Tag Archives: criticism

Insurgent Youth: The literary generation gap in 1918

“There is a vendetta between the generations.”

Portrait of Van Wyck Brooks by John Butler Yeats, 1909

So said critic Van Wyck Brooks in The Dial on April 11, 1918. Randolph Bourne, a colleague of Brooks’ at the magazine, addressed the same theme in his March 28 essay “Traps for the Unwary,” asking

What place is there to be for the younger American writers who have broken the “genteel” tradition?…Read Mr. Brownell on standards and see with what a bewildered contempt one of the most vigorous and gentlemanly survivals from the genteel tradition regards the efforts of the would-be literary artists of today.*

William Crary Brownell, date unknown (Library of Congress)

So I read Mr. Brownell on standards. (William Crary Brownell, that is. 1918 writers have an irritating habit of referring to people on first introduction as Mr. or Mrs. or Miss Last Name.) He was, it seems, a founding figure in American literary criticism, having sought to raise the country’s level of criticism as Matthew Arnold had in Britain. H.L. Mencken called Brownell “The Aristotle of Amherst”—not one of his better sallies, IMHO.

Brownell’s thesis in a nutshell: standards are important, but the younger generation doesn’t have them. He singles out “a recent clever novel—by a lady—that has evoked a very general chorus of cordial appreciation.” After quoting from a passage about a guy clipping his toenails, without providing the name of the book or author (another annoying 1918 habit), he says that

the picture is manifestly less a gem of genre than a defiance of decorum…One must draw the line somewhere and it is decorous to draw it on the hither side of the purlieus of pornography.

The lady writer, it turns out, is Virginia Woolf, and the book is her first novel, The Voyage Out.

First edition of Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out, Duckworth & Co., London, 1915

Brownell’s pretty boring, to be honest. Columbia professor Brander Matthews is a more entertaining old fogey. In his essay “The Tocsin of Revolt”,** in the March 1918 issue of The Art World, he says that

when a man finds himself at last slowly climbing the slopes that lead to the lonely peak of three-score-and-ten he is likely to discover that his views and his aspirations are not in accord with those held by men still living leisurely in the foothills of youth…If he is wise, he warns himself against the danger of becoming a mere praiser of past times; and if he is very wise he makes every effort to understand and to appreciate the present and not to dread the future.

Brander Matthews, date unknown

The young and old have clashed since time immemorial, Matthews says—and the survival of art depends on these very battles. This is all very sensible, and I wondered what Matthews was doing in such a reactionary magazine.

But!

But at the present moment, and perhaps more especially in our own country, there are signs of danger.

Uh-oh! Like what?

In this new century we have been called upon to admire painting by men who have never learned how to paint, dancing by women who have never learned how to dance, verse by persons of both sexes who have never acquired the elements of versification.

Matthews ends on a hopeful note. Ultimately, he believes, the younger generation

will tire of facile eccentricity and of lazy freakishness, of unprofitable sensationalism and undisciplined individualism. They will again seek the aid of tradition and they will toil to master the secrets of technic.***.

Bourne, a Columbia graduate himself, says of Matthews in a March 14 review of his autobiography that he was “incorrigibly anecdotal, genial, and curious.” He marvels, though, at his portrait of Columbia, then being torn apart by a free-speech controversy, as a paradise of harmoniousness. Ultimately, he delivers a damning verdict:

If there was ever a man of letters whose mind moved submerged far below the significant literary currents of the time, that is the man revealed in this book.

Columbia University library, 1917 (librarypostcards.blogspot.com)

Of Brownell, Bourne says in “Traps for the Unwary” that

one can admire the intellectual acuteness and sound moral sense…and yet feel how quaintly irrelevant for our purposes is an idea of the good, the true, and the beautiful.

Bourne agrees with Brownell and Matthews that standards are important, and that young people are turning out a lot of junk. The problem, he says, is that the older critics lump all young people together. What’s needed is a new criticism, focused on the younger generation, that

shall be both severe and encouraging. It will be obtained when the artist himself has turned critic and set to work to discover and interpret in others the motives and values and efforts he feels in himself.

In the natural order of things, Bourne could have been a standard-bearer for this new criticism after Brownell and Matthews passed on. But the two elders would survive for another decade, while Bourne had only months to live. Having battled disability and chronic illness throughout his life, he succumbed to influenza on December 22, 1918.****

If Bourne didn’t have the chance to build this new criticism, though, others did—first and foremost T.S. Eliot, who, across the Atlantic, was perfecting his craft as both a poet and a critic.

Randolph Bourne, date unknown

*The young generation was, I should note, fairly long in the tooth. Brooks was 32 and Bourne was 31. Other members of this literary youthquake included Ezra Pound (32), Margaret Anderson (31), T.S. Eliot (29), and John Reed (30). Meanwhile, much of the actual younger generation—21-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald and 18-year-old Ernest Hemingway, for example—was off fighting in France. (11/17/1918: CORRECTION: Actually, neither of them was fighting in France. Fitzgerald a lieutenant in the army but the war ended before he was sent overseas. Hemingway was an ambulance driver in Italy.)

**I think he means toxin. Matthews was an advocate of simplified spelling, so that may be the issue, although I never thought of “toxin” as particularly complicated. (CORRECTION 12/16/1918: I came across “tocsin” in the New York Times and it turns out to mean a warning bell. Some dictionaries now consider it archaic.)

***Or technique, as we old-fashioned spellers call it.

****You can learn more about this brilliant thinker, and also about Walter Lippman, Alice Paul, John Reed, and Max Eastman, in Young Radicals, a wonderful book by Jeremy McCarter, co-author of Hamilton: The Revolution.

Oh snap! The modernists’ cringe-inducing criticism

The writers who were reviewed in the modernist journals of 1918 are all long dead. But, when I read what T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and their fellow critics had to say about them, I can’t help cringing on their behalf.

The Egoist banner, March 1918

Take this review, in the March 1918 edition of The Egoist, of a collection called Georgian Poetry, 1916-1917. The reviewer, who calls himself Apteryx but is really T.S. Eliot, sums up the work of five contributors as follows:

Mr. Graves has a hale and hearty daintiness. Mr. Gibson asks, “we, how shall we…” etc. Messrs. Baring and Asquith, in war poems, both employ the word “oriflamme.” Mr. Drinkwater says, “Hist!”

Photo portrait of poet Robert Graves in military uniform, 1914

Robert Graves, 1914

These few sentences give us a good sense of what’s in the poems. Under the circumstances, though, this criticism seems a bit cruel. Robert Graves, who would go on to fame as a poet, novelist, and memoirist, was a 23-year-old soldier in 1918. “David and Goliath,” written in memory of his friend David Thomas, is a reversal of the Bible story, ending:

‘I’m hit! I’m killed!’ young David cries.
Throws blindly forward, chokes…and dies.
And look, spike-helmeted, grey, grim,
Goliath straddles over him.

Maurice Baring, Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, Herbert Asquith (the son of the Prime Minister), and John Drinkwater were older, in their thirties or forties, but they were all in uniform except Gibson, who tried to enlist but was turned down because of ill health.

Poet Alan Seeger in military uniform with helmet.

Alan Seeger

Even dying in the war didn’t spare a writer from The Egoist’s sharp scrutiny. The December 1917 issue included an unsigned review of a book of poems by Alan Seeger, who had joined the French Foreign Legion and died in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Seeger, best known now for the poem “I Have a Rendezvous with Death,” was a Harvard classmate of T.S. Eliot, who may have written the review.* (UPDATE 10/16/2019: Robert Crawford says in his biography Young Eliot that he did.) According to the Egoist,

Seeger’s poems are not unworthy of the attention they have attracted. The book has not much to offer to the small public which wants nothing twice over, but it has a good deal to give to the public which will take what it likes in any amount.

The Egoist was dismissive toward popular novelists. In a discussion in the February 1918 issue of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, reprinted from an Italian publication and apparently translated by Joyce himself, Diego Angeli says:

To tell the truth, English fiction seemed lately to have gone astray amid the sentimental niceties of Miss Beatrice Harraden, the police-aided plottiness of Sir Conan Doyle, the stupidities of Miss Corelli or, at best, the philosophical and social disquisitions of Mrs. Humphrey Ward.**

The Dial cover page, February 23, 2019.

Across the Atlantic, The Dial, which wasn’t a modernist journal but had modernist sympathies,*** shared The Egoist’s contempt for popular novelists. You don’t really have to read further in B.I. Kinne’s review of Hugh Walpole’s The Green Mirror than the title: “If This Be Literature Give Me Death.” If you do, you’ll read that

Mr. Walpole’s most irritating fault is his adherence to the court reporter’s method of observing and recording. This is the fault of many of the contemporary novelists. It is their belief, apparently, that the mere writing down of lists of things, whether dishes of food, toilet articles on the heroine’s dressing-table, books and objects d’art on the drawing-room tables, or the furnishings of a room, constitutes vivid literature.

Novelist Hugo Walpole, 1915.

Hugh Walpole, 1915 (The Independent)

The modernist critics reserve their most scathing criticism for literary luminaries. In an article in the January 1918 Egoist on Henry James (whom he admired), Eliot writes that G.K. Chesterton’s “brain swarms with ideas; I see no evidence that it thinks.” Ezra Pound, also writing admiringly about James in the same issue, says of recent writing that

we may throw out the whole [H.G.] Wells-[Arnold] Bennett period, for what interest can we take in instruments which must of nature miss two-thirds of the vibrations in any conceivable situation.

The modernists’ criticism may be harsh, but, unlike H.L. Mencken’s, it doesn’t seem mean-spirited. Eliot and Pound and the other modernist critics took their work with tremendous seriousness. They thought that the ossified literary world of their time had to die, and that it was their job to kill it. They didn’t just rip into bad writing; they explained how it exemplified what was wrong with the literature of the day. And they had a vision of what should come in its place: modernist writing by the likes of Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, and of course themselves.

This wasn’t exactly trench warfare, but it had its risks. Eliot reported in the March 1918 Egoist that the October 1917 issue of the American modernist journal The Little Review had been declared obscene and seized by the post office, the offending item being a story by Wyndham Lewis. The journal’s legal complaint against the post office had failed.****

The March 1918 issue of the Egoist contained the following announcement:

Item from The Egoist announcing the postponement of the serialization of James Joyce's Ulysses, 1918.

 That is, no printer in England would touch it. But it was scheduled to be serialized in the Little Review as well.

Bigger battles lay ahead.

*He was also folk singer Pete Seeger’s uncle.

**See! I told you!

***It later became a modernist journal, and was the first place “The Waste Land” was published in the United States.

****The story was called “Cantleman’s Spring-Mate.” Naturally, I immediately tracked it down. Summary: a young man about to go to war sees animals rutting all around, joins in the action with a village girl, and feels that he has defeated death. (Except that makes the story sounds life-affirming, which it’s not. It’s modernist!)