My Friend

To-day we called each other by our given names for the first time.

Making a new friend is so exhilarating an adventure that perhaps it will not be out of place if I tell you a little about him. There are not many of his kind.

In the first place, he is stout, like myself. We are both agreed that many of the defects of American letters to-day are due to the sorry leanness of our writing men. We have no Chestertons, no Bellocs. I look to Don Marquis, to H.L. Mencken, to Heywood Broun, to Clayton Hamilton, and to my friend here portraited, to remedy this. If only Mr. Simeon Strunsky were stouter! He is plump, but not yet properly corpulent.

My friend is a literary journalist. There are but few of them in these parts. Force of circumstances may compel him to write of trivial things, but it would be impossible for him not to write with beauty and distinction far above his theme. His style is a perfect echo of his person, mellow, quaint, and richly original. To plunder a phrase of his own, it is drenched with the sounds, the scents, the colours, of great literature.

I, too, am employed in a bypath of the publishing business, and try to bring to my tasks some small measure of honest idealism. But what I love (I use this great word with care) in my friend is that his zeal for beauty and for truth is great enough to outweigh utterly the paltry considerations of expediency and comfort which sway most of us. To him his pen is as sacred as the scalpel to the surgeon. He would rather die than dishonour that chosen instrument.

I hope I am not merely fanciful: but the case of my friend has taken in my mind a large importance quite beyond the exigencies of his personal situation. I see in him personified the rising generation of literary critics, who have a hard row to hoe in a deliterated democracy. By some unknowable miracle of birth or training he has come by a love of beauty, a reverence for what is fine and true, an absolute intolerance of the slipshod and insincere.

Such a man is not happy, can never be happy, when the course of his daily routine wishes him to praise what he does not admire, to exploit what he does not respect. The most of us have some way of quibbling ourselves out of this dilemma. But he cannot do so, because more than comfort, more than clothes and shoe leather, more than wife or fireside, he must preserve the critic's self-respect. "I cannot write a publicity story about A.B," he said woefully to me, "because I am convinced he is a bogus philosopher. I am not interested in selling books: what I have to do with is that strange and esoteric thing called literature."

I would be sorry to have it thought that because of this devotion to high things my friend is stubborn, dogmatic, or hard to work with. He is unpractical as dogs, children, or Dr. Johnson; in absent-minded simplicity he has issued forth upon the highway only half-clad, and been haled back to his boudoir by indignant bluecoats; but in all matters where absolute devotion to truth and honour are concerned I would not find him lacking. Wherever a love of beauty and a ripened judgment of men and books are a business asset, he is a successful business man.

In person, he has the charm of a monstrously overgrown elf. His shyly wandering gaze behind thick spectacle panes, his incessant devotion to cigarettes and domestic lager, his whimsical talk on topics that confound the unlettered--these are amiable trifles that endear him to those who understand.

Actually, in a hemisphere bestridden by the crass worship of comfort and ease, here is a man whose ideal is to write essays in resounding English, and to spread a little wider his love of the niceties of fine prose.

I have anatomized him but crudely. If you want to catch him in a weak spot, try him on Belloc. Hear him rumble his favourite couplet;

And the men who were boys when I was a boy

Shall sit and drink with me.

Indeed let us hope that they will.

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