The American Essay in War Time

THE AMERICAN ESSAY IN WAR TIME

By Agnes Repplier


A PROFESSOR in an American college bewailed the fact that he had sold an essay on Sir Thomas Browne to an English review in the spring of 1914, and that it had never been printed. His words affected his hearers more profoundly than he had anticipated. They glanced back briefly and tragically upon a half-forgotten world in which people really did write about Sir Thomas Browne, and even read Sir Thomas Browne; a world in which literature pleased, and art was safe, and hearts were strangely at peace. They felt like the little group of urchins who, in "Punch's" pathetic picture, gather gaping around Billy Smith—" 'im wot remembers when there wasn't no war."

To write essays in these flaming years, one must have a greater power of detachment than had Montaigne or Lamb. Montaigne's troubles during the civil wars of the League were singularly vexatious, and one of his precious volumes came near being lost to the world. But he was a high-hearted gentleman, living on his own estate, safe from a morning post, and deeming religion the last thing in the world to fight about. A great deal was happening in Europe when Lamb wrote his unagitated studies of beggars, and chimney-sweepers, and poor relations; but amid all the turmoil he witnessed with seeming unconcern there was no plunge into barbarism, nothing to take him by the throat, and strangle his serenity. The poet is, and has always been, entitled to live in his own world—if he can. Herrick published his "Hesperides" a few months before Charles the First was beheaded, and awakened to the full significance of Puritanism only when the Puritans, who had scant regard for Corinna's May-flowers, or for Julia's pretty furbelows, thrust him from his pleasant vicarage. The essayist has only the common world in which to rejoice or suffer with the men and women who fill it. The element of artifice in his work unfits it for bitter and blinding truths. If we open an index to periodical literature, and see how many columns are headed "European War," we understand why there is no room left for the essay. If we look next at the columns bearing the sub-title, "Atrocities," we know why there is no heart left in the essayist. The college professor could not have written his paper on Sir Thomas Browne after August, 1914.

The submerging of the essay in the "Great Preoccupation" means a heavier loss to English than to American letters, because this "cadet of literature," to borrow Mr. Curtis's happy phrase, is more in accord with the genius of English than of American prose. Its personality is born of leisure and reflection. If Steele were familiar alike with the rough world of the soldier and the thick atmosphere of party strife, there is little to indicate it in his detached and delicate virility. His tentative treatment of Montaigne's "experiment" is a wonderful admixture of freedom and precaution. He seems complete arbiter of his essay's fate, but he deeply respects the laws which give it form. The early prose writers of the United States were by way of thinking that a composition which was not a tale or a sermon became, by this simple process of elimination, an essay. A printed lecture (and lectures were much in favor) was an essay. A spoken essay was a lecture. The terms were interchangeable. This flowing and generous standard has not been wholly abandoned. Letters of Benjamin Franklin's have been ranked as American essays because they deal with generalities instead of details, and are written in a moralising instead of in a gossipping strain. Even his dialogue with the gout, too heavily playful and too relentlessly didactic to be tolerated as conversation, has been presented to American readers as an essay.

When Hawthorne prefaced his great masterpiece with the long "Custom-House" chapter, written with irritating zest, his contemporaries accepted this excrescence entirely on its own merits; deeming it, says Mr. Brownell, "a marvel quite eclipsing 'Elia,' " and never asking why, in Heaven's name, it was there. When Poe analyzed in twelve pitiless pages the mental processes which gave birth to the "Raven," dwelling explicitly upon every symptom, like an old lady tracing the rise and progress of a cold, his contemporaries devoutly believed in this "Philosophy of Composition." The essayists of the "Spectator" and the "Tatler" owed their vivacity, no less than their brevity, to the fact that they wrote for a public which resolutely refused to be bored. The early American essayists had the fatal fortune to write for a public incapable of boredom. When that good patriot, accomplished gentleman, and melancholy humorist, Mr. Francis Hopkinson, undertook to be funny, he would have drawn tears from any eyes save those of his own countrymen. Even Irving's humor, graceful, felicitous, and disciplined by unimpeachable good taste, is sometimes, as in "The Mutability of Literature," of a visibly premeditated order. Dr. Richard Garnett was perhaps right when he regretted that fate had not led Irving westward, to the newest new world, where he could have studied fresh and rough types of humanity. It is true that the "Tour of the Prairies" has little to commend it; but tours of any kind make negligible reading. We might have had from Irving's facile pen pictures of those pioneer conditions which never fail to interest because they are both adventurous and short-lived. Yet who can have the heart to wish he had exchanged his eminently enjoyable life for one of unloved harshness, simply for the sake of a background? If the England he describes seems now, and seemed before the war, as remote as Belshazzar's Babylon, and far more remote than Caesar's Rome, its verisimilitude passed muster in its day. And Irving, with admirable astuteness, wrote for his readers.

Mr. Owen Wister, whose word it is always well to consider, holds that American essayists are as good as American novelists are bad. Just how much praise is conveyed in this somewhat gloomy comparison, I should not like to say. The notable point in Mr. Wister's criticism is his definition of Washington's Farewell Address and Lincoln's Speech at Gettysburg as belonging, "in their essence, to the family of the essay." Personally, I believe these immortal utterances to be closer in form than in essence to what has been authoritatively recognized as an essay. They are short prose compositions of faultless phrase, but also of heroic substance. They belong to the splendid category of professions of faith, political or polemical. Their wisdom is essential, not incidental. Their place is in mid-stream where the current of life bears swiftly; not in the backwater where personality finds time to intrude itself delicately upon observation.

Without accepting Dr. Johnson's interpretation of an essay as an "irregular, undigested piece," which would seem to indicate he was no reader of Bacon, there exists a not unnatural desire to sever Locke's "Essay Concerning Human Understanding" from Lamb's "Mackery End in Hertfordshire." A stout volume may be called an essay by its author. A preface or a random chapter may be classed as an essay by a compiler. Mr. Arthur Benson designates the "Anatomy of Melancholy" as a gigantic essay. If we are to accept Burton, why balk at Locke! Mr. Curtis ranks "The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table" with the familiar essays of Addison and Steele; and in this instance the likeness is one of essence, not form. The "Autocrat" tempers his wit to the shorn lambs of a Boston boarding-house, and the result is a brave, wise, and homely philosophy of life. Dr. Holmes, moreover, owed a great deal to his profession. Next to a statesman or a diplomat, a physician speaks authoritatively, as one acquainted with intricate human ways. But a point to be remembered is that when this admirable commentator started out to write a detached essay, he devoted fifty-four unflinching pages to "Mechanism in Thought and Morals," and fifty-two pages to the "Seasons," a theme pre-empted—and exhausted—by Thomson.

If the American essay is to include our best political utterances, as well as our noblest thinking and our most acute criticism, Mr. Wister is right in assigning it a high place in the world of letters. Through this medium Emerson taught us superbly his austere philosophy. Whether we accept this philosophy or reject it, whether it ignites our souls or chills them, we are equally aware that "great men taken up in any way are profitable companions." The essay was the chosen field in which Mr. Lowell displayed his urbane scholarship, his sanity and wit. Mr. Henry James turned from the despotism of fiction long enough to give us two volumes of essays which Mr. Brownell rightly says, "stand at the head of American literary criticism." There is nothing to put by their side, unless, indeed, it be Mr. Brownell's own studies of Victorian and American prose, so sure, so balanced, so immaculately free from personal preference as a basis of criticism. To escape from the portentous solemnities of Poe's "Philosophy of Composition," and read the crystal-clear sentence in which Mr. Brownell disposes of the situation, "An incurable dilettante coldly caressing a morbid mood," is not merely to understand the "Raven"; it is to step from the ordered and intricate nothingness of a labyrinth to the naked and open land.

The personal essay, the little bit of sentiment or observation, the lightly offered commentary which aims to appear the artless thing it isn't—this exotic, of which Lamb was a rare exponent, has withered in the blasts of war. England and France paid scant heed to its unresisting decay. In the United States our long cherished neutrality offered it a precarious foothold. Mr. Henry Dwight Sedgwick has perhaps striven longest and striven hardest to preserve its imperilled life. He has turned a smiling and resolute face to permanent things; to the breakfast table, which we hope to have always with us, and to school-girls who interest him because he was born a boy. He professes a veritable curiosity concerning these transparent young creatures who hold back no shreds of their souls from inspection. But the price he pays for his steadfastness is that his words, whether grave or gay, seem to his readers to have been written in some unstirred, prehistoric days with which we have lost connection. When he counsels us to exclude the newspaper from our morning meal because it arouses our "sectarian emotions, our prejudices, our annoyances," and so is not fitted "to bring out the best in breakfast," we cannot without conscious effort follow his fancy back to those forgotten mornings when we had room in our souls for prejudices and annoyances, when we picked up our morning paper without a pang of apprehension, and read it without sharp pain or sacrificial joy.

Even Mr. Sedgwick's admirable essay on Goethe, who is as permanent as breakfast, seems inconceivably remote. We read the opening paragraph in which he speaks of Mr. Lowes Dickinson as embodying in the eyes of Americans the spirit of Oxford and of Cambridge, and his words sound like the echo of a dream—a dream from which we have awakened to know of what mettle the Universities are made. If Goethe could now bring serenity to our souls, we should have no right to admit it. There is unlovely work to be done. Saint George doubtless had his serene moments, but not when he was battling in the dragon's coils. Devotion is to war what temperance is to peace. An emancipated spirit is a divine spirit only when it is resolute to brook no evil willingly.

The humors of war are the humors of humanity. They have a body and a substance as real as are the fighting men who jest before they die. They bring relief to our spirits, because they savor of nature's "indefatigable renewals." The callous levity of the trenches never offends us when we remember that the jokers are pledged to the great sacrifice. The determined and not too easy cheerfulness of the warring nations is a miracle of courage. We shall have plenty of chance to be courageous along these lines. But the mirth of neutrals is apt to be distasteful when it mocks at the things of war. There is no kindlier essayist than Mr. Simeon Strunsky, no one closer than he to the "simple, humorous, average American man." Yet when he ventured in the early days of our neutrality to voice a thought which, in one form or another, has intruded itself into every mind, and to smile at the people of Europe clamoring in divers tongues to the Almighty, and all "calling for victory which is the code word for slaughter," we listened, chilled and affronted, to this embodiment of a universal jest. Perhaps there swept across our minds a vision of the Belgian woman who sees her man standing up to be shot against the old church wall, who knows herself to be the destined spoil of battle, and whose inarticulate cry to Heaven is the call of all suffering creatures to the Creator. Our fallibility does not release us from the obligation of severing right from wrong—an obligation which is the converging point of Christianity and civilization. In one of the most charming and intimate of early English essays, Cowley speaks this word of wisdom: "God laughs at a man who says to his soul, 'Take thine ease.' "

When a habitually sober thinker dallies with a playful mood, his frivolity is apt to be weighted; but when a habitually humorous thinker grows grave under the stress of a great emotion, his gravity is pointed with wit. Mr. Crothers is an essayist who has seemed to court vivacity rather than yield to it. He admits himself to be a leisure-loving man, whose pleasure it has been to escape from the clamorous present to the peaceful past, to dig into old books, to peer into old churches and school-rooms, to ponder over old theologies. He remarks with illuminating candor that the drawback of living with our contemporaries is that they are forever standing around, waiting to do something for us, or have us do something for them. Every human relation involves responsibility; whereas when we have drawn from an ancient volume all the wit and sweetness it can yield, we put it back on the shelf and have done with it.

This is the true spirit of the essayist who is meditative rather than satiric; yet it is to the pen of Mr. Crothers that we owe a most delicate and pitiless exposition of that moral debility which has blighted the far-famed scholarship of Germany. With admirable art he has embodied the Prussian philosophy in a letter from Epaphroditus to Epictetus. The master bids the slave to be content with slavery, since it in no wise interferes with intellectual and spiritual progress: "In all that concerns thy higher life thou shalt be free. Thy master will watch thy flight into pure virtue with approval. He will be the lower limit of thy activity. He will prevent thy powers from being wasted on matters unworthy of thee. Thy problem is to be as free as it is possible to be while yet his slave." What Epaphroditus asks—and it seems to him a just demand—is that the wisdom of the slave shall be the possession of the master. Epictetus must be wise within bounds, and his teaching must support the well-ordered fabric of established rule. It is for him to give men correct answers before they are prompted to ask difficult questions. Thus and thus only shall authority be fortressed by intelligence. "Man is a rational animal, and loves to have a reason for what he is compelled to do."

To this acute and specious argument Epictetus opposes one overmastering fact. A slave, he admits, may be a lofty philosopher, but only a free man can teach the truth: "The teacher does not hold his thought. He releases it. It straightway flies to another mind, and urges it to action. How can you expect your lame slave to follow his freed thoughts that now have entered into minds more enterprising and courageous than his own. If I teach justice, how shall I prevent some quick-witted young man from doing a just deed which may disturb the business of my master?"

If the personal or social essay—the felicitous study of men and things—has fared ill for the past three years, the critical essay has been well-nigh obliterated. It is certainly easier to read a few pages on commuters' gardens or the perils of precocity than an analysis of Sir Thomas Browne. We can even make shift for the present to do without any further comment on Mr. Bernard Shaw, and this elimination will leave a large free space in our lives. But critical essayists, like Mr. Paul Elmer More, and social essayists, like Mr. Edward Sandford Martin, have long helped us to do our thinking, and their task is not yet done. All essayists have a right to preach a little (the lust for preaching burns in every soul), provided their method be indirect, and their message capably brief. There is an hour's good sermon condensed into Mr. John Jay Chapman's two lines, "Hardy, self-perpetuating ethics must draw constant life from religion." There is another in Mr. Martin's discerning sentence, "A sincerely religious man may become a great money-maker; but it seems a good deal safer to regard his money-making as something concurrent with his religious duty rather than as the realization of it."

Even the delicate tracery of a pen portrait, the most finished if the least inspiring form of essay-writing, conveys its moral to the world. I do not include in this category sketches of public characters or of personal friends, which are journalistic, and belong to an exclusive class of reporting. I have in mind such a triumphant piece of work as Mr. Flandrau's "Mr. and Mrs. Parke," in which a human type, set in its appropriate surroundings, like a jewel in a ring or an island in the sea, is presented without pity and without asperity. The elderly Boston couple whose lives have been spent in "the deification of the unessential, the reduction of puttering to a science," live convincingly in the few pages assigned to them. Mr. Flandrau is as kind to their facile virtues as he is tolerant of their essential unworthiness. He murmurs endearing words while he probes delicately into their tranquil and unfathomable selfishness. If the intrusion of a friend into their vast empty house affects them as an unwarranted eruption of Vesuvius might affect a careless dweller on its crest, if they feel that the universe is out of gear when an expressman has left their daily box of flowers at the wrong house, it is because they have come to believe that making themselves superlatively and harmoniously comfortable justifies existence. Moving as smoothly in their orbit as do the "formal stars," they feel they are part of the well-ordered scheme of creation, and they have said to their souls, "Take thine ease"!

The wind of war has winnowed the chaff from the wheat, and the pleasantness of life is not, at the last analysis, the gift most deeply prized. We have let it go, and gathered to our hearts impelling duties and austerities. In one of the best of American essays, written nearly thirty years ago, Mr. Henry James says of London, which he loved, but never idealized: "It is not to be denied that the heart tends to grow hard in her company; but she is a capital antidote to the morbid, and to live with her successfully is an education of the temper, a consecration of one's private philosophy."

"One's private philosophy." This is the essayist's birth-right. This is his inheritance from Montaigne, who turned a deaf ear to religious strife, and from Lamb, who looked with seeming unconcern upon Napoleon's downfall. And who so upheld by philosophy as Mr. James; who so unmoved a spectator of the intricate game of life; who so well fitted to escape from the agony of nations to the impregnable world of the intellect? Yet the invasion of France, the rape of Belgium gave him his death-blow. The grossness of Germany's treachery and violence wounded his honor, his man-hood, and his heart, which was not cold. Never for one moment were his eyes withdrawn from the strife until death kindly closed them. He died in a year of shattered hopes and profound depression. It was not for him to hear the great profession of faith in which Mr. Wilson asked for war; nor the ringing words of Mr. Beck, "If I saw the United States going down to defeat, and the cause of civilization perishing, I should still thank God we had the heart to fight"; nor Mr. Roosevelt's strong and straight appeal, "Only by putting honor and duty ahead of safety, shall we stand erect before the world, high of heart, and the masters of our own souls"; nor the noble assurance of Mr. Martin, "This is a world of promise beyond all the promise of a thousand years, a world in which whoever is strong in the faith may hope everything that saints foresaw, or martyrs died to bring."

These are the words of American essayists in war time, and when Heaven permits us a return to peace, and to the pleasant perusal of Sir Thomas Browne, we shall remember by whose help we cleansed our hearts, and shouldered our burdens, and faced our share of responsibility for the assaulted civilization of the world.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1925.


The author died in 1950, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.