The Diamond Age of Lecturing

by HENRY SEIDEL CANBY

1

I HAVE never been a professional club and forum lecturer, although for some years I made brief but very extensive tours throughout the country under the sponsorship of a lecture agency. The purpose of these tours was not primarily financial. I had never lived far from the smell of Atlantic tidewater, and it did me good to get West and South — to listen to the talk in club cars, to wander the streets of Midwestern cities, to read local newspapers, and talk to home-staying characters.

I omit from these benefits the inevitable entertaining, which is the lecturer’s most fatiguing chore, although some of this hospitality was very rewarding and led on to friendship. And I was never one of those neurotic talkers who refuse food and drink, and even talk, until they have put their show on the stage.

Only twice have I undertaken large adventures with the spoken word: in 1923, at a University of California Summer School in a new environment with subtly different ideas about; in 1945, on a government wartime mission to Australia and New Zealand. In both instances, and particularly the latter. I got at least as much as I gave, and the financial considerations were negligible.

Therefore I speak impartially when I say that literary lecturing in America has never had its due in histories of literature and education. I do not mean, of course, university lecturing to students, which is part of an educational system, and obligatory whether it is brilliant and meaty, or meaty and dull. Nor professional entertaining such as Mark Twain was master of, and also that generous and enthusiastic personality “Billy" Phelps, my old teacher and friend, in his mellow, loose-shod later days. I mean lecturing on literature, art, music, drama, foreign affairs, or what have you, which is definitely intended as adult education for those characteristically American groupings who wish to be knowledgeable without taking too much trouble about it. A whole literature of satire in pictures or in print has been directed against these organizations. Let the fun go on. I could add items of my own, as of the chairman of the literary committee of a vast woman’s club in Ohio, who said to me as I arrived, “You was here before, wasn’t you?” To which I was happily inspired to reply, “Yes, I were.” I shared the stage that day with a dancer, who (quite rightly) gave more pleasure than my heavy-going lecture on criticism.

Yet the writer of a memoir who lakes American culture seriously must counter this satire with questions that, are also serious. After all, these audiences, voluntarily assembled (which have no parallel elsewhere unless, and under very different, conditions, in Russia), are often much more significant. than the lecturer who addresses them. They want the latest word on art or the most durable wisdom in public affairs — cravings so important in a democracy like ours that it. is unwise to make fun of their superficiality, I felt often that my audiences came to hear about new books so that they would not have to read them — and have again and again been confronted by the evidence of aroused interest floating back like bread on the waters after many days or years. And I should like to say a word for the “popular” lecturer himself. If all writers of informational books wrote as well as the best, “popular” lecturers have to talk, and if all teachers took as much pains to he clear and interesting as the club and platform lecturer has to be, there would be more education in the schools and colleges, and more profitable reading of serious books.

The radio has now restored the eminence of the spoken word, but has not yet equaled the achievements in popular adult education of the itinerant lecturer speaking in person. The very size of the radio makes it like a vast corpse attracting the buzzards of commercialism from the four winds. Its unpaid-for educational programs are too often dull and impossibly placed. Its “talent" is urged to be cheap in tone, following a principle which also guides the proprietors of the moving pictures, and which I believe to be a fallacy: that the public prefers the bad to the good. It.is true, of course, that audiences and readers prefer sprightly trash to dull excellence. Nevertheless the radio is better at news than at education.

2

BUT I am writing of the twenties and thirties, not the forties. Those years, for writers and critics and editors, were certainly the Diamond Age of lecturing. Even the academic hierarchies were celebrity-hunting as hard as the intellectual proletariat. The chief difference between the two markets was that the universities sought great rather than notorious names and would accept, from the erudite, “ers" and “uhs,” word chokings, and repetitions of things already in print, with a dumb patience of which no woman’s club or Rotary luncheon would have been capable. It was not at a university but, I think, in Carnegie Hall that Maeterlinck, then in the bright sunset of his fame, read an address translated into a phonetic English in which he had been coached on his trip over. As he pronounced his script, it sounded like no possible language. “For God’s sake,”shouted someone in the gallery, “say it in French!”

We had been measurably (in millimeters, not inches) internationalized in the First World War, and there was a coast-to-coast demand in the twenties for foreign lecturers, particularly English men of letters, and Irish and Scotch, whose dialect was sometimes easier to understand. The fees paid were enormous and caused wounding jealousy among the native talent. The English especially had exported their literary men during the war as a shrewd and successful form of propaganda. After the war, although the propaganda ceased, the publicity continued on its own momentum to the great advantage of many a British author whose best market was in the United States.

I remember John Drinkwater, a good poet who made his reputation with a play about Lincoln, He was a good showman as well as a playwright, and earned his fee ($750 a lecture, so it was reported) by looking every inch the handsome poet in a fervor. He draped Ids graceful body over the lecture stand and read from his own poems. It was easy money.

And there was Lord Dunsany from Ireland, the mystic romanticist of the Irish Renaissance, equally famous for his one-act plays and his eccentricities. In no other period would a shy, awkward man, scarcely articulate in speech, have been dragged from his Irish seclusion to earn stage money as a celebrity. I remember a painful evening in New Haven. Dunsany had heed and hawed unintelligibly to a large audience, then came across the si reel to a reception prepared for him at our lit lie Elizabethan Club. It was full of gaping undergraduates, who stiffened into silence when Billy Phelps led in the distinguished visitor. For once Billy could think of nothing to say, and it was Lord Dunsany who got. in the first word. “I say, this is a little silly: I think I shall go home.” And he did, leaving supper, party, and guests to amuse themselves.

The men from overseas made the most money, but if as notable writers they deserved it, as lecturers most of them emphatically did not. The British celebrity as a rule made no attempt to interest his audience. He gave good material, usually in a very bad package, and the hearer could unwrap it himself or go home. Such a brilliant talker in private circles as H. G. Wells could only be described as inept on the stage. Sir Walter Raleigh, that great Oxford scholar, once in my hearing read galley proofs of a book—on the platform to be sure, but apparently speaking only to himself and the book had been published! Such admirable writers as Harold Nieolson and V. Sackville-West were helpless before an audience. Lecturers should be seen and not heard, except in the front row, was the principle they acted upon.

I think that the idea that large groups of unintellectual people really wanted to hear what they had to say never occurred to these speakers. Such groups certainly would not in England, so why here? The Americans paid money to look at celebrities, precisely as Oxford undergraduates went to unendurable lectures in order to get a degree. That was what they believed. And if they were famous enough they got away with it — once. Of course there were many notable exceptions among foreign visitors —the Abbé Dimnet, for example, and Julian Huxley.

The reception of our local talent was much more significant than I his exploiting of famous names. Books and criticism had become news in the twentics, perhaps for the first lime in the United States since the tiny but intelligent Lyceum audiences which Emerson lectured before the Civil War.

Some of us have forgotten that first great age of American lecturing which look up where the great sermonizers of a previous age left off. Emerson was only one of a legion, but the greatest. Beginning at home, in and near Concord, he extended his tours out through the raw Middle West, where he drove frozen miles by buggy across the prairies, and taught the expatriated New Englanders Transcendentalism and, what was more important, the ideals which were to save the United Stales from becoming an empire of materialism. That he ate apple pie for breakfast was his passport to democracy. Thorcau, slaying closer to home, labored with a poor delivery. As be said, he cleaned up so well behind him that he was seldom asked to come back for another lecture. When he published them, his not too successful addresses on walking and wild apples went round the world in essay form, as did Emerson’s.

By 1920 a new national literature in poetry, fiction, and drama had come into being and had aroused that intellectual curiosity which is quite different from interest in notoriety or success. From Texas to Maine, American writers could count upon audiences who wanted to be told why Sinclair Lewis did not like his Middle West, why sex had entered (they meant re-entered) literature, why Americans no longer wrote like Englishmen, why poets now dealt with what had been called unpoetical, and what had happened to the standarils taught to them in school by which one judged good literature.

It was impossible to lecture without a question period afterward, which was often more interesting, both to lecturer and audience, than the lecture itself. For the first time in their experience many of these audiences learned that good books, especially American books, were not merely amusement and self-improvement, but more exciting than life itself, since they revealed and interpreted the hidden currents of emotion and half-conscious trends of Thought that flowed through whole communities. What the good lecturer did was to create awareness — he did not educate, he did not have to. He led the horse to water, and left him there. Fortunately, in those days the water was good.

And the American lecturers were good also. I would cite Billy Phelps and Will Durant especially in the twenties, and John Mason Brown and the Editor of this magazine in later decades. They were what I should call penetrative lecturers. By this I do not mean that they were necessarily or usually erudite or profound, but they had that skill of communication which sent the hearer home with an idea, or a fact, or an enthusiasm firmly and usefully planted. It was not a gift so much as a craft, often an art. I remember a vast dinner of some association. I was sitting next to Will Durant, who was warned a few minutes in advance that he would be called upon for some informal remarks. They were informal, but also coherent, pointed, and packed with sense. No wonder, since in those few minutes allowed him he had penciled on the tablecloth between us an elaborate outline of heads and subheads, He never glanced at the outline while he spoke, but it had organized his ideas before he began.

So great was the success of literary lecturing until the ominous approaches of war diverted the public mind from the arts, that the publishers thought they had found a new form of advertising. Every author of a new book was urged to speak at every book fair, woman’s club, or men’s luncheon that would listen to him. I doubt whether he sold many of his books as a result, although it he was inspiring he undoubtedly sold books of other writers. Seeing and meeting an author seems often to end all curiosity as to what he may have said in his writing. So it was usually the authors’ imaginations, not their pocket books, that profited, except for the lecturer’s fees. They stepped out of their Greenwich Villages, Connecticut farms, editorial chairs, or university libraries and were for brief but inspiring moments face to face, emotion to emotion, with the populace for whom they wrote.

Only those who understand how important the sense of an audience is to a writer can appreciate what it means to see your ideas—your verses if you are a poet—stick visibly like arrows in the minds of actual people whose faces betray the results. The vigor, the confidence, of American writing in the twenties and early thirties must be partly ascribed to a more concrete sense of communication between writer and reader than at any other time since the great decades of the early nineteenth century. Scores of writers never took to the stage, and in many cases that was most fortunate, for they could write better — far better than they could Speak. But the best of these independent spirits were talked about even if they did not talk. Walt Whitman’s line, though still unrealized except in beginnings, became intelligible to many an American writer: —

“To have great poets, there must be great audiences, too.”