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Unfriendly Criticism


It was the experience of Eugenio that the criticisms of his books, when they were unfriendly, presented a varying offence, rather than a cumulative offence, as the years wore on. The criticisms of one's books are always hard to bear if they are unfavorable, but he thought that displeasure for displeasure the earlier refusal to allow him certain merits was less displeasing than the later consent to take these merits for granted. To be taken for granted in any wise is to be limited. It is tantamount to having it said of one that, yes, one has those virtues, but one has no others. It comes also to saying that one has, of course, the defects of one's virtues; though Eugenio noted that, when certain defects of his were taken for granted, it did not so distinctly and immediately follow that he was supposed to have the virtues of these.

Now, Eugenio's theory of himself was that he was not limited, and that, if he modestly stopped short of infinity, it was because he chose. He had a feeling of always breaking new ground; and he did not like being told that he was tilling the old glebe and harvesting the same crops, or that in the little garden-ground where he let his fancy play he was culling flowers of such familiar tint and scent that they seemed to be the very flowers he had picked thirty or forty years before. What made it harder to endure suggestion of this sort was that in his feeling of always breaking new ground there was an inner sense, or fear, or doubt, that perhaps it was not really virgin soil he was turning up, but merely the sod of fields which had lain fallow a year or two or had possibly been cropped the season before.

The misgiving was forced upon him by certain appearances in the work of other veteran authors. When he took up the last book of some lifelong favorite, no matter how great a master he knew him still to be, he could not help seeing that the poor old master was repeating himself, though he would not have phrased the case in such brutal terms. Then the chill wonder how long he could hope to escape the like fate pierced him, and for a moment he could not silence the question whether it might not have already befallen him. In another moment he knew better, and was justly aggrieved with the next reviewer who took things in him for granted, quite as offensively if they were merits as if they were defects. It was vital to him to be always breaking new ground, and, if at times it seemed to him that he had turned this or that furrow before, he said to himself that it was merely one of those intimations of pre-existence which are always teasing us here with the sense of experience in circumstances absolutely novel; and he hoped that no one else would notice the coincidence.

He was, indeed, tolerably safe from the chance, for it is one of the conditions of literary criticism that the reviewers shall be nearly always young persons. They, if they alone are capable of the cruelties they sometimes practise, are alone capable of the enthusiasms which supply publishers with quotable passages for their advertisements, and which lift authors' hearts in pride and joy. It is to their advantage that they generally bring to the present work of a veteran author an ignorance of all that he has done before, and have the zest for it which the performance of a novice inspires. They know he is not a novice, of course, and they recognize his book as that of a veteran, but they necessarily treat it as representative of his authorship. Of course, if it is his twentieth or thirtieth book, or his fortieth or fiftieth, it is merely one of a long series which fully represents him. Even these collectively represent him inadequately as long as he is adding to them, if he has the habit, like Eugenio, of always breaking new ground. The reviewer, however, is probably much newer than the ground which the established author breaks in his last book, and, coming to it in his generous ignorance, which he has to conceal under a mask of smiling omniscience, he condemns or praises it without reference to the work which has gone before it and which it is merely part of, though of course it has entirety enough of a sort to stand alone. If the author has broken ground in the direction of a new type of heroine, the reviewer, by the conditions of his calling, is all but obliged to say that here is one of those enchanting girls whom the author in question has endeared to generations of readers; or one of those tedious prudes for whom his name is a synonyme. If, after many psychological romances, the author has stepped down to the level of actual life, he is praised or blamed for the vital or servile naturalism of his work; or if the contrary is the case, he has to read of himself as doing something habitual and entirely characteristic of him. In vain, so far as that acute young critic is concerned, has he broken new ground. But if he has with much compunction consciously turned his furrows in a field tilled before, he stands a fair chance of being hailed at the outset of a new career.

He cannot openly complain, and if he could the critic cannot help being what he is. If the critic were older and more versed in the veteran author, he might not like him so well, and he could not, at any rate, bring the fresh interest to his work which the young reviewer brings. What Eugenio would really wish would be to have each successive book of his given for review to some lifelong admirer, some dear and faithful friend, all the better for not being an acquaintance, who had liked him from the beginning and was intimately versed in all his work. Such a critic would know that Eugenio was always breaking new ground, and that he was never more true to this inherent tendency than when he seemed to be ploughing the same old furrows in the same old fields. Such a critic would be alert to detect those fine differences of situation which distinguish a later from an earlier predicament. He would note with unfailing perspicacity the shades of variance which constitute Florindo an essentially novel character when presented under the name of Lindoro, or Floribella a fresh delight when she reappears as Doralinda. Even when he could not deny that these persons were in themselves one and the same, he would be able to make the reader observe that the new light thrown upon them by the author's ever-renascent art revealed in familiar creations traits of mind and charms of spirit unimagined before. He would insist that, if not new, they were newer, because being more fully ascertained they were truer. He would boldly recur to the personages in Eugenio's former books whom they reminded one of, and, studying them in contrast, would convince the reader that the increasing purpose of the author in the treatment of the well-known types had been to reveal the infinite variety of character which lay hid in each and every human type.

Some such reviewer, Eugenio thought, all journals pretending to literary authority ought to keep on their staff for the comfort of veteran authors and for the dispensation of that more delicate and sympathetic justice which their case required. It might be well enough to use a pair of ordinary steelyards, or even hay-scales, in weighing out the rewards and punishments of younger authors, but some such sensitive balance as only the sympathetic nerves of equal years, and, if possible, equal intelligence, could adjust ought to be used in ascertaining the merits of a veteran author.

In his frankest self-consciousness, Eugenio did not say a veteran author like himself, and he did not insist exclusively upon a veteran critic for his behoof. There were times when he thought that a young critic, coming in the glow of adolescence and the freshness of knowledge won from the recent study of all his works, might be better fitted to appreciate the qualities of the latest. He quite rejected the notion, when it came to business, with which he had sometimes played, of an author reviewing his own books, and this apart from his sense of its immodesty. In the course of his experience he had known of but one really great author who had done this, and then had done it upon the invitation of an editor of rare if somewhat wilful perspicacity, who invited the author to do it on the ground that no one else could do it so well. But though he would not have liked to be his own reviewer, because it was not seemly, he chiefly feared that if put upon his honor, as he would be in such a case, he must deal with his work so damagingly as to leave little or nothing of it. He might make the reputation of a great critic, but in doing execution upon his own shortcomings he might be the means of destroying himself as a great author.

After all, authors are not the self-satisfied generation they must often seem to the public which has tried to spoil them with praise. There is much in doing a thing which makes a man modest in regard to the way he has done it. Even if he knows that he has done it well, if the testimony of all his faculties is to that effect, there is somehow the lurking sense that it was not he who really did it, but that there is a power, to turn Matthew Arnold's phrase to our use, "not ourselves, that works for" beauty as well as righteousness, and that it was this mystical force which wrought through him to the exquisite result. If you come to the second-best results, to the gold so alloyed that you may confidently stamp it your own, do you wish to proclaim it the precious metal without alloy? Do you wish to declare that it is to all intents and purposes quite as good as pure gold, or even better? Do you hold yourself quit of the duty of saying that it is second-best, that it is something mixed with copper or nickel, and of the value of oroide, say? You cannot bring yourself to this extreme of candor, and what right, then, have you to recognize that something else is fine gold when it is really so? Ought not you to feign that it is only about thirteen carats when it is actually eighteen?

Considerations like these always stayed Eugenio when it came to the point of deciding whether he would care to be his own reviewer, but the desire to be adequately reviewed still remained with him, a fond longing amid repeated disappointments. An author often feels that he has got too much praise, though he never has got all he wants. "Why don't they clap?" Doctor Holmes once whimsically demanded, speaking of his audiences in those simple early days when he went about lecturing like Emerson and Alcott and other saints and sages of New England. "Do they think I can't stand it? Why don't they give me three times three? I can stand it very well." An author may sometimes think he is fulsomely praised and may even feel a sort of disgust for the slab adulation trowelled upon him, but his admirer need not fear being accused of insincerity. He may confidently count upon being regarded as a fine fellow who has at worst gone wrong in the right direction. It ought, therefore, to be a very simple matter to content a veteran author in the article of criticism, but somehow it is not.

Perhaps the trouble is in the nature of criticism, which, unwillingly enough, no doubt, assumes to be and to do more than it can. Its convention is that it is an examination of a book and a report upon its qualities. But it is not such a report, and it cannot be in the limits assigned it, which are the only tolerable limits with the reader. The author would not mind if the critic's report were physically commensurate with his book; but, of course, the reader could not stand that; and, generous as they are, other authors might complain. Sometimes, as it is, they think that any one of their number who gets something like a good report from a critic is getting more than his deserts. Yet authors, though a difficult, are not an impossible generation. Few of them would allow that they are even unreasonable with regard to criticism, and they would probably hail any improvement in its theories and methods with gratitude.

As criticism cannot be an adequate report upon the qualities of a book, even a book which has not been examined, why should it assume to do more than talk about it and talk all the better for being merely tentative and altogether unfinal? Nobody can really be authoritative concerning anything, for there is no one whose wisdom will not be disputed by others of the wise. The best way, then, might be for a reviewer to go round collecting sentiment and opinion about the book he means to talk of, and then to give as many qualifying varieties of impression as the general unhandsomeness of human nature will allow him to give when they differ from his own impression. On the terms of the old and still accepted convention of criticism, Eugenio had himself done a vast deal of reviewing, an amount of it, in fact, that he could not consider without amaze, and in all this reviewing he had not once satisfied himself with his work. Never once had he written a criticism which seemed to him adequate, or more than an approximation to justice, even when he had most carefully, almost prayerfully, examined the work he reported upon. He was aware of writing from this mood or that, of feeling hampered by editorial conditions, of becoming impatient or jaded, and finally employing the hay-scales when he ought to have used the delicate balances with which one weighs out life-giving elixirs or deadly poisons. But he used to imagine that if he could have put himself in the attitude of easy discussion or light comment, instead of the judicial pose he felt obliged to take, he could have administered a far finer and more generous measure of justice. In these moments he used to wonder whether something stated and organized in the way of intelligent talk about books might not be substituted for the conventional verdicts and sentences of the courts of criticism.

In this notion he proceeded upon a principle evolved from his own experience in fields far from the flinty and sterile ranges of criticism. He had not only done much reviewing in those days, but he had already written much in the kinds which he could not, in his modesty, bring himself to call "creative," though he did not mind others calling it so. Whatever had been the shortcomings of the conventional reports upon his work, it was his glad experience that nothing he said or meant, not the slightest intention or airiest intimation in his books, was ever wholly lost. Somewhere, some one, somehow had caught it, liked it, remembered it, and had by a happy inspiration written him of it, it might be diffident, it might be confident, of his pleasure in the recognition.

Such recognition was always more precious than the reports of the conventional critics, though if these were favorable the author was glad of them, as of any good that the gods gave. But what struck Eugenio was that such recognition was the real, the very, the vital criticism, and that if it could be evoked in behalf of others, in its sincerity, it might be helpful to the cause of literature far beyond anything that the courts of criticism could do or effect in its behalf. After all, as he said to himself, an author wrote for his readers and not for his critics, for pleasure and not for judgment; and if he could be assured publicly, as he sometimes was assured privately, that nothing he did was lost, he might be encouraged to keep on doing his best. Why, indeed, should not there be a critical journal embodying in a species of fragrant bouquet the flowers of thought and emotion springing up in the brains and bosoms of readers responsive to the influence of a new book? Such readers would have only to suppose themselves addressing the author direct, and the thing could be done. It might be done in another way by the authors contributing the praises privately sent him. In a time when personal letters to authors are constantly quoted in advertisements, this might not seem so immodest as in some earlier literary condition.

In the mean time the question of what shall be done for veteran authors who are always breaking new ground still remains, and it is complicated by a fact of psychological import for the reader as well as the author. What first gives an author his hold upon the reader is not the novelty of his theme, but a pleasing, it may be a painfully pleasing, quality which in its peculiar variation must be called his personal quality. It is the sense of this in each of his successive books which deepens his hold upon the reader, and not the style, or the characters, or the intrigue. As long as this personal quality delights, he is new whether he breaks new ground or not, or he is newly welcome. With his own generation, with the readers who began young with him and have grown old with him, he is always safe. But there is danger for him with the readers who begin young with him after he has grown old. It is they who find his tales twice told and himself hackneyed, unless they have been trained to like his personal quality by their elders. This might be difficult, but it is not impossible, and ought not it to be the glad, the grateful care of such elders?

William Dean Howells