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The Wages of Literature

ISSUE:  Autumn 1941

The Cambridge Bibliography of English literature, Edited by F. W. Bateson. Cambridge University Press. The Macmillan Company. Four volumes. $32.50.

Let us admit at the start that “The Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature” contains a certain number of errors and that its full value cannot be determined until many years have passed. These are the comments which its critics have been making, comments which might have been proffered with assurance by any minor prophet before its publication. The same was said, and correctly said, about Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary and other compilations which have since proved indispensable to the English-speaking world, and there is no reason at present to suppose that the Cambridge Bibliography will not prove to be proportionately useful in its particular field.

An attempt should be made to view it from the perspective which its titanic dimensions demand. A time like the present, when every pragmatical jackass is cheapening the literary product in the market place in an effort to inflate the value of his own, is no time for the professed friends of literature to ignore, or allow others to ignore, the importance of this work as a symbol of the greatest body of literature in the modern world. It is more than a symbol, it is an epitome of that literature, a record of “all the writings in book form . . . that can still be said to possess some literary interest, by natives of what is now the British Empire, up to the year 1900.” Granted the innate poetic and imaginative genius of the English people, it is without a doubt their recognition of the necessity for liberty in thought and speech which has enabled them to make the great contribution to civilization which their literature is. In spite of the accusations of prudery and insularity which have been hurled against England from the continent, she has offered no spectacle of her Voltaires and her Rousseaus being forced to live abroad or publish their works abroad; no English Thomas Mann has been driven to refuge across the seas or even across the Channel. England, on the whole, has been guided by the great principle that “Truth’s confuting is the best and surest suppressing.” It is safe to say that the liberty to write as you please, and what is equally as important, the opportunity, have been consistently maintained over a longer period of time in England than in any other country in the world.

The freedom is still maintained—in a technical sense; but the opportunity is lacking. It is one of those hard-won achievements of civilization which recent generations have taken for granted, have therefore neglected, and in consequence have lost. Literature in England and America is economically more enslaved today than at any other period of our history. What means of livelihood are now open to the strictly literary artist? What encouragement exists for the lyric poet, or the familiar or literary essayist, or even for the teller of tales who does not tell them for the millions? Even our novelists are being forced by economic necessity to write more and more with their eyes upon Hollywood and the movies and less and less with their eyes upon the manners and customs of actual people. Our modern institutions of patronage, in which we must include publishers and movie producers, demand literary products which are more practical than the goodness of a good book or poem, which goodness is almost never a matter of immediate realization, but rather one of years. The rewards of literary endeavor today go consistently on the one hand to the writer of propaganda and on the other to the purveyor of cheap entertainment. A greater proportion of the talented writers of our time than of any other have capitulated to the demand for informative and recreative rather than for creative literature. It is significant that two of the most successful novels of recent years in this country have been “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Gone with the Wind.” . Creative literature today stands in grave danger of being drawn into the vortex of sterile materialism which has already engulfed so many of our idealistic institutions.

It is the students and teachers of English to whom we look as the natural defenders of the integrity of literature. But among them, as among the writers themselves, we find a willingness to capitulate, at times naively and at times cynically, to the insistent demands for material results in a field of endeavor which is essentially ideal. The modern fallacy that all thought is, or ought to be, scientific thought has entrapped scholars in all branches of non-scientific study. The social scientists, for example, have for years been attempting to apply to the human kingdom principles and methods which are applicable, as a matter of fact, only to the mineral and vegetable kingdoms. Even the historians, who surely ought to know better, have fallen into the contemporary habit of attending more to documentation than to documents. The chief of all the offenders, however, are the students and professors of English, the very foundation of whose study is the principle that humanity and literature are as one and that neither of them has been, nor ever can be, subjected to scientific prediction or analysis. Yet there are among them many who have never learned the lesson which Homer and Rabelais and Cervantes, which Chaucer and Shakespeare so eloquently teach. It is they who encourage the production of Teutonic compilations of unused—if not unusable—”facts,” under the pretense or the illusion that the cause of literature has thereby been advanced. It is they who nre the Forsytes of literature, the literary “men of property,” who fondly suppose that by seizing the outward form and trappings of beauty and the imagination they have captured the spirit as well. It is not too much to say that most if not all of this frivolous manipulation of literary data—to the neglect and detriment of literature itself —is owing to the fundamental mistake of applying the practices of science to art and to human behavior. The rewards of the scientist were so abundant and those of the literary student were so meager; the temptation was too great. It is all a part of the appalling materialism of the past two decades.

As to the Cambridge Bibliography, that great list of writings which have survived solely “as each are mirrors of the fire for which all thirst,” let it stand as a reminder of what has been achieved and what still can be achieved in a civilization which provided not only freedom but opportunity. Let it stand too as the proud boast of a great people, presented to the world in this fateful hour of their history as a proof of the richness of life as they have lived it.


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