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An essay by Brander Matthews

Ignorance And Insularity

Title:     Ignorance And Insularity
Author: Brander Matthews [More Titles by Matthews]

"In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?" asked Sydney Smith in the Edinburgh Review, in 1820; and for years the American people writhed under the query as though they had been put to the question themselves. In those days the American cuticle was extraordinarily sensitive, and the gentlest stroke of satire caused exquisite pain. But although Sydney Smith was unkind, he was not unjust; in the four quarters of the globe nobody to-day reads any American book published before 1820--except Irving's Knickerbocker. In the very year that Sydney Smith wrote there was published in England a book which might have arrested the dean's sarcastic inquiry had it appeared a few months earlier. This was Irving's Sketch Book. The Americans of seventy years ago did not know it; but none the less is it a fact that American literature made a very poor showing then, and that there was in existence in those days scarcely a single book with vitality enough to survive threescore years and ten. The men who were to make our literature what it is were then alive--Irving, Cooper, Bryant, Emerson, Longfellow, Whittier, Holmes, Lowell, Poe, Hawthorne, Bancroft, Prescott, and Motley; but Irving's Knickerbocker was the only book then in print which to-day is read or readable. It was only in 1821 that Cooper published the Spy, the first American historical novel, and the first of the Leatherstocking Tales did not appear until 1823. Reverberations of the angry roar which answered Sydney Smith's question must have reached his ears, for, in 1824, again in the Edinburgh Review, he wondered at our touchiness: "That Americans ... should be flung into such convulsions by English Reviewers and Magazines is really a sad specimen of Columbian juvenility."

Now we have changed all that. In less than three-quarters of a century (a very short time in the history of a nation) our cuticle has toughened--perhaps the process was hastened by the strokes of a long war fought for conscience' sake. It is not so easy now to wring our withers, and more often than not it is on the other side of the Atlantic that the galled jade winces. John Bull is not as pachydermatous as once he was, and a chance word of Brother Jonathan's penetrates and rankles. Mr. Charles Dudley Warner once let fall an innocent remark about the British strawberry; and more than one British journal flushed with rage till it rivalled the redness of that worthy but hollow-hearted fruit. Mr. W. D. Howells suggested a criticism of two British novelists; and the editor of the Saturday Review made ready to accept the command of the Channel Fleet. Mr. Theodore Roosevelt rebuked a British general for insulting Robert E. Lee with blundering laudation; and Mr. Andrew Lang promptly wrote a paper on "International Girlishness," in which he very courteously offered himself as an example of the failing he described. In a little essay on the centenary of Fenimore Cooper, I remarked that the reader of Professor Lounsbury's admirable biography could "see how bravely Cooper fought for our intellectual emancipation from the shackles of the British criticism of that time, more ignorant then and even more insular than it is now;" and against this casual accusation that British criticism is or was ignorant and insular, Mr. Andrew Lang again protested, with his wonted suavity, of course, but with energy nevertheless and with emphasis.

Turn about is fair enough. When Time plays the fiddle, the dancers must needs change places; and we Americans have no call for weeping that the British attitude to-day resembles ours in the early part of the century more than our own does. The change is pleasant, and Mr. Andrew Lang ought not to object to our enjoyment of it. As regards the special charge that British criticism was more ignorant and more insular fifty odd years ago than it is now--well, I do not think that Mr. Andrew Lang ought to object to that either. If I understand my own statement, it means that there has been an improvement in British criticism in the past half-century; and I do not think that this assertion affords a fair ground for a quarrel. Still, when Mr. Andrew Lang throws down the gauntlet, I cannot refuse to put on the gloves; and I decline to avail myself of the small side door he kindly left ajar for my escape.

First, it is to be noted that when Mr. Andrew Lang writes about "critics," and when I wrote, we were discussing different things. There are two kinds of critics, and the word criticism may mean either of two things. The writer of an anonymous book-review printed in a daily or weekly paper considers himself a critic, and the product of his pen is accepted as a criticism. But there is no other word than criticism to describe the finest work (in prose) of James Russell Lowell and of Matthew Arnold. Mr. Andrew Lang chooses to consider chiefly what might be called the higher criticism, and he sets aside the lower critics as "reviewers," declaring that "reviewers are rarely critics, and they are often very tired, very casual, very flippant." Now, it was this sort of British critic, the very casual and very flippant reviewer, that I meant when I spoke of the ignorance and insularity of British criticism; and it was the attitude of British critics of this type towards America that I had in mind. It was to their ignorance of America and Americans that I referred, and to the insularity of their position towards us. This ignorance is now less than it was in Cooper's time, and of late the insularity has been modified for the better. But that they were "very tired, very casual, and very flippant" is not an excuse for their constant attitude towards most American authors; it is not even an adequate reason. No doubt Mr. Andrew Lang knows the anecdote--is there any Merry Jest that he has not heard?--of the Judge who chafed under the insulting demeanor of a certain barrister until at last he was forced to protest: "Brother Blank," he said, "I know my great inferiority to you; but, after all, I am a vertebrate animal, and your manner towards me would be unbecoming from God Almighty to a black beetle!"

It is in relation to America and to American workers that we find British criticism ignorant and insular. The ordinary British critic assumes a very different tone towards us from that he assumes towards the French or the Germans. He may dislike these, but he accepts them as equals. Us he regards as inferiors--as degenerate Englishmen unfortunately cut off from communion with the father-land and the mother-tongue, and to be chided because we do not humbly acknowledge our deficiencies. He does not know that we are now no more English than the English themselves are now Germans. He does not guess that we are proud that we are not English--prouder, perhaps, of nothing else. He does not think that we do not like being treated as though we were younger sons in exile--wandering prodigals, deserving no better fare than the husks of patronizing criticism. No American likes to be patronized, and even some Englishmen seem to object to it; apparently Mr. Andrew Lang did not approve of the critical nepotism of a certain Teutonic reviewer. But the lordliness of the eminent German who reviewed Mr. Andrew Lang's book without reading it was tempered by the good faith with which he confessed his ignorance; and his offence was less heinous than that of the critic in the Saturday Review, who dismissed Mr. Aldrich's "Queen of Sheba" with a curt assertion that it was like the author's other poems.

As the Greek felt towards the Barbarian and as the Jew towards the Gentile, so does the ordinary British critic feel towards America. The feeling of the Greek and of the Jew was perhaps based on a serious reason; but what justifies the lofty superiority of the British critic? Is not its cause the self-satisfaction of ignorant insularity?--using neither word in any offensive sense. And does it not result in a willingness to condemn without knowledge and without any effort to acquire knowledge? Any one who recalls Brougham's review of Byron's first book, or Jeffrey's attack on Keats, or Wilson's dissection of Tennyson, knows that there are British criticisms which are not models of sweetness and light; never are sweetness and light more frequently absent than in British criticism of America and of Americans. "Light," I take it, means knowledge; and "sweetness" is incompatible with that form of morgue britannique which one may call insularity.

The higher criticism in England, which Mr. Andrew Lang praises perhaps not more than it deserves, has developed greatly within the last twenty years. It is not ignorant like the very tired, very casual, and very flippant reviewing, nor in the same fashion; but it has an ignorance of its own, compounded of many simples. Its attitude towards us is not as offensive, but it is not without its touch of superiority now and again. Mr. Andrew Lang himself, for example, is ignorant of our best critics, and confesses his ignorance as frankly as did his Teutonic reviewer; and then he reveals what is not wholly unlike insularity in his readiness, despite this ignorance, to make comparisons between American critics and British.

On Mr. Andrew Lang's list of British critics are the names of Mr. Ruskin, Mr. J. A. Symonds, Mr. R. L. Stevenson, Mr. Leslie Stephen, Mr. Walter Pater, Mr. George Saintsbury, Mr. Frederic Harrison, Professor Robertson Smith, Mr. Swinburne, and Mr. Theodore Watts--and every reader must instinctively add Mr. Andrew Lang's own name to a list on which it will find no superior. The list seems oddly chosen; an American misses the name of Mr. John Morley, perhaps the foremost of British critics of our day, and those of Mr. Austin Dobson, and of Mr. William Archer. Of American critics Mr. Andrew Lang can recall of his own accord, apparently, only the name of Lowell, and he remarks that "Mr. Howells, in an essay on this subject, mentions Mr. Stedman and Mr. T. S. Perry, doubtless with justice." If there were any advantage in making out a list of American critics to place beside the list of British critics, I should put down the names of Mr. Curtis, Col. Higginson, Mr. Warner, Mr. R. H. Stoddard, Professor Lounsbury, Professor T. F. Crane, Mr. W. C. Brownell, Mr. John Burroughs, Mr. George E. Woodberry, and Mr. Henry James--adding, of course, the names of Mr. Stedman and of Professor Child, mentioned by Mr. Andrew Lang in another part of his paper. But I fear me greatly that this is idle; it is but the setting up of one personal equation over against another. Orthodoxy is my doxy and heterodoxy is your doxy. Counting of noses is not the best way to settle a dispute about literature.

Indeed there is no way to settle such a dispute, and there is no hope of coming to an agreement. "It is a very pretty quarrel as it stands;" and if "we quarrel in print, by the book," let us stop at the first degree, the Retort Courteous, not going on even to the third, the Reply Churlish. Also is there much virtue in an If. "If you said so, then I said so." Let us then, while there is yet time, shake hands across the Atlantic and swear brothers.


[The end]
Brander Matthews's essay: Ignorance And Insularity