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Literary Criticism a Century Ago: A Bracing Blast from the Past

Browsing the shelves of a hushed private library recently, I came across a small book, Essays on Modern Novelists, by William Lyon Phelps. The author's name rang a faint bell, so I took the book down, blew off decades of dust, opened its stiff brown covers, and flipped through its yellowed pages, many of them still uncut. Macmillan and Co. published the work in 1910, the copyright page told me; the table of contents listed a dozen essays on Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, William Dean Howells, and Mark Twain, et al. Aha, I thought, turning the book over in my hand, here's a chance to hear what a popular literary critic had to say a century ago.

From Teddy to Franklin D. Roosevelt, William Lyon Phelps was the public face of highbrow lit crit, the Harold Bloom of his day. Born in 1865, the baseball-playing son of a Baptist minister, Phelps got his masters at Yale, his Ph.D. at Harvard, then taught at Yale for over forty years. An 1890s brouhaha caused by his daring to teach a course on the modern novel, then deemed unworthy of scholarly attention, made him famous far beyond academia, and in time Phelps became a nationally-known speaker with his own radio show and syndicated newspaper column. Phelps aimed Essays on Modern Novelists, an early work, at a contemporary audience that, he could safely presume, already knew the twelve novelists and their novels.

Yet here came my first surprise: seven of Phelps' twelve subjects I'd never heard of, and I bet that most Visual Thesaurus readers will draw similar blanks on the names William De Morgan, Bjornstjerne Bjornson, Henryk Sienkiewicz, Herrmann Sudermann, Alfred Ollivant, Mrs. Humphrey Ward, and Richard D. Blackmore.

On Wikipedia I found them all. De Morgan was a well-known ceramacist in William Morris' Arts and Crafts movement before publishing his first novel, Joseph Vance, in 1906 at age 67. Bjornson, considered Ibsen's equal by his fellow Norwegians, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1903. Sienkiewicz, similarly revered by his fellow Poles, won the Nobel in 1905; I saw the Technicolor movie of his Quo Vadis as a kid in the 1950s. Ollivant, an English author of historical epics, scored his biggest success with Bob, Son of Battle, a rousing dog story I read in the sixth grade.  

Such tags, however, will not save these authors from ever-darkening obscurity. Lesson One that Essays teaches: at least half of any era's writers, no matter how beloved in their day or homeland, will in a century sink fathoms deep beneath the waves. The five Phelps' writers who names are still well known — Thomas Hardy, William Dean Howells, Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Rudyard Kipling — teach the opposite lesson: good writing has a chance to live forever.

When Phelps writes about dull writers, his own writing becomes dull — here's a lumpy sentence on the forgotten William DeMorgan:

And although I can think at this moment of no case exactly comparable with that of the author of Joseph Vance, it is a book to which experience has contributed as well as inspiration, and would be something, if not inferior, at all events very different, had it been composed in early or in middle life.

When he writes about fine writers, his own writing comes to life — here an appreciation of Robert Louis Stevenson:

In order to enjoy life, one must love life, and nobody ever loved life more than Stevenson. "It is better to be a fool than to be dead," said he. To him the world was always picturesque, whether he saw it through the mists of Edinburgh, amid the snows of Davos, or in the tropical heat of Samoa.

And when he actively dislikes a writer, his prose becomes deliciously acid. Mrs. Humphrey Ward's novels he finds "devoid of charm," "lacking in a sense of humor," and with "an almost total absence of freshness, spontaneity, and originality." Her male heroes are "tiresome, heavy men" who "smell of books and dusty dissertations," and her typical heroine, though beautiful, is "morbidly intellectual....a small brain in a state of intense activity."

The boring Mrs. Ward makes an easy target, but Phelps doesn't fear training his critical guns at more imposing figures. He finds merit in early Kipling and considers The Man Who Would Be King a "masterpiece...an inspiration, of imagination all compact," but Kipling's later works weary him with their "eternal fortissimo." Fame, he declares, turned Kipling into a "Jingo...an Imperialist and a Mechanic, rather than a literary man"; in his best sellers:

...the tragedy becomes melodrama, the humor becomes buffoonery, the picturesque becomes bizarre, the terrible becomes horrible, and vulgarity reigns supreme.

The strength of Phelps' approach to literature is that he writes, not as a critic with arcane knowledge understood only by academics fluent in the abstract jargon of "memes" and "tropes," but as an ordinary person who loves to read good books. He's read more widely than most readers have, and he's diligently applied a capable intelligence to his reading, but he claims no special insight or lofty point of view that his readers cannot share. He likes what generations of readers always like: compelling tales of believable characters who live in the day-to-day world.

For Phelps the sine qua non of good writing is "a keen sense of humor," and in describing that elusive but vital gift, his own writing rises to rare and passionate eloquence. Humor, he writes, is the "fundamental quality of the great novelist." A book without humor "robs the reader of the fun which is an essential part of the true history of any human life." The themes of the world's great novels are "love and nonsense, men and women," he writes, and there is more to humor than "mere laughter":

Just as the poet sees life through the medium of a splendid imagination, so the humorist has the almost infallible guide of sympathy. The humorist sees life in a large, tolerant, kindly way; he knows that life is a tragi-comedy, and he makes the reader feel it in that fashion.

No wonder, then, that Mark Twain is far and away Phelps' favorite writer. He notes with bewilderment that in 1886 the author of a (supposedly) definitive tome, American Literature, gave Josh Billings two and a half pages and Twain less than four lines, deeming Twain's writing as no more than "temporary amusement." No! thunders Phelps: "Mark Twain is our foremost living American author...if there be any American writer touched with true genius, whose books glow with the divine fire, it is he."

Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Phelps writes, are "prose epics" that will live in English literature alongside Gulliver's Travels and Robinson Crusoe. Twain's humor, Phelps declares, is not "delicate or indirect," but:

...boisterous, uproarious, colossal, overwhelming. I have found it difficult to read him in a library or on a streetcar, for explosions of pent-up mirth or a distorted face are apt to attract unpleasant attention in such public places.

Yes, Phelps admits, Twain exaggerates for effect, but he "may be trusted to tell the truth, for the eye of the born caricaturist always sees the salient point."     

Twain is a "through and through American" who packs his writing with the "common sense, energy, and good humor" characteristic of our nation. Above all, Phelps concludes, "Mark Twain is our great Democrat":

Democracy is his political, social, and moral creed. His hatred of snobbery, affectation, and assumed superiority is total. His democracy has no limits; it is bottomless and far-reaching.

William Lyon Phelps may never return to pre-eminence as a literary critic, and his Essays on Modern Novelists may never again be found on English majors' reading lists, but his vigorous enthusiasm for good writing and his equally vigorous disdain for poor writing come to me, in this age of obscurantist critical twaddle, as most refreshing blasts from the past.


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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday October 9th 2013, 1:30 AM
Comment by: Jock S.
Thank you for a lovely appreciation!
Wednesday October 9th 2013, 6:15 AM
Comment by: Frederick E.
Thank you Michael, you report so well what only Phelps could do better. Joyful. freddie.e@vodamail.co.za
Wednesday October 9th 2013, 8:50 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
The only standout name for me from the "forgotten" list is Richard D Blackmore, author of Lorna Doone -- one of the most exciting books I read as a boy. He was definitely not a great writer, but a good one whose stories and images have persisted in my mind for many years.

It's nice that this kind of book survives because it's not a book that any commercial publisher would take on today!
Wednesday October 9th 2013, 8:53 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)Top 10 Commenter
I wish I could find his book myself. Although one must remember that good writing has a chance for survival (survival for a time) and not that it WILL survive. I'm thinking of Avram Davidson, an incredible stylist, whom people, even in his own genre, are very busy forgetting.

Don't ever depend on worthiness always leading to being remembered. That's just the way life is, and perhaps if we remembered all the good ones, there would be no space in our mental lumber rooms for the youngsters coming up.
Friday October 11th 2013, 7:06 PM
Comment by: Marsha S. (Ontario, CA)
I thoroughly enjoyed this post, Michael, especially for your appreciation of great writing and you disparagement of the kind of "obscurantist critical twaddle" that makes me long for more "blasts from the past."
Wednesday October 23rd 2013, 5:19 PM
Comment by: Brendan M. (suwon Korea, Republic of (South Korea))
Reading reminds us of wishing for the day when we can instantly learn about all the things,people & places we are curious about.
Wednesday October 23rd 2013, 6:02 PM
Comment by: Sue B.Top 10 Commenter
Orin, I, too, was mesmerized by "Lorna Doone"! I haven't read it in so long that I can't quite remember why, so I guess it's time to take it down off the shelf--thanks for this poignant reminder.

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