by James Gibbons Huneker. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1920. Two vols., 8vo, x+320, and viii+327 pp. Illustrated. $7.50.
MR. HUNEKER, having seen many men and many cities, having known the joys and sorrows of a journalist, music student and teacher, critic, author, at the age of sixty sets out to relate his experiences. Having read prodigiously, his mind is so full that he associates his own life and thoughts with those of other men more or less famous, and in the course of narration indulges in irrelevant digressions and excursions. Entertaining as these may be, they swell needlessly the volumes, especially as a large number of the pages have appeared in his preceding books.
The chapters in which he describes life, manners, and customs in Philadelphia, his adventures in Paris, and the days and nights of red-pepper journalism in New York are the most valuable. Here he is frank, observing, spontaneous; in putting on the philosophic mask, he might be taken for a poseur by those who did not know him personally. The better chapters are far in the majority. They abound in thumb-nail sketches, in more elaborate descriptions, in epigrams that are not forced, in reflections that disclose his whimsical humanity. Whether he is in the locomotive works or in Bohemian restaurants, in the steerage or listening to the rhapsodies of Villiers de l’Isle Adam; in a newspaperoffice or meeting Huysmans, George Moore, or the heroine of The Tragic Comedians, he is conscious of his own worth. Does he not choose for the motto of his book the line of Walt Whitman: ‘I find no sweeter fat than sticks to my own bones ’ ?
Thus is he necessarily egotistic. He has not escaped the common failing. He is not ashamed of it; he glories in it; his egotism — would there were a gentler term! — is no more irritating than that of Benvenuto Cellini, Montaigne, Herbert of Cherbury, Mr. Pepys, Casanova, and it is more honest than that of another great autobiographer, Rousseau. Furthermore, Mr. Huneker is not disturbed by mediocrity.
There are a few pages that are only lists of names; a pocket index of ‘Men I have met.’ A little book, ‘Men I have avoided,’ by Mr. Huneker, would probably be more brilliant. Brilliance is his most conspicuous characteristic; by the side of this quality is his charming disregard of the conventionalities in daily conduct and in criticism. It is too soon for him to be a reactionary. When the time does arrive, he will go back to the Restoration, not to the period of Queen Anne or of Queen Victoria. Of Hungarian and Irish descent, as a thinker and a writer he is both Gallic and American. A thinker? He might take another motto from Leaves of Grass: ‘These are the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands — they are not original with me.’ The line would apply to him only in part; he has made these thoughts his own by his faculty of expression.
Steeplejack is not only rich in gossip about authors, musicians, surprising cranks and vagrants: it abounds in personal confessions of likes and dislikes. Mr. Huneker has written at his ease; now and then too easily, for there are occasional droppings into journalese. He has written in an unbuttoned manner, but not foolishly, in his revelations of his own capricious, discursive, lovable nature. P. H.