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Literary Recessions and Processions

ISSUE:  Spring 1927

A Sentimental Journey, Letters to Eliza, and Other Pieces. By Laurence Sterne. Edited, with an introduction, by Wilbur L. Cross. New York: Boni and Liveright, $3.50.

The Outlook for American Prose. By Joseph Warren Beach. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. $2.50.

The Frontier in American Literature. By Lucy Lockwood Hazard. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, $2.75.

The Beginnings of English Literary Periodicals. By Walter Graham. New York: Oxford University Press, $2.50.

Read America First. By Robert Littell. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.00.

Rewards of Reading. By Frank L. Mott. New York: Henry Holt and Company, $1.50.

Sterne’s “Sentimental Journey” looks a little strange among the new books, but Professor Cross’s recent edition, supplemented with the “Letters to Eliza” and some of the Yorkshire parson’s sermons, has prolonged the revival of interest in that whimsical eighteenth-century soul which the Yale scholar’s fine biography started some years ago. Readers may now psycho-analyze this old sentimentalist and jester, without the aid and advice of professional psychologists, in this volume to which Dean Cross has written a brief introduction. Very modern indeed was Yorick’s passion for self-expression, and present-day hunters for damaged souls may, if they choose, add another to their collection. They will not, however, even with so competent a guide as Mr. Cross, succeed in plucking out the heart of Sterne’s mystery. With all his confessions, heart exposure, and mental unmasking, he remains a rather baffling personality. And for this very reason, no doubt, he is all the more fascinating and contemporary, inwardly serious like Harlequin and outwardly a mad jester for relief, as the editor suggests. It would hardly be correct to call anything Sterne wrote “a document in madness, thoughts and remembrance fitted,” for his invention was greater than his remembrance and his originality, though it has the humorist’s lack of form, is without any, taint of imitation.

Professor Joseph Warren Beach, of the University of Minnesota, in his “Outlook for American Prose” attempts an appraisal of contemporary writers with a view to discovering what sort of diction and style the next generation will find in the stories and essays of “these states.” One of Mr. Beach’s papers, “The Holy Bottle,” an examination of Cabell, Mencken, and Sherman as stylists and critics, first appeared in part in The Virginia Quarterly Review. Readers of that entertaining and discriminating essay will find others, equally thoughtful, collected in this volume. Under the heading of “Unripe Fruits” current philosophic incoherencies, scientific jargons, and hesitant anxieties are interpreted for the forthright reader who wants to know just exactly what it’s all about and whether there is some rainbow at the end of the quest. There is, and it is labeled “Hopeful Signs”! No essay in the collection will give more pleasure to the student of literary diction, whose eye and ear have been trained on the older fashions in speech, than the one entitled “Proud Words.” We are now wearily familiar with “proud words” (the phrase is apparently Sandburg’s) like “devastating,” “poignant,” “intriguing,” and “authentic,” which have been wrenched from their original meanings to make a verbal holiday of differences. Proud words, however, are not new phenomena in literature any more than what William James called “proving words,” or slogans. The Elizabethans had them and, indeed, every other creative epoch which is too vital to content itself with static speech. Mr. Beach concludes that American prose shows the same impulse for difference and reality that is evident in American poetry and that hope has already passed into “gratifying accomplishment.”

The frontier and the frontiersman have at last come into their own since Emerson Hough and Frederic J. Turner began their historical dramatizing of the West. And now literary historians have taken to explaining American writers and their works in pioneer imagery. The latest and most thoroughgoing application of the pioneer psychosis to our national letters is Miss Lucy Lockwood Hazard’s “The Frontier in American Literature.” Miss Hazard’s thesis (not strictly in the academic sense, of course) attempts “to trace in American literature reflections of the pioneering spirit; first, on the frontier of regional pioneering, which is primarily concerned with man’s attempt to control nature; second, on the frontier of industrial pioneering, which is primarily concerned with man’s attempt to control the labor of his fellowmen; finally, on the frontier of spiritual pioneering, which is primarily concerned with man’s attempt to control himself.” From the Puritan Frontier we pass on through the Southern Frontier (romantic), the epic of the hunter and trapper, the Transcendentalists (golden age), the ‘Forty-niners (gold diggers), industrial age (gilded), to the latest scene in this moving drama, the farm and the plains. The old sectional and regional nomenclature has thus suffered a fusion into a vast panoramic film of many colors. It is an interesting composite picture, in which the individual withers and the scheme is more and more. This book is another example of the present-day flair for synthesis and labeling and, one might almost say, for standardization. We Americans at last know what we are. We are one-hundred per cent pioneers, some bold, some timid, some reluctant, but frontiersmen are we all, as it was in the beginning, is now, and presumably evermore shall be. “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” If, perchance, Poe escapes into El Dorado or Cabell into Poictesme, or if Babbitt gets away from Zenith or Anderson from Winesburg or Masters from Spoon River, it is the gadfly of pioneering that stings them into flight. One recalls the late Sir Walter Raleigh’s definition of literature as “man’s adventures on the outer edge of things” and thinks of Stevenson, Dunsany, Yeats, and the rest; and one wonders if all literature, American included, is not just a series of pioneering excursions. Ingenious as Miss Hazard’s thesis is, illustrated with a wealth of plausible expositions drawn from wide reading, it does not adequately explain American achievements in letters, for it does not sufficiently take into account individual creative genius; it makes a man too much the agent of circumstance; the chieftain fades into the roseate mist of the borderland. A brilliantly written thesis, but still a thesis, it proves too much. The author dashes along in a blaze of stressful certainty, with the eloquence of a special pleader and without the qualifying skepticism that usually relieves the tension or reduces the speed of more judicial minds.

The early, ancestry of the modern magazine is traced in Professor Walter Graham’s “Beginnings of English Literary Periodicals.” There was also a “Mercury” (Athenian then) two hundred or more years ago. The editor declared his purpose to have it “lye for common chat and entertainment in every coffee-house board,” and it is said to have been popular. This first English “Mercury” undertook to answer questions on literary, scientific, and theological subjects. The usual tedium of the question-and-answer column was often broken by such a dialogue as this, quoted in Mr. Graham’s book: Ques. When had angels their first existence?
Ans. Who but an angel knows?
Ques. Whether a public or private courtship is better?
Ans. The private is more safe and pleasant.
The close relationship now existing between literature and journalism had, of course, its beginning with the “Spectator” of Addison and Steele. By that time the periodical had become the medium of literary criticism and also of advertising; in the latter field the early English “Spectator” was surprisingly, modern. And this leads to passing mention of a recent book of short papers by Robert Littell originally printed in “The New Republic” and now collected in a volume with the title “Read America First.” Satirical comment on current slogans and fraternities furnishes some ephemeral diversion and may be good material for the future sociologist. Better still is the pabulum in Professor Frank L. Mott’s “Rewards of Reading,” one of those safe and even inspiring guides to the best literature which each generation of youth needs for stimulating extra-curricular activity in the realm of the spirit.


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