The Traditions of European Literature From Homer to Dante
by Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1920. 8vo, x+670 pp. $6.00.New York:
PROFESSOR WENDELL’S book is designed to encourage the habit ‘of so thinking things together . . . that each might come habitually to see in perspective whatever he might know or learn about the traditions, historic and literary, which have accompanied our civilization to the point where we are part of it.’ It is a sign of the times that such a work should appear in proximity to Wells’s Outline of History; both are efforts to foster that intellectual unity which the nineteenth century complacently believed itself to possess, and which men now suspect must be built up little by little in the midst of social and political chaos. Professor Wendell has gathered within the small compass of six hundred pages the great men and the great movements of European literature down to the fourteenth century; he has made, not an arid summary, but a stately procession, marshaling in due order the traditions of Greece, of Rome, of Christianity, of Christendom, and of the Middle Ages.
The success of such a book obviously depends —at least— upon two conditions: the author must have the sort of familiarity with his subject which is described by Plato in his seventh Epistle as ‘the result of long intercourse and a common life spent upon the thing, so that a light is suddenly kindled as from a leaping spark’; and he
must have a philosophy to guide himself and his reader. These two conditions are admirably fulfilled. Professor Wendell’s judgments are personal and vivid, even when they seem, in some special point, to be erroneous. His philosophy is that of a severe but kindly Epicurean, who does not set much store by this world taken as a whole, but who has great affection for some of the finer things which manage, in one way or another, to survive in a generally hostile environment. From this source comes his recognition of the modernity of Lucretius and Catullus, inasmuch as they are ‘surrounded by historical catastrophes of which they must be poignantly aware, yet which they can nowise influence or control.’ This sense of an external power, which rules and overrules, informs Professor Wendell’s discussion of Greek tragedy.
’For a little while,’he says, men ‘feel as if they were iree to do what they will; so, perhaps, if we grant that they are creatures of their past, they may be; even if they be, their freedom can last no longer than they cast their shadows in the sunshine. . . In the ceaseless conflict between each man and the uncontrollable force which must always surround him, the essence of tragedy lies.’
But the teaching of this book is not the teaching of despair. The conflict may be tragic, but there is hope in the fact that it is also ceaseless. It is quite true ‘that Americans now know little of the literary traditions of our ancestral Europe,’ as Professor Wendell says he has learned from years of dealing with Harvard students; but our state is hopeless only if we remain unaware, complacently unaware, of our own ignorance.
R. K. H.