Authors Who 'Go Out'
I WAS startled the other day by a remark which I overheard in a conversation about books. ‘ Oh,’said a voice filled with the earnest convictions of one quite up to date, ‘Stevenson, you know, has gone out.’ Happily the dictum did not cause me to lose my temper, because I had come to realize that in recent years a little of my own enthusiasm for the brave invalid of the Samoan Isles had ebbed away; but it did set me to pondering on those days when a somewhat undiscriminating ardor — what was called in the last century a ‘craze’ — for Stevenson was the indispensable mark of any aspirant to modernity of taste. Perhaps you can recall the first eager passion for the Vailima Letters, or the yearning, destined to remain unsatisfied, to read the author’s Autobiography, offered to the world of collectors by Mr. Quaritch for a prince’s ransom, and said to be unpublishable for some twenty-five years to come; That yearning was as the desire of the moth for the star. And now Stevenson has gone out! Well, even at forty, one must learn to make the best of his years, and exchange enthusiasm for wisdom.
What does it all mean, this rise and fall of reputations? Stevenson has gone, and Kipling, I suppose, has gone. Does any one now read Kipling? And Swinburne has gone, since his biographers refuse to keep his fame alive by revealing the piquant scandals of his life. And William Morris, with all his upholstery, has gone— to some shadowy Pre-Raphaelitic Elysium, let us hope. Indeed, we may well ask, are any of the Pre-Raphaelites left?
There is, for the perverse, a certain consolation in all this. De mortuis reeentibus nil nisi malum is now the law in literary fashions. Apply it, and shock the conservative. It is really great fun. It is the way to set the modern styles. For example, I have always had a love of Browning — sane, I hope, and tempered, I am sure; but it is with malign pleasure that I say to some enthusiast of the old school, ‘ Oh, Browning, you know, has gone out. You might as well admire Whistler or G. B. S.’ It is only when the tables are turned, and someone attacks my own love of Browning, — still sane and tempered, remember, — that I am annoyed; and if the critic happens to be Professor Cunliffe, who thinks that Meredith has left Browning as far in the rear as Browning left Tennyson, then I retort, with joyous rancor, that there is, indeed, no danger of Meredith (as a poet) going out, because he has never, in any sense, come in.
You may, if you wish, grow more audacious, and apply this principle of denunciation to authors nearer our own day. If I assert, with civil superiority, that Mr. Edgar Lee Masters has gone out, who shall say me nay? Some one who read the Anthology three years ago? I respectfully point out to him that this is not the year 1915. In the hope of annoying some admirer of Mr. Masters, whose eye may chance to fall upon these words, I think I will say that I hope, and believe, that he has gone out, gone out like a farthing candle, leaving only a blue and malodorous fume.
It is perhaps more profitable, though certainly less amusing, to turn to the opposite aspect of this tendency of our times. These great men, who pass so rapidly into eclipse, do not always abide permanently in the shadows. There is something instructive in the very metaphor which we employ to describe the phenomenon, commonplace as it is. Eclipses, I believe, are seldom permanent. There is, I think, no more astonishing chapter in the literary history of the past twenty years than the resurrection from the dead of Anthony Trollope. So complete has been his resuscitation that it has become a platitude to announce that he is one of the great Victorian novelists. Several writers, with an ardor caught, surely, from some votary of modernism, have called him the greatest of the Victorians. I know men who have actually learned to love the personality of Anthony Trollope. I know men who have read all of Trollope, and who express the wish that there were more to read. Trollope is again one of the spring styles.
Those of us who felt so very sure twenty-five years ago of the permanence of the Master of Ballantrae and Travels with a Donkey and the EbbTide, and felt that the last word in English lyric was, —
Dig the grave, and let me lie,—
we, I say, so sure of our new enthusiasms, had our own contempts. Our scorn in 1896, I remember, was meted out to Dickens. He had gone out. ‘Poor old Dickens!’ we said; ‘he did very well for the crude taste of an era that has passed,’ — it wras not, I think, till the turn of the century that ‘Victorian,’ as, an adjective of denunciation came into style, — ‘ an era that preferred caricature to character, and laughed itself into hysteria over puns and horse-play.’ But now the denunciation of Dickens has itself gone out, and if you wish to be in vogue to-day, you must denounce, instead, George Eliot. ‘Poor old Marian Evans!’ you must say. ‘ Who now reads Romola, with its antiquarian study of Florence and its eternal moralizing? Who cares anything about the dogmas of Positivism? ’ — For we may be pardoned for forgetting that Positivism had no dogmas. — ‘What was Positivism, anyhow?’
Yes, you can still get a hearing by scoffing at certain of the Victorians. I doubt whether there is anyone left to be annoyed by the denunciation of Ruskin; anyhow, you will be perilously commonplace if you attempt it, and that is not the way to be modern. It is doubtless a bit early to head a successful movement ‘Back to Ruskin,’ although with a judicious use of warphilosophy, which, unhappily, has not gone out, you might perhaps succeed in starting one.
The longer you dwell on this mad dance of death, this alternate rise and fall and resurrection of reputations, the more uncomfortable do you become. What, pray, is to be the state of affairs thirty years hence? Is the German doctrine of the eternal recurrence to be illustrated within the limits of our own lives? At sixty, must I rediscover Mr. Shaw, and hang, not without a certain pensive reminiscence, over the pages of Widowers’ Houses and Mrs. Warrens Profession? And at seventy, must we go back to Ibsen? Shall we, I wonder, find the cemeteries of Mr. Masters sweet-scented, if we return to them in 1950? Must critics of the fin de siècle write once more of Mr. Galsworthy, pleading with an indifferent public that, ‘though he does seem a trifle oldfashioned, there is something in his prim old pages that deserves to survive the withering oblivion of the years’?
Must we, in other words, be forever tossing on the changing waves of literary fashion, deluding ourselves with the thought that this is genuine critical ’movement’? Is there no solid ground on which we may place our feet? Can we be sure of nobody?
I remember that, when I was in college, a certain professor of French Literature, who had the critical sagacity that marks his race, said with rueful humor, in concluding a lecture on Sainte-Beuve, ‘Mais maintenant on critique les critiques.’ It is even so. Criticism has gone out. The democratic movement has disposed of it. Are we not all critics? Private judgment and free thought have done their perfect work, so that now no literary critic speaks with a voice of authority. No critic, or reviewer, speaking with such a voice, could for a moment gel a hearing — not because what he stands for is consciously repudiated, but because nobody cares what he thinks, anyway. Criticism is an expression of what one likes, uttered with a due deference to public opinion.
It is not simple to discover the causes of this rather novel state of affairs. It may be due in part to the instinctive dislike of critics which has marked most English poets and novelists. From the dawn of literary criticism in England down to the close of the nineteenth century, scorn has been meted out to the critic. You find it in Fielding’s masterly irony; you have it in Byron’s English Bards and Scotch Reviewers; you have it (quite deliciously) in Tennyson’s lines to Christopher North, and in Browning’s inability to forgive his critics for not loving him at sight; you have it in the general attitude to Matthew Arnold, who, by the way, has gone out. A critic has no friend.
All this contempt may, in truth, be due to the error and ineptitude of the critics themselves; and these faults it is well not to overlook. I can imagine some one asking in bewilderment, ‘Well, what would you have us do? Accept as gospel any utterance of a man who chooses to set himself up as judge? Who can accept the dicta even of an Arnold? Do you consider Shelley to be a beautiful and ineffectual angel? Do you pine, with Pater, to burn with a hard and gemlike flame? Are we to trust a Macaulay when he transforms Samuel Johnson into a gargoyle? Are we to believe, with Coleridge, that Othello was not a jealous man? Surely the critics have something to answer for. ’
I reply that they have, indeed. But may it not be well to remember that there is no branch of literary work free from such vital errors? There is, after all, nothing to be gained by remembering only Wordsworth’s dullness, or Shakespeare’s puns, or Milton’s humor, or Shelley’s hysteria. When we are inclined to cavil at English critics, it may be well to remind ourselves of Pater’s delicate instincts, of Arnold’s lofty attempt to see things in their permanent and universal relations; to recall with respect Johnson’s common sense and Coleridge’s subtle penetration. It may, moreover, be well to remember the one mark which distinguishes all the critics who have just been named, that simple yet effective bond which at once unites them and distinguishes them from the tired reviewer and the hasty proletariat. They were all learned men. Their knowledge was not limited to one era or to one language; they all respected the past, and they all looked beyond English literature to Continental and classical models. They brought to their critical task a respect for standards which is perhaps most clearly seen in their conviction that such things as standards exist and are worthy of a continuous respect and study.
Now I do not of course care to be understood as implying that learning will make a critic. It has a positively destructive value unless it is mingled with originality of view, common sense, and catholicity of taste. I merely wish to inquire whether one has driven himself beyond the bounds of patience if he is inclined to demand that a critic should bring to his task a respect for the experiences and achievements of the past, and some consideration for the critical views of other nations than his own. A respect for such things might at least serve to rid us of a certain provinciality of taste, and might, perhaps, even help to deliver us from this bondage to literary styles in which we are at present somewhat ignominiously caught.
While learning has been ebbing like water from a broken cistern, literature has inevitably come to be regarded as conducted and criticized according to a sort of elective system. A reader is engaged in a search for what satisfies his personal tastes; the whole literary process is conceived as ending in this. The important question is whether the reader is pleased. Any notion of attempting to enter into the noble thoughts of a noble man by submitting one’s self wholly to his influence has been forgotten. Even to call attention to the fact is now to court instant disapproval. It is regarded as unworthy of a freeman in the great democracy of letters — and the result is what we have been discussing, the fact that a modern reader does not know what he likes for three consecutive years.
It is hard to be obliged to add one more to the responsibilities which are being daily heaped upon the great war; but, at the risk of ending in a wholly conventional way, I must risk the remark that there is just a chance that our experience with militarism, particularly now that the need of a centralized authority in warfare has been generally recognized, may lead us back to a conception of the function of authority in the intellectual and spiritual spheres.
I do not know. It may be too much to hope that a people educated for generations in the theory of democracy will ever recover from an unregenerate love of having its own way. Authority is still an unpopular word with that great class of people who hasten, with honest pride, to assure the world that, though they may not know much about the subject, they know what they like. It is, after all, a comfortable view of things. But one must pay for comfort in these days. If we idealize it, we must be content with our servitude and wear our literary opinions as we wear our hats and our cravats, with a realization that they are things of the moment, which must presently give way to the creations of a new and probably more startling mode.