The Genius of America: Studies in Behalf of the Younger Generation

by Stuart P. Sherman. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1923. x+269 pp. $2.00.
NEITHER the recent election of Professor Stuart P. Sherman to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, nor his description of the contents of this book as ‘Studies in Behalf of the Younger Generation,’ places him among the elder prophets. Still in his own early forties, he maintains his understanding of youth through constant contact with it; and, in spite of his reputation as a defender of Puritanism, a candid reading of his essays — either in this admirable volume or in its recent and equally effective predecessor, Americans — reveals him as anything but the Puritan of accepted tradition. His own definition of the Puritan of all the centuries as one who ‘is profoundly in sympathy with the modern spirit, is indeed a formative force in the modern spirit,’ indicates more exactly where he stands.
The position suggested by such a definition affords, in its various aspects, the thesis of this book. It is more clearly a thesis than one would imagine by trusting merely to one’s memory of separate essays in the collection as they have appeared here and there in magazines. The book as a whole represents a consistent point of view, whatever the immediate theme, ranging as it does from the American spirit to the elementary relation between literature and life. Mr. Sherman is perfectly conscious that ‘to the eager young radical in politics, who is frequently too busy to do much thinking, and too busy writing for the newspapers to do much reading in the classics, the man of letters frequently seems to exhibit an exasperating and incomprehensible conservatism.’ The truth is that Mr. Sherman’s voice is that of one who knows both the old and the new in letters and in thought, is less concerned with passing than with permanent standards, and makes a judicious and truly benevolent application of the brakes when he is convinced that things are going too fast.
One of the two previously unpublished papers in the book, ‘Literature and the Government of Men,’ though it stands at the end of the volume, might well be read first of all. It is the author’s defense of his contention that of all human activities the pursuit of letters is beyond comparison the most delightful. By implication he presents it also as among the most valuable. This contention is upheld with a memorable nobility of thought and phrase. On the very last page of the book, the author is writing of ‘the heroic creations of the poetic mind which fight at Humanity’s side in the contested passes of history.’ What he says of. them is that they ‘live in our hearts and imaginations; and, as truly as Socrates or Lincoln, they augment the power and majesty of that great society in which alone it is worth while to be immortal, through which alone it is possible wisely to govern men — because in this, society, preserved and in part created by literature, in this alone it is possible to assure victory and reward to those who please the souls they ought to please.’
In passages like this — and many more than one might be quoted — Mr. Sherman’s pages serve by their very quality to show that the ideals of life and the criticism of it for which he pleads are still within the range of realization.