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H.M. Tomlinson: The Eternal Youth


ISSUE:  Winter 1928

Because his book is labeled fiction, H. M. Tomlinson, with the publication of his first novel, “Gal-lions Reach,” is gaining fame. Before, Tomlinson, essayist and traveler, enjoyed but a limited distinction. Recently, however, and mainly through “Gallions Reach,” there has grown a Tomlinson vogue. He has been praised as “a second Conrad.”

The truth is, Tomlinson does not derive from nor resemble Conrad. “Gallions Reach” — the book by which Tomlinson’s name is linked with Conrad’s and by which Tomlinson is becoming popularly known—has added no inches to Tomlinson’s literary stature. As a novel, it is a doubtful success and then succeeds only where Tomlinson reached distinction many years ago in his seven travel books of essays, some of them now quite old. These books are: “The Sea and the Jungle,” “Old Junk/’ “London River,” “Waiting for Daylight,” “Tide Marks,” “Gifts of Fortune,” and “The Foreshore of England.” Both Tomlinson and Conrad write about the sea; that is their chief agreement. If that makes them alike, then Jane Austen and Sinclair Lewis are similar, because they both write of small towns; and Felix Riesenberg and Edith Wharton resemble each other because they both write of New York. Tomlinson can stand on his own feet.

Who is H. M. Tomlinson? His name heads frequent articles in “Harper’s” and “Century,” and he has published books and essays for twenty, years. But his fame is recent. In an unpublished biographical essay, he says,

It seems to me an impossible task to interest strangers in such an early history as mine. That is all private litter, except for what has appeared in my books. My existence has been uneventful and unmarked; except, I fear, by the Recording Angel. And when he publishes it, some day, I do not expect a ripple of excitement to pass round the Judgment hall. It will be heard only in dreary resignation by the few who are still waiting their turn while the T’s are being worked through.

But this humility is not warranted. Tomlinson’s life has been eventful beyond most. He has gone to the Malays and to the Amazon; he has reported wars and explored London; he has worked for ships and on ships. He is now past fifty —a veteran journalist; his first book was published when he was thirty-eight. That was “The Sea and the Jungle” and laid the foundation for what is rapidly becoming fame.

II

The present vogue for Tomlinson is not hard to understand. But it is surprising that it did not happen long ago. What he writes about has been popular since Homer and “Beowulf.” The old sea has always been a wonder. Boys whittle boats and watch twigs swirl downstream in a creek. Men squander afternoons in summer seeing ships unload in harbor, and poor fellows from offices dream of cruisers outward bound. There is a charm about it, just as Herman Melville said there was. And all his life Tomlinson has lived around ships. He has written much about them and the strange lands to which they sometimes go. His tale has always been strange and full of things most of us cannot see. The magic of the ocean is in it.

Yet, this vogue comes from more than Tomlinson’s use of the sea and ships for subjects. Tomlinson, better still, gives his readers enthusiasm. For him the world is born new every morning. He has never lost a boy’s pleasure in a new sight or sound or smell. That, in an old world, ought to assure him of fame. Tomlinson has never sought eternal youth—he is the eternal youth. Men who grow old lose the capacity for enjoying things. They think less and less of their birthdays—except to count them morosely—and they care nothing for candles and a cake. To use a figure, Tomlinson can still enjoy a birthday, party. For him, at each affair, there never was another party like it and never such a fine company gathered together.

To read “Tide Marks” and see how surprising it is to Tomlinson to set sail on a ship; to see how splendid all the sailors are and how glorious every prospect (nor is man vile), is to be convinced that Tomlinson never rode a ship before. You believe he is young, inexperienced. You become startled to learn that although he may be easy to surprise, he is not young in years or in experience. You wonder at his fifty or more years.

This youth, or freshness, is a quality of good literature. We must grant Tomlinson much for it. Many wise men regret its passing. Wordsworth always did: “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting. . . .” Longfellow bewails his lost youth, and when we look for what distinguishes an artist from other men, we usually come back to this freshness which enables him to enjoy what is to other men dull or stale.

There is a subtle suggestion in this which hints, however, that Tomlinson is mature despite his youthful zest. Where young writers wage combat, Tomlinson never grows angry. He has lived too long to think that eccentric battles against restrictive convention avail. He brings heightened delight instead of growing pains. Such peace is not often found in young men.

III

But criticism, as usual cold and somewhat clammy, cannot accept this enthusiasm without what may be some derogatory qualifications. It must be remembered, however, that whatever adverse judgment may, within this article, be passed, it is, nevertheless, the opinion of a reader who has found in the prose of H. M. Tomlinson a steadfast pleasure.

Enthusiasm, or freshness, is never good because of itself. Freshness is either arrested development—immaturity—or genius—hypermaturity, to use a parallel phrase. Sherwood Anderson, in some of his moments of infantile admiration, may stand as an example of the freshness of immaturity. John Keats, who delights justly in a nightingale, represents the freshness of genius.

Is the delight of Tomlinson’s the one or the other? Let us take up the case of arrested development first.

One way to keep enjoying experience and to get what the motion pictures term, so justly, a thrill, is to hypnotize yourself into thinking every strange view perfect and every visible man splendid. It is the way of the professional optimist, and it implies shutting your eyes to all evil and surrendering your common sense. It means neglecting what your senses tell you smells bad or tastes bad and it means neglecting what your mind tells you is ugly or miserable or unhappy. Such delight in a young world is a symptom of arrested development.

That way of enjoying life lacks common sense. It wants perspective and wisdom. It is the way of the traveler who comes back from his journey full of the glory of himself . . . he has seen so much; he has discovered this, and this, and this. He has no sense of the other man’s experience, no realization that other men may have seen all this years ago without shouting so loudly about it. He forgets that the enthusiasms he has may not be those of other people, and he may bore instead of please his listeners. Such freshness is the result of a young mind rudely shocked and unable to grasp what has hit it. This is not Tomlinson. Pie is not a professional optimist. He is not a babbling mouth.

A second example of arrested development is exhibited in getting enthusiastic over things not worth your enthusiasm. There are trivial minded men—and they write books —who are pleased inordinately by the lavender pastel shades of smoke and fire from a blast furnace at night. They do not understand what labor and pain go into the making of those pretty colors they adore. The lover of the lights must not forget their meaning. Women lavish affection on dogs and cats. Similarly, artistic delight can be lavished on trivialities, and since there are more trivial things in the world than there are valuable, petty-minded enthusiasts can be perpetually amused.

In English literature there are many things which seem through centuries to have given lasting pleasure. They are, some of them, the stars, flowers, stretches of country and forest in mid-summer, the smile of a beautiful girl, the sound of a brook at night, the gentle animals on a farm. To find that your heart can lift up when you see daffodils is to be young in the right way. It is no sign of arrested development. It is an indication that you have not been dulled by living. The clouds of glory, have not all passed away. The prison house has not yet built its walls. To hypnotize your mind into unvarying enthusiasm or to be pleased by ignoble things is a sign of arrested development. To have the capacity to enjoy what is worth your devotion is one of the marks of genius.

IV

H. m. Tomlinson, then, does seem to get excited over the proper things. His is a genius for discovery, and a genius for appreciation. He has an unusual ability to find pleasure. But there is this detraction. Although he gets his pleasure from things honestly worth the effort, I sometimes wonder whether they are worth the amount of enthusiasm which he expends.

In “Tide Marks,” Mr. Tomlinson describes a splash bath, one of those tropical inconveniences by which many Europeans on tour have kept themselves clean. Now, a splash bath, I am told, is a novelty, rudimentary, honest, but nevertheless a very ordinary and sometimes messy substitute for the delights of sanitary plumbing. To the traveler weary of civilization, it may seem refreshing in its Biblical simplicity, but it is, after all, a splash bath.

But to Mr. Tomlinson there never was such a thing as a splash bath! There never will be again so splendid, so delightful, so humorous, so insinuating a diversion as a splash bath! It pleases him in the same unmeasured way as a tin toy gratifies a youngster. He will not eat, he will not sleep, he will not work while he has a splash bath. True, sometimes Mr. Tomlinson plays with his delight in a thoroughly knowing and sophisticated way. He tells us, by his style, “This is just fooling; it isn’t worth much; but it amuses us both.” He realizes his own extravagance and sometimes plays on it. That takes some of the sting away. It makes him less of an enthusiast.

It shows us our answer. Tomlinson does possess a certain genius, even though he steadily grows rapturous where passing interest would be sufficient. But he does find joy in the honest and simple things of experience. He is able to keep his ability to be surprised, and he can laugh at objects even while he relishes them.

V

This brings us to the dangers of Tomlinson’s style and structure.

In general, all this can be put down by saying that Tomlinson’s writing is a highly personal method of explaining the world. It is only the world impinging upon his own consciousness that counts, not the great sweep of life which may be more important but which has not touched his senses. He has little objectivity. His attitude colors reality. This is usually a delightful color, but that is beside the point.

No author ever achieves perfect objectivity. What I mean, though, is the desire on the part of many men to discover the great meaning of the world even when that world’s action has not become a personal experience. It is what might be termed an abstract philosophy. Tomlinson has little of this; he lives in a world of vivid sights and sounds and smells, and he communicates these with rare skill. He “philosophizes” much, but he never drops his enthusiasms sufficiently to order them and to give them intellectual plan and relative importance. It is not that he neglects the cosmic, but he invokes it on almost every subject and with equal fervor.

If Tomlinson had no more than an attitude to communicate, he would be bad. He has more, despite what has just been said. But he is not able ever to create more than himself. In his own mind, I dare say, there lies a scheme of faith and a way of life as beautiful as his prose, but what I get from his books is always the intimate sense of a new concrete experience. There is seldom any valuable intellectual residue. I am not trying to lecture an author for failing to write as I want. This is merely an evaluation of Tomlinson, the eternal youth.

John Keats used to write about “negative capability.” By that he meant the ability of a poet to forget himself in the intensity of things greater than himself. Keats did it. Tomlinson cannot forget himself. It is too wonderful that all this should have happened to him. He is a traveler and he writes travel essays because such writings are the reactions of objects and persons and places on one observer. They require almost no objectivity and take energy from their surcharge of personality. They are not the highest type of literature, certainly. That objectivity, which let. Thomas Hardy picture men and places and let him forget himself—and lets us now forget the author—is the path to genius of the first rank.

VI

Tomlinson’s enthusiasm for new experiences finds permanent expression in his style, which partakes of the good and bad qualities of enthusiasm in general.

A repetition of exclamatory delight always loses conviction. That is one trouble with the Tomlinson books. The enthusiasm of the author tends to persist after the reader has stopped being enthusiastic. The sensations of wonder and surprise are worked upon until the effect resembles boredom. In more than one of his books, we begin by being told that the author felt securely bound to the ordinary routine of office work, and suddenly a voyage to unknown seas projects itself upon him and becomes an amazing reality,. Now, that is a fine thing and it is worth writing about. It is the supreme satisfaction of any vacation, and it is the great delight of travel—finding yourself where by rights you ought not to be. But after more than one book starts out with the general unbelief of the author in what Heaven sends him, you begin to wonder why he cannot get used to it, and, however slightly, expect it. The beginnings of “Tide Marks” and “The Sea and the Jungle” are evidences of this trait, and the same note is struck in the other books.

The style of the Tomlinson prose, smooth as it is, lacks economy. It is true that Tomlinson strikes a high level in descriptive travel sketches, and often, in his books, he reaches what he set out to capture, the magic of a tree or jungle village or stretch of sluggish water. He writes steadily better prose than many other living Englishmen of the most applauded names. He is always interested, usually interesting, and he knows what prose rhythms mean — sometimes to his own detriment.

That is the trouble. His exuberance of observation makes his style exuberant. He fills a page with words, when two lines would be more effective. He forgets that dwelling on an emotion sometimes takes the fire out of it. He uses rare words and too many words; he indulges in circumlocution. He gives personality and purpose to inanimate things and plays with ideas while he is on the road to a more important thought. All this is evident in the beginnings of “Gallions Reach.” Such circumlocutions are not so easily noticed in essays, because the essay is the great store house of casualism. But in what is called a novel, overwriting may be worse than no writing. Fluency may harm as much as effort.

Here is a description of scrub women in a London office building. The picture is absurdly ornate for so ordinary a theme; it may be amusing to write in this way, but it is circumlocution and “fine” writing. It lacks simplicity and calls attention to the words instead of to the idea. There is much like this in the Tomlinson prose.

Between those hours the arid and hollow limestone, where nothing grows but ciphers, is thronged with a legion as intent and single minded as a vast formicarium. Before those hours, and at night, it is as silent as the ruins of Memphis, and as empty, except for a few vestals with brooms and pails who haunt the temporary solitude on their ministration to whatever joss presides over numerals.

It is true that only an unspoiled mind can look at scrub women with such interest and playfulness; it is equally true that such prose is florid and wordy and inexpertly phrased for such essentially simple realities as the women who scrub floors.

“Gallions Reach” shows Tomlinson’s structural limitations. He has not written a novel, despite its name. It is, at its best, a good travel narrative; at its worst, it is a novel with poor motivation and a creaking and disjointed plot. To see its weakness one need only compare it with the work of an able craftsman of novels, Willa Cather, a woman whose gifts are consistent with the demands of the type. “Death Comes for the Archbishop” is not a travel essay of New Mexico. It is an objective character study of a real man’s life in New Mexico, with a clear pattern, strong motivation, unity, and shape, even though the mood of the place bulks large. “Gallions Reach” is merely another interpretation of Tomlinson. “Death Comes for the Archbishop” is much more than another interpretation of Willa Cather. It is an interpretation of the Archbishop, and we forget the author while we read. We can never forget Tomlinson in “Gallions Reach.” His personality as an essayist takes possession of what should have been pictures of other people.

Moreover, novels need characterization of real people. The only real character Tomlinson sketches in fully in his book is that of himself. It is a picture of a gentleman. I do not see how anyone can read a book of Tomlinson’s without wanting to know and talk to the author. But create other people he has not yet done. Those ecstatic critics who compare Tomlinson’s novel to any of Conrad’s must have forgotten the variety and reality of the men and women in Conrad’s tales. They are seldom too bad or too good; they are both, like people on the street.

VII

All talent is not of one sort. Though a man may want to write one thing, he often’does another better. So it is with Tomlinson; he can cultivate with distinction his own garden. As yet, he has not revealed his probable talent as a novelist. His readers will, of course, welcome that day, if it ever comes, when he does amplify what he has already done into a well-rounded piece of prose fiction.

Literary history is full of examples of able writers whose ability was of one sort only. I recall Henry James and his unfortunate excursions into the drama; Stevenson and his poor plays; George Eliot and her regrettable poetry.

To say things that limit your admiration of a man you admire is especially hard in these days of slipshod superlatives. Every new book steams with the effusions of the publishers. Great names recommend a new book as “cruel and devastating beauty” (whatever that may be!) . . . “a unique contribution to English letters” . . . the start of a new type of English prose” . . . “the finest poetry since Keats” . . . “rich and magnificent.” In the light of such glowing praise any more exact comment seems grudging. To say that you read Tomlinson with pleasure and to say that you like his enthusiasm and vivid pictures and humor and decency seem a paradox these days unless you go the whole way, and—ignoring all else—say that the book is perfect.

H. m. Tomlinson is an able essayist, one of the few noble practitioners of a noble but vanishing art. I know of no other man who can give me so intimate a picture of what he has seen. The reality and immediacy are, often, magical. I look on lands I never saw, and I see them with my own eyes. I forget that my life has routine and that it sometimes grows dull. I catch the moment when the ship first trembles as she leaves the dock, and I go out to sea, where I cannot often go. H. M. Tomlinson’s youth carries me on to voyages I would never take without his energy and excitement. He is young enough, at fifty, to relish living in this world. The light of the sun on London River and the sweep of rain across a ship’s prow at night are still unbelievably new. The sight of an office building still makes him think strange and unbound thoughts. He has not yet, in those terrible words of a cynical world, “settled down.”

H. m. Tomlinson has delight enough to live his life out. He has promise of more than that richness which he has already given. It is only of a man with youth that one can apply the word, promise. Yet that seems a just word. Whether he writes another book or not, Mr. Tomlinson gives promise of more in him than has yet come out, of more to life than we who live it ever see.

2 Comments

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Rich Persoff's picture
Rich Persoff · 4 years ago

Superb, thoughtful review!  Wish I could read so insightfully, and communicate my insights & understanding.  Mayer is superb on dissecting the results  of excessive enthusiasms on the reader.  So perhaps to avoid being cloyed (newly-invented [?] transitive sense) by H.M.'s style, one should read him only in small bits?

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Wayne Collins's picture
Wayne Collins · 3 years ago

Reading "Under the Read Ensign" it seems to have more in it than the reviewer allows of.

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