by James Stevens. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1925. 8vo. x+245 pp. $2.50.
GIVEN: Pike’s Peak. Wanted: Myth. Result: Giants . . . influence of landscape on literature. Mediterranean clarity, Trans-Alpine gloom. . . . But the influence of letters upon letters is more immediate.
In his Paul Bunyan Stevens, like Irving, Hawthorne, and Longfellow, unlike Poe and the author of The Wizard of Oz or of The Lively City O’Lig, does not change myth into nonsense, but attempts to preserve its primitive effect. His work, like Frost’s Paul’s Wife, lias the earmarks which distinguish the archaistic from the archaic. In superficial matters, it is superficial. His diction is not supple and strong, like the Grimms’ or Jacobs’s English Fairy Tales, but crude, that is to say, weak. When ‘one amuses oneself with art only if one has no difficult labor to perform,’ as Stevens says of Paul, the definition one has made to follow the noun rises up, turns back, and rends it. In mass and detail alike, this book is not governed by a clean choice between desired qualities as is Kenneth Burke’s The White Oxen. In contrast with the fancy, the diction and, at intervals, the conception are banal as high school compositions are banal. It is descriptive rather than narrative composition. Not one oration is given, though many of these opportunities for rhetoric are described. This sort of thing would be tiresome were not the book in scale with Western scenery, as Irving is perfectly in scale with Eastern; and in scale with itself as Swift is, and Rabelais when he pleases. It is as much like Rabelais and Swift as expurgated editions are like them. A more complete analogy is that between the animated cartoons of the movies and the changing of farmers into cowboys. Here and in the conception of nature the book is at once up to date and permanent, but usually the author s anxiety to JJC up to date cheapens his archaicism. In detail his softening of tragedy to sentiment is pleasant. Kindly giants are mirrored in the Nature before which they disport themselves, a Nature not hostile, but given, rather, to practical jokes and riddles. One riddle has no answer. When the joke called ‘woman’ is sprung, the book gets wistful and fades away.
This pleasant softening, however, is fatal to myth, for myth freed from tragic sense is subject to incongruity, like Hawthorne and Longfellow (or Wagner and Verdi). Freshness and clarity are possible without tragedy, and Mark Twain’s fondness for the fresh and clear led to his animosity toward ‘mediævalism.’ Twain saddened, but Stevens without sadness chooses to write myth—happy myth, nonsensical but mysterious, satiric but sentimental. An impossible labor, even for one who, unlike Stevens, is innocent of the incubus: ‘poetry is girlish.’ In transplanting myths to American soil, chemical fertilizer brings better results. American planters have a habit of sterilizing manure. Nonsense can be tragic, like Edward Lear, but it can never be any more sentimental than Lewis Carroll. In literature nonsense marks the furthest, myth the nearest, limit of sophistication. Paul Bunyan is at times consciously mythical and at others unconsciously nonsensical. This is being too up to date to be literature.