Work of Frank Belknap Long, Jr., The

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Szerző: Howard Phillips Lovecraft • Év: 1924

It is always a bit dangerous to hail an amateur spirit which seems to overtop the general level. That general level is so fastidiously jealous of its dignity, and so terribly quick to trounce on enthusiasts with its nasal accusations of ulterior motives and interested partiality! Wintry-blooded, elephant-footed, the blind suspiciousness of literary senescence and stagnation will ever be with us to cry “puffing”, quote old saws, and snicker out of court the subtleties it cannot understand. But because we have a civilised element equally permanent, and even more deserving of attention, it will not do to let values perish altogether. That is why it is fitting at this juncture to call attention to a young writer who has brought us the first new touch of really creative vision we have had in years.

Frank Belknap Long, Jr., poet, critic, and weaver of fantastiques, is the writer in question. He stands above the crowd not because of any ultimate perfection of style or uniqueness of theme, for he is still youthful, changeful, and influenced by external models of varying laudability; but because of a sheer daemonic ecstasy of creation and a passionate sensitiveness to the most delicate and imperceptible nuances of colour and beauty, which not more than one other amateur of today can be said to equal or surpass.

Mr. Long could not have risen to prominence at a more opportune time. With the fires of earlier literary revivals burning low, amateurdom is at present in the grip of a curiously stubborn devotion to outworn ideas and criteria. Generally speaking, we have lacked the vital modern element altogether; for even our ostensible rebels are definitely middle-aged and emotionally grounded in the past which they intellectually reject. It is not hard to define and explode this outworn tradition, for its characteristics are painfully clear. The tradition is one of tameness, imitativeness, and illusion—of exaggerated absorption in the meaningless routine of placid common life, unwarranted belief in vague relations between aesthetic pleasure and intellectual truth, and provincially disproportionate worship of clever little writers like the Longfellow-Holmes clique, who merely conform agreeably to certain stilted backgrounds, affectations, and urbanities, without touching a single authentic emotion or possessing the least shade of truly original perception and insight.

Literary revolutions are not new. Elderly people who smirk complacently and predict the rapid subsidence of modernism forget utterly the Renaissance and even the romantic revival of the early nineteenth century. As in those times, the world has received a colossal influx of new ideas well calculated to remould all our impressions and recast all our utterances. We see the hollowness of things we believed before, and above all the disconnectedness of things we once thought indissolubly joined. It is the birth of a new aesthetic, grounded on the old but going beyond it, and demanding poignant, beautiful, and genuine sensation as the essence of artistic endeavour. Some of the old authors, of course, meet this demand; for the voice of unvarnished Nature never varies. But many fail to do so, because they wrote less from Nature than from false conceptions and interpretations of it, or merely copied those who went before. There is no literary value in a bleak transcript of others’ feelings, convictions, and points of view. Paper is too expensive to waste on second-hand thoughts and images, however ambitiously served up. What we want are white-hot projections of individual personality, not cold grey reflections of the Babbitt herd-psychology. Such projections Frank B. Long, almost alone among our newer amateur writers, succeeds in giving us.

The genius of Mr. Long is a spontaneous and self-expressive one. Educated in conventional American schools, and in New York and Columbia Universities, he has been thoroughly dosed with the traditional literature of the fathers; revolting only because he is too acute and aesthetically responsive to be satisfied with the obvious and platitudinous. Unaided he sensed the insincerity of the “museum hush” and the customary genuflection before dead and unmoving gods, and almost unguided he found his own voice among the light and colour and exotic beauty of the Italian Renaissance, the exquisite sensory adventuring of the French symbolists, and the delicate and polychrome dream-worlds that his ardent fancy bore out of old legends, childhood moon-glimpses, and faintly reflected memories from the far Mediterranean littoral where the water is deep blue and fragrant winds weave through broken marble colonnades on green seaward hills.

This may sound immature. Perhaps it would be if it were not to be considered as more than a starting-point. But a starting-point is precisely what it is, and its value lies in the perfect repudiation of the commonplace, and the adoption of free pagan beauty as a master, which it involves. For Mr. Long has passed the momentous barrier and learned the momentous lesson—that beauty is pleasure only, and to be taken joyously wherever found, irrespective of all antecedents and sequences. When he expresses himself it is purely to promote his personal aesthetic exaltation by means of beautiful, fantastic, or terrible arabesques, each independent, remote from prosaic life and associations, and conceived in a spirit essentially decorative; to satisfy with strange and emphatic imaginative symmetries a neural impulse both natural and insistent. And be-cause that impulse is unmixed with love of fame, regard for convention, interest in the public, or any other vulgar ambition, but fulfilled in language of hauntingly original vitality and trippingly musical liquidity, Mr. Long is an artist.




The growth of Mr. Long’s taste is keenly interesting to study. Appearing in amateurdom early in 1920 with a frankly boyish and elementary story, “Dr. Whitlock’s Price”, his exceptional gifts were discerned by not more than one critic in all the associations. That critic, however, saw the single essential thing—that the young author’s pictures were all authentic products of an actual visual imagination, and in no case blindly adapted from the lumber-room of previous juvenile reading. About this time Mr. Long wrote fiction voluminously, and with such meteorically rising power that his next published tale, “The Eye Above the Mantel”; quite startled those who had judged him by its predecessor. It was in this tale that his intense originality, dramatic sense, and power of fantastic imagery first appeared to a marked degree. In November, 1921, came “In the Tomb of Semenses”, an Egyptian phantasy filled with musical and subtly rhythmical phrases, and opiate visions of “multi-coloured lights and the clanging to of brazen portcullises”, which proclaimed the genuine poet beneath a dress of prose. Subsequently Mr. Long, though not abandoning the field, wrote less fiction; as if realising that for the nonce his forte lay in the presentation of vivid, isolated, and luxurious pictures—single languorous impressions devoid of common thoughts and feelings, spiced with the riches of aloof introspection, and iridescent with extreme bizarrerie. For him was the heritage of Baudelaire.

Mr. Long as a prose-poet has evolved some unforgettable vignettes of grotesque loveliness, alienage, and horror, and has attained heights which few amateurs share. Light, colour, sensation—all these essentials of pure art blend magically in such phantasms as “The Migration of Birds”, “Flowers of Iniquity”, “At the Home of Poe”, “Un-happiness”, or “Felis”. “Felis” marked a new growth of Mr. Long’s power, and although he has himself come to regard it as immature, its force and felicity are actually tremendous. There are one or two openings for illiterate snickers when it, is read with uncomprehending verbal analysis, but what real critic can miss the sinister spell of the conclusion?...

“Some day I shall drown in a sea of cats. I shall go down, smothered by their embraces, feeling their warm breath upon my face, gazing into their large eyes, hearing in my ears their soft purring. I shall sink lazily down through oceans of fur, between myriads of claws, clutching innumerable tails, and I shall surrender my wretched soul to the selfish and insatiable god of felines.”

With this realisation of the artistic value of dissociated pictures and sensations, it is hardly singular that Mr. Long should turn to formal and rather Keatsian poetry. This he has done and is doing more and more; winning at least one prize and exciting considerable notice outside amateurdom, and being represented in our circle by such exquisite sonnets and lyrics as “The Inland Sea”, “The Rebel”, “Stallions of the Moon”, and that inspired bit of elegiac pentameter called “Exotic Quest”, which contains the vivid line, “Where golden griffins bathe in midnight meres”. If this latter isolated specimen would seem to suggest preciocity, a glimpse at the others quickly dispels that notion; for almost all the recent pieces bear evidences of Mr. Long’s entrance into the mood of ironic modernism with its contempt for the grandiose and its sly juxtaposition of the mean and the fine, the commonplace and the exalted. Rhymed efforts in this vein have not been published in amateurdom, but we may grasp the mood equally well from the prose-poem “Ingenue”, with its world-weary travesty on pedantry, loftiness, bombast, reverence, chivalry, connected ideas, and the trappings of tradition in general. Just what this ultra-modern saturninity will do to Mr. Long’s naive creative energy we cannot say. The tendency in excess would be adverse, but it is probable that the artist’s sheer emotional intensity will limit it in the end. For the moment it is perhaps useful in checking what might otherwise be an overdeveloped ingenuousness or juvenile exuberance and extravagance.

It remains to consider Mr. Long as a critic, in which capacity he follows—as might be expected—the purely personal, subjective, and impressionistic method of his favourite John Cowper Powys. He not to be overawed by the “scholastic-veneration-cult”, nor is he ever afraid of enthusiasm. With his wide background and more than acute sensibilities he is among the very small group of amateurs really qualified to appraise fantastic and imaginative literature—perceiving points which the average calloused vision overlooks—and we may only hope that he will be given wide opportunities to aid in amateurdom’s artistic revival. His few critical weaknesses are such as appear in dealing with cold-blooded analysis and the literature of philosophic intellection as distinguished from art. “An Amateur Humorist” is the title of Mr. Long’s best-known critique in our circle. He won Honourable Mention in the N.A.P.A. Essay Laureate contest in 1923.

As a whole, Mr. Long has in him something of the restless, questing, aristocratic spirit of his beloved Italian Renaissance. His visual imagination is prodigious, and his taste for painting and sculpture exceptional. Only in aural imagination and musical appreciation does he feel limitations. He is a young faun strayed out of Arcady, innocent and vibrant, and eager to be himself sincerely in a world of mediocrity, repression, blindness, and stupidity. This is the assertive, unique personality which makes him a well-defined individual instead of a colourless rubber-stamp; which makes him a fearless pagan and a genuine artist. He is not yet mature—fine words and attitudes yet charm him a trifle more than they should, while his youthful ardour still leads him occasionally close to the borders of aesthetic dogmatism and unconscious humour—but he is rapidly maturing. With a finely strung organisation, limitless emotional force, and a mind wholly free from tawdry, sentimentalised tastes and hampering false perspectives, Mr. Long has a future to which only a rash prophet would set limits. He is today the second-greatest creative artist remaining in amateur journalism.


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