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Literature and Modern Man

ISSUE:  Spring 1938

Prom These Roots. By Mary M. Colum. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. $2.50. Towards the Twentieth Century. By H. V. Routh. Cambridge: The University Press. New York: The Macmillan Co, $3.50. Modem Paction; A Study of Values. By Her1)crt J. Muller. New York and London: Funk and Wagnalls. $2.80. Three Ways of Modern Man. By Harry Sloch-ower. New York: International Publishers. $2.00.

The four books here reviewed are critical studies of unusual breadth of scope, interpreting literature in the light of those humane ideas that most profoundly express the contemporary Zeitgeist. In each book the author undertakes to give shape to a large body of literary history by developing a single significant line of thought; and three of them are notably successful, with the result that the reader has an exciting sense of participating in high philosophical adventure.

The exception is Mary Colum’s “From These Roots.” Mrs. Colum’s thesis seems to be that important movements in creative literature are initiated by stirring ideas in criticism, and she starts out with a lively account of the chief critics of the romantic movement in England, Germany, and France. Then she rather lets her thesis drop, and goes on with an impressionistic history of realism and of the symbolist reaction, which purports to bring the record down to “Where We Are” now. Unfortunately, she has but the haziest notion of where we are. Her sympathies and insights are extremely limited, and she does not succeed in bringing us much beyond Baudelaire and Henry James. Her view of the critics, from Lessing to Taine, is broad and stimulating; the artistic world today she dimly sights from out the Celtic twilight.

Of the three remaining critics, Messrs. Routh and Muller are striking exceptions to Hazlitt’s dictum that “no college man writes well.” The work of Mr. Routh is, in addition, a most unusual effort of historical scholarship, and his “Towards the Twentieth Century” must take its place as the most philosophical of contemporary surveys of nineteenth-century English literature. Mr. Midler’s “Modern Fiction” is a finely discriminating study of twentieth-century fiction. Mr. Slochower’s “Three Ways of Modern Man” is more limited in scope, being a Marxian analysis of the social attitudes of three representative novelists — Sigrid Undset, Thomas Mann, and Martin Andersen Nexo—together with a survey of other contemporary novelists who may conveniently be classified in relation to these three. Mr. Slo-chower does not write so well as the others, but he is thoroughly master of his subject, and he handles the Marxian method with great discrimination and insight. He carries forward the argument from the point where Messrs. Routh and Muller lay it down. Indeed, he seems to me to offer the indispensable supplement to their thinking, which is more than a trifle vague wherever it touches (or neglects) the economic factors which determine literary attitudes and which are requisite to the fixing of social objectives.

Mr. Muller writes as one who understands the distinctively modern note in fiction, but he is vigilantly critical of every deviation from the “humanistic” spirit which is the heritage of our time. The touchstone for all his appraisals is given in the chapter entitled “A Theory of Value: Humanism.” His humanism is very different from that of More and Babbitt; for the naturalism they rejected he frankly adopts as the starting point for an adequate modern philosophy. This implies taking for our pole-star Science, as that was once defined by Matthew Arnold: “Science, in the widest sense of the word, meaning a true knowledge of things as the basis of our operations.” Naturally Mr. Muller wishes to free science from some of the cruder implications often associated with the words “determinism” and “materialism,” and—in the study of human nature—to recognize the importance of the unconscious, of instinct and intuition. He admits the validity of the Marxian social criticism, especially as interpreted by writers like Kenneth Burke, who have begun to discredit the “bizarre simplicities” of the more dogmatic sectarians. While he appreciates the psychological principle of tragic catharsis, Mr. Muller is wisely critical of the sort of pessimistic nihilism that has characterized so much of the work of the realists.

His program is unexceptionable. In carrying it out, while he displays admirable breadth of view and most unusual subtlety in the appraisal of individual writers with reference to their literary skill, he sometimes prefers traditional cultural values in the narrower sense to those humanistic values which are his prime concern. He seems to forget the Marxian principle that these very cultural values are to a considerable extent an expression of a social order conformable to a certain industrial set-up. This applies to the critic as well as to the creative writer. The critic’s ideology is exhibited quite as much in the tone of feeling and the emphasis with which he distributes his evaluations as in his theoretical statement of values. And it troubles one to find Mr. Muller so much more indulgent of Lawrence’s obscurantism (where scientific thought is concerned) than of the pessimism of Flaubert, which was at least the latter’s tribute to the scientific ideal. Again, considering his program, Mr. Muller does scant justice to the one novelist who most largely represents the scientific attitude, together with the social ideal that was to be realized through science. Zola, he says, had “no real grasp of the larger movements of modern thought”! Mr. Muller’s reluctance to admit the author of “Germinal” to the rank of Titan, taken with his unqualified admiration for the author of “The Magic Mountain,” leads one to ask what sentiment has come in to confuse his estimate of the “values” involved.

Thomas Mann is perhaps the most seductive of modern writers, a thinker of infinite subtlety, breadth, and richness. But he was still engaged at the end of “The Magic Mountain” in “making up his accounts.” He had not yet struck a balance. And no wonder: the spiritual education of Hans Castorp was conducted in a vacuum—out of relation to the social facts that might be relevant. Emile Zola was full of the faults that are peculiarly distressing to the academic mind. But he always had in view the relevant social facts, and his thought is positive, progressive, and militantly “humanistic.” The academic reader naturally favors dialectical inquiry and the open mind. But does not the critical spirit demand that, from time to time, a balance should be struck and a verdict rendered?

Mr. Routh is as much a proponent of science as Mr. Muller (“Science, in the widest sense of the word”), and his position is supported by a study of the numerous nineteenth-century masters who failed clearly to envisage the scientific point of view or to make it effective in their criticism of life. In his brilliant analyses of the careers of Wordsworth, Tennyson, Newman, Carlyle, Froude, Arnold, Gissing, Hardy, and the rest, he shows over and over again their failure to make the requisite “adjustment of ideal to actual”; and in every case it is their undue dependence on traditional notions of the ideal (“the pattern of reality within one’s head”)—their fond backward glance on religious and cultural idols that would not serve their need in the modern world—that was responsible for their failure. Each one asked more of metaphysics or religion than it could give. They “wanted to find in secular life the kind of inspiration which was once found in sacred literature. So they missed what inspiration really could be found.” They wanted to keep to the old maps, “and they missed the experience and encouragement of feeling their way and gradually constructing the new map which explained the district.” They did not have the courage to follow knowledge wherever it might take them, and so they failed to achieve self-reliance and “the conviction that humanity is strong enough for any verdict.”

The one writer who strayed least from the straight way was Mill. He insisted on man’s liberty to take any positions that his thinking might lead him to; he had faith in knowledge and reason as sufficient guides for humanity. It was Mill who most nearly anticipated the principle of the “new scientific humanism,” which “enables thought to wander among insoluble mysteries with the confidence of Theseus holding fast to his clue; and to wander among human contingencies with the confidence of Prometheus who knows enough of social and physiological causes to begin controlling the effects.” This principle, Mr. Routh hopes, may save the twentieth century from the inveterate futility of the nineteenth.

This is indeed a bold pronouncement for a professor of English literature and institutions, and a notable outcome of literary scholarship. But there is one reservation to be made. Mr. Routh’s study is almost as weak on the side of economics and sociology as it is strong on the side of metaphysics and physical science. His inadequate treatment of Ruskin, and his neglect of Shelley, of Marx, of Fabianism and the labor movement, are symptomatic of a vagueness on the subject of social objectives and organization which leaves him as much up in the air as it did Tennyson or Carlyle. Science must indeed be our guide and master in the determination of facts. But can it tell us what to do with them? It will furnish our map of the universe. But will it define the goal of our pilgrimage?

It is here that the academic mind fails us. At this point a critic like Mr. Slochower is urgently needed to give direction and substance to our “humanism.” Humanism is a word that takes on meaning when the culture of individual men is defined in terms of man, man in society, the community of men. Such a humanism is implicit, for Mr. Slochower, in Marxian socialism, and his aim is to trace the approaches to this ideal in Undset, Mann, and Nexo, as well as in other writers who more or less follow the “three ways” they have taken. The socialistic spirit appears, though imperfectly, in the Catholic idealism of “Kristin Lavransdatter,” in so far as this is a reaction against both the agrarian and the commercial forms of individualism. Particularly happy are Slochower’s characterization of “The Magic Mountain” as bourgeois liberalism and his suggestion that Mann’s great book is implicitly a criticism of his own attitude of artistic “reserve.” Castorp’s “position is shown as entailing participation in non-liberal activity. The novel thus becomes a criticism of the author of the criticism.” In the Joseph series and in more recent pronouncements Mann is shown being “educated” up to world-collectivism and, in some large sense of the word, to communism. In “Pelle the Conqueror” and “Ditte” Nexo reaches out gradually through the co-operative idea to the more comprehensive ideal of socialist humanism. That Mr. Slochower’s interpretations are not too wildly speculative is indicated by the letters from Mann and Nexo acknowledging the essential Tightness of the analysis in their own cases.

To these major studies Mr. Slochower adds a review of numerous contemporary novels of similar tendency, including a valuable survey of current German fiction. This great body of writing represents a most impressive “current of ideas,” as Arnold would say. One begins to ask whether this may be his “main stream of man’s advance,” setting toward some point where the Marxian ideal merges with that of—Shelley! “Beautiful and ineffectual angel” . . . ? How now, Mr. Arnold!


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