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...
(The entire section is 2731 words.)