Criticism and fiction, p.1
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       Criticism and Fiction, p.1

           William Dean Howells
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Criticism and Fiction


  Produced by David Widger

  CRITICISM AND FICTION

  By William Dean Howells

  The question of a final criterion for the appreciation of art is one thatperpetually recurs to those interested in any sort of aesthetic endeavor.Mr. John Addington Symonds, in a chapter of 'The Renaissance in Italy'treating of the Bolognese school of painting, which once had so greatcry, and was vaunted the supreme exemplar of the grand style, but whichhe now believes fallen into lasting contempt for its emptiness andsoullessness, seeks to determine whether there can be an enduringcriterion or not; and his conclusion is applicable to literature as tothe other arts. "Our hope," he says, "with regard to the unity of tastein the future then is, that all sentimental or academical seekings afterthe ideal having been abandoned, momentary theories founded uponidiosyncratic or temporary partialities exploded, and nothing acceptedbut what is solid and positive, the scientific spirit shall make menprogressively more and more conscious of these 'bleibende Verhaltnisse,'more and more capable of living in the whole; also, that in proportion aswe gain a firmer hold upon our own place in the world, we shall come tocomprehend with more instinctive certitude what is simple, natural, andhonest, welcoming with gladness all artistic products that exhibit thesequalities. The perception of the enlightened man will then be the taskof a healthy person who has made himself acquainted with the laws ofevolution in art and in society, and is able to test the excellence ofwork in any stage from immaturity to decadence by discerning what thereis of truth, sincerity, and natural vigor in it."

  I

  That is to say, as I understand, that moods and tastes and fashionschange; people fancy now this and now that; but what is unpretentious andwhat is true is always beautiful and good, and nothing else is so. Thisis not saying that fantastic and monstrous and artificial things do notplease; everybody knows that they do please immensely for a time, andthen, after the lapse of a much longer time, they have the charm of therococo. Nothing is more curious than the charm that fashion has.Fashion in women's dress, almost every fashion, is somehow delightful,else it would never have been the fashion; but if any one will lookthrough a collection of old fashion plates, he must own that mostfashions have been ugly. A few, which could be readily instanced, havebeen very pretty, and even beautiful, but it is doubtful if these havepleased the greatest number of people. The ugly delights as well as thebeautiful, and not merely because the ugly in fashion is associated withthe young loveliness of the women who wear the ugly fashions, and wins agrace from them, not because the vast majority of mankind are tasteless,but for some cause that is not perhaps ascertainable. It is quite aslikely to return in the fashions of our clothes and houses and furniture,and poetry and fiction and painting, as the beautiful, and it may be froman instinctive or a reasoned sense of this that some of the extremenaturalists have refused to make the old discrimination against it, or toregard the ugly as any less worthy of celebration in art than thebeautiful; some of them, in fact, seem to regard it as rather moreworthy, if anything. Possibly there is no absolutely ugly, no absolutelybeautiful; or possibly the ugly contains always an element of thebeautiful better adapted to the general appreciation than the moreperfectly beautiful. This is a somewhat discouraging conjecture, but Ioffer it for no more than it is worth; and I do not pin my faith to thesaying of one whom I heard denying, the other day, that a thing of beautywas a joy forever. He contended that Keats's line should have read,"Some things of beauty are sometimes joys forever," and that anyassertion beyond this was too hazardous.

  II

  I should, indeed, prefer another line of Keats's, if I were to professany formulated creed, and should feel much safer with his "Beauty isTruth, Truth Beauty," than even with my friend's reformation of the morequoted verse. It brings us back to the solid ground taken by Mr.Symonds, which is not essentially different from that taken in the greatMr. Burke's Essay on the Sublime and the Beautiful--a singularly modernbook, considering how long ago it was wrote (as the great Mr. Steelewould have written the participle a little longer ago), and full of acertain well-mannered and agreeable instruction. In some things it is ofthat droll little eighteenth-century world, when philosophy had got theneat little universe into the hollow of its hand, and knew just what itwas, and what it was for; but it is quite without arrogance. "As forthose called critics," the author says, "they have generally soughtthe rule of the arts in the wrong place; they have sought among poems,pictures, engravings, statues, and buildings; but art can never give therules that make an art. This is, I believe, the reason why artists ingeneral, and poets principally, have been confined in so narrow a circle;they have been rather imitators of one another than of nature. Criticsfollow them, and therefore can do little as guides. I can judge butpoorly of anything while I measure it by no other standard than itself.The true standard of the arts is in every man's power; and an easyobservation of the most common, sometimes of the meanest things, innature will give the truest lights, where the greatest sagacity andindustry that slights such observation must leave us in the dark, or,what is worse, amuse and mislead us by false lights."

  If this should happen to be true and it certainly commends itself toacceptance--it might portend an immediate danger to the vested interestsof criticism, only that it was written a hundred years ago; and we shallprobably have the "sagacity and industry that slights the observation" ofnature long enough yet to allow most critics the time to learn some moreuseful trade than criticism as they pursue it. Nevertheless, I am inhopes that the communistic era in taste foreshadowed by Burke isapproaching, and that it will occur within the lives of men now overawedby the foolish old superstition that literature and art are anything butthe expression of life, and are to be judged by any other test than thatof their fidelity to it. The time is coming, I hope, when each newauthor, each new artist, will be considered, not in his proportion to anyother author or artist, but in his relation to the human nature, known tous all, which it is his privilege, his high duty, to interpret. "Thetrue standard of the artist is in every man's power" already, as Burkesays; Michelangelo's "light of the piazza," the glance of the common eye,is and always was the best light on a statue; Goethe's "boys andblackbirds" have in all ages been the real connoisseurs of berries; buthitherto the mass of common men have been afraid to apply their ownsimplicity, naturalness, and honesty to the appreciation of thebeautiful. They have always cast about for the instruction of some onewho professed to know better, and who browbeat wholesome common-senseinto the self-distrust that ends in sophistication. They have fallengenerally to the worst of this bad species, and have been "amused andmisled" (how pretty that quaint old use of amuse is!) "by the falselights" of critical vanity and self-righteousness. They have been taughtto compare what they see and what they read, not with the things thatthey have observed and known, but with the things that some other artistor writer has done. Especially if they have themselves the artisticimpulse in any direction they are taught to form themselves, not uponlife, but upon the masters who became masters only by forming themselvesupon life. The seeds of death are planted in them, and they can produceonly the still-born, the academic. They are not told to take their workinto the public square and see if it seems true to the chance passer, butto test it by the work of the very men who refused and decried any othertest of their own work. The young writer who attempts to report thephrase and carriage of every-day life, who tries to tell just how he hasheard men talk and seen them look, is made to feel guilty of somethinglow and unworthy by people who would like to have him show howShakespeare's men talked and looked, or Scott's, or Thackeray's, orBalzac's, or Hawthorne's, or Dickens's; he is instructed to idealize hispersonages, that is, to take the life-likeness out of them, and put thebook-likeness into them. He is approached in the
spirit of the pedantryinto which learning, much or little, always decays when it withdrawsitself and stands apart from experience in an attitude of imaginedsuperiority, and which would say with the same confidence to thescientist: "I see that you are looking at a grasshopper there which youhave found in the grass, and I suppose you intend to describe it. Nowdon't waste your time and sin against culture in that way. I've got agrasshopper here, which has been evolved at considerable pains andexpense out of the grasshopper in general; in fact, it's a type. It'smade up of wire and card-board, very prettily painted in a conventionaltint, and it's perfectly indestructible. It isn't very much like a realgrasshopper, but it's a great deal nicer, and it's served to representthe notion of a grasshopper ever since man emerged from barbarism. Youmay say that it's artificial. Well, it is artificial; but then it'sideal too; and what you want to do is to cultivate the ideal. You'llfind the books full of my kind of grasshopper, and scarcely a trace ofyours in any of them. The thing that you are proposing to do iscommonplace; but if you say that it isn't commonplace, for the veryreason that it hasn't been done before, you'll have to admit that it'sphotographic."

  As I said, I hope the time is coming when not only the artist, but thecommon, average man, who always "has the standard of the arts in hispower," will have also the courage to apply it, and will reject the idealgrasshopper wherever he finds it, in science, in literature, in art,because it is not "simple, natural, and honest," because it is not like areal grasshopper. But I will own that I think the time is yet far off,and that the people who have been brought up on the ideal grasshopper,the heroic grasshopper, the impassioned grasshopper, the self-devoted,adventureful, good old romantic card-board grasshopper, must die outbefore the simple, honest, and natural grasshopper can have a fair field.I am in no haste to compass the end of these good people, whom I find inthe mean time very amusing. It is delightful to meet one of them, eitherin print or out of it--some sweet elderly lady or excellent gentlemanwhose youth was pastured on the literature of thirty or forty years ago--and to witness the confidence with which they preach their favoriteauthors as all the law and the prophets. They have commonly read littleor nothing since, or, if they have, they have judged it by a standardtaken from these authors, and never dreamed of judging it by nature; theyare destitute of the documents in the case of the later writers; theysuppose that Balzac was the beginning of realism, and that Zola is itswicked end; they are quite ignorant, but they are ready to talk you down,if you differ from them, with an assumption of knowledge sufficient forany occasion. The horror, the resentment, with which they receive anyquestion of their literary saints is genuine; you descend at once veryfar in the moral and social scale, and anything short of offensivepersonality is too good for you; it is expressed to you that you are oneto be avoided, and put down even a little lower than you have naturallyfallen.

  These worthy persons are not to blame; it is part of their intellectualmission to represent the petrifaction of taste, and to preserve an imageof a smaller and cruder and emptier world than we now live in, a worldwhich was feeling its way towards the simple, the natural, the honest,but was a good deal "amused and misled" by lights now no longermistakable for heavenly luminaries. They belong to a time, just passingaway, when certain authors were considered authorities in certain kinds,when they must be accepted entire and not questioned in any particular.Now we are beginning to see and to say that no author is an authorityexcept in those moments when he held his ear close to Nature's lips andcaught her very accent. These moments are not continuous with anyauthors in the past, and they are rare with all. Therefore I am notafraid to say now that the greatest classics are sometimes not at allgreat, and that we can profit by them only when we hold them, like ourmeanest contemporaries, to a strict accounting, and verify their work bythe standard of the arts which we all have in our power, the simple, thenatural, and the honest.

  Those good people must always have a hero, an idol of some sort, and itis droll to find Balzac, who suffered from their sort such bitter scornand hate for his realism while he was alive, now become a fetich in histurn, to be shaken in the faces of those who will not blindly worshiphim. But it is no new thing in the history of literature: whatever isestablished is sacred with those who do not think. At the beginning ofthe century, when romance was making the same fight against effeteclassicism which realism is making to-day against effete romanticism, theItalian poet Monti declared that "the romantic was the cold grave of theBeautiful," just as the realistic is now supposed to be. The romantic ofthat day and the real of this are in certain degree the same.Romanticism then sought, as realism seeks now, to widen the bounds ofsympathy, to level every barrier against aesthetic freedom, to escapefrom the paralysis of tradition. It exhausted itself in this impulse;and it remained for realism to assert that fidelity to experience andprobability of motive are essential conditions of a great imaginativeliterature. It is not a new theory, but it has never before universallycharacterized literary endeavor. When realism becomes false to itself,when it heaps up facts merely, and maps life instead of picturing it,realism will perish too. Every true realist instinctively knows this,and it is perhaps the reason why he is careful of every fact, and feelshimself bound to express or to indicate its meaning at the risk ofovermoralizing. In life he finds nothing insignificant; all tells fordestiny and character; nothing that God has made is contemptible. Hecannot look upon human life and declare this thing or that thing unworthyof notice, any more than the scientist can declare a fact of the materialworld beneath the dignity of his inquiry. He feels in every nerve theequality of things and the unity of men; his soul is exalted, not by vainshows and shadows and ideals, but by realities, in which alone the truthlives. In criticism it is his business to break the images of false godsand misshapen heroes, to take away the poor silly, toys that many grownpeople would still like to play with. He cannot keep terms with "Jackthe Giant-killer" or "Puss-in-Boots," under any name or in any place,even when they reappear as the convict Vautrec, or the Marquis deMontrivaut, or the Sworn Thirteen Noblemen. He must say to himself thatBalzac, when he imagined these monsters, was not Balzac, he was Dumas; hewas not realistic, he was romanticistic.

  III

  Such a critic will not respect Balzac's good work the less for contemninghis bad work. He will easily account for the bad work historically, andwhen he has recognized it, will trouble himself no further with it. Inhis view no living man is a type, but a character; now noble, nowignoble; now grand, now little; complex, full of vicissitude. He willnot expect Balzac to be always Balzac, and will be perhaps even moreattracted to the study of him when he was trying to be Balzac than whenhe had become so. In 'Cesar Birotteau,' for instance, he will beinterested to note how Balzac stood at the beginning of the great thingsthat have followed since in fiction. There is an interesting likenessbetween his work in this and Nicolas Gogol's in 'Dead Souls,' whichserves to illustrate the simultaneity of the literary movement in men ofsuch widely separated civilizations and conditions. Both represent theircharacters with the touch of exaggeration which typifies; but in bringinghis story to a close, Balzac employs a beneficence unknown to theRussian, and almost as universal and as apt as that which smiles upon thefortunes of the good in the Vicar of Wakefield. It is not enough to haverehabilitated Birotteau pecuniarily and socially; he must make him dietriumphantly, spectacularly, of an opportune hemorrhage, in the midst ofthe festivities which celebrate his restoration to his old home. Beforethis happens, human nature has been laid under contribution right andleft for acts of generosity towards the righteous bankrupt; even the kingsends him six thousand francs. It is very pretty; it is touching, andbrings the lump into the reader's throat; but it is too much, and oneperceives that Balzac lived too soon to profit by Balzac. The later men,especially the Russians, have known how to forbear the excesses ofanalysis, to withhold the weakly recurring descriptive and caressingepithets, to let the characters suffice for themselves. All this doesnot mean that 'Cesar Birotteau' is not a beautiful and pathetic story,full of
shrewdly considered knowledge of men, and of a good artstruggling to free itself from self-consciousness. But it does mean thatBalzac, when he wrote it, was under the burden of the very traditionswhich he has helped fiction to throw off. He felt obliged to construct amechanical plot, to surcharge his characters, to moralize openly andbaldly; he permitted himself to "sympathize" with certain of his people,and to point out others for the abhorrence of his readers. This is notso bad in him as it would be in a novelist of our day. It is simplyprimitive and inevitable, and he is not to be judged by it.

  IV

  In the beginning of any art even the most gifted worker must be crude inhis methods, and we ought to keep this fact always in mind when we turn,say, from the purblind worshippers of Scott to Scott himself, andrecognize that he often wrote a style cumbrous and diffuse; that he wastediously analytical where the modern novelist is dramatic, and evolvedhis characters by means of long-winded explanation and commentary; that,except in the case of his lower-class personages, he made them talk asseldom man and never woman talked; that he was tiresomely descriptive;that on the simplest occasions he went about half a mile to express athought that could be uttered in ten paces across lots; and that hetrusted his readers' intuitions so little that he was apt to rub in hisappeals to them. He was probably right: the generation which he wrotefor was duller than this; slower-witted, aesthetically untrained, and inmaturity not so apprehensive of an artistic intention as the children ofto-day. All this is not saying Scott was not a great man; he was a greatman, and a very great novelist as compared with the novelists who wentbefore him. He can still amuse young people, but they ought to beinstructed how false and how mistaken he often is, with his mediaevalideals, his blind Jacobitism, his intense devotion to aristocracy androyalty; his acquiescence in the division of men into noble and ignoble,patrician and plebeian, sovereign and subject, as if it were the law ofGod; for all which, indeed, he is not to blame as he would be if he wereone of our contemporaries. Something of this is true of another master,greater than Scott in being less romantic, and inferior in being moreGerman, namely, the great Goethe himself. He taught us, in novelsotherwise now antiquated, and always full of German clumsiness, that itwas false to good art--which is never anything but the reflection oflife--to pursue and round the career of the persons introduced, whom heoften allowed to appear and disappear in our knowledge as people in theactual world do. This is a lesson which the writers able to profit by itcan never be too grateful for; and it is equally a benefaction toreaders; but there is very little else in the conduct of the Goetheannovels which is in advance of their time; this remains almost their solecontribution to the science of fiction. They are very primitive incertain characteristics, and unite with their calm, deep insight, anamusing helplessness in dramatization. "Wilhelm retired to his room, andindulged in the following reflections," is a mode of analysis which wouldnot be practised nowadays; and all that fancifulness of nomenclature inWilhelm Meister is very drolly sentimental and feeble. The adventureswith robbers seem as if dreamed out of books of chivalry, and thetendency to allegorization affects one like an endeavor on the author'spart to escape from the unrealities which he must have felt harassingly,German as he was. Mixed up with the shadows and illusions are honest,wholesome, every-day people, who have the air of wandering homelesslyabout among them, without definite direction; and the mists are full of aluminosity which, in spite of them, we know for common-sense and poetry.What is useful in any review of Goethe's methods is the recognition ofthe fact, which it must bring, that the greatest master cannot produce amasterpiece in a new kind. The novel was too recently invented inGoethe's day not to be, even in his hands, full of the faults ofapprentice work.

 
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