Scudder's Men and Letters
IN the papers which Mr. Scudder has gathered in this modest volume,1 many of our readers will recognize an old hand. He has prefixed to it a letter of dedication to an editorial friend, in which he pleasantly recalls their youth, — Bohemian days of “ two young poets, who walked Broadway and haunted little back rooms in Fourth Avenue and Eleventh Street; who had theories about Homer, and discussed them in Harlem ; who spent money before it was earned, and proposed the prudent course of retiring altogether upon an unexpected windfall of a hundred dollars, using the leisure thus happily secured for executing the epical work which required a continuity of time not easily had under customary conditions.” In the humbler walk of criticism which it has been his fortune to follow, far from Harlem, he has remained anonymous, as a thorough contemporary critic must. The advantages of having a dozen Richmonds in the field for the literary usurper to run foul
of are a personal convenience not lightly to be dispensed with by the one who is most concerned, and it is by no means undesirable that the disinterested reader should be left in an equanimity which closer acquaintance with the voice in the critical domino might disturb. Anonymity has its value, as is everywhere recognized ; but the writer tires of it, as Mr. Scudder confesses, on coming out of what he designates as his solitary cell ; and it becomes tedious to the reader also, certainly if he be discriminating, and, by the help of certain controlling thoughts and recurring mannerisms, the tricks and gait of style, detects the figure of a man, though, like the character of the ghost-stories he continually keeps his face turned away. To such a one there will be a pleasure in the discovery of this anonym’s identity, for the strong personal note in the little preface we have mentioned is easily distinguishable in the essays that follow, and converts them from an oracular voice into the talk of an individual.
This new companionship is felt most agreeably in the two or three sketches of personal friends which the volume contains. The subjects of these memorials were not greatly distinguished ; to some, perhaps, their human interest will be more engaging because of this obscurity, or rather privacy, of life. One, the paper upon Elisha Mulford, has the charm of intimacy. It is one of those best of tributes to the dead which do not praise, but are content only to remember. Mr. Scudder found the man more than his works. Of Mulford’s gravely reasoned books, of his theory of the organization and meaning of man’s progress in history, he has little, indeed, to say ; but he presents his traits, and this theologian from the Pennsylvania farmlands, in some ways reminding us of the selfassured, dominating, and laborious divines of the elder time, really lives in these few pages of almost affectionate reminiscence more humanly than in his own ponderous sentences, though perhaps less completely. The nuggets of character to be found in this paper, in the way of sayings and anecdotes, are of the sort that always seem new-found; but it was too recently before our readers to allow us the pleasure of extracting them. From Dr. Muhlenberg’s life, also, Mr. Scudder gives us some beautiful scenes ; and in the notice of Anne Gilchrist, in whom certainly the womanly element was of infinitely more consequence than the literary, the fact of personal acquaintance has helped the critic. It is hard to realize from her few essays and letters the vitality of her nature ; but she is not the first of whom strangers have been willing to judge by the words of familiar friends, and have felt the ground firmer under them than if the opinion had been based on their own impression of her literary remains.
But a critic of the literature that springs up by the wayside cannot often have the happiness to write of his respected friends. This volume discloses, by the comparatively scanty number of its papers, the dependence of criticism on its subject-matter; the transient nature of the mass of it, which perishes with the market for the works it deals with ; and the parasitic life which is all that most of the remainder enjoys. Here the topics are Landor and Shakespeare, Emerson and Longfellow. It is always interesting — at least among those benighted ones who still live somewhat in the past of the republic of letters it is interesting — to learn what a man of intelligence in our own time thinks of the classics of our tongue. It is true that Mr. Scudder does not attempt criticism in the grand manner ; he looks rather for neglected veins in the wellworked mines; but he comes upon novel points of view, curious suggestions, observations that arrest and entertain. In the case of Shakespeare, of whom he forecasts the future, he takes rather a wide range, as no doubt one must; he seems to discern a time when the world will have moved so far from the Elizabethans, the democrat have left the aristocrat so completely out of sight, that Shakespeare cannot then be popular. But surely, in view of this dismal and remote prognostication, we can exclaim, with no touch of cynical carelessness for our fellow-beings (such a generation are scarcely to be spoken of as brother-men), D’après nous the glacial age ! In Emerson and Longfellow Mr. Scudder had fresher material. This examination of the latter’s artistic qualities is almost the beginning of useful criticism upon his works; and as to Emerson, it is treasure-trove to find a paper which contentedly leaves him to continue a transcendental mystery to the illuminated and a puzzle to admirers of Montaigne, while it attempts to show only how simple and natural a thing he was to himself.
Too close attention, however, should not be directed to the titular subjects with which Mr. Scudder heads his pages. He is a discursive writer, and often leaves his author to follow his own reflections. Here, too, his personality counts. His thought is sometimes so entirely selfrooted that the word “ critic ” seems a misnomer, when applied to him; when the topic is impersonal, he philosophizes, and when he has an author whom he likes he is more concerned to exhibit the characteristics of the man than to weigh his books. At least, it is so in this volume. One notices, too, the strong humanitarian feeling that pervades portions of his work, and in other parts the settled belief in the reality and preëminence of those qualities in writing which make a book to be literature, and not a mere publication of knowledge or opinion ; and throughout one observes how lively his own interest continues, even in the minor phases of his subject. In his inquiry as to the dramatic capabilities of American history as Stuff for the American playwright, of which he takes a favorable view, he shows practical courage in leaving the safe ground of generalities, and plumply stating that John Brown’s career affords the situations, characters, and national interest which, in combination, would build a good patriotic play. Elsewhere he has seasonable remarks upon the limitations inherent in the plan of writing history by coöperation, and the ineradicable distinction between such works and those which are the creation of a great and unifying mind ; and in the course of this essay he makes the acute remark that the European discovery that the histories of the people and of the government are not the same does not apply to our annals, and is a misleading principle for our historians, since the institutions here are truly modes of popular expression. So the volume goes on, with here a characterization of some noticeable man, here a critique, here a minor essay, — a varied, ranging, conversational book; and in gathering the scattered papers under his name, Mr. Scudder has given them just that principle of unity which makes them individual, and so at once more attractive and more telling.
- Men and Letters. Essays in Characterization and Criticism. By HORACE E. SCUDDER. Boston : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1887.↩