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Most of the papers included in this volume have already appeared in one
or another of the following magazines: _The Atlantic Monthly_, _The
Dial_, _The New Republic_, _The Seven Arts_, _The Yale Review_, _The
Columbia University Quarterly_, and are reprinted here with the kind
permission of the editors.
Bitter-sweet, and a northwest wind
To sing his requiem,
Who was
Our Age,
And who becomes
An imperishable symbol of our ongoing,
For in himself
He rose above his body and came among us
Prophetic of the race,
The great hater
Of the dark human deformity
Which is our dying world,
The great lover
Of the spirit of youth
Which is our futures seed....
Randolph Bourne was born in Bloomfield, New Jersey, May 30, 1886.
He died in New York, December 22, 1918. Between these two dates was
packed one of the fullest, richest, and most significant lives of the
younger generation. Its outward events can be summarized in a few
words. Bourne went to the public schools in his native town, and then
for some time earned his living as an assistant to a manufacturer of
automatic piano music. In 1909 he entered Columbia, graduating in 1913
as holder of the Gilder Fellowship, which enabled him to spend a year
of study and investigation in Europe. In 1911 he had begun contributing
to _The Atlantic Monthly_, and his first book, “Youth and Life,” a
volume of essays, appeared in 1913. He was a member of the contributing
staff of _The New Republic_ during its first three years; later he
was a contributing editor of _The Seven Arts_ and _The Dial_. He had
published, in addition to his first collection of essays and a large
number of miscellaneous articles and book reviews, two other books,
“Education and Living” and “The Gary Schools.” At the time of his death
he was engaged on a novel and a study of the political future.
It might be guessed from this that Bourne at thirty-two had not quite
found himself. His interests were indeed almost universal: he had
written on politics, economics, philosophy, education, literature. No
other of our younger critics had cast so wide a net, and Bourne had
hardly begun to draw the strings and count and sort his catch. He was
a working journalist, a literary freelance with connections often of
the most precarious kind, who contrived, by daily miracles of audacity
and courage, to keep himself serenely afloat in a society where his
convictions prevented him from following any of the ordinary avenues
of preferment and recognition. It was a feat never to be sufficiently
marvelled over; it would have been striking, in our twentieth century
New York, even in the case of a man who was not physically handicapped
as Bourne was. But such a life is inevitably scattering, and it was
only after the war had literally driven him in upon himself that he set
to work at the systematic harvesting of his thoughts and experiences.
He had not quite found himself, perhaps, owing to the extraordinary
range of interests for which he had to find a personal common
denominator; yet no other young American critic, I think, had exhibited
so clear a tendency, so coherent a body of desires. His personality
was not only unique, it was also absolutely expressive. I have had the
delightful experience of reading through at a sitting, so to say, the
whole mass of his uncollected writings, articles, essays, book reviews,
unprinted fragments, and a few letters, and I am astonished at the
way in which, like a ball of camphor in a trunk, the pungent savor of
the man spreads itself over every paragraph. Here was no anonymous
reviewer, no mere brilliant satellite of the radical movement losing
himself in his immediate reactions: one finds everywhere, interwoven in
the fabric of his work, the silver thread of a personal philosophy, the
singing line of an intense and beautiful desire.
What was that desire? It was for a new fellowship in the youth of
America as the principle of a great and revolutionary departure in our
life, a league of youth, one might call it, consciously framed with
the purpose of creating, out of the blind chaos of American society,
a fine, free, articulate cultural order. That, as it seems to me, was
the dominant theme of all his effort, the positive theme to which he
always returned from his thrilling forays into the fields of education
and politics, philosophy and sociology. One finds it at the beginning
of his career in such essays as “Our Cultural Humility,” one finds it
at the end in the “History of a Literary Radical.” One finds it in that
pacifism which he pursued with such an obstinate and lonely courage and
which was the logical outcome of the checking and thwarting of those
currents of thought and feeling in which he had invested the whole
passion of his life. _Place aux jeunes_ might have been his motto: he
seemed indeed the flying wedge of the younger generation itself.
I shall never forget my first meeting with him, that odd little
apparition with his vibrant eyes, his quick, birdlike steps and the
long black students cape he had brought back with him from Paris.
It was in November, 1914, and we never imagined then that the war
was going to be more than a slash, however deep, across the face of
civilization, we never imagined it was going to plough on and on until
it had uprooted and turned under the soil so many green shoots of
hope and desire in the young world. Bourne had published that radiant
book of essays on the Adventure of Life, the Two Generations, the
Excitement of Friendship, with its happy and confident suggestion of
the present as a sort of transparent veil hung up against the window of
some dazzling future, he had had his wanderyear abroad, and had come
home with that indescribable air of the scholar-gypsy, his sensibility
fresh, clairvoyant, matutinal, a philosopher of the _gaya scienza_,
his hammer poised over the rock of American philistinism, with never
a doubt in his heart of the waters of youth imprisoned there. One
divined him in a moment, the fine, mettlesome temper of his intellect,
his curiosity, his acutely critical self-consciousness, his aesthetic
flair, his delicate sense of personal relationships, his toughness
of fiber, his masterly powers of assimilation, his grasp of reality,
his burning convictions, his beautifully precise desires. Here was
Emersons “American scholar” at last, but radiating an infinitely
warmer, profaner, more companionable influence than Emerson had ever
dreamed of, an influence that savored rather of Whitman and William
James. He was the new America incarnate, with that stamp of a sort of
permanent youthfulness on his queer, twisted, appealing face. You felt
that in him the new America had suddenly found itself and was all astir
with the excitement of its first maturity.
His life had prepared him for the rôle, for the physical disability
that had cut him off from the traditional currents and preoccupations
of American life had given him a poignant insight into the predicament
of all those others who, like him, could not adjust themselves to the
industrial machine--the exploited, the sensitive, the despised, the
aspiring, those, in short, to whom a new and very different America
was no academic idea but a necessity so urgent that it had begun to be
a reality. As detached as any young East Sider from the herd-unity of
American life, the colonial tradition, the “genteel tradition,” yet
passionately concerned with America, passionately caring for America,
he had discovered himself at Columbia, where so many strains of the
newer immigrant population meet one another in the full flood and
ferment of modern ideas. Shut in as he had been with himself and his
books, what dreams had passed through his mind of the possibilities of
life, of the range of adventures that are open to the spirit, of some
great collective effort of humanity! Would there never be room for
these things in America, was it not precisely the task of the young to
make room for them? Bournes grandfather and great-grandfather had been
doughty preachers and reformers: he had inherited a certain religious
momentum that thrust him now into the midst of the radical tide. Above
all, he had found companions who helped him to clarify his ideas
and grapple with his aims. Immigrants, many of them, of the second
generation, candidates for the “melting-pot” that had simply failed
to melt them, they trailed with them a dozen rich, diverse racial and
cultural tendencies which America seemed unable either to assimilate or
to suppress. Were they not, these newcomers of the eleventh hour, as
clearly entitled as the first colonials had been to a place in the sun
of the great experimental democracy upon which they were making such
strange new demands? They wanted a freer emotional life, a more vivid
intellectual life; oddly enough, it was they and not the hereditary
Americans, the “people of action,” who spoke of an “American culture”
and demanded it. Bourne had found his natural allies. Intensely
Anglo-Saxon himself, it was America he cared for, not the triumph of
the Anglo-Saxon tradition which had apparently lost itself in the
pursuit of a mechanical efficiency. It was a “trans-national” America
of which he caught glimpses now, a battleground of all the cultures, a
super-culture, that might perhaps, by some happy chance, determine the
future of civilization itself.
It was with some such vision as this that he had gone abroad. If that
super-culture was ever to come it could only be through some prodigious
spiritual organization of the youth of America, some organization
that would have to begin with small and highly self-conscious groups;
these groups, moreover, would have to depend for a long time upon the
experience of young Europe. The very ideas of spiritual leadership,
the intellectual life, the social revolution were foreign to a modern
America that had submitted to the common mould of business enterprise;
even philosophers like Professor Dewey had had to assume a protective
coloration, and when people spoke of art they had to justify it as
an “asset.” For Bourne, therefore, the European tour was something
more than a preparation for his own life: he was like a bird in the
nesting season, gathering twigs and straw for a nest that was not to
be his but young Americas, a nest for which old America would have
to provide the bough! He was in search, in other words, of new ideas,
new attitudes, new techniques, personal and social, for which he was
going to demand recognition at home, and it is this that gives to his
“Impressions of Europe 1913-1914”--his report to Columbia as holder
of the Gilder Fellowship--an actuality that so perfectly survives the
war. Where can one find anything better in the way of social insight
than his pictures of radical France, of the ferment of the young
Italian soul, of the London intellectuals--Sidney Webb, lecturing
“with the patient air of a man expounding arithmetic to backward
children,” Shaw, “clean, straight, clear, and fine as an upland wind
and summer sun,” Chesterton, “gluttonous and thick, with something
tricky and unsavory about him”; of the Scandinavian note,--“one got
a sense in those countries of the most advanced civilization, yet
without sophistication, a luminous modern intelligence that selected
and controlled and did not allow itself to be overwhelmed by the chaos
of twentieth century possibility”? We see things in that white light
only when they have some deeply personal meaning for us, and Bournes
instinct had led him straight to his mark. Two complex impressions
he had gained that were to dominate all his later work. One was
the sense of what a national culture is, of its immense value and
significance as a source and fund of spiritual power even in a young
world committed to a political and economic internationalism. The
other was a keen realization of the almost apostolic rôle of the young
student class in perpetuating, rejuvenating, vivifying and, if need be,
creating this national consciousness. No young Hindu ever went back
to India, no young Persian or Ukrainian or Balkan student ever went
home from a European year with a more fervent sense of the chaos and
spiritual stagnation and backwardness of his own people, of the happy
responsibility laid upon himself and all those other young men and
women who had been touched by the modern spirit.
It was a tremendous moment. Never had we realized so keenly the
spiritual inadequacy of American life: the great war of the cultures
left us literally gasping in the vacuum of our own provincialism,
colonialism, naïveté, and romantic self-complacency. We were in
much the same position as that of the Scandinavian countries during
the European wars of 1866-1870, if we are to accept George Brandes
description of it: “While the intellectual life languished, as a plant
droops in a close, confined place, the people were self-satisfied. They
rested on their laurels and fell into a doze. And while they dozed
they had dreams. The cultivated, and especially the half-cultivated,
public in Denmark and Norway dreamed that they were the salt of Europe.
They dreamed that by their idealism they would regenerate the foreign
nations. They dreamed that they were the free, mighty North, which
would lead the cause of the peoples to victory--and they woke up
unfree, impotent, ignorant.” It was through a great effort of social
introspection that Scandinavia had roused itself from the stupor of
this optimistic idealism, and at last a similar movement was on foot in
America. _The New Republic_ had started with the war, _The Masses_ was
still young, _The Seven Arts_ and the new _Dial_ were on the horizon.
Bourne found himself instantly in touch with the purposes of all these
papers, which spoke of a new class-consciousness, a sort of offensive
and defensive alliance of the younger intelligentsia and the awakened
elements of the labor groups. His audience was awaiting him, and no one
could have been better prepared to take advantage of it.
It was not merely the exigencies of journalism that turned his mind at
first so largely to the problems of primary education. In Professor
Deweys theories, in the Gary Schools, he saw, as he could see it
nowhere else, the definite promise, the actual unfolding of the freer,
more individualistic, and at the same time more communistic social life
of which he dreamed. But even if he had not come to feel a certain
inadequacy in Professor Deweys point of view, I doubt if this field
of interest could have held him long. Children fascinated him; how
well he understood them we can see from his delightful “Ernest: or
Parent for a Day.” But Bournes heart was too insistently involved
in the situation of his own contemporaries, in the stress of their
immediate problems, to allow him to linger in these long hopes. This
young intelligentsia in whose ultimate unity he had had such faith--did
he not see it, moreover, as the war advanced, lapsing, falling apart
again, reverting into the ancestral attitudes of the tribe? Granted the
war, it was the business of these liberals to see that it was played,
as he said, “with insistent care for democratic values at home, and
unequivocal alliance with democratic elements abroad for a peace that
should promise more than a mere union of benevolent imperialisms.”
Instead, the “allure of the martial” passed only to be succeeded by
the “allure of the technical,” and the “prudent, enlightened college
man,” cut in the familiar pattern, took the place of the value-creator,
the path-finder, the seeker of new horizons. Plainly, the younger
generation had not begun to find its own soul, had hardly so much as
registered its will for a new orientation of the American spirit.
Had it not occurred before, this general reversion to type? The
whole first phase of the social movement had spent itself in a sort
of ineffectual beating of the air, and Bourne saw that only through
a far more heroic effort of criticism than had yet been attempted
could the young intelligentsia disentangle itself, prevail against
the mass-fatalism of the middle class, and rouse the workers out of
their blindness and apathy. Fifteen years ago a new breath had blown
over the American scene; people felt that the era of big business had
reached its climacteric, that a new nation was about to be born out
of the social settlements, out of the soil that had been harrowed and
swept by the muck-rakers, out of the spirit of service that animated
a whole new race of novelists, and a vast army of young men and young
women, who felt fluttering in their souls the call to some great
impersonal adventure, went forth to the slums and the factories and
the universities with a powerful but very vague desire to realize
themselves and to “do something” for the world. But one would have
said that movement had been born middle-aged, so earnest, so anxious,
so conscientious, so troubled, so maternal and paternal were the faces
of those young men and women who marched forth with so puzzled an
intrepidity; there was none of the tang and fire of youth in it, none
of the fierce glitter of the intellect; there was no joyous burning
of boats; there were no transfigurations, no ecstasies. There was
only a warm simmer of eager, evangelical sentiment that somehow never
reached the boiling-point and cooled rapidly off again, and that host
of tentative and wistful seekers found themselves as cruelly astray
as the little visionaries of the Childrens Crusade. Was not the
failure of that movement due almost wholly to its lack of critical
equipment? In the first place, it was too naïve and too provincial,
it was outside the main stream of modern activity and desire, it had
none of the reserves of power that result from being in touch with
contemporary developments in other countries. In the second place, it
had no realistic sense of American life: it ignored the facts of the
class struggle, it accepted enthusiastically illusions like that of
the “melting-pot,” it wasted its energy in attacking “bad” business
without realizing that the spirit of business enterprise is itself
the great enemy, it failed to see the need of a consciously organized
intellectual class or to appreciate the necessary conjunction in our
day of the intellectuals and the proletariat. Worst of all, it had no
personal psychology. Those crusaders of the “social consciousness”
were far from being conscious of themselves; they had never broken the
umbilical cord of their hereditary class, they had not discovered their
own individual lines of growth, they had no knowledge of their own
powers, no technique for using them effectively. Embarked in activities
that instantly revealed themselves as futile and fallacious, they
also found their loyalties in perpetual conflict with one another.
Inevitably their zeal waned and their energy ebbed away, and the tides
of uniformity and commercialism swept the American scene once more.
No one had grasped all these elements of the social situation so firmly
as Bourne. He saw that we needed, first, a psychological interpretation
of these younger malcontents, secondly, a realistic study of our
institutional life, and finally, a general opening of the American
mind to the currents of contemporary desire and effort and experiment
abroad. And along each of these lines he did the work of a pioneer.
Who, for example, had ever thought of exploring the soul of the
younger generation as Bourne explored it? He had planned a long
series of literary portraits of its types and personalities: half
a dozen of them exist (along with several of quite a different
character!--the keenest satires we have), enough to show us how
sensitively he responded to those detached, groping, wistful, yet
resolutely independent spirits whom he saw weaving the iridescent
fabric of the future. He who had so early divined the truth of Maurice
Barrès saying, that we never conquer the intellectual suffrages of
those who precede us in life, addressed himself exclusively to these
young spirits: he went out to meet them, he probed their obscurities;
one would have said that he was a sort of impresario gathering the
personnel of some immense orchestra, seeking in each the principle
of his own growth. He had studied his chosen minority with such
instinctive care that everything he wrote came as a personal message to
those, and those alone, who were capable of assimilating it; and that
is why, as we look over his writings to-day, we find them a sort of
corpus, a text full of secret ciphers, and packed with meaning between
the lines, of all the most intimate questions and difficulties and
turns of thought and feeling that make up the soul of young America.
He revealed us to ourselves, he intensified and at the same time
corroborated our desires; above all, he showed us what we had in common
and what new increments of life might arise out of the friction of our
differences. In these portraits he was already doing the work of the
novelist he might well have become,--he left two or three chapters
of a novel he had begun to write, in which “Karen” and “Sophronisba”
and “The Professor” would probably have appeared, along with a whole
battle-array of the older and younger generations; he was sketching
out the rôle some novelist might play in the parturition of the new
America. Everything for analysis, for self-discovery, for articulation,
everything to put the younger generation in possession of itself!
Everything to weave the tissue of a common understanding, to help the
growth and freedom of the spirit! There was something prophetic in
Bournes personality. In his presence one felt, in his writings one
realizes, that the army of youth is already assembling for “the effort
of reason and the adventure of beauty.”
I shall say little of his work as a critic of institutions. It
is enough to point out that if such realistic studies as his
“Trans-National America” and his “Mirror of the Middle West” (a
perfect example, by the way, of his theory of the book review as an
independent enquiry with a central idea of its own), his papers on the
settlements and on sociological fiction had appeared fifteen years
ago, a vastly greater amount of effective energy might have survived
the break-up of the first phase of the social movement. When he showed
what mares-nests the settlements and the “melting-pot” theory and
the “spirit of service” are, and what snares for democracy lie in
Meredith Nicholsons “folksiness,” he closed the gate on half the blind
alleys in which youth had gone astray; and he who had so delighted
in Veblens ruthless condensation of the mystical gases of American
business implied in every line he wrote that there is a gulf fixed
between the young intellectual and the unreformable “system.” The young
intellectual, henceforth, was an unclassed outsider, with a scent
all the more keenly sharpened for new trails because the old trails
were denied him, and for Bourne those new trails led straight, and by
the shortest possible route, to a society the very reverse of ours,
a society such as A.E. has described in the phrase, “democratic in
economics, aristocratic in thought,” to be attained through a coalition
of the thinkers and the workers. The task of the thinkers, of the
intelligentsia, in so far as they concerned themselves directly with
economic problems, was, in Bournes eyes, chiefly to _think_. It was a
new doctrine for American radicals; it precisely denoted their advance
over the evangelicism of fifteen years ago. “The young radical to-day,”
he wrote in one of his reviews, “is not asked to be a martyr, but he is
asked to be a thinker, an intellectual leader.... The labor movement in
this country needs a philosophy, a literature, a constructive socialist
analysis and criticism of industrial relations. Labor will scarcely do
this thinking for itself. Unless middle-class radicalism threshes out
its categories and interpretations and undertakes this constructive
thought it will not be done.... The only way by which middle-class
radicalism can serve is by being fiercely and concentratedly
Finally, through Bourne more than through any other of our younger
writers one gained a sense of the stir of the great world, of the
currents and cross-currents of the contemporary European spirit,
behind and beneath the war, of the tendencies and experiences and
common aims and bonds of the younger generation everywhere. He was an
exception to what seems to be the general rule, that Americans who
are able to pass outside their own national spirit at all are apt to
fall headlong into the national spirit of some one other country:
they become vehement partisans of Latin Europe, or of England, or of
Germany and Scandinavia, or, more recently, of Russia. Bourne, with
that singular union of detachment and affectionate penetration which
he brought also to his personal relationships, had entered them all
with an equal curiosity, an impartial delight. If he had absorbed the
fine idealism of the English liberals, he understood also the more
elemental, the more emotional, the more positive urge of revolutionary
Russia. He was full of practical suggestions from the vast social and
economic laboratory of modern Germany. He had caught something also
from the intellectual excitement of young Italy; most of all, his
imagination had been captivated, as we can see from such essays as
“Mon Amie,” by the candor and the self-consciousness and the genius
for social introspection of radical France. And all these influences
were perpetually at play in his mind and in his writings. He was the
conductor of innumerable diverse inspirations, a sort of clearing-house
of the best living ideas of the time; through him the young writer and
the young thinker came into instant contact with whatever in the modern
world he most needed. And here again Bourne revealed his central aim.
He reviewed by choice, and with a special passion, what he called the
“epics of youthful talent that grows great with quest and desire.” It
is easy to see, in his articles on such books as “Pelle the Conqueror”
and Gorkys Autobiography and “The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists,”
that what lured him was the common struggle and aspiration of youth
and poverty and the creative spirit everywhere, the sense of a new
socialized world groping its way upward. It was this rich ground-note
in all his work that made him, not the critic merely, but the leader.
It is impossible to say, of course, what he would have become if
his life had been spared. The war had immensely stimulated his
“political-mindedness”: he was obsessed, during the last two years of
his life, with a sense of the precariousness of free thought and free
speech in this country; if they were cut off, he foresaw, the whole
enterprise, both of the social revolution and of the new American
culture, would perish of inanition; he felt himself at bay. Would he,
with all the additional provocation of a hopelessly bungled peace
settlement, have continued in the political field, as his unfinished
study on “The State” might suggest? Or would that activity, while
remaining vivid and consistent, have subsided into a second place
behind his more purely cultural interests?
Personally, I like to think that he would have followed this second
course. He speaks in the “History of a Literary Radical” of “living
down the new orthodoxies of propaganda” as he and his friends had lived
down the old orthodoxies of the classics, and I believe that, freed
from the obsessions of the war, his criticism would have concentrated
more and more on the problem of evoking and shaping an American
literature as the nucleus of that rich, vital and independent national
life he had been seeking in so many ways to promote. Who that knew his
talents could have wished it otherwise? Already, except for the poets,
the intellectual energy of the younger generation has been drawn almost
exclusively into political interests; and the new era, which has begun
to draw so sharply the battle-line between radicals and reactionaries,
is certain only to increase this tendency. If our literary criticism
is always impelled sooner or later to become social criticism, it is
certainly because the future of our literature and art depends upon the
wholesale reconstruction of a social life all the elements of which are
as if united in a sort of conspiracy against the growth and freedom of
the spirit: we are in the position described by Ibsen in one of his
letters: “I do not think it is of much use to plead the cause of art
with arguments derived from its own nature, which with us is still so
little understood, or rather so thoroughly misunderstood.... My opinion
is that at the present time it is of no use to wield ones weapons
_for_ art; one must simply turn them _against_ what is hostile to
art.” That is why Bourne, whose ultimate interest was always artistic,
found himself a guerilla fighter along the whole battlefront of the
social revolution. He was drawn into the political arena as a skilful
specialist, called into war service, is drawn into the practice of a
general surgery in which he may indeed accomplish much but at the price
of the suspension of his own uniqueness. Others, at the expiration
of what was for him a critical moment, the moment when all freedom
seemed to be at stake, might have been trusted to do his political
work for him; the whole radical tide was flowing behind him; his
unique function, meanwhile, was not political but spiritual. It was
the creation, the communication of what he called “the allure of fresh
and true ideas, of free speculation, of artistic vigor, of cultural
styles, of intelligence suffused by feeling and feeling given fiber and
outline by intelligence.” Was it not to have been hoped, therefore,
that he would have revived, exemplified among these new revolutionary
conditions, and on behalf of them, the lapsed rôle of the man of
For if he held a hammer in one hand, he held in the other a
divining-rod. He, if any one, in the days to come, would have
conjured out of our dry soil the green shoots of a beautiful and a
characteristic literature: he knew that soil so well, and why it was
dry, and how it ought to be irrigated! We have had no chart of our
cultural situation to compare with his “History of a Literary Radical,”
and certainly no one has combined with an analytical gift like his,
and an adoration for the instinct of workmanship, so burning an eye
for every stir of life and color on the drab American landscape. I
think of a sentence in one of his reviews: “The appearance of dramatic
imagination in any form in this country is something to make us all
drop our work and run to see.” That was the spirit which animated all
his criticism: is it not the spirit that creates out of the void the
thing it contemplates?
To have known Randolph Bourne is indeed to have surprised some of the
finest secrets of the American future. But those who lived with him in
friendship will remember him for reasons that are far more personal,
and at the same time far more universal, than that: they will remember
him as the wondrous companion, the lyrical intellect, the transparent
idealist, most of all perhaps as the ingenuous and lonely child. It is
said that every writer possesses in his vocabulary one talismanic word
which he repeats again and again, half unconsciously, like a sort of
signature, and which reveals the essential secret of his personality.
In Bournes case the word is “wistful”; and those who accused him
of malice and bitterness, not realizing how instinctively we impute
these qualities to the physically deformed who are so dauntless in
spirit that they repel our pity, would do well to consider that secret
signature, sown like some beautiful wild flower over the meadow of
his writings, which no man can counterfeit, which is indeed the token
of their inviolable sincerity. He was a wanderer, the child of some
nation yet unborn, smitten with an inappeasable nostalgia for the
Beloved Community on the far side of socialism, he carried with him the
intoxicating air of that community, the mysterious aroma of all its
works and ways. “High philosophic thought infused with sensuous love,”
he wrote once, “is not this the one incorrigible dream that clutches
us?” It was the dream he had brought back from the bright future in
which he lived, the dream he summoned us to realize. And it issues now
like a gallant command out of the space left vacant by his passing.
For a man of culture, my friend Miro began his literary career in a
singularly unpromising way. Potential statesmen in log-cabins might
miraculously come in touch with all the great books of the world, but
the days of Miros young school life were passed in innocence of Homer
or Dante or Shakespeare, or any of the other traditional mind-formers
of the race. What Miro had for his nourishment, outside the Bible,
which was a magical book that you must not drop on the floor, or his
school-readers, which were like lightning flashes of unintelligible
scenes, was the literature that his playmates lent him--exploits of
British soldiers in Spain and the Crimea, the death-defying adventures
of young filibusters in Cuba and Nicaragua. Miro gave them a languid
perusing, and did not criticize their literary style. Huckleberry Finn
and Tom Sawyer somehow eluded him until he had finished college, and
no fresher tale of adventure drifted into his complacent home until
the era of “Richard Carvel” and “Janice Meredith” sharpened his wits
and gave him a vague feeling that there was such a thing as literary
art. The classics were stiffly enshrined behind glass doors that were
very hard to open--at least Hawthorne and Irving and Thackeray were
there, and Tennysons and Scotts poems--but nobody ever discussed them
or looked at them. Miros busy elders were taken up with the weekly
_Outlook_ and _Independent_ and _Christian Work_, and felt they were
doing much for Miro when they provided him and his sister with _St.
Nicholas_ and _The Youths Companion_. It was only that Miro saw the
black books looking at him accusingly from the case, and a rudimentary
conscience, slipping easily over from Calvinism to culture, forced
him solemnly to grapple with “The Scarlet Letter” or “Marmion.” All
he remembers is that the writers of these books he browsed among used
a great many words and made a great fuss over shadowy offenses and
conflicts and passions that did not even stimulate his imagination with
sufficient force to cause him to ask his elders what it was all about.
Certainly the filibusters were easier.
At school Miro was early impressed with the vast dignity of the
literary works and names he was compelled to learn. Shakespeare and
Goethe and Dante lifted their plaster heads frowningly above the
teachers, as they perched on shelves about the room. Much was said
of the greatness of literature. But the art of phonetics and the
complications of grammar swamped Miros early school years. It was not
until he reached the High School that literature began really to assume
that sacredness which he had heretofore felt only for Holy Scripture.
His initiation into culture was made almost a religious mystery by the
conscientious and harassed teacher. As the Deadwood Boys and Henty
and David Harum slipped away from Miros soul in the presence of
Miltons “Comus” and Burke “On Conciliation,” a cultural devoutness
was engendered in him that never really died. At first it did not take
Miro beyond the stage where your conscience is strong enough to make
you uncomfortable, but not strong enough to make you do anything about
it. Miro did not actually become an omnivorous reader of great books.
But he was filled with a rich grief that the millions pursued cheap and
vulgar fiction instead of the best that has been thought and said in
the world. Miro indiscriminately bought cheap editions of the English
classics and read them with a certain patient incomprehension.
As for the dead classics, they came to Miro from the hands of his
teachers with a prestige even vaster than the books of his native
tongue. No doubt ever entered his head that four years of Latin and
three years of Greek, an hour a day, were the important preparation he
needed for his future as an American citizen. No doubt ever hurt him
that the world into which he would pass would be a world where, as his
teacher said, Latin and Greek were a solace to the aged, a quickener
of taste, a refreshment after manual labor, and a clue to the general
knowledge of all human things. Miro would as soon have doubted the
rising of the sun as have doubted the wisdom of these serious, puckered
women who had the precious manipulation of his cultural upbringing in
their charge. Miro was a bright, if a rather vague, little boy, and a
fusion of brightness and docility gave him high marks in the school
where we went together.
No one ever doubted that these marks expressed Miros assimilation
of the books we pored over. But he told me later that he had never
really known what he was studying. Cæsar, Virgil, Cicero, Xenophon,
Homer, were veiled and misty experiences to him. His mind was a moving
present, obliterating each day what it had read the day before, and
piercing into a no more comprehended future. He could at no time have
given any intelligible account of Æneass wanderings or what Cicero was
really inveighing against. The Iliad was even more obscure. The only
thing which impressed him deeply was an expurgated passage, which he
looked up somewhere else and found to be about Mars and Venus caught
in the golden bed. Cæsar seemed to be at war, and Xenophon wandering
somewhere in Asia Minor, with about the same lengthiness and hardship
as Miro suffered in reading him. The trouble, Miro thought afterwards,
was that these books were to his mind flickering lights in a vast
jungle of ignorance. He does not remember marvelling at the excessive
dulness of the stories themselves. He plodded his faithful way, using
them as his conscientious teachers did, as exercises in language. He
looked on Virgil and Cicero as essentially problems in disentangling
words which had unaccountably gotten into a bizarre order, and in
recognizing certain rather amusing and ingenious combinations, known as
“constructions.” Why these words took so irritating an order Miro never
knew, but he always connected the problem with those algebraic puzzles
he had elsewhere to unravel. Virgils words were further complicated
by being arranged in lines which one had to “scan.” Miro was pleased
with the rhythm, and there were stanzas that had a roll of their own.
But the inexorable translating that had to go on tore all this fabric
of poetry to pieces. His translations were impeccable, but, as he never
wrote them down, he had never before his eyes the consecutive story.
Translations Miro never saw. He knew that they were implements of
deadly sin that boys used to cheat with. His horror of them was such
as a saint might feel towards a parody of the Bible. Just before Miro
left school, his sister in a younger class began to read a prose
translation of the Odyssey, and Miro remembers the scorn with which he
looked down on so sneaking an entrance into the temple of light. He
knew that not everyone could study Latin and Greek, and he learned to
be proud of his knowledge. When at last he had passed his examinations
for college--his Latin composition and grammar, his syntax and his
sight-reading, and his Greek composition and grammar, his Greek syntax
and sight-reading, and his translation of Gallic battles and Anabatic
frosts, and Didos farewell and Ciceros objurgations--his zealous
rage did not abate. He even insisted on reading the Bucolics, while he
was away on his vacation, and a book or two in the Odyssey. His family
was a little chilled by his studiousness, but he knew well that he was
laying up cultural treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not
corrupt, neither do thieves break in and steal.
Arrived at college, Miro expanded his cultural interests on the
approved lines. He read Horace and Plato, Lysias and Terence,
impartially, with faithful conscience. Horace was the most exciting
because of the parodies that were beginning to appear in the cleverer
newspapers. Miro scarcely knew whether to be amused or shocked at “Odi
Persicos” or “Integer Vitæ” done into current slang. The professors,
mild-mannered men who knew their place and kept it, never mentioned
these impudent adventures, but for Miro it was the first crack in
his Ptolemaic system of reverences. There came a time when his mind
began to feel replete, when this heavy pushing through the opaque
medium of dead language began to fatigue him. He should have been able
to read fluently, but there were always turning up new styles, new
constructions, to plague him. Latin became to him like a constant diet
of beefsteak, and Greek like a constant diet of fine wheaten bread.
They lost their taste. These witty poets and ostentatious orators--what
were they all about? What was their background? Where did they fit
into Miros life? The professors knew some history, but what did that
history mean? Miro found himself surfeited and dissatisfied. He began
to look furtively at translations to get some better English than he
was able to provide. The hair-splittings of Plato began to bore him
when he saw them in crystal-clear English, and not muffled in the
original Greek. His apostasy had begun.
It was not much better in his study of English literature. Miro
was given a huge anthology, a sort of press-clipping bureau of
_belles-lettres_, from Chaucer to Arthur Symons. Under the direction
of a professor who was laying out a career for himself as poet--or
“modern singer,” as he expressed it--the class went briskly through
the centuries sampling their genius and tasting the various literary
flavors. The enterprise reminded Miro of those books of woollen samples
which one looks through when one is to have a suit of clothes made.
But in this case, the student did not even have the pleasure of seeing
the suit of clothes. All that was expected of him, apparently, was
that he should become familiar, from these microscopic pieces, with
the different textures and patterns. The great writers passed before
his mind like figures in a crowded street. There was no time for
preferences. Indeed the professor strove diligently to give each writer
his just due. How was one to appreciate the great thoughts and the
great styles if one began to choose violently between them, or attempt
any discrimination on grounds of their peculiar congeniality for
ones own soul? Criticism had to spurn such subjectivity, scholarship
could not be wilful. The neatly arranged book of “readings,” with its
medicinal doses of inspiration, became the symbol of Miros education.
These early years of college did not deprive Miro of his cultural
loyalty, but they deadened his appetite. Although almost inconceivably
docile, he found himself being bored. He had come from school a
serious boy, with more than a touch of priggishness in him, and a
vague aspiration to be a “man of letters.” He found himself becoming
a collector of literary odds-and-ends. If he did not formulate this
feeling clearly, he at least knew. He found that the literary life was
not as interesting as he had expected. He sought no adventures. When he
wrote, it was graceful lyrics or polite criticisms of William Collins
or Charles Lamb. These canonized saints of culture still held the field
for Miro, however. There was nothing between them and that popular
literature of the day that all good men bemoaned. Classic or popular,
“highbrow” or “lowbrow,” this was the choice, and Miro unquestioningly
took the orthodox heaven. In 1912 the most popular of Miros English
professors had never heard of Galsworthy, and another was creating a
flurry of scandal in the department by recommending Chesterton to his
classes. It would scarcely have been in college that Miro would have
learned of an escape from the closed dichotomy of culture. Bored with
the “classic,” and frozen with horror at the “popular,” his career as
a man of culture must have come to a dragging end if he had not been
suddenly liberated by a chance lecture which he happened to hear while
he was at home for the holidays.
The literary radical who appeared before the Lyceum Club of Miros
village was none other than Professor William Lyon Phelps, and it is
to that evening of cultural audacity Miro thinks he owes all his later
emancipation. The lecturer grappled with the “modern novel,” and tossed
Hardy, Tolstoi, Turgenev, Meredith, even Trollope, into the minds of
the charmed audience with such effect that the virgin shelves of the
village library were ravished for days to come by the eager minds upon
whom these great names dawned for the first time. “Jude the Obscure”
and “Resurrection” were of course kept officially away from the vulgar,
but Miro managed to find “Smoke” and “Virgin Soil” and “Anna Karenina”
and “The Warden” and “A Pair of Blue Eyes” and “The Return of the
Native.” Later at college he explored the forbidden realms. It was as
if some devout and restless saint had suddenly been introduced to the
Apocrypha. A new world was opened to Miro that was neither “classic”
nor “popular,” and yet which came to one under the most unimpeachable
auspices. There was, at first, it is true, an air of illicit adventure
about the enterprise. The lecturer who made himself the missionary of
such vigorous and piquant doctrine had the air of being a heretic, or
at least a boy playing out of school. But Miro himself returned to
college a cultural revolutionist. His orthodoxies crumbled. He did not
try to reconcile the new with the old. He applied pick and dynamite to
the whole structure of the canon. Irony, humor, tragedy, sensuality,
suddenly appeared to him as literary qualities in forms that he could
understand. They were like oxygen to his soul.
If these qualities were in the books he had been reading, he had never
felt them. The expurgated sample-books he had studied had passed too
swiftly over the Elizabethans to give him a sense of their lustiness.
Miro immersed himself voluptuously in the pessimism of Hardy. He fed on
the poignant torture of Tolstoi. While he was reading “Resurrection,”
his class in literature was making an “intensive” study of Tennyson.
It was too much. Miro rose in revolt. He forswore literary courses
forever, dead rituals in which anæmic priests mumbled their trite
critical commentary. Miro did not know that to naughtier critics even
Mr. Phelps might eventually seem a pale and timid Gideon, himself stuck
in moral sloughs. He was grateful enough for that blast of trumpets
which made his own scholastic walls fall down.
The next stage in Miros cultural life was one of frank revolt. He
became as violent as a heretic as he had been docile as a believer.
Modern novels merely started the rift that widened into modern
ideas. The professors were of little use. Indeed, when Miro joined a
group of radicals who had started a new college paper, a relentless
vendetta began with the teachers. Miro and his friends threw over
everything that was mere literature. Social purpose must shine from
any writing that was to rouse their enthusiasm. Literary flavor was
to be permissible only where it made vivid high and revolutionary
thought. Tolstoi became their god, Wells their high priest. Chesterton
infuriated them. They wrote violent assaults upon him which began in
imitation of his cool paradoxicality and ended in incoherent ravings.
There were so many enemies to their new fervor that they scarcely knew
where to begin. There were not only the old tables of stone to destroy,
but there were new and threatening prophets of the eternal verities who
had to be exposed. The nineteenth century which they had studied must
be weeded of its nauseous moralists. The instructors consulted together
how they might put down the revolt, and bring these sinners back to the
faith of cultural scripture.
It was of no avail. In a short time Miro had been converted from an
aspiration for the career of a cultivated “man of letters” to a fiery
zeal for artistic and literary propaganda in the service of radical
ideas. One of the results of this conversion was the discovery that he
really had no standards of critical taste. Miro had been reverential
so long that he had felt no preferences. Everything that was classic
had to be good to him. But now that he had thrown away the books that
were stamped with the mark of the classic mint, and was dealing with
the raw materials of letters, he had to become a critic and make
selection. It was not enough that a book should be radical. Some of
the books he read, though impeccably revolutionary as to ideas, were
clearly poor as literature. His muffled taste began to assert itself.
He found himself impressionable where before he had been only mildly
acquisitive. The literature of revolt and free speculation fired him
into a state of spiritual explosiveness. All that he read now stood out
in brighter colors and in sharper outlines than before. As he reached a
better balance, he began to feel the vigor of literary form, the value
of sincerity and freshness of style. He began to look for them keenly
in everything he read. It was long before Miro realized that enthusiasm
not docility had made him critical. He became a little proud of his
sensitive and discriminating reactions to the modern and the unsifted.
This pursuit had to take place without any help from the college.
After Miro graduated, it is true that it became the fashion to study
literature as the record of ideas and not merely as a canon of sacred
books to be analyzed, commented upon, and absorbed. But no dent was
made upon the system in Miros time, and, the inventory of English
criticism not going beyond Stevenson, no college course went beyond
Stevenson. The Elizabethans had been exhumed and fumigated, but the
most popular attention went to the gallery of Victorians, who combined
moral soundness with literary beauty, and were therefore considered
wholesome food for young men. The instructors all remained in the state
of reverence which saw all things good that had been immemorially
taught. Miros own teacher was a fragile, earnest young man, whose
robuster parents had evidently seized upon his nature as a fortunate
pledge of what the family might produce in the way of an intellectual
flower that should surpass in culture and gentility the ambitions of
his parents. His studiousness, hopeless for his fathers career as
grocer, had therefore been capitalized into education.
The product now shone forth as one of the most successful and
promising younger instructors in the department. He knew his subject.
Card-indexes filled his room, covering in detail the works, lives,
and deaths of the illustrious persons whom he expounded, as well as
everything that had been said about them in the way of appreciation or
interpretation. An endless number of lectures and courses could be
made from this bountiful store. He never tried to write himself, but he
knew all about the different kinds of writing, and when he corrected
the boys themes he knew infallibly what to tell them to avoid. Miros
vagaries scandalized his teacher all the more because during his first
year in college Miro had been generally noticed as one with the proper
sobriety and scholarly patience to graduate into a similar priestly
calling. Miro found scant sympathy in the young man. To the latter,
literary studies were a science not an art, and they were to be treated
with somewhat the same cold rigor of delimitation and analysis as
any other science. Miro felt his teachers recoil at the idea that
literature was significant only as the expression of personality or
as interpretation of some social movement. Miro saw how uneasy he
became when he was confronted with current literature. It was clear
that Miros slowly growing critical sense had not a counterpart in the
scholastic mind.
When Miro and his friends abandoned literary studies, they followed
after the teachers of history and philosophy, intellectual arenas of
which the literary professors seemed scandalously ignorant. At this
ignorance Miro boiled with contempt. Here were the profitable clues
that would give meaning to dusty literary scholarship, but the scholars
had not the wits to seize them. They lived along, playing what seemed
to Miro a rather dreary game, when they were not gaping reverently at
ideas and forms which they scarcely had the genuine personality to
appreciate. Miro felt once and for all free of these mysteries and
reverences. He was to know the world as it has been and as it is. He
was to put literature into its proper place, making all “culture”
serve its apprenticeship for him as interpretation of things larger
than itself, of the course of individual lives and the great tides of
Miros later cultural life is not without interest. When he had
finished college and his architectural course, and was making headway
in his profession, his philosophy of the intellectual life began to
straighten itself out. Rapid as his surrender of orthodoxy had been,
it had taken him some time to live down that early education. He found
now that he would have to live down his heresies also, and get some
coherent system of tastes that was his own and not the fruit of either
docility or the zeal of propaganda.
The old battles that were still going on helped Miro to realize his
modern position. It was a queer, musty quarrel, but it was enlisting
minds from all classes and of all intellectual fibers. The “classics”
were dying hard, as Miro recognized whenever he read, in the magazines,
attacks on the “new education.” He found that professors were still
taken seriously who declared in passion that without the universal
study of the Latin language in American schools all conceptions of
taste, standards, criticism, the historic sense itself, would vanish
from the earth. He found that even as late as 1917 professional men
were gathering together in solemn conclave and buttressing the “value
of the classics” with testimonials from “successful men” in a variety
of vocations. Miro was amused at the fact that the mighty studies once
pressed upon him so uncritically should now require, like the patent
medicines, testimonials as to their virtue. Bank presidents, lawyers,
and editors had taken the Latin language regularly for years, and had
found its effects painless and invigorating. He could not escape the
unconscious satire that such plump and prosperous Americans expressed
when they thought it admirable to save their cherished intellectual
traditions in any such fashion.
Other conservatives Miro saw to be abandoning the line of opposition
to science, only to fall back on the line of a defensive against
“pseudo-science,” as they seemed to call whatever intellectual
interests had not yet become indubitably reputable. It was a line which
would hold them rather strongly for a time, Miro thought, because so
many of the cultural revolutionists agreed with them in hating some of
these arrogant and mechanical psychologies and sociologies that reduced
life to figures or organisms. But Miro felt also how obstructive was
their fight. If the “classics” had done little for him except to hold
his mind in an uncomprehending prison, and fetter his spontaneous
taste, they seemed to have done little more for even the thorough
scholars. When professors had devoted scholarly lives to the “classics”
only to exhibit in their own polemics none of the urbanity and
intellectual command which were supposed by the believer somehow to
rub off automatically on the faithful student, Miro had to conclude an
absence of causal connection between the “classics” and the able modern
mind. When, moreover, critical power or creative literary work became
almost extinct among these defenders of the “old education,” Miro felt
sure that a revolution was needed in the materials and attitudes of
The case of the defenders was all the weaker because their enemies were
not wanton infidels, ignorant of the holy places they profaned. They
were rather cultural “Modernists,” reforming the church from within.
They had the classic background, these young vandals, but they had
escaped from its flat and unoriented surface. Abreast of the newer
objective, impersonal standards of thinking, they saw the weakness of
these archaic minds which could only appeal to vested interests in
culture and testimonials from successful men.
The older critics had long since disavowed the intention of
discriminating among current writers. These men, who had to have an
Academy to protect them, lumped the younger writers of verse and prose
together as “anarchic” and “naturalistic,” and had become, in these
latter days, merely peevish and querulous, protesting in favor of
standards that no longer represented our best values. Every one, in
Miros time, bemoaned the lack of critics, but the older critics seemed
to have lost all sense of hospitality and to have become tired and a
little spitefully disconsolate, while the newer ones were too intent on
their crusades against puritanism and philistinism to have time for a
constructive pointing of the way.
Miro had a very real sense of standing at the end of an era. He and his
friends had lived down both their old orthodoxies of the classics and
their new orthodoxies of propaganda. Gone were the priggishness and
self-consciousness which had marked their teachers. The new culture
would be more personal than the old, but it would not be held as a
personal property. It would be democratic in the sense that it would
represent each persons honest spontaneous taste. The old attitude was
only speciously democratic. The assumption was that if you pressed
your material long enough and winningly enough upon your culturable
public, they would acquire it. But the material was something handed
down, not grown in the garden of their own appreciations. Under
these conditions the critic and appreciator became a mere impersonal
register of orthodox opinion. The cultivated person, in conforming his
judgments to what was authoritatively taught him, was really a member
of the herd--a cultivated herd, it is true, but still a herd. It was
the mass that spoke through the critic and not his own discrimination.
These authoritative judgments might, of course, have come--probably
had come--to the herd through discerning critics, but in Miros time
judgment in the schools had petrified. One believed not because one
felt the original discernment, but because one was impressed by the
weight and reputability of opinion. At least so it seemed to Miro.
Now just as the artists had become tired of conventions and were
breaking through into new and personal forms, so Miro saw the younger
critics breaking through these cultural conventions. To the elders
the result would seem mere anarchy. But Miros attitude did not want
to destroy, it merely wanted to rearrange the materials. He wanted no
more second-hand appreciations. No ones cultural store was to include
anything that one could not be enthusiastic about. Ones acquaintance
with the best that had been said and thought should be encouraged--in
Miros ideal school--to follow the lines of ones temperament. Miro,
having thrown out the old gods, found them slowly and properly coming
back to him. Some would always repel him, others he hoped to understand
eventually. But if it took wisdom to write the great books, did it not
also take wisdom to understand them? Even the Latin writers he hoped
to recover, with the aid of translations. But why bother with Greek
when you could get Euripides in the marvellous verse of Gilbert Murray?
Miro was willing to believe that no education was complete without at
least an inoculation of the virus of the two orthodoxies that he was
As Miro looked around the American scene, he wondered where the
critics were to come from. He saw, on the one hand, Mr. Mencken and
Mr. Dreiser and their friends, going heavily forth to battle with
the Philistines, glorying in pachydermatous vulgarisms that hurt the
polite and cultivated young men of the old school. And he saw these
violent critics, in their rage against puritanism, becoming themselves
moralists, with the same bigotry and tastelessness as their enemies.
No, these would never do. On the other hand, he saw Mr. Stuart P.
Sherman, in his youthful if somewhat belated ardor, revolting so
conscientiously against the “naturalism” and crude expression of
current efforts that, in his defense of _belles-lettres_, of the
fine tradition of literary art, he himself became a moralist of the
intensest brand, and as critic plumped for Arnold Bennett, because that
clever man had a feeling for the proprieties of human conduct. No, Mr.
Sherman would do even less adequately. His fine sympathies were as
much out of the current as was the specious classicism of Professor
Shorey. He would have to look for the critics among the young men who
had an abounding sense of life, as well as a feeling for literary form.
They would be men who had not been content to live on their cultural
inheritance, but had gone out into the modern world and amassed a fresh
fortune of their own. They would be men who were not squeamish, who did
not feel the delicate differences between “animal” and “human” conduct,
who were enthusiastic about Mark Twain and Gorki as well as Romain
Rolland, and at the same time were thrilled by Copeaus theater.
Where was a better program for culture, for any kind of literary
art? Culture as a living effort, a driving attempt both at sincere
expression and at the comprehension of sincere expression wherever it
was found! Appreciation to be as far removed from the “I know what
I like!” as from the textbook impeccability of taste! If each mind
sought its own along these lines, would not many find themselves
agreed? Miro insisted on liking Amy Lowells attempt to outline
the tendencies in American poetry in a form which made clear the
struggles of contemporary men and women with the tradition and
against “every affectation of the mind.” He began to see in the new
class-consciousness of poets the ending of that old division which
“culture” made between the chosen people and the gentiles. We were
now to form little pools of workers and appreciators of similar
temperaments and tastes. The little magazines that were starting up
became voices for these new communities of sentiment. Miro thought that
perhaps at first it was right to adopt a tentative superciliousness
towards the rest of the world, so that both Mr. Mencken with his
shudders at the vulgar Demos and Mr. Sherman with his obsession with
the sanely and wholesomely American might be shut out from influence.
Instead of fighting the Philistine in the name of freedom, or fighting
the vulgar iconoclast in the name of wholesome human notions, it might
be better to write for ones own band of comprehenders, in order that
one might have something genuine with which to appeal to both the mob
of the “bourgeois” and the ferocious vandals who had been dividing
the field among them. Far better a quarrel among these intensely
self-conscious groups than the issues that had filled _The Atlantic_
and _The Nation_ with their dreary obsolescence. Far better for the
mind that aspired towards “culture” to be told not to conform or
worship, but to search out its group, its own temperamental community
of sentiment, and there deepen appreciations through sympathetic
It was no longer a question of being hospitable towards the work of
other countries. Miro found the whole world open to him, in these
days, through the enterprise of publishers. He and his friends felt
more sympathetic with certain groups in France and Russia than they
did with the variegated “prominent authors” of their own land. Winston
Churchill as a novelist came to seem more of an alien than Artzybashev.
The fact of culture being international had been followed by a sense of
its being. The old cultural attitude had been hospitable enough, but it
had imported its alien culture in the form of “comparative literature.”
It was hospitable only in trying to mould its own taste to the orthodox
canons abroad. The older American critic was mostly interested in
getting the proper rank and reverence for what he borrowed. The new
critic will take what suits his community of sentiment. He will want
to link up not with the foreign canon, but with that group which is
nearest in spirit with the effort he and his friends are making. The
American has to work to interpret and portray the life he knows. He
cannot be international in the sense that anything but the life in
which he is saturated, with its questions and its colors, can be the
material for his art. But he can be international--and must be--in the
sense that he works with a certain hopeful vision of a “young world,”
and with certain ideal values upon which the younger men, stained and
revolted by war, in all countries are agreeing.
Miro wonders sometimes whether the direction in which he is tending
will not bring him around the circle again to a new classicism. The
last stage in the history of the man of culture will be that “classic”
which he did not understand and which his mind spent its youth in
overthrowing. But it will be a classicism far different from that which
was so unintelligently handed down to him in the American world. It
will be something worked out and lived into. Looking into the future
he will have to do what Van Wyck Brooks calls “inventing a usable
past.” Finding little in the American tradition that is not tainted
with sweetness and light and burdened with the terrible patronage of
bourgeois society, the new classicist will yet rescue Thoreau and
Whitman and Mark Twain and try to tap through them a certain eternal
human tradition of abounding vitality and moral freedom, and so build
out the future. If the classic means power with restraint, vitality
with harmony, a fusion of intellect and feeling, and a keen sense of
the artistic conscience, then the revolutionary world is coming out
into the classic. When Miro sees behind the minds of _The Masses_ group
a desire for form and for expressive beauty, and sees the radicals
following Jacques Copeau and reading Chekhov, he smiles at the thought
of the American critics, young and old, who do not know yet that they
are dead.
It was Matthew Arnold, read and reverenced by the generation
immediately preceding our own, who set to our eyes a definition and a
goal of culture which has become the common property of all our world.
To know the best that had been thought and said, to appreciate the
master-works which the previous civilizations had produced, to put our
minds and appreciations in contact with the great of all ages,--here
was a clear ideal which dissolved the mists in which the vaguenesses of
culture had been lost. And it was an ideal that appealed with peculiar
force to Americans. For it was a democratic ideal; every one who had
the energy and perseverance could reasonably expect to acquire by
taking thought that orientation of soul to which Arnold gave the magic
name of culture. And it was a quantitative ideal; culture was a matter
of acquisition--with appreciation and prayerfulness perhaps, but still
a matter of adding little by little to ones store until one should
have a vision of that radiant limit, when one knew all the best that
had been thought and said and pictured in the world.
I do not know in just what way the British public responded to Arnolds
eloquence; if the prophetic wrath of Ruskin failed to stir them, it is
not probable that they were moved by the persuasiveness of Arnold. But
I do know that, coming at a time when America was producing rapidly an
enormous number of people who were “comfortably off,” as the phrase
goes, and who were sufficiently awake to feel their limitations, with
the broader horizons of Europe just opening on the view, the new
doctrine had the most decisive effect on our succeeding spiritual
history. The “land-of-liberty” American of the era of Dickens still
exists in the British weeklies and in observations of America by callow
young journalists, but as a living species he has long been extinct.
His place has been taken by a person whose pride is measured not by
the greatness of the “land of the free,” but by his own orientation in
Already in the nineties, our college professors and our artists were
beginning to require the seal of a European training to justify
their existence. We appropriated the German system of education.
Our millionaires began the collecting of pictures and the endowment
of museums with foreign works of art. We began the exportation of
school-teachers for a summer tour of Europe. American art and music
colonies sprang up in Paris and Berlin and Munich. The movement became
a rush. That mystical premonition of Europe, which Henry James tells
us he had from his earliest boyhood, became the common property of the
talented young American, who felt a certain starvation in his own land,
and longed for the fleshpots of European culture. But the bourgeoisie
soon followed the artistic and the semi-artistic, and Europe became so
much the fashion that it is now almost a test of respectability to have
traveled at least once abroad.
Underlying all this vivacious emigration, there was of course a real
if vague thirst for “culture,” and, in strict accord with Arnolds
definition, the idea that somehow culture could be imbibed, that from
the contact with the treasures of Europe there would be rubbed off
on us a little of that grace which had made the art. So for those
who could not travel abroad, our millionaires transported, in almost
terrifying bulk and at staggering cost, samples of everything that the
foreign galleries had to show. We were to acquire culture at any cost,
and we had no doubt that we had discovered the royal road to it. We
followed it, at any rate, with eye single to the goal. The naturally
sensitive, who really found in the European literature and arts some
sort of spiritual nourishment, set the pace, and the crowd followed at
their heels.
This cultural humility of ours astonished and still astonishes Europe.
In England, where “culture” is taken very frivolously, the bated
breath of the American, when he speaks of Shakespeare or Tennyson or
Browning, is always cause for amusement. And the Frenchman is always a
little puzzled at the crowds who attend lectures in Paris on “How to
See Europe Intelligently,” or are taken in vast parties through the
Louvre. The European objects a little to being so constantly regarded
as the keeper of a huge museum. If you speak to him of culture, you
find him frankly more interested in contemporaneous literature and art
and music than in his worthies of the olden time, more interested
in discriminating the good of to-day than in accepting the classics.
If he is a cultivated person, he is much more interested usually in
quarreling about a living dog than in reverencing a dead lion. If he
is a French _lettré_, for instance, he will be producing a book on
the psychology of some living writer, while the Anglo-Saxon will be
writing another on Shakespeare. His whole attitude towards the things
of culture, be it noted, is one of daily appreciation and intimacy, not
that attitude of reverence with which we Americans approach alien art,
and which penalizes cultural heresy among us.
The European may be enthusiastic, polemic, radiant, concerning his
culture; he is never humble. And he is, above all, never humble before
the culture of another country. The Frenchman will hear nothing but
French music, read nothing but French literature, and prefers his own
art to that of any other nation. He can hardly understand our almost
pathetic eagerness to learn of the culture of other nations, our
humility of worship in the presence of art that in no sense represents
the expression of any of our ideals and motivating forces.
To a genuinely patriotic American this cultural humility of ours is
somewhat humiliating. In response to this eager inexhaustible interest
in Europe, where is Europes interest in us? Europe is to us the land
of history, of mellow tradition, of the arts and graces of life, of the
best that has been said and thought in the world. To Europe we are the
land of crude racial chaos, of skyscrapers and bluff, of millionaires
and “bosses.” A French philosopher visits us, and we are all eagerness
to get from him an orientation in all that is moving in the world of
thought across the seas. But does he ask about our philosophy, does
he seek an orientation in the American thought of the day? Not at
all. Our humility has kept us from forcing it upon his attention, and
it scarcely exists for him. Our advertising genius, so powerful and
universal where soap and biscuits are concerned, wilts and languishes
before the task of trumpeting our intellectual and spiritual products
before the world. Yet there can be little doubt which is the more
intrinsically worth advertising. But our humility causes us to be taken
at our own face value, and for all this patient fixity of gaze upon
Europe, we get little reward except to be ignored, or to have our
interest somewhat contemptuously dismissed as parasitic.
And with justice! For our very goal and ideal of culture has made us
parasites. Our method has been exactly wrong. For the truth is that the
definition of culture, which we have accepted with such devastating
enthusiasm, is a definition emanating from that very barbarism from
which its author recoiled in such horror. If it were not that all our
attitude showed that we had adopted a quite different standard, it
would be the merest platitude to say that culture is not an acquired
familiarity with things outside, but an inner and constantly operating
taste, a fresh and responsive power of discrimination, and the
insistent judging of everything that comes to our minds and senses. It
is clear that such a sensitive taste cannot be acquired by torturing
our appreciations into conformity with the judgments of others, no
matter how “authoritative” those judgments may be. Such a method means
a hypnotization of judgment, not a true development of soul.
At the back of Arnolds definition is, of course, the implication
that if we have only learned to appreciate the “best,” we shall have
been trained thus to discriminate generally, that our appreciation of
Shakespeare will somehow spill over into admiration of the incomparable
art of Mr. G. Lowes Dickinson. This is, of course, exactly to reverse
the psychological process. A true appreciation of the remote and
the magnificent is acquired only after the judgment has learned to
discriminate with accuracy and taste between the good and bad, the
sincere and the false, of the familiar and contemporaneous art and
writing of every day. To set up an alien standard of the classics is
merely to give our lazy taste a resting-point, and to prevent forever
any genuine culture.
This virus of the “best” rages throughout all our Anglo-Saxon campaign
for culture. Is it not a notorious fact that our professors of English
literature make no attempt to judge the work produced since the death
of the last consecrated saint of the literary canon,--Robert Louis
Stevenson? In strict accordance with Arnolds doctrine, they are
waiting for the judgment upon our contemporaries which they call the
test of time, that is, an authoritative objective judgment, upon which
they can unquestioningly rely. Surely it seems as if the principle of
authority, having been ousted from religion and politics, had found
a strong refuge in the sphere of culture. This tyranny of the “best”
objectifies all our taste. It is a “best” that is always outside of
our native reactions to the freshnesses and sincerities of life, a
“best” to which our spontaneities must be disciplined. By fixing our
eyes humbly on the ages that are past, and on foreign countries, we
effectually protect ourselves from that inner taste which is the only
sincere “culture.”
Our cultural humility before the civilizations of Europe, then, is the
chief obstacle which prevents us from producing any true indigenous
culture of our own. I am far from saying, of course, that it is not
necessary for our arts to be fertilized by the civilizations of other
nations past and present. The culture of Europe has arisen only from
such an extensive cross-fertilization in the past. But we have passed
through that period of learning, and it is time for us now to set up
our individual standards. We are already “heir of all the ages” through
our English ancestry, and our last half-century of European idolatry
has done for us all that can be expected. But, with our eyes fixed
on Europe, we continue to strangle whatever native genius springs
up. Is it not a tragedy that the American artist feels the imperative
need of foreign approval before he can be assured of his attainment?
Through our inability or unwillingness to judge him, through our
cultural humility, through our insistence on the objective standard,
we drive him to depend on a foreign clientèle, to live even in foreign
countries, where taste is more confident of itself and does not require
the label, to be assured of the worth of what it appreciates.
The only remedy for this deplorable situation is the cultivation of
a new American nationalism. We need that keen introspection into the
beauties and vitalities and sincerities of our own life and ideals that
characterizes the French. The French culture is animated by principles
and tastes which are as old as art itself. There are “classics,”
not in the English and Arnoldian sense of a consecrated canon,
dissent from which is heresy, but in the sense that each successive
generation, putting them to the test, finds them redolent of those
qualities which are characteristically French, and so preserves them
as a precious heritage. This cultural chauvinism is the most harmless
of patriotisms; indeed it is absolutely necessary for a true life of
civilization. And it can hardly be too intense, or too exaggerated.
Such an international art exhibition as was held recently in New York,
with the frankly avowed purpose of showing American artists how bad
they were in comparison with the modern French, represents an appalling
degradation of attitude which would be quite impossible in any other
country. Such groveling humility can only have the effect of making us
feeble imitators, instead of making us assert, with all the power at
our command, the genius and individuality which we already possess in
quantity, if we would only see it.
In the contemporary talent that Europe is exhibiting, or even in the
genius of the last half-century, one will go far to find greater