Criticism And Fiction – William Dean Howells
In ‘Criticism and Fiction’ Mr. Howells gives his ideas of the proper functions of critics, and the lines along which he may be supposed to have written his novels . He considers criticism an entirely contemplative branch of literature; finding in it, seemingly, no creative potentialities . The critic, he thinks, should first consider what the author has tried to do, then examine how he has done it . As to whether or not the thing was worth doing that concerns the author, not the critic. The critic need not say whether the book is good or bad; for, in the first place, it is none of his business; in the second, he may judge from a wrong point of view. Above all, he must sign his criticisms; this is his first and greatest duty. Like most realistic sermons the part of the book which deals with fiction is extremely plausible. So plausible, indeed, and inevitable, that one wonders why books that are written in accordance with such recognized theories should be so unlike many phases of life; why, in short, realism should seem such an ideal. Mr. Howells has a very high conception of the power of the novel. It influences men’s lives and morals more than most people would imagine. Therefore, the novelist should consider that he holds his power in trust. He should preach by describing things as they are, rather than as they should be. Instead of a delusive New Jerusalem he should paint the squalor and vice of the old one. The book is a good exponent of the realistic point of view. It is always clear, frequently brilliant, and sometimes eloquent. Sometimes a more than usually colloquial passage suggests that Mr. Howells does not take himself quite seriously. An expression like “caught onto,” for instance, rather mars the impression of high seriousness. The book, however, can hardly fail to confirm devotees of realism in their faith even such as have been weakened by stories of Zola sitting amid his bourgeois domesticity, imagining what bad men do. The doubters may still doubt – not so much that they scorn the theory, but that they disbelieve in the practice.
Criticism And Fiction.
Excerpt from the text:
That is to say, as I understand, that moods and tastes and fashions change; people fancy now this and now that; but what is unpretentious and what is true is always beautiful and good, and nothing else is so. This is not saying that fantastic and monstrous and artificial things do not please; everybody knows that they do please immensely for a time, and then, after the lapse of a much longer time, they have the charm of the rococo. Nothing is more curious than the charm that fashion has. Fashion in women’s dress, almost every fashion, is somehow delightful, else it would never have been the fashion; but if any one will look through a collection of old fashion plates, he must own that most fashions have been ugly. A few, which could be readily instanced, have been very pretty, and even beautiful, but it is doubtful if these have pleased the greatest number of people. The ugly delights as well as the beautiful, and not merely because the ugly in fashion is associated with the young loveliness of the women who wear the ugly fashions, and wins a grace from them, not because the vast majority of mankind are tasteless, but for some cause that is not perhaps ascertainable. It is quite as likely to return in the fashions of our clothes and houses and furniture, and poetry and fiction and painting, as the beautiful, and it may be from an instinctive or a reasoned sense of this that some of the extreme naturalists have refused to make the old discrimination against it, or to regard the ugly as any less worthy of celebration in art than the beautiful; some of them, in fact, seem to regard it as rather more worthy, if anything. Possibly there is no absolutely ugly, no absolutely beautiful; or possibly the ugly contains always an element of the beautiful better adapted to the general appreciation than the more perfectly beautiful. This is a somewhat discouraging conjecture, but I offer it for no more than it is worth; and I do not pin my faith to the saying of one whom I heard denying, the other day, that a thing of beauty was a joy forever. He contended that Keats’s line should have read, “Some things of beauty are sometimes joys forever,” and that any assertion beyond this was too hazardous.
I should, indeed, prefer another line of Keats’s, if I were to profess any formulated creed, and should feel much safer with his “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty,” than even with my friend’s reformation of the more quoted verse. It brings us back to the solid ground taken by Mr. Symonds, which is not essentially different from that taken in the great Mr. Burke’s Essay on the Sublime and the Beautiful—a singularly modern book, considering how long ago it was wrote (as the great Mr. Steele would have written the participle a little longer ago), and full of a certain well-mannered and agreeable instruction. In some things it is of that droll little eighteenth-century world, when philosophy had got the neat little universe into the hollow of its hand, and knew just what it was, and what it was for; but it is quite without arrogance. “As for those called critics,” the author says, “they have generally sought the rule of the arts in the wrong place; they have sought among poems, pictures, engravings, statues, and buildings; but art can never give the rules that make an art. This is, I believe, the reason why artists in general, and poets principally, have been confined in so narrow a circle; they have been rather imitators of one another than of nature. Critics follow them, and therefore can do little as guides. I can judge but poorly of anything while I measure it by no other standard than itself. The true standard of the arts is in every man’s power; and an easy observation of the most common, sometimes of the meanest things, in nature will give the truest lights, where the greatest sagacity and industry that slights such observation must leave us in the dark, or, what is worse, amuse and mislead us by false lights.”
If this should happen to be true and it certainly commends itself to acceptance—it might portend an immediate danger to the vested interests of criticism, only that it was written a hundred years ago; and we shall probably have the “sagacity and industry that slights the observation” of nature long enough yet to allow most critics the time to learn some more useful trade than criticism as they pursue it. Nevertheless, I am in hopes that the communistic era in taste foreshadowed by Burke is approaching, and that it will occur within the lives of men now overawed by the foolish old superstition that literature and art are anything but the expression of life, and are to be judged by any other test than that of their fidelity to it. The time is coming, I hope, when each new author, each new artist, will be considered, not in his proportion to any other author or artist, but in his relation to the human nature, known to us all, which it is his privilege, his high duty, to interpret. “The true standard of the artist is in every man’s power” already, as Burke says; Michelangelo’s “light of the piazza,” the glance of the common eye, is and always was the best light on a statue; Goethe’s “boys and blackbirds” have in all ages been the real connoisseurs of berries; but hitherto the mass of common men have been afraid to apply their own simplicity, naturalness, and honesty to the appreciation of the beautiful. They have always cast about for the instruction of some one who professed to know better, and who browbeat wholesome common-sense into the self-distrust that ends in sophistication. They have fallen generally to the worst of this bad species, and have been “amused and misled” (how pretty that quaint old use of amuse is!) “by the false lights” of critical vanity and self-righteousness. They have been taught to compare what they see and what they read, not with the things that they have observed and known, but with the things that some other artist or writer has done. Especially if they have themselves the artistic impulse in any direction they are taught to form themselves, not upon life, but upon the masters who became masters only by forming themselves upon life. The seeds of death are planted in them, and they can produce only the still-born, the academic. They are not told to take their work into the public square and see if it seems true to the chance passer, but to test it by the work of the very men who refused and decried any other test of their own work. The young writer who attempts to report the phrase and carriage of every-day life, who tries to tell just how he has heard men talk and seen them look, is made to feel guilty of something low and unworthy by people who would like to have him show how Shakespeare’s men talked and looked, or Scott’s, or Thackeray’s, or Balzac’s, or Hawthorne’s, or Dickens’s; he is instructed to idealize his personages, that is, to take the life-likeness out of them, and put the book-likeness into them. He is approached in the spirit of the pedantry into which learning, much or little, always decays when it withdraws itself and stands apart from experience in an attitude of imagined superiority, and which would say with the same confidence to the scientist: “I see that you are looking at a grasshopper there which you have found in the grass, and I suppose you intend to describe it. Now don’t waste your time and sin against culture in that way. I’ve got a grasshopper here, which has been evolved at considerable pains and expense out of the grasshopper in general; in fact, it’s a type. It’s made up of wire and card-board, very prettily painted in a conventional tint, and it’s perfectly indestructible. It isn’t very much like a real grasshopper, but it’s a great deal nicer, and it’s served to represent the notion of a grasshopper ever since man emerged from barbarism. You may say that it’s artificial. Well, it is artificial; but then it’s ideal too; and what you want to do is to cultivate the ideal. You’ll find the books full of my kind of grasshopper, and scarcely a trace of yours in any of them. The thing that you are proposing to do is commonplace; but if you say that it isn’t commonplace, for the very reason that it hasn’t been done before, you’ll have to admit that it’s photographic.”
As I said, I hope the time is coming when not only the artist, but the common, average man, who always “has the standard of the arts in his power,” will have also the courage to apply it, and will reject the ideal grasshopper wherever he finds it, in science, in literature, in art, because it is not “simple, natural, and honest,” because it is not like a real grasshopper. But I will own that I think the time is yet far off, and that the people who have been brought up on the ideal grasshopper, the heroic grasshopper, the impassioned grasshopper, the self-devoted, adventureful, good old romantic card-board grasshopper, must die out before the simple, honest, and natural grasshopper can have a fair field. I am in no haste to compass the end of these good people, whom I find in the mean time very amusing. It is delightful to meet one of them, either in print or out of it—some sweet elderly lady or excellent gentleman whose youth was pastured on the literature of thirty or forty years ago —and to witness the confidence with which they preach their favorite authors as all the law and the prophets. They have commonly read little or nothing since, or, if they have, they have judged it by a standard taken from these authors, and never dreamed of judging it by nature; they are destitute of the documents in the case of the later writers; they suppose that Balzac was the beginning of realism, and that Zola is its wicked end; they are quite ignorant, but they are ready to talk you down, if you differ from them, with an assumption of knowledge sufficient for any occasion. The horror, the resentment, with which they receive any question of their literary saints is genuine; you descend at once very far in the moral and social scale, and anything short of offensive personality is too good for you; it is expressed to you that you are one to be avoided, and put down even a little lower than you have naturally fallen.
These worthy persons are not to blame; it is part of their intellectual mission to represent the petrifaction of taste, and to preserve an image of a smaller and cruder and emptier world than we now live in, a world which was feeling its way towards the simple, the natural, the honest, but was a good deal “amused and misled” by lights now no longer mistakable for heavenly luminaries. They belong to a time, just passing away, when certain authors were considered authorities in certain kinds, when they must be accepted entire and not questioned in any particular. Now we are beginning to see and to say that no author is an authority except in those moments when he held his ear close to Nature’s lips and caught her very accent. These moments are not continuous with any authors in the past, and they are rare with all. Therefore I am not afraid to say now that the greatest classics are sometimes not at all great, and that we can profit by them only when we hold them, like our meanest contemporaries, to a strict accounting, and verify their work by the standard of the arts which we all have in our power, the simple, the natural, and the honest.