Künstlerroman Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

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Maurice Beebe (essay date 1964)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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SOURCE: Beebe, Maurice. Introduction to Ivory Towers and Sacred Founts: The Artist as Hero in Fiction from Goethe to Joyce, pp. 3-18. New York: New York University Press, 1964.

[In the following introduction to what is generally considered the definitive study of the künstlerroman, Beebe examines the theory of the “Divided Self” whereby the main character of a book is an outward expression of the author himself; he also explores the “Ivory Tower” tradition in which the writer “exalts art above life” and the “Sacred Fount” theory where the artist equates art with experience.]

No sooner has Denis Stone, the young poet in Aldous Huxley's Crome Yellow, confessed that he is writing a novel than he is chagrined to hear a new acquaintance describe the plot of the story:

“Little Percy, the hero, was never good at games, but he was always clever. He passes through the usual public school and the usual university and comes to London, where he lives among the artists. He is bowed down with melancholy thought; he carries the whole weight of the universe upon his shoulders. He writes a novel of dazzling brilliance; he dabbles delicately in Amour and disappears, at the end of the book, into the Luminous Future.”

Denis blushed scarlet. Mr. Scogan had described the plan of his novel with an accuracy that was appalling. He made an effort to laugh. “You're entirely wrong,” he said. “My novel is not in the least like that.” It was a heroic lie. Luckily, he reflected, only two chapters were written. He would tear them up that evening when he unpacked.

Mr. Scogan paid no attention to his denial, but went on: “Why will you young men continue to write about things that are so entirely uninteresting as the mentality of adolescents and artists? … As for the artist, he is preoccupied with problems that are so utterly unlike those of the ordinary adult man—problems of pure aesthetics which don't so much as present themselves to people like myself—that a description of his mental processes is as boring to the ordinary reader as a piece of pure mathematics. A serious book about artists regarded as artists is unreadable; and a book about artists regarded as lovers, husbands, dipsomaniacs, heroes, and the like is really not worth writing again.”1

Mr. Scogan is not clairvoyant; he is simply well read. The story of Percy could be that of several hundred sensitive young heroes of novels, for by 1921, when Crome Yellow was published, both the artist and the adolescent had become hackneyed subjects of fiction. The tradition of artist fiction, which had developed steadily for more than a century, reached a crest in the first two decades of the twentieth century. William York Tindall has gone so far as to say that “from 1903 onwards, almost every first novel by a serious novelist was a novel of adolescence.”2 Mr. Scogan is justified in linking stories of adolescents with stories of artists, because the story of a sensitive young man is usually that of a potential artist; when the novel is autobiographical, as most are, it is the story of the artist who wrote the book.

Less justified is Mr. Scogan's blanket dismissal of a form of fiction which includes some of the most distinguished novels of the past century: Pierre, Lost Illusions, Sentimental Education, The Way of All Flesh, Sons and Lovers, The Tragic Muse, Jean-Christophe, Remembrance of Things Past, The Counterfeiters, Doctor Faustus, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.3 If it be objected that Mr. Scogan is speaking as the “ordinary adult man” and that few of these novels have attained popular success, the list could easily be expanded to include such nineteenth-century classics as Wilhelm Meister, David Copperfield, Pendennis, and The Ordeal of Richard Feverel; or such twentieth-century best-sellers as Of Human Bondage, Martin Eden, Maurice Guest, The Song of the Lark, The Constant Nymph, Lust for Life, Sparkenbroke, Sinister Street, The Fountainhead, The Horse's Mouth, The Alexandrian Quartet, and

(The entire section is 14,276 words.)