In the dozy hours, and other papers/Reviewers and Reviewed


In these days of grace when all manner of evil-doers have their apologists; when we are bidden to admire the artistic spirit of Nero and the warm-hearted integrity of Henry the Eighth; when a "cult for Domitian" and a taste for Nihilists contend with each other in our estimation; it may not be ill-timed nor unduly venturesome to offer a few modest arguments in behalf of those Pariahs of modern literature, the anonymous reviewers of the press. They have been harshly abused for so many years. They have been targets for the wrath of authors, the scorn of satirists, the biting comments of injured genius. And now, when milder manners and gentler modes of speech are replacing the vigorous Billingsgate of our ancestors; when theologians and politicians make war upon one another with some show of charity and discretion, the reviewer alone is excluded from this semblance of good-will, the reviewer alone—a thing apart from brotherhood—is pelted as openly as ever. The stones that are cast at him are so big and so hard that if he still lives, and, in a mild way, even flourishes, it must be because of his own irritating obtusiveness, because of his unpardonable reluctance to come forward decently and be killed.

Now, when I read the list of his misdeeds, as they are set forth categorically by irate novelists and poets, when I hear of his "ferocity, incompetence and dishonesty," I am filled with heroic indignation and with craven fear. But when I turn from these scathing comments to a few columns of book notices, and see for myself the amiable effort that is made in them to say something reasonably pleasant about every volume, I begin to think that Mr. Lang is right when he complains that the ordinary anonymous reviewer is, as the Scotch lassie said of a modest lover, "senselessly ceevil," good-natured and forbearing to a fault. If he sins, it is through indifference, and not through brutality. He is more anxious to spare himself than to attack his author. He has that provoking charity which is based upon unconcern, and he looks upon a book with a gentle and weary tolerance, fatal alike to animosity and enthusiasm. To understand the annoyance provoked by this mental attitude, we must remember that the work which is thus carelessly handled is, in its writer's eyes, a thing sacred and apart; with faults perhaps,—no great book being wholly free from them,—but illustrating some particular attitude towards life, which places it beyond the pale of common, critical jurisprudence. Even the novelist of to-day sincerely believes that his point of view, his conception of his own art, and the lesson he desires to enforce are matters of vital interest to the public; and that it is crass ignorance on the reviewer's part to ignore these considerations, and to class his masterpiece with the companion stories of less self-conscious men. What is the use of superbly discarding all models, and of thanking Heaven daily one does not resemble Fielding and Scott, and Thackeray, if one cannot escape after all from the standards which these great men erected?

It is urged also against newspaper critics that they read only a small portion of the books which they pretend to criticise. This, I believe, is true, and it accounts for the good-humor and charity they display. If they read the whole, we should have a band of misanthropes who would spare neither age nor sex, and who would gain no clearer knowledge of their subjects through this fearful sacrifice of time and temper. "To know the vintage and quality of a wine," says Mr. Oscar Wilde, "one need not drink the whole cask. One tastes it, and that is quite enough." More than enough for the reviewer very often, but too little to satisfy the author, who regards his work as Dick Swiveller regarded beer, as something not to be adequately recognized in a sip. There is a secret and wholesome conviction in the heart of every man or woman who has written a book that it should be no easy matter for an intelligent reader to lay down that book unfinished. There is a pardonable impression among reviewers that half an hour in its company is sufficient. This is as much perhaps as they can afford to give it, and to write a brief, intelligent, appreciative notice of a partly read volume is not altogether the easy task it seems. That it is constantly done, proves the reviewer to be a man skilled in his petty craft; but we are merely paving the way to disappointment if we expect subtle analysis, or fervent eulogy, or even very discriminating criticism from his pen. He is not a Sainte-Beuve in the first place, and he has not a week of leisure in the second. We might console ourselves with the reflection that if he were a great and scholarly critic instead of an insignificant fellow-workman, our little books would never meet his eye.

Another complaint lodged periodically by discontents is that the author gains no real light from the comments passed upon his work, which are irritating and annoying without being in the smallest degree helpful. This is the substance of those sad grumblings which we heard some years ago from Mr. Lewis Morris; and this is the argument offered by Mr. Howells, who appears to think that Canon Farrar dealt a death-blow to reviewers in the simple statement that he never profited by their reviews. But at whose door lay the blame? It does not follow that, because a lesson is unlearned, it has never been taught. The Bourbons, it is said, gained nothing from some of the sharpest admonitions ever given by history. It is worth while to consider, in this regard, an extract from the Journal of Sir Walter Scott in which he mentions an anonymous letter sent him from Italy, and full of acute, acrid criticisms on the "Life of Bonaparte." "The tone is decidedly hostile," says Sir Walter calmly, "but that shall not prevent my making use of all his corrections, where just." It is a hard matter perhaps for smaller men to preserve this admirable tranquillity under assault; to say with Epictetus, "He little knew of my other shortcomings or he would not have mentioned these alone." Yet after all, it is an advantage to be told plainly what we need to know and cannot see for ourselves. I am sure that the most valuable lesson in literary perspective I ever received came from an anonymous reviewer, who reminded me curtly that "Mr. Saltus and Leopardi are not twins of the intellect." When I first saw that sentence I felt a throb of indignation that any one should believe, or affect to believe, that I ever for a moment supposed Mr. Saltus and Leopardi were twins of the intellect. Afterwards, when in calmer mood I re-read the essay criticised, I was forced to acknowledge that, if such were not my conviction, I had, to say the least, been unfortunate in my manner of putting things. I had used the two names indiscriminately and as if I thought one man every whit as worthy of illustrating my text as the other. Such moments ought to be salutary, they are so eminently cheerless. A disagreeable lesson, disagreeably imparted, is apt to be taken to heart with very beneficial results. If it is wasted, the fault does not lie with the surly truth-teller, whose thankless task has been performed with most ungracious efficacy. "Truth," says Saville, "has become such a ruining virtue, that mankind seems to be agreed to commend and avoid it."

As for the real and exasperating fault of much modern writing, its flippant and irrelevant cleverness, the critic and the reviewer stand equally guilty of the charge. Mr. Goldwin Smith observes that the province of criticism appears to be now limited to the saying of fine things; and there are moments when we feel that this unkind and forcible statement is very nearly true. The fatal and irresistible impulse to emit sparks—like the cat in the fairy story—lures a man away from his subject, and sends him dancing over pages in a glittering fashion that is as useless as it is pretty. It is amazing how brightly he shines, but we see nothing by his light. "He uses his topic," says Mr. Saintsbury, "as a springboard or platform on and from which to display his natural grace and agility, his urbane learning, his faculty of pleasant wit." We read, and laugh, and are entertained, and seldom pause to ask ourselves exactly what it was which the writer started out to accomplish.

Now the finest characteristic of all really good criticism is its power of self-repression. It is work within barriers, work which drives straight to its goal, and does not permit itself the luxury of meandering on either side of the way. In this respect at least, it is possible for the most modest of anonymous reviewers to follow the example of the first of critics, Sainte-Beuve, who never allowed himself to be lured away from the subject in hand, and never sacrificed exactness and perspicuity to effect. If we compare his essay on the historian Gibbon with one on the same subject by Mr. Walter Bagehot, we will better understand tills admirable quality of restraint. Mr. Bagehot's paper is delightful from beginning to end; keen, sympathetic, humorous, and sparkling all over with little brilliant asides about Peel's Act, and the South Sea Company, and grave powdered footmen, and Louis XIV., "carefully amusing himself with dreary trifles." Underneath its whimsical exaggerations we recognize clearly the truthful outlines and general fidelity of the sketch. But Sainte-Beuve indulges in none of these witty and wandering fancies. He is keenly alive to the proper limitations of his subject; he has but a single purpose in mind, that of helping you to accurately understand the character and the life's work of the great historian whom he is reviewing; and, while his humor plays lambently on every page, he never makes any conscious effort to be diverting. Nothing can be more sprightly than Mr. Bagehot's account of Gibbon's early conversion to the Church of Rome, and of the horror and alarm he awoke thereby at the manor-house of Buriton, where "it would probably have occasioned less sensation if 'dear Edward' had announced his intention of becoming a monkey." Nothing can be more dexterous than Mr. Bagehot's analysis of the cautious skepticism which replaced the brief religious fervor of youth. But when we turn back to Sainte-Beuve, we see this little sentence driven like an arrow-point straight to the heart of the mystery. "While he (Gibbon) prided himself on being wholly impartial and indifferent where creeds were concerned, he cherished, without avowing it, a secret and cold spite against religious thought, as if it were an adversary which had struck him one day when unarmed, and had wounded him." A secret and cold spite. Were ever five short words more luminously and dispassionately significant?

A sense of proportion intrudes itself so seldom into the popular criticism of to-day, that it is hardly worth while to censure the reviewer for not comprehending differences of degree. How should he, when the whole tone of modern sentiment is subversive of order and distinction; when the generally accepted opinion appears to be that we are doing everything better than it was ever done before, and have nothing to learn from anybody? This is a pleasant opinion to entertain, but it is apt to be a little misleading. The old gods are not so readily dislodged, and their festal board is not a round table at which all guests hold equal rank. If you thrust Balzac or Tolstoi by the side of Shakespeare, the great poet, it has been well said, will, in his infinite courtesy, move higher and make room. But you cannot bid them change seats at your discretion. Parnassus is not the exclusive pasture ground of the Frenchman or of the Muscovite. "Homer often nods, but, in 'Taras Bulba,' Gogol never nods," I read not long ago in a review. The inference is plain, and quite in harmony with much that we hear every day; but how many times already has Homer been outstripped by long forgotten competitors! It is not indeed the nameless critic of the newspapers who gives utterance to these startling statements. They are signed and countersigned in magazines, and occasionally republished in fat volumes for the comfort and enlightenment of posterity. The real curiosities of criticism have ever emanated from men bearing the symbol of authority. It was no anonymous reviewer who called Dante a "Methodist parson in Bedlam," or who said that Wordsworth's poetry would "never do," or who spoke of the "caricaturist, Thackeray." It is no anonymous reviewer now who bids us exult and be glad over the "literary emancipation of the West," as though that large and flourishing portion of the United States had hitherto been held in lettered bondage.

In fact, as one's experience in these matters increases day by day, one is fain to acknowledge that the work of the unknown or little known professional critic, faulty though it be, has certain modest advantages over the similar work of his critics, the poets and novelists when they take to the business of reviewing. There are several very successful story-writers who are just now handling criticism after a fashion which recalls that delightful scene in "The Monks of Thelema," where an effort to make the village maidens vote a golden apple to the prettiest of their number is frustrated by the unforeseen contingency of each girl voting for herself. In the same artless spirit, the novelist turned critic confines his good will so exclusively to his own work, or at best to that school of fiction which his own work represents, that, while we cannot sufficiently admire his methods, we do not feel greatly stimulated by their results. As for the poet umpire, he is apt to bring an uncomfortable degree of excitability to bear upon his task. It is readily granted that Mr. Swinburne manifests at times an exquisite critical discernment, and a broad sympathy for much that is truly good; but when less gifted souls behold him foaming in Berserker wrath over insignificant trifles, they are wont to ask themselves what in the world is the matter. We can forgive him, or at least we can strive to forgive him, for reviling Byron, snubbing George Eliot, underrating George Sand, ignoring Jane Austen, calling poor Steele a "sentimental debauchee," and asserting that the only two women worthy to stand by the side of Charlotte Brontë," "the fiery-hearted vestal of Haworth"—though why "vestal," only Mr. Swinburne knows—are her sister Emily and Mrs. Browning. But when he has been permitted to do all this and a great deal more, why should he fall into a passion, and use the strongest of strong language, because there are details in which everybody does not chance to agree with him? In so wide a world there must of necessity be many minds, and the opinions of a poet are not always beacon fires to light us through the gloom. Even the musician has been for some time prepared to step into the critical arena, and Mr. E. S. Dallos, in "The Gay Science," quotes for us a characteristic extract from Wagner, which probably means something, though only a very subtle intellect could venture to say what.

"If we now consider the activity of the poet more closely, we perceive that the realization of his intention consists solely in rendering possible the representation of the strengthened actions of his poetized forms through an exposition of their motives to the feelings, as well as the motives themselves. Also by an expression that in so far engrosses his activity, as the invention and production of this expression in truth first render the introduction of such motives and actions possible."

After this splendid example of style and lucidity, it may be that even the ordinary, every-day, unostentatious reviewer whom we so liberally despise will be admitted to possess some few redeeming virtues.

And, in truth, patience is one of them. Think of the dull books which lie piled upon his table! Think how many they are, and how long they are, and how alike they are, and how serious they are, and how little we ourselves would care to read them! If the reviewer sometimes misses what is really good, or praises what is really bad, this does not mean that he is incompetent, dishonest, or butcherly. It means that he is human, that he is tired, perhaps a little peevish, and disposed to think the world would be a merrier place if there were fewer authors in it. The new novelist or budding poet who comes forward at this unpropitious moment is not hailed with acclamations of delight; while the conscientious worker who has spent long months in compiling the weighty memoirs of departed mediocrity is outraged by the scant attention he receives. Meanwhile the number of books increases with fearful speed. Each is the embodiment of a sanguine hope, and each claims its meed of praise. A fallible reviewer struggles with the situation as best he can, saying pleasant things which are scantily merited, and sharp things which are hardly deserved; but striving intelligently, and with tolerable success to tell a self-indulgent public something about the volumes which it is too lazy to read for itself.

"O dreams of the tongues that commend us,
Of crowns for the laureate pate,
Of a public to buy and befriend us,
Ye come through the Ivory Gate.
But the critics that slash us and slate,
But the people that hold us in scorn,
But the sorrow, the scathe, and the hate,
Through the portals of horn."