A Note on the American Critic
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286 ] A Note on the American Critic1 This gallery of critics is not intended to be in any sense complete.2 But having dealt with three English writers of what may be called critical prose, one’s mind becomes conscious of the fact that they have something in common , and, trying to perceive more clearly what this community is, and suspecting that it is a national quality, one is impelled to meditate upon the strongest contrast possible. Hence these comments upon two American critics and one French critic, which would not take exactly this form without the contrast at which I have hinted. Mr. Paul More is the author of a number of volumes which he perhaps hopes will break the record of mass established by the complete works of Sainte-Beuve. The comparison with Sainte-Beuve is by no means trivial, for Mr. More, and Professor Irving Babbitt also, are admirers of the voluminous Frenchman.3 Not only are they admirers, but their admiration is perhaps a clue both to much of their merit and to some of their defects. In the first place, both of these writers have given much more attention to Frenchcriticism,tothestudyofFrenchstandardsofwritingandofthought, than any of the notable English critics since Arnold; they are therefore much nearer to the European current, although they exhibit faults which are definitely transatlantic and which definitely keep them out of it. The French influence is traceable in their devotion to ideas and their interest in problems of art and life as problems which exist and can be handled apart from their relations to the critic’s private temperament. With Swinburne, the criticism of Elizabethan literature has the interest of a passion, it has the interest for us of any writing by an intellectual man who is genuinely moved by certain poetry.4 Swinburne’s intelligence is not defective, it is impure. There are few ideas in Swinburne’s critical writings which stand forth luminous with an independent life of their own, so true that one forgetstheauthorinthestatement .Swinburne’swordsmustalwaysbereferred back to Swinburne himself. And if literature is to Swinburne merely a passion , we are tempted to say that to George Wyndham it was a hobby, and to Mr. Whibley almost a charming showman’s show (we are charmed by the urbanity of the showman). The two latter have gusto, but gusto is no equivalent for taste; it depends too much upon the appetite and the [ 287 A Note on the American Critic digestion of the feeder. And with one or two other writers, whom I have not had occasion to discuss, literature is not so much a collection of valuable porcelain as an institution – accepted, that is to say, with the same gravity as the establishments of Church and State. That is, in other words, the essentially uncritical attitude. In all of these attitudes the English critic is the victim of his temperament. He may acquire great erudition, but erudition easily becomes a hobby; it is useless unless it enables us to see literature all round, to detach it from ourselves, to reach a state of pure contemplation. Now Mr. More and Mr. Babbitt have endeavoured to establish a criticism which should be independent of temperament. This is in itself a considerable merit. But at this point Mr. More particularly has been led astray, oddly enough, by his guide Sainte-Beuve. Neither Mr. More nor SainteBeuveisprimarilyinterestedinart .OfthelatterM.Bendahaswellobserved that on sait – et c’est certainement un des grands éléments de son succès – combien d’études l’illustre critique consacre à des auteurs dont l’impor­ tancelittéraireestquasinulle(femmes,magistrats,courtisans,militaires), mais dont les écrits lui sont une occasion de pourtraiturer une âme; combien volontiers, pour les maîtres, il s’attache à leurs productions secondaires , notes, brouillons, lettres intimes, plutôt qu’à leurs grandes œuvres, souvent beaucoup moins expressives, en effet, de leur psychologie.5 Mr. More is not, like Sainte-Beuve, primarily interested in psychology or in human beings; Mr. More is primarily a moralist, which is a worthy and serious thing to be.6 The trouble with Mr. More is that you cannot disperse a theory or point of view of morals over a vast number of essays on a great variety of important figures in literature, unless you can give some more particular interest as well. Sainte-Beuve has his particularized interest in human beings; another critic – say Remy de Gourmont – may have something to say always about the art of a writer which will make our...