by Lewis Freeman Mott. New York: D. Appleton and Company. 1925. Large 12mo. xiv+514 pp. With frontispiece. $5.00.
THIS is an adequate and scholarly book, and when one knows something of the vastness of the subject one appreciates the patience and thornughness with which Mr. Mott has carried out his task. One may not always agree with his conclusions. The question of Sainte-Beuve’s relations with the Hugos is too obscure to be finally settled, and one may at times feel that Mr. Mott inclines too much to lenience in judging Sainte-Beuve’s attitude toward contemporaries. Also, though Sainte-Beuve’s supreme importance as a biographer and student of human life rather than as a purely literary critic is indicated, I should have been glad to see this most essential and too often neglected point more fully developed. There are some regrettable misprints and minor errors, like the constant use of Schérer instead of Scherer, and in a book so largely and solidly based upon original documents one misses the footnotes of reference to them. Nevertheless Mr. Mott has achieved a competent study of a most important subject.
What the book lacks is charm, grace, color, that fluent lightness of touch which one especially appreciates when a literary topic is dealt with. The manner of treatment is heavy, dull, unillumined — so far, far different from what Sainte-Beuve himself would have employed. And this is a pity, for it is much to be desired that American readers should know the great French critic better. As time passes, his work is coming to stand out more and more in the estimation of those who think; and, even more than his work, his spirit — that breadth of understanding, that infinite flexibility, that tolerance which entered into all phases and aspects of human life and character. As Goethe was the spiritual representative of the first quarter of the nineteenth century, so Sainte-Beuve sums up its middle years, and with Darwin he best embodies the endless scientific desire to understand.
No doubt at the back of all this varied play of intelligence there was, in Sainte-Beuve’s case, an immense and pitiful disillusion, and it is a curious and teasing question for the psychological student whether the disillusion was the cause of the man’s greatness or whether his peculiar type of greatness carried disillusion with it. But the point is that, while the disillusion may be deduced by the curious from scattered hints, it rarely enters into the treatment of individual subjects. Because he had no fixed belief, no obtruding philosophy of his own, the critic seems to have been all the better able to enter into the lives of others, of all others. He becomes a saint with the saint, an artist with the artist, a hero with the hero; if you like, a sinner with the sinner. But everywhere in his vast work the human soul is portrayed with marvelous delicacy, sympathy, subtlety, understanding. There can be no better spiritual education than to have the Lundis on your shelves and read a portrait every few weeks. The habit enlarges life.