James Gibbons Huneker Essay - Critical Essays

Huneker, James Gibbons


James Gibbons Huneker 1857-1921

American journalist, essayist, biographer, critic, autobiographer, and novelist.

Huneker was an influential critic and journalist who is credited with introducing American readers to many leading European writers, thinkers, artists, and composers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A contributor to a variety of periodicals, he later collected his writings in such volumes as Iconoclasts: A Book of Dramatists (1905), which includes studies of Henrik Ibsen, Bernard Shaw, and Maurice Maeterlinck, and Unicorns (1917), which contains essays on such writers as James Joyce, George Sand, Mikhail Artzybashev, and J. K. Huysmans. Although Huneker has been criticized for lacking a coherent critical perspective, his writings are considered representative of the impressionism that characterized much of American literary journalism at the turn of the century, and, in assessing Huneker's role in the development of American criticism, Alfred Kazin has noted that "almost singled-handed he brought the new currents in European art and thought to America and made them fashionable."

Biographical Information

Huneker was born to a middle-class family in Philadelphia. He attended a private academy and later studied piano with the hope of pursuing a career as a concert pianist. In 1878 Huneker traveled for the first time to Paris, where he continued his musical training and began writing occasional pieces for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. Following his return from Europe, he taught piano in Philadelphia and contributed articles to the music journal Etude. In 1886 Huneker moved to New York and began writing book reviews and other critiques for the Musical Courier. He remained with that periodical until 1902, contributing a regular column on the arts under the name "Raconteur." During the early 1890s he also wrote music and drama reviews for the New York Recorder. In the ensuing decades Huneker was associated with numerous periodicals, most notably the New York Sun, Metropolitan Magazine, Puck, and the New York Times, to which he contributed as a foreign correspondent and feature writer. He died in 1921.

Major Works

Huneker's works are characterized by a cosmopolitan approach, anecdotal style, and enthusiasm for the subjects he undertook, most notably new developments in European art and literature of the fin-de-siècle period. His early reviews and essays focus on music and musicians, including the highly regarded study Chopin: The Man and His Music (1901). Such works as Iconoclasts, Egoists: A Book of Supermen (1909), and Ivory Apes and Peacocks (1915) comprise collections of his journalistic writings that cover an extensive range of arts and artists. He was among the first American critics to champion the dramas of Henrik Ibsen, Bernard Shaw, and August Strindberg, and Unicorns contains his early appreciation of James Joyce, whom he called "indubitably a fresh talent." Huneker's commentaries are often subjective and impressionistic, lacking a formal aesthetic. He praised individualism and focused his examinations on the artist's personality and on the social milieu in which the artist worked. His greatest enthusiasm was for French culture, and he wrote appreciations of Charles Baudelaire, Theophile Gautier, Paul Cézanne, and Henri Matisse, among numerous others. Huneker's favorites among contemporary American writers included Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, and William Dean Howells. In addition to his critical works, Huneker also wrote a novel, Painted Veils (1920), and the two-volume autobiography Steeplejack (1920).

Critical Reception

During his lifetime Huneker was considered the preeminent literary journalist in the United States. His personal acquaintance with leading artists, composers, and writers of the period and his cosmopolitan aesthetic sensibility brought Huneker significant influence as a taste-maker in American criticism. While the informal and unsystematic style of his reviews fell out of favor with critics who advocated the social and academic critical movements that developed in the mid-twentieth century, Huneker has nevertheless been praised by such notable critics as H. L. Mencken, who described him as "one of the most charming fellows ever heard of, and the best critic of the American first line."

Principal Works

Mezzotints in Modern Music (essays) 1899

Chopin: The Man and His Music (biography) 1900

Melomaniacs (essays) 1902

Overtones: A Book of Temperaments (essays) 1904

Iconoclasts: A Book of Dramatists (essays) 1905

Visionaries (essays) 1905

Egoists: A Book of Supermen (essays) 1909

Promenades of an Impressionist (essays) 1910

Franz Liszt (biography) 1911

Old Fogy: His Musical Opinions and Grotesques (essays) 1913

The Pathos of Distance: A Book of a Thousand and One Moments (essays and reminiscences) 1913

The Development of Piano Music from the Days of the Clavichord and Harpsichord to the Present Time (nonfiction) 1915

Ivory Apes and Peacocks (essays) 1915

New Cosmopolis: A Book of Images (essays) 1915

The Philharmonic Society of New York and Its Seventy-Fifth Anniversary: A Retrospect (nonfiction) 1917

Unicorns (essays) 1917

Bedouins (essays) 1920

Painted Veils (novel) 1920

Steeplejack 2 vols. (autobiography) 1920

Variations (essays) 1921

Letters of James Gibbons Huneker (letters) 1922

Intimate Letters of James Gibbons Huneker (letters) 1924

Essays by James Huneker (essays) 1929

Americans in the Arts: Critiques by James Gibbons Huneker, 1890-1920 (essays) 1985


Edward Clark Marsh (essay date 1909)

SOURCE: "James Huneker: Individualist," in The Forum, New York, Vol. XLI, No. 6, June, 1909, pp. 600-05.

[In the following essay, Marsh considers the distinctive, idiosyncratic style of Huneker's literary criticism.]

With a frankness that is altogether praiseworthy, James Huneker has affixed to his books labels which have the rare virtue of telling something about what they contain. The import of such titles as Melomaniscs; Visionaries; Iconoclasts; and now Egoists, is not cryptic. However much they may include, they will commonly be taken as barring out those manifestations of human life and thought which are reputed safe and sane. To the average man they will suggest something of morbidity; and if the average man will look further than the titles, he shall not be cheated of his expectation. It would not be easy to sum up under a single rubric all the men and subjects with which Mr. Huneker's books have dealt; their range is too wide for that. Yet they own to something in common, which marks them as having to do with a special set of phenomena. The men whose names are most frequently on the author's lips are those whom the world reckons madmen, either "sick souls," creatures of unhealthy sensibility, or the radicals, the free, independent thinkers who defy old formulas, break cherished idols and found new religions. Here, then, is one critic's specialty—since criticism must be a specialized business.

This preoccupation with themes which are taboo to the conservative is perhaps the first characteristic of the author to strike the reader of his books. But the second forth-standing characteristic involves something like a paradox. Criticism is, to be sure, for most part a business of specialization; yet the range of some of the great critics has been extraordinarily wide. One recalls at once Hazlitt's generous sympathies, Coleridge's wide reading, the learning and catholic understanding of Taine. The Frenchman, indeed, created a new standard for critics, and paved the way for such observers as the Danish Brandes, whose survey takes in the whole field of European literature. Within the restrictions of his special predilections, Mr. Huneker has followed this model. His Iconoclasts includes, for instance, studies of the Norwegian Ibsen, the Swedish Strindberg, the German Hauptmann, the French Hervieu, the Russian Gorky, the Italian D'Annunzio, the Belgian Maeterlinck and the Irish Shaw. But in these days of facile cosmopolitanism this sweeping of the horizon is not rare. Much more uncommon is the vertical range of Mr. Huneker's observations. He is not a critic of one art, like Arnold, nor of two or three, like Symonds and Pater, but of all the arts. George Moore has written much and well concerning music and painting, as well as literature; but among English writers I can recall no one who has passed so freely from one plane to another as Mr. Huneker, with the single exception of the brilliant Arthur Symons, with his Studies in Seven Arts. Indeed, the American has fairly outdone the Englishman, for he has invented new arts to criticise. Among the most astonishing of his virtuoso-pieces are two of his short stories, "The Eighth Deadly Sin" and "The Spiral Road"—the one an exposition of the art of perfume, the other of the art of pyrotechny. On these fantastic achievements of the future he has, with grave irony, trained his battery of technical criticism. In another of his stories, "A Master of Cobwebs," he has written of his hero: "He was a critic who wrote brilliantly of music in the terms of painting, of plastic arts in the technical phraseology of music, and by him the drama was discussed purely as literature." A franker bit of satirical autobiography could not be desired.

In the development of this versatility chance has doubtless played its part; something must also be conceded to heredity. Of Austro-Hungarian descent on his father's side, his mother was a daughter of James Gibbons, an Irish agitator and poet. Mr. Huneker was educated for the Church; hence his leaning toward mysticism, and the patristic and scholastic lore with which his pages are saturated. Yet his direct approach to literature was through journalism. As a boy he wrote letters on painting and artists from Paris to American periodicals. His technical training in music was solid and thorough. He is said to be an admirable pianist. In his connection with the New York press (latterly with the Sun newspaper), he has been successively critic of music, the drama, and painting. His published works comprise four volumes of essays: Mezzotints in Modern Music (Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Richard Strauss, Liszt and Wagner); Overtones: a Book of Temperaments (Richard Strauss, Parsifal, Literary Men who loved Music, The Eternal Feminine, The Beethoven of French Prose, Nietzsche the Rhapsodist, Anarchs of Art, After Wagner What? Verdi and Boito); Iconoclasts: a Book of Dramatists (Ibsen, Strindberg, Becque, Hauptmann, Sudermann, Hervieu, Gorky, Duse and D'Annunzio, Maeterlinck, De l'Isle Adam, Shaw); Egoists: a Book of Supermen (Beyle-Stendhal, The Baudelaire Legend, The Real Flaubert, Anatole France, J.-K. Huysmans, Maurice Barrès, Phases of Nietzsche, Mystics, Ibsen, Max Stirner); a book devoted to Chopin: the Man and His Music; and two volumes of short stories, Melomaniacs and Visionaries.

There remains a third characteristic which will have struck every one who has followed Mr. Huneker's course in letters: his independence of other critical support. For the full measure of his pioneering zeal it would be necessary to turn to the files of the newspapers in which is buried the bulk of his writing. He is given to quoting Stendhal's shrewd saying concerning romanticism, with its application to so much besides: "Romanticism is the art of presenting to people literary works which in the actual state of their habitudes and beliefs are capable of giving the greatest possible pleasure; classicism, on the contrary, is the art of presenting literature which gave the greatest possible pleasure to their great-grandfathers." Mr. Huneker has not waited for his romantics to become classics before admiring them. Fifteen years ago his columns bristled with appreciation of a young Irish playwright, then practically unknown, one Bernard Shaw. He led the fight in America for Richard Strauss while the issue was doubtful, and when the victory had been won left the laurels to others. He was the first American critic to give serious consideration to the works of Strindberg and Hervieu. At the present moment in New York the name of Claude Debussy is the...

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Current Literature (essay date 1909)

SOURCE: "James Huneker: Super-Critic," in Current Literature, Vol. XLVIII, No. 1, July, 1909, pp. 57-9.

[The following essay addresses Huneker's preeminence as a literary critic.]

Brilliancy, it seems, begets brilliancy. The scintillant genius of James Huneker provokes pyrotechnics on the part of his critics. Critic of Supermen and Super-critic, his epigrammatic flashes dazzle the elect and the curious. Fitly enough, Mr. Huneker's latest book of essays [Egoists] is dedicated to George Brandes. What George Brandes is to the Old World James Huneker is to the New. Huneker's figure stands out in even bolder relief in America than that of Brandes in Europe. In the...

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Wilkinson Sherren (essay date 1916)

SOURCE: "An American Speaks," in The Bookman, New York, Vol. XLIX, No. 294, March, 1916, pp. 189-90.

[In the following essay, Sherren's appraisal of Huneker's Ivory Apes and Peacocks is influenced by Great Britain's conflict with Germany during World War I.]

Not a ripple from the European war disturbs the surface of the essays gathered together by Mr. James Huneker, the accomplished American litterateur, who does so much to inform public taste in the United States.

Unreflecting readers of Ivory Apes and Peacocks might easily jump to the conclusion that he lived in a vacuum, and by some fourth dimensional trick passed from his library to...

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H. L. Mencken (essay date 1917)

SOURCE: "James Huneker," in A Book of Prefaces, Alfred A. Knopf, 1917, pp. 151-94.

[Mencken was one of the most influential figures in American literature from the First World War until the early years of the Great Depression. His strongly individualistic, irreverent outlook on life and his vigorous, invective-charged writing style helped establish the iconoclastic spirit of the Jazz Age and significantly shaped the direction of American literature. In the following essay, Mencken praises Huneker's enthusiasm for the arts as well as his exuberant essays on authors and composers.]


Edgar Allan Poe, I am fond of believing, earned as a critic a...

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Joseph I. C. Clarke (essay date 1921)

SOURCE: "James Gibbons Huneker," in Journal of the American Irish Historical Society, Vol. XX, 1921, pp. 221-28.

[In the following essay, Clarke delineates Huneker's Gaelic background and interest in Irish writers.]

No loss to literature, above all to American literature in recent years compares to the void left by the passing away of James Gibbons Huneker on February 10, 1921 in New York. To our ordinary mind contemplating the world of art and letters, it is the passing of the poet, the dramatist, the master story-teller, the historian, the painter, the sculptor, the singer, the actor, the musical composer, which covers the artistic personalities whose death makes men...

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Lawrence Gilman (essay date 1921)

SOURCE: "The Playboy of Criticism," in The North American Review, Vol. CCXIII, No. 785, April, 1921, pp. 556-60.

[In the following essay, Gilman stresses Huneker's role in introducing new artistic movements to the American public.]

"And now when the Great Moon had come, Steeplejack touched the tip of the spire, where instead of a cross he found a vane which swung as the wind listeth; thereat he marvelled and rejoiced. 'Behold!' he cried, 'thou glowing symbol of the New Man. A weathercock and a mighty twirling. This then shall be the sign set in the sky for Immoralists: A cool brain and a wicked heart. Nothing is true. All is permitted, for all is necessary.'—Thus...

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George E. De Mille (essay date 1927)

SOURCE: "Huneker," in Literary Criticism in America: A Preliminary Survey, 1927. Reprint by Russell & Russell, 1967, pp. 206-44.

[In the following essay, De Mille profiles Huneker as a gifted literary critic who introduced many important European authors to North American readers.]


Every now and then some criticaster, of the sort who believe that authors can be ranked and graded like pupils in a class in elementary arithmetic, sets out to answer the question, Who is the great American critic? The answers to this question have been various and surprising. Lowell has been most often mentioned, but one also hears the names of Poe, Stedman,...

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Granville Hicks (essay date 1929)

SOURCE: "The Passing of James Huneker," in The Nation, New York, Vol. CXXIX, No. 3364, December 25, 1929, p. 780.

[Hicks was an American literary critic whose famous study The Great Tradition: An Interpretation of American Literature since the Civil War (1933) established him as the foremost advocate of Marxist critical thought in Depression-era America. Throughout the 1930s he argued for a more socially engaged brand of literature but after 1939 sharply denounced communist ideology and adopted a less ideological posture in critical matters. In the following essay, Hicks disputes the reasoning behind Huneker's impressionistic criticism while praising the author for the gusto of his...

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Van Wyck Brooks (essay date 1932)

SOURCE: "James Huneker," in Sketches in Criticism, E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1932, pp. 230-35.

[An American critic and biographer, Brooks is noted chiefly for his studies of such writers as Mark Twain, Henry James, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and for his influential commentary on the history of American literature. In the following essay, Brooks remembers Huneker as a prototypical American writer attracted to European culture.]

Do you remember the roses in the Luxembourg Gardens, those roses, at once so opulent and so perfect, that blossom against the grey stone of the old balustrades? But one does not forget them: it is as if in some unique fashion they fulfilled the...

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Eliot G. Fay (essay date 1940)

SOURCE: "Huneker's Criticism of French Literature," in The French Review, Vol. XIV, No. 24, December, 1940, pp. 130-37.

[In the following essay, Fay focuses on Huneker's reviews of works by such French authors as Gustave Flaubert.]

Several years ago I attempted a study of American criticism of French literature. I wanted to discover which American critics had written most copiously and most discerningly about the literature of France. I began by excluding from my study, perhaps a little arbitrarily, those writers who appeared to me to be book reviewers or literary historians, rather than critics. And I excluded also those critics whose work, since they were still...

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Oscar Cargill (excerpt date 1941)

SOURCE: "The Intelligentsia," in Intellectual America: Ideas on the March, 1941. Reprint by The Macmillan Company, 1948, pp. 399-536.

[An American educator, historian, and literary critic, Cargill edited critical editions of the works of such major American authors as Henry James, Frank Norris, Walt Whitman, and Thomas Wolfe. In the following excerpt, Cargill examines the novel Painted Veils in order to understand the crisis of faith Huneker experienced late in his life.]

One purveyor of European ideas to Americans in this period was both a cosmopolitan and a man of taste. This was James Gibbons Huneker, the Philadelphia Irishman of whom H. L. Mencken has...

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Charles I. Glicksberg (essay date 1951)

SOURCE: "James Gibbons Huneker," in American Literary Criticism: 1900-1950, Hendricks House, Inc., 1951, pp. 60-3.

[An American critic and educator, Glicksberg has written widely on American literature. In the following essay, he criticizes Huneker for not developing a theory of aesthetics upon which to base opinions.]

Born in Philadelphia on January 31, 1860, Huneker was fortunate in having parents who were sincerely devoted to the arts of music and painting. His early passionate interest in literature precluded the thought of preparing him, as his mother wished, for the priesthood. He studied law for some years at the Law Academy in Philadelphia, but he was not...

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Arnold T. Schwab (essay date 1957)

SOURCE: "James Huneker's Criticism of American Literature," in American Literature, Vol. 29, No. 1, March, 1957, pp. 64-78.

[In the following essay, Schwab surveys Huneker's critical writings on American authors, including Walt Whitman, Henry James, and Theodore Dreiser.]

American critics and literary historians have generally accepted the notion that James Gibbons Huneker was largely indifferent to the literature of his own country. He was, to be sure, primarily interested in writers whose ideas and methods were of world-wide significance or whose temperaments appealed to him; many of these happened to be European. To maintain, however, that he was oblivious to the...

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Annette T. Rottenberg (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: "Aesthete in America: The Short Stories of James Gibbons Huneker," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. II, No. 4, Summer, 1965, pp. 358-66.

[In the following essay, Rottenberg assesses the short stories by Huneker collected in the volumes Melomaniacs, Visionaries, and Bedouins.]

In 1964 Painted Veils, The only novel which Huneker ever wrote, appeared in a paperback reprint as a "classic of American realism," the sign of a belated revival, perhaps; but the short stories, collected in Melomaniacs (1902) and Visionaries (1905), as well as a few in Bedouins (1920), have never been reissued and remain virtually forgotten and unread....

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Mortimer H. Frank (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "In Praise of Huneker," in The University of Windsor Review, Vol. IX, No. 1, Fall, 1973, pp. 100-12.

[In the following essay, Frank commends Huneker for his devotion to the arts and intuition about significant artists.]

For the first two decades of this century, James Huneker was probably America's most prolific critic of the European and American creative scene. Although his early training was in music, Huneker's interests ranged over all the arts and led to his becoming a critic for New York's major magazines and newspapers and, between 1899 and 1921, to his publishing the remarkable total of sixteen volumes—one novel, two collections of short stories,...

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Arno Karlen (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Huneker and Other Lost Arts," in The Antioch Review, Vol. 39, No. 4, Fall, 1981, pp. 402-21.

[In the following essay, Karlen contemplates Huneker's drift into obscurity following his death and expresses the need to resurrect Huneker's reputation.]

If you could resurrect a few writers of the past for one evening's conversation, which ones would you choose? A fascinating game, and not a new one. More than a half century ago, James Gibbons Huneker wrote of "the whimsical notion of Charles Lamb that he would rather see Sir Thomas Browne than Shakespeare.… I have often wondered if the most resounding names in history are the best beloved."


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Paul E. Cohen (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "A Riot of Obscene Wit," in Columbia Library Columns, Vol. XXXI, No. 3, May, 1982, pp. 19-28.

[In the following essay, Cohen discusses the merit and notoriety of Painted Veils.]

"The other day Huneker came into my office with the ms. of his novel," wrote H. L. Mencken in 1919 about Pointed Veils, the holograph manuscript of which is now in the Solton and Julia Engel Collection. "The thing turned out to be superb—the best thing he has ever done. But absolutely unprintable. It is not merely ordinarily improper; it is a riot of obscene wit." The novel was the work of James Gibbons Huneker, the well-known journalist and critic who at age sixty-two...

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Samuel Lipman (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "James Huneker & America's Musical Coming of Age," in The New Criterion, Vol. V, No. 10, June, 1987, pp. 4-14.

[In the following essay, Lipman details Huneker's writings about music.]

Imagine a small child, said by some to be musically precocious, sitting at a Steinway grand piano more than forty years ago, vainly attempting to show interest in practicing some small pieces of Chopin. The California sun was shining outside, the day was short, and the practice hours were long. The demands of a doting mother and of a piano teacher of the old Russian school were strict even when not severe, and to the child the prospect of a lifetime of practice just possibly...

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Further Reading

Byrne, Norman T. "James Gibbons Huneker." Scribner's Magazine LXXI, No. 3 (March 1922): 300-03.

Profiles Huneker, concluding that his "chief value lies … not in his works, which with the exception of the study of Chopin will probably be forgotten comparatively soon, but in his having, in the freshness of his method, paraded before the American public his ideas on an art of which they were all but totally ignorant."

DeCasseres, Benjamin. James Gibbons Huneker. New York: Joseph Lawren, 1925, 62 p.

Laudatory, impressionistic survey of Huneker's works, with a bibliography of primary and secondary sources.

___. "Foreword." In...

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