James Gibbons Huneker Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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."