Brander Matthews Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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."