- American Prose. An unsigned review of The Outlook for American Prose, by Joseph Warren Beach; and S. P. E. Tract No. XXIV, which includes Notes on Relative Clauses, by Otto Jespersen, and American Slang, by Fred Newton Scott
- The Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber & Faber Ltd
- View Citation
812 ] American Prose An unsigned review of The Outlook for American Prose by Joseph Warren Beach Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1926. Pp. vii + 285. S. P. E. Tract No. XXIV, which includes Notes on Relative Clauses, by Otto Jespersen, and American Slang by Fred Newton Scott Oxford: Clarendon, 1926. Pp. 103-17, 118-27. Times Literary Supplement, 1283 (2 Sept 1926) 577 The title of Mr. Beach’s book is, we imagine, one which should encourage the sale of the book in America. It reflects faithfully the attitude of a large part of the literary public in America – an attitude of determination and confidence in the future, with an acute consciousness of the shortcomings of the present. But the title is unfair to the book, which contains not only a great deal of valuable criticism of the present in America but some good criticism of the present in England. And this book is interesting, beyond the interest of its subject matter, in its critical method. Mr. Beach will be a useful critic in America, he would be a useful critic here; for he is a critic with an equipment which is rare: that is, an understanding of the principles of grammar and language.1 American books, especially American novels, have been received in England in the last few years with a leniency which has sometimes exceeded the limits of critical tolerance or sporting generosity. We are inclined to relax even those mild critical standards which still endure for the writing of English in England. One of the writers who have flourished on this amiability is Mr. Joseph Hergesheimer, and Mr. Hergesheimer is one of those authors upon whom Mr. Beach falls most heavily (with occasional side-blows, which do not fail of their object, at Mr. Walpole and Mr. Swinnerton across the sea).2 After pointing out a number of the appalling crimes committed by Mr. Dreiser and Mr. Hergesheimer the critic pauses to ask – [ 813 American Prose Is it simply that our Dreisers and Hergesheimers are not born to the use of English, and that Indiana and Pennsylvania have failed to supply the deficiency?  This suggestion he is forced to discard as inadequate. For Joseph Conrad English was a more alien tongue than for Dreiser or for Hergesheimer. True, Conrad makes mistakes; his English style, as Mr. Beach points out, is by no means so perfect as the conventional praise of Conrad might lead us to suppose; but Conrad’s mistakes are of a different kind, and much more readily pardonable. Conrad did not master all the refinements of the language ; Mr. Beach points out his clumsiness in the frequent use of could or would instead of might. These are mysteries which to a foreigner must be nearly impenetrable; but the sin (we may suggest in passing) is rather with ourselves for failing to discount these weaknesses of Conrad, and then to estimate him on his indubitable merit, than with Conrad for the commission . But the errors of a Hergesheimer or a Dreiser are quite different. Mr. Dreiser, for instance, has this phrase: “the mystic chords which bind and thrill the heart of the nation.”3 Here, Mr. Beach shows us, there is a downright confusion between “cords” which bind and “chords” which thrill .Andfurthermore,thephraseisitselfmererubbish;notthe“American language,” not even specifically “American” rubbish, but universal bad writing . And Mr. Beach quotes a sentence from Hergesheimer with the remark that we never find in Conrad such a “psychological jargon”: The movement, the anxiety, she dreaded was arriving, and it found her no freer of doubt than had the other aspects of her own responses.  Yet Mr. Beach is quite balanced in judgment. His censure of such writers as Dreiser and Hergesheimer does not lead him to exaggerate the merits of other American writers who are innocent of grammatical or rhetorical blunders. He agrees that Miss Cather and Mr. Dell write better than this.4 But, he ponders, The better taste of Miss Cather and Mr. Dell would give us more comfort if we felt certain they were writers of equal force with Mr. Dreiser and Mr. Hergesheimer. That is why our problem is an anxious one.  On all of the writers with whom he deals Mr. Beach has something of interest to say; and everything that he says has also (for us) an interest exceeding the interest of the subject. His destructive analysis of some specimens of 1926 814 ] Professor John Dewey’s thought (from a...