« PreviousContinue »
mean thing to be a successful novelist. character. But when all bas been And so in truth it is, when the suc- said, this kind of literature remains cess is obtained by coarse and crude hole-and-corner literature, and it is useeffects which pander to a mean taste less to complain because the great puband lend themselves to cheap adver- lic, which is concerned with the typical tisement. But it is precisely the human case and with the broad and disaster of this superfine assumption simple emotions that are common to that it leaves the field clear for these high and humble, remains untouched coarse practitioners, while the better by it. class of writers go burrowing in the . . . . . . . boles and corners. There are, I be. It is impossible to read the biographies lieve, about four hundred new novels of the greater literary men of the last published every publishing season in century without being struck with their London. Speaking roughly, 40 per epormous energy and fertility. These cent. of these are worth some kind of qualities also appear to be on the wane. consideration, the rest being published in these days we hear but seldom for reasons which, I suppose, are well from authors who have made their understood by publisher and author, reputation. They produce a masterbut are quite unintelligible to the piece, as friendly critics describe it, critic and the public. The 40 per cent. and then retire for a considerable may generally be divided into two period to ponder over the next. At inclasses. The first and larger class are tervals we hear of the physical exerdeliberate attempts by people more or cises which they impose upon themless clever-but attempts which have selves in order to sustain this labor, nothing to do with literature-to hit of the exhaustion which supervenes a supposed popular demand for amuse- when they write more than a limited ment and sensation. They are for the number of words a day, and of the long most part quite harmless, and, judged periods of incubation in which they do as efforts to entertain, they call for no nothing but think. And then, if they censure. The remainder and much the produce their books, at intervals of, let smaller portion are by writers who ob- us say, less than eighteen months, they viously have taste and literary skill are solemnly taken to task by the critand who challenge a literary judgment. ics and warned that they may weary But almost invariably these skilful the public and spoil their market by writers devote themselves to the bard what is called over-production. Can cases of life-to erratic people with one imagine any of the more powerful morbid tendencies who become in mid-Victorians submitting to these convolved in far-fetched and improbable ditions? Here, taken almost at random complications. An astonishing degree from one of the admirable biographical of subtlety is displayed in unravelling chapters which Mr. E. T. Cook is writthese tangled skeins, and the critics ing for the new edition of Ruskin's lift up their hands at the skill and deli- works, is a description of the kind of cacy of the performance. One need life that that great writer lived. Mr. by no means say that there is not a ('ook is speaking of the years from place for literature of this kind or that 1870 to 1878: it may not justly be praised for its
He delivered eleven courses of lecexquisiteness, when it is exquisitely
tures at Oxford. He wrote guide accomplished. Let us admit to the full books. He published at various interthat there is one kind of excellence vals portions of works on botany, on which must always be of this superfine geology, and on drawing. He started
LIVING AGE. VOL. XXXV. 183
a library of standard literature. He you ask them to speak on any burning arranged an Art collection at Oxford, question of the day, they reply that contributing to it some hundreds of this is not in their department, and his own drawings-a large number of
that they must reserve themselves for them måde for the purpose--and writing several explanatory catalogues.
their own piece of research, or their He founded a museum at Sheffield. own chosen accomplishment. Mr. He engaged in several social experi- Wells is almost alone among the ments; the better sweeping of the younger writers in venturing to be streets in St. Giles', and the sale of
both a writer of fiction and a writer tea at a fair price, were not too trivial
of books dealing with things as they for his effort, nor the reformation of England, through a companionship of
are. Thus for writers who made the St. George, too large. He wrote in whole of life their province, we have cessantly to the newspapers on topics writers who deliberately confine themof the day, and all the while he poured selves to one province and make it forth, at monthly intervals, that provincial. Hence the singular lack in strange and passionate medley of in
these days of the powerful and disformation, controversy, homily, remi.
cursive kind of literature with which niscence, and prophecy, which he entitled Fors Clavigera. These tasks
the eminent men of a previous generawere undertaken, not one thing at a tion appealed to the public on an imtime, but often all at the same time. mense variety of subjects. "Head too full," he wrote in his diary The change is in brief from an (12th February, 1872), “and don't
ethical to an artistic atmosphere. know which to write first." 3
From Byron to Matthew Arnold, every
body preached and everybody generCarlyle, Froude, Newman in his alized. Tremendous battles were younger days, Goldwin Smith, Huxley, fought over the eternities and immensiTyndall, Matthew Arnold, all in their ties, and the everlasting ayes and nays. various degrees display this same in- Bagehot and Mill philosophized about satiable energy and versatility. Some politics; Carlyle, Emerson, Ruskin, thing not themselves seems to have Matthew Arnold, preached without compelled them to speak, whether the ceasing, and even scolded and threatpublic would listen or not, on all sub- ened: Mazzini rhapsodized about dejects, human or divine, often in com- mocracy. No one was bored, no one plete innocence of expert knowledge, doubted that the questions at issue but with a fine reckless self-assertion were enormously important; every one which woke a splendid echo in the took for granted that it was the busicrowd. “I confess," says Carlyle, “I ness of the writer to moralize and to have no notion of a truly great man preach. The objection so often raised that could not be all sorts of men. in these days that Thackeray, George The poet who could merely sit on a Eliot or Tennyson are too didactic is chair and compose stanzas would never certainly not a common contemporary make a stanza worth much.” That criticism. The idea that their business was the real working creed of Carlyle was primarily with the art of writing, and his contemporaries. To-day our and that the art should be pursued for distinguished writers are nearly all the art's sake, belongs to quite the end specialists-specialists in fiction, spe of the last century. The result of this cialists in economics, specialists in ethical atmosphere was an authoritaphilosophy, specialists in style--and if tive tone which has quite gone out of 3 Introduction by E. T. Cook, “The Works
recent writing. It is really almost inof John Ruskin," vol. xx. p. xvii.
credible to us in these days that
"Modern Painters" should have been conflict between mystic and rationalthe work of an unknown young man ist, and the modern audience was proof twenty-seven. What young man in foundly stirred and interested by it. our time would have the courage, even Newman, with his rare genius, gave it he had the genius, to write thus? the argument a vast sweep which And what would the clever critics say made it embrace the whole of life. It if he did, or if even he adopted the was not as priest or theologian or Rostern and impressive manner of Mr, manist that Newman made his appeal, John Morley's Essay on Compromise, but as a man penetrated with the mys. written at the age of thirty-two? tery of man's existence, brooding over Young men in these days are expected it, groping for its meaning and clue. to be clever and cynical, and permitted Here was the true note of catholicity; to show a high degree of literary skill, and the religious teacher who speaks but we do not encourage them to lay thus, speaks to every man and for down the law to their elders or to mor- every man. When we have put aside alize about things in general.
all that is controversial in Newman's This absence of an authoritative writings--all that concerned his relageneral literature is nowhere more felt tions to the Oxford movement or the than in the sphere of religion. One Roman Church-we can hardly overhears on all hands about the Higher estimate what this great writer did to Criticism of the Bible and the learned keep alive the religious spirit in this work which is being done by accom- country during the last century. And plished scholars, and the new meanings it is precisely this influence that we which they are finding for old things. lack in these days, the influence of a Immensely important and interesting great spirit dealing always with the work it is, beyond doubt, and let those greatest of subjects. who are qualified for it pursue it with Or take another man, outwardly at all possible diligence. But it is the opposite pole of thought, John Stuscholarship and not religion which is art Mill, whose name stands for the here in question, and scholarship, how. utilitarian view of life. The label, one ever profound, will not fill the place feels, is of no consequence compared of religion, though it may supply the with the fact that he too is fundabackground of knowledge and learning mentally of the same serious temperawhich the religious teacher needs, if ment as the great religious teacher just he is not to offend the educated intel- mentioned. Mill's Autobiography and ligence. The religious controversies of Newman's Apologia may be read side fifty years ago may seem trivial and by side as one might read the record embittered, if one looks back on them of two travellers on the same quest. in cold blood and forgets the emotions They represent between them the two that they kindled at the time. Yet most definitely opposed types of intelthere is no doubt of the serious reality lect; they have in common that inexof them to enormous numbers of peo- haustible curiosity of soul which looks ple. The battles about the apostolic beyond things to the interpretation of succession and the nature of the Sac- things, beyond the daily comings and raments were carried on by men who goings of men to their distant goal. believed the things at stake to be the motto which Newman chose for fundamental, and who made their himself, er umbris et imaginibus in arguments a real conflict of the oppos- veritatem, might in its truest sense ing types of human temperament. have been Mill's also. Early in his Here in a new form was the ancient Autobiography he tells us that he put to himself the question, “Suppose that all sarily depress the standard of whut is your objects in life were realized; that offered them to read. And thus it is all the changes in institutions and supposed to be impossible for good opinions which you are looking for writers to hold their own against the ward to could be completely effected immense quantity of rubbishy literaat this present instance, would this be ture which undoubtedly is thrown upon a great joy and happiness to you?" the market in these days. It might alAnd an irrepressible self-consciousness most as well be argued that good distinctly answered “No!" At this, he speaking, good preaching, or good goes on, "my heart sank within me; the conversation, are impossible because whole foundation on which my life was every one knows how to talk and can constructed fell down. All my hap- understand when he is spoken to in piness was to have been found in the some fashion. Of course it is true that continual pursuit of this end. The end large numbers of people, who would had ceased to charm, and how could not have read at all, entertain tbemthere ever again be any interest in the selves by reading all manner of things means? I seemed to have nothing left which have nothing to do with literato live for.” It would take too long ture—the odds, the starting prices, the to recall here how Mill found solace in penny novelettes, the shilling shocker, this mood, and how he finally emerged and so forth. Reading of this kind may from the melancholy which it caused be harmless or the reverse, just as eathim; but to the end of his life and ing or smoking or any other forin of through all his writings we are aware human activity. Nothing can be said of the unanswered question giving about it in general terms. The printed depth and intensity to all his specula- page, thus used, is one means among tions. What modern writers can be many of getting contact with life, and said to fill the place of either of these life is of all sorts. But literary people men? To ask this question is not to surely flatter themselves far too louch disparage the younger generation of when they attribute their own failure writers or to question their ability. to influence the public to the supposed This is evident and abundant. But debasing competition of this popular they succumb too easily to the critical reading. There is probably no boy (or tyranny which would make artists of girl) with the beginnings of a literary them instead of preachers and proph- sense who was ever turned away from ets, and which, in so doing, cuts them good literature by the mere mass of off from contact with the simpler and the printed matter which is within his deeper things of life.
reach, and there are thousands who
have been led on to something that It is commonly said that Board may be called serious reading by the schools and a cheap press have be. cheap periodicals that are now in tween them unfitted the mass of peo- vogue. Exceptions there are, of course, ple for the reading of good books. We but the popular magazines of to-day are asked to observe the contrast be- are out of all proportion better than the tween the old days when the best of corresponding publications of twenty writers appealed to a small but select and thirty years ago; and the idea which audience, and these times when medic obtains among some writers of books ocre writers pander to the illiteracy of that the public taste is being dethe many. Hence the inference is bauched by them is, I believe, almost drawn that the extension of the num- wholly groundless. May we not rather bers of those who can read must neces say that some of the literary people
are apt to think far too ill of this pub- reading of them. Manifestly, with our lic? Half of them write down to it, immense output, we have comparaand the other half write over it, all tively few works of the first class, and of them despising it either way. The the great mass of the reading public result is that we have two products is getting little or no moral sustenance equally artificial-the literature of the from modern writers. This is a great under-educated, and the literature of loss for which we can scarcely console the over-educated-the first produced ourselves by flying to the classics. by writers who exploit and thereby Every generation needs living writers create a vulgar taste, the second by to interpret the present, and even to writers who pride themselves on ap re-interpret the past in the light of the pealing to a few refined persons and present. Another Gibbon living now deliberately choose what is remote and would write a different history of "The complicated. And yet the field of the Decline and Fall ofthe Roman Emreally great writers lies broad and pire," not merely because research has shining between these two extremes, brought new facts to light, but because and on it is ample scope for all works the point of view has shifted and bethat are at once simple and profound. cause the experience of the nineteenth
The writers who complain that the century has greatly enlarged the range great public turns away from them and interest of the problems of Emshould ask themselves whether there pire. There is no magic by which we is in truth any reason why average, can command a new Gibbon, or even simple, serious people the kind of peo- a second Froude, but we can set our ple who read and are touched by the faces against the mechanical view of Bible, by Shakespeare, Milton, Words history, which seems to be gaining worth-should trouble themselves to ground, and which, if it prevails, would read their works? What of the kind hand the whole subject over to of sustenance they want is to be drawn archæologists and record-searchers. from the rarified studies of matri- And so throughout the range of literamonial unhappiness, sexual indulgence, ture. We cannot invent a new Ruskin and morbid casuistry, which form so or a new Carlyle, but we can resolutely large a part of the more accomplished oppose the literary tyranny which, if a fiction of to-day? Why should they new Ruskin or a new Carlyle appeared, bother themselves about clever para- would prevent them from raising their doxes which present the world inside heads. Nor need we be browbeaten out and make mock of their sentiments by the little masters who impoverish and instincts, when they know in their the idea of literature by making it a hearts that some literary gentleman is thing of words appealing to the diletmerely posturing before them? And tante, and shut off from the mass of what encouragement is there for them men and women. Our writers should to interest themselves in art or poetry be encouraged to live less in the study when it is openly laid down that noth- and more among men, to be less careing can be of the highest merit which ful of their reputations and more prodiis not beyond their reach?
gal of their gifts. The public, I beObservations of this kind can lead lieve, is ripe for a richer and fuller to no definite conclusion. Yet in these kind of literature than we have had in days, when nothing is talked about but recent years; and we shall hasten its the different ways of selling books, it coming, if we can banish the idea that may be worth while to think a little popularity is necessarily a mean art about the writing of books and the to be eschewed by good writers, and