Matthews, Brander 1852-1929
(Full name James Brander Matthews; also wrote under the pseudonyms Arthur Penn and Hallitt Robinson) American critic, essayist, short story writer, and novelist
Matthews is best known as one of the most popular and influential American literary critics of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Despite a continuing bestowal of honors by established colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic, however, his formidable reputation as a man of letters and widespread influence in determining a writer's place in the literary canon began to decline during the first decades of the twentieth century. Although in the past he had championed contemporary authors, he became reluctant to grant the new writers canonical credentials and was alarmed by their modernism; they, in turn, along with their influential advocates, dismissed him as an academic and reactionary remnant of a genteel, moribund Victorianism.
When Matthews was seven, his family moved from New Orleans, his birthplace, to New York City, where he lived for the rest of his life. His early years were shaped by his family's immense wealth: Matthews was raised to pursue the career of a millionaire, to be a gentleman able to supervise the family fortune. The year he graduated from Columbia Law School, 1873, his father lost most of his fortune in a stock market panic. (The young man, however, still received an inheritance from his mother.) Matthews later asserted that this reversal provided him the opportunity to pursue his real ambition, to be a writer. He published prolifically in English and American magazines, and his plays were successfully staged in both countries. He wrote criticism, fiction, pamphlets on such topics as simplifying English spelling and securing transatlantic copyrights for American and European authors, and an autobiography. He edited anthologies, joined established literary clubs and participated in starting new ones. He took the side of realism in the "war" between the realists and the romanticists. He gave heartfelt support to the foreign and domestic policies of Theodore Roosevelt, with whom he shared a long friendship, and revised Roosevelt's writings before their publication. He counted numerous celebrated literary figures of Europe and the United States among his friends. Foremost was the American Realist novelist William Dean Howells. For Matthews, Howells and Roosevelt were a pair of ideologically conflicting mentors between whom he moved gracefully, maintaining loyalty to both. For years he wrote a weekly column in The New York Times Book Review. At Columbia University, he established the study of American Literature as a national literature. In 1900, he was made professor of drama at Columbia. He was awarded the French Legion of Honor in 1907, served as president of the Modern Language Association in 1910, was a founder of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and served as its president from 1912 to 1914. He was chancellor of the American Academy of Letters from 1920 to 1924. Matthews died in 1929.
Matthews's most significant works were those in which he discussed genre, structure, plot, and character. Starting with The Theaters of Paris in 1880, followed the next year by French Dramatists of the Nineteenth Century, he established himself as an acknowledged critical intelligence and a renowned scholar of the theater. His 1896 Introduction to the Study of American Literature sold over a quarter of a million copies. Over the years, up until his death, he published many volumes dealing with diverse aspects of literature and drama, work respected even by those who otherwise objected to his opinions and assertions. His books on Molière and Shakespeare represent his practice of examining drama as a theatrical rather than a literary medium. He also published five collections of essays and several volumes of short stories, including Vignettes of Manhattan and Outlines in Local Color. In these he tried to render representative images of New York City streets, haunts, characters, and situations. His three novels, His Father's Son, A Confident Tomorrow, and The Action and the Word all are set in the Manhattan he knew well: Wall Street and its environs. Studies in realism tempered with faith in the ability of people to redeem themselves, they confronted the social, psychological, and economic issues and attitudes of the day.
Matthews's novels and short stories were never a popular success, and he abandoned fiction writing at the turn of the twentieth century after completing his third novel. Nevertheless, such divergent commentators as Roosevelt and Howells often praised his fiction and encouraged him to continue writing. Matthews's critical work met with greater success than his fiction and made him both an academic authority and a popular oracle on literary matters. Both his appointments at Columbia were less the result of academic credentials than they were recognition of his achievements as a playwright, practicing critic, and theorist. Mark Twain, who had recommended that Matthews's high appraisal of James Fenimore Cooper's books be taken with "a few tons of salt," expressed his age's admiration for the professor when he wrote, "Brander knows literature and loves it; . . . he has a right to be a critic."
The Theaters of Paris (criticism) 1880
French Dramatists of the Nineteenth Century (criticism) 1881
Cheap Books and Good Books (nonfiction) 1888
Pen and Ink: Papers on Subjects of More or Less Importance (essays) 1888
American Authors and British Pirates (nonfiction) 1889
Americanisms and Briticisms, with Other Essays on Other Isms (essays) 1892
The Story of a Story, and Other Stories (short stories) 1893
Studies of the Stage (criticism) 1894)
Vignettes of Manhattan (short stories) 1894
His Father's Son (novel) 1895
Aspects of Fiction, and Other Ventures in Criticism (criticism) 1896
An Introduction to the Study of American Literature (criticism) 1896
Outlines in Local Color (short stories) 1898
The Action and the Word (novel) 1900
A Confident Tomorrow (novel) 1900
The Historical Novel, and Other Essays (essays) 1901
The Philosophy of the Short Story (criticism) 1901
The Development of the Drama (criticism) 1903
inquiries and Opinions (essays) 1907
Moliere, His Life and His Works...
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SOURCE: "Americanisms and Briticisms," in The Collected Essays & Addresses of the Rt. Hon. Augustine Birrell 1880-1920, Vol. Three, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1923, pp. 168-73.
[In the following review of Americanisms and Briticisms, Birrell lambastes what he sees as Matthews's project to erect a barrier of nationalism between national literatures.]
Messrs. Harper Bros., of New York, have lately printed and published, and Mr. Brander Matthews has written, the prettiest possible little book, called Americanisms and Briticisms, with other Essays on other Isms. To slip it into your pocket when first you see it is an almost irresistible impulse, and yet—would you believe it?—this pretty little book is in reality a bomb, intended to go off and damage British authors by preventing them from being so much as quoted in the States. Mr. Brander Matthews, however, is so obviously a good-natured man, and his little fit of the spleen is so evidently of a passing character, that it is really not otherwise than agreeable to handle his bombshell gently and to inquire how it could possibly come about that the children of one family should ever be invited to fall out and strive and fight over their little books and papers.
It is easy to accede something to Mr. Matthews. Englishmen are often provoking, and not infrequently insolent. The airs they give themselves are ridiculous, but...
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SOURCE: "Mr. Brander Matthews as a Critic," in The Sewanee Review, 1895, pp. 373-84.
[In the following appreciation, Trent argues that Matthews's other impressive achievements ought not be permitted to eclipse his reputation as a major critic.]
While there are few living American writers better known or more heartily admired than Mr. Brander Matthews, it has long seemed to me that the public does not sufficiently appreciate a special phase of his versatility. What that phase is, will be learned from the title I have given this paper. Mr. Matthews is a playwright, a story-teller, a composer of vers de société, a genial humorist, a bibliophile, a professor in Columbia College, and all, or most of these facts are known to the public. The variety, the wit, the charm of his writings are familiar to the people that read the magazines as well as to the people that read books; the wit and charm and sincerity of the man are familiar to his friends; but I doubt if his friends or the reading public, although they may be acquainted with his essays, whether in their detached or collected form, are fully cognizant of the fact that their favorite writer is entitled to high rank among our living critics. Now we have too few genuine critics, living or dead, to be able to afford the extravagance of sinking one of them in a novelist, a playwright, a humorist, or even in a professor, and I purpose, if possible, in...
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SOURCE: "The Philosophy of the Short-Story," in The New Short Story Theories, Edited by Charles E. May, Ohio University Press, 1885, pp. 73-80.
[In the following essay, Matthews spells out the difference between the novel and the short story and defines the short story as a specific genre.]
The difference between a Novel and a Novelet is one of length only: a Novelet is a brief Novel. But the difference between a Novel and a Short-story is a difference of kind. A true Short-story is something other and something more than a mere story which is short. A true Short-story differs from the Novel chiefly in its essential unity of impression. In a far more exact and precise use of the word, a Short-story has unity as a Novel cannot have it.1 Often, it may be noted by the way, the Short-story fulfils the three false unities of the French classic drama: it shows one action, in one place, on one day. A Short-story deals with a single character, a single event, a single emotion, or the series of emotions called forth by a single situation. Poe's paradox2 that a poem cannot greatly exceed a hundred lines in length under penalty of ceasing to be one poem and breaking into a string of poems, may serve to suggest the precise difference between the Short-story and the Novel. The Short-story is the single effect, complete and self-contained, while the Novel is of necessity broken into a series of...
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SOURCE: "Brander Matthews as a Dramatic Critic," in The International Monthly, Vol. IV, July-December 1901, pp. 289-293.
[In the following essay, Trent rejoices that Matthews's dramatic criticism is being collected for publication in book form and extols his merits as a critic]
For some years, not a few of Mr. Brander Matthews' many readers and friends have wished that he would devote more and more attention to critical work, and that the public would recognize him as a writer whose attractive versatility set off rather than detracted from his serious qualities. Mr. Matthews' critical essays were, however, scattered through magazines and several books issued by different publishers; they thus failed to produce their due effect, failed perhaps to produce as much effect as the more uniform series of his novels and short stories. Now they are to be gathered by the Scribners into five uniform volumes, of which the two named below have already appeared.1 These books will sufficiently indicate the range of his powers, the attractive qualities of his style, his humor, his buoyant and aggressive, but not chauvinistic, patriotism, the keenness of his perceptions, and the essential soundness of his judgment.
I say "essential soundness" advisedly, because I believe that in his grasp upon life and upon the most important principles of art Mr. Matthews is not excelled by any of his...
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SOURCE: "A Cosmopolitan Critic," in The Forum, Vol. XXXIX, No. 3, January, 1908, pp. 377-381.
[In the following review of Inquiries and Opinions, Phelps offers some minor reservations about Matthews's literary judgments, but, on the whole, enthusiastically endorses them.]
Among American teachers of English, Professor Brander Matthews is notable for the breadth of his culture and the openness of his mind. He is a quite different person from the modern Ph.D. product, "made in Germany." The latter is no doubt useful in his way, but his way is not always human, or humanizing. The attitude of Professor Matthews toward literature has always been characterized by two distinguishing features: first his treatment of literature as a whole, without regard to the language in which it happens to have been written; second, his willingness to treat contemporary authors as definitive subjects of study. In discussing the history of the drama—which happens to be his specialty—he has never insulated any particular nation, but has studied every great dramatist in the light of the world's intellectual life of that particular time. Nor has he ever had a vestige of the familiar academic contempt toward the literary output of our own day. These two qualities have made him a true cosmopolitan in scholarship; for the real scholar should be the broadest, not the narrowest, man in the world. And as literature is...
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SOURCE: "I: Brander Matthews," in The Literary Spotlight, George H. Doran Co., 1924, pp. 15-23.
[In the following essay, the critic depicts Matthews as a literary dilettante mired in the past and of little contemporary importance]
The year 1922 was an annus mirabilis in many ways. One of the most unexpected occurrences was the inexplicable departure of Professor James Brander Matthews from the weekly book review of our largest daily newspaper. Professor Matthews had been like death and taxes in one respect. He was always with us. Fifty-two times a year his name was to be discerned appended to printed matter in the New York Times Book Review. This matter took various forms. Sometimes it seemed to be a review of a current publication. At other times it wasn't. Professor Matthews's article could often be identified by certain phrases. One of them was "Forty years ago, etc." Another was the quotation of Jules Lemaître's fallacious but epigrammatic, "Criticism of our contemporaries is not criticism, it is only conversation." No epigram, of course, can be more than partially true; its very neatness defeats its own logic. But for Professor Matthews this statement by a distinguished Frenchman was the text of his life. He made his literary existence a long sermon in defence of it.
When Professor Matthews was not writing a review (he insists, quite rightly, that he does not write...
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SOURCE: "Brander Matthews and the Mohawks," in Points of View, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1924, pp. 251-60.
[In the following essay, Sherman contrasts what he sees as the mean-spiritedness of the attacks upon Matthews by the new generation of writers and the sweetness of his response.]
Criticise the book before you, and don 't write a parallel essay, for which the volume you have in hand serves only as a peg. This is No. VII of Twelve Rules For Good Reviewers, formulated by Brander Matthews in an essay on "The Whole Duty of Critics," 1892.
I should try to follow this rule, if its maker himself had not led me astray by sub-announcing in "The Tocsin of Revolt" a theme which he does not develop. Here is the theme which lurks in the first short essay:
When a man finds himself at last slowly climbing the slopes which lead to the lonely peak of three-score-and-ten he is likely to discover that his views and his aspirations are not in accord with those held by men still living in the foothills of youth. He sees that things are no longer what they were half a century earlier and that they are not now tending in the direction to which they then pointed. If he is wise, he warns himself against the danger of becoming a mere praiser of past times; and if he is very wise he makes every effort to understand and to appreciate the present and not to...
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SOURCE: "Dramatic Art and Craft," in By Way of Introduction, E. P. Dutton and Company, Inc., 1929, pp. 62-8.
[In the following review Milne addresses the criticism of George Jean Nathan and Matthews, dismissing the ideas of the former. ]
Mr. George Jean Nathan comes from the "Mother, look at George!" school of criticism, and is now enjoying a post-graduate course of "Oh, Mr. Nathan, you do say things!" As a professional dramatic critic he has been saying things for years, and this book is a collection of his best bits. Evidently he is a person of some consequence in America just now. "Much is made of the fact that I often leave the theatre in the middle of the second act of a play," he tells us. Under this stimulus he writes (and who would not?) with a buoyant swagger which is delightful, but which may lose some of its buoyancy when the fact that he has left the theatre in the middle of the second act is made much of no longer. Meanwhile, he is sufficiently exciting. When he says: "The lesser British playwrights . . . such playwrights as A. A. Milne, for example. . . . The net impression that one takes away from their exhibits is of having been present at a dinner-party whereat all the exceptionally dull guests have endeavoured to be assiduously amusing"—when he says this, he may give more pleasure to my friends than to me; but I do not leave the theatre. I stay to the end, and am rewarded a...
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SOURCE: "Brander Matthews," in Commemorative Tributes of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1942, pp. 234-38.
[In the following tribute, Butler, president of Columbia University from 1902 to 1945, commemorates his departed friend and colleague with deep and affectionate praise. ]
There are men who do important and interesting work in the world, whose personalities loom larger through the years than do any of their performances. Brander Matthews was one of these. No matter what he wrote or how excellent it may have been, no matter what he taught or how abundant an inspiration it was, the personality of the man puts it all into the shade. His manner, his merriment, and his charm were all his own, and were never failing. By good fortune he wrote for us an autobiographical sketch which he called These Many Years. He gave to it, as subtitle, the words "Recollections of a New Yorker." And a New Yorker he certainly was, in some respects the last of his kind.
Those mingled Scottish and English strains which gave to America its possibilities as well as its ideals and so much of its competence, united to produce this charming man and to guide his feet toward the metropolitan city which he truly loved and mightily adorned. One does not easily think of Brander Matthews as finding the home of his father's origin on Cape Cod, but there it was. From...
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SOURCE: "Brander Matthews: Critic of the Theatre," in Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. XII, No. 3, October, 1960, pp. 169-76.
[In the following essay, Bender provides an appreciative overview of Matthews's involvement with the theater as playwright, theoretician, critic and teacher.]
The recent publication of Papers on Playmaking1 and Papers on Acting2 has brought back into print the name of an American theatrical figure who has almost been forgotten except on the campus of Columbia University where it is perpetuated in the name of the Brander Matthews Dramatic Museum and the Brander Matthews Chair of Dramatic Literature. Yet for almost half a century the opinions and theories of Brander Matthews loomed most importantly over the American dramatic scene. And even today, although the name is known to few, the theories evolved by Matthews remain important in much of our thinking regarding the theatre and the criticism of drama.
There is a special interest in the name of Brander Matthews for those working in the educational theatre, for he was the first in the United States to bring drama into education. When Matthews died in 1929, an anonymous writer in Commonweal noted: "Today the colleges are redolent of drama, experimental and otherwise. Not a few of the initiates forget that what they are attempting would probably never have become possible...
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SOURCE: "The Tutelage of a Young American: Brander Matthews in Europe, 1866," in Columbia Library Columns, Vol. XIII, No. 2, February, 1964, pp. 35-42.
[In the following essay, referring to a travel diary Matthews kept when he was fourteen, Kleinfield examines the boy's impressions of and responses to a European excursion.]
In five centuries, Europe has played for Americans many roles, the point of departure, the home base, the mother country, the fountain of culture, the raging war god, the artist's haven, the wounded ally, the first line of defense. Through these many contacts with the Protean old world, the fledgling new has grown steadily in strength, size, vigor, and complexity. Always there has remained, however, a desire—sometimes merely a curiosity, often a passion—to visit, explore, and challenge the teeming parent beyond the seas. Today jet planes make Europe a weekend resort, but not until the advent of the steamship in the mid-nineteenth century did Europe lay within ready reach. A half-forgotten manuscript picked from Columbia's library shelves now gives us a candid picture of one such eastward pilgrimage made a hundred years ago when hundreds of affluent American families gained prestige, refinement, and knowledge by following the popular guide-book routes to the geographical and cultural monuments of England, France, Switzerland, Italy, and Germany.
That manuscript, a...
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SOURCE: "Brander Matthew's Re-visioning of Crane's Maggie," in American Literature, Vol. 60, No. 4, December, 1988, pp. 654-8.
[In this essay, Oliver contrasts Matthews' version of Realism with Stephen Crane's by comparing Matthews' short story "Before the Break of Day" with Crane's short novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.]
Reviewing Stephen Crane's Maggie, Hamlin Garland praised the novella as the most truthful and unhackneyed tale of the slums he had ever read, but he qualified his praise of Crane's compelling study in naturalism by contending that it "is only a fragment. It is typical only of the worst elements of the alley. The author should delineate the families living on the next street, who live lives of heroic purity and hopeless hardship."1 Garland's critique of Maggie will be familiar to most Crane scholars; less known, however, is the fact that two months before his review appeared, Garland, apparently intending to promote Maggie, had urged Crane to send a copy of the book to Brander Matthews. An influential literary critic and professor of drama at Columbia University, Matthews was an intimate friend of and was highly regarded by not only Garland but William Dean Howells and Mark Twain as well. During the "war" being waged in the United States at the time between the literary romanticists and realists, Matthews was a staunch ally of the latter; and...
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SOURCE: "Theodore Roosevelt, Brander Matthews, and the Campaign for Literary Americanism," in American Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 1, March, 1989, pp. 93-111.
[In the following essay, Oliver explores Matthews's long friendship with Theodore Roosevelt and the influence of the relationship on his fiction and nonfiction.]
Yet the fact remains that the greatest work must bear the stamp of originality. In exactly the same way the greatest work must bear the stamp of nationalism. American work must smack of our own soil, mental and moral, no less than physical, or it will have little of permanent value.
—Theodore Roosevelt, "Nationalism in Literature and Art"
No president of the United States was better acquainted with and took a greater interest in the literary canon than Theodore Roosevelt. Though the Harvard-educated Rough Rider strove to project a "cowboy" image to the public, he was at heart a "literary feller," as he confided to his friend Brander Matthews.1 In Roosevelt's mind, the literary and the political were inextricably linked, as is vividly revealed in a letter he wrote to Matthews in June, 1894.
The letter is worth a close reading. Roosevelt, then Civil Service Commissioner, begins by expressing support for a check on immigration because "we are getting some very undesirable elements now."...
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SOURCE: "Brander Matthews and the Dean," in American Literary Realism 1870-1910, Vol. 21, No. 3, Spring, 1989, pp. 25-40.
[In the following essay, Oliver examines the forty-year literary relationship between Matthews and William Dean Howells.]
Recollecting his experiences as a member of the Saturday Club, Bliss Perry, after suggesting that William Dean Howells was never as happy in New York City as in Brahmin Cambridge, reports that the Dean complained to him in the 1890s: "No one ever drops in any more to talk about books, no one except once in a while Brander Matthews."1 Perry continues his reminiscence without another word about Howells' book-loving visitor. Matthews in fact frequently appears on the scene in biographical and critical studies of Howells (and of other realists as well) only to disappear, as in Perry's essay, almost as soon as he arrives, most scholars apparently considering his literary relationship with Howells too insignificant to merit much attention.2 Yet that relationship, though obscured by the shadows of Mark Twain, Henry James, Stephen Crane, and other prominent writers who occupied privileged positions in Howells' life, spanned four decades and generated an extensive chain of correspondence. And though Matthews might seem a slight figure today, published and unpublished letters reveal that the Dean considered him one of the realist movement's sturdiest...
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SOURCE: "Quill and Olive Branch: Walter Besant Corresponds with Brander Matthews," in Columbia Library Columns, Vol. XLI, No. 1, November, 1991, pp. 13-22.
[In the following essay, Colby documents the collaboration between Matthews and Walter Besant, founder of the British Society of Authors, as they attempted to secure transatlantic copyright protections for British and American writers and to make the work of American writers familiar in England.]
From December 1894 through December 1895 there appeared in the Author, organ of the British Society of Authors, edited by Walter Besant who had founded the Society in 1883, a column entitled "New York Letter." These contributions at first were signed Hallett Robinson, shortened subsequently to H. R., a pseudonym adopted by Brander Matthews (by then a professor of literature at Columbia), as revealed in letters from Besant to Matthews in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
These twenty-nine letters, spread out in time from 1884, the year of the incorporation of the Society of Authors, to 1900, the year before Besant's death, reflect a remarkable confluence of interests between the two men. Both were versatile writers, as well as actively engaged in the promotion of international copyright. A conviction they shared that American writers were inadequately appreciated by English readers prompted Besant to commission Matthews's pieces...
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SOURCE: "Ideological "Snap-Shots" of the New York Metropolis: Matthews's Fiction," in Theodore Roosevelt, Brander Matthews, and the Politics of American Literature, University of Tennessee Press, 1992, pp. 145-63.
[In the following excerpt, Oliver reviews Matthews' three novels and considers the effect of his attitudes about race, class, and gender on his vision and practice of Realism.]
In addition to his voluminous scholarship and criticism, Matthews produced a sizable and varied corpus of fiction: three full-length novels, several books of short stories, and a juvenile romance. Matthews admitted that many of his early stories, written during the late 1870s and early 1880s, were done purely for fun and were imitative of the "clever" but superficial fictions of Thomas Bailey Aldrich. But, as he crusaded for Howells and literary realism during the eighties, Matthews became increasingly interested in exploiting the "local color" potential of his beloved New York. As he explains in his autobiography:
The field was here, and it was fertile, and furthermore, it had not been pre-empted. Yet there were very few of us who then [the late 1880s] recognized the richness of the soil or who had confidence in the crop that could be raised. London had been painted on the broad canvases of a host of robust novelists. . . . but New York had not yet attracted either the novelists...
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Lewisohn, Ludwig. "The Critic and the Theater." In The Drama and the Stage, pp. 12-18. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922.
Argues that Matthews's dictum that a play's value must be judged by its appeal to its audience falters when one analyzes the quality and composition of contemporary audiences.
Payne, William Morton. "Recent Fiction."The Dial XXIX, No. 341 (September, 1900): 125.
Concludes that The Action and the Word, is not a "deep" story but shows "deft workmanship," and is "exceptionally entertaining."
Perry, Thomas S. "Memories of the Golden Age."The Yale Review VII, No. 3 (April 1918): 641-45.
Reviews autobiographies by Hamlin Garland, Henry James and Matthews, offering friendly dissent on Matthews's campaigns for spelling and copyright law reform.
The following sources published by The Gale Group contain further coverage of Matthews's life and work: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 13, 71, 78.
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