Literature and Modern Life
No preface or protest will save an essay or a speaker from misunderstanding. A few hours after an address which I made on this subject, one of my audience, meeting me with a Saturday Evening Post under my arm, was as shocked as if he had caught his ‘dry’ Congressman in conference with his bootlegger. Yet I had said nothing that precluded me from reading the Saturday Evening Post or Mencken or Dreiser or Sherwood Anderson or Aldous Huxley or Vachel Lindsay or Ben Hecht or Joyce or Frank Swinnerton or H. G. Wells or D. H. Lawrence or Floyd Dell or even Bernard Shaw or any other notoriety of to-day or yesterday that happened to excite my curiosity or engage my interest or respond to the mood of the moment. My admonition was directed to those who read nothing else but the bestadvertised current literature and make it the staple of their thought and the attuner of their feelings.
My sermon was addressed to undergraduates who neglect the irrecoverable opportunity of four years of leisure for acquiring a literary background and perspective and taking possession of some portion of the precious inheritance that has been accumulating for them since Homer first ‘smote ’is blooming lyre’ and the lawgiver of the Hebrews wrote, ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.’
I was preaching to my friends who live in in-a-door apartments and in whose very select libraries I often find no book earlier than 1910, as Mark Twain said that a good Southern library contains no book later than 1860.
But I realize the futility of this caveat. The student journal of my own university severely declared a few years ago that the nature of Professor Shorey’s studies makes it impossible for him to appreciate or sympathize with modern thought. Yet I preach conservatism mainly because, though the ordinary Main Street American does not yet vote red, all intellectual America reads and talks pink. The clichés and commonplaces of modern radicalism, or liberalism, if this is the fairer word, are inculcated weekly in all the literary reviews without exception, and in at least ninety-nine out of a hundred of all university lectures and addresses. We never hear anything else. It can do us no harm to listen for once to a few qualifications of them.
Literature and life is a favorite topic of heavy-weight philosophers of history and light-armed belletristic feuilletonists. The philosopher steps in after the fact and proves that every literature must have been just what it was because of the economic, social, and political soil in which it was rooted. Literature is simply a by-product of superorganic evolution, they say. Man, says Taine, secretes literature as the silkworm spins its cocoon.
They proceed to correlate the epic with an abstraction called the heroic age, generalized from Homer, the Chanson de Roland, Beowulf, the Nibelungenlied, and the Edda, with total disregard of the quality that makes the Iliad the world’s greatest poem. They show how the courts of the tyrants and the life of the Greek colonies that fringed the Mediterranean inevitably replaced the epic by personal and choral lyric. They demonstrate that the city-state of Athens and the London of Shakespeare were the predestined cradle of the drama; and they have no difficulty in proving that the novel is the natural vehicle for the portrayal and criticism of modern life.
The prophets of a new and different American literature, and Walt Whitman, their later mouthpiece, proclaimed that all European art was undemocratic, feudal, monarchical, petty, obsolete, and predicted that the untrammeled democracy of America would create a literature as much broader and sturdier as America’s prairies are wider, its rivers longer, its mountains higher, its buffaloes shaggier. It is a pretty game; but, whether it be science or pseudoscience, I need not stop to play it or criticize it further here.
No less fertile and ingenious in suggestion are the literary critics. They sometimes start from the thesis that literature and literary criticism have no appreciable influence on the life of the great mass of mankind. Literature is the affair of select, but small and, except to themselves, insignificant coteries. This entertaining paradox was frequently sustained by such French critics as Anatole France and Jules Lemaître, and found echoes in England and America. ‘What in the name of the Bodleian has the general public to do with literature?’ exclaimed Mr. Augustine Birrell. And Mr. Mencken, in his disdain of democratic ‘boobery,’ abounds in the same sense, though the books that he rebukes the public for neglecting are not on the same shelf of the Bodleian with those that constitute real literature for Mr. Birrell.
Under the pen of a ready writer this self-depreciation of the littérateur assumes an engaging air of modesty. How should I, he seems to say, a mere scribbler, flatter myself that I can influence the conduct of the great mob of dollar-chasers and breadwinners to whom the name of the author is as unimportant as it is to the adapter of a film continuity, and who, if they read at all, read not to criticize life, but to escape from it and kill time?
It is love and hunger and the pursuit of wealth, votes, and power that make the world go round, and the writer of books is only the fly on the wheel, the cock who thought he crowed the sun up. The course of history is determined by deep-seated social and economic forces, not by sentences out of books. This depressing view of his own insignificance may overcome any writer in his discouraged moods. Plato himself asked, ‘ What man would choose to be Homer the singer if he might be Homer’s hero, Achilles the doer?’
Tennyson cries: —
That shriek and sweat in pygmy wars
Before the stony face of Time
And looked at by the silent stars.
And Kipling in his last book, A Diversity of Creatures, moralizes: —
What man heeds aught save what each instant brings?
When each man’s life all imaged life outruns,
What man shall pleasure in imaginings?
So it hath fallen as it was bound to fall,
We are not, nor we were not, heard at all.
An amusing inversion of this thesis is Oscar Wilde’s paradox that life imitates literature and not literature life. There are fashions in complexions, stature, and conversation, as well as in gowns; and in both cases they are often dictated to life by art and literature, not copied from it. Gibson and Beardsley created the Gibson and the Beardsley girls. For many years French boulevard fiction determined the ideals of all Latin youths who would be devils of fellows, and of the young gallants of all Latin America, Russia, and the minor European nationalities. Pierre Loti’s novel, Les Désenchantées, is an interesting example of this reverse French. Loti thought he was expressing the life of the new Turkish women and the new freedom of Constantinople, He was in fact writing up a hoax played upon him by three cosmopolitan dames of Constantinople who had read the books which record his other adventures in this kind. And yet, so intricate are the interactions of literature and life, this very book, based on an unreality, went into two hundred and twenty thousand copies and did much to further the cause of the emancipation of Turkish women.
These and other variations on the theme might be reduced to two heads — the attempt to make the study of literature a science, and the endeavor to free literature from all social responsibilities, all obligations to conventional decencies and traditional moralities.
With the pseudoscience, which makes much of the teaching of English literature a pretentious futility, we are not further concerned here. But the other topic, in its various ramifications, is the indispensable prelude to what I intend to be my main text — the cumulative effect of our habitual reading on our lives. All philosophies of literature that overlook or deny this influence stand in the way of any serious consideration of it. Take, for example, the entertaining topic of fashion in literature, on which I have in my barrel a perfectly good Phi Beta Kappa oration, though not so good as Mr. Galsworthy’s clever skit, ‘Time, Tides and Taste.’ Some of the world’s keenest critics have said that they know of only one established law in the ‘science’ of literature, — the law of the reaction of the sons against the taste of the fathers, — a law illustrated, for example, in well-known scenes of Aristophanes’ Clouds and Thackeray’s Newcomes. There are undoubtedly fashions in speech, philosophy, scholarship, and medicine — to which last, satirists from Molière to Alphonse Daudet, Bernard Shaw, and Jules Romains have done ample justice — as there are fashions in art, music, dancing, girls and girls’ names, and Bohemian restaurants. Matthew Arnold cites as too ludicrous for criticism Pope’s translation of the moonlight scene in Homer, which Tytler, writing in 1790, selects to show how nobly Pope has improved on his original. A heroine of Jane Austen is ‘driven wild’ by ‘those exquisite verses of Cowper’ which would leave a flapper of 1928 ‘more than usual calm.’ From hundreds of like instances it would be easy to infer the absolute relativity of all literary tastes and judgments, with the practical conclusion that no literary criticism is of the slightest use. We need not select our own or guide our children’s reading. We have only to follow the fashion in the lists of best sellers. Plausible as a clever writer can make the argument, the conclusion revolts common sense.
A well-known aphorism of a German materialist runs: ‘Der Mensch ist was er isst,’or, in the vernacular, ‘It’s eats that win the battle of life.’ But in speaking of or to the college-bred it would be more pertinent to say that what you’ve read makes your head. There are plenty of exceptions, but, broadly speaking, the dependence of culture upon reading still holds for the student in an American university of the Middle West. As Tom Corey says in Howells’s Rise of Silas Lapham, speaking of bookless Americans, ‘They are not unintelligent people, they are very quick and they are shrewd and sensible. I have no doubt that some of the Sioux Indians are so. But that is not saying that they are civilized. All civilization comes through literature now, especially in our country. A Greek got his civilization by talking and looking [Howells is evidently thinking of a passage of Macaulay about Athenian education, too long to quote]; in some measure a Parisian may still do it. But we who live remote from history and monuments, we must read or we must barbarize.’
Other theories that would emancipate literature from all responsibilities and controls, and relieve us from the burdens of choice and guidance, are the apologies for realism, the repeal of reticence, the assertion of the sacrosanct right of the artist to follow his own inspiration or caprice, and, summing them all up, the flat denial that literature has anything to do with morals or that society has any right to censor or a conservative critic to censure.
These theories are, so to speak, interlocking directorates and need not be kept sharply apart. The initial fallacy of the realists, or, as they sometimes call themselves, the veritists, seems to be the assumption that only the ugly is real, and that the seamy side should always be turned outward. There is a profounder philosophy in the warning of Keats, Ruskin, and Alfred de Musset that in the deeper sense nothing is real or true that is not beautiful. That is not mere sentimentality; at the wedding of Cadmus and Harmonia — of letters and harmony, let us say — the Greek muses sang, ‘That which is lovely we love, and that which is ugly we love not.’ Whether the sense of beauty refers us to a Platonic idea that ‘sweetly torments us with invitations to its inaccessible home,’ or whether it be a God-given instinct or only a byproduct of superorganic evolution, — whatever, in short, our theory of its origin, — the instantaneous and peremptory perception of beauty is the surest sign we have that something is right and true, as the shock of the ugly is the most certain warning that something is false and in the highest sense unreal. An unbeautiful fashion in literature is self-condemned and cannot escape damnation by the trick of calling the characteristic the beautiful or exhorting us to ‘face the facts.’ What facts are most significant is the very question. ‘God defend me,’ says Emerson, paraphrasing Plato, ‘from ever looking at man as an animal.’ But the pseudoscientific doctors who deduce their criticism of life from biology tell us that we ought to think more and not less of our animal nature and origins, that we ought to gloat and brood on the subject as Christian novices were taught to meditate the life of Christ — and they have converted the poets. ‘Open my eyes to vision,’ prays Mr. Untermeyer, ‘but always let me see the dirt and all that spawn and die in it.’ ‘Behind the hedge of cactus the smell of a dead horse mingles with the smell of tamales frying,’ writes Mr. Fletcher, and Miss Amy Lowell comments, ‘I have heard it objected that tamales are never fried — as a matter of fact, that is so, but is not the soul of Spain in that poem?’ That is, never mind the facts; if it only smells bad enough, it is realism.
The allied topic of ‘the repeal of reticence’ is not easy to discuss, because to talk of it at all is to violate the principle of reticence and lose the touch we talk of. For the rest, the common sense of the matter has been so conclusively declared by Cicero and Quintilian and scores of successors down to Lowell, O. W. Holmes, and Howells that further elaboration of the argument would be unprofitable. This is not the first or the second time that fashion has tried to banish decency from literature, and the effects on literature have never been encouraging. The joke, if it is one, soon grows stale. Back in 1683, in the days of Charles II of licentious memory, Shadwell wrote: —
’T is now no jest to hear young girls talk bawdy.
Or, as a recent epigram puts it: ‘Now they have found they can talk about everything, they don’t talk about anything else.’ If the canon of Victorian literature was ‘Thou shalt not shock a young lady,’ the slogan of to-day might seem to be ‘Thou canst not shock a young lady.’ I have no license or authority to preach. It is the cheapness, the ease, the triviality, the tiresomeness of the thing that justify a protest. Anybody can talk or write sex. It is the line of least resistance. And the habit not only, as Burns implies, ‘hardens a’ within, and petrifies the feeling,’ but it monopolizes the attention and distracts the mind from the infinite variety of better things — better things to talk about, at any rate. Not of any practitioner of the new ‘frankness’ will it ever be said, as Sir Rennell Rodd wrote of Tennyson: —
But wakes to her life’s first love-dream sweetlier souled for thee.
The passionate assertion of the artist’s independence, his right to treat any subject in any way, will always win the favor and excite the fervor of the artist himself. ‘I have as much right to write of Chicago as Dante of Florence,’ cacophonously exclaims somewhere the bard of the hog butcher for the world. To which the aptest answer is that of Socrates to Polus in Plato’s Gorgias: ‘It would be monstrous if in the city where there is most license of all the world you were not allowed to say what you please. But it would be equally unfair to deny me the right of not listening.’
The absolute right of the author to liberty of prophesying was first emphatically proclaimed by the French, German, and English poets of the romantic revolution. His genius, his inspiration, his personality, were the only laws to which the artist owed allegiance, and to thwart, control, or in any way interfere with their impulsions was the sin against the Holy Ghost. The realists invoke the human and democratic equality of all subjects and all styles for the same purpose.
Lastly came the Italian philosopher and critic, Croce, whose followers, from his assumption that all art is expression, deduce the conclusion that the successful expression of the ugly is beautiful, the convincing expression of the trivial is significant, and the intense expression of the immoral is moral.
The net outcome of these and similar philosophies of criticism is that affirmation of the autonomy and self-determination of literature which is the entire stock in trade of the most conspicuous school of present-day critics and reviewers. All other laws, duties, truths, and obligations are subject to exceptions and doubt. But the right of the literary artist to disregard all possible social, moral, political consequences of his teaching, and consult only his genius, his inspiration, his caprice, is the one stable point in a Heraclitean and Einsteinian universe of relativity and panta rhei.
The contrary view, the necessity of some form of social control of art and literature, whether by law or by public opinion, is first and most impressively maintained in Plato’s Laws and Republic, and then by a long line of successors whose arguments I cannot even summarize here.
In America the discussion has degenerated into a logomachy and issued in a deadlock because of the persistent refusal to make elementary and indispensable distinctions. The ground constantly shifts without warning from the abstract right of social control to the expediency of advertising a particular indecent or scurrilous novel by persecution.
It is the systematic tactics of radical critics to treat all expressions of disapproval and all deprecation of the abuse of the freedom of literature as a proposal to invoke the secular arm. But nowhere in this discussion do I intend to suggest the censorship of literature by the police. I speak solely of the preferences and discriminations of individual taste, and the legitimate exercise of personal influence. Mr. Mencken talks recklessly of libraries that burn the works of Miss Jane Addams and ban beautiful books that speak frankly of sex, and he tells of librarians intimidated by the town parson and the American Legion or the mayor. There may be a few other such villages besides Chicago. But in the country as a whole the balance inclines far the other way. The banning of one indecent or antipatriotic or irreligious book raises a hue and cry throughout the land. But nobody pays any attention to the fact that the reading commended to the attention of the young by libraries, university reference shelves, and book reviews is in a steadily increasing proportion erotic, revolutionary, antinational, socialistic, amoral or immoral — radical, in short, in its suggestions when not in its direct teachings. And the most pertinent fact in my experience of American freedom of speech is that I could not without giving deep offense criticize soberly and seriously Miss Addams’s published works now on the reference shelves of the Chicago Public Library or speak in Denver a paragraph which I have cut out from this paper, about a Denver author whose works I found wellthumbed in the women’s dormitory of a Southern college.
Now the common but often overlooked cause of these contradictions and diversities of opinion is the simple fact that nearly all current literary criticism, discussion, and reviewing of books expresses the point of view of the producers of literature, of the authors and the publishers. But what chiefly concerns us as readers, parents, and teachers is the interest of the consumer. The two may sometimes, but need not always, coincide. The world of literature is open to the reader, and an old book, if it meets his needs, is as good as one published yesterday. It is the writer who is jealous of the competition of the dead hand. The normal, the classic, the familiar technique of story telling, dramatic composition, poetic rhythm and diction, combined with wholesome matter, is to the average reader as good as, and for the child in school better than, the latest tricks and fashions of art. It is the practising novelist, dramatist, or poet who cares more for what he may learn from the latest experiments than for all old fashions and procedures that have stood the test of time. And so it comes to pass that the loan library of a great American university hands out to young girls the unspeakable soliloquies of the nastiest of Irish novels that blasphemes the name of Homer. Is it not an example of the modern technique of the ‘stream of thought’ on which Mrs. Gerould descants in the Literary Review?
So of book reviews. The reader wishes a review to inform him of the contents and character of a book, and to pass a reasonable judgment on its merit from the point of view of common sense and accepted traditions and standards. The reviewer desires to display his own talent, to support a propaganda, to flatter a friend or depreciate an enemy. The reader’s interest is to discover, in spite of misleading reviews and untrustworthy advertisements, some of the many sane and well-written books that have not won popular vogue and are virtually unknown. The publisher’s temptation is to force upon all readers the books that have reached the rank of best sellers, which are not always, or even usually, the best books. For no reasonable person can maintain that there is to-day any presumption that the bestadvertised and best-selling books are the best. Take the novels that we read. For example, Mr. Reginald Wright Kauffman’s A Man of Little Faith is unquestionably a better novel than the far more notorious Elmer Gantry. It is a true, penetrating, faithful, and sincere, if not entirely friendly, study of the problems that embarrass the minister of the ordinary American Protestant church in our age of transition and readjustment. It is not, like Mr. Sinclair Lewis’s best seller, a venomous and irresponsible caricature.
So in the field of literary criticism all my students know Mr. Mencken. Few of them are acquainted with Mr. Lascelles Abercrombie or Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, not to go back to Andrew Lang and Matthew Arnold and Leslie Stephen, and not one of them has heard of Mr. Gosse. But no intelligent person who had read both Mr. Gosse and Mr. Mencken could have any doubt which is the more edifying and in the end the more profitable and interesting reading. Everybody is acquainted with Mr. Norman Angell’s sophistries; how few have ever heard of Mr. Coulton’s Main Illusions of Pacificism in which they are exposed. The radical propagandas of Mr. H. G. Wells spread throughout the world. Nobody heeds the splendidly eloquent reply to them of Mr. Henry Arthur Jones.
In short, quite apart from the counsel of perfection that is supposed to bid us to read only the greater classics, there is another consideration of more direct practical significance which we disregard. Both in our reading of contemporaries and in our selection from the literature of the past we prefer the sensational, the flashy, the paradoxical, the irrational, the flimsy writers to the reasonable, well-informed, judicious, fair-minded thinkers who did not happen to achieve the front page with murderers and bandits, but whom a little inquiry would enable us to discover. One of the bestinformed American critics recently permitted himself to compare Godwin, Shelley’s disreputable father-in-law, with Plato. But nobody tells a young man how much more profitably, and, if he has any intelligence, more pleasantly, he would be employed in reading Sir James Mackintosh’s Dissertation on the Progress of Ethical Philosophy than in the study of Mr. Durant’s Story of Philosophy. Current criticism exalts Thoreau above Emerson and above Lowell, whom it rarely mentions without a sneer. But the undergraduate who read Lowell would receive a liberal education in English and comparative literature. The reading of Thoreau might quicken his sensibility for nature, but otherwise would do little for him except confirm him in moods of fruitless revolt and sentimentality, This does not mean that you should not read Thoreau and his kind. Read him if he appeals to you. But read also Lowell’s essay on him, and reflect. Don’t accept on faith and parrot the radical formulas of the New York weeklies.
But to return to the literature of the day and the opposition between the consumer’s and the producer’s interest. The reader, and still more the parent and teacher, may rightly consider the moral influence and spiritual tone of the books that are to color his own imagination and determine the direction of his children’s thoughts. The writer fiercely resents the slightest hint of restriction on the caprices of his inspiration, on his right to paint the world as he sees it, and to propagate whatever his mood holds for truth without regard to any consequences to his readers or society. Whatever exceptions may be taken to some of these antitheses, whatever possible reconciliations may be found for them, the broad fact of the opposition between the two points of view remains. It is fundamental to any serious discussion of the relation of literature to the actual human life of the great mass of readers.
In current discussion everything is made to turn on the question of censorship and the regulation of our reading by the police. The arguments are familiar to weariness: the principles of Milton’s Areopagitica, and the indignity of prescribing to free spirits, the impossibility of finding a censor whom we can trust, the futility of advertising sensationalism and indecency by the very endeavor to suppress them. I shall evade these tiresome repetitions by not considering the question of official censorship at all. But our right to select and to censor our own and our children’s reading will hardly be challenged by the most radical denouncer of American puritanism and hypocrisy. It is not only a right, but, so far as we can have duties toward ourselves, a duty. The choice of our reading in its cumulative effect year after year is no slight matter; and most of us always and all of us sometimes allow it to be determined for us with incredible levity. ‘A man’s life of each day,’ said Matthew Arnold, ‘depends for its solidity and value on whether he read during that day, and far more still, on what he reads during it.’ ‘Do you know,’ asks Ruskin, ‘if you read this you cannot read that? — that what you lose to-day you cannot gain to-morrow? Will you go and gossip with your housemaid when you may talk with queens and kings ... or . . . jostle with the common crowd for entrance here and audience there while all the while this eternal court is open to you?’ But familiar to satiety as we are with these admonitions and exhortations of eloquent essayists on books and reading, we manage our own reading as if we had never heard of them.
This is not intended as a pedantic counsel of perfection, that we should read only classics or works on the list of the hundred best books or on President Eliot’s five-foot shelf. It is as permissible to read for entertainment or escape or even to kill time as it is to use the movies, bridge, or solitaire for a like purpose. Ruskin himself makes ample allowance for the literature of firm fact telling and portrayal of contemporary life. And there is the further consideration, developed by Mr. Balfour and by the late Mr. Payne in an essay on hypocrisy in literature, and abused by the new pedagogy, that we sometimes like to be fed from a low crib, and that we learn more from and may be more stimulated by the literature that is nearer the habitual tone and level of our own thoughts. We cannot always breathe on the heights; even Lowell once wrote, ‘The Grecian gluts me with its perfectness.’ Supreme literature sometimes affects us as the marbles of the Parthenon did Keats: —
Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep.
But, all these allowances granted, it remains true that lifelong habituation to the winnowed and sifted best of the world’s literary inheritance brings its sure and ever acceleratingly increased reward in the clarification of our ideas, the ennobling of feeling, the refinement of sentiment, and the selfcompanionship of a mind stored with high thoughts and gracious and beautiful images.
In a world where final happiness so often eludes the convulsive grasp of our more ambitious strivings, is it not folly to neglect so sure and certain a provision for a happy old age as this?
It is dangerous to argue from a metaphor. But the comparison of our reading to food is a real analogy which might be developed, wit or fancy aiding, with balanced ration — wholewheat bread, made dishes, sauces, condiments, pepper, and sweets. Books are, in the inscription over the Berlin Library, nutrimentum spiritus. But there is this difference between ideas and food, says Plato, that you can take home food in a vessel and eat it or leave it as prudence and the advice of a physician determine; but ideas you take at once into the vessel of the mind, which is helped or hurt by them. As Lowell puts it, —
One can bear it at first, but by gradual steps he
Is brought to death’s door of a mental dyspepsy.
But, to drop metaphor and come to grips with the simple facts, the literary artist may prefer to read new books to learn the latest tricks of technique. An inquisitive elderly or middle-aged mind may indulge its discursive curiosity with no great harm. The scholar, stabilized by heavy ballast of better reading, may safely explore these waters to prove himself an adventurous spirit or learn why the people imagine vain things. But why should the mass of educated men and women, or those students whose reading will still exercise a formative influence on intelligence and character, feed their minds exclusively or mainly on the innutritious, if sometimes stimulating, confections of contemporaneous literature? Of any contemporaneous literature, but especially that of an age of jazz or transition and disintegration? Why, above all, should we encourage or allow such literature to preoccupy the attention and the memory of high-school and collegiate youth?
One of my brightest pupils, who, however, cannot write clear, unaffected English, has read all of Anatole France’s clever and charming, if you please, but sex-spiced, incoherent, leering, sneering, ironical novels. He has never read a word of the novels that constitute Howells’s American Comédie humaine, the English of which alone would have served his education better than a score of courses in the improvisation of daily themes. And another too much advertised undergraduate admirer of Anatole France may be presumed to have meditated on the great sentence in the Jardin d’Êpicure: ‘C’est beau, un beau crime.’ Others have all the catchwords of Nietzsche, Freud, and Schopenhauer’s lightest and most cynical essays at their tongue’s end, but have never read a line of John Stuart Mill. Mill is out of fashion — there is no other reason. For there is quite certainly no better, saner, more edifying, instructive, disciplinary, and formative reading available for a young man to-day than the four volumes of Mill’s Essays and Dissertations. Others have read Mr. G. B. Shaw’s mountebank preface to Androcles and the Lion, but have never heard of the nobler treatment of the conflict of Christianity and Paganism in Corneille’s Polyeucte or read Arnold’s penetrating essay on ‘Pagan and Mediæval Religious Sentiment.’ They know Professor Murray’s fantastic Rise of the Greek Epic, but not Arnold’s basic essay, ‘On Translating Homer.’ Others are alive to an allusion to Spoon River or Amy Lowell or Vachel Lindsay, but do not react to a latent quotation from Tennyson, Milton, or Shakespeare. The dozen volumes of John Morley, replete with thought, instruction, and suggestion, are terra incognita — they think you are referring to the estimable Christopher Morley. It would be tragic, were it not comedy of the kind portrayed in Howells’s literary conversation between an uncle and a niece who had never heard of the Spectator or Leigh Hunt. The uncle admits, ‘ I can’t stand Ben Jonson at all,’ to which she replies, ‘Oh, yes, Rasselas. I’m quite with you there about Ben Jonson — too much Johnson, you know.’ At which the uncle in turn looks blank; and, as Howells wrote a few years ago, the younger readers will be baffled by the antiquity of the allusion, as the uncle was by its then contemporaneity.
The retort is too cheap and easy that this is just fathers and sons over again, and that I am enacting the rôle of Horace’s ‘Laudator temporis acti se puero,’ of Colonel Newcome, and of ‘Old English.’ But the true spirit of the classicist’s teaching and the answer to the modernist’s gibe are summed up in Mr. Chesterton’s antithesis, ‘Tradition does not mean that the living are dead, but that the dead are alive.’ And even to-day Virgil and Horace have quickened the sense of poetry in more minds than any living poet.
I am acquainted with both fashions and am as weary as anybody of what was merely temporary fashion in Victorian literature. But the tyranny of present fashion prevents our young people from giving the good older literature that has survived, and by which they might profit, a chance. The fault is not theirs; it is in the teachers, the reference shelves in their courses, the open shelves of the public library, and the dispensaries of up-to-date literature only.
To estimate literature by the residuum of knowledge, common sense, and sane habits of thought that it deposits in the mind will seem a crude criterion to the craftsman, interested only in the progress of technique, or to the Utopian, indifferent to everything but the propaganda of his world-saving idea. But it is one perfectly reasonable test to apply to the reading of the undergraduate, or to your own reading, so long as you still regard it as contributing to the moulding of your mind. Concede all that is claimed for the superior artistry and stimulating power of the fashionable books of the day. They are certainly less instructive than their predecessors. I mean something very simple. An ambitious French youth who had mastered his Taine, his Sainte-Beuve, and his Renan would know a great deal more history, literature, and philosophy than one who had steeped himself in Anatole France and Remy de Gourmont — or, I am tempted to say, who had run through all the hundreds of authors mentioned in René Lalou’s Histoire de la littérature française contemporaine. An American youth who had assimilated the entire contents of Lowell’s writings, or, to take a living author, of Paul Elmer More’s Shelburne Essays, would be better prepared for serious university work in English and comparative literature than one who had dabbled in all the authors selected for overpraise in Van Doren’s American and British Literature since 1890.
What would a reader who had at his fingers’ ends, I will not say Amy Lowell or the laureate of Spoon River, but so excellent, so varied, so human, so expressive a poet as John Masefield — what would such a reader know as compared with one who fully understood his Tennyson or his Browning? What would a wilderness of Ben Hechts, D. H. Lawrences, Scott Fitzgeralds, Sherwood Andersons, and Aldous Huxleys teach an undergraduate compared with what he might learn from the nine volumes of the real Huxley’s collected essays, or the writings of Leslie Stephen or Matthew Arnold? Concede the doubtful proposition that Mr. Dreiser in An American Tragedy has at last produced a masterpiece. What will collegiate youth learn from the time-wasting perusal of its nine hundred pages that they might not and do not acquire as well or as ill from newspaper reports of the Loeb and Leopold trial? The great truth, perhaps, that a Salvation Army education is a poor defense against the solicitations of life, and that it is difficult to determine the responsibility, the moral culpability, of weak wills and undisciplined minds. These may or may not be vital truths. But contrast their elementary simplicity and crudity with the range, the wealth, the subtlety of thought, the observation of character, the experience of literature and life, condensed in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and ask yourself which book you would prefer a class of students to have read whom you were trying to civilize. And, unfortunately, the very brightest students are betrayed by this literature that teaches them so little into a most un-Socratic confidence that they know all. It may be open-mindedness that leads them to the most adventurous experiments and speculations, but the outcome of such reading is the reverse of the open mind. It provides a few ready-made formulas, snap judgments, and peremptory prejudices by which to estimate and condemn out of hand everything in the literature and thought of the past that to superficial inspection seems to contradict the prevailing fashion of the present.
If modern science has confirmed the dictum of Heraclitus that all things flow and change, if Westermarck and Frazer have shown that moral ideas are only the herd instinct and taboos of the tribe, if Darwin has proved that the species and kinds of things are not fixed, but flow into one another by insensible gradation, if Nietzsche has proclaimed that Christian ethics is the slave morality of the weak, if Remy de Gourmont and Anatole France reiterate that the decency of the older American literature is only the impotence or the jealousy of undersexed and fanatical Puritans, if Einstein’s mathematical doctrine of relativity, which nobody can understand, has become confounded beyond all unscrambling with the vague notion that nothing is certain and all things are relative, which everybody can too easily understand— the victims of the crude but insistent propaganda of these and similar notions in recent literature inquire, discriminate, distinguish, and define no further. These formulas become the touchstones by which they interpret, judge, and often dismiss without any effort to understand them, the entire literature, history, and philosophy of the main European tradition as if it were yesterday’s Chicago American, last week’s Saturday Evening Post, last month’s AmericanMercury, last year’s best seller, or last decade’s theory of the atom or the germ cell.
And once more, since it is so easy to be misunderstood, let me protest that I am not indiscriminately disparaging the literature of to-day, though I do think that the genius of our age manifests itself more effectively in science and big business than in pure literature. I am not maintaining the preposterous thesis that we ought to read only or mainly the classics of the past. I am merely repeating what ought to be a commonplace of common sense, that we should try to preserve some perspective and some sense of values in our reading, and that there is a presumption that the selected best of thirty centuries outweighs the productions of any single decade, however progressive, smart, sophistical, and scientific.
But there is something deeper than mere knowledge that is cumulatively determined by the habitual quality of our reading. The coloring of our imaginations by the images on which we allow our minds to dwell is more than a metaphor. The text that bids us think on whatsoever things are honest, just, pure, lovely, and of good report may not have been precisely so intended, but it is applicable here. Yet, under the specious pretexts of realism, verity, facing the facts, and the scientific attitude, the most widely advertised literature of to-day is accustoming a whole generation to brood persistently on whatsoever things are cynical, unjust, hideous, squalid, and of ill report. The forward-looking thinkers of the entire American newspaper press ridiculed the aged Tennyson for his denunciation of the literature that would ‘set the maiden fancies wallowing in the troughs of Zolaism.’ America no longer needs to import such literature. We produce it, praise it in the weekly literary reviews, and place it on the reference shelves for classes in English. We have plenty of ready-made formulas in justification of this new freedom and the truth that has made us so free. But we are going directly against common sense, the experience of the race, and the admonitions of the wisest teachers from antiquity down.
One ancient version of the petition, ‘Lead us not into temptation,’ was the prayer of the philosopher Democritus that he might meet gracious and propitious images in his passage through life. It is no less significant because of its reference to an obsolete scientific theory. The theories of science come and go, common sense and fundamental criticism of life abide. Democritus was thinking of the atomist doctrine that every object and every event in the universe is represented by detached films or scales that float about the world and may find an entrance into our minds, and he asked whatever gods may be that the casual contacts of life should fill his mind only with gracious images.
When the poet of atomism, the Roman Lucretius, felt insanity creeping upon him, the first symptom was the besetment of his mind by horrible images which in Tennyson’s poem he styles
And fleeting through the boundless universe.
Is there any better designation for much of the most loudly commended new fiction and new psychology? And may we not ask ourselves the further pertinent question, —
These idols to herself?
The insanity of a nation is, I suppose, a figure of speech, and there are many causes of the Russian madness besides the books which the literate classes of Russia wrote and read. Yet there must be some connection of cause and effect between the doom that overtook educated Russians and the thoughts, the images, the formulas in which their literature had been steeping their minds for fifty years. We may find still more pertinent and practical texts in the words of another great teacher of antiquity of the opposite school from Democritus in science and philosophy, Plato. I am not going to quote again the eternally true but hackneyed passages of the Republic in which Plato anticipates the Wordsworthian doctrine of the moulding and formative influence of a beautiful environment on the spirit and temper of academic youth. Very slight changes would transfer their application from the material environment of natural scenery, noble architecture, beautiful pictures and statues, to the like qualities in the literature that shapes their thoughts, ennobles their feelings, and colors their imagination. But Plato has a more distinct and explicit warning for educators who, in the pursuit of a scientific attitude, disregard the cumulative effect of early impressions on the plastic and sensitive mind: ‘It is not allowable for a soul to have been bred from youth up among evil souls, and to have grown familiar with them, and itself to have run the gauntlet of every kind of wrongdoing and injustice so as quickly to infer from itself the misdeeds of others as it might diseases in the body, but it must have been inexperienced in evil natures and uncontaminated by them while young if it is to be truly fair and good and judge soundly of justice. For which cause the better sort seem to be simple-minded in youth and are easily deceived by the wicked, since they do not have within themselves patterns answering to the affections of the bad.'
But what have these academic preachments and jeremiads to do with creative literature and the reading of mature men and women? Nothing, as I have already said, except for those who take their reading seriously, who plan it and refuse to be stampeded by the natural ambition of publishers to swell the output of best sellers, the natural jealousy of the producing modern author for the competition of the dead and sceptred sovereigns, the natural empressement of journalists and reviewers to please authors and publishers and keep things going. There is not the slightest danger that any of us will close his mind to the modern ideas that blow upon us from every quarter of the wind and find entrance at every pore like an African sandstorm. The commonplaces of modernism are thundered with interminable iteration from every speaker’s platform. Every teacher knows that there is no danger of his students missing these. The danger is rather that we shut ourselves out from our rich inheritance of the past, winnowed and selected and treasured by all-wise time and the secure judgment of the world.
If we are to give our minds the balanced ration of which we were speaking, it must be by deliberate choice and conscious effort. And the only practical help I can offer in conclusion is the experience that this is not so hard or distasteful as it seems, and that it is only the first step that costs. Older literature, even the literature of the Victorians, seems remote from present concerns. Its contemporary allusions are unintelligible or uninteresting; its fashions, its mannerisms, are distasteful. A lifelong bookworm and student is less exposed to this feeling. Yet it overwhelmed me in 1914, when, on the ship that bore me back from Europe, I wondered whether I could ever get interested in dead classics again. That fear passed in a week of teaching Homer. But even to this day I select among modern novels one that postdates 1914 in preference to one that portrays a life that did not know what was coming. And I have not yet recovered my lost interest in the political and military history of Europe from, say, 1600 to 1870. It seems so insignificant and petty in its scale. That is an accident. A more serious obstacle is the fact that while we can recover in a few moments the mood for the supreme things, for Homer and Shakespeare, there are many secondary and tertiary masters, the thought of reading whom is often distasteful — say Virgil, even, or Racine or Pope or Scott or Dickens. But, and here is the moral, we can always recover the taste for these by a few hours or days of reading. That may be a little easier for a professional student. But I do not think the difference amounts to much. ‘The true humanist,’ says Pater, ‘can never wholly lose interest in anything that has ever deeply interested humanity.’ You can overcome your first shrinking distaste and recover or acquire an interest in almost any good author, period, school, or fashion of literature by a few hours, days, or weeks, as the case may be, of resolute reading. I once acquired in a week’s reading a taste for eighteenth-century translations of the classics into Popian couplets — or at least an imaginative sympathy with the taste.
Is it worth while? Everyone must answer that question for himself. Those who have tried it, however imperfectly, would reply as Phædrus answered Socrates under the plane tree by the Ilyssus, while the cicadas overhead were chirping the tale of how they were once men, but, forgetting to eat in their passion for song, were promoted to be the mouthpieces of the eternal muse. Why else, said Phædrus, should one care to live, save for the satisfactions that endure and leave no unhappy aftertaste?
The literature of escape is a fashionable catchword of current criticism. But what fantastic fairy tale, what photographic or reportorial reflection of contemporary life, what Utopian forecast of better bread than is made of wheat or earned in the sweat of the brow, provides so sure and lasting an escape from the besetments, bewilderments, obsessions, and terrors of the modern mind in a mechanical and too high-geared civilization as does the habit of dwelling in or sometimes visiting that serene world where the makers of European literature and the real creators of our true civilization breathe the ampler ether and the diviner air of the unity of the human spirit?
We may stay glued to our seat in the eye-baffling, three-ringed circus of unmitigated modernity, if its clownings, its stunts, its gyrations, its curiosities, are all that our taste, our hearts, our minds, require. But the world’s palace of art, where Plato the wise fronts large-browed Verulam, and the Ionian father of the rest smiles down on the long line of his poetic descendants, still stands open to us night and day. We have but to enter in to be made free of the one great society that alone exists on earth — the noble living and the noble dead.