Case for Classicism, The

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Szerző: Howard Phillips Lovecraft • Év: 1919

A Reply to Prof. Philip B. McDonald


In another part of this issue Prof. Philip B. McDonald, Chairman of the Department of Private Criticism, presents some views on amateur journalism which well exhibit his firm belief and constructive interest in our modest institution. At the same time, however, he criticises the United’s present literary policy in a manner which calls for immediate reply on the part of those who have laboured to establish existing standards.

Prof. McDonald believes, if we are to accept his verdict literally, that amateurdom’s attempts to attain a classical level of expression are the result of a misconception of our province. Averse to the thought that we should perfect ourselves in those tasteful modes of utterance which are eternal and universal in the conservative world outside, he urges that our papers descend to a realm of more intimate subjectivity and personality; including, to quote his own words, “more of the human and American”.

Not for a moment can this plea be permitted to pass unchallenged, since it is so likely to affect the multitude of crude and youthful writers who need little to discourage them from the pursuit of urbane scholarship. But in challenging it, one need not impugn in any way the contention that informal and subjective expression is desirable or even necessary in amateurdom. It will be sufficient to insist that such expression belongs solely to the epistolary branch of our activities, leaving our printed publications free for more ambitious experiments in the formation of a real style and a real kinship with standard literature.

The local, intimate, and subjective phase of amateurdom is without a doubt far greater than a member so recent as Prof. McDonald can realise. The correspondence of amateurs, including both personal and circulating letters, is prodigious; and the evermultiplying array of manuscript magazines and epistolary groups is increasing this informal contact immensely. Members with similar interests or intellectual processes are being banded together in circles like the “Kleicomolo” described in the March United Amateur and it may be safely said that our thoughts, feelings, and individual reactions to literature and events are pretty generally shared without the necessity of dragging them into print.

Turning now to our regular publications, it must be emphasised that their purpose is not to replace chit-chat or correspondence, but to give publicity to our finished literary products. In our cultural development we must differentiate betwixt processes and results. The subjectivity of our correspondence rightly exemplifies our processes of digesting literature; but the objectivity of our published work exemplifies, also rightly, our results in producing a literature of our own, be it ever so humble. In that literature we have not only the right but the obligation to strive for the best style, and emulate the best authors, within our scope of reading; even though our work must necessarily resemble more or less that of professionals. And why, indeed, should Prof. McDonald deem it so vast a crime for us to parallel standard books and periodicals? Are we, as he fancies, trying to compete with them, merely because we employ them as models? We must needs wonder whether Prof. McDonald realises the immeasurably closer sympathy one can attain with the standard authors and their thoughts, by sedulously following in their footsteps. This keener comprehension of good literature is alone sufficient to justify the experiments of the tyro in conventional expression. Our avowed object is to give the novice training and experience in authorship. Is it not then an occasion for satisfaction rather than for sorrow, that our members should adopt the style of the best authors? Any other course would inevitably result in the acquisition of a vague, objectionable, and irremediably vicious style. By training the novice exclusively in informal subjectivity, we should ruin his ability to write with force, correctness, and dignity. There are many living examples, surviving from cruder ages of amateurdom, to prove this contention.

Another aspect of Prof. McDonald’s scholastic thought is revealed in a more incidental way by his article. This is his attitude toward general literature; as evinced by his cautious disparagement of mellowed, broadly representative books, in favour of modem, locally American, and potentially ephemeral writings. He seems to typify the spirit recently referred to by President Faunce of Brown University, who declared that most of us are “too desperately contemporary”
It is not my purpose here to engage in any extensive battle of ancient and modern books, such as that fought in Saint-James’s Library and veraciously chronicled by Dean Swift; but I cannot refrain from insisting on the permanent paramountcy of classical literature as opposed to the superficial productions of this disturbed and degenerate age. The literary genius of Greece and Rome, developed under peculiarly favourable circumstances, may fairly be said to have completed the art and science of expression. Unhurried and profound, the classical author achieved a standard of simplicity, moderation, and elegance of taste, which all succeeding time has been powerless to excel or even to equal. Indeed, those modern periods have been most cultivated, in which the models of antiquity have been most faithfully followed. When Prof. McDonald rather proudly points to certain recent great rhetoricians as apparently uninfluenced by the classics, he forgets that the models which they did adopt were indeed strongly influenced by those selfsame classics. Be it directly, as in the case of Mr. Burke, or indirectly, as in the case of Mr. Wilson, classicism is ever the moulder of effective rhetoric.

Prof. McDonald’s plea for a more local American flavour in amateur writing, though sustained by an utterance of the eternally quoted Emerson, is in reality an appeal for a rather pernicious provincialism. Not that it is less the patriotic duty of the local writer to immortalise his native place in literature; but that it is undesirable to encourage the growth of dialectic and stylistic variants from the general type which possesses so long and so illustrious an ancestry. Breadth, not narrowness, is the great cultural desideratum. Prof. McDonald’s view reminds me of that of a young amateur journalist of five years ago; who complained because two of our members, one in Massachusetts and the other in California, wrote alike—thus disregarding possible opportunities for “local colour” in expression.

As to the applicability of a classical style to present needs, I think no branch of thought today would be the worse for expression in the clear rhetoric of better times. In fact, I cannot but believe that such a course would help greatly to weed out unworthy and unsubstantial things in contemporary life. We moderns have overreached ourselves, and are blundering along with a dislocated sense of values amidst a bustle of heavy trivialities and false emotions which find reflection in the vague, hectic, hurried, and impressionistic language of decadence. Translation of our thoughts into the clear-cut, rational phrases of classicism might help to reveal the flimsy fatuity of most of the innovations we so blindly worship.

The assertion of Prof. McDonald that the classical style is too restrained, and lacking in humanity, seems to me scarcely supported by evidence. The vital eloquence of the classics cannot be disputed; and if there be any restraint in their language, it is but for the purpose of strengthening their ultimate effect. Compare, for example, the simple force of Graeco-Roman writing, with the florid emptiness of Oriental effusions. So far as restraint goes, a malicious commentator might easily use Prof. McDonald’s own bare and staccato prose style as an illustration of inconsistency betwixt precept and practice. The first thing one remarks on reading his frigid “Engineering English” is its laconic atmosphere of aloofness from vivid feeling and from love of pure harmonic beauty. Noting the rhetorical correctness and literary background possessed by Prof. McDonald, one cannot but wish that he might add to his work the crowning graces of classical fluency and moderate ornamentation.

In conclusion, let me express my position in the matter unequivocally. I am an advocate of the highest classical standard in amateur journalism, and shall continue to bend all my energies toward its maintenance. Printed papers are not suitable repositories for loose informality, nor are the hasty and ill-formed writings of today models for emulation. Should the subject receive further discussion in the amateur press, I should be gratified. Meanwhile I may humbly say to my learned adversary,


Maxime, si to vis, cupio contendere tecum.”1


1 “I very much wish, if you are willing, to compete with you.” (Thomas Babbington Macaulay)


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