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Among Irish writers who left large imprints on literature, there were a peculiar pair who failed to impress one another when twice their paths crossed. William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) and C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) met in Oxford, and both found their encounters less than inspiring.

Obviously, when the two of them met, Yeats was an internationally renowned pillar of poetry, and Lewis was a young man with a trifling reputation. Oddly enough, they were introduced by an American poet.

[Editorial Note: This is a longer post than most, but it is a fascinating subject that demands more comprehensive discussion.]

William Force Stead (1884-1967) had served in the United States Consular Service. Upon being posted to the United Kingdom, he studied at Queen’s College in Oxford, and was ordained a priest in the Church of England.

His religious life must have been curious, since he apparently explored some of the spiritualism common to that era. However, his ordination did allow for his employment in a convenient position. While Chaplain of Worcester College in Oxford, he baptized T.S. Eliot, who had become his friend.

He left the position when he decided to convert to Roman Catholicism. (Apparently it was a bit of a scandal.) At the outset of the Second World War, he returned to the United States where he pursued an academic life. One of his poems, “Sweet Wild April,” can be read in the supplemental notes below.

The Relationship Between Lewis and Stead

In his diary of his early life, published as All My Road Before Me, Lewis describes a visit to his home made by Stead.

Sunday 8 July: After lunch I lay on the lawn reading Boswell while Harwood and Maureen played duets to their great satisfaction. Just before tea I had gone into the house when I saw someone at the hall door and opening it found Stead.

I talked to him in the drawing room for a few minutes and then brought him out and introduced him to Harwood and disappeared to get tea. He talked philosophy to Harwood and I threw in impertinent interruptions whenever I came out to put a cup or a cake on the table. . . .

Stead, fresh back from Venice and Rome, gave as his verdict that “Italy was a pleasant surprise to him. He had always imagined the Italians a degenerate people but found that they were really quite go ahead and up to date.”

They were also more patriotic than the English, for they were always waving flags and went mad over the name of Italy whereas “he had never found that Englishmen showed any great enthusiasm over the mention of England.” They and their landscape were, he said, hardy and vigorous whereas one always felt the softness of England.

Lewis’ next sentence expresses in eleven words an entire volume. It is followed by fascinating observations about the Italian fascism of the early twenties.

Stead is an American and has not been to the war. We also talked of Fascismo. We were all inclined to favour it except Harwood who said it was only a more successful version of the Ku Klux Klan and that Mussolini had the face of a villain.

Asked if he believed in Fascist atrocities, Stead said that they committed atrocities only when they were deserved.

Stead’s Introduction of Lewis to Yeats

Stead apparently possessed the type of personality that resonated with Yeats, who was captive to various Hermetic and Rosicrucian mythologies. Yeats must also have appreciated Stead’s poetry, since he included two of his poems in the Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1892-1935).

Stead was modest about his ability to contribute to the conversation as it was guided by the elder authority. With some frequency, he was invited to dine with Yeats and his wife (although it does not appear that his own wife accompanied him). Here is his description of the normal pattern for such evenings.

[It was] an easy and intimate little party, but I was often puzzled in the hours that followed when we retired to his study: Yeats, who mistook me for a philosopher and a man of learning, went voyaging off into regions with which I was wholly unfamiliar.

He was then reading the Catholic theologian, Baron von Hugel—and here I could offer a few comments; he was already interested in Byzantium, and I had a little knowledge of the Eastern Empire. But his range of interest–tho’ he was not a man of learning–went far beyond my boundaries. For instance, he would open a volume on Art, Apollo by Reinach, and ask me to compare the facial expressions in Greek and Roman sculpture, as representing the contrast between the subjective or instinctive life and the objective or rational life.

This led to a discussion of the difference between the Greek and Roman civilizations, and to subjective and objective periods during the Christian era.
Here I was invited to follow his involved system of intersecting cones, as the objective age or civilization was moving up into the subjective, and the subjective age or civilization was moving down into the objective.

These again were symbolised by the dark of the moon as the objective, and the light or full moon as the subjective, and the transition as the gradual rounding out of the dark into the light, and vice versa.

I was often quite lost, and even the poet himself, to whom this reading of character and history had come as a revelation—partly thro’ his wife, who had pronounced psychic powers—even the poet would pause at times, drop his glasses, dangle them at the end of their ribbon, look round and say: “It is all very difficult.”

Stead offers a suggestion as to why his company may have been valued by the famous poet.

I must have been useless as a source of information and ideas, but Yeats was lonely and felt rather neglected in Oxford; his was not the academic type of mind, and learned ladies bored him by asking, “Mr. Yeats, what is your subject?” as though he were a don, with some narrow field of research.

He soon adopted a blunt reply—“Astrology,” and that floored them. As a matter of fact, it was one of his many interests in occultism. . . .

Yeats welcomed almost any form of belief. He craved the supernatural. It was the only air he could live and breathe in.  (“Oxford Poets” by David Bradshaw in Yeats’s Mask)

Lewis’ Introduction to Yeats

Lewis could hardly believe his good fortune when his acquaintance invited him to meet Yeats. However, it was the poet’s peculiarities, rather than his talents, that left the deepest impression.

In a lengthy letter to his brother Warren, Lewis describes in detail these events. He begins with the receipt of the invitation, and includes a humorously critical evaluation of Stead’s poetry.

I received this morning a letter from my obliging friend Stead. Stead is rather a punt: I think you saw me stop to speak to him one day in the Corn. 36 He is an undergraduate but also curate of a parish in Oxford. He writes poetry. The annoying thing is that it’s exactly like mine, only like the bad parts of mine: this was my own original opinion and it has been confirmed by others. Perhaps you can imagine the sensation I experienced in reading it.

Stead’s letter was to say that he had mentioned to Yeats–whom he knows–“my double claim to distinction as an Irishman and a poet” and would I come along this evening and see him?

The letter continues with a description of the evening.

I accordingly repaired after dinner to Stead’s lodging in Canterbury Street. He is a married man: his wife is an American: she is the sister of a woman who is married to a brother of Mrs Moore’s.

She was a woman of implacable sullenness who refused even to say good evening to me: beside her at the fire sat an American gentleman who was apparently left to console her for the absence of her husband.

This was a very amiable person: he was ‘studyin’ when I entered, but politely laid his book down. You know the sort of face in which a long promontory of nose (eagle build) projects from between two rounded hills of cheek (cherub build)? Picture this surmounted by a pair of horn spectacles and made of a texture rather like cod’s roe: then add that this face beams but can contribute to the crack only by saying ‘That’s right’ at the end of everyone’s remark.

In these rather nasty surroundings Stead was finishing a very nasty meal of cold fish and cocoa: but he soon put on his coat and after asking his lady why there were no stamps in the house and receiving no answer, swung out with me into the usual Oxford theatrical night. Trusting soul to leave his wife unguarded in such society!

Yeats lives at the end of Broad St, the first house on your right as you leave the town. I can assure you I felt a veritable Bozzy as I reflected that I was now to meet at last WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS! But enough of that.

We were shown up a long stairway lined with rather wicked pictures by Blake–all devils and monsters–and finally into the presence chamber, lit by tall candles, with orange coloured curtains and full of things which I can’t describe because I don’t know their names.

The poet was very big, about sixty years of age: “awful” as Bozzy says: grey haired, clean shaven. When he first began to speak I would have thought him French, but the Irish sounds through after a time.

Before the fire was a circle of hard antique chairs. Present were the poet’s wife, a little man who never spoke all evening, and Father Martindale. Father M. is a Catholic Priest, a little twinkling man like a bird, or like Puck, whom I take to be an atheistical dog. I used to go to his lectures in the old days: he is a mocker.

Everyone got up as we came in: after the formalities I was humbly preparing to sink into the outlying chair leaving the more honourable to Stead, but the poet sternly and silently motioned us into other ones. The meaning of this I have not fathomed: ’twas very Pumble-chookian.

Then the talk began. It was all of magic and cabbalism and “the Hermetic knowledge.” The great man talked while the priest and Mrs Yeats fed him with judicious questions.

The matter I admit was either mediaeval or modern, but the manner was so XVIII Century that I lost my morale.

I understood how it is possible for a man to terrify a room into silence: and I had a ghastly presentment that something would presently impel me to up like that “unknown curate” and say “Were not Vale Owen’s revelations, Sir, addressed to the passions?”

And then as Max Beerbohm says “Bang” the suddenness of it! However I remembered that Johnson WAS really dead and controlled myself. Indeed some good angel guided me: for presently I really had something to say–a case mentioned by Coleridge which was most apposite and indeed crying for quotation on something just said.

But thank God I didn’t: for a minute later the priest did. YEATS (thumping his chair): “Yes–yes–the old woman in Coleridge. That story was published by Coleridge without the slightest evidence. Andrew Lang exposed it. I’ve never had a conversation on the subject that SOMEONE didn’t bring in Coleridge’s old woman. It is anonymous in the first place and every one has taken it over without question. It just shows that there’s no limit to the unscrupulousness that a sceptical man will go to–”

MARTINDALE: “Oh surely Mr Yeats–”

YEATS: “Yes! There is a Professor living in Oxford at this moment who is the greatest sceptic in print. The same man has told me that he entered a laboratory where X (some woman whose name I didn’t catch) was doing experiments: saw the table floating near the ceiling with X sitting on it: vomited: gave orders that no further experiments were to be done in the laboratories–and refused to let the story be known.”

But it would be only ridiculous to record it all: I should give you the insanity of the man without his eloquence and presence, which are very great. I could never have believed that he was so exactly like his own poetry.

One more joke must be recorded. Stead presently told us a dream he had had: it was so good that I thought it a lie. YEATS (looking to his wife): “Have you anything to say about that, Georgie?” Apparently Stead’s transcendental self, not important enough for the poet, has been committed to Mrs Yeats as a kind of ersatz or secondary magician.

Finally we are given sherry or vermouth in long and curiously shaped glasses, except Martindale who has whiskey out of an even longer and more curiously shaped glass, and the orgy is at an end.

Try to mix Pumblechook, the lunatic we met at the Mitre, Dr Johnson, the most eloquent drunk Irishman you know, and Yeats’s own poetry, all up into one composite figure, and you will have the best impression I can give you.

A week later Lewis records, in the same missive, a description of their encore gathering.

Having met Stead yesterday in the Broad with his wife and of course with our friend of the nose, I was told that the great man had expressed himself sorry not to have been able to see more of me owing to his argument with the priest, and would I come again with Stead [the] next night?

This night we were shown to a study up in the ceiling and entertained by him alone: and, would you believe it, he was almost quite sane, and talked about books and things, still eloquently and quite intelligently? Of course we got on to magic in the end—that was only to be expected.

It was really my fault, for I mentioned Bergson. “Ah yes,” said he, “Bergson. It was his sister who taught me magic.” The effect of this statement on Aunt Suffern (already in paroxysms of contempt over what I had already told her about Yeats) ought to be amusing.

We spoke of Andrew Lang. YEATS: “I met him once—at a dinner somewhere. He never said a word. When we began to talk afterwards, he just got up and took his chair into a corner of the room and sat down facing the wall. He stayed there all the evening.” Perhaps Lang didn’t like wizards!

Of the “great Victorians” he said: “The most interesting thing about the Victorian period was their penchant for selecting one typical great man in each department—Tennyson, THE poet, Roberts, THE soldier: and then these types were made into myths. You never heard of anyone else: if you spoke of medicine it meant—(some ‘THE Doctor’ whose name I’ve forgotten): if you spoke of politics it was Gladstone.” This is especially interesting to us as explaining the mental growth of a certain bird we wot of. (“Well all said and done boys, he was a GREAT man.”)

So home to bed more pleased with our poet than I had been on the last occasion: and rather thankful that L’Oiseau Pomme de Terre hadn’t been there to explain that “you can see he’s a disappointed man” after every adverse criticism on any living writer. Oh, before I leave it, Stead told me he had shown Yeats a poem: Yeats said he thought “IT WOULD DO VERY WELL” to set to music! Stead thinks this is a compliment. H’mh!

A moment ago we heard Stead’s appraisal of Yeats, which ended with a declaration of his interest in the supernatural. Stead said “Yeats welcomed almost any form of belief.” Well, that is not quite true. As the passage continues, he reveals Yeats’ discomfort with those who might challenge his affinity for occultic phenomena.

Once when I had brought an undergraduate with me, Yeats gave us a long discourse on re-incarnation. At the end my young friend ventured to observe that the theory of re-incarnation “bristles with difficulties.”

Yeats passed it off in sullen silence, but several times later on referred indignantly to “that young man who said re-incarnation bristles with difficulties.” (“Oxford Poets”)

The young man who dared suggest to Yeats that reincarnation was a flawed philosophy was none other than C.S. Lewis.

It is little surprise that the relationship between the two Irish poets never grew close.


Below you will find poems written by Lewis’ acquaintances mentioned in this column. The first is by Stead, and reflects a truly carefree spirit. The second is one of Yeats’ most famous works, penned in the aftermath of WWI.

Sweet Wild April

O sweet wild April
Came over the hills,
He skipped with the winds
And he tripped with the rills;
His raiment was all
Of the daffodils.
Sing hi,
Sing hey,
Sing ho!

O sweet wild April
Came down the lea,
Dancing along
With his sisters three:
Carnation, and Rose,
And tall Lily.
Sing hi,
Sing hey,
Sing ho!

O sweet wild April,
On pastoral quill
Came piping in moonlight
By hollow and hill,
In starlight at midnight,
By dingle and rill.
Sing hi,
Sing hey,
Sing ho!

Where sweet wild April
His melody played,
Trooped cowslip, and primrose,
And iris, the maid,
And silver narcissus,
A star in the shade.
Sing hi,
Sing hey,
Sing ho!

When sweet wild April
Dipped down the dale,
Pale cuckoopint brightened,
And windflower trail,
And white-thorn, the wood-bride,
In virginal veil.
Sing hi,
Sing hey,
Sing ho!

When sweet wild April
Through deep woods pressed,
Sang cuckoo above him,
And lark on his crest,
And Philomel fluttered
Close under his breast.
Sing hi,
Sing hey,
Sing ho!

O sweet wild April,
Wherever you went
The bondage of winter
Was broken and rent,
Sank elfin ice-city
And frost-goblin’s tent.
Sing hi,
Sing hey,
Sing ho!

Yet sweet wild April,
The blithe, the brave,
Fell asleep in the fields
By a windless wave
And Jack-in-the-Pulpit
Preached over his grave.
Sing hi,
Sing hey,
Sing ho!

O sweet wild April,
Farewell to thee!
And a deep sweet sleep
To thy sisters three, –
Carnation, and Rose,
And tall Lily.
Sing hi,
Sing hey,
Sing ho!

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

 

C.S. Lewis and Punditry

January 30, 2017 — 10 Comments

chesterton-sanity

Odds are that you, kind reader of Mere Inkling, are a pundit. While the overpaid professionals who overpopulate the media would like for us to think being a pundit requires possessing special knowledge or expertise, that’s simply not true.

Any of us who make comments or pass judgments in an authoritative manner can rightly be deemed a pundit. If you are simply a commonplace critic, you probably qualify for the title. All the more so if you publish your thoughts.

If the recent elections proved anything, they revealed there may well be more pundits per cubic acre in the modern world, than there are bees.

Recently I came across a peculiar essay, written by a writer with whom I’m totally unfamiliar. David Harsanyi is a senior editor of The Federalist, although this article appeared in National Review. Presumably he is a conservative, but of the atheist variety. (No wonder I haven’t read any of his work.)

At any rate, he’s a journalist who describes his “line of work” as “punditry.” Punditry as we have noted, has become all the rage in our modern era. I’m debating though whether adding it to one’s resume would be beneficial. It appears that receiving the validation of a punditry paycheck is the best gauge for making that determination.

As soon as people had the leisure time to develop their senses of humor, the seeds of punditry were planted, and many a silver tongued cynic has reaped the harvest. The past has known people who offered social criticism with a dash of wit (typically of the sarcastic variety).

An admirable example of such was G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936). Chesterton differed from Harsanyi in that he was also a philosopher and poet, not merely a journalist. Most notably, Chesterton was also a Christian.

C.S. Lewis held Chesterton in very high regard, and included his book The Everlasting Man among the top ten titles which had influenced his professional and philosophical thought. You can download an audio copy of that text here.

There is a great essay here that explores the influence of Chesterton’s essay “Ethics of Elfland” on the Inklings.

Jerk Logic

Returning to the article with which I began, “Jerk Logic” is the title of Bersanyi’s essay. He began with a question that more people should probably ask themselves.

Am I a jerk? You may find this an odd question for a person to ask himself. But when you’re in my line of work—which, broadly speaking, is called punditry—complete strangers on social media have little compunction about pointing out all your disagreeable character traits.

I found his article interesting for several reasons. He’s candid about some of the booby traps that endanger those who dare to write about controversial subjects. He offers a confession about just how soul-scarring the past election has been for some who have followed its permutations closely.

The 2016 election, I’m afraid, has convinced me that the joke is definitely on me. But after taking meticulous inventory of my actions over the past year or so, I am forced to acknowledge that perhaps, on occasion, some of my behavior might be construed as wantonly unpleasant. Long story short, I am a jerk . . . with an explanation.

Another thing I enjoyed in the brief piece is how he turned to a personality inventory (similar to the Myers Briggs Type Indicator) to assess his potential jerk quotient.

As I learned more about my personality type, I began feeling sorry for everyone in my almost certainly beleaguered family. While we pride ourselves on “inventiveness and creativity” and “unique perspective and vigorous intellect,” Logicians can also be “insensitive,” “absent-minded,” and “condescending.”

The essay concludes with a justification for a modest amount of jerkiness when living the life of a journalist, and especially a pundit.

As a writer, it’s incumbent on me to be clinically unpleasant and prickly when focusing on self-aggrandizing do-gooders or abusers of power or those who pollute our culture with garbage. One can make arguments in good faith while still being downright disagreeable. So I make no apologies for being disliked. There’s nothing wrong with being hated by the right people.

There are, in fact, far too many journalists overly concerned about being shunned. As a young critic writing his first reviews for a wire agency, I sometimes wrestled with an existential question: “Who am I to say these horrible things about people who are far more successful and powerful than I am?” Nowadays I ask myself: “How exactly can I say more horrible things about these people who shouldn’t be more successful or powerful than any of us?”

A skeptical and contrarian disposition is not only useful if you want to be a decent pundit, but indispensable if you want to be a good journalist on any beat.

I wonder whether Chesterton would think of this as an indispensable journalistic trait. He did, after all, have an honest view of the overall profession. “Journalism largely consists in saying ‘Lord Jones is dead’ to people who never knew Lord Jones was alive.” (The Wisdom of Father Brown)

I did find a fascinating description of the press provided by Chesterton in “The Boy.” It was published in 1909 in All Things Considered . . . and echoes true a century later.

But the whole modern world, or at any rate the whole modern Press, has a perpetual and consuming terror of plain morals. Men always attempt to avoid condemning a thing upon merely moral grounds.

If I beat my grandmother to death to-morrow in the middle of Battersea Park, you may be perfectly certain that people will say everything about it except the simple and fairly obvious fact that it is wrong.

Some will call it insane; that is, will accuse it of a deficiency of intelligence. This is not necessarily true at all. You could not tell whether the act was unintelligent or not unless you knew my grandmother. Some will call it vulgar, disgusting, and the rest of it; that is, they will accuse it of a lack of manners. Perhaps it does show a lack of manners; but this is scarcely its most serious disadvantage.

Others will talk about the loathsome spectacle and the revolting scene; that is, they will accuse it of a deficiency of art, or æsthetic beauty. This again depends on the circumstances: in order to be quite certain that the appearance of the old lady has definitely deteriorated under the process of being beaten to death, it is necessary for the philosophical critic to be quite certain how ugly she was before.

Another school of thinkers will say that the action is lacking in efficiency: that it is an uneconomic waste of a good grandmother. But that could only depend on the value, which is again an individual matter.

The only real point that is worth mentioning is that the action is wicked, because your grandmother has a right not to be beaten to death. But of this simple moral explanation modern journalism has, as I say, a standing fear. It will call the action anything else—mad, bestial, vulgar, idiotic, rather than call it sinful.

Amen. Evil acts today are nearly always attributed to some shortcoming or flaw such as insanity (e.g. individual acts) or delusional indoctrination (e.g. jihadism). While these are sometimes contributing factors, Chesterton rightly assessed the base cause.

Sadly, by affirming that fact, I expect that I too will be going on some people’s “jerk” list. They may consider me contrarian, but I’m simply striving to be honest.

 

roeShould literary critics look down on authors whose work proves popular with “common” people? Is it appropriate for the literary elite to smirk dismissively whenever the prose of a writer outside their circle resonates with the masses?

These, my friends, are rhetorical questions. The answer to both is “no,” and if you believe otherwise, you probably won’t find yourself too comfortable with the opinions shared here at Mere Inkling.

I believe each piece of literature, regardless of its source, should be judged on its own merits. Not all genres appeal to all people. And not all writers compose their works with equal skill. Nevertheless, it is possible for even a poor miner to strike gold.

Likewise, an accomplished writer is not infallible. Even a master wildcatter can sink a dry well.

I’ve been writing an article about Civil War chaplain who became one of America’s most popular writers during the nineteenth century. In fact, many years his novels outsold the works of Samuel Clemens himself.

And yet, despite his success—or possibly, because average people enjoyed his stories—he received an extraordinary amount of criticism from the literary establishment.

I’m going to share his insights about writing in a moment, but  before doing so, I want to draw a parallel with one of the twentieth century’s most gifts authors. C.S. Lewis was loved by common women and men of Britain and other English-speaking countries. And yet, this very popularity undermined his standing in the world of academia and, I daresay, literary snobbery.

Lewis describes this condescending mindset in a 1939 essay entitled, “High Brows and Low Brows.”

The great authors of the past wrote to entertain the leisure of their adult contemporaries, and a man who cared for literature needed no spur and expected no good conduct marks for sitting down to the food provided for him.

Boys at school were taught to read Latin and Greek poetry by the birch, and discovered the English poets as accidentally and naturally as they now discover the local cinema. Most of my own generation, and many, I hope, of yours, tumbled into literature in that fashion.

Of each of us some great poet made a rape when we still wore Eton collars. Shall we be thought immodest if we claim that most of the books we loved from the first were good books and our earliest loves are still unrepented? If so, that very fact bears witness to the novelty of the modern situation; to us, the claim that we have always liked Keats is no prouder than the claim that we have always liked bacon and eggs. For there are changes afoot.

I foresee the growth of a new race of readers and critics to whom, from the very outset, good literature will be an accomplishment rather than a delight, and who will always feel, beneath the acquired taste, the backward tug of something else which they feel merit in resisting.

Such people will not be content to say that some books are bad or not very good; they will make a special class of “lowbrow” art which is to be vilified, mocked, quarantined, and sometimes (when they are sick or tired) enjoyed. They will be sure that what is popular must always be bad, thus assuming that human taste is naturally wrong, that it needs not only improvement and development but veritable conversion.

For them a good critic will be, as the theologians say, essentially a “twice-born” critic, one who is regenerate and washed from his Original Taste. They will have no conception, because they have had no experience, of spontaneous delight in excellence.

I confess I’ve sometimes felt slightly embarrassed when in the presence of a group of people singing the praises of authors of fiction popular among the well-educated. Sometimes I don’t even recognize their names, much less have an idea of what they have written.

Part of my “handicap” rises from the fact that I’m by and large a non-fiction sort of guy. As seminary I was less enraptured by abstract “systematic theology” than the time-proven lessons learned during the Church’s two millennia history. Likewise, I found “practical theology” far more beneficial. After all, I was being equipped not to be a theologian per se, but to become a shepherd entrusted with the cura animarum (the cure of souls).

In that spirit, valuing history and lessons I could put into practice as a pastor and writer, I have been researching the legacy of Edward Payson Roe (1838-1888). He was a Presbyterian pastor who served as a chaplain in the Union cavalry, and later as a military hospital chaplain.

After the war, Roe served a congregation, and eventually turned his energies to writing wholesome fiction. He played a key role in helping many suspicious Protestants realize that, like manna, fiction was neither good nor bad. It’s effects depended on the use to which it was put. Roe proved quite popular with readers. Less so with the literary establishment.

The following account comes from an essay about his life solicited by one of the prominent magazines of his day. It is well worth reading, touching as it does on a broad range of subjects, including international copyrights and the vagaries of publishing in the late 1800s. Most precious, though, are the echoes of Roe’s humility and his realistic understanding of the vocation of writing.

“While writing my first story, I rarely thought of the public, the characters and their experiences absorbing me wholly. When my narrative was actually in print, there was wakened a very deep interest as to its reception. I had none of the confidence resulting from the gradual testing of one’s power or from association with literary people, and I also was aware that, when published, a book was far away from the still waters of which one’s friends are the protecting headlands.

“That I knew my work to be exceedingly faulty goes without saying; that it was utterly bad, I was scarcely ready to believe. Dr. Field, noted for his pure English diction and taste, would not publish an irredeemable story, and the constituency of the New York ‘Evangelist’ is well known to be one of the most intelligent in the country.

“Friendly opinions from serial readers were reassuring as far as they went, but of course the great majority of those who followed the story were silent. A writer cannot, like a speaker, look into the eyes of his audience and observe its mental attitude toward his thought. If my memory serves me, Mr. R.R. Bowker was the earliest critic to write some friendly words in the ‘Evening Mail;’ but at first my venture was very generally ignored.

Then some unknown friend marked an influential journal published in the interior of the State and mailed it so timely that it reached me on Christmas eve. I doubt if a book was ever more unsparingly condemned than mine in that review, whose final words were, ‘The story is absolutely nauseating.’ In this instance and in my salad days I took pains to find out who the writer was, for if his view was correct I certainly should not engage in further efforts to make the public ill.

“I discovered the reviewer to be a gentleman for whom I have ever had the highest respect as an editor, legislator, and honest thinker. My story made upon him just the impression he expressed, and it would be very stupid on my part to blink the fact. Meantime, the book was rapidly making for itself friends and passing into frequent new editions. Even the editor who condemned the work would not assert that those who bought it were an aggregation of asses. People cannot be found by thousands who will pay a dollar and seventy-five cents for a dime novel or a religious tract.

“I wished to learn the actual truth more sincerely than any critic to write it, and at last I ventured to take a copy to Mr. George Ripley, of the New York ‘Tribune.’ ‘Here is a man,’ I thought, ‘whose fame and position as a critic are recognized by all. If he deigns to notice the book, he will not only say what he thinks, but I shall have much reason to think as he does.’ Mr. Ripley met the diffident author kindly, asked a few questions, and took the volume. A few weeks later, to my great surprise, he gave over a column to a review of the story. Although not blind to its many faults, he wrote words far more friendly and inspiring than I ever hoped to see; it would seem that the public had sanctioned his verdict

“From that day to this these two instances have been types of my experience with many critics, one condemning, another commending. There is ever a third class who prove their superiority by sneering at or ignoring what is closely related to the people. Much thought over my experience led to a conclusion which the passing years confirm: the only thing for a writer is to be himself and take the consequences. Even those who regard me as a literary offender of the blackest dye have never named imitation among my sins.

“As successive books appeared, I began to recognize more and more clearly another phase of an author’s experience. A writer gradually forms a constituency, certain qualities in his book appealing to certain classes of minds. In my own case, I do not mean classes of people looked at from the social point of view. A writer who takes any hold on popular attention inevitably learns the character of his constituency. He appeals, and minds and temperaments in sympathy respond. Those he cannot touch go on their way indifferently; those he offends may often strike back. This is the natural result of any strong assertion of individuality.

“Certainly, if I had my choice, I would rather write a book interesting to the young and to the common people, whom Lincoln said ‘God must love, since He made so many of them.’ The former are open to influence; the latter can be quickened and prepared for something better. As a matter of fact, I find that there are those in all classes whom my books attract, others who are repelled, as I have said.

“It is perhaps one of the pleasantest experiences of an author’s life to learn from letters and in other ways that he is forming a circle of friends, none the less friendly because personally unknown. Their loyalty is both a safeguard and an inspiration. On one hand, the writer shrinks from abusing such regard by careless work; on the other, he is stimulated and encouraged by the feeling that there is a group in waiting who will appreciate his best endeavor.

“While I clearly recognize my limitations, and have no wish to emulate the frog in the fable, I can truthfully say that I take increasing pains with each story, aiming to verify every point by experience—my own or that of others. Not long since, a critic asserted that changes in one of my characters, resulting from total loss of memory, were preposterously impossible. If the critic had consulted Ribot’s ‘Diseases of Memory,’ or some experienced physician, he might have written more justly.

“I do not feel myself competent to form a valuable opinion as to good art in writing, and I cannot help observing that the art doctors disagree woefully among themselves. Truth to nature and the realities, and not the following of any school or fashion, has ever seemed the safest guide. I sometimes venture to think I know a little about human nature. My active life brought me in close contact with all kinds of people; there was no man in my regiment who hesitated to come to my tent or to talk confidentially by the campfire, while scores of dying men laid bare to me their hearts. I at least know the nature that exists in the human breast.

“It may be inartistic, or my use of it all wrong. That is a question which time will decide, and I shall accept the verdict. Over twelve years ago, certain oracles, with the voice of fate, predicted my speedy eclipse and disappearance. Are they right in their adverse judgment? I can truthfully say that now, as at the first, I wish to know the facts in the case. The moment an author is conceited about his work, he becomes absurd and is passing into a hopeless condition. If worthy to write at all, he knows that he falls far short of his ideals; if honest, he wishes to be estimated at his true worth, and to cast behind him the mean little Satan of vanity. If he walks under a conscious sense of greatness, he is a ridiculous figure, for beholders remember the literary giants of other days and of his own time, and smile at the airs of the comparatively little man. On the other hand, no self-respecting writer should ape the false deprecating ‘’umbleness’ of Uriah Heep. In short, he wishes to pass, like a coin, for just what he is worth.

“Mr. Matthew Arnold was ludicrously unjust to the West when he wrote, ‘The Western States are at this moment being nourished and formed, we hear, on the novels of a native author called Roe.’ Why could not Mr. Arnold have taken a few moments to look into the bookstores of the great cities of the West, in order to observe for himself how the demand of one of the largest and most intelligent reading publics in the world is supplied? He would have found that the works of Scott and Dickens were more liberally purchased and generally read than in his own land of ‘distinction.’ He should have discovered when in this country that American statesmen (?) are so solicitous about the intelligence of their constituents that they give publishers so disposed every opportunity to steal novels describing the nobility and English persons of distinction; that tons of such novels have been sold annually in the West, a thousand to one of the ‘author called Roe.’

“The simple truth in the case is that in spite of this immense and cheap competition, my novels have made their way and are being read among multitudes of others. No one buys or reads a book under compulsion; and if any one thinks that the poorer the book the better the chance of its being read by the American people, let him try the experiment. When a critic condemns my books, I accept that as his judgment; when another critic and scores of men and women, the peers of the first in cultivation and intelligence, commend the books, I do not charge them with gratuitous lying. My one aim has become to do my work conscientiously and leave the final verdict to time and the public. I wish no other estimate than a correct one; and when the public indicate that they have had enough of Roe, I shall neither whine nor write.”

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If you are interested in learning more about E.P. Roe, check out my article in the new issue (4.2) of Curtana: Sword of Mercy which was published online just last week.

bandersnatchIf you’re a writer and you’ve never been part of a critique group, you’ve missed out on some beneficial (and occasionally annoying) experiences.

Critiquing is, of course, the process of providing constructive criticism to someone, in the hopes of improving their work. Good criticism is priceless. The problem is that it takes true skill to offer useful advice . . . and it requires the proper degree of self-assurance to receive the criticism itself.

Those who have been burned by scathing criticism are reticent to “invite” more of the same. However, when the criticism begins with affirmation (about positive aspects of the work), that tiny spoonful of sugar certainly helps the more difficult parts of the evaluation easier to swallow.

And yet, for some, even expertly delivered criticism—covered by a chocolate layer of affirmation and accolades—remains nearly impossible to accept.

A fine example of this truth comes in C.S. Lewis’ description of a prominent member of the Inklings writing fellowship. J.R.R. Tolkien was a virtual perfectionist when it came to all things Middle Earth. Because of this “flaw,” Lewis and the other Inklings were frustrated when it came time to review the progress of The Hobbit and elements of Lord of the Rings. As Lewis described it in a 1959 letter:

No one ever influenced Tolkien—you might as well try to influence a bander-snatch. We listened to his work, but could affect it only by encouragement. He has only two reactions to criticism; either he begins the whole work over again from the beginning or else takes no notice at all.

To learn the nature of a bandersnatch, we must travel Through the Looking Glass into Lewis Carroll’s 1872 novel. Carroll coined the word and introduced it to the world in a poem called “Jabberwocky,” which appears in Alice’s wonderful adventures.

Lewis, of course, was not likening his dear friend to a frumious* bandersnatch in terms of it’s overall personality. Rather, he was describing the severity of Tolkien’s inability to positively process criticism of his work, to the bandersnatch’s incapacity to do the same. It is similar to the sense in which the White King alludes to the creature’s swiftness in describing his wife: “She runs so fearfully quick. You might as well try to catch a Bandersnatch!”

Although few of us are destined to be members of so illustrious a critique community as the Inklings, I highly commend joining one of your local parallels. While you may encounter a bandersnatch or two, on the whole you’ll likely find the process quite beneficial.

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* “Frumious,” like bandersnatch itself, was coined by Lewis Carroll and is a blending of the words “fuming” and “furious.”

The bandersnatch, as envisioned above, is used with the permission of New Zealand illustrator David Elliot.