Skip to main content

Live Reckonings in Criticism


ISSUE:  Autumn 1925

Tradition and Jazz. By Fred Lewis Pattee. New York: The Century Co. $2.00.

Dead Reckonings in Fiction. By Dorothy Brewster and Angus Burrell. New York: Longmans, Green and Company.

The Novels of Fielding. By Aurelien Digeon. New York: E. P. Dutton and Co. $4.50.

Horace and His Art of Enjoyment. By Elizabeth Hazelton Haight. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. $3.00.

Studies in Ten Literatures. By Ernest Boyd. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. $3.00.

The critic was once conscious of traditional formu las and codified canons even if he did not follow them. But we have changed all that. Criticism long ago ceased to be scientific, becoming less formal and more personal. More and more it is an impressionistic, probing art, with the older functions of appraisal and indictment modified by the inroads of psycho-analysis. The ancient virtues and the modern manner are illustrated in the volumes listed above. In Professor Pattee’s “Tradition and Jazz,” for instance, criticism takes the form of a scholar’s plea for repose in American literature and life along with an indict ­ment of this age of “swift mobility.” This voice from campus Babel and summer Sabine retreat exclaims with in ­dignation, tempered by academic urbanity, against the “lau ­reates of the saxophone age” and other perverters of good literary manners. In such essays as “The Shot of Acestes,” “The Ars Poetica and Scofflaw Poetry,” “The Aftermath of Veritism,” and “The Log Unseats Mark Hopkins,” most of which have appeared in magazines, Professor Pattee soundly reinterprets the aims of literature and education for the sensationalists who are making culture hum these days with the clatter of cocksureness. One of the best bits of ad ­vice for the critics is that implied in Angelo’s dictum, “I criticize by creating,” which Mr. Pattee quotes approvingly; and the reader of these sane and sometimes brilliant essays feels that the author has shown in them the creative touch.

“Dead Reckonings in Fiction” goes deeper in its critical soundings, its professed purpose being “to enhance one’s insight and deepen one’s satisfaction as he reads our modern fiction.” This sounds like a psycho-analytic guide to the best novelists, and so it doubtless is—in the opinion of the authors of a clever series of interpretations. The writers subjected to “a kind of chemico-mystical synthesis” are Henry James, Anatole France, Anton Chekkov, Katherine Mansfield, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Joseph Conrad, May Sin ­clair, and D. H. Lawrence; surely a sufficient variety of the literature of “escape” and vicarious adventure! Escape enough there is in the situations dramatized by these story ­tellers, and if the reader only shares their illusions he may be said to have found relief for the inner life and to have escaped for the moment from his own prison-house of thought. The gist of the matter is thus stated by the critic: “Man is a situational being: he dramatizes his problem by throwing it out into a situation. Fiction helps him to do this. . . . The situational is a projection of the psy ­chological.” The reader, made to recognize his own impulses in the fictional performance, undergoes a change of mood and perhaps a mild inner transformation. That is to say, “therapeutic” fiction continues to function according to good old Aristotelian laws. But does escape mean solu ­tion? Not at all. There is none. “The solution lies in the way these writers look at life.” Look, then, through their eyes and you may not get satisfaction, but you will at least get understanding. Well, is not that what literature has al ­ways done for us? It has afforded an escape either from life or into life through the interplay of personality and circum ­stance, without offering ultimate solutions. There needs no Freudian to come from afar to tell us that. The contem ­porary passion for complexes and reactions has simply re ­sulted in another “philosophy of literature,” another method of interpretation, another literary intelligence test, which the authors of “Dead Reckonings in Fiction” have applied with discrimination and thoroughness to a chosen group of modernists in romance.

Quite another critical method is that of M. Aurelien Digeon on “The Novels of Fielding.” A Frenchman has more than once beat the native at the game of interpreting an English man of letters. One recalls the vogue of Rich ­ardson in France, where that eighteenth-century worthy’s fictional affaires du coeur were analyzed with far more pen ­etration and sympathy than at home. M. Digeon naturally does not fail to emphasize the debt of Fielding to French dramatists and satirists; he sets forth at greater length, however, the provocative influence of Richardson on Field ­ing, for the rotund and rosy little London printer, though not a satirist himself, was the cause in his rival of both satire and sentiment. Fielding began his career as a novelist with “Joseph Andrews,” initially a satire and essentially a com ­edy, established his reputation as realist and humanist in “Tom Jones,” and ended his career with the more senti ­mental “Amelia,” having ranged in nine brief years from parody to sense and sensibility. Though he was not a specialist in feminine hearts as was Richardson, he understood far better the motives that stir men and women to action and so was able to humanize them; and he is most convinc ­ing in his characterization when comedy, which comes closer to real life, is his medium. He used the epic form in his greatest novel, but his humor and virile gaiety invited the comic and not the tragic muse. Fielding was, as M. Digeon shows, the first novelist to construct a good—Coleridge says a perfect—plot, but his popularity, despite his technique and faithfulness to life, was contemporaneously less in England than in France, though no adequate translation of his nov ­els has yet been made, indeed, probably can never be made, so vernacular is his speech, so very English. He gave a new flavor to English romance and a manner which lasted through the great Victorians to Meredith. “The essential thing in Fielding,” says M. Digeon, “is his effort to plumb deep and reach the truth. Try, he seems to say, to see into yourself, do not stop at the moral or immoral appearance of an action. . . . Go deeper than words and judge deeds; go deeper than deeds and judge intentions, which are the immediate expression of the soul; go deeper even than conscious intentions.” Here, then, is both a psychological and sentimental novelist who, according to his latest inter ­preter, learned something from Richardson while he laughed at him, and surpassed him at his own field, which he en ­larged and vitalized with red-veined humanity. It is in ­teresting to note that an American, Professor Cross of Yale, has written the greatest biography of Fielding, and that a Frenchman has contributed what is so far the best docu ­mented and the profoundest study of him as a thinker and artist.

There are evidences of a revival of interest in classical literature: witness the Loeb translations and the several recent volumes on Greek and Latin poets and dramatists. If one remembers sundry lines of Horace’s odes which used to be current cultural coin, Professor Elizabeth Hazelton Haight’s “Horace and His Art of Enjoyment” will serve to restore the connection with imperial Rome, Maecenas, the Tiber, and the Sabine Farm; if one never had any such con ­nection, this volume about Horace and his philosophy of life will prove to the reader how much he has missed by being too modern; in either case, this study of the Roman poet’s milieu, personality, and sentiments will show that the anci ­ents were not so very ancient after all. Horace’s art was social, as so much modern art is, and the heart of his phi ­losophy was the joy of personal freedom, whether in city or country. If the aim of culture is happiness through think ­ing interesting thoughts, surely the Latin poet was happy, call him Stoic or Epicurean as you will. He envisaged life and recorded it, sometimes satirically, sometimes lyrically, sometimes critically, but always with “full (esthetic self-ex ­pression.” His ideals, deduced of course from his own self-criticism, are summed up by the author of this appreciative analysis of the poet’s life and art as demanding “a sound body and a sound mind, tranquility of spirit often refreshed by country life and freed from all the rivalries and pursuit of wealth involved in a political career, not only peace of spirit but liberty,—friendships based on character, honor kept unsullied, and a life-work that became half a service to the state, half a religion, and wholly a personal satisfac ­tion.” The engaging worldliness of Roman life in the golden age found its fullest expression in Horace, who, without be ­ing a voluptuary, succeeded in sounding the depths and shoals of pleasure and so mastered the art of enjoyment. Integer vita? scelerisque purus he certainly was, a faultless painter whose reach did not exceed his grasp; he was not troubled with a sense of the burden and the mystery of things, and as a poet he was hardly one of God’s spies. But time and again, as readers of the odes will easily recall, the lyric note of pain at the brevity of life, the inescapable shad ­ows, and the fleeting hour of beauty, gives an undertone of pleasurable sadness that tempers the genial urbanity of a poet who was man of the world, courtier, and philosopher.

Matthew Annold was the first to give English criticism an international coloring, though his predecessors Dryden and Coleridge had profited by continental opinion. Arnold in ­sisted that a fresh current of ideas should be made to flow through English thought, and he accordingly proceeded to enlighten his age about certain foreign writers of minor and major importance. Since his day the novel, the drama, and the short story in particular have attained so much of inter ­national kinship in form and matter that strict literary in ­sularity is happily no longer possible. And now comes Mr. Ernest Boyd, native of Ireland and resident of New York City, with his “Studies from Ten Literatures” wherein he sketches entertainingly the contributions of contemporary writers in France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Switzerland, Germany, Poland, Denmark, Scandinavia, Canada, with a concluding chapter on the “hyphenated poets”—Franco-American writers who retain American citizenship but live in France, such as Stuart Merrill, Francis Viele-Griffin and T. S. Eliot. A literary league of nations, with America rep ­resented, but officially out! Mr. Boyd has heretofore inter ­preted for us the Irish renaissance, but now he very charm ­ingly admits us to the continental hall of fame and presents M. Proust, Senor Benevente, Signor Pirandello, Herre Bojer. To these gentlemen we have already been intro ­duced, but now a host of lesser lights—or is it ignorance that inspires the comparative?—are made to swim into our ken. Such major lights as Anatole France, D’Annunzio, and Brandes have illuminated us so long that we can identify them in the cloudiest night; the other members of the con ­stellation we would fain recognize. “Studies from Ten Lit ­eratures,” to vary the figure, is a thoroughly readable lit ­erary Who’s Who, in which the facts have not devitalized the personalities who, dramatically speaking, are the abstract and brief chronicles of their times and peoples.

0 Comments

CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading