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- Definitions - 38/38 -

in the United States, where the formal teaching of English literature _per se_ began, where, as nowhere else in the world, there was a great and growing population eager to become literate and with no literary traditions behind it. The student from a bookless home learned to think of his literature as primarily something to be studied; the teacher who had to teach thousands like him was forced to reduce living literature to dead categories in order that a little of it at least should be taught. Thousands of Americans, therefore, of our generation emerged from their training with a set of literary definitions which they assumed to be true and supposed to be culture. Only true definitions of what literature really is can break up such fossilized defining.

On the other hand, that large proportion of our best reading population which is not native in its traditions offers a different but equally important problem. How can the son of a Russian Jew, whose father lived in a Russian town, who himself has been brought up in clamorous New York, understand Thoreau, let us say, or John Muir, or Burroughs, or Willa Cather, without some defining of the nature of the American environment and the relation between thought and the soil? How is an intelligent German-American, whose cultural tradition has been thoroughly Teutonic, to make himself at home in a literature whose general character, like its language, is English, without some defining of the Anglo-American tradition? Lincoln must be defined for him; Milton must be defined for him; most of all perhaps Franklin must be defined for him. I have chosen elementary examples, but my meaning should be sufficiently clear.

And the American critic--by which I mean you, O discriminating reader, as well as the professional who puts pen to paper--is equally in need of the art of definition. The books we read and write are on different planes of absolute excellence or unworthiness. There is--to take the novel--the story well calculated to pass a pleasant hour but able to pass nothing else; there is the story with a good idea in it and worth reading for the idea only; there is the story worthless as art but usefully catching some current phase of experience; and there is the fine novel which will stand any test for insight, skill, and truth. Now it is folly to apply a single standard to all these types of story. It can be done, naturally, but it accomplishes nothing except to eliminate all but the shining best. That is a task for history. In the year in which we live--and it is sometimes necessary to remind the austerer critic that we always live in the present--there are a hundred books, of poetry, of essays, of biography, of fiction, which are by no means of the first rank and yet are highly important, if only as news of what the world, in our present, is thinking and feeling. They cannot be judged, all of them, on the top plane of perfect excellence; and if we judge them all on any other plane, good, better, best get inextricably mixed.

For example, consider once more a novel which at the moment of this writing is a best-seller, and which with reference to its popularity I have discussed in an earlier essay. I mean Mr. Hutchinson's "If Winter Comes." This book is essentially the tragedy of a good and honest soul thrown by harsh circumstance into an environment which is bound to crush him. He has the wrong wife, he has the wrong business associates, the girl he loves is separated from him by moral barriers. If he breaks through these he injures irreparably his own sense of what is due to his God and his fellow man. His instincts of charity, humor, and love rebound upon him. He is too Christian for England, and too guileless for life. This is a worthy theme, and yet if we judge this novel on the highest plane it fails miserably. For Mr. Hutchinson stacks the cards. He gives his hero his way and his salvation, after much suffering, by a series of lucky accidents. He destroys the problem he creates, by forging an answer.

But this novel should not be finally judged on the highest plane. It is not a tragedy, it is a romance. It belongs on the plane below, the plane of stories told to meet the secret desires of humanity, which have little to do with reality, and are quite oblivious to fact. On this plane "If Winter Comes" ranks highly, for it is poignantly told, there is life in its characters, and truth in the best of its scenes. Definition saves us from calling a good novel great; it spares us the unnecessary error of calling a good and readable story bad because it is not a triumph of consistent art.

It is hard enough in all conscience to see that a given book is good for _this_ but not good for _that;_ may be praised for its plot, but certainly has not character enough to get long life. But when the difficulty of adjusting standards is increased by the irresponsible hullabaloo of commercial appreciation, no wonder that sensible people estimate foolishly, and critics of standing are induced to write for publication remarks that some day will (or should) make them sick. For the publishers' "blurb" confuses all standards. Every book is superlative in everything. And the hack reviewer, when he likes a book, likes everything and applies Shakespearian adjectives and Tolstoyan attributes to creatures of dust and tinsel, or blunders helplessly into dispraise of scholarship, restraint, subtlety, taste, originality--anything that he does not understand.

There is no help except to set books upon their planes and assort them into their categories--which is merely to define them before beginning to criticize. This is elementary work as I have said, which may lead the critic only so far as the threshold, and cannot always give the reader that complete and sympathetic comprehension of what he has read which is the final object of literary criticism. However, in an age when overemphasis has been commercialized, and where the powerful forces of print can be mobilized and sent charging everywhere to bowl down contrary opinions, it is indispensable.

Scholarly books have been dispraised because they were not exciting; fine novels have been sneered at because they were hard to read; cheap stories have been proclaimed great because they wore a pretense of seriousness; sentimentality has been welcomed because it was warm hearted; indecency has been condemned for immorality; immorality has slipped through as romance; daring has been mistaken for novelty; painstaking dulness, for careful art; self-revelation, for world knowledge; pretty writing, for literature; violence, for strength; and warped and unhealthy egoism for the wise sincerity which is the soul of literature. In all such instances definition is the prophylactic, and often the cure.

Writers, most of all, need to define their tasks. I do not mean their technical problems merely, although I cannot conceive that a dramatist or playwright, who has his subject well in mind, can possibly be hurt by thinking out his methods with the most scrupulous care. Lubbock's recent book on "The Craft of Fiction" has emphasized an art of approach and point of view in the great novelists which was thoroughly conscious, even though they may never have tried to formulate it in words. I mean particularly the defining of their themes, their objectives. Many modern novels of the better class, and a great many modern poems, seem to me awash and wallowing like derelicts on the high seas. They are successful enough in this, excellent in that, but they get nowhere, because the writers had felt the emotion that made them, or suffered the experience, but never defined it in terms of all emotion, all experience, never considered its end. The three dots...of modern literature are significant. We break off our efforts, partly no doubt because we seek effects of impressionism, more often because imagination went no further. Near things are sharp and expressed with remarkable vividness, ultimate objectives are blurred, which is to say, they lack definition.

May the shades of Dr. Johnson, Charles Lamb, Emerson, and all great individualists protect us from bad definitions, and especially from rigid or formal ones! Bad definitions destroy themselves, for if they are thoroughly bad no one believes them, and if they contain those pleasing half truths which a generation loves to suckle upon, why then after their vogue they will wither into nothingness. Such definitions are of the letter, and die by it, but stiff, clumsy definitions kill the spirit. To define a great man by a rigid formula is to sink to the lowest practice of the worst class rooms. To define a tendency so sharply that it cannot flow without breaking the definition, is a lecturer's trick for which audiences should stone him. Solemn generalizations which squat upon a book like an ostrich on a goose egg and hatch out vast moral philosophies are to be dreaded like the devil, as are, equally, the critics with pet theories, who, having defined them, make everything from a squib to an epic fit their definition.

Definitions which classify without margins are a special evil: the division into literature and journalism for example, with no allowance for interlocking; or the confident separation of all books into categories of good or bad. Wholesale definitions are also objectionable, where having defined a poem as magazine verse, or a collection of articles as a magazine, or a book as a sex story, or a man as a journalist, or a tendency as erratic or erotic, you think you have said something. May the muse of clear thinking, and the little humorous gods who keep the sense of proportion balancing, protect us from these also.

It occurs to me that I have made but a lame attempt to define definition. This, however, is as it should be. For definition, in the sense in which I am using it, like literature, has much of the indefinable. It is a tool merely, or better still, because broader, a device by which the things we enjoy and that profit us may be placed in perspective, ranged, compared, sorted, and distinguished. It is what Arnold meant by seeing steadily and seeing whole. It is the scientist's microscope that defines relationship, and equally the painter's brush that by a touch reveals the hidden shapes of nature and the blend of colors. It is, like these instruments, a _means_ and not an _end._ May pedants, scholiasters, formalists, and dilettantes take to heart this final description of literary definition!

Quite unconsciously for the most part, but occasionally with purpose aforethought, the essays in this book have been written as literary definitions. Its unity lies in the attempt, which at least has been sincere, to grasp, turn, study in a serious, humorous, ironical, anything but a flippant mood, the living forms of literature as they have risen into consciousness and challenged definition.


Definitions - 38/38

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