A Commentary (July 1937)
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504 ] A Commentary The Criterion: A Literary Review, 16 (July 1937) 666-70 The death of Paul Elmer More passed almost unnoticed in this country, where his writings have never been widely known.1 Yet he was one of two Americans of his generation, more distinguished and important critics than any who survive them in that country, and than any of their own time in England. That More and Irving Babbitt, the most cosmopolitan American writers of their period (Babbitt was French, More was English in his sympathies), should be so little known outside of their own country is curious: and their lives have some bearing on the question of the relation of a critic to his own time. The most influential literary critics of the past in England – there are not very many of them – have been men who were themselves practitioners of the arts of writing that they criticized, and were definitely in the literary movement of their time. The nearest analogy to More and Babbitt is of course Ste.-Beuve, whom they both admired and studied closely. But Ste.-Beuve, in spite of the failure of his fiction and verse to make any impression upon the course of events, was in contact with a life of letters and ideas in Paris which was active and creative; and furthermore, in his weakness as well as his strength, is a very representative man of his time.2 One is struck by the isolation of Babbitt and More. That they were not representative cannot be attributed to them as a defect: because anything in America that there was to be “represented” could only have been represented by smaller men. But the artist of genius has the opportunity of creating that which he will represent, however isolated he may be in his beginnings, or however isolated in spirit he may remain to the end. The critic who is, so to speak, a greater critic than his age deserves, is isolated in a much more cruel way: for he remains in his own time ineffective. It may be contended that Babbitt has had considerable influence. That he has influenced very deeply a number of scattered individuals I know well; but time must pass before we can estimate how much difference this influence will have made. The more spectacular welcome given to his teaching in America seems to me to have been of a not very intelligent kind. His doctrines were taken up by people who wanted a positive, cut-and-dried [ 505 A Commentary (July) “humanism,” who received them in a dead or sterile form, who wished to maintain the Liberal compromise between Christianity and communism.3 The living part of his teaching, the profound analysis of the modern world, does not appear to have reached many people capable of prolonging his inspiration into creative activity of their own. That Babbitt, like More, failed to make an immediate impression upon a whole generation is anything but “failure” in the ordinary sense. A great creative artist, once he is dead, may have no more influence upon posterity than More and Babbitt had upon their own time: that is to say, he may influence a few people here and there in every generation; but unfortunately, the influence that a man has at his own time does count, justly or unjustly, in forming his subsequent reputation, and there is nothing to be done about it. When More was writing his earlier Shelburne Essays the literary world of America was as dead as a door-nail: he knew that perfectly well. The literary world of England was perhaps a small affair; More was remote and unknown, but he was not the sort of man who could have influenced it had he been among it. People are only influenced in the direction in which they want to go, and influence consists largely in making them conscious of their wishes to proceed in that direction. Walter Pater ruled from the grave, and his living representative was Arthur Symons. I should say myself that More was a better critic than Pater; and I do not think it can be denied that he was of very much larger size than Arthur Symons. It was because of being of larger size that he would not have fitted. What More wrote of Ernest Dowson and Lionel Johnson, when these men were contemporary poets, remains surprisingly fresh. We should expect him to have recognized their weaknesses, but we are astonished on re-reading...


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