Imaginary Conversations

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BOOKS AND ARTS APRIL 30, 1924

Imaginary Conversations

MR. FITZGERALD. How do you do. I’m afraid it’s an awful nuisance for you to see me.

Mr. Brooks. Not at all. I’m glad to. I’m only sorry to have had to put it off. But I’ve been so frightfully busy with my book that I haven’t ben able to do anything.

Mr. Fitzgerald. What’s that—the James? I suppose you’re trying to have it out in time to get the benefit of the publicity of the Dial award.

Mr. Brooks. Oh, no: it may take me a long time yet. But it’s really rather a complicated job and I don’t like to drop a chapter in the middle or I lose all the threads. I’ve just come to a breathing-space.

Mr. Fitzgerald. I should think you’d want to rush it right through and get it out now: it might double your sales.

Mr. Brooks. Oh, I couldn’t possibly: I still have a lot of reading to do on it.

Mr. Fitzgerald. I suppose you must read hundreds of books, don’t you? How many books do suppose you’ve read for the James? Five hundred? Two hundred?

Mr. Brooks. Oh, I don’t know I’m sure—everything I could get hold of.

Mr. Fitzgerald. I suppose you must quote on an average of four or five books on every page of one of your biographies, don’t you?—and you probably refer to four or five others—and you’ve probably read half a dozen others that you didn’t get anything out of. That makes fifteen or sixteen books to a page. Think of it! Reading fifteen or sixteen books just to write a single page! For a book of two hundred and fifty pages that would be— 

Mr. Brooks. They’re not all different books, you know. One uses the same books again and again.

Mr. Fitzgerald. I know: but even so—it’s perfectly amazing! I suppose you must know more about American literature than anybody else in the world, don’t you?

Mr. Brooks. Oh, no: not by any means.

Mr. Fitzgerald. Well, in any case, you’re probably now the greatest writer on the subject. That’s the view the Younger Generation takes anyway. As I wrote you, I’ve been delegated by the Younger Generation of American writers to present you their congratulations on the occasion of the Dial award. They chose me as really the original member of the Younger Generation. Of course, there were a lot of people writing before This Side of Paradise—but the Younger Generation never really became self-conscious before then nor did the public at large become conscious of it. I am the man, as they say in the ads, who made America Younger-Generation-conscious.

Mr. Brooks. Well it was certainly very kind of you to take the trouble—

Mr. Fitzgerald. Besides, I’m about the only one who still really looks young. Most of the others are getting bald and discouraged. So they picked me out to represent them. They thought they ought to send somebody under thirty.—Well, could you stand to have me read you the letter they’ve written you or would you rather read it yourself?

Mr. Brooks. No: certainly—read it. Do!

Mr. Fitzgerald. “Dear Van Wyck Brooks: We, the undersigned younger American writers, desire to offer you our heartiest congratulations on the occasion of your receiving the Dial award. If it is a question of critical service to American letters we are of the opinion that there is no one living to whom it might more fitly go. You were, when we first began writing, almost the only critic in America who had anything to say to us which could help us to orient ourselves.”—This first part’s rather heavy—but it gets a little more interesting later on.—I didn’t draft the letter myself.—“You yourself have provided the most searching account of the critics whom we found in possession of the field: Mr. More who managed to read the classics all his life and maintain the moral horizons of a Presbyterian parson; Mr. Sherman who scolded the literature of Europe from the point of view of the Middle West; and Mr. Babbitt who, having thrown overboard in romanticism the chief creative moment of the age, was naturally unable to sympathize with young writers who had derived most of their inspiration form it. You were almost alone at that time in taking American culture seriously—that is, in appraising rigorously what America had already done and in urging upon us the importance of improving on it. You goaded us back to our place in the western world where we had never really been able to sit with very much dignity since the days of Jefferson and Franklin; you bade us remember in what drama we were playing and you made us see the heroic demands of the part. And you crystallized for us a point of view which made it easier for us to approach our problems. You taught us to beware especially of our Puritanism, of our spiritual inertia and cowardice and of our tendency to allow our intellectual activity to drift into providing excuses for the existing industrial order. And you made us see clearly the dangerous gulf which has come to exist between the highbrow and the lowbrow: we realized that the official organs of culture in America had got completely out of touch with the lives of the people and that as a result it was as difficult for the man of genius who happened to be deficient in education to turn his sensibility to artistic account as it was for the ‘cultivated’ critic to formulate any ideas of importance. Your great feat was to prove to young America that it was still possible for an American man of letters, writing in the American literary tradition at its most conscientious and correct, to expect something different of literature than anything that was to be found in The Atlantic Monthly, Scribner’s Magazine or the emanations of the universities. With the publication of America’s Coming of Age, the new forces had a highbrow on their side; hitherto they had had only H.L. Mencken.”—No slam for Mencken intended, of course; but even the people who were inclined to believe him didn’t know whether they ought to for a long time, on account of the language he used.

“For these great services we are indebted to you and we have wanted to express our gratitude. We hope that you will not consider us ungracious if we accompany it with a plea. ‘No one denies that at present in this country,’ you were writing in 1918, ‘an immense amount of creative energy has at least conclusively turned itself toward the field of the arts. If it does not in many instances come rightly and fully to a head, does it not all the more behoove criticism to condense the vapors that confuse this creative energy and to spring loyally to the support of groping minds that bear the mark of sincerity and promise? As for our critics, what birth out of life have any of them ever defended? … Have they ever been at pains to grasp the contemporary American mind and its problems? … ‘ Now as time has gone on we have not been able to help feeling that you yourself have lost interest a little in the office which you here propose. Since you wrote those words there have come to prominence a whole race of American writers of precisely the kind you describe. But when we looked about for your snow white standard streaming above our motley ones, we discovered you had disappeared. You had retreated underground into the nineteenth century. And the more articulate the new America becomes the more diligently you seem to burrow away into the archives of the old. Not, of course, that you have nothing to say to us in your distinguished studies of this period: literary biography is the form you have chosen and, aside from the social criticism conveyed in them, these studies furnish us with examples of workmanship as finished as we could demand of any art. Yet there is something a little chilling about them. Their tone is discouraging. In your anxiety to find out how and why our literature has fallen short of the greatest, you seem sometimes to create the impression that it has failed to accomplish anything at all. Yet most of the writers to whom you devote attention have had each his peculiar sense of life which he has succeeded in conveying to us in some more or less vivid form of beauty. Emerson pursuing happy guides in the thin winey yet fumeless air in his strange blithe homely commerce with the high places of light ; Thoreau with his strong thick colors and his compact sentences, like the whites of compact clouds against the blue Massachusetts sky and the thick dark-greens of trees about the white square-windowed houses—both these men have communicated the beauty of a particular kind of life. We feel in them a freshness and freedom as of lawns that slope away into fenceless meadows—and we taste a frosty sea-captain sarcasm which seasons discipline and ideal. So in Mark Twain there are most poignant pages which give us something which we do not find in your book about him; it is not only the sadness of the Mississippi in the days when life there was poor but the romance and the humor of the pioneers straying wide across the ungoverned continent; and we recognize it as the troubling compound of life at all times and everywhere.”—

Mr. Brooks. Will you forgive me if I interrupt you a moment? I don’t want to find fault so much with your description of the New England writers—though even there is suspect you have allowed distance to lend glamor to a society which when examined closely turns out rather disappointingly barren—but in regard to the West I think it is difficult to doubt that its humor and romance are largely fictitious. The life along the Mississippi which Mark Twain knew in his boyhood and youth was depressing in the extreme—a mere matter of lonely and squalid villages scattered along a muddy shore; and the romantic attractions of the life which he was to know afterwards in Nevada and California in the gold-rush days were apparently confined to profanity, gambling, drinking and periodical outbreaks of murder. The humor of which you speak was like these other things an hysterical relief from repressions and privations.

Mr. Fitzgerald. Well, I come from the West—the Middle West—myself and I will say it’s pretty boring in some ways. But still don’t you think there must have been a certain amount of romance about it in those early days? I should think even a pilot on the Mississippi like Mark Twain must have felt a sort of a thrill at playing some part in the mastery of the continent. And then there must have been a sort of a fine comradeship about the life of the mining-campus and the ranches—when they all called each other Captain and Colonel. I always have a feeling of something heroic in the old songs and stories of the West. Think of the men who first dared to play a part in those gigantic amphitheaters of Utah where the black rock ranges wall them in like the ramparts of the world! Think of life among the red fantastic shapes of the sandstone hills of Nevada, as if one were surrounded by the silent presences of faceless prehistoric gods! And do you suppose that the men who went to California even in Mark Twain’s time could have helped going around drunk with the sunshine like the Californians today? They must have felt a certain amount of exhilaration when they found themselves on that golden coast where no worry from the old world ever comes, where Time itself seems to have been left behind like some tyrannous mediaeval institution and human life restored at last to the original spaciousness of Eden, where it is always summer-time and always afternoon. Think of the mountains turning purple at evening and the purple-fringed sea—think of those men looking out at last upon a new horizon of ocean and hearing the drums of a drowsy surf that beat the rhythms of the southern sea. Don’t you really suppose that those men had a tremendous feeling of freedom?

Mr. Brooks. The condition of life for the pioneer, I believe, even in California, was the suppression of all instincts which might tend to interfere with the immediate problem of surviving in his environment. You assume that the generation of Mark Twain would have been capable of the enjoyment of landscape. But there is no evidence that this was the case. The enjoyment of landscape constitutes an enrichment of the spiritual soil which bears its fruits in artistic creation, and the generation of Mark Twain—who can doubt it?—throttled its impulse to delight in natural beauty as an interference with its concentration upon its material task. The psychology of the Puritan and the pioneer have always, it seems to me, rendered Americans singularly blind to landscape. In fact, it may be doubted whether there has ever been an American who can really be said to have appreciated a landscape. Think of the vital relation to natural objects that one finds in a Ruskin or a Richard Jefferies and then think of the most distinguished examples in this kind that America has been able to produce. How pale, how meager, how lacking in real significance, the latter appear!

Mr. Fitzgerald. Well, I really oughtn’t to try to talk about it because I haven’t read the documents or anything the way you have. —Perhaps that part of the letter does lay it on a little thick but they wanted to put in a purple passage to show you what they meant about enthusiasm. —Still I don’t see how the pioneers managed to live in California without being affected by the climate!—Well, I’ll go on reading:

“Even here, however, we should perhaps be wrong in finding fault with critical studies as remarkable as yours: a social historian can hardly be expected to render his subject in all its aspects; and you have rendered most tellingly certain aspects of our nineteenth century which had been neglected before. But we have begun to feel that your long preoccupation with the diagnosis of our imperfect past has ended by inhibiting your view with an a priori theory about our future. You have succeeded in discovering so many reasons why artistic achievement in America should be difficult that you seem to finally to have become convinced it is completely impossible. When you write of contemporary literature at all, it is with politeness but without conviction; the modern writers who have succeeded most nearly in filling the requirements you were at such pains to formulate have received no accolade from you. And the effect, we confess, in the long run, has been depressing rater than inspiriting. One of the youngest and most impressionable of our number, in fact, reading your essay on The Literary Life in the symposium called Civilization in the United States, burst into a wild fit of weeping and cursed God for having made him an American.”— 

Mr. Brooks. Dear me! How distressing! Really—

Mr. Fitzgerald. Oh, I just had them put that in for a joke! It really didn’t happen, you know—feel sort of cheap about it now. It’s really out of place, isn’t it?

Mr. Brooks. No—no: I see! Not at all—not at all! I beg your pardon! Go ahead.

Mr. Fitzgerald. “And we regret this the more because we believe that you would be able to perform a peculiarly valuable function in helping to distinguish what is of absolute importance in contemporary American writing from what is of merely local interest. You may think that the new generation has critics enough already—too many perhaps. But the truth is that what we have for the most part are not critics but literary journalists—who do not lack enthusiasm certainly but for whom everything seems to exist on the same plane.”—They mean people like Carl Van Doren who think everybody is good.—“That is why we have too little of you: are a critic, with critical ideas, with a critical point of view. And we know you would never commit the blunder of seeing a masterpiece in every second-rate novel or poem which made pretensions to artistic seriousness.

“Nevertheless, as time goes on and you do not reassure us, we begin to wonder if you may not have become capable of a mistake of another kind—that, instead of regarding all our contemporary writers as equally gifted and successful, you may not have formed the habit of taking it for granted that they are all equally impotent and maimed—merely so many dreadful examples of ways in which it is possible to fail in America—so many cadavers for the sociological clinic—not a literature but a Chamber of Horrors. And we end with an uneasy suspicion that if you neglect to write about your contemporaries it is perhaps chiefly from a feeling of delicacy about cutting people up before they are dead. We are, in short, sometimes tempted to wonder whether you are not losing your interest in literature as an art.

“It is with this anxiety that we have been reading the successive instalments of your book on Henry James. What we look for is a study of a man of genius who happened to be an American; but what we seem to be getting is a ‘case history’ of an American who had the temerity to try to be a man of genius. To take but one instance, you insist upon attributing James’s industry to his sense of inferiority toward Europe and the need he felt to make up by sheer hard work what he lacked through having been born an American. But James’s European masters had been industrious, too; they had been industrious for the same reason as James: because they had pledged themselves to the mastery of their art and the mastery of their art demanded it. We cannot help feeling that this sort of emphasis is a little unfair to James, who was, after all, a first-rate artist, one of the few indubitable masters of letters whom America has produced and a man who probably profited as much as he lost by the accident of having been born an American. But James’s European masters had been industrious, too; they had been industrious for the same reason as James: because they had pledged themselves to the mastery of their art and the mastery of their art demanded it. We cannot help feeling that this sort of emphasis is a little unfair to James, who was, after all, a first-rate artist, one of the few indubitable masters of letters whom America has produced and a man who probably profited as much as he lost by the accident of having been born an American. ‘It is the final perfection, the consummation of an American,’ Mr. T. S. Eliot has written in connection with James, ‘to become, not an Englishman, but a European—something which no born European, no person of any European nationality, can become.’”—

Mr. Brooks. Will you pardon me if I interrupt you again?—but T.S. Eliot is an American living abroad very much in James’s situation and is therefore naturally interested in proving its adantages. Is it not plain, however, that the American who goes abroad must suffer irreparably from his rootlessness in Europe just as the American who stays in America must suffer from the spiritual poverty of the Untied States?

Mr. Fitzgerald. Well, I dare say you’re right. I don’t know anything about it myself. I’ve never read a word of Henry James.—Seldes had them put this part in.—Well, I’ll just finish it:

—“We wonder what you will have to say of those novels—so magnificently conceived—which only deficiencies of experience, evidently as much individual as national, prevent from being always magnificently filled in—those novels which claim consideration beside the Molières and the Racines rater than with the mere ‘secretaries of society’ of fiction by reason of the fact that they present moral situations which plumb so deep below the social surface and which seem to be possessed, apart from the detail of their presentation, with a sort of solid beauty of their own. Please do not insist, we entreat you, upon attempting to set a blight upon them—as we feel that you have already done a little in the case of the autobiographical volumes. In these latter, when we read them for ourselves, it is not the study of the provincial background which fascinates us but the artist’s wonder before life—before life even in the nineteenth century, even in the United States. And do not, we beg you—it is the whole burden of our plea—allow yourself to lose too much the sense of that wonder!”—And then the names—I won’t read you the list—but practically everybody, you see.

Mr. Brooks. I’m really awfully flattered by your all writing me. It was really awfully kind of you.—But about James, I do think you overestimate the vividness of those autobiographical volumes. To me there has always seemed to be something rather flaccid and empty about them. Think of how much more colorful is Cellini’s autobiography! How much more candid Rousseau’s! how much more alive to the intellectual currents of their time those of Renan and Mill! How much richer in psychological interest Marie Bashkirtseff! James wrote in his later years, you know, of the “starved romance of my life.” And who can doubt that if he had been born a European he would have found the experiences proper to his temperament? Which of us, indeed, if he admitted the truth, would not confess himself spiritually “starved?” We Americans are brought up, at best, in genteel unimaginative homes and are from there sent out to priggish boarding-schools and unstimulating universities. After that, we have our choice between business and some intellectually deadening “specialization” in one of the professions. Nowhere are we taught to seek and value experience for its own sake. Nowhere are we taught anything but mean virtues and an arid idealism. What educated American has never felt this blight as an impotence and blindness of the spirit?—has never run up against it like one of those great blank walls which balk the view in American cities? It is the wall which the Puritan ahs set about him to shut away the horizons of life.

Mr. Fitzgerald. Well, I don’t know. I haven’t found life in America exactly like that. I was brought up a Catholic, though, and perhaps that may make some difference. But now for instance you tell in one of your books about seeing some American Rhodes Scholars in Oxford and being depressed at their “dry” and “wizened” aspect among the “jocund” young Englishmen “in flannels.” But so far as my own experience goes the American college students are every bit as jocund as the English ones. It’s not fair to judge them from the Rhodes scholars. I don’t see why you didn’t compare the Oxford undergraduates to the men who had been at Harvard in your time. I know that when I was at Princeton, the undergraduates were certainly boneheads on the whole, but there was nothing wizened or dry about them. They were a lot of glowing young men with perfectly slicked hair and gay foulard ties who spent the week-ends pursuing the flappers of New York and Philadelphia and entertained themselves during the week with interminable and hilarious beer-parties. And in spring the languorous air of June would be alive all the blue night long with the music of young voices and ribald songs would sound the chords of eternal beauty as they died away in the moon-soft distances. They were all right-thinkers, of course, when they did any thinking at all. But they were certainly not old before their time; in fact, their fault was rather that they behaved as if youth were going to last for ever.

Mr. Brooks. I wonder if you don’t invest Princeton with a reflected glamor from Compton Mackenzie’s Oxford. Your lyric note in this connection has always seemed to me a little reminiscent of his. For the way in which you habitually speak of the young men of your own generation contrasts sharply and significantly with your literary accounts of them. For example, when we were first talking just now you described them as already “getting old and bald and discouraged.” How can one resist the conclusion that they have already felt the blight of which I speak, that scarcely sprung to arms have they found their courage shriveled by the indifference of the commercial world about them and their gestures lost in the void?

Mr. Fitzgerald. Oh, that was just a joke, too. They aren’t really old and discouraged. I was just kidding about them—partly out of vanity, I suppose. My jokes must be pretty bum—I suppose they’re inappropriate to the occasion. But as a matter of fact, really, the younger generation are still going strong. Don’t you think this thing I’ve been reading proves it?

Mr. Brooks. I don’t know: I wonder if they’re not really making me the scape-goat for a disappointment which they feel with themselves. Certain things which you have said in our conversation give me the clue to what has happened to the younger generation. You are “the man,” I think you explained to me, “who has made America Younger-Generation-conscious.” When you used the expression, you were, as you say, using the language of advertising. You had fallen naturally, in describing your literary activities, into the jargon of business. For has not the book-production of the younger generation become at last a business like another? Scarcely had the first crop of younger writers arrived and achieved, like you, some impressive successes than a host of publishers, editors and journalists appeared ready to exploit and commercialize them—with the result that there is now more demand for “younger” writers than there are younger writers to supply it. The writers of fiction and essays and poetry with serious pretensions have today just as good a market as the writers of frankly trashy fiction had in the era before the war. And the result is that your products are deteriorating. You have succumbed to a capitalistic civilization in a way which you could never have foreseen. And it is difficult to see how you can stop. Are there not the publishers and editors to be kept alive? And how can you resist them when every time you sell them an insincere story or a facile unfinished poem they will print your picture and publish your biography, with a description of your smile and your method of work, as if you were Hauptmann or Anatole France? I fear that no criticism of mine—such as you are kind enough to suggest—can ever save you from the ruin of success. Nothing short of a great national leader—a Tolstoi, a Carlyle or a Nietzsche—could ever assemble your dissipating forces and make them rally to some fruitful result.

Mr. Fitzgerald. But do you really believe it’s so bad as all that?—In the first place, what I said about making America Younger-Generation-conscious I said ironically—making fun of advertising and making fun of what you’re talking about, too. Because we’ve really gotten on to that and we’re beginning to sort of react against it.

Mr. Brooks. Freud has taught us that the things we say in jest are as significant as the things we say in earnest—more significant, because they reveal the thoughts which are really rankling in our minds but which we are unwilling to avow to the world. I was struck with another joke which you made in the course of the letter which you read me—I mean about cursing God for having made you an American. Who can fail to see in this desperate image a tragic cry which contradicts everything else that you have strained to affirm in the rest of the document?—Again, I have noticed that when you speak of the signatories of this letter, who explicitly include yourself, you say always “they” instead of “we.” If you think about it, I believe you will realize that in doing so you are presenting the best possible proof that, in spite of the artificial unity which you have assumed in collaborating upon this letter, you are actually as far isolated from one another spiritually, as I have always claimed literary men must unavoidably be in America. In allowing your art to become a business, you have lost all capacity for intellectual unity and have given yourselves up to the competitive anarchy of all American commercial enterprise. You can at best, I fear, gain nothing but money and a hollow popular reputation—each for himself—and these things for fifty years in America have brought nothing in the long run but disillusion and despair.

Mr. Fitzgerald. Oh, come now—even if it were true that we had all sold out, as you say, don’t you think there is really a lot of fun in making money and a big thrill in the power it brings? Don’t you suppose even the Goulds and the Hills and the Harrimans had their creative exhilaration? Think of being able to buy anything you wanted—houses, railroads, enormous industries!—food, drinks, automobiles, stunning clothes for your wife—clothes like nobody else in the world could wear—all the greatest paintings in Europe, all the books that had ever been written, in magnificent bindings! Think of being able to give a stupendous house party that would go on for days and days, with everything that anybody could want to drink and a medical staff in attendance and the biggest jazz orchestra in the city alternating day and night! I confess that I get a big kick out of all the expensive things in New York—Why, once I remember when I’d just arrived from the West, after I’d been away for a long time, and I came out of the Plaza after a couple of cocktails with a thousand dollars in my pocket and I looked around and saw that great creamy palace all blazing with green-gold lights and the taxis and the automobiles streaming up and down the Avenue—why, I jumped into the Pulitzer fountain just out of sheer joy.

Mr. Brooks. Well, I must think about what you say. And I’ll write an answer to your letter. You know I really appreciate it very much. You mustn’t think me ungracious. But this is a question which concerns me very much. You mustn’t think me ungracious. But this is a question which really concerns me very much. You know, I am really much attached to America—and I am terribly sensitive to all her shortcomings. I really wince at the figure she cuts upon the stage with the rest of the world. And I have thought that to find out our faults and confess them was the most salutary thing I could do. I’m sorry if I’ve sounded discouraging: I certainly never intended to be.

Mr. Fitzgerald. Well, I’m really sorry that we’ve bothered you like this. I do hope you’ll forgive us.—Look: I don’t supposed you’d like to come down to my house at Great Neck for over Sunday. We’re going to have a little party. I suppose it would probably bore you to death—but there are going to be some people who really ought to be pretty amusing—Dos Passos and Gloria Swanson and Rube Goldberg and Princess Marianovsky and Ring Lardner and Ernest Boyd and Marc Connelly and Sherwood Anderson—Anderson’s really an awfully good egg, not pre-natal at all like his stories—The Triumph of the Egg, as we laughingly describe his social success—and then some dumb-bell friends of mine from St. Paul and a man that neither my wife nor I can remember the name of but he has a song about “Who’ll bite your neck when my teeth are gone?” that’s one of the funniest things you ever heard in your life!

Mr. Brooks. Why, really—I’d like to ever so much—but I’m afraid I can’t. I have so awfully much to do just now. The James is really an awfully exacting job and since you accuse me of leaving out something I‘ll have to look into the novels again and go over the whole manuscript carefully.

Mr. Fitzgerald. Well, good-bye then: thank you for listening to the letter. I’m sorry you can’t come down. A thousand apologies again.

Mr. Brooks. Not at all. A thousand thanks. I’ll think over what you said. Good-bye.

This article appeared in the April 30, 1924 issue of the magazine.

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posted in: books and arts, babbitt, fitzgerald, franklin, henry james, jefferson, sherman, thoreau, van wyck brooks, california, massachusetts, massachusetts, mississippi

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