Brander Matthews Essay - Critical Essays

Matthews, Brander


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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

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 (criticism) 1910

A Study of the Drama (criticism) 1910

Shakespeare As a Playwright (criticism) 1913

On Acting (criticism) 1914

These Many Years: Recollections of a New Yorker (autobiography) 1917

The Principles of Playmaking and Other Discussions of the Drama (criticism) 1919

The Tocsin of Revolt, and Other Essays (essays) 1922

The Clown in History, Romance and Drama (essays) 1924

Suggestions for Teachers of American Literature (essays) 1925

Rip Van Winkle Goes to the Play, and Other Essays on Plays and Players (criticism) 1926


Augustine Birrell (essay date, 1894)

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 nobody really minds them in these moods; and, per contra, Americans are not easily laughed out of a good conceit of themselves, and have been known to be as disagreeable as they could.

To try to make "an international affair" over the "u" in honour and the second "1" in traveller is surely a task beneath the dignity of anyone who does not live by penning paragraphs for the evening papers, yet this is very much what Mr. Matthews attempts to do in this pleasingly-bound little volume. It is rank McKinleyism from one end to the other. "Every nation," says he, "ought to be able to supply its own second-rate books, and to borrow from abroad only the best the foreigner has to offer it." What invidious distinctions! Who is to prepare the classification? I don't understand this Tariff at all. If anything of the kind were true, which it is not, I should have said it was just the other way, and that a nation, if it really were one, would best foster its traditions and maintain its vitality by consuming its own first-rate books—its Shakespeares and Bacons, its Taylors and Miltons, its Drydens and Gibbons, its Wordsworths and Tennysons—whilst it might very well be glad to vary the scene a little by borrowing from abroad less vitalising but none the less agreeable wares.

But the whole notion is preposterous. In Fish and Potatoes a ring is possible, but hardly in Ideas. What is the good of being educated and laboriously acquiring foreign tongues and lingoes—getting to know, for instance, what a "freight" train is and what a bobolink—if I am to be prevented by a diseased patriotism from reading whatever I choose in any language I can? Mr. Matthews' wrath, or his seeming wrath—for it is impossible to suppose that he is really angry—grows redder as he proceeds. "It cannot," he exclaims, "be said too often or too emphatically that the British are foreigners, and their ideals in life, in literature, in politics, in taste, in art" (why not add "in victuals and drink"?) "are not our ideals."

What rant this is! Mr. Matthews, however frequently and loudly he repeats himself, cannot unchain the canons of taste and compel them to be domiciled exclusively in America; nor can he hope to persuade the more intelligent of his countrymen to sail to the devil in an ark of their own sole...

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W. P. Trent (essay date 1895)

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...

(The entire section is 4387 words.)

Brander Matthews (essay date 1885)

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...

(The entire section is 3549 words.)

W. P. Trent (essay date 1901)

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...

(The entire section is 1502 words.)

William Lyon Phelps (essay date 1908)

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...

(The entire section is 1858 words.)

The Literary Spotlight (essay date 1924)

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...

(The entire section is 2105 words.)

Stuart P. Sherman (essay date 1924)

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...

(The entire section is 2229 words.)

A. A. Milne (essay date 1929)

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...

(The entire section is 1855 words.)

Nicholas Murray Butler (essay date 1929)

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...

(The entire section is 1584 words.)

Jack E. Bender (essay date 1960)

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...

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H. L. Kleinfield (essay date 1964)

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,...

(The entire section is 2128 words.)

Lawrence J. Oliver (essay date 1988)

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...

(The entire section is 1958 words.)

Lawrence J. Oliver (essay date 1989)

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,...

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Lawrence J. Oliver (essay date 1989)

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...

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Robert A. Colby (essay date, 1991)

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...

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Lawrence J. Oliver (essay date, 1992)

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...

(The entire section is 6659 words.)

Further Reading


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,...

(The entire section is 137 words.)