Library Portraits

THE delicacy of the beautiful face drawn by Cecilia Beaux and used as a frontispiece for Anne Douglas Sedgwick: A Portrait in Letters (Houghton Mifflin, $2.75) is no more remarkable than its thoughtfulness and nobility. I was prepared for these qualities, but a somewhat faded memory of Anne Douglas Sedgwick’s novels had made me expect — Just why I don’t know — that this Portrait in Letters might prove to be in pastel colors, reflecting a woman a little ‘too bright and good for human nature’s daily food.’ What I found was a woman of charming naturalness, with a fine-edged wit, an acute judgment, a very warm heart, and as free as possible from pose and egotism. Her love of beauty shows on every page, but so does her humanity. She can turn from an excited discussion of painting or landscape or philosophy to a discussion of hats or cats or clothes or weddings; and, while that’s the way letters should be written, and often are, it’s another matter to say something witty or daring or thoughtful or wise about each of such topics, and to do so with nothing in mind but the correspondent and his pleasure, information, or affection. I suppose that this last is the final test of good letters. It is certainly one reason why these letters are good.
Begun in 1898, when the writer was twenty-five, they continue, one or two up to eight or ten a year, to her death in 1935. With only one or two exceptions they are all addressed to personal friends. There is one to George Moore, whom she disliked, one to F. C. S. Schiller, and one to Professor Phelps; but the rest are strictly ‘familiar.’ In the earliest, practically unknown as a writer, she is struggling with religious questions and gradually forming a kind of creed of agnosticism which, never cold or despairing, seems to have remained her belief for life. Mysticism she calls ‘the pâté de foie gras of religion’; but she loves the Christian ethics ‘because they say that it is better to die than to crawl and claw, that it is losing one’s life to save it, and that to profit by the misery and labour of others is to be degraded.’ It is a statement of her own belief.
One is constantly struck by the fine balance of a nature too common-sense to have any patience with æstheticism, but sensitive enough to dislike horse racing because the people ‘look so greedy.’ On one page she records that ‘it’s surprising how morally and mentally vulgar some very nice people are,’ and on another (reflecting on her own poverty) she exclaims, ‘Oh, Mima, why can’t I be a Marie Corelli !’ In the very first letter she describes a woman as ‘altogether too æsthetic in the Burne-Jonesy style, which means a bad fit, and bare neck, and an atmosphere of beads.’ A little later she prefers ‘a sordid, sad, scuffling little modern man of the suburbs — struggling to support the people he loves ... to even Saint Francis,’ because the Saint, with all his tenderness, still thought first of his own soul.
Her husband, Basil de Selincourt, as editor has not been concerned with her public or literary life in his selection, and there is therefore very little about her own books. She says that she wrote them because she wanted to, but is utterly uncritical about them. Beyond brief items of news concerning them, she seldom mentions them except to answer questions. But her remarks about the books of others are so acute that one regrets that she did not, like Virginia Woolf, whom she admires, write criticism. She speaks of the ‘bleeding’ complex of D. H. Lawrence, which abashes and disgusts her, though she considers him a genius. She is enraptured by things as different as Lady into Fox and Buddenbrooks. But what she does n’t like she can dispose of in a phrase. She says that ‘Precious Bane is apparently thought beautiful by everyone in the world but me’; she pronounces The Fountain one of the deadest books ever written; she asks whether ’Dwarf’s Blood does n’t begin like Hawthorne and end like Charlotte Yonge.
All the while she is reading Bergson, Whitehead, studying logic, reviewing Greek—but never losing interest in gowns, tableware, flowers, animals. In the last letter, dictated when she lay dying, she says: ‘I am just the same inside — though I can’t, can t get it out. When you wrote—“your spirit can surmount anything" — I felt a strange tremor from an indomitable thread of life within me.’ This is the last touch to the Portrait.
The Three Worlds, by Carl Van Doren (Harpers, $3.00), are those of before the War, the War, and the Depression. The author, writing in his fiftieth year, recalls his Mid-West boyhood, his education at Illinois and Columbia, his experiences as professor and headmaster (which he found distasteful), and his release into the freer life of literary New York. As editor of the Cambridge History of American Literature, the Century, the Nation, the Literary Guild, he had unusual opportunities to know authors and contemporary books, and, while his observations and reflections are not startling or profound, they are presented manfully and honestly.
The account of his boyhood in Illinois, written in somewhat of the vein of Canby’s Age of Confidence and dealing with the same period, has considerable charm. As writing it is the best part of the book. The rest, down to Part Three, reads like a success story, and I was afraid that that was all it was to be. But the folly and lunacy of 1929 sobered the author as it did other people. ‘In the midst of the general depression,’ as he says, ‘each man had a depression of his own.’ His own depression took the form of a disgust of high-pressure authorship and efficient book publicity. He lived like a hermit. As a kind of spiritual purge he wrote his life of Swift — a fine book. But he found at the end that his belief in America had not lessened or his hatred of all forms of dictatorship. He closes with these words: ‘I think that the general spirit of America is putting behind it a dull confusion and beginning to free its great energies. But this may be wishes which I mistook for facts. I may have looked into the wrong American heart for a sign of what was happening to America. ... I have only told you what I know about these times.’
What I liked best about the book was the author’s willingness to gamble on youth and the future. He is rather hard on the professors, both as authors and as men, and his feeling that by leaving the stuffiness of the academic halls he was going, as Faust says, when he leaves them, ‘out, out into the wide free land,’is a little naïve. The literary world of New York, for all its gusto and bounce, is really as provincial and as monotonous as any. One suspects that he realized this in the end. His preferring editing to teaching (though he did continue to teach for fourteen years) seems therefore a matter of taste. But his faith in American writers was important and admirable.
I was troubled by the account of the publication of Robinson’s Tristram by the Literary Guild, because it savored too much of ’Let’s give the poor boy a hand’; and I wonder whether Mr. Van Doren does n’t exaggerate the merits of Robinson’s Arthurian transcripts anyway. His account of Elinor Wylie — the most elaborate in the book — perhaps only proves once more that the life of that most brilliant woman had best be left to be read in her novels and poems, though the story is justly and feelingly told. And I was worried, until I got to page 251, about the non-appearance in his pages of writers I admired more than I did most of those he mentioned. On that page, however, he carefully names those whom he knew or did not know; and I realized that he had chosen, quite rightly, to deal only with those whom he really did know. In the end, then, I laid the book down with the feeling that I liked the author’s honesty, faith in the present, and unwillingness to play Sir Oracle. Caught in the wheels of an industry called literature, he at least, kept his head.