Literature and Life


“FOR my own part,” writes Mr. Howells in prefacing his latest collection of papers,1 “ I have never been able to see much difference between what seemed to me Literature and what seemed to me Life. If I did not find life in what professed to be literature, I disabled its profession, and possibly from this habit, now inveterate with me, I am never quite sure of life unless I find literature in it. Unless the thing seen reveals to me an intrinsic poetry, and puts on phrases that clothe it pleasingly to the imagination, I do not much care for it; but if it will do this, I do not mind how poor or common or squalid it shows at first glance: it challenges my curiosity and keeps my sympathy.” Mr. Howells is suggesting that a certain unity may be discoverable in the miscellany of sketches and essays which he here offers; but the passage as a confession of faith by a leading professional man of letters is of no little interest on its own account. It suggests, in the first place, an important quality in Mr. Howells’s own work, the result of his attempt to identify life and art. His art, especially when it takes the form of criticism, is likely to be compromised by his desire to be merely human. On the other hand, he cannot help approaching life by way of literature; and is indeed whimsically fond of detecting himself in the fact of regarding life as material for literature, instead of regarding literature as a mode of life. This is a limitation which in some degree exists in nearly all creative work; for only in the most elementary and the very highest forms of art is the natural equilibrium between art and the other modes of life instinctively maintained. The genius which can produce a folk-song or an Odyssey need not trouble itself with the question from which critics and novelists can never escape: unless one except here and there a critic like Bagehot, or a novelist like Fielding.


Mr. Howells offers, on the whole, a rather discouraging picture of the literary person, both as other people see him and as he sees himself. “In the social world, as well as in the business world, the artist is anomalous, in the actual conditions, and he is perhaps a little ridiculous. . . . He must still have a low rank among practical people; and he will be regarded by the great mass of the American peopLe as perhaps a little off, a little funny, a little soft! ” This is not a pleasant fact to face. Mr. Howells’s practice elsewhere in this very volume may perhaps do something toward suggesting the reason for it. Such sketches as Worries of a Winter Walk, and The Midnight Platoon, express with a somewhat disturbing irony the instinct of the literary producer to detect “copy ” in the spectacle of human stress. One reflects that the public does not consider the present coal famine as a situation affording material for art. Of course every human exigency does afford such material; and we cannot fairly suppose that the public would be altogether deaf to the account which art might later have to give of it. Perhaps the final usefulness to the race of any such exigency might be really conditioned by its life in art; for without the creative touch its record might be soon forgotten. But the chances are not great that art will be able to make such magnificent use of any given facts ; and the public has its own immediate use for them. It takes them at first hand, feels itself absorbingly implicated in them, and is impatient of the disinterestedness with which the man of broad cultivation presumes to speak. Thus one of the obvious questions of the relation between literature and life is, How far can the literary artist, if he is to deal with contemporary life at all, afford to detach himself from the prepossessions of the hour? And how strictly must he stand true to the color of his own conscience as an artist?

The question may be answered readily in the large, for it is evident that when an artist ceases to be true to his conscience, he ceases to be an artist at all; and his conscience will deal with public events as it deals with the otherfacts of human experience. There is no special problem to be solved in this case, therefore; one is merely reminded afresh of the general question, Upon what combination of human and creative qualities must the artist base his hopes of effectiveness ? As has been suggested, the perfect balance of these qualities is rarely achieved; but probably it is oftener approximated than one might think. Possibly even it has neverbeen approached so nearly by the average writer of influence as it is now.

But the condition is not to be altogether argued out of the way. A certain amount of misunderstanding is bound to exist between the creative artist and the people whom he strives to please. The great public likes plain speaking, not to say dull speaking. It thinks in blocks and feels in grooves, and it is greatly put out by the qualifying subtlety of the liberal mind. This is Mr. Howells’s own habit of thought. Except upon the subject of the art of fiction, he is disinclined to commit himself flatly, even to himself. He prefers a delicate balancing of probabilities to the palpable, not to say crass, statement of conviction. The reader who wishes to be convinced of something may be distinctly disconcerted by the opening essay, in the present volume, on The Man of Letters as a Man of Business; for the essayist begins with the remark that he thinks no man ought to live by an art, that in fact some shame attaches, and ought to attach, to that way of life; and then by a somewhat devious path arrives at the conclusion that art is, after all, only a form of trade, in which he himself is “proud to be a worker, eating his bread in the sweat of his own brows.”


This is the discursive method of the old-fashioned “lyrical” essay, as in lamenting its present decay Mr. Howells has recently called it; the form of prose in which a series of mental impressions is cheerfully and profitably suffered to take the place of disquisition. One fact is clear about such work: wherever it may lie in tone and content between the extremes, say, of Thackeray’s Roundabout Papers and Emerson’s Essays, it is a daring form, rarely found in its perfection, and then perfect because it expresses a personality of distinction. One need only think a moment of the idle triviality of Rambler, or Chatterer, or Onlooker columns in the daily press to be assured of this. In the hands of the ordinary journalist the medium becomes worthless from the literary point of view, its fine audacity becomes mere presumption, and its easy familiarity mere impertinence.

We have never had a Montaigne or a Lamb in America, but cheerfully accepting as we now do for the most part the fact that our literature is a department, or, as Mr. Howells calls it, a condition of English literature, we are still at liberty to be proud of what we have done in this field of the discursive essay. For scholarship and for technical criticism there is an undoubted advantage in a logically articulate structure, and even a requirement of it. But there is a sort of creative prose which owes its charm to spontaneity, and at its best comes nearer gaining the effects of poetry than any other prose form, — even than the carefully modulated inventions which are called rhythmic prose. In a sense, that is, the discursive essay is a purer form of literature than the logical essay. It comes more direct from the personality of the author, less compromised by mere thinking, and less hampered by set method : and this is why a considerable personality must stand behind it.

Of course, a considerable personality does not always succeed in expressing itself in terms of art, but it may say a good deal for all that. One of the most interesting and original people I have known was a middle-aged negress who could neither read nor write. One did not straightway begin to grieve that she had not learned enough of literature to fancy it superior to life. Only too frequently life itself ceases to be an art to persons who are over-absorbed in turning it to literary account.

Among living American writers there is hardly a personality so effective as that of Mr. Burroughs. He is a lover of nature and of literature, but above all a lover of life. The effect of his work can hardly be described better than in his own words: “Now and then a man appears whose writing is vital; his page may be homely, but it is alive; it is full of personal magnetism.” Mr. Burroughs is not a critic of academic mind, and those who are impatient of any method but that which, furnished with a critical vocabulary and a store of historical precedent, passes for the impersonal, will find much that is frankly personal in his latest judgments.2 He believes, indeed, that the personal method is the only true method of criticism; and probably goes a trifle far in doubting the usefulness of a more formal and regular method from the results of which his own results really differ very little. “ The standard of the best, ” he says, “is not some rule of thumb or of yardstick that every one can apply; only the best can apply the best.” No doubt there are dangers in the scholastic acquirement of a critical method. The critic’s individual taste is, as Mr. Burroughs asserts, his final test. But taste is subject to laws, so that the taste of the sound critic is as nearly a reliable quality as any other human virtue is. A critic maybe sound without being creative, and though it is a pity he should not be that too, there is room for a good deal of dullness and thoroughness in the world just now, particularly in the world of American criticism. The academically trained critic is at least not likely to be stupidly conciliatory or irresponsibly hostile. But rare personalities are not common; the chances are that most critical writing will at best be sound rather than creative, will lack the note of personal authority upon which the greatest criticism has always depended for its permanent usefulness.

It is not improbable that Mr. Burroughs’s book will carry more weight in its plain and forcible expression of critical theories upon which other good critics have agreed as sound, than in its occasional production of a really novel or individual point of taste. But the creative critic is yet to be found who has not at least one predilection which most other critics fail to share. With the exception of his estimate of Whitman and the corollary or subsidiary conception of democratic literature, there is nothing of importance in the present volume which can be impugned as unsound by the academic mind. And it has the immeasurable advantage over most criticism of being literature in itself. Mr. Burroughs’s style is here, as always, clear, simple, and strong, an adequate expression of the man.


That is what style is now generally admitted to be: nothing more nor less than, as Mr. Howells puts it, “a man’s way of saying things.” An affected or artificial manner of writing is, we perceive, as unprofitable as the same manner in walking or speaking. The main objection to such a manner is that one is left absolutely in doubt as to what sort of person the writer really is. The chances are he is not distinctly any sort of person. People who have something to say, something, that is, which must be said for their own peace of mind, and who are used to saying things, are not likely to fidget about their manner of speech. They will of course need to take every care short of fidgeting. Few men are conscious from the outset of a sure and distinguishable “way” of speech; and the fearsome thing is not that a man should take thought, but that he should so often mistake fastidious predilection for creative impulse, and deliberately worry himself into an unnatural habit of utterance. In the effort to rise above commonplaceness, he sinks to imitation or contortion, and the world sees in the attempt nothing but a pitiful flutter of waxen wings, or a lamentable straining at the boot-straps.

Unfortunately this mistake, common to those who can only fidget, and important only to them, is sometimes made by their betters; as in the instance of Louis Stevenson, for example, who as a boy began to imitate and to contort, and who never quite outgrew the notion that art was a trick. Luckily his humor and love of life kept him at all times from the worst excesses of the stylist, and his indomitable personality insisted upon making itself felt through the many disguises with which his perverse and Pucklike ingenuity attempted to veil it.

Two new volumes of discursive essays 3 have just come from England, each of which might send one back to the shelf where, beside Sir Thomas Browne and Lamb, Virginibus Puerisque reposes. They represent quite distinct types of prose: that of the scholar, dreamer, and dilettante, absorbed in his fancies and his periods; and that of the active, alert, humorous intelligence to which no human experience comes amiss, and which prefers to be downright at cost, if need be, of delicacy. Mr. Thomas is a stylist, not in the extreme sense of one who looks for a theme to fit his cadences, but as one to whom words have a charm apart from thought. The usual result follows, that only in passages where the author loses himself does he effectually find himself, — does he achieve style at all, that is. The reader is too seldom permitted to forget that the writer is a man of classical training, of aesthetic sensibility, and of certain notions as to the way in which such a man ought to write. He sculls two miles up a river, and stops at a farmhouse for luncheon, whereupon this happens: “The farm folk gave me a bowl of cream and a golden loaf with honey; then left me. Something puritanic in the place — or was it something in the air before the cockcrow of civilization ? — endowed the meal with a holy sweetness as of a sacrament.” Passages like this are a little irritating to the hardy mind; it is inclined to imagine the author at the moment of composition not eating the food of a hungry man in the open air, but mincing about a library at dusk with the world well shut out, firing up now and then with a sip of tea and, as his voice melodiously rises and falls, beating time delicately with a slice of buttered toast.

This would not matter if the writer were really nothing but a lover of the coddled sensation and the fetched phrase; but his work as a whole shows that he is a good deal more than that. There are personalities which cannot be expressed in bare terms, and to which a simple style would be an affectation. Mr. Thomas has a vein of true imagination. When the fire of it fairly possesses him, the elaboration of his style ceases to appear labored. But the manner which assumes force and a certain richness in moments of rhapsody is too prone, in the expression of common moods, to become ingenious and precious. It is seldom that the essayist allows himself to speak so simply of a simple matter as in the sentence: “There are two obvious remarks to make about nearly everything, and it is one of the charms of The Young Man’s Best Companion that it usually says both.”

The Defendant. By G. K. CHESTERTON. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co; London: R. Brimley Johnson. 1902.

This is more like the habitual manner, though it does not suggest the characteristic point of view, of Mr. Chesterton. As “the defendant ” he has set himself a task which might easily have been carried out in a spirit of mere effrontery. It has actually been done in a spirit of creative humor, so that even the extravagances from which such an attempt could not be altogether free are full of suggestion. In the score of brief essays which make up the book the author undertakes a defense of modern life against conventional pessimism. “Pessimism is now patently, as it always was essentially, more commonplace than piety. Profanity is now more than an affectation,— it is a convention. The curse against God is Exercise I. in the primer of minor poetry. . . . The pessimist is commonly spoken of as the man in revolt. He is not. Firstly, because it required some cheerfulness to continue in revolt, and secondly, because pessimism appeals to the weaker side of everybody, and the pessimist, therefore, drives as roaring a trade as the publican. The person who is really in revolt is the optimist, who generally lives and dies in a desperate and suicidal effort to persuade all the other people how good they are.”

In the course of his trade as optimist, Mr. Chesterton takes occasion among other matters to defend from the abuse of pessimism such institutions as Detective Stories, Useful Information, Ugly Things, and Patriotism, — a selection of titles which suggests fairly well the range of his argument. The general character of the papers is not unlike that of Stevenson’s Apology for Idlers, but they are written in a bolder and less conscious style, which is evidently the natural manner of the author; they are, that is, literary without being bookish. Of the many passages which ought to be quoted we may give just one, from A Defense of Penny Dreadfuls: —

“In this matter, as in all such matters, we lose our bearings entirely by speaking of the ‘lower classes ’ when we mean humanity minus ourselves. This trivial romantic literature is not especially plebeian: it is simply human. The philanthropist can never forget classes and callings. He says, with a modest swagger, ‘I have invited twentyfive factory hands to tea.’ If he said ‘I have invited twenty-five chartered accountants to tea, ’ every one would see the humor of so simple a classification. But this is what we have done with this lumberland of foolish writing: we have probed, as if it were some monstrous new disease, what is, in fact, nothing but the foolish and valiant heart of man.” Perhaps the most charming paper in the collection is that called A Defense of Baby-Worship; but all of them are delightful, with the possible exception of the Defense of Patriotism, in which the performer appears to sweep the string somewhat too loudly for his purpose.

It is a pity that no important volume of discursive essays should have been published in America since the day of the Autocrat. Dr. Holmes was our greatest master, and the Breakfast-Table Series is still our finest product in this kind. So fresh and engaging are these papers still that it is hard to realize how long ago most of them were written. Nor does it seem probable that eleven years have now passed since the last prefatory note to The Autocrat was written, and that no further message can come from that beloved hand. Most of us possess thumbed copies of his work, which have been household companions for a decade or a generation; but there really ought to be room beside them for the new and beautiful edition which has just been produced.4 These volumes are printed by Dent in a style much like that which gave the recent editions of English novelists such popularity ; and Mr. Brock’s delicate drawings in pen and ink — a grateful relief from the muddy wash drawings now in vogue — are illustrations in the best sense. The artist has, indeed, done for the Autocrat and his companions at the Breakfast-Table very much what Mr. Thomson has done for the immortals of Cranford and The Vicar of Wakefield.

Dr. Holmes, though reared in an older school, which he never cared to outgrow, though an aristocrat and romanticist, had a sense, quite as keen as that of Mr. Howells, of the intimacy of literature and life. His method is of course different; he is an autocrat as well as a speculative observer. But it is evident that his office of tyrant only increased his love of the human nature for which he framed his kindly fiats. He is one of those to whom Mr. Burroughs’s saying would certainly apply: “The great artist, I take it, is primarily in love with life and things, and not with art. ”

H. W. Boynton.

  1. Literature and Life. By W. D. HOWELLS. New York and London : Harper & Brothers. 1902.
  2. Literary Values. By JOHN BURROUGHS. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1902.
  3. Horae Solitariae. By EDWARD THOMAS. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. 1902.
  4. The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, The Poet at the Breakfast-Table, The Professor at the Breakfast-Table. By OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES. With Illustrations by H. M. BROCK. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. London: J. M. Bent & Co. 1902.