The Outline of Literature

edited by John Drinkwater. In Three Volumes. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1923. Royal 8vo. Illustrated. Vol. I. xx+295pp. $4.50.
THE present popularity of ‘outlines’ is an interesting and, it may be, significant sign of the times. Following the outlines of world history of Mr. Wells and Professor Van Loon, came the outline of science of Professor J. Arthur Thomson, along with several other histories of science, and the outline of art of Sir William Orpen; and now succeeds the present book, in which Mr. Drinkwater offers a personally conducted tour through the world of letters, from the Egyptian Book of the Dead to Mr. Lascelles Abercrombie. The difficulty of such undertakings almost disarms criticism, the more so since the purpose of the compilers has been, not to satisfy experts, but to orient the general reader. Anyone who has ever devised ‘ survey courses in college approaches such attempts with sympathy, for he knows full well their difficulties and disappointments. He knows what it is to measure time and space, to weigh periods and reputations, and to decide when and where to sacrifice depth for breadth. He is inclined to be charitable, therefore, just where the specialist is likely to be most severe.
The defense of such surveys — and in some quarters they need defense — is that they are the fruit of a natural and wholesome reaction from a too minute specialization. The average reader of intelligence has found that with the growth of research, whether historical or scientific, his general ideas of the world were becoming oldfashioned, and he has not had the time to correct them or the know ledge of how to do so. With the accumulation of special information, all knowledge has become departmental, and intellectual life has threatened to become a series of closed circles inhabited by various species of experts. What was needed to reunite thinking men was a kind of New Humanism, in which the relations and contributions of one department to another should be recognized and the significance of all to the general history of mankind should be traced in broad outline. The leaven of such a humanism is already at work among scientific thinkers, but for full vitality it must work in time among the mass of mankind.
The Outline of Literature—if an entire work may be judged by its first volume — may be described as a book that would arouse the enthusiasm of a youth who wished to get his bearings in the general field of letters. It tries to do what M. Emile Faguet attempted years ago in his Initiation into Literature; but it is, if not a sounder, at least a more attractive guide. Many an adult reader will shrug his shoulders over some of the pictures as being decoration rather than illustration, but he will find that the text is always readable and, in some of the chapters, unusually well thought out and organized. The two chapters on the Bible are perhaps the best in the present volume, and it is interesting to note that the authors devote unsual attention to the Apochrypha, which has never been known to English readers as it deserves to be. Many of the great classics, such as the Iliad, the Odyssey,and the Divine Comedy, are given in synopses — a dangerous expedient, it may be, if it leads readers to neglect the originals; and yet it is only just to add that valuable suggestions are also given regarding the choice of good English translations, and that the intention has been throughout to stimulate the reading of the Looks mentioned.
R. M. GAY.