Frank Swinnerton

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George Dangerfield

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 582

"Swinnerton" leaps, as it were, from ring to ring. Its sub-title should be changed from "An Autobiography" to "A Circus," and I make this suggestion without rancor, for there are many things less pleasant than a circus, and few more calculated to take our minds away from fact. In a circus all the performers have a glamor which is not false, but fictitious: and only if we are very small children do we think that they are what they so beautifully pretend to be….

"Swinnerton" is the kind of autobiography which has leaped into that category over the back fence, about one foot ahead of the critics. The more considerable part of it is about other people, and a charming troupe they are—all talented, all good talkers, and all of them liking Mr. Swinnerton. About Mr. Swinnerton himself one learns less. At first you cannot convince yourself that you know much more about him than that he has a "thousand dollar smile," a description which occurs as late as p. 331, was handed to him by an American lady, and not restored to her. You accept this, of course, but you find yourself wishing that there was rather less of that smile in his book. That is why, when the smile grows faintly acid, as it occasionally does, you draw a long breath of gratitude.

These remarks are intended to convey the thought that to be kind in print (and Mr. Swinnerton has met and is kind to almost everybody English and literary) is something of a modern vice. The public is being trained not to accept abuse and venom, which are both useful things if not overemployed, and were highly thought of among the Greeks and the Elizabethans and the eighteen century wits and other good people.

Yet Mr. Swinnerton is not always just a Smile in Wonderland. A careful consideration of this book reveals another man, a novelist whose "Nocturne," had I read it, I am sure I should have admired; a skilful writer, and a man of warm and singular feelings. This man is discovered, infrequently, in those portions of "Swinnerton" which are legitimately autobiographical and which are also infrequent: in the first chapters, and especially those chapters in which he speaks of early days in the publishing business. There was a person at J. M. Dent's who always wore a frock coat, not because he was formal, but because he had once sat down on a pair of scissors and was indisposed to take that chance again: and there is only one character more lovable in the whole book, and that is the character of Arnold Bennett. Arnold Bennett has escaped the circus. The pages that deal with him are not written to satisfy our curiosity, but to appease an emotion in Mr. Swinnerton. "Have I the power to make you see my friend as I saw him?" That sentence has another intonation, the intonation of literature….

The last chapter, about Mr. Swinnerton and his wife and their cat, is also literature. When you read this, and the early chapters, and the story of Arnold Bennett, and one or two other passages, it does seem as if the top of the Big Tent had blown off: and above us, through the fog, we can almost see the stars, which in their courses fight for men and against them, and which are real.

George Dangerfield, "Kindness in Print," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XV, No. 4, November 21, 1936, p. 11.

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Joseph Wood Krutch


The Times Literary Supplement