Thomas Burke Criticism - Essay

Gilbert Vivian Seldes (essay date 1917)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Rediscovery and Romance," in The Dial, Chicago, Vol. LXIII, July 19, 1917, pp. 65-7.

[In the following essay, Seldes offers a favorable assessment of Limehouse Nights and Nights in Town.]

The two substantial books of tales and sketches of London which Mr. Thomas Burke has collected and published since the war began are of a stuff which the world may find outmoded in the unhappy years to come. They are books which might have become only items in the "new literature" of the century's second decade had the revolution of war not prevented, for Mr. Burke is not only one of those who rediscovered romance; he is also of those who taste to the full the romance of their own rediscovery.

Some fifteen tales of Limehouse, the Chinese quarter of London in "the thunderous shadows of the great Dock," and some twenty sketches of London complete Mr. Burke's present contribution. To write about Chinatown is a reporter's holiday; to write about London, giving yourself no limitations but that of the mystic city itself, and to write with love and care and beauty, is a hard and bitter labor, no matter what talents you may have. Mr. Burke's passing repute comes from the tales of terror which the libraries were compelled to bar from their shelves; but to those who have some respect for the English tongue and for whom Walter Pater has not lived in vain, Mr. Burke will always possess an attraction because he has written well his slight sketches of London life. In both of these books one hears the cry of a great joy. At the age often the author was taken with the flaring beauty of a fried-fish shop, throwing a warm light and a glamour over the dusky pavement of a London slum; and since then he has been passing from discovery to discovery, rejoicing that these things, these common and tawdry things, are still in existence for him to discover again. He knows well that they were revealed long since, but he makes fresh starts and everything is new and beautiful to him.

Because everything is strange to him, Mr. Burke never quite succeeds in his tales of Chinatown. He writes of Limehouse as Pierre Loti writes of Annam and of Iceland, with the heart of a wanderer who will not be consoled for his separation from home. Lust and wildness, cruelty, perversion and madness, things unclean to the white man's heart, make up the themes of his stories. He has continually to drive his plots with little daggers of exaggeration because he is always impressed with the uncommonness of the people of whom he writes. Will it be the story of a burglar's wife who tries to betray her husband to the police so that she may be free to love his accomplice, or the story of a girl who loses caste by going with a Chinaman in order to pay her mother's funeral expenses? The reality of his events does not satisfy the author; he must try to be convincing by a turn of the plot, so that we get the ten-cent magazine type of sudden and perverse denouement. It is not the husband but the lover who is killed by the police; the girl gets her revenge by a neat trick, revealed in the last line of the story.

These Limehouse Nights appeared in three of the most interesting periodicals of England: The English Review, Colour, and The New Witness, and I can hardly imagine the editor of any one of them insisting that Mr. Burke get more punch or pep into his work. I am afraid he is really to blame for his shortcomings.

He is certainly to be credited with his good things, because he seems a writer with no derivations. Ambrose Bierce might have written some of these tales, but you cannot trace Burke to Bierce, because you are in the presence of a singularly powerful inspiration with which literary affinities have very little to do. Mr. Arthur Machen, the unknown master of the artistic tale of terror, probably returns Mr. Burke's evident admiration. One suggests these names to convey a bit more clearly the quality of Mr. Burke's stories; that is all.

Strange and terrible stories, one hesitates to retell them, not because it would be unjust, for these are good stories and the outline of a good tale will always bear repetition. But they are about things we are none of us too anxious to name, and which Mr. Burke makes tolerable only by the flooding beauty of his telling and the human kindness of his spirit. He knows at least that one must not call down the gods of terror without praying softly to the gods of pity. I take one tale, an artist's story of those famous Sidney Street murders in which the world was once absorbed, those murderers for whose capture the soldiery of England was called out, against whom a street became a barricade and a funeral pyre. Mr. Burke calls it "Beryl, the Croucher and the Rest of England." He...

(The entire section is 1975 words.)

Milton Bronner (essay date 1917)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Burke of Limehouse," in The Bookman, New York, Vol. XLVI, September, 1917, pp. 15-17.

[In the following essay, Bronner evaluates the style and themes of Limehouse Nights and London Lamps.]

Violent times seem to beget in those who stay quietly at home a taste for a brutally realistic literature. After the abortive Russian revolution of 1905, when the Czar crushed the rebels with an iron hand and all Russia seemed once more sunk in hopeless and helpless despair, there was an unprecedented production of novels and stories whose realism was unusually frank, even for that country. Strangely enough, it was also pornographic. It was as if by mutual consent of...

(The entire section is 1879 words.)

Grant Overton (essay date 1922)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Places to Go," in When Winter Comes to Main Street, George H. Doran Company, 1922, pp. 187-95.

[In the following excerpt, Overton discusses Whispering Windows and The London Spy.]

The book by Thomas Burke called More Limehouse Nights was published in England under the title of Whispering Windows. At the time of its publication, Mr. Burke wrote the following:

The most disconcerting question that an author can be asked, and often is asked, is: "Why did you write that book?" The questioners do not want an answer to that immediate question; but to the implied question: "Why don't you write some other kind...

(The entire section is 727 words.)

St. John Adcock (essay date 1928)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Thomas Burke," in The Glory That Was Grub Street: Impressions of Contemporary Authors, Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1928, pp. 13-22.

[In the following essay, Adcock favorably surveys the early years of Burke's literary career.]

It used to be a canon of criticism, not so long ago, that all great art is impersonal. We were told (when I was young one distinguished critic told me in most reverent and emphatic terms) that Shakespeare could not be found in his plays or poems; that these were the sublime creations of his intellect and imagination, and that he had kept himself out of them with the perfect reticence of the supreme artist. It was a generally accepted...

(The entire section is 2458 words.)

Edwin Bjorkman (essay date 1929)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Thomas Burke: The Man of Limehouse, in Thomas Burke: A Critical Appreciation of the Man of Limehouse," George H. Doran Company, 1929, pp. 5-18.

[Bjo'rkman was a Swedish-American novelist, translator, and critic who introduced American readers to the works of such Scandinavian authors as August Strindberg, Biornstjerne Björnson, and Georg Brandes. In the following essay, Bjdrkman discusses Burke's life, his philosophy, and the sources of his works.]

Anyone with a love for strong color and brisk action can enjoy the work of Thomas Burke. But to savor it fully, one must bear in mind sympathetically the three main factors that have combined to make his art...

(The entire section is 3591 words.)

Alfred Kazin (essay date 1973)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to Limehouse Nights by Thomas Burke, Horizon Press, 1973, pp. 12-19.

[A highly respected American literary critic, Kazin is best known for his essay collections The Inmost Leaf (1955), Contemporaries (1962), and On Native Ground (1942). In the following essay, he discusses the strengths and limitations of Limehouse Nights.]

Thomas Burke believed that Limehouse, the great grimy port area on the north bank of the Thames, was the most exotic place in the world. When I saw it one day in 1945, wandering about the East India docks, I seemed to see nothing but the most enormous warehouses solidly lining the streets back of the...

(The entire section is 1571 words.)