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Literary Internationalism

ISSUE:  Summer 1927

When Latin was the international literary medium, the world was geographically a small place. When that language was succeeded by French, the world of culture was still small enough to present a certain homogeneousness. As a young American critic recently pointed out: “When Mark Twain went to Europe during the Gilded Age, he was really, an innocent abroad,” whereas “when Jefferson went to Paris from the backwoods of Virginia, he was a cultivated man walking among his peers.” The old aristocratic order made way for the industrial era, and it is no mere coincidence that, the new order being essentially an English development, the gradual supplanting of French by English as an international medium has coincided with the growth of industrialism.

This change, from a literary point of view, has been of vast importance. Profoundly as the cultural world was affected by the breaking up of the old social order, it is possible to believe that, had French been the language of the new age, the hegemony of the culture which it represented might have withstood the challenge. As it was, a rapidly changing world came more and more under the sway of a language as undisciplined, as indifferent to rules, precedents and traditions, as individualistic as the enterprising pioneers of industrialism. There was no centre of linguistic and literary authority, no English Academy, no literature firmly but pleasantly encompassed by traditional lines beyond which a nineteenth century journalist in Paris felt no more free to stray than did Racine at the court’ of Louis XIV.

The spread and decentralization of English were hastened and complicated by the simultaneous filling up of a whole continent in the New World with people who, whatever their origins, were building up a vast English-speaking nation. Both as a cause and an effect of the establishment of English as the greatest international literary medium, the United States to-day, are peculiarly concerned by the change involved in the disappearance of that form of intellectual internationalism which rested upon the authority first of Latin and then of French culture. Significant and symbolic is the fact that, on the first occasion when the American nation took a hand in the game of European diplomacy, at the Treaty of Versailles, English was, for the first time, substituted for French as “the language of diplomacy.”

It is not my intention here to discuss what is called, sometimes with, sometimes without, inverted commas, “the American language,” although I shall have occasion to consider Americanisms as an important factor in the new literary internationalism. I want rather to draw attention to the peculiar function which this country is increasingly, discharging as a result of the spread of English as an international medium. Despite its remoteness from Europe and European ways of thought, America is becoming, in a sense, less insular than Britain. Naivetes and ignorance may. supply material for the satirists of Main Street, but the edge of that satire is blunted for the foreign observer of American ways by the fact that the Main Streets of Europe are as bad in most respects, and in one respect they are worse, for they are dead even to those genuine or affected intellectual desires for which in America they are so often and so profitably mocked by their “sophisticated” sons. When Flaubert anticipated Mr. Sinclair Lewis by discovering a French Main Street, it was not Madame Bovary’s attempts at culture which attracted his satire. He could not satirize what did not exist.

Insularity may be the result of accident or design—conscious or unconscious design. The insularity which separates European countries from each other is not altogether accidental. An educated Englishman or Frenchman will cheerfully exhibit an ignorance of things foreign of which the same class of American would be ashamed. It is not that he has not had opportunities to acquaint himself with what he does not know, but that he prefers to ignore it. Let the psycho-analysts determine whether this is not the manifestation of some morbid fear or repressed desire; a form of self-protection against assimilation which might threaten national identity. America would not be what she is, were her people not blessed with an often undiscriminating, but always real desire to know, to try, to learn—with curiosity, in the best French sense of a word which English, characteristically, has rendered suspect. On that curiosity feed many types of literary, or pseudo-literary activity, magazines “making no compromise with the public taste,” British author lecturers, the well stocked and intelligently catalogued libraries of so many American cities and universities.


There is one result of that curiosity upon which I wish chiefly to dwell, for it concerns the only form of internationalism in which I believe, and the only form which has ever existed to the satisfaction and advantage of educated, civilized men and women: intellectual internationalism based upon cosmopolitan knowledge and experience. In this connection America has been gradually assuming the responsibility of acting as the intermediary between the literatures of Continental Europe and the English-speaking world. In the late eighties and nineties, largely under the stimulus of W. D. Howells, a great many, translations were made in this country from Russian, Spanish, and German literature. Except for the Gosse-Archer translations of Ibsen and Mrs. Garnett’s versions of Turgenev, little was done in England of importance during that period as compared with America. An even greater disparity exists between the translating activities of the two countries today, a disparity further increased by the fact, naturally not obvious to the onlooker, that many English translators are working in England under commission from American publishers. An amusing incident in illustration of this occurred recently when the London “Times Literary Supplement” devoted its front page essay to an attack upon the American translation of an author whose books are also being translated in England. The anonymous critic congratulated England on the superiority, of the British edition, despite the fact that every one of the eighteen American volumes had been entrusted to British translators!

The fact is that, while England is theoretically the dominant partner in this business of publishing English books, the initiative in many undertakings, especially those of international scope, comes from America. For example, an important philosophical work like Spengler’s “Downfall of Western Civilization” owes its existence in English to an American publisher, although the translation was actually made by an Englishman. When the famous Scandinavian publishing house of Gyldendal tried to reach English readers by publishing its own authors in London, the enterprise failed for lack of British support. Even so popular a book as Hamsun’s “Growth of the Soil” had little success, and the other Danish and Norwegian novelists none at all. Over here those authors and others are still being published by the American firm that first worked in conjunction with GyldendaTs London branch.

A comparison of the Continental books translated in England and those translated here will show that, on the whole, London publishers are more interested in ephemeral novelties, prize novels and so forth, than in the systematic publication of the foremost modern writers of established worth. But for American publishers and translators, little or nothing would exist in English of authors of the rank of Remy de Gourmont, Andre Gide, Thomas Mann, Pio Baroja, Sigrid Undset, Concha Espina, Gobineau, Pirandello, Jacob Wassermann, Gerhart Hauptmann, Suder-mann, Papini, and Schnitzler. These are names which, in the literatures to which they, belong, correspond to those of Hardy, Moore, Conrad, Galsworthy, Edith Wharton, and Henry James. If a French publisher claimed to be helping to spread Anglo-American fiction, but had issued “Flaming Youth” and “Black Oxen” in preference to “Ethan Frome” or “Lord Jim”; if he published one novel by Galsworthy and then allowed some Belgian publisher to continue to bear the burden unaided, we should be justified in thinking that the Belgian was doing more for our fiction than his French colleague. That is, roughly speaking, the present situation as between English and American publishers regarding translations from European literatures.

Where in London one book is reluctantly accepted and the author is dropped, in New York his works are systematically offered until it is seen definitely whether the American reader wants him or not. For this reason, if one wants to read an author like Schnitzler or Hauptmann in English, it is better to procure his works in America because more of them are available. In many instances Continental writers are not available at all in England; in others, they languish obscurely in imported American editions of which the average Englishman has never heard. There is no reciprocity, in this field for, whereas an American will cooperate with an English publisher qn some sensational piece of rubbish like “La Garonne,” he can find no reciprocal offer when he is trying to place in London a novel of genuine literary merit.


This raises a general question which has a vital bearing upon the question of literary internationalism through the medium of English. I refer to the assumption which underlies the dealings of English with American publishers, and those of English critics and editors with American writers and scholars: the assumption that the English side of the matter is right and final. If a series of works of a literary or scholarly nature is designed in London, it is usually assumed that while an American publisher is bound to take it over, no American shall have any say, either as editor or contributor, to the series. A similar American undertaking must proceed, in nine cases out of ten, upon the belief, born of experience, that nobody in England will help to sell it. When the English Men of Letters Series was recently, revived in London, Whitman and Melville were among the first subjects published, but no American had any opportunity to write about these “English” men of letters, although an American firm was expected to sell them to American readers. When an attempt was made some years ago to carry on that series by issuing volumes dealing with American authors, it was abandoned for lack of support, obviously because the attempt was made from this side.

The same spirit enters into the discussion of Continental literature in English. The vast majority of these works are translated for American publishers by American translators. But even when the translator is English, publishers and critics on the other side adopt an unfair and impossible attitude. I have known translations made in England for a London publisher to be refused in America because of the inadequacy of the translation. When that happens the tone of the English reply is one of impatient insolence. We think this an excellent version. Who are you to dare criticize it? When the translation is offered under American auspices, on the other hand, the existence of Americanisms in the text is treated as definite proof of bad translating and incompetence. A Briticism apparently does not mar the prose of Proust in English, even if it be at the same time a mistranslation. An Americanism accurately rendering the original is unpardonable!

For this reason when reviewers in England receive a translated book with signs of its American origin upon it, they are seized with a hyper-sensitive feeling for minor defects, which is never visible when they are discussing translations by Englishmen. One of the best examples of this recently was when an English paper received from New York for review a translation of Stendhal’s “Life of Henri Brulard.” This book anticipated the appearance of that volume in a collected edition of Stendhal in English which is appearing under different auspices. Whereupon the London “Times Literary Supplement” tore the American edition to pieces and said it was mere impudence for any American to try to translate such a masterpiece when it would sooner or later be done by the translator of the collected edition of Stendhal. The translator of the American book, who is an Englishwoman, very neatly answered the charges brought against her by showing that her critic had not compared her English text with the definitive French text of Stendhal, but with an inferior cheap edition.

These facts are important, not because they prove bias in a particular English paper against American translations, but because they are symptomatic of the general spirit running through the relations of the two countries, in a field where America has so far got the lead that this sort of obstructionism is simply futile. How long American publishers will put up with this particular type of condescension in foreigners remains to be seen. Critics and scholars in this country can, however, do much to counteract and undermine this attitude of superiority, by showing its frequent unfairness and lack of any justification in fact. They; are generally too kind or too indifferent, and they do not challenge often enough the books, whether literary or scholarly, which are confidingly thrust upon them in the certainty that they will endorse whatever London lias said.


As might be expected, since America has become the clearing house for European literature in English translations, the bibliography of critical commentary on that literature is much larger here than in England. Only too often, however, these critical works do not exist so far as readers outside the United States are concerned. I have known British libraries where no account of certain outstanding Continental authors could be found because, as no British critic had written about them, it did not occur to anyone to acquire an American book on the subject. In the British Museum Catalogue cross references to authorities appear to ignore Americans, even though copies of the works in question are in the Library. As the American literature of criticism and exposition of Continental European writers is infinitely more voluminous and comprehensive than that of Britain, the manifest disadvantages of the English attitude will be at once apparent. It is certainly quite the opposite of the American attitude of searching out and welcoming information from whatever source.

It may, be asked why, since Americans themselves are so well served in this particular field, they should be concerned about an attitude which, in the last analysis, is more detrimental to Britain than to the United States. The answer is twofold: In the first place, without a greater degree of reciprocity, many enterprises which could be undertaken jointly by an American and an English publisher must be abandoned. If the latter can invariably count on the former to cooperate in his schemes, the former should be able to do the same. It is a matter of common knowledge that an American publisher can rarely do so, especially in the field of Continental literature. Not only do the Americans get little support in their attempts to publish original works of the first order in translations, but even in the department of related scholarship they must fend for themselves. The only, good histories of contemporary Spanish and contemporary Russian literature in English to-day were commissioned by an American publisher. He had them written in England, not so much because nobody in America could write them as because he thereby had greater hopes of selling them to an English publisher.

In the second place, the assumption seems to be that London can and does set the standard of English, and must, by weight of this authority, take precedence in all matters relating to literature and scholarship. That is an assumption which is strenuously denied within the British Isles themselves, at least in its purely linguistic implications. There is no reason why America should not deny it in all its implications. Starting out upon its remarkable journey, across the world, the English language had no central authority and was as untrammeled as the men of British stock who carried it to the ends of the earth. It relied, as they did, on its inherent virtues and powers of adaptation to survive. There can be no question of its now submitting to a tutelage which it never admitted, and which cannot nowadays be reconciled with the requirements of English as the international medium of the industrialized world. If American readers are supposed to learn the meaning of Briticisms and accept them without a smile, British readers can be taught to accept Americanisms. Their speech assimilates them every day under the benign influence of the movies. Why should not the literature of the vast English-speaking world assimilate them in the interests of literary internationalism?

With the help of the English language that, it seems to me, is one of the roles which the United States is being called upon to play: the interpreter of the babel of European tongues. It is natural that a nation so cosmopolitan in its elements as America to-day should feel instinctively drawn to the literatures of the countries from which its life blood has come. Therefore we find in this country a greater readiness to welcome Continental literature than in England, where familiarity, with the Continent has traditionally been the caste privilege of a gentleman—a relic of the periods of homogeneous European culture, when one language, and that not English, was the link between allied civilized minorities. America regards no culture as a class privilege, but all fields of endeavor as within the reach of those who wish to attain them. And appropriately the spread of English-speaking communities has coincided with the certain disappearance of the old conception of culture and the civilization based upon it.

In America, too, it is possible to see Europe in the true perspective which enables a European to realize for the first time what that adjective, so rarely used in Europe, means. It means a prolonged association of experiences of which the New World knows nothing, and a curious kinship which only linguistic barriers conceal, for there is a solidarity between all Europeans which marks them off, one and all, from the people of this hemisphere, and enables the American to speak of them, without distinction, as Europeans. I doubt if America, or any other power, will ever teach them to recognize that solidarity so long as they remain in Europe. But America can reflect that solidarity in literature by acting as the literary intermediary, and thereby showing Americans a Europe that is one and divisible, as in her own history she is showing Europeans a New Europe that is many and indivisible. Thus, by a law of compensation, American literary internationalism will provide a democratic substitute for the homogeneous intellectual life of the aristocratic order.


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