in terms of all emotion, all
experience, never considered its end. The three dots...of modern
literature are significant. We break off our efforts, partly no
doubt because we seek effects of impressionism, more often because
imagination went no further. Near things are sharp and expressed
with remarkable vividness, ultimate objectives are blurred, which
is to say, they lack definition.

May the shades of Dr. Johnson, Charles Lamb, Emerson, and all
great individualists protect us from bad definitions, and
especially from rigid or formal ones! Bad definitions destroy
themselves, for if they are thoroughly bad no one believes them,
and if they contain those pleasing half truths which a generation
loves to suckle upon, why then after their vogue they will wither
into nothingness. Such definitions are of the letter, and die by
it, but stiff, clumsy definitions kill the spirit. To define a
great man by a rigid formula is to sink to the lowest practice of
the worst class rooms. To define a tendency so sharply that it
cannot flow without breaking the definition, is a lecturer's trick
for which audiences should stone him. Solemn generalizations which
squat upon a book like an ostrich on a goose egg and hatch out
vast moral philosophies are to be dreaded like the devil, as are,
equally, the critics with pet theories, who, having defined them,
make everything from a squib to an epic fit their definition.

Definitions which classify without margins are a special evil: the
division into literature and journalism for example, with no
allowance for interlocking; or the confident separation of all
books into categories of good or bad. Wholesale definitions are
also objectionable, where having defined a poem as magazine verse,
or a collection of articles as a magazine, or a book as a sex
story, or a man as a journalist, or a tendency as erratic or
erotic, you think you have said something. May the muse of clear
thinking, and the little humorous gods who keep the sense of
proportion balancing, protect us from these also.

It occurs to me that I have made but a lame attempt to define
definition. This, however, is as it should be. For definition, in
the sense in which I am using it, like literature, has much of the
indefinable. It is a tool merely, or better still, because
broader, a device by which the things we enjoy and that profit us
may be placed in perspective, ranged, compared, sorted, and
distinguished. It is what Arnold meant by seeing steadily and
seeing whole. It is the scientist's microscope that defines
relationship, and equally the painter's brush that by a touch
reveals the hidden shapes of nature and the blend of colors. It
is, like these instruments, a _means_ and not an _end._ May pedants,
scholiasters, formalists, and dilettantes take to heart this final
description of literary definition!

Quite unconsciously for the most part, but occasionally with
purpose aforethought, the essays in this book have been written as
literary definitions. Its unity lies in the attempt, which at
least has been sincere, to grasp, turn, study in a serious,
humorous, ironical, anything but a flippant mood, the living forms
of literature as they have risen into consciousness and challenged


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