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READING AND WRITING:-When lems to be solved, discoveries to be
you consider the amount of writing done in the world, with the small chance of literary success, you are tempted to conclude it is in itself the most exciting of human occupations. Even when we can't get a soul to read what we write, we keep on, saying, "After all, I have the satisfaction of expressing myself." Just what does that satisfaction consist of?
When you think of the number of books read by this busy world, in the persistent hope of finding a good one, and the much greater number of manuscripts read free of charge and at unspeakable cost to eyesight, in the hope of finding a book fit to print, you conclude that reading comes next after writing as the most widespread of excitements or nervous diseases. Either reading or writing may of course be an art, but first it is useful to think of them in bulk. There is an art of cooking and of dressing, but it is impressive occasionally to see in the mind's eye the wide world getting up and going to breakfast. I submit there is something more astonishing-the vision of humanity getting up every morning to write and read its magazines. There is great business on foot-deeds of mercy waiting to be done, political and economic prob
made in science, food to be provided, beauty to fall in love with, each other to educate. When I have heard specialists pleading for these matters, myself thrilled with a vision of chemistry, of politics, of philosophy, of history, even of the study of the Chinese language, I have sometimes thought of addressing to the orator an ignoble remark: "Dear sir, people can be persuaded to follow your calling. They can't be stopped from trying to follow mine."
Evidently the impulse to write and to read is not a bookish thing; it is as vital and necessary to daily comfort as eating and breathing. It is a give and take of life, an exchange if not a communion of spirit. It is the most profound of human relations-more so even than the relation of the sexes; for man often gets on without matrimony, but less frequently without writing and talking, and in the extreme case, though he takes a vow of silence, he still reads. Why does he?
Until we know more about the experience of reading and writing, our inquiries into other fields of knowledge are somewhat futile. We hope to increase our empire of truth by experience, by research, by philosophizing; and most discussion of scholarship turns on these methods of
collecting the material. When we have collected it, nothing remains but to write down the result, and let our fellows read it. This last process, This last process, we have hitherto taken for granted, is a simple one, like tying up a bundle with a piece of string; it calls for a little dexterity and a reasonable amount of practice. Most colleges assume that the entire student body can be taught to write in the freshman year. Other colleges act upon the wild hope and are rather proud of it-that all the freshmen have learned to write before they arrived. I won't say there aren't sound reasons for not asking them to take a course in writing. Perhaps the professors can't write, either. But this is not the reason usually given, and it seems no exaggeration to say that few people, least of all the educated, realize the difficulties involved in writing and the mysteries involved in reading.
There seems a fair probability that we may shortly begin to investigate these two occupations, and may build up an esthetic which really takes account of our mental behavior when we read and write, which will diminish the smugness in our assumption that we know how to express ourselves, and which will define, not only some of the ways and means of communicating with our fellows, but also the limits within which communication is possible. Some things can be said but not written. Some people have ideas which cannot be put into words at all-unutterable thoughts. Many of my students have them. And we hear of emotions or intuitions which cannot be thought out. Before we begin to write, it would save time if we knew
which was which; and before we try to teach people to express themselves, we ought to have clearer notions than we now show signs of, as to what in their experience will bear expressing.
TRADITIONAL CRITICISM:-Traditional criticism of literature is in this respect almost entirely worthless. It flatters your emotions or it deceives your mind, but in neither case does it teach you to write. It flatters your emotions when it is of the appreciative kind-Sainte-Beuve's kind or Matthew Arnold's or James Russell Lowell's. In their essays you find more subtle reasons for liking the books you already like, or disliking those you already dislike; or if you happen not to agree in liking and disliking, then you and the critic disagree. That's what we mean when we say we don't like Matthew Arnold as a critic. That's what we usually mean when we say that competent criticism is lacking in contemporary America; we wish there were more critics to praise our books. But in one sense at least our current criticism in magazines and newspapers is quite as competent as Arnold's or Sainte-Beuve's: in neither case can you learn from it how to write. Sometimes the traditional critic tries to ennoble his judgments by making them authoritative, by casting his vote with a more certain air. If we agree with him we are convinced. We used to have a critic at the Poetry Society who pronounced final judgments. When a poem was read and discussed, this critic would wait till small things like technic and craftmanship were dis
posed of, and then would say, "This poem will live," or "That poem will not live." The spark in either poem was so feeble that only an inspired person could distinguish the degree of vitality, and, aside from the evident inspiration, we never knew how the critic came at the result, and we got no help toward producing immortal poems ourselves. It's an old tradition. It is said that Porson once dined with some other Cambridge scholars, and after dinner, having drunk too much, as his custom was, he went to sleep. Nothing in the conversation roused him till one man said of a certain contemporary, "That poet will be read when Homer is forgotten." Porson came to and added, "And not till then!" But if Porson seems to have the advantage of the Poetry Society critic, it is only in wit; his remark, by itself, is no more enlightening as to what makes a poem great.
If we could ask Porson to go further into details, he would say the sort of thing which deceives our minds. He would tell us that a great poem has a noble subject, a significant plot or fable, important characters, and a grand style. That is the traditional formula. Matthew Arnold seems to have thought the grand style enough. We then go completely off the track and ask ourselves which subjects are noble, which plots are significant, which characters are important, and which styles are grand. The result of these questions, of much altercation, tearing of hair and of reputations, is that we fall into schools, according to the kind of subject, plot, character, or style we like. Some critics are hard on Mr. Masters because, as they say, the élite of Spoon
River aren't as élite as they should be; while others who feel that Spoon River is God's country cannot forgive Edith Wharton for writing, as they say, about society morons. Meanwhile we don't know how to teach the art of writing like Mr. Masters nor like Mrs. Wharton, nor, on the basis of this kind of criticism, the art of writing at all. Our formal literary esthetics seems to be still in the medieval state-in the state of science before Francis Bacon, when effects were described as though they were causes, and man lived in a perpetual frustration, attempting to control the action of nature by imitating its results. "The hairs of the eyelids," said the schoolmen, "are for a fence to the sight." The eyelids are a protection, of course, but it is not the protection which produces the eyelids. "A great poem will have important characters," says the critic. If the poem is great, the characters will seem important, but by themselves important characters, even if we knew which they are, would not make a poem great.
I take it that the scholars, the professors of literature, are no more stupid in this matter than the unacademic men of letters. But since we give our time to it, perhaps we ought to be wiser. We need more Francis Bacons among us to ask why we stick to our syllogistic methods and allow nature to slip out of our hands; why we collate the outward characteristics of books, instead of observing what produced those characteristics; why, seeing man's insatiable desire to read and write, we do not investigate the phenomenon, not as a bookish problem, but as a recurring attitude in nature.
"I sing but as the linnet sings," says the poet. He seems to be excusing himself, on the ground that he can't help it. Since Tennyson's time the poets have preferred to say they wrote to express themselves, to achieve their own personalities. A later school says that if you don't express what is in you, if you repress yourself, then whatever otherwise would become art turns to a sort of poison inside of you. You write, as it were, to get rid of the poison. This explanation seems rather gross, as though the poet resigned himself to writing by way of psychic sanitation. I would not say, however, that its grossness makes the theory unsound with respect to some poets in all ages. We really don't know why men write, in the first place; but once they begin, they usually keep on, and they do so because they like to. Two reasons are given for their liking to: the joy of creation, and the love of an audience. It is hardly worth while to debate which is the correct reason, for they are essentially the same. The joy of creation, The joy of creation, We
I suppose, is the
joy of living.
live all we can in our first-hand lives; and the experiences which are still unattained, or which we wish to repeat, we live at second-hand, in art. Boys like to play baseball, but, next to that, they like to read baseball stories. Next to that, if they can write at all, they like to write them. If there were no baseball stories in existence, the boy would make them, not in writing at first, perhaps, but certainly in his talk about the high moments of the beloved game. The creative impulse is as strong in the reader'as in the writer. This is perhaps easy to grant, but sometimes we
WHO SHALL BE EXPRESSED?-In what I am to say now, I should be sorry if you found any suggestion that a writer should compromise with his readers, talk down to them, or in any other way be untrue to himself. But a false loyalty to one's self has prevented many people from learning to write. The art, as I see it, consists in putting that best part of you, to which you should be loyal, into terms which your hearers will understand. understand. It's a question not of the subject-matter but of the language. If I have a message for a German audience or a French, I don't debase my message by finding out what words the Germans or the French are using in the present century, and on their home ground, though there are always upright and unpoetical folk like Mr. Ford who think it would be better if the Germans and the French learned the American language. If I use a certain word, as I say, in a certain sense, it is wise to be sure my readers will understand it in that sense. Before I can form a line of verse in a pattern which I like, I ought to know how my expected audience is in the habit of reading verse. Before I can say what I mean in a story, I had better know what that kind of story means to my audience. Once I know, I can
say what I want to in the way most likely to produce the effect I desire.
This simple principle, if once it is grasped, opens up the mystery of writing and reading. It explains why this form of human communication is as exciting as a game. Of course the writer wishes to say what is on his mind, but much more he wishes to be sure his audience understands him. And the moment he realizes the fascinating mystery of our minds, as reader collaborates with writer in any story, that moment literature becomes visibly a creative art.
The French praise poetry with a beautiful word; they call it évocatif. At its best, that is, they say it calls out of the reader the life half buried within him which is still his life, but which he did not realize until the poet said the magic word. We know the experience from a humbler angle, when we go to the theater and get lost, as we say, in an engrossing play. At its best the drama evokes our natures to such a degree that in imagination we are living on the stage, and the adventures our eyes and ears attend to seem not external to us, but of our very being. When we leave the theater after such a play we usually experience a little shock, a let-down, as it were, a coming back to earth and remembering what our actual fate is. No amount of information which the writer could impart out of his own life could ever equal in importance to us the experience he has evoked out of our natures. We go to a play, then, in the hope of finding ourselves there, and we read books in the hope also of discovering, through some evocative
word, sides of our nature we have forgotten, or never yet observed.
After all that has been said about poetry, the theories for judging it, the methods of writing it, this one simple principle remains, that literature is great when it calls out of us a richer imaginative life. From this one principle we can easily build up a method of judging stories, plays, and poems a rather ruthless method which often will enrage the literary man who likes complicated ways of going about such things, but still a sound method. If a story provides me with an immense amount of information about life, if it excites my curiosity and then satisfies it, as detective stories do, or if a poem reports to me in detail the emotional state of the poet, I take the liberty of observing that all this by itself is not enough. The literature which does only this has never been great literature. Much of our modern poetry full of intellectual subtleties is absurd when compared with the great lyrics or epics of the world, for in these great things, whether they are the product of simpler men in folk-ballad or legend, or of supreme artists in sophisticated times, the reader has his chance; he finds himself in the poem; he recognizes life instead of having his curiosity excited about some phase of it for the first time. I open a modern volume and read:
"A bird chirped at my window this morning,
And over the sky is drawn a light network of clouds.
Let us go out into the open, For my heart leaps like a fish that is ready to spawn."