Read FALLACIOUS MEDITATIONS ON CRITICISMII of Plum Pudding, free online book, by Christopher Morley, on ReadCentral.com.

These miscellaneous thoughts on the fallibility of critics were suggested to us by finding some old bound volumes of the Edinburgh Review on a bookstall, five cents each.  In the issue for November, 1814, we read with relish what the Review had to say about Wordsworth’s “Excursion.”  These are a few excerpts: 

This will never do....  The case of Mr. Wordsworth, we perceive, is now manifestly hopeless; and we give him up as altogether incurable, and beyond the power of criticism ... making up our minds, though with the most sincere pain and reluctance, to consider him as finally lost to the good cause of poetry....  The volume before us, if we were to describe it very shortly, we should characterize as a tissue of moral and devotional ravings, in which innumerable changes are rung upon a few very simple and familiar ideas.

The world of readers has not ratified Jeffrey’s savage comments on “The Excursion,” for (to reckon only by the purse) any frequenter of old bookshops can pick up that original issue of the Edinburgh Review for a few cents, while the other day we saw a first edition of the maligned “Excursion” sold for thirty dollars.  A hundred years ago it was the critic’s pleasure to drub authors with cruel and unnecessary vigour.  But we think that almost equal harm can be done by the modern method of hailing a new “genius” every three weeks.

For example, there is something subtly troublesome to us in the remark that Sinclair Lewis made about Evelyn Scott’s novel, “The Narrow House.”  The publishers have used it as an advertising slogan, and the words have somehow buzzed their way into our head: 

     “Salute to Evelyn Scott:  she belongs, she understands, she is
     definitely an artist.”

We have been going about our daily affairs, climbing subway stairs, dodging motor trucks, ordering platters of stewed rhubarb, with that refrain recurring and recurring. Salute to Evelyn Scott! (we say to ourself as we stand in line at the bank, waiting to cash a small check). She belongs, she understands. And then, as we go away, pensively counting the money (they’ve got some clean Ones down at our bank, by the way; we don’t know whether the larger denominations are clean or not, we haven’t seen any since Christmas), we find ourself mumbling, She is definitely an artist.

We wonder why that pronouncement annoys us so.  We haven’t read all Mrs. Scott’s book yet, and doubt our strength to do so.  It is a riot of morbid surgery by a fumbling scalpel:  great powers of observation are put to grotesque misuse.  It is crammed with faithful particulars neither relevant nor interesting. (Who sees so little as he who looks through a microscope?) At first we thought, hopefully, that it was a bit of excellent spoof; then, regretfully, we began to realize that not only the publishers but even the author take it seriously.  It feels as though it had been written by one of the new school of Chicago realists.  It is disheartening that so influential a person as Mr. Lewis should be fooled by this sort of thing.

So there is something intensely irritating to us (although we admire Mr. Lewis) in that “She belongs, she understands, she is definitely an artist.” In the first place, that use of the word artist as referring to a writer always gives us qualms unless used with great care.  Then again, She belongs somehow seems to intimate that there is a registered clique of authors, preferably those who come down pretty heavily upon the disagreeable facts of life and catalogue them with gluttonous care, which group is the only one that counts.  Now we are strong for disagreeable facts.  We know a great many.  But somehow we cannot shake ourself loose from the instinctive conviction that imagination is the without-which-nothing of the art of fiction.  Miss Stella Benson is one who is not unobservant of disagreeables, but when she writes she can convey her satire in flashing, fantastic absurdity, in a heavenly chiding so delicate and subtle that the victim hardly knows he is being chidden.  The photographic facsimile of life always seems to us the lesser art, because it is so plainly the easier course.

We fear we are not acute enough to explain just why it is that Mr. Lewis’s salute to Mrs. Scott bothers us so.  But it does bother us a good deal.  We have nourished ourself, in the main, upon the work of two modern writers:  Robert Louis Stevenson and Joseph Conrad; we like to apply as a test such theories as we have been able to glean from those writers.  Faulty and erring as we are, we always rise from Mr. Conrad’s books purged and, for the moment, strengthened.  Apparent in him are that manly and honourable virtue, that strict saline truth and scrupulous regard for life, that liberation from cant, which seem to be inbred in those who have suffered the exacting discipline of the hostile sea.  Certainly Conrad cannot be called a writer who has neglected the tragic side of things.  Yet in his “Notes on Life and Letters,” we find this: 

What one feels so hopelessly barren in declared pessimism is just its arrogance.  It seems as if the discovery made by many men at various times that there is much evil in the world were a source of proud and unholy joy unto some of the modern writers.  That frame of mind is not the proper one in which to approach seriously the art of fiction....  To be hopeful in an artistic sense it is not necessary to think that the world is good.  It is enough to believe that there is no impossibility of its being made so....  I would ask that in his dealings with mankind he [the writer] should be capable of giving a tender recognition to their obscure virtues.  I would not have him impatient with their small failings and scornful of their errors.

We fear that our mild protest is rather mixed and muddled.  But what we darkly feel is this:  that no author “belongs,” or “understands,” or is “definitely an artist” who merely makes the phantoms of his imagination paltry or ridiculous.  They may be paltry, but they must also be pitiable; they may be ridiculous, but they must also be tragic.  Many authors have fallen from the sublime to the ridiculous; but, as Mr. Chesterton magnificently said, in order to make that descent they must first reach the sublime.