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Sainte-Beuve


ISSUE:  Winter 1926

Sainte-Beuve. By Lewis Freeman Mott. New York: D. Appleton & Co. $5.00.

Compared with the biography of a soldier, diplomat or adventurer, the story of Sainte-Beuve’s life is at a disadvantage. It is the story of a mind rather than of events. Almost nothing happened to Sainte-Beuve, and therefore his life offers difficult material for the biographer. One duel, one serious love-affair, occasional changes from the staff of one literary journal to another, unsuccessful attempts in professional chairs—these are the external facts to be related; spiritual journeys through Saint-Simonism to a lukewarm interest in Catholicism, from Romanticism to a sympathy with the succeeding literary movements, these are the real subject of the biography. And to these should be added his numerous friendships, soon followed by quarrels, which kept placing him in ever new groups of editors and authors.

The life of such a man becomes a succession of analyses of mental states, of style, of method of criticism, of all the outside paraphernalia of a great scholar and admirable critic, — which at times and in small doses makes good reading, but which when carried on for five hundred and fourteen pages, necessitates a book-mark.

Professor Mott’s book is admirably sober. He states facts and states them clearly, with an evident intention neither to condone nor to accuse, nor to overstate. Sometimes one could almost wish he had defended his author against oft-repeated charges of meanness, jealousy and pettiness.

Taking sides may not be good scientific procedure, but it makes for literary expression. Not that facts should he distorted, but might they not be related in that heightened form of language called style? Especially in our country, threatened if not already overtaken by that general mediocrity which Matthew Arnold prophesied for us, is it not of prime necessity to stimulate people to read Sainte-Beuve and not be satisfied with reading about him? This question of style is of course anathema to the scholars of German training. “No style,” they say, “just facts!” But is it not true that, if it is a question of a thorough-going definitive study of a French author, a Frenchman can do it best? What we need to do in this country is to show our compatriots how to profit by French literature and French civilization. To reach this end, had we not better induce our citizens to study the authors themselves?

It is not my intention to imply that the book is wholly drab. Take this passage (p. 115):

“As to passion, we get the impression that Sainte-Beuve was by no means a man who goes frankly and heartily into a love affair. He examines his condition, makes a commentary on every emotion, and comes to disdain, even to despise himself as a result of dissecting his motives, separating the theatrical from the real, and distinguishing in every idealism of the soul a sediment of sensuality. There results a subtle self-comprehension, without self-mastery, superfine intelligence at the expense of will! He does not plunge into either sin or repentance vigorously and with his whole nature, but slinks into both partially and with reserves. In life, as in literature, he is not the poet, but the critic. Victor Hugo smashes way into his various love-affairs with the regardless violence of a tempest; Sainte-Beuve, a sort of moist November breeze, blowing now from one direction, now from another, sighs and moans intermittently about the object, and occasionally turns over a dead leaf to show that the underside has begun to decay.”

This splendid account of the critic’s psychology shows also how difficult a task is the biography of such a man.

One feature of Professor Mott’s book cannot be too highly praised. For the benefit of those who might wish a briefer account of the great critic’s life, he has placed at the beginning of each chapter a paragraph of finer print, relating succinctly the gist of that chapter. This is an excellent plan and works as a sort of larger index. The great work on Port-Royal he has also summarized and printed in similar fashion as an appendix to Chapter VI. Nothing could be better.

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