“The War on Literature”

“The War on Literature”

The Forum, October 1935

Besides the world war that is being waged on literature by the Nazis, the Fascists, and the Russian communists, there have been going on for some time a few private wars that may be termed auxiliaries to the main attack. In this country the Humanists were the first obvious aggressors. The late Professor Babbitt in his book on Rousseau managed to hold up to comtempt nearly every great writer of the nineteenth century: he did not like their philosophy, so he attacked their work, their minds, and their characters, accusing them of sins like “expansiveness,” “lack of decorum,” and “lack of the inner check.” It will be remembered that Matthew Arnold in a preface to a selection from Wordsworth complained that the Wordsworthians liked Wordsworth for what they thought was his philosophy instead of for his poetry — that is, they sought in his work for something secondary to the poetry.

Nobody claims that the poet is destitute of a philosophy: on the contrary, most poets have a very profound one; but poetry cannot be made out of a philosophy, though the philosophy may come into the poetry. Judging a poet by his philosophy, as Professor Babbitt did, or by his opinions on this and that or by his social slant, as the communists do, in the end results in precisely the same attitude toward literature: emphasis or concentration on some secondary element as if it were the main or even the whole objective of literature. Literature is even less likely to be made out of opinions than out of a philosophy: opinions are commonly held at a shallow level of the being, and the shallower this level is the more likely the opinions are to cast their influence over a writer’s work; held at a deep level they become blended in and out with other qualities and so do not separate themselves and hit one in the eye at first sight or at any sight.

Opinions are seldom permanent, in fact, I think, never. Literature is about permanent things; journalism about passing things. To put it a little differently, literature is about many things against a background of the permanent; journalism is about many things against a background of the transient, the impermanent. Babbitt managed somehow to explain that Wordsworth, Blake, Baudelaire wrote good poetry only when their minds were working on the Humanistic level; Malcolm Cowley managed to explain that these same writers wrote fine poetry only when their minds were working on the communistic level, during their period of revolutionary opinions.

But surely from an artist’s point of view the objective of all the forces of literature is not to propagate either philosophy or opinions but to give a complete expression of man in language. Very little of this objective has yet been achieved; the total experience of the most ordinary man, woman, or child, the total revelation of even the commonest mind has never yet been given in a book. We do not yet know how it can be done or even if it can be done; we make a petty advance towards the objective from one century to another, but a wide territory yet remains to be occupied.

Contrary to a current notion, there has not been much advance in about fifty years; very little has been done by our contemporaries that was not done before: we have a few innovations in technique, but even these are due to men who are now over fifty or would be if they had lived. The chief of these innovations is due to the resurrecting of “action” as a literary principle. “Action” in literature, I should say for the benefit of those for whom the signification of the word in the literary sense may be puzzling, means simply that, instead of revealing by detailed description a person or thing or state, we represent these in action: thus, instead of describing a quality we represent the effects of this quality on others. The classical example of this was Homer’s revelation of the beauty of Helen through the effect of that beauty on the elders of Troy.


LITERARY INVENTIONS are occasionally made by individuals; most usually they are made by groups, by the effect of a number of minds working together on the same problem: generally there is one outstanding mind that is the beneficiary of all the others. Too often it happened in the past that groups working together for such ends became labeled and mislabeled as Symbolists, Realists, Decadents, and so on, and from this arose the fantastic habit in criticism of explaining groups by the labels that were more or less accidentally attached to them.

Groups are sometimes formed deliberately, sometimes accidentally. The only group known generally in this country, the Concord group, was not a deliberate formation of the writers themselves but came through the accident of all of them living in the same town. The latest group to be formed deliberately in this country is called the League of American Writers and is made up of writers with sympathies for communism, that is, for the Left in politics. It is composed of about two hundred writers. Now it is obvious that in a group of two hundred not much can be done to cope with purely artistic problems; only a minority of the two hundred can really be artists. It might prove an excellent thing if some writers would deliberately associate themselves in a guild or a league or just a café-table group to further the art, the technique, and the influence of literature and to make a clear demarcation between literature and the propaganda, slogans, opinions that are occupying its place. At the moment writers will group themselves for any other object under the sun — to attack capitalism, to support strikers, to eulogize communism, to protest against Hitler or Mussolini, to picket buildings where somebody (not a writer, of course) has been fired, or to claim the rights in movie productions. But the very last thing they form a group for is to discuss the art of writing.

At the Writers’ Congress held last April from which the League of American Writers evolved, one evening was devoted to literary crafts

in separate commissions, dramatists, novelists, poets, critics, for more technical study of their work.

But what is cryingly needed is a congress of a couple of dozen writers or even less who will devote all their sessions to discussing the above matters and not in the stepmotherly manner of the social-Left writers.


NOW THE SOCIAL Left and the literary Left are two totally different things: the social Left has an array of writers who belong not only to the literary Right but to the long outmoded literary Right, whose members are not trained in literature at all. On the other hand, some members of the literary Left, like Eliot, Joyce, Proust, are very far away from the social Left — in fact they might be described as belonging to the social Right. Now why not an organization of the literary Left made up of people who really know about literature and are capable of breaking away from the conventions of the past and who care about literature first of all?

Literature has never had so little influence as at the present day. The highest form of literature, poetry, is read far less now than it was ten years ago; it is read so little, in fact, that very few publishers take the risk of bringing out a volume of poetry. We cannot marvel at this when we read the sort of samples of advanced poetry that are quoted by critics and reviewers, and I venture to say that the reviewers of the social Left are the greatest sinners.

For example, take an article by Horace Gregory, in the New York Herald ‘Tribune’s “Books” of some weeks ago, called “Are We on the Eve of a Poetic Renaissance?” To show how the youth of the country responds to the sort of poetry that he is partial to he tells us of its effects on the students of Sarah Lawrence College to whom he read it last winter:

The undergraduates quickly recognized such poetry
as the language of their generation.
Something is going to fall like rain.
And it won’t be flowers
was taken in the same spirit as it was given, an ironical warning that escape from conflict was futile, foolish, and unreal.

Now , included in a poem by Auden, which the students took to be the language of their generation, were invented at latest in our great-grandmother’s generation and were commonly used to warn youthful pantry burglars that, if they stole any more sugar or cake or climbed any more cherry-trees, something was going to fall like rain. There were a couple of variants, one of which was more mysterious than the lines above:

Something is going to fall like rain,
And it won’t be lollies.

I took these lines myself, as a youthful pantry burglar aged seven, in the same serious spirit as Horace Gregory’s undergraduates and plunged right into the conflict, with the result that something certainly fell like rain — administered with a slipper.

I put it to Mr. Gregory that there are other nursery ditties that are better both as poetry and revolutionary warnings: what about these lines, part of which T. S. Eliot incorporates in :

London Bridge is falling down,
Dance over my Lady Lee.

This seems to go right into the “conflict” and affords no “escape.” And what about “Four and twenty blackbirds baking in a pie”? Blackbirds in poetry have always been symbols of fearsome political signification.

An acquaintance with British nursery rhymes is not, of course, a necessity in a critic of poetry, but one might expect a knowledge that the origin of poetry extends back at least a little while, anyway to before the publication of The Waste Land. And here is where a league of the literary Left would be a great help; for belonging to the literary Left, being of the innovators, would necessitate as wide an acquaintance with literature as the social Left has with economics, politics, the dialectic of materialism, Marx, and Hegel. The real innovators of the literary Left have to be, in fact, scholars in literature.

Where Horace Gregory’s criticism is not demoted, it is innocent or simply platitudinous. The following is one of his dicta:

Here it might be well to repeat that order and precision are the new rules of poetry; they may be revealed in the unfamiliar academic revival in the pages of the Hound and Horn.

Order and precision, one might gather from this sentence, came into poetry only this very minute. Surely Horace Gregory knows very well that order and precision are fundamentals in poetry; that, lacking them, there is no poetry at all; that they came into poetry with the first poet. But even if he goes only as far back as Coleridge he will get the definition of poetry as “the best words in the best order”; and does this not include all order and precision? He quotes with approval which one would not know were intended for poetry if they were not quoted as such:

Where there is no life, no breath, no sound, no touch,
no warmth, no light
but the lamp that shines on a trooper’s drawn and
ready bayonet.

A comment of Horace Gregory’s on this is that the technique used by the poet of these lines “is that of Carl Sandburg turned upside down.” What is wrong with both the quotation and the criticism of it is precisely a lack of precision. How does one turn a technique upside down?


AMONG OTHER strange phases of the literary criticism of the social Left is its insistence on the time element, on the worth of what is being published at the moment, and its obliviousness to what was published yesterday or the day before. One would think that poetry were like a woman’s hat — last spring’s is out of the parade.

We have Horace Gregory again being up to the minute. As a comment on four innocuous lines, the first of which is from Keats’ with the last word changed — “Now more than ever seems it rich to live” — he says:

Compare the emotion of these lines with the poetry of ten years ago, and it will be clear that there is a renewal of confidence in contemporary life.

Expressing confidence in contemporary life is not any more a business of poetry than issuing revolutionary warnings. Anyhow, one needn’t have much of a memory for poetry written ten years ago to know that as much confidence in life was expressed then and in much more vigorous lines.

We have also on a different level the same insistence on contemporaneousness in the statements of a man who is generally a sound critic — Malcolm Cowley — but who also loses his bearings in the presence of the adherents of the social Left:

The sense of relationship is, I believe, the final and principal gift that the revolutionary movement can make to writers. It gives them the sense of human life, not as a medley of accidents but as a connected and continuing process. It ties things together, allowing novelists to see the connection between things that are happening in our own neighborhoods, at the gates of factories, in back yards and street corners, with the German counterrevolution, with the fight for collectivization in Russia, with the Civil War now being waged in the interior of China; and it connects all these events with the struggles of the past. It gives the values, the unified interpretation, without which one can write neither good history nor good tragedy.

This means that a unified interpretation is to be based on what is going on at the minute, for surely he does not expect counterrevolutions and collectivization to be amongst the worlds continuous activities. Why shouldn’t people going to market or wheeling out their babies or weeping for their dead or a thousand other happenings in the neighborhood connect the writer with what is happening in China or Central Africa, and why should he not be able to make a unified interpretation through them? And what about a writer, even of the social Left, whose unity of interpretation is unconsciously based on some event that has no connection at all with revolutions or counterrevolutions — such as the death of his mother?


THE LEADER of the League of American Writers is one who belongs, to some extent, to the literary as well as to the social Left — Waldo Frank. The League is affiliated with the International Union of Revolutionary Writers. Let me insist once more that the vast majority of them are not revolutionary as writers — they are revolutionaries in social matters,which is quite another thing. Waldo Frank, however, might be described as belonging both to the literary Left and the social Left. He is a man of distinguished gifts. His paper read at the Writer’s Congress was on a high plane; he has no sympathy with the ignorant dictating of literature. One always hopes about every new book of his that it will at last attain the effectiveness expected from such a personality but so far one feels that there is much more in him than he has been able to bring out.

An explanation of his relative failure is implicit in this paper of his. He writes sensibly on everything connected with literature except the making of it; somewhere he stops short of that communication with life which enables a man to become an effective writer. I cannot see how the artist-writer could even tolerate his aesthetic. I quote only briefly:

We must have poets to sing the image of the newer and truer person: the person who knows his integration with group and cosmos; the person through whom the whole speaks — conscious cell of conscious communist order.

Now when the person becomes the conscious cell of a communist or any other order, all art is at an end, for under such dispensation the world is just as likely as not to become like Aldous Huxley’s , where persons are robots kept contented by unlimited sex indulgence and state-doled drugs.

Waldo Frank has also an ideal of the social action to be demanded from literary art. It is

in general to condition men for the multitude of direct actions of which their life consists. It is with us of conditioning readers, who, we hope, will be the workers, the farmers, and their allies, to become the effective medium of revolution.

How could any artist subscribe to this project? How could any artist compete with the pamphleteer or the orator in conditioning people to become the effective medium of revolution or counterrevolution? As John Chamberlain pointed out. Hitler’s triumphed over the combined works of Thomas Mann, Doblin Plivier, Renn, and Arnold Zweig in Germany. The disagreement of most writers with the members of the Writer’s Congress is not so much with their political as with their aesthetic outlook.

There is crying need for a league of writers or a guild or something even less formal — a café-table group — who won’t discourse on cells or ideology or conditioning but who will maintain the fundamental of writing, which is a man telling of men as he knows them to other men, not of men as he would have them be or men joined to some hard-and-fast abstraction such as proletariat, bourgeois, or any other that may be given us.

Such a group would have enough to discourse on — the problems of technique and material which would permit its members to enlarge their art. They could also do a great deal to turn people once more to the study of literature. Many of the cruelties, the follies, the hardness, the lack of sympathy in the world at present would be impossible if normal people were given that knowledge of human destiny, of human emotions, of human aspirations that literature alone of all the arts can give to the ordinary man.

From The Witnesses in The Dog Beneath the Skin; or, Where is Francis?, 1935
The Waste Land, 1922
From Denouement in Poems by Kenneth Fearing, 1935
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