Page images
PDF
EPUB
[graphic][subsumed]

WE'LL GO NO MORE A-ROVING:Any book-reviewer toughened to his trade has to marvel at the bright faces and lifted foreheads with which apprentices take it up. I have talked with those among them who were almost desperate with willingness to try the job. They seemed to regard book-reviewing as the natural spring-board into literature. Perhaps it is, but it is a spring-board which comes in time to lose most of its elasticity under accustomed feet and to become water-logged and lifeless. Therefrom results that curse of the trade, the formal review, with stereotyped structure and language and opinions, and, worse than all, without the eager vitality which marks the few good reviews that are ever written. Everybody who knows a reviewer has heard him talk excitedly about some book or other, and then has found that the man's review sounded as if he had lost his voice and had to let a machine do his talking for him. This is the case with the best reviewers. And the honest ones know it. Sooner or later, they all stop reviewing; at least, stop reviewing books in general. The advantage is, of course, that new writers are thus admitted to the trade. The disadvantage is that some of the older reviewers do

not notice what has happened to them and go on pouring chloroform into print. Every one of them who has a chance should take a whiff of his own medicine and allow it to have its way with him. I have the chance. I therefore now adjust the mask to my willing face and announce that the Roving Critic is only history, and very little of that.

During my final gasps, however, so strong are my habits, I want to speak of three American books which have made my spring a cheerful

season.

239

SO THIS IS AMERICA:-First, there is "The Rise of American Civilization" (Macmillan), by Charles A. and Mary R. Beard. Ever since I heard of this book, some months ago, and saw the proofs of the opening chapter, I have looked forward to its appearance with an enthusiasm tempered only by respect for the task which the authors had set themselves. That was, anybody who knew anything about the Beards could be sure, to hunt out and explain the motives among Americans which have driven them to take the various courses which have resulted in their special civilization; and also to exhibit American civilization, with

all its thunder and verve, in a way which would show that life in America has always been more varied than its few primary motives would make it if they stood alone. There were, indeed, persons with whom I talked who were afraid that this new work would interpret the history of the United States too narrowly. They remembered that Mr. Beard had looked up the economic interests of the men who made the Constitution and had hinted that, if those men were men at all, they had probably not altogether forgotten their own interests in safeguarding those of the country. I had never been shocked by those earlier studies of Mr. Beard, but I did remember that there had been a certain dryness in the method which I thought would not go well with a general history of a nation which cannot be written about truthfully unless there is something fullbodied in the history.

A glance at the two volumes when they reached me showed that this was as full-bodied a history as anybody could want unless he wanted mythology as well. Though bulky, it is rapid. My guess is that Mr. Beard himself did the actual writing of most, if not all, of the narrative. It is, however, a new Beard who writes; a Beard who, having written argumentative documentary history and historical text-books, has put all such pedestrianism behind him and has let himself out, as he has occasionally done in his less formal writings. Still better, the book suggests, on nearly every page, the sound of Mr. Beard's voice, speaking with the knowledge and energy and leaping irony which made him one of the great teachers of his time, and make

are

him, in any company, the fear of fools and the delight of intelligent persons. Yet the new book is not at all a mere series of explosions. It is a chronicle superbly organized, admirably proportioned, and scrupulously written. Its heresies magnanimous. And unlike many heretical books, it takes account of a great diversity of human attitudes. Much consultation has gone into it. This is the only general history of the United States known to me which seems to be aware at every step that Americans have been women as well as men. Furthermore, while emphasizing the realistic motives which have guided Americans in general, it finds time to analyze, with an abundance of sympathy, the romantic aspirations which have given American civilization its color as the realistic ones have given it its shape. Nothing that has actually happened in America is neglected, only the things which are merely pretended to have happened.

I have never been able quite to make out why the writing of history so often falls into the hands of those who insist that the record must be melodramatic to be interesting. At one time or another I have thought different things. But the Beards have put into my head the thought that perhaps there is no greater mystery about the matter than this: that the people with the best gift for reality are absorbed in making history, not in writing it, and that consequently history is ordinarily written by people who, having made little of it, marvel at it rather than explain it. This is where literature, particularly the dramatic element in literature, comes in. Events are

lifted out of their proper setting and stripped of their natural simplicity. For most readers this appears to be enough, for they know very little about history and are satisfied with literary versions of it. And even the people with a gift for reality are not at their best when face to face with literature. They yield to its charm, and somehow believe it, even when it represents human beings as behaving in a fashion which, in actual life, would be regarded by sensible observers as sheer histrionics for the gallery.

The Beards, while historians, have the gift for reality which commonly goes with other occupations. The result is that in reading "The Rise of American Civilization" I never once found that I had got up into that easy region in which a reader travels along with what may be called the literary momentum without any particular reference to disobliging facts. On the contrary, I found myself, through all these pages, steadily held down to what I believe to be the world in which men truly live. If, approaching some familiar episode in American history, I started off ahead of my historians along the path which I supposed they would take, I was often pulled back. And each time I realized that I still had certain conventional notions about the motives for colonization or the processes of the Revolution or the details of the expansion westward or the issues involved in the Civil War or the methods of industrial expansion or the secrets of imperialism. On nearly every point I was thoroughly convinced by the arguments brought forward. Reading the Beards after, say, Bancroft is a good

deal like reading Tolstoy after Fenimore Cooper.

Of course Bancroft has long been dispossessed by historians less given. than he to heroics. The Beards must really be compared with the later writers, many of them followers of Mr. Beard, who have dug into special phases of American history with critical eyes. Yet here too the Beards easily survive the comparison. They have made due use of all such monographs and have absorbed them. But beyond that, they have put life into their materials by fitting them to a general pattern and then unfolding it with a fine sweep and eloquence. Unavoidably they must be compared with the H. G. Wells of "The Outline of History." They have indeed a smaller topic, and they start with a less brilliant rush than Mr. Wells's. But in other respects I think they have beaten him at this game.

[ocr errors]

BEHIND LITERATURE:-Along with "The Rise of American Civilization" comes another learned but exciting work, "Main Currents in American Thought" (Harcourt, Brace), by Vernon Louis Parrington, which should make the author notable at once. He has, it is true, been noteworthy, but few have known about his activities. I have myself known about this book for more than a dozen. years, and ten years ago I had a hand in publishing an abridged version of part of it. Season after season I have vainly hoped that some publisher would have the courage to bring it out. It has been lamentably delayed; but Mr. Parrington, a professor at the University of Washing

ton, has apparently kept busy with it, for the third volume, to be published later, will bring the record down to 1920. The publication of the first two, of which the subtitles are "The Colonial Mind" and "The Romantic Revolution in America," ought to be regarded as an event in the history of American criticism.

I believe that Mr. Parrington originally planned to call his work "The Development of Democracy in American Literature." If this is true, he must then have thought of it as only another monograph on a special phase of American culture. Fifteen or twenty years ago this was the form in which the idea would have occurred to almost any scholar. Democracy was then a more popular topic than it has become, and the history of literature seemed a more distinct field than it is now generally held to be. At present, however, At present, however, that earlier title has a slightly archaic sound. And I imagine that the book itself has become, during the past decade, something more extensive than it was at first intended to be. Nor does this apply alone to the expected third volume, to be called "The Beginnings of Critical Realism in America." All three volumes must have been enlarged in scope to make this history of American opinion cover so much ground the very existence of which was clear to few observers when Mr. Parrington began his labors.

The credit which belongs to Mr. Parrington, however, should not be given to the mere fact that time has passed and some things have changed. From the first he plainly had a spacious and enlightened plan. His aim was, studying the national

literature, to look behind it to the national moods and the national doctrines to which it gave voice. While he has gone primarily to American literature for his evidence as to how men were feeling and thinking at any given moment in the history of the nation, he has regularly tested the poets and orators and story-tellers and commentators by a hawk-like examination of the actual conditions which they portrayed or discussed and of the particular bias with which this or that author viewed his themes. Moreover, Mr. Parrington has chosen to concern. himself with the most representative figures, to the extent of not even mentioning John Woolman, to take one illustration, and of giving Poe but a brief mention as an isolated figure. The total effect is therefore strikingly novel. The country of the American mind has been remapped.

Readers not interested in the history of literature will find Mr. Parrington's treatment perhaps more detailed than they have expected with reference to many individual authors. In this sense, “Main Currents in American Thought" still carries the burden of specialization with which it set out. This burden is less heavy than it may seem. All the individual authors are drawn into the general stream, and all are studied by a mind never subdued to narrow views. The whole world of the Puritan is reconstructed from the fragmentary records which are to be found in Puritan books, and the obsolete jargon of the age is translated into more or less universal terms. In the same fashion the Revolutionary generation is anato

mized, and the distinctive elements in the South and East and West which, after differences of opinion leading to civil war, grew into a sort of uniformity about 1860. Specialization ceases to have its customary disadvantages when it is employed in the service of so general an idea.

There has lately been a great deal of demand for a synthesis of American civilization which might give Americans some notion of what they had done and in what direction they were going. Happily no synthesis of a living civilization is ever more than a thing to be hoped for, but the Beard and Parrington books should go a good way toward satisfying that hope for some time to come.

219

LITERATURE:-I suppose that most critics who have paid much attention to literary history are in danger of laying too much stress upon what in literature is known as immortality. That is, they tend to value masterpieces which survive to subsequent generations, and to undervalue those which, having done their work, go back to their first elements. As a matter of fact, I do not see precisely how the merits of present usefulness and future attractiveness can be measured. Masterpieces have had a short life, as men have had; trash has survived. A book survives its age, I should say, only because it has the special quality of survival. I do not feel sure that that is invariably a sign of superiority. There are qualities which are not essentially merits, but simply qualities.

Nevertheless I cannot help taking a little satisfaction from my belief that fifty or a hundred years from

now the year 1927 will be remembered in the history of American literature not by either of the useful learned works which I have so far discussed, but by Edwin Arlington Robinson's "Tristram" (Macmillan). I do not, indeed, think that its survival quality is its chief quality. While I believe it will survive, I believe it will carry with it the virtues of elevation, melodiousness, passion, and wisdom which will make its survival genuinely important to other ages.

What business, it has already been asked, has an American poet of the twentieth century to go back to heathen England and to retell a story which has been told over and over by many poets in many languages? The question need not be seriously answered. Poetry has always gone wherever it wanted to go for its subjects, and it always will, just as a man will love the woman he loves, and not some other woman who may be recommended to him by the best authorities. Mr. Robinson is to be judged only by what he has produced, not by what he might have been asked to produce in accordance with some other scheme of criticism.

In any case, he only seems to have borrowed his material. His hero is called Tristram, like the ancient tragic hero, and he too is sent to bring Isolt of Ireland home to be the bride of King Mark of Cornwall; he too falls in love with her, as she does with him, and is so lost in that love that his loyalty to the king cannot prevail against it; he too is banished from the court on account of his love, goes to Brittany and marries another Isolt, and eventually dies of his first love. But only in this outline is Mr.

« PreviousContinue »