In my last post I noted that Ruth Graham’s argument distinguishing young adult fiction from more weighty stories is a perennial lamentation made by stalwarts of Literature. In a previous iteration last December, Terry Teachout descried the critical attention being given to “pop culture” over “high art,” and in my response I showed that such arguments were made by none other than Edgar Allan Poe — who was better known during his lifetime as a critic than as a literary figure, and whose works have helped to define entire genres of popular culture.
This morning, I came upon another example of the same argument from 1899, this time from Benjamin De Casseres. Although little known today, De Casseres was an influential early-twentieth century book critic at The New York Sun and other Hearst-empire newspapers, writing hundreds of book reviews, biographical columns, political tracts, poems and short stories right up to his death in December 1945. He befriended and corresponded with the likes of Jack London, Eugene O’Neill, Aldous Huxley, H. L. Mencken and a variety of other artists and critics over the course of his tenure. Of late I have become rather fascinated by the breadth (and quantity) of De Casseres’s writings and surprised by the lack of attention this once-eminent critic now receives.
The piece I found this morning came before De Casseres had built up his name, however. It was written while De Casseres was still living in Philadelphia, where he was born, and appears in the form of a letter to The New York Times Saturday Review, written on Oct. 29, 1899, and published on Nov. 11 that same year. Here is the full text:
Some of your correspondents who “take me up” in your next issue of last week for my letter decrying the excessive novel reading of the day are apparently laboring under the impression that I am opposed to the novel per se. Nothing is further from the truth. No one places the art of the novel writer higher than I do, and I hold that when one has a read “The Scarlet Letter,” “Vanity Fair,” “L’Assomoir,” “Richard Feveral,” and “Henry Esmond,” he has read five of the literary masterpieces of the age. To me they are not fiction, but great truths, to be absorbed into the woof and weft of one’s spiritual nature. I do not indict the novel, but the novel-reading public—those who in our libraries allow Goethe, Taine, Spencer, and Browning to grow cobwebbed with persistent disuse, and who crowd around the frothy fiction cases like flies around the sugarbowl. The majority of these latter read merely for amusement—seldom for instruction. They belong to that class of people who subscribe to The Daily Batteringram and Evening Shock, and who patronize the Girl from Paris and the latest disrobing humbug from oversea.
They live by and through their feelings. Their higher centres have become atrophied through a long period of poisonous desuetude. To them Darwin is the man who said, “We came from monkeys,” Henry George “That man who believes in killing the rich,” and Browning—“Why ain’t he the poet who had a fight with his father-in-law?” They know next to nothing of the tremendous philosophic, religious, economic movements of the age, which are intimately connected with the fortunes of you and me and all of us. As Prof. James says, these people are becoming a source of danger to the National character. Novels are sapping their strength; they welter in emotions and revel in the warm baths of sense—though they would indignantly disclaim any such thing. One correspondent tells me that there is enough of the tragic in life without reading Ibsen. Parodoxical as it may seem, I reply that there is so much tragedy in life because we don’t make our lives tragical enough. No ill was ever gotten over by ignoring it. Ibsen has grappled with the problems of all time. All hail to the grapplers and fighters! The kingdom of the spirit does not belong to moon-struck Le Gallienne or broadsword Kipling, but to the Ibsens and Zolas, Tolstoïs, Turgeneffs, and Hauptmanns.
We have had enough of the novel for awhile. The new century is portentous with ominous signs. Rose Nouchette Carey, Mrs. Alexander, Hall Caine, and Le Gallienne are doing nothing to interpret them. They hold a preponderating influence in the world of literature to-day—even among the cultivated; but, as Goethe says, “among those we call cultivated there is little earnestness to be found.” And let us hope that the first shall be last.
The interesting part to me is the form of the argument has changed very little. De Casseres anticipates the arguments of both Teachout and Graham — and the many others who have made the same argument — by trying to distinguish between novels that “hold a preponderating influence in the world of literature” and those which offer “not fiction, but great truths.” Interestingly, he also anticipates my own counterargument (by way of C. S. Lewis), that people have different motives for reading, by writing, “The majority of these latter read merely for amusement—seldom for instruction.” Rather than seeing this as a positive thing, as Lewis and I both do, De Casseres uses the motivation of amusement to prosecute readers: “I do not indict the novel, but the novel-reading public.”
I won’t attempt to counter De Casseres’s specific comments — I’ve written enough in response to Teachout and Graham that my own position is likely clear enough already — except to note that this letter is that of a young man looking to move in on the literary scene. By 1922, Theatre Magazine was calling De Casseres “America’s foremost creator of brilliant prose,” and I can only wonder if by the time he gained such prominence, he had perhaps developed a different view of the value of novels. I’d like to think so, but I will have to look into it more before I know.