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- Definitions - 1/38 -


Produced by Ralph Zimmerman, Juliet Sutherland, Charles Franks and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team

DEFINITIONS

ESSAYS IN CONTEMPORARY CRITICISM

BY

HENRY SEIDEL CANBY, Ph.D.

Editor of _The Literary Review_ of _The New York Evening Post_, and a member of the English Department of Yale University.

NEW YORK

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The author wishes to acknowledge the courtesy of _The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's Magazine, The Century Magazine, The Literary Review of The New York Evening Post, The Bookman, The Nation, and The North American Review_ for permission to reprint such of these essays as have appeared in their columns.

PREFACE

The unity of this book is to be sought in the point of view of the writer rather than in a sequence of chapters developing a single theme and arriving at categorical conclusions. Literature in a civilization like ours, which is trying to be both sophisticated and democratic at the same moment of time, has so many sources and so many manifestations, is so much involved with our social background, and is so much a question of life as well as of art, that many doors have to be opened before one begins to approach an understanding. The method of informal definition which I have followed in all these essays is an attempt to open doors through which both writer and reader may enter into a better comprehension of what novelists, poets, and critics have done or are trying to accomplish. More than an entrance upon many a vexed controversy and hidden meaning I cannot expect to have achieved in this book; but where the door would not swing wide I have at least tried to put one foot in the crack. The sympathetic reader may find his own way further; or may be stirred by my endeavor to a deeper appreciation, interest, and insight. That is my hope.

New York, April, 1922.

CONTENTS

PREFACE

I. ON FICTION

SENTIMENTAL AMERICA FREE FICTION A CERTAIN CONDESCENSION TOWARD FICTION THE ESSENCE OF POPULARITY

II. ON THE AMERICAN TRADITION

THE AMERICAN TRADITION BACK TO NATURE THANKS TO THE ARTISTS TO-DAY IN AMERICAN LITERATURE: ADDRESSED TO THE BRITISH TIME'S MIRROR THE FAMILY MAGAZINE

III. THE NEW GENERATION

THE YOUNG ROMANTICS PURITANS ALL THE OLDER GENERATION A LITERATURE OF PROTEST BARBARIANS A LA MODE

IV. THE REVIEWING OF BOOKS

A PROSPECTUS FOR CRITICISM THE RACE OF REVIEWERS THE SINS OF REVIEWING MRS. WHARTON'S "THE AGE OF INNOCENCE" MR. HERGESHEIMER'S "CYTHEREA"

V. PHILISTINES AND DILETTANTE

POETRY FOR THE UNPOETICAL EYE, EAR, AND MIND OUT WITH THE DILETTANTE FLAT PROSE

VI. MEN AND THEIR BOOKS

CONRAD AND MELVILLE THE NOVELIST OF PITY HENRY JAMES THE SATIRIC RAGE OF BUTLER

CONCLUSION

DEFINING THE INDEFINABLE

I

ON FICTION

SENTIMENTAL AMERICA

The Oriental may be inscrutable, but he is no more puzzling than the average American. We admit that we are hard, keen, practical, --the adjectives that every casual European applies to us,--and yet any book-store window or railway news-stand will show that we prefer sentimental magazines and books. Why should a hard race--if we are hard--read soft books?

By soft books, by sentimental books, I do not mean only the kind of literature best described by the word "squashy." I doubt whether we write or read more novels and short stories of the tear-dripped or hyper-emotional variety than other nations. Germany is--or was--full of such soft stuff. It is highly popular in France, although the excellent taste of French criticism keeps it in check. Italian popular literature exudes sentiment; and the sale of "squashy" fiction in England is said to be threatened only by an occasional importation of an American "best-seller." We have no bad eminence here. Sentimentalists with enlarged hearts are international in habitat, although, it must be admitted, especially popular in America.

When a critic, after a course in American novels and magazines, declares that life, as it appears on the printed page here, is fundamentally sentimentalized, he goes much deeper than "mushiness" with his charge. He means, I think, that there is an alarming tendency in American fiction to dodge the facts of life-- or to pervert them. He means that in most popular books only red- blooded, optimistic people are welcome. He means that material success, physical soundness, and the gratification of the emotions have the right of way. He means that men and women (except the comic figures) shall be presented, not as they are, but as we should like to have them, according to a judgment tempered by nothing more searching than our experience with an unusually comfortable, safe, and prosperous mode of living. Every one succeeds in American plays and stories--if not by good thinking, why then by good looks or good luck. A curious society the research student of a later date might make of it--an upper world of the colorless successful, illustrated by chance-saved collar advertisements and magazine covers; an underworld of grotesque scamps, clowns, and hyphenates drawn from the comic supplement; and all--red-blooded hero and modern gargoyle alike--always in good humor.

I am not touching in this picture merely to attack it. It has been abundantly attacked; what it needs is definition. For there is much in this bourgeois, good-humored American literature of ours which rings true, which is as honest an expression of our individuality as was the more austere product of antebellum New England. If American sentimentality does invite criticism, American sentiment deserves defense.

Sentiment--the response of the emotions to the appeal of human nature--is cheap, but so are many other good things. The best of the ancients were rich in it. Homer's chieftains wept easily. So did Shakespeare's heroes. Adam and Eve shed "some natural tears" when they left the Paradise which Milton imagined for them. A heart accessible to pathos, to natural beauty, to religion, was a chief requisite for the protagonist of Victorian literature. Even Becky Sharp was touched--once--by Amelia's moving distress.

Americans, to be sure, do not weep easily; but if they make equivalent responses to sentiment, that should not be held against them. If we like "sweet" stories, or "strong"--which means emotional--stories, our taste is not thereby proved to be hopeless, or our national character bad. It is better to be creatures of even sentimental sentiment with the author of "The Rosary," than to see the world _only_ as it is portrayed by the pens of Bernard Shaw and Anatole France. The first is deplorable; the second is dangerous. I should deeply regret the day when a simple story of honest American manhood winning a million and a sparkling, piquant sweetheart lost all power to lull my critical faculty and warm my heart. I doubt whether any literature has ever had too much of honest sentiment.


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