Literary Criticism in American Periodicals

Bliss Perry

“The literary man in this country has no critic.” These words appear in Emerson’s “Journal” for October 23, 1836. Emerson was then thirty-three. He had received the conventional academic and professional training of a New Englander of that day. He had deliberately broken with the church of his ancestors, had settled in Concord to follow the career of a man of letters, and had just published his first book. Other entries in his diary for 1836 give pungent expression to his solicitude for the status of American art and letters. He examines, as so many cultivated Americans were just then examining, the obstacles to the intellectual life of a half-developed country, not yet emerged from its position of colonial dependency upon England as regards the things of the mind. It is evident that he is already preparing, though quite unconsciously as yet, his Phi Beta Kappa address of 1837 on “The American Scholar.” He does not whine over the unsatisfactory state of American literature: he is simply analyzing, with that tone of shrewd dispassionate assurance which he never lost, the causes of our deficiency. One of them is the absence of intellectual standards: “The literary man in this country has no critic.”

Did Emerson tell the truth? And if he told the truth for the year 1836, is his charge still true after the lapse of more than three-quarters of a century? These are the questions which I shall attempt to discuss in a survey of the nature and tendencies of literary criticism in American periodicals. For if literary standards are really existent in the minds of the reading public, if criticism is actually functioning, the merest glance at the periodicals of a country, in any epoch, will reveal the fact.

Even before Emerson’s day, Dennie’s “Portfolio” and other journals had experimented with native criticism. Emerson was himself the son of a literary critic; and “The Monthly Anthology” which the Reverend William Emerson had helped to found in Boston was welcomed by Dennie’s “Portfolio” in 1805 in words that give a vivid description of the literary situation: “So unfrequent in America is the intercourse between men of letters, so sullen is the genius of republicanism, so wide is our waste of territory, so narrow our prejudices, so local our interests, so humble our means either of receiving or imparting knowledge, that we have but little of that esprit de corps which characterizes the Literati of Europe. Our men of letters scarcely ever act in concert, each unconscious and often careless of what another is doing, proceeds sullenly alone, and a Magazine, or even works less ephemeral, may be projected and executed in Boston, of whose authors and whose objects an inquirer at Philadelphia or Baltimore, may be profoundly ignorant.”

The Poe of 1836 is surprisingly kind, and often complaisant: the flashing knife of Apollo is for the moment darkened in its sheath.

That passage was written just ten years before the founding of the “North American Review” in Boston, in 1815. William Tudor, Jr., the editor of the “Review,” and his associate Dr. Walter Channing, confessed in the first and second volumes of the new periodical that America had no national language and no literature except Indian literature, that it was still colonial, deficient in literary enterprise and in genuine intellectual courage. But it is significant to note the difference in spirit between the editors of the “Monthly Anthology” and those of the “North American.” The earlier men took England as their model. They declared: “We know of no American language, that is not Indian, and feel no inclination to resort to the Choctaws, the Chickasaws, the Cherokees, and the Tuscaroras for literary instruction. Whilst we speak and write the English language, we are satisfied to be guided in our use of that language by approved English writers, by which we shall guard against modern foppery and provincial impurities.” Excellent young men! But Tudor and Walter Channing were looking forward and not backward. The remedy for American deficiencies, said Channing, must lie in a vigorous exertion of our own minds.

Even a casual examination of American periodicals during the score of years preceding 1836 will reveal the fact that many cultivated and able men were attempting to write literary criticism; and, as Professor Cairns pointed out in 1898, this movement was by no means confined to those eastern cities which were most immediately in touch with European books and with European standards of culture. To be still more specific, and to select that very year, 1836, which I have taken as a convenient starting-point, suppose one turns the pages of the “Southern Literary Messenger.” To its junior editor, a dark-eyed, bow-legged, taciturn, and somewhat difficult gentleman named Poe, was entrusted the task of reviewing the new books. He tore them open with restless energy, and tested their pages by a keener analysis than had hitherto been known upon this side of the Atlantic. He was only twenty-seven, but he was already a craftsman. Like the late Mr. W. P. Garrison of “The Nation,” he had his theories concerning the semicolon and the dash, and he expounded them with satisfaction and even with joy. Poe hated a clumsy sentence as the elder Garrison abhorred slavery, and he thought it a proper task for criticism to expose violations of English grammar and cruel abuse of the particles of speech. Yet out of the ninety-four books which he reviewed in nine months for the “Messenger,” not more than three or four are actually flayed. In fact, the Poe of 1836 is surprisingly kind, and often complaisant: the flashing knife of Apollo is for the moment darkened in its sheath. But though Poe’s good nature, in that year, may seem to us excessive, he nevertheless maintains a stern respect for what he calls “the determinate principles” of criticism. He anticipates and opposes that declaration of literary independence which Emerson was to draft, a year later, in the address on “The American Scholar.” “We are becoming boisterous and arrogant,” says Poe, “in the pride of a too speedily assumed literary freedom. We throw off, with the most presumptuous and unmeaning hauteur, all deference whatever to foreign opinion—we forget, in the true inflation of vanity, that the world is the true theatre.” Here he occupies precisely the same position which Dr. William Ellery Channing had taken in 1830, in recommending “to our educated men a more extensive acquaintance with the intellectual labors of continental Europe. Our reading is confined too much to English books, and especially to the more recent publications of Great Britain.”

The most complete formulation of Poe’s views upon periodical criticism is found, however, in his “Exordium” to the January number of “Graham’s Magazine” in 1842,—the year, and the magazine, in which he wrote his famous criticism of Hawthorne’s “Twice-Told Tales.” Americans are beginning, Poe writes, “to inquire into the offices and provinces of criticism—to regard it more as an art based immovably in nature, less as a mere system of fluctuating and conventional dogmas. And, with the prevalence of these ideas, has arrived a distaste even to the home-dictation of the bookseller-coteries. If our editors are not as yet all independent of the will of a publisher, a majority scruple, at least, to confess a subservience.” The British quarterly reviews, Poe continues, have degenerated under the practice of anonymous criticism. Originally “a review” “reviewed or surveyed the book whose title formed its text, and, giving an analysis of its contents, passed judgment upon its merits or defects,”—an admirable statement, by the way, of the aim of so-called “judicial” criticism. The British journals, on the contrary, have allowed a general and diffuse essay upon the subject matter of a publication to take the place of a review proper. “The French reviews, for example, which are not anonymous, are very different things, and preserve the unique spirit of true criticism. And what need we say of the Germans?—what of Winckelmann, of Novalis, of Schelling, of Goethe, of Augustus William, and of Frederick Schlegel? . . . Criticism is not, we think, an essay, nor a sermon, nor an oration, nor a chapter in history, nor a philosophical speculation, nor a prose-poem, nor an art-novel, nor a dialogue. In fact, it can be nothing in the world but—a criticism. . . . A book is written—and it is only as the book that we subject it to review. With the opinions of the work, considered otherwise than in their relation to the work itself, the critic has really nothing to do. It is his part simply to decide upon the mode in which these opinions are brought to bear.”

I find this “Exordium” of Edgar Allan Poe, even in the condensed form in which I am obliged to present it, a refreshing bit of writing. I do not wish to raise the skeptical inquiry as to how much Winckelmann, Novalis, and Schelling he had really read, nor to ask, at the moment at least, whether his platform of criticism was broad enough for the shuffling feet of his great master Coleridge, broad enough for Sainte-Beuve and Arnold, for Brunetière and Anatole France, for Mr. Brownell and for Mr. Woodberry. It was at any rate broad enough for Poe, the most acute of our craftsman-critics, our most pathetically loyal disciple of the doctrine of “determinate principles.” When Emerson wrote that “the literary man in this country has no critic” he must have forgotten, or, what is more likely, he had up to that time never heard, of the “jingle-man” in Richmond.

By 1842, the date of the “Exordium” which I have just quoted, Emerson was himself writing book reviews for “The Dial,” and for forty years thereafter he had leisure and opportunity to note the prevailing tone and tendency of American periodical criticism. He saw his associates upon “The Dial,” Miss Margaret Fuller and George Ripley, join the literary staff of the New York “Tribune”; and his friend Charles A. Dana, the pietistic poet of Brook Farm, become the editor of the New York “Sun.” Emerson contributed to the first number of “The Atlantic Monthly,” a magazine which aimed from the beginning to elevate the standard of critical writing. He read the critical essays of his friends Lowell and Whipple, and watched the career of the rejuvenated “North American Review,” under the direction of Lowell and Norton. He was an early reader of the New York “Nation.” He lived long enough to see the first volumes of the Chicago “Dial.” Only two months before his death he published his finely critical article on “The Superlative” in “The Century Magazine.” He witnessed, in short, before the close of his observant life in 1882, that extraordinary development of daily, weekly, and monthly journalism in America, which has deluged the land with talk about everything, and incidentally with talk about books.

Would Emerson have said at the end of his literary career, as he did at the beginning, that the literary man in this country had no critic? It is my impression that he would, although I cannot prove it, and I admit that Emerson, like his prototype Montaigne, has occasionally a dismaying trick of giving precisely the opposite testimony to that which one would expect from him. I shall therefore take the liberty of calling another witness, whose opinion I know in advance, and whose expertness in these matters will be questioned by no one. It is Mr. Henry James. In the lecture on Balzac which Mr. James delivered from many platforms in this country in 1905, occurs this passage: “I do not propose for a moment to invite you to blink the fact that our huge Anglo-Saxon array of producers and readers—and especiallyour vast cis-Atlantic multitude—presents production uncontrolled, production untouched by criticism, unguided, unlighted, uninstructed, unashamed, on a scale that is really a new thing in the world. It is the complete reversal of any proportion, between the elements, that was ever seen before. It is the biggest flock straying without shepherds, making its music without a sight of the classic crook, be-ribboned or other, without a sound of the sheep-dog’s bark,—wholesome note, once in a way,—that has ever found room for pasture.”

Charles Lamb was fooling us when he attempted to distinguish between books that were books and books that were no-books—“a-biblia.”

One may retort, of course, that Mr. James is himself a critic, and a critic with extraordinary powers of expression, or he could not have written that passage. True enough, but yet how lonely and bewildered is this cleverest of sheepdogs as he wheels and barks in his immitigable predicament of endeavoring to guide the unguidable! If the flock be at the moment unmanageable, the very presence of a Poe or a James may add confusion and irritation to the collective mind of the sheep,—so that even the most unbiassed of observers may be tempted to say that the sheep-dogs might as well not be there at all,—or, in less metaphorical terms, to assert that the literary man in this country has no critic.

But let us waive the argument from expert testimony, interesting as the witnesses may be. The everyday experience of men who read books and write books, of men who read American newspapers and magazines and write for American newspapers and magazines, is sufficiently conclusive for our purpose. We all agree that the status of literary criticism in America is unsatisfactory. Those of us who write books agree that it is only now and then, and by lucky accident, that our books are competently reviewed. We get praise enough, and sometimes blame enough—or nearly enough—but we do not often get real criticism. The reader and would-be buyer of books has great difficulty in discovering what new books are worth buying or reading. A generation ago one could often depend upon the local bookseller for this information, but, for well-known economic reasons the old type of bookseller has in most towns been driven from business, and the young lady who arranges her hair behind the book-counter of the department store is obviously puzzled by your questions. If you turn to the newspapers for information about the twelve or thirteen thousand books published in this country every year, you find, it is true, a heroically compiled mass of book notices—many of them composed, in their essential features, by the advertising clerks of the publishers who are trying to sell the books. There were never so many Saturday and Sunday literary supplements and other guides to the book buyer; but there was never, even in the Eighteen-Thirties, any less actual criticism in proportion to the number of books published. Here and there, there is a daily or weekly journal that endeavors, according to its abilities, to uphold and to apply critical standards. I need not name them, for they are rare enough to be generally known. Technical treatises, it is true, frequently meet with competent criticism in technical journals; although I have heard the editor of a scientific paper boast that he had dictated, in sixty minutes, reviews of eleven new scientific books, not one of which he had taken the trouble to read beyond the preface and the table of contents. It may be remembered that poor Poe, who had no stenographer, thought that “the analysis of a book is a matter of time and of mental exertion.”

But technical treatises, and books written by scholars for scholars, are not what I have in mind in discussing the adequacy or inadequacy of current criticism. I have in mind what we call, by common consent, books of general literature, the literature to which a writing man, if he has any ambition, hopes sooner or later to make a genuine contribution. If literary men, as I believe they do, and if readers of literature, as I am sure they do, feel that American criticism is inadequately equipped, that it is imperfectly performing its task, and that its authority is but slightly respected, the reasons must be traced in some deep-lying conditions of the public mind.

What is criticism, after all, and what has the public mind to do with it? We talk glibly in our academic class rooms about various types of literary criticism, the “judicial,” the “interpretative,” the “appreciative,” the “impressionistic,” and so forth. It is evident that these types or species of criticism exist and co-exist, that they are found not merely in the periodical literature of our own country and of all civilized countries, but that the processes indicated by the words “judicial,” “interpretative,” “impressionistic,” may be traced not only in the work of any one critic, but even in successive pages of the same critical essay. As I have said elsewhere: “Some of the famous impressionists, like Lamb, Stevenson, Lemaître, and Anatole France, know a great deal more about the ‘canons’ than they wish at the moment to confess. They play so skillfully with the overtones of criticism because they know the fundamental tones so well. Stevenson attempts ‘scientific’ criticism in his essay on ‘style,’ ‘historical’ criticism in his essay on Pepys. Jeffrey occasionally writes ‘national character’ criticism quite in the expository method of Sainte-Beuve. Coleridge and Emerson, Arnold and Ruskin, are too many-sided and richly endowed men to limit their literary essays to any one type of criticism.” Necessary as it is, no doubt, to distinguish between the various species of criticism, and however great becomes the relative significance of one type or another as we regard this or that historic period or this or that individual practitioner of the art of criticism, it ought surely to be possible to reduce these varieties to the terms of a single process, to conceive of criticism as the performance of a single act. I venture to call it, as it has often, no doubt, been called before, the act of weighing.

I buy, for example, a pound of butter at the grocer’s. The grocer puts into one end of his scales a piece of metal—whose exactness of weight, one may add, is guaranteed by the State,—and into the pan at the other end of his scales he drops a lump of butter—whose purity, as it happens, is also guaranteed by the State. With a practised and, I trust, a dispassionate eye he watches the indicator, adds to or subtracts from the lump of butter until the scales declare that the lump weighs precisely one pound, and with that declaration, the critical part of the transaction is over. The grocer becomes again a friend, a politician, a philosopher—perhaps a creditor; he ceases to be a critic.

To this humble illustration of the function of criticism there will be prompt and vigorous denial. First, as to the analogy of the standard weight. There is no such thing as a standard weight in literature, cry many voices in chorus. That is the old Renaissance folly of measuring every new book by Homer or by Virgil. There is no such thing as any standard, recognized “semper, ubique et ab omnibus.” That conception is passing with the very language in which your hackneyed quotation is dressed. Charles Lamb was fooling us when he attempted to distinguish between books that were books and books that were no-books—“a-biblia.” To talk of a certain “fineness,” as of gold, or a certain proportion, as in architecture, or a certain “mass” requisite for impression, as did Aristotle, is to hark back to the old nonsense about the “unities” and the “rules,” about “decorum” and the “touchstones.”

And even if there were a standard weight, cry other voices, there are no standard scales: no universal or general mind which is to be impressed by a particular piece of literature, which receives and records its impact. The modern doctrine of the relativity of knowledge and of taste has annihilated that conception. You can record the penetration of a projectile into steel or sand-bags of a certain density, but there is no “general heart of man” which attests the impression made upon it by a poem or a play. We admit, it is true, that many persons of many races may have enjoyed this poem or this play; but to talk of measurements, of great, greater, and greatest poets and dramatists is absurd.

There is less, no doubt, of “magisterial” criticism than there used to be.

And then your “weigher”! continues the chorus of dissent. Even if there were ponderable weights and universally accepted scales, how is it possible that any one man should be expert in handling them; at once familiar with the properties and qualities of literature and with the modes of literary expression, infinitely undulating and various as these things must be. What impossible eyesight you demand of him! What delicacy! What detachment! What probity! What communicative skill is needed in reporting his results, in recording his literary judgments! No man can be trusted to weigh a book as he would weigh a lump of butter. Think of Jeffrey and his unlucky, “This will never do”! The only criticism for our modern world is “creative” criticism, the adventures of one’s own soul in the presence of masterpieces, the translation of sensations and emotions originating in books into exquisite new symbols “borrowed from all the other arts and from the inexhaustible stores of natural beauty.” Abandon this wretched mechanism of your grocer’s shop! Has not Professor Spingarn, surely an acute and accomplished student of the history of literary opinion, asserted in his “New Criticism” that “we have done with all the old rules,” “we have done with the genres,” “we have done with the comic, the tragic, the sublime,” “we have done with the theory of style,” “we have done with all moral judgment of literature,” “with the race, the time, the environment,” and “with the ‘evolution’ of literature”: that in short, we have now reached a moment when æsthetic judgment is identified with creative art, and “in their flashes of insight taste and genius are one”?

To these confident assertions of the New Criticism, I reply that “we have done” nothing of the sort. Around many an excited table in bohemian restaurants you can listen to enthusiastic repeals of the ten commandments, but in the prosaic light of the following morning “the ten commandments will not budge.” You can attend delightful mass-meetings where it is unanimously resolved that there shall be no more biological differences between the sexes—and then you can think it over on your way home. The answer to these facile generalizations of the New Criticism is to be found not in other generalizations, but in the history of book publication and in the facts of contemporary journalism. Books are produced, like any other economic product, in response to a demand. They are sold to the public, and the public insists, with varying degrees of urgency, in knowing, more or less accurately, what it is buying. You will observe that I am returning obstinately to the grocer’s shop. There are some 250,000 grocers in the United States, and all of them, on this very day, have been weighing their butter. I do not assert that this process is equally honest or skillful in all the shops: indeed it is upon this very variety with which the essential process is conducted that we find the closest analogy with the varieties of literary criticism. I am aware that in spite of State inspection there is some variation in the grocers’ weights and in the mechanism of their scales; that there are garrulous grocers who talk when they should be weighing, philosophical grocers who have theories of their business, self-opinionated grocers who declare that they can tell a pound of butter by the eye or by the “heft” as accurately as if they weighed it. And upon the staffs of the 25,000 American journals—dailies, weeklies, monthlies, and quarterlies—which attempt to weigh the merits of the twelve or thirteen thousand new books of each year, there are likewise garrulous and philosophical and self-opinionated reviewers: “indolent reviewers” and over-worked reviewers, reviewers trained and untrained, one-eyed and blind. I am not asserting, of course, that the performance of the act of literary criticism and the specific task of reviewing new books are always identical; but it is fair to assume, as I have already assumed, that, if criticism is functioning in any country, the periodical journalism of that country instantly reflects its spirit, partakes of its vitality. And conversely, when the tone of criticism is uncertain and feeble, journalism will betray this general debility of judgment.

While we may grant, then, that the present status of literary criticism in American periodicals is unsatisfactory, we have no warrant in saying that the act of judgment upon books and the art or trade of recording these judgments is disappearing. One has only to count the columns of “book talk” that are printed. Nor are we justified in maintaining that “we have done” with this or that specific type of criticism. Anyone who keeps in touch with current journalism here—to say nothing of England or the Continent—becomes aware of the extraordinary eclecticism of contemporary criticism. Its practitioners still employ, perhaps under new names, every method of critical judgment and record which has ever proved its effectiveness. There is less, no doubt, of “magisterial” criticism than there used to be. Critics do not risk so many “speeches from the throne” as formerly, fearing, perhaps, adverse parliamentary majorities. They do not quote Aristotle and Horace, Dacier and Addison with quite the old assurance. They may believe with Burke that there are times when we must abrogate our own rules in favor of our own principles, and that those times occur rather frequently. But even the New Mathematics, which has changed the rules for working out certain problems, allows, I believe, that for all practical purposes two and two still make four. What Poe called the “determinate principles” of criticism may still be regarded as the fundamental tone of which the “rules” are the shifting, hovering overtones.

Have we done with the study of the genres? I should say that the success of series of books like the “Channels of English Literature” or the “Types of English Literature” prove how fertile and stimulating a field for criticism was opened a score of years ago by the talent of Brunetière. Have we done, in our daily journalism even, with discussing the race, the time, the environment? By no means, though we may choose to alter the somewhat over-rigid lines drawn by Taine, or refuse to accept the theory of literary “evolution” in the precise terms laid down by Brunetière. Biologists, for that matter, do not now appear to regard Darwin’s “Origin of Species” as if that epoch-making book were tables of a law graven upon stone. Have we really done with the comic and the tragic? Bergson’s book on “Laughter” set us all to fresh thinking on that perennial topic, only the other day. Have we done “with all moral judgment of literature”? Surely no one can say that who has listened to women discussing the latest magazine stories, or to the comments of men as they come out from the latest plays. Newspaper reviewers are listeners; that is a part of their function; and moral judgments of literature are forced in our day upon the most reluctant minds—minds predisposed to assess literature and art by æsthetic standards only. Until the state no longer finds it necessary to say: “This book shall not circulate in the mails,” or, “This play is too indecent to be acted,” I do not see how the literary critic can shrug his shoulders and say that moral considerations are no part of his affair. In so far as he is a good journalist, at any rate, he must make it his affair; and I question whether attention to “rules” and “genres” and “style” and the “comic and the tragic” and “morals” will prevent him in the least from experiencing what Professor Spingarn has called those flashes of insight in which taste and genius are one. It is true that we can hardly expect to count upon purchasing these flashes in every morning paper. We are lucky to get a glimpse of them in the “Atlantic” and the “Yale Review.”

The difficulty does not lie, then, in the amount or range of the critical writing in our American periodicals. Considering how little attention the book notices receive and how little authority they seem to exercise, it is surprising that they occupy as much space as they do. The mind of the journal-reading American public is at present indifferent to many if not to most of the questions raised by literary criticism. Whatever indictment is to be drawn against our periodical criticism lies fairly against the whole nation and not merely or primarily against the book-reviewing class of writing men. These reviewers are not, for the most part, well trained; but it is only recently that we are beginning to look at journalism as one of the real professions, to be prepared for like any other. The reviewers are inadequately paid; and when we are tempted to find fault with their slovenly writing, we should remember what President Patton of Princeton once remarked when an instructor in the School of Science was accused of using ungrammatical English in the class room: “It is hard to get Matthew Arnolds for twelve hundred dollars a year.” The real difficulty is that these untrained and underpaid journalists are producing copy, as best they can, for a public which is genuinely interested in stock-market criticism, in base-ball criticism, in political, social, and economic criticism, and, in a few cities, in musical and dramatic criticism, but which is not very eagerly interested in the criticism of books. To put it concretely, the “financial” page of a New York, Chicago, or Boston newspaper is likely to be more expertly edited and more expertly read than the “literary” page. It represents better journalism. It responds more immediately to the laws of demand and supply.

After all, what kinds or classes of persons are interested in periodical criticism? If we can succeed in visualizing these classes of persons, we shall see more clearly the obstacles to ideal literary criticism in American periodicals, and we shall find, I believe, that some of these obstacles are surmountable.

Some books, of course, cannot be sold with any amount of advertising, and some can be sold without any advertising at all; and between these extremes lies the debatable land.

I adopt, for convenience, a serviceable classification made a few years ago by Mr. Charles Miner Thompson, an American working journalist, and a critic of rare courage and distinction. In an article entitled “Honest Literary Criticism” in “The Atlantic Monthly,” for July, 1908, Mr. Thompson begins by saying: “There are five groups interested in literary criticism: publishers of books, authors, publishers of reviews, critics, and, finally, the reading public.” No one can quarrel with this grouping, although the more superstitious among us may be inclined to assert that there is a sixth person present: namely, Literature herself, the goddess whom we ignorantly worship, the divinity for whom a Poe or a Sainte-Beuve will battle as other men fight for a mistress or a flag. Men of letters, “the strangest regiment in her Majesty’s service,” as Thackeray called them, have surely not lost, in our day, all of their loyalty to the colors; and there are plenty of ragged veterans and raw recruits who still salute Literature, winning or losing, with the reverence with which Frenchmen of the Eighteen-Thirties saluted “Art.” But we are looking for the moment at the day’s work of the literary journalist, and not at his silent loyalties. Let us keep to the five groups.

“All five,” says Mr. Thompson, “are discontented with the present condition of American criticism. Publishers of books complain that reviews do not help sales. Publishers of magazines lament that readers do not care for articles on literary subjects. Publishers of newspapers frankly doubt the interest of book notices. The critic confesses that his occupation is ill-considered and ill-paid. The author wrathfully exclaims—but what he exclaims cannot be summarized, so various is it. Thus, the whole commercial interest is unsatisfied. The public, on the other hand, finds book reviews of little service, and reads them, if at all, with indifference, with distrust, or with exasperation. That portion of the public which appreciates criticism as an art maintains an eloquent silence and reads French.”

There is, of course, no single adequate explanation of this complicated series of facts, but Mr. Thompson thinks that the chief trouble is that our American criticism is not marked by intellectual candor. The publisher wishes his books praised, the publisher’s advertising matter keeps the book-review publisher alive, and his money, in turn, supports the critic. Hence the Silent Bargain, and its result, disingenuous criticism. I cannot give here the details of Mr. Thompson’s arraignment of the present system. Every practical journalist will I think agree with him in condemning the use of “ready-made notices, the perfunctory and insincere work of some minor employee” in the publisher’s office; “the sending out, as ‘literary’ notes, of thinly disguised advertisements and irrelevant personalities.” What does it signify to you or to me or to Literature, that two tons of paper are to be used in printing the advance orders of “G. G.’s Ears,” or that the author of the “Outside of the Platter” has now read his last galley of proof and gone tarpon fishing? And yet the “publisher’s notes” sent out by the foremost American houses, are largely made up of such material as that. The curse of our so-called literary journalism is its complaisance, its social, intellectual, and commercial timidity. Watch its consequences in the “reading notice” of new books.

The inventor of the American “reading notice” is thought to be the late Mr. Azariah Smith of Boston, a high-minded gentleman who selected from the advance sheets of the season’s books published by his employers such passages and qualities as he could honestly praise. He had extraordinary deftness and tact, and when he could not praise, he was silent. But he produced, without knowing it, an instrument demoralizing to the conscience and the critical sense. Everybody who knows the inside of a publisher’s office has seen this instrument at work. Here is a clever boy, often college-bred, at his desk in the publicity department. Under the direction of the publicity manager, he prepares “reading notices” or “literary notes” of the books shortly to be published by his employer. It is physically impossible for him to read all of these books. Very likely he has read none of them. But he has access to the reports of the manuscript readers, to the advance instructions prepared for the travelling salesmen, and he knows, from the advertising department, which books are to be “played up” as features of the coming campaign. And now he must “play up” too, or cease to hold his job; and he proceeds to compose reading notices about the new book and its author. He regards the book, quite naturally, as a commercial product which his house is trying to sell; it has cost hard money to manufacture it; it will cost some more money to advertise it; and it is his business to push the sale. Is the copy produced under such circumstances by the clever boy or the indurated veteran likely to be characterized by intellectual candor? Yet something like half or two-thirds of “book-talk” columns of most American newspapers are made up from paragraphs prepared in this fashion by the publishers themselves. “For my part,” says the bookseller to Parson Adams in “Joseph Andrews,” “the copy that sells best will be always the best copy in my opinion.” Precisely. That book of human nature of which Fielding was the faithful historian, has gone through many editions since the eighteenth century, but it is still being printed from the old plates. Publishers will be publishers.

Is the book-advertising in American periodicals characterized by intellectual candor? The advertising of a book is a legitimate commercial venture, undertaken with the hope of a return. The publisher selects from his prospective list of books the probable leader or leaders: that is to say, the books whose sales are most likely to respond to advertising efforts. Some books, of course, cannot be sold with any amount of advertising, and some can be sold without any advertising at all; and between these extremes lies the debatable land. The publisher debates, decides, and puts his money on certain authors. In the language of the racetrack, he “plays the favorites” unless he has a gambler’s faith in his dark horses; perhaps he plays both. His advertising clerks instantly reflect the employer’s faith or lack of faith in certain books; the advertising copy prepared for the newspapers and magazines is an accurate indication of the relative cash value of the authors upon the publisher’s list, as the season begins. As the season advances, these values change, precisely like the positions of horses in a race. The shrewdest publisher may find that he has put his money on the wrong horse, and then follows a tardy revision of advertising copy, a new distribution of adjectives and adverbs of praise. I am not blaming the publisher for the system under which he is forced, or at least honestly believes himself forced, to do business; but I ask where in all these millions of pages of advertising matter we are to expect intellectual candor?

I must limit myself to two illustrations. The first is a page advertisement of a magazine:

PLANS of ———— ———— for the coming year are so far perfected that the publishers feel assured that the Magazine for 19— will be the greatest magazine the world has ever seen. It will be richer, more varied and more brilliant, both from the literary and artistic standpoint, than it or any other magazine ever has been.

It will present authoritative articles covering every important field of human activity, going to original sources for its studies. The greatest scientists are now engaged in experiments and will write of their new discoveries in science; great historians will write on history, and at first hand will come accounts of discovery and travel, by men who are now on their way to the South Pole, by others who are breaking their way through unexplored South America, etc. Archæology, art, nature, sociology, language, etc., will be treated in original essays.

It will print at least eight short stories in every number.

It will have paintings in colors in every number.

It will, above all, maintain a distinctly literary standard, avoiding such subjects as sports, politics, “graft,” crime, coronations, volcanic catastrophes, etc. It will publish nothing “timely,” nothing of temporary or journalistic interest. . . .

Practically every author and artist of reputation the world over will contribute to ———— during the coming year.

The second advertisement appeared, like the first, in practically every high-class American magazine. It is an advertisement of “Hall Caine’s Masterpiece of Fiction, The Woman Thou Gavest Me, Being the Story of Mary O’Neill”:

DO you know this powerful story is Hall Caine’s first novel in four years? It is on the presses in eleven European languages and in Japanese. A leading magazine paid $25,000 for the serial rights, and have [sic] offered the author $100,000 for his next four years’ work. The offices of the magazine have already received 5,000 applications for the book. These facts should convince you of the world-wide interest and discussion which the story is arousing.

You have not read recently anything so startling as the revelations of Mary O’Neill. Hall Caine’s imaginative genius has arranged them into a novel of most absorbing interest—the story of a great love, which every one will read with deep emotion.

We believe Mary O’Neill is a real woman, but regardless of that there are Mary O’Neills in every community, hers is the very heart of every woman. It is a book that will strike to the core of every heart.

It contains the greatest analysis of the modern marriage ever written. Hall Caine’s conclusions, drawn from a close observation of real conditions, are grippingly convincing.

It is unquestionably Hall Caine’s finest achievement, and deals with the great everlasting human problem, the greatest of human problems, the place of woman in the scheme of the world,—the story of a woman’s life in its most human, most intimate, most poignant phases.

It is a book you should not miss reading, as it will take its place with the great classics in literature.

PRICE, $1.35 NET. POSTPAID, $1.50.
This is one of those vital stories of real life that will be talked about among all classes of people. Order a copy at once and be one of the first readers.

The taste of the latter advertisement speaks for itself, and I think that the question of its intellectual candor also speaks for itself. Yet no magazine refused that page advertisement, or would think of refusing it. It is not indecent, it is simply vulgar and insincere. The courts have something to say about the advertising of patent medicines. They insist that the label shall indicate the contents of the bottle. We have no pure food law for magazines or books. And no one dreams of advocating such a law, not even in the present craze for law-making. Misleading advertising of books must be left to def eat itself, as it ultimately will. But in the meantime it produces wide-spread demoralization of the critical sense, and creates an atmosphere highly unfavorable to accuracy of judgment and honesty of record.

[The demoralizing influence of this kind of advertising upon literary criticism will be further considered by Professor Perry in the next number of the “Yale Review.” —The Editor.]

Bliss Perry (1860–1954) was a professor of English at Harvard and spent a decade as editor of The Atlantic Monthly.
Originally published:
July 1, 1914


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