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Four Anthologies

ISSUE:  Summer 1943

The Yale Review Anthology. Edited by Wilbur Cross and Helen MacAfee, Yale University Press. $2.75. This Is My Best, Edited by Whit Burnett. The Dial Press. $3.50. American Harvest. Edited by Allen Tate and John Peale Bishop. L. B. Fischer. $3.50. The Shock of Recognition. Edited by Edmund Wilson. Doubleday, Doran and Company. $5.00.

This year and last, which, for plain and good reasons, have not been rich in literary achievement, are perhaps better years than some for public literary retrospection. Is there a publisher without an anthology on his list?

Of the four books here in question, the narrowest principle of selection underlies “The Yale Review Anthology,” edited by Wilbur Cross and Helen MacAfee, which memo* rializes the first thirty years of the magazine. Of the twenty-seven selections, five appeared in 1941-42, fifteen in the 1980’s, five in the 1920’s, and two in the years between 1911 and 1920—which is perhaps indicative of the life expectancy of contributions to even our most distinguished periodicals. These selections are divided into three groups, “Essays and Sketches,” “Public Affairs,” and “Imaginative Literature,” and of these, the second is the most impressive. Here one finds a striking representation of The Yale Review’s genuine contribution to American letters: the civilized expression of expert opinion on matters of enduring importance. Professor Carl Becker, who has never published an undistinguished piece of writing, is represented, for example, by an essay called “Making Democracy Safe in the World”; this essay deals explicitly with the problems of the next peace, but it has as its background a considered philosophy of international relationships. Inversely, Julian Huxley’s fascinating essay, “The Uniqueness of Man,” concerned as it is with the vast implications of biology in general, nevertheless points a very clear moral for the political present.

In the monthly magazines one misses the general in the zeal for the topical; their articles deal with matters of only immediate concern, and even this matter must be leavened by occasional fiction and articles of what is known as “human” interest.

Of this last kind, one is glad to find none in “The Yale Review Anthology,” whose conception of “human” transcends mere manners and the more personal social dilemmas. There are, to be sure, several informal essays, which are perhaps neither here nor there, a number of pieces of literary criticism, including Gide’s brilliant comment on Montaigne, and a whole section of stories. The stories have been most affected by commercial competition and a generally conservative point of view; they are all quiet and well written, but they have neither much force nor much formal interest. Flowers of this kind are brighter in some of our other bouquets.


“This Is My Best” edited by Whit Burnett, and “American Harvest,” edited by Allen Tate and J ohn Peale Bishop, based on opposite principles of selection, are identical in their intention to present the most distinguished recent American writing. In different ways both reflect the old problem which is an explicit theme of Mr. Wilson’s more unusual book: the literary relationships of Europe and America.

Mr. Burnett’s book is conceived in that mood of bellicose affirmation about American life which now dominates the literary scene. More than most moods—that is, uncritical states of mind—which are mistaken for ideas, this one, at this time, sentimental as all religiosity in its vagueness, is dangerous. Stephen Vincent Benet’s essay, “The Power of the Written Word,” which is included in “The Yale Review Anthology,” shows us why. The paper closes with what are called “new words” from Thomas Wolfe: “I think the true discovery of America is before us. I think the true fulfilment of our spirit, of our people, of our mighty and immortal land is yet to come. I think the true discovery of our own democracy is still before us. And I think that all these things are as certain as the morning, as inevitable as noon. I think I speak for most men living when I say that our America is Here, is Now and beckons on before, and this assurance is not only our living hope but our dream to be accomplished.” Mr. Benet concluded, “There is little I can add to these words.” But what folly! Everything remains to be added; for nothing, precisely nothing, has been said.

This mood of uncritical acceptance underlies Mr, Burnett’s book and, insofar as he has one, his principle of selection. “In no small, single way, this book is America,” he says. “America in its many moods, its various colors, its many aspects . . . The editor does not think it accidental that such a book, by such authors, appears at this particular time.” America, that is to say, at its mediocre as well as its best, its mediocre, in several instances, at the expense of its best, but all to be loved, and the heart to beat proudly because America is so big and produces so much, and the quivering tear to dim the reading eye.

Mr. Burnett operates, logically enough, on a principle of selection which is actually a principle of anti-selection. His writers were asked to choose their own favorite work—an idea which, if it has the interest of other literary curiosities, is certainly meaningless from the point of view of excellence —and the list of writers to be included was determined by a poll of opinion. The result is a very large book which, inevitably including many of our distinguished writers, includes at least as many who are by no means distinguished.

“This Is My Best” has no purpose but to give back to its readers what its readers feel they want, the purpose of literary rackets in general. Mr. Tate and Mr. Bishop compiled their “American Harvest” on a principle both more honorable and more meaningful; “we included,” Mr. Tate wrote after the publication of his book, “what we thought that people ought to read. There is no other excuse for an anthology.” “American Harvest,” which is interested in excellence, includes forty-six writers; “This Is My Best,” presumably more interested in geography and good fellowship, includes ninety-three. Twenty-two of the forty-six writers in “American Harvest” are not included among the ninety-three writers of “This Is My Best”; of these twenty-two, five (Anderson, Lardner, Wolfe, Robinson, and Crane), being dead, were necessarily excluded; one, T. S, Eliot, was “unavailable” to Mr. Burnett. The abusive tag, “coterie literature,” will not do, I think, to explain the presence of Stephen Leacock and Mary Ellen Chase and Robert Nathan and Joseph Hergesheimer and a score of others in Mr. Burnett’s book, and the absence, at the same time, of Glenway Wescott and Eudora Welty and Caroline Gordon and Andrew Lytle; or, among poets, the presence of Robert P. Tristram Coffin, Christopher Morley, James Branch Cabell, and the absence of Karl Shapiro and Delmore Schwartz, of Louise Bogan, of Bishop and Tate themselves; or, among critics, the presence of George Jean Nathan and the absence of Richard Blackmur.

The selections in “American Harvest” may represent a special taste, but the selections in “This Is My Best” represent no taste at all.


“American Harvest” is compiled by civilized men educated in the traditions of our literature, men aware of the psychological and technical problems which American writers have faced, men, in short, who are prepared to make judgments. Above all, like most of their authors whom Mr. Burnett excludes, they are aware of Europe, and, no less in literature than in politics today, it is to the judgment of men with this awareness that we had better listen. It is at least a superficial paradox in our cultural history that at the very moment when we became aware of the dangers of political provincialism, the new school of literary provincialism began to flourish.

Edmund Wilson’s wholly admirable collection, “The Shock of Recognition,” is for this reason a book which we badly need. It consists of documents by American writers, not primarily critics, about other American writers, written during the hundred years since 1840; on the whole, these documents are by great writers about great writers, but some are by great writers about poor or mediocre writers, and others, by mediocre writers about great ones. A few are by Europeans, notably Lawrence’s “Studies in Classic American Literature,” which, coming between Santayana’s suave essays on William James and Josiah Royce, and Amy Lowell’s silly “Critical Fable,” is a shock indeed. The weight of the book is on the years between 1850 and 1900, and on New England. Each writer’s work is preceded! by an editorial comment which, in Mr. Wilson’s penetrating manner, says something about the circumstances of composition of and the relationships suggested by the work to follow. Yet these remarks are not intended as a running critical history; the documents must speak for themselves, and the reader must make his own inferences about them.

The collection is enormously suggestive, and the relationships enormously complex, and one cannot in the present space even summarize the book. Yet a few observations are in order. The book begins with the New England rejection of Poe, whose influence passes to Europe, there to be refined and amplified and ultimately brought back. Emerson’s “rejection” of Whitman, who had declared that “Everyone has demeaned himself to some etiquette or some impotence,” follows, and with it, the beginning of the Lincoln-Whitman-Twain tradition, and the beginning of the end of the Emersonian. John Jay Chapman’s brilliant essay on Emerson summarizes his effort, and Henry Adams’s “dreary and cold little book” about that nearly unknown verse-maker, George Cabot Lodge, dramatizes the “dying self-consciousness of the traditional superior New Eng-lander”; it is “a milestone to mark where Boston stops.”

Meanwhile, Hawthorne, always a fractional member of the group, has emerged as its most important artist, “the American who up to the present day has evinced, in literature, the largest brain with the largest heart,” and the essays by Melville and James show us, in part, why he is so. Here a new series begins, Hawthorne-James-Eliot, a series recently analyzed with great brilliance by F. O. Matthiessen. James, in his attractive essay on Howells, makes a crucial distinction when he observes that Howells’s novels exhibit “so constant a study of the actual and so small a perception of evil.” It is this perception which, not without Hawthorne’s help, James’s own novels enlarged, and this perception which Eliot reunited with religious dogma.

Howells, in the meantime, had written “My Mark Twain,” which includes the famous story of the Atlantic Monthly dinner party, another piece of symbolic action, and designates Twain as “sole, incomparable, the Lincoln of our literature.” Lawrence’s “Studies,” in which Mr. Wilson sees Europe turning towards America, tries to estimate the deficiencies and excellences of our literature in terms of the “unshackled democratic spirit”; America, Lawrence felt, had “a powerful, disintegrative effect on the white psyche,” and Americans must experience a great “death happening” before they discover themselves in their wholeness.

The Lawrentian jargon is useful in separating these strands: (1) “idealistic halfness” expires; (2) the “sense of evil,” operating m a wide cycle through Hawthorne, James, and Eliot, returns to religion, and a fastidious concern with the ritual of art, that is, craftsmanship, develops through lessons learned in Europe; and (3) the “unshackled, democratic spirit,” through Whitman and the humorists, resolves itself in writers like Dreiser and Anderson, where the writing becomes as loose and unshackled as the spirit. Howells’s system of “patient and definite notation,” observed by James, becomes the sprawling mass of Dreiser, and the genuine craftsman in this tradition, like Hemingway, is the exception.


“The Shock of Recognition” ends, for this reader, very gloomily. Mencken apologizes for Dreiser’s defects. And Sherwood Anderson, in the last of a long series of letters written over many years, asks Van Wyck Brooks for his photograph. I do not know what Mr. Wilson means to suggest at this point, but many readers will see here still another symbolic act: the decayed artist addressing the exhausted critic.

The tradition of large affirmations and bad writing, in spite of its moments of nobility, has too persistently had a “disintegrative effect” on the men working within it for many Americans to feel wholly comfortable about it. The career of Thomas Wolfe is the most instructive modern instance. Over and over our writers present the spectacle of energy without order, and great art can no more come this way than the good life. We agree, in the main, that order must be brought into our political and economic life; yet most readers resent the writer like James, or Eliot, who insists that, no less, order is essential to art.

“The Shock of Recognition” is a very instructive book. If one must infer from it the necessity of order, one must not, on the other hand, infer that order means borrowing European literary modes or European political forms. It does mean a disciplined critical spirit rather than a set of windy slogans. “Though you brag of your New World, you don’t half believe in it,” Lowell told his contemporaries in 1848; and that, in a different sense from Lowell’s, is true in 1948. If we half believed in it, we would not be so anxious to take it for granted.

All of which brings us back to the difference in the points of view of “This Is My Best” and “American Harvest.” The writers, like the editors, of the second of these books are men who put a high value on craftsmanship and who have made their art the study of order. They honor the critical faculty in themselves because they believe that technique is “the means by which we discover the material itself.” It is not an accident that, in mastering their craft, they among Americans write most penetratingly of human life. If order is the essence of art, it is also the foundation of morals.


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