James Gibbons Huneker: Critic of the Seven Arts

by Arnold T. Schwab
Stanford, 384 pp., $8.25

Huneker has had to wait forty-two years, almost half a century, for his first biography—an odd fate for a writer who was one of the best-known of his time and in the opinion of some one of its “greatest.” Now that the book has arrived it turns out to be excellent one—not that rarity among biographies, a work of art, and not a masterpiece of psychological or intellectual portraiture, but at this point something equally valuable: an exhaustive record of the man and his era and a teeming account of the age whose arts he chronicled, assessed, and promoted in one of the largest bodies of critical writing any American has ever produced. The barest outlines of his career define Huneker’s case Born in Philadelphia in 1857, he arrived in New York in 1886; by 1891 turned from music and piano teaching to journalism; wrote criticism of all kinds—musical, operatic, art, dramatic, literary, along with an outpouring of essays, travel reports, and fiction—in an unbroken spate for the next thirty years; died struggling to finish his last Sunday article in 1921; and within a decade, as Mr. Schwab says, “seemed to be a legend and a symbol rather than an operative force in criticism.” It is a familiar destiny among critical journalists, but in Huneker’s case it calls for some conscientious examination and justice.

There is no question about the legend Huneker made for himself. “Protean,” “prodigious,” “pyrotechnical,” “phantasmagoric,” “kaleidoscopic,” “Rabelaisian,” “flamboyant, multi-colored, orotund, Turneresque,” “certainly unique,—he was all these and more to his contemporaries. If these features of his work spelled hostility among his reactionary American rivals; if they won him the charge of being “a horribly inaccurate ruffian” and a “clever slummocker” with a head “full of romantic idolatries” that Shaw once hurled at him in one of their fraternal exchanges, or of being the “drunken helot” of Beerbohm’s attack, there was no lack of salutes from his European coevals—Brandes, Gourmont, Walkley, Chesterton, Conrad, Berenson. And to his American admirers he remained a hero to the end: a “storm-lashed cathedral of experience,” our “foremost university,” the “greatest of American critics” who “did more to free America from slavery than any Lincoln” (G. J. Nathan); “protean in his sensibility, responsive to every fresh note” (Van Wyck Brooks); a writer of books that “were like the floral bombs and closepacked rockets of fireworks” (Edmund Wilson); “for a whole epoch the gadfly and the bugaboo of all right-thinking men” but first and always “our chief of scouts, our spiritual advisor,” except for whose services on behalf of “a merciful Providence,” we “Americans would still be shipping union suits to the heathen, reading Emerson, sweating at Chautauquas, and applauding the plays of Bronson Howard” (H. L. Mencken). No other American critic, not even Mencken, has been showered with as many gaudy adjectives and fervent accolades, and of course today no rightminded critic would dare to win or boast of them.

It scarcely needed Huneker’s other propensities to make him fabulous in his…

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