Writers and Critics

No sooner has a writer become ‘established’ than curiosity is kindled in regard to his private life. Vaults are opened, intimate papers made public, table talk remembered as though it were gospel. But while some strive to superimpose the man upon his writing, others are content with the soberer task of evaluating his work.
IN reading a biography one of the first questions to ask is, What attitude does the biographer assume toward his subject? Is it one of hero worship or solid respect or intense dislike? These are a few common attitudes out of numerous possible ones, and recently in the name of the ‘new biography’ we have observed many authors adopting certain of these possible attitudes which, did we meet them in society, would strike us as insufferably conceited or downright caddish. We have seen little men, taking advantage of a change in morals and manners, patronize great men; we have been served with unverifiable guesses about the private sex life of notable people by psychologists of dubious repute; we have seen the great dead used simply as an excuse for a display of wit by a live gossip. In short, like several other forms of writing, biography has become journalistic. I realize that I sound as if there were before me some rank examples of scandal-mongering to discuss, but that is happily not the case.
Fairfax Downey’sBurton: Arabian Nights Adventurer (Scribners, $3.00) is a piece of exploitation. but a mild and pleasant one. Mr. Downey has selected an easily exploitable subject, the career of Sir Richard Burton, swordsman, consul, explorer, linguist, nnd translator of the Arabian Nights, and he has written to be entertaining. He neither probes nor judges the extraordinary man of action and letters. He simply recites brightly and fluently the events in this singular Victorian’s life. If is obvious that he delights in Burton, who as a boy was a scamp, as a young man a student of ‘monkey language,’as a mature man a disguised and successful pilgrim to Mecca and explorer of East Africa for the sources of the Nile, and as an old man the British Consul at Trieste, a figure of amazing energy, courage, and swank. Burton’s visit to America in 1860 and his acquaintance with Brigham Young is one of the episodes Mr. Downey has done better by than his predecessors, but on the whole his biography is just one more biography, not remarkable for the inclusion of new material or for penetration, but readable, enjoyable, worth doing simply for the sake of keeping interest alive in its hero. The last Burton biography was in 1907. It was time for Mr. Downey’s book.
James Fenimore Cooper, by Henry Walcott Boynton (Century, $5.00), is a biography of another order. There is no nonsense about Mr. Boynton. He has immersed himself a long time in his subject, he has been patient and shrewd and common-sensible, he has studied hitherto inaccessible material on Cooper, and now quietly he presents us with a solid achievement, the definitive life of the great romancer, displacing Professor Lounsbury’s life published in 1882. This is biography, old style, and it is curiously refreshing in a period of glib hypotheses about men. For the keynote of Mr. Boynton’s book is a fair-minded respect for his subject. He is neither clever nor hasty, but spends himself in getting Cooper before the reader. After all, Cooper was an author who once impressed great men like Balzac, SainteBenve, and Melville, and we must beware of lightly dismissing him. In fact, after finishing Mr, Boynton’s account we could do ourselves a good turn by picking up W. C. Brownell’s remarkable critical essay on Cooper in American Prose Masters; reading it would, I think, produce some reduction of our current valuations of current novelists without one tenth the creative power of Cooper. Will Mr. Boynton’s biography kill the legend of Cooper as a mean-spirited controversialist? Such legends die very hard, but the truth is out at last, and Cooper appears to have been right most of the time in his famous lawsuits and quarrels.
There is a strong biographical element in each of the critical studies that make up Joseph Wood Krutch’sFive Masters (Cape and Smith, $3.50), but Mr. Kruteh has a bigger purpose than making separate criticisms of Boccaccio, Cervantes, Richardson, Stendhal, and Proust, and that is to trace the mutations of the novel. For some reason American critics are shy of discussing the novel in its larger aspects, its principles, development, and secret potentialities; they leave that to such brilliant Englishmen as Percy Lubbock, E. M. Forster, and Edwin Muir, Exception must now be made of Mr. Krutch for his bringing to view the origin of naturalistic fiction in Boccaccio, the method of ‘three dimensional’ fiction in Don Quixote, and the sentimental pattern of Richardson which has so dominated us. On Stendhal he is not so satisfying, but he recovers to write the best criticism of Proust an American has made. It appears to me that Mr. Krutch is the subtlest and the best orientated of the Junior Liberal critics. One may dispute the validity of his orientation, but Mr. Krutch has at least allied his critical practice to some sort of well-woven comprehensive ‘philosophy of life.
That is still to do in the case of Edmund Wilson.Axel’s Castle (Scribners, $2.50) is a collection of longish papers from the New Republic, treating of contemporary masters like Eliot, Joyce, and Yeats for the benefit of the general reader. As an impressionist Mr. Wilson has his points, and he is something of a guide to the bewildered. But if his sensibility is alive, his generalizing faculties are almost dormant. He holds, for example, that prose can actually assume more and more the functions of poetry, which may, he thinks, be abandoned as a technique of literary expression, and his criterion is, astoundingly, the suggestiveness of words. Words in prose suggest, so do words in verse; ergo . . . But there is no excuse, in view of the considerable literature upon the differentiations of prose and poetry, for bobbing up with this senseless criterion of suggestiveness. At the close of Axel’s Castle Mr. Wilson has reduced himself to saying tender farewell to Symbolism (subjectivism) in letters, and to muttering vaguely of social literature as the next desirable phase. Thus there are simultaneously an attractive æsthetic side and an insipid reasoning side to Mr. Wilson. One wishes that he could acquire more rugged convictions, discover more clearly what his certitudes are and what he does not know; and the wish is not idle, for there is a means for forming convictions, a means neglected in our time, but glorious in the past. It is pondering, and to it we are indebted for the maxims of such writers as La Rochefoucauld, Vauvenargues, Thoreau, and Nietzsche. But our writers no longer ponder, they only reflect.