“How Trivial Are Modern Books?”

“How Trivial Are Modern Books?”

The Forum, November 1933

Many people who read a great deal and have a fine appreciation of literature are puzzled by the experiments through which literature in our time is trying to renew itself. They are faced by the fact that there has been a change in literary manners and methods, but what has brought about this change is obscure to them. The truth is that the cause is as far back as fifty or sixty years ago. Writers go on writing in the same way for a long time; then, suddenly, a book comes out which differs from all that has preceded it in the same genre — a novel which differs from all preceding novels, a volume of poetry which differs from all that has gone before. These differences, in most cases, represent either a new form, or a new style, or a new sort of use of the words in the dictionary, or a new material, and they never represent such a break with tradition as conservative readers imagine.

Literary innovations, literary discoveries, are the invention of writers thoroughly trained in the past of literature. There is sometimes an illusion that freshness and novelty are brought into writing by people innocent of literary tradition and, therefore, supposedly unhampered by convention. This seldom happens — only that I do not wish to be too sweeping I would say that it never happens. For writers who have not an academic culture train themselves in literature, and sometimes more thoroughly than any number of universities could do it for them.


THE FIRST innovators of a method or the first workers in a new material do not always produce something of lasting value; novelty must not be confused with greatness, though sometimes it is a sign of greatness. The first person who used that very modern method, the interior monologue, was a French writer, Edouard Dujardin, a friend of George Moore’s, in a book called , published in 1886. The literary Dublin of the first decades of this century being as interested in French literature as in English, Dujardin’s book reached the young James Joyce, who has acknowledged his indebtedness to it. Joyce added to the interior monologue a subtlety which was his by nature and a knowledge which the discoveries of modern psychology were bringing to the aid of literature.

In the same way, doubtless, that other landmark of the modern novel, Flaubert’s , was preceded by the work of some experimenter who has sunk out of sight in the success of the man who has made the method his own. For in literature, as in everything else, the tools belong to him who can best use them. However, the critic who would try to explain modern literature from its purely literary manifestations would be like a man who would measure an iceberg only from the bit that appeared above water. Below practically every development in contemporary literature there has been a philosophic idea; the discoveries of philosophers or psychologists have been consciously or unconsciously taken over by the poet and novelist and used by him to throw some fresh light on those eternal mysteries, the mind and emotions of man.


THE MODERN realistic novel, which began with Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and which seems to be in its death agonies with Sinclair Lewis’ , was built on what was called “the human document,” to differentiate it from the literature of the adventures of the imagination. The idea behind it was first formulated by Taine, one of the two or three great critics that there ever has been, whose adventurous mind influenced several generations of writers. He gave the formula on which all the later realists molded their novels — the study of “little facts well chosen, important, significant, amply circumstantiated, and minutely noted.” This was to what Flaubert applied himself in order to achieve as nearly as possible an exact representation of reality — the study of the little, daily, banal facts of life; this is to what the English writers. Wells, Bennett, Maugham, applied themselves with less minuteness and circumstantiality; and to what Americans like Dreiser and Sinclair Ribot, Bergson, and, in America, William Lewis applied themselves — ” the human document” as they, according to their temperaments, understood it. As Dreiser understood it, “the human document” supplied little, significant facts about ambition, money, lechery, and love, and he is one of the few American writers who have been able to write about love. As Sinclair Lewis understood it, ” the human document” supplied facts somewhat more superficial but perhaps more characteristically American, facts which dealt chiefly with women- ruled men, with lechery, and vague aspirations towards kultur and social service.

None of the followers ever equaled the master of the method — Flaubert; in fact it is doubtful if any of them except Zola produced any work that will last as long as Madame Bovary. Perhaps it can be maintained that the realistic novel is interesting only when produced by a writer with the romantic mind, like Flaubert’s and Zola’s, and is too ordinary, too dull, when produced by minds without any romantic or poetic sweep to them. The enormous influence exerted by Madame Bovary has been both good and bad, with the bad influence on the whole preponderating; for from it, or from the books derived from it, anybody with a little literary bent and some experience of life can learn to write a story; and the curse of contemporary literature is the multitude of persons who can use literary material with fair skill, but who have no real talent, no power whatever of adding anything to human experience. One thing to be said in favor of the newer literary modes is that they are very difficult for the amateur or the ungifted to master. In fact, the simple-minded copyist who would try to imitate the literary method based on the philosophies of the unconscious is treading on very dangerous ground indeed; for despite the contempt for the value of logic shown by the most powerful of the modern innovators, they are, every one of them, from Mallarmé to Joyce and Proust, men of hard intellectual training and strong intellectual power. Never has literature, in all its history, been so deeply influenced by philosophy. Some of the philosophers and psychologists who have exercised a transforming influence are men whose names mean very little to the ordinary reader — Charcot and his two pupils, Janet and Freud, Ribot, Bergson, and, in America, William James. Of these, three are still living — Janet, Freud, and Bergson.


BEGINNING with Charcot, who made his investigations into conscious and unconscious personality through the latter half of the nineteenth century, the explorers of the mind have managed to change our whole conception of man. The old idea of man, the Aristotelian man, taught to everybody from childhood and still largely taught, was that he was a conscious entity, responsible himself for what he was, fully aware of what he was doing and of the motives for his actions. Literature, though it was never completely molded on this conception, was, nevertheless, bound up with it. The new psychologists discovered that the old, unified human being was a myth; that man was made up of several different personalities, all living a life below consciousness and sometimes all at war with each other. They declared that but a very little bit of man was conscious, and some of them, like William James and Janet, were even inclined to discount that little bit of consciousness. For the most part, however, they allowed us a measure of consciousness as far as our practical lives were concerned, but our deeper lives, all our spiritual forces, they said, sprang from the unconscious.


FROM THESE discoveries sprang that passion for reforming language, for reshaping the sentence, for recombining words of which we are now everywhere aware; for the traditions of ordinary language were presumed to be insufficient to reveal human psychology, to permit the revelation of that unconscious or subconscious which is the largest part of us all. Ordinary language had become algebraic, they said; it expressed only our conscious or logical and practical side, and was not pliant enough for imaginative expression. The old grammatical rules that are still taught in schools and colleges began to be broken everywhere in writing; in fact, they seemed to exist intact now only for commercial and scientific writing. That a sentence other than an exclamation could not exist unless there was a verb in it seemed an unshakable rule drilled into everybody at school; now, illogical sentences, without a trace of a verb, are frequent in the new writers. If some sensation, some spasm of the mind can be made more actual or more subtle by shattering a grammar rule, there is no hesitation about shattering it. But to break rules successfully you must first know them thoroughly and in all their incarnations, and so, like all the other new developments in literature, this rule-breaking is not for the unwary or the simple-minded copyist.

In this country there are many writers of varying degrees of power whose work shows the reform of language and of the sentence — Waldo Frank, Sherwood Anderson, E. E. Cummings, William Faulkner, Kay Boyle, and, amongst the poets. Hart Crane and E. E. Cummings. But the contemporary writer who has tried most thoroughly and, for many people, most bewilderingly, to reform language is James Joyce. The new psychological discoveries affected the poets first amongst the writers. As far back as fifty years ago they aroused the symbolist poets, who devoted themselves and to the discovery of the language for evoking these hidden worlds. The inside man, the unconscious man, they said, had been more deeply expressed in music; therefore, said Mallarmé, let us take over into literature the methods of music; let words be given their musical value; let the poet follow music and orchestrate instead of develop his theme. For language, said he, has been ruined for poetic expression by its purely practical development, and the poet may have to invent a new language. This is exactly what James Joyce has done and is doing. He has broken up words into their component syllables, recombined them into sounds which suggest their meaning and express, not ideas, not arguments, not logical constructions of any kind, but those states of sensation and sensibility which Mallarmé thought were the only subjects for poetry.

The average reader perusing a book for pleasure or profit and regarding some of these reformers as a trifle crazy has little conception of the extent to which all these complex ideas have invaded writing of every description, from high literature to detective stories and the department-store advertisements. Coleridge said that every village-inn sign in England bore witness that Titian once lived and worked in colors; so, at present, there is hardly a young lady writing advertisements for backless frocks in the Sunday papers who does not show in her language the influence of those diggings that Charcot and Ribot and William James and Bergson have made into the mind of man. Their influence is largely doing away with the old logical method of telling a story, which not so long ago was the only method and which will, of course, in spite of everything, always remain one of the great methods, when writers can find the material suitable to it. But it has sometimes seemed as if all the tales were told; and as if that ancient and beloved character who sat at the gates of Bagdad or the gates of Damascus, where the caravans passed, and told stories to all who went by the way had vanished from the earth for lack of new material for his tales. It is just here, however, from the point of view of material, that America has it over all the older countries. It has not only unexhausted stores of material to draw from, but minds, formed in a new mold, which can use those materials. American writers have renewed literature, not only in the current manner of psychological subtlety and reform of language but, in addition, through writers like Willa Cather, Hervey Allen, Thornton Wilder, and Archibald MacLeish (in verse), who have in them the powers of that old sitter at the gates and can relate wondrous tales of men who made strange conquests and fought strong fights in the body and in the spirit. When writers have a rich, unwrought material to hand, when they have had the life-experience to understand it and the psychic power to cope with it, they do not have to make startling experiments with language to bring renewal to literature.


IT TOOK America a long time to produce minds which could cope with American material or with material outside the New England tradition — even down to our own time the amount of original work produced was slight. The country was and is still deluged with imitation literature, or the literature of Cultured Dullness. There is a psychological reason for this: what are called the newer countries, those countries settled by a transplanted population, take a long time to develop in needful vigor and power those qualities of temperament, thought, and emotion which make for the creation of works of art. The largeness and vacantness of new lands, their emptiness of all those monuments through which man has expressed himself, their lack of past associations with the race, the absences of complex human relationships, seem to denude people of personality, to afflict them with a sort of psychic starvation. What takes the place of art in new countries is a craving for knowledge, a sort of blue-stocking pedantry, an exaggerated deference to professors and purveyors of information. Those who write, write not because they have any revelation to make but because they have a sort of literary culture and interest in literary form which seems to them and their readers the same thing as literary talent. What they produce I call “Imitation Literature”; it is still practically the only kind that comes out of Australia and Canada and even still is unnecessarily widespread in America, This country is now the oldest and most developed of the new lands, and every year there spring up fresh and vigorous talents endowed with high emotional power and that subtle, nervous mentality with “all the nerves of motion and all the nerves of pain” which denotes a country’s artistic coming-of-age.

In the last few years the work of the younger writers like Thomas Wolfe, Kay Boyle, and Erskine Caldwell shows not only the vigor of the new world, but the complexity, the emotional depth of the old. I do not mean to suggest that all these writers have produced lasting literature — he is a wise man indeed who can say of a book at the time of its publication that it will live fifty years — but a book which has such vitality and sincerity that one can prognosticate for it a fair length of life, if it has in addition certain other literary qualities and a power of intensifying the life of the reader, can very fairly be described as real literature. All real literature is not necessarily immortal literature, particularly at this crowded stage of literary history. But I do say that a considerable number of American writers are producing what can be called real literature, and that the death-knell is being rung both for the literature of Cultured Dullness and the equally dull literature of uncultured wildness.


ONE OF THE surest ways of telling whether any book or poem or essay or story is real literature is by its style. Now style is not at all what so many teachers and professors tell us that it is: it is not necessarily the careful picking of words, the avoiding of clichés, the tasteful arrangement of language — any educated person with a literary bent can do all that. But what style really is is the translation into language of an inner rhythm of the mind, an inner rhythm which is the essence of the writer’s personality, of his gifts, of his passions, his emotions, his psychic energy. A writer may with practice become more skillful at expressing his inner rhythm, but style can never be taught or acquired — all that can ever be taught or learned is a graceful use of words. At some times a writer is better able than at others to express in language his inner rhythm; the inner rhythm itself may not last him all his life any more than youth or beauty does, though there have been men of genius like Sophocles and Goethe in whom it lasted to extreme old age, outwearing beauty and strength and youth. It does not need complex language; it can be expressed in the simplest and most ordinary words and yet result in something that will stand the wear and tear of centuries. Take those few familiar lines of Nash which the reader will find in any anthology, in that poem of his called :

Brightness falls from the air,
Queens have died young and fair,
Dust hath closed Helen’s eye.
I am sick, I must die,
Lord have mercy on us!

There is here no effort at fine language, no hunt after out-of-the-way words, no avoidance of the obvious; the magic comes from the passion of the inner rhythm which the writer was able to translate into such simple, everyday words. A writer without the inner rhythm might use the choicest words, the most perfect sentences, and the result would not be any kind of style at all; some of the imitation writers in the magazines have, in fact, a very tasteful choice of words, but that mysterious quality of the real writer they have not got. I open haphazardly one of the higher class magazines and read a poem. I choose the poem to quote because it is shorter than a prose piece:

The fire leaps and falls; outside, the birds
Sing in the cold grey dusk of early Spring.
Again, again their sharp sweet twittering.
Their flights of tune, their little piercing words.

There is here, despite the tasteful arrangement of language, no inner rhythm; the writer has merely a pleasing literary accomplishment, a little touch of artistry; but the lines show no talent. Then I open at random :

We were the first that found that famous country:
We marched by a king’s name: we crossed the
Unknown hardships we suffered: hunger:
Death by the stone knife: thirst: we fared by the
Bitter streams: we came at last to that water:
Towers were steep upon the fluttering air:
We were the lords of it all.

There it is, the inner rhythm translated into language with words so ordinary that they are all in the vocabulary of a child of ten; an inner rhythm so strong and individual that we know a new, powerful talent has come into American literature.

A thing to be noticed when this inner rhythm shows itself is that it is not only individual to the writer but it can also be racial. For example, no matter what material Willa Cather uses and in no matter what form, whether it is a magazine article about meeting Flaubert’s niece, or a novel of the French in Canada or in New Mexico, or of Scandinavians in Nebraska the rhythm to which she writes is not only peculiar to herself, it is peculiarly American, just as the rhythm to which Virginia Woolf writes is peculiarly English. On the other hand, Sinclair Lewis, whose subjects are always American, whose types could never be mistaken for anything except America, has no style at all, no inner rhythm to translate into language.

The contribution of America to the renewal of modern literature in the way of material, style, and language has really been very stirring; towards new form it has not, as yet, contributed a great deal, except in the domain of the drama, where the exploits of Eugene O’Neill, in spite of his poor sense of language, have been impressive. But in the other literary forms all the real innovators have been Europeans: Proust, Joyce, Valéry, Mallarmé; nevertheless, one cannot go very deep into any European innovations without encountering the influence of those astonishing figures, the two Jameses: William and Henry; and before them again, Poe and Whitman.

The literary potentialities of America are indeed tremendous, but what is needed above everything is a hardening of literary standards among publishers and editors; for the standards of that portion of the public which reads is quite high — probably rather higher than in most countries. The literary world might take a cue from the world of music, where the public is treated as a rule only to real music and popular music, very seldom to the efforts of some person with a little bent towards music — certainly never to the extent that the reading public is treated to the efforts at self-expression — that mania of modern life — of some person with a little bent towards writing.

Les" data-anchor="#tippy_tip0_742_anchor" >The Laurels Are Cut
Gustave Flaubert, 1856
To the search for hidden worlds
Thomas Nashe, 1593
Collected Poems 1924-1933, published in 1933
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