“Necessary and Unnecessary Writing”

Forum and Century, January 1938

“Necessary and Unnecessary Writing”

Forum and Century, January 1938

At the New York Book Fair it happened that a complaint often made by this department was the theme of some of the speeches: the overwhelming deluge of books, most of which should never have been published. Like some talent for music or painting or extrasensory perception, some talent for writing is common enough, but as publishing now stands it is possible to present a commonplace literary talent to a public where a hundred-times-greater talent in music or painting would not get a look-in. Why this should be so is hard to explain, for the fact is that a surprising proportion of books published do not pay their way. But some publishers like a varied list, others have to keep the presses going, and, not uncommonly, authors are willing to pay, at least in part, for the publication of their own works.

A calamity as great as the deluge is that, in proportion to the population of this country, not a large number of books is bought. Partly this is owing to the bewilderment of people before the multitude of titles. It is also, of a certainty, owing to the way literature is taught in many schools and colleges. A feeling for literature, a sense of literary discrimination, is seldom conveyed to the students. Literary history is frequently regarded as of more importance than literature itself; students are stuffed with dates and dead knowledge which vanishes as soon as they enter on their struggle with the world. During my occasional incursions into teaching I have constantly had students who knew more about literary history than about literature. For twelve students in one of the classes I had who were pat about the date of the publication of the Lyrical Ballads and who could give the titles of some of the contents, only one was familiar enough with them to be able to repeat verses from the poems. A reform in the method of teaching literature is sorely needed, at least in some centers of learning.


While the literary supplements of our daily newspapers are generally conducted with distinguished ability as far as they can cope with the array of books that hurtle into their offices, yet their columns necessarily have to pay their way, and the editor has rarely enough funds at his command to pay competent critics as they should be paid. What we really need in a country of this size is one or two thoroughly disinterested and able literary reviews, independent not only of publishers’ advertisements but of propaganda and of prejudice. In the beginning such a review might have to be run at a loss, but I am convinced that after a while its prestige would be so great that it would pay its way. A few moneyed young men in search of a real interest and anxious to do something for the cultural life of the country could not do better than finance such a publication, employing cultivated and competent writers who would have enough sense of life as well as of literature to make it a genuine expression and not merely another exotic or a forum for the display of pedantry. After a few years a publication of this kind could do a great deal toward weeding out all those writers who write for vanity or publicity or, as happens sometimes, for professional advancement. Far too often, at present, a mild and meaningless publicity in a literary journal is an aid to academic advancement.

Even well-known writers sometimes write unnecessary books. Before me is a book, by Emil Ludwig, called Cleopatra, which could easily be dispensed with; it is a great comedown for this author after his fine book of last year, The Nile. In his preface he shows himself uneasy about the form of the new work:

Though here the limit of the historical novel has been reached, it has nowhere been overstepped. . . . I hope my readers will accept this representation as a contribution to a history of the human heart.

He has reason for being uneasy, for, no matter what he says about this being a historical novel, it is nothing more than a gaudily fictionized biography of the kind that came with such a rush after the success of Lytton Strachey’s and Stefan Zweig’s work.

There are two ways of writing about Cleopatra: one is to write an account based on research, giving us only what can honestly be deduced from records, and the other is to write about her as Gautier, Shaw, and Shakespeare have written — that is, in an unmistakably imaginative way. But Emil Ludwig takes neither course. In spite of the lusciousness of his style, he writes without the imaginative projection of a novelist, and, no matter what he invents, his Cleopatra remains the fictionized biography.

The actually known facts about Cleopatra’s life are meager, and are involved with Roman propaganda. Julius Caesar, whose son Cleopatra is supposed to have borne, makes one reference to her in his commentaries on the Alexandrine War. He simply says, “Caesar restored Queen Cleopatra to her throne because she had been loyal and had always remained with him in his headquarters.” In Plutarch’s Lives of Caesar and of Antony there is more: there is the well-known story of Cleopatra’s having herself brought to Caesar rolled up in a carpet, the incident that Shaw uses so amusingly. This, like her having divers fasten salt fish on Antony’s hook, reveals her as one of those whimsical charmers whom men will always adore. But the whimsicality is absent from the Cleopatra of Emil Ludwig, and the luridly detailed accounts of her amorous orgies with Antony are too much for even a fictionized biography. We become convinced that Shakespeare, in Antony and Cleopatra, is the best reading of all about the Egyptian queen, her lovers, and her enemies.


Among the other new biographies there are two lives of the Irish poet, Thomas Moore — one by an Irish writer, L. A. G. Strong, and one by an American professor, Howard Mumford Jones. Both will probably be welcomed by those few Irish readers who still keep up an enthusiasm for the Moore of the Irish Melodies. To them L. A. G. Strong’s The Minstrel Boy will be more interesting than Mumford Jones’s Harp That Once, the merits of which are chiefly on the research side and in its attempt to place Moore as a Regency poet (to which there is some point). L. A. G. Strong, who has a feeling for literature and a sense of poetry which Mumford Jones lacks, writes with the grace of an accomplished writer, and his book is what it purports to be: the portrait of one who was a charming personality though “neither a great man nor a great poet.”

L. A. G. Strong does not make the mistake of trying to drag in comparisons between Moore’s lyrics and those of the poets of the Celtic renaissance like Yeats and Æ. Mumford Jones’s lack of intuition into literature is at its worst when he compares Moore’s tripping lines —

Oh! had we some bright little isle of our own
In a blue summer ocean, far off and alone,
Where a leaf never dies in the still blooming bowers,
And the bee banquets on through a whole year of flowers.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
There with souls ever ardent and pure as the clime,
We should love as they loved in the first golden time.

— with Yeats’s —

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there with clay and wattles
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake-water lapping with low sounds on the shore;
While I stand on the roadway or on the pavement gray
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Now there are certainly an isle and a bee in both, but beyond this there is no resemblance in meter or mood or subject. Yeats’s is a poem of exile, Innisfree being a real island, part of his boyhood’s memories; while Moore’s is a vague daydreaming about a love nest.

Mumford Jones has, besides, no natural ability for getting into communication with the culture of another people, and so he has not been able to acquire a sense of the Irish inheritance out of which certain of Moore’s lyrics came. When he announces that Moore caught the idiom of the Celt as no preceding English poet had done, he is making a statement that reads curiously. He may mean that every poet writing in English, including Americans, is an English poet, a point of view with which I cannot agree. And, of course, ” the idiom of the Celt,” which Mumford Jones seems to know little about, appeared many times in English before Moore. Just to mention a couple of cases, there is the Scottish Jane Elliott’s “The Flowers o’ the Forest are a’ wede awa'”; there is John Philpot Curran’s “If sadly thinking with spirits sinking”; there is Burns in some of his songs; and there were, in both Scotland and Ireland, folk poets who made poems in English and carried over the idiom of the Celt. One must remember that this idiom is as much an inheritance of the Scots as it is of the Irish and that Bunting, the collector of the Irish melodies, applied to the Scottish poet, Thomas Campbell, to perform the task that Moore afterwards performed. Campbell’s “Exile of Erin” has certainly a good deal of the Celtic idiom. Is it necessary to say that Scots Gaelic and Irish are the same language (with some differences in their development), with the same poetical inheritance?

The contemporary neglect of Thomas Moore is not owing, as Mumford Jones thinks, to the Wordsworthians, the Coleridgians, the Shelley specialists, and the Keats enthusiasts but to the patent fact that even his best poetry did not wear very well. It is also owing to the fact that Moore’s type of poetry makes less and less appeal to his countrymen. Mumford Jones makes the grave mistake of imagining that the music of the melodies was folk music; for the most part it was culture music, the music of the accomplished musicians and composers who were the hereditary harpers to the Irish princes. If it had been real folk music, it is doubtful if Moore’s singing of the melodies would have had such great popularity in London drawing rooms. The traditional singing of the Irish folk and the tunes they sing to are something else altogether, something not often heard outside of Ireland and then only among Irish exiles.

The best part of Mumford Jones’s book, the result of his research, could, with a better chance of life, have been published in a pamphlet for students rather than in the biographical shape it is now in. His attempts to be lively in the manner of modern biographers degenerates for the most part to a mild friskiness and a classroom wise-crackery, for he has no natural vigor of style, and his interest is in information about literature rather than in literature itself.


A book more interesting to Americans than either of these two literary biographies is John Gould Fletcher’s Life Is My Song. Fletcher came into American literature at what was really its most exciting period, the America into which had just come Robinson’s Man Against the Sky, Frost’s North of Boston, Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, Ezra Pound’s poetry, the imagist group and Amy Lowell, and Harriet Monroe’s magazine, Poetry. These all appeared within a couple of years of each other and made America intellectually a very stimulating place. Then, a man writing a volume of real poetry would be reviewed on the first page of the New York Times literary supplement (at that time, if I remember aright, the only complete literary supplement), instead of, as now, in a few inches of space somewhere at the back.

But it is not only John Gould Fletcher’s account of the literary society of three or four countries that will interest the general reader; it is even more his candid account of a life lived by a man of letters in our own time, a frustrated and bewildered life, disappointed in most of its ambitions. He fell a victim to the notions of changing sex morality; his interior conflict, when the wife of another man fell in love with him and he with her, is deeply impressive even if we feel that it is too unreserved. His first wife’s husband’s determination that the lady was to be treated fairly and not merely casually by the then young Fletcher is an object lesson in the European view of such matters. A woman’s position in America is better in many ways, but in sentimental relations to men and in all affairs of amour it is better in Europe. I remember the public castigation given by a French judge to a South American who had deserted his mistress under tragic circumstances and then allowed her to be summoned to court because, at a later encounter, she had wounded him.

John Gould Fletcher, dealing with another phase of his life, is willing to admit that maybe he had not enough of the divine fire to make much of a mark in his chosen vocation, poetry. While frankly declaring that he “made the supremely fatal mistake of supposing at twenty-one” that he “must be a poet,” yet he now believes, in the fifties and married once more to another’s wife, that life has been well worth living with his chosen work. “In an age,” he writes, “imbued with the importance of documentary information, he must be a brave man who pretends to write poetry at all.” He must, indeed, be a brave man who pretends to write any sort of disinterested literature, and the impression we get from Life Is My Song is that it is an account of the life of a brave man, a bewildered man, who sacrificed much for what he believed to be the pursuit of spiritual truth. His resentment that in cultural matters New York’s decision is so powerful, his plea for a regional instead of a metropolitan culture, will appeal to that considerable group of Americans who believe that, in proportion to population, the most cultured Americans live outside New York. Despite the dreariness of places such as Arkansas which John Gould Fletcher writes about, adventurous and patriotic men, taking what they can find, will have to settle down and create an art in these places. The creation of art is more intimately related to genuine patriotism than many imagine.


Aldous Huxley is a younger man than John Gould Fletcher, but he too has come to the point when he must deliver a testament. His is nothing less than an attempt to relate to a theory of the nature of reality the problems of domestic and international politics, of war and economics, of education, religion, and ethics. He concludes:

It goes without saying that the task has been inadequately performed. Nevertheless I make no apologies for attempting it. Even a fragmentary outline of a synthesis is better than no synthesis at all.

Any understanding reader must respect him for making the attempt, for showing us that there is something in the nature of reality at variance with the philosophy of meaninglessness which he and others of his contemporaries held a generation or even a decade ago. Now he says with a candor that is affecting:

Does the world as a whole possess the value and meaning that we constantly attribute to certain parts of it (such as human beings and their work); and if so, what is the nature of that value and meaning? This is a question which, a few years ago, I should not even have posed. . . . I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning, consequently assumed there was none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption.

It is hard to imagine anybody’s having motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning, for that it should have a meaning would appear to be a necessity for the happiness of all conscious people. Then Aldous Huxley makes this statement, astonishing to some of us:

The desire to justify a certain sexual looseness played a part in the popularization of meaninglessness at least as important as that played by the desire for liberation from an unjust and inefficient form of social organization.

To those readers who have followed Aldous Huxley’s work and progress, the state of mind he has reached in Ways and Means will seem to be something in the nature of a religious conversion. Some of his solutions for present-day evils are the same as those Christianity has always put forward through its great teachers. This is the case for instance, when he insists that all progress worth the name must be progress in charity and when he shows us that the ideal man, the man most worthy of admiration, should be for us the man who practices detachment— detachment from power, wealth and prestige. This was not only the ideal of Christianity but, even more generally, the ideal of Buddhism. It was the focusing idea of the discipline that attracted high-minded men into the monastic orders, both Christian and Buddhist. Aldous Huxley, in fact, pleads for a revival of the monastic orders, or, since they do exist, for been in the Buddhist: awareness — an openness to impressions from nature, art, and personality that the Chinese poets and sages a more extended and a more secular practice of their ideals.

“Act, but be not attached to the fruits of action,” says the Bhagavad-Gita, and what Aldous Huxley really wants in our civilization is an increase in the number of people who do not attach themselves to the fruits of their actions, whether these actions result in power, money, or fame. He gets at something fundamental when he declares that the means employed to bring about any change in society should be appropriate to the desired ends. Communism in Russia, for example, proposed, as its ends, freedom and the means of subsistence for all; but the means used are inappropriate: constant terror and the fear of executions for some groups, starvation for others. That means should be appropriate to ends ought, I believe, to be made axiomatic in all education — a new ethic, perhaps the one contribution to ethics in our time.

It is important and hope-giving to remember that there have been in our time men who fulfilled the ideal that Aldous Huxley is trying to set before us. One modern writer who in a very high degree had the detachment as well as the sense of the appropriate relation of means to ends was Æ (George William Russell), whose career is dealt with in a book by his friend, John Eglinton, A Memoir of Æ. That this is not a “life” but a memoir should be noted, but it gets down the character of the man, the facts of his life, his own significant statements, and the testimony of his familiars. Æ had, in fact, the qualities of a Buddhist monk: he was detached, he practiced meditation and mental concentration, he was full of charity and magnanimity, he acted and cared little for the fruits of action, and he was devoted to the philosophy of the Bhagavad-Gita. After reading Ways and Means it is well worth while to read this account of a modern man who embodied what seems to most of us a very difficult ideal.


It is interesting to note that, in Huxley’s plea for the revival of the monastic spirit, the form of religion he offers, to give sanction to detachment, is a theism; and he would add to the Christian rule something that has always constantly display. A good deal of this awareness you will find in Lin Yutang’s delightful book, The Importance of Living.

The extracts he gives from Chinese poets, philosophers, and diarists all denote this awareness. According to Lin Yutang, the Chinese people love and understand life incomparably better than the people of the West, and, because of this understanding, they take life more casually than we do. Their ideal figure on one level is the detached scholar and on the other level the vagabond. Perhaps as a comment on Lin Yutang’s pages one could say that this is true to some extent of all old and mellow civilizations: one finds a good deal of this spirit in contemporary France. Still, something in us has to put the query: How do 300,000,000 people get fed in a country of detached scholars and vagabonds?

However, we accept the China of Lin Yutang as we accept the Ireland of James Stephens, with its philosophers, poets, and vagabonds, because in both cases the ideal is given to us with wisdom, wit, and gaiety and because it helps us to realize the comedy and futility of so much of our own civilization. The devotion of Chinese children and youths to their elders, for instance, may seem quaint to Western readers, but is not the reverse of this (where only the young are seriously considered — as too frequently in this country — and where their elders renounce their rights) more unnatural? Lin Yutang tells us:

It is considered good luck to have children who can take care of one. One lives for nothing else in China. In the West the old people efface themselves and prefer to live alone in some hotel room with a restaurant on the ground floor out of consideration for their children, and an entirely unselfish desire not to interfere in their home-life. But old people have the right to interfere, and if interference is unpleasant it is nevertheless natural, for all life, particularly the domestic life, is a lesson in restraint.

Chinese detachment, which Lin Yutang tells us so much about, seems to be very different from the detachment that Aldous Huxley would have us practice — detachment for the good of our fellow men. The Chinese, whether scholar or vagabond, is inclined to let the other fellow shift for himself. This sort of detachment may be callous, though Lin Yutang does not say so, and it probably helps make the mass of social misery even greater in China than here.

But, leaving all such earnest considerations aside, Lin Yutang gives us in this volume a sort of anthology of Chinese poetry and wisdom that should make very happy reading for us. There are passages from one Yuan, whose book on the arrangement of flowers in vases is a classic on that momentous theme which will add to the sort of gaiety that is a help toward the good life. Yuan’s preface to this work notes:

Since hills and water and flowers and bamboos luckily lay outside the scope of the strugglers for fame and power . . . the retiring scholar was enabled to snatch this opportunity and monopolize the enjoyment of the latter for himself.

Flowers used for decoration, flowers in vases, should have their flower attendants. Yuan stated. For instance, the plum flower should have camellias, the peony should have cinnamon roses, the peonies should have white daylilies. And no intelligent reader ought to lay this book aside without carefully noting the conditions that Yuan found humiliating to flowers, for such conditions are humiliating also to the rest of creation. Among the 23 conditions calculated to upset the self-respect of flowers are:

family asking for accounts . . . writing poems by consulting rhyming dictionaries . . . discussing people’s official promotion or demotion . . . poems written just for courtesy [letters should be added to this] . . . pieces of writing with clichés like “purple morning air” lying around.

I think the quantity of unnecessary books lying around must also be very humiliating to the flowers.

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