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 time—the once-famous pyrotechnics of his style; his Gargantuan consumption of food and depthless tides of Pilsner; his feats of amour in pursuit of the legionary heroines of his personal drama; most of all, his inexhaustible appetite for every kind of creative manifestation in his age that made him “our first sybarite of the arts” and a “master conjuror of aesthetic excitement” in the America of his era. Add to all this the now remote and virtually effaced New York he made part of his life and work, and the material of a legend is complete. The restaurants and bars he frequented, the papers and magazines he wrote for, the theaters and concert halls he attended, the city whose leafy squares, carriage-crowded avenues, and northward-marching mansions competed with its dramas of the Bowery, Castle Garden, Tenderloin, and Great White Way—almost all of them have vanished as thoroughly as the actors or singers he once heard or the round of newsmen, cronies, elbow-benders, and daylong or night-long talkers among whom he was once a virtuoso and a paragon.

No one, presumably, reads him today. The shock-effects of the modern arts he chronicled from abroad or encouraged at home have become so thoroughly domesticated as to bore the reader now. The blight of stodgy drama, puritan prudery, Comstockian suppression, stale academic art, and literary or journalistic genteelism he once combated has (we complacently assume) been safely put behind us. Even in the 1920’s the arts he did so much to prepare for outran the limits of his tolerance; and the social-minded critics of the Thirties soon wrote him off as being “of merely historical importance.” The rigors of more recent criticism have reduced his once obstreperous services to a primitive status. He was born too soon to be challenged or concerned by the Rage for Order or the Moral Imagination, by the Dissociation of Sensibility or the Historical-Critical syndrome, by the Intentional Fallacy or the Affective Fallacy, by Neo-Classicism, Neo-Aristotelianism, or Existentialism. He shrugged off the claims of political and social forces in the arts. He even tended to shrug off (oddly, in view of his lifelong fascination by abnormal psychology) what he termed “the so-called new school of Freudian psychoanalysis,” with its “little spice of soothsaying and dream-book twaddle thrown in to lend an air of novelty,” evidently considering it to be nothing more than a sequel to his particular detestation, Max Nordau and his “degeneration theory” of art. Had he been pressed for a critical doctrine, he would have been content to profess the appetitive and exposure principles of Anatole France: in fact, he restated them when he said that it is the critic’s business to “spill his soul” and “humbly to follow and register his emotions aroused by a masterpiece.” When Mencken said that for Huneker art was never “even by implication a device for improving the mind. It is wholly a magnificent adventure,” he intended a tribute but mainly succeeded in driving the final nail that condemned Huneker for the generations that followed him.

His present plight is scarcely redeemed by his fiction. With his burning ambition for creative expression he produced, among his nineteen books, two collections of stories, Melomaniacs in 1902 and Visionaries in 1905, and one novel, Painted Veils, in 1920. Poe was an old hero of Huneker’s, but now he drew on other models. A whole host of his predecessors seem to mix and hover in his tales—Gautier, Villiers, Barbey d’Aurevilly, Bierce, Huysmans. He mingled the ingredients of sensationalists like Edgar Saltus with others derived from Strindberg, Wedekind, Schnitzler, and the European specialists in the abnormal and psychotic. The result was a series of stories of love-tortured or fame-goaded musicians, obsessed artists, and a lurid cast of anarchists, alcoholics, iconoclasts, and religious deviants or fanatics involved in aberrations of diabolism, satanism, and spiritual pathology, or in subjects that swing from the musical and aesthetic to the Catholic and Christian Scientist, which, whatever it does to form a part of Huneker’s inventory of his off-beat contemporaries, is saved neither by its ironies nor its skepticism from being one of the oddest concoctions in early twentieth-century fiction. As for Painted Veils, its plot alone (in which the orgies of the New England “Holy Yowlers” and the bacchanalian scandal of the “notorious Pie Girl Dinner” that shook New York in 1895 adorn the rise to fame of the “ambititious, opportunistic, amoral” singer Esther Brandes, also called Easter but meant to figure as the Assyrian Ishtar, with its excursions into sex-torment, Lesbianism, and prostitution) makes it hard to take as much more than a parody of its genre. One must credit Huneker with a serious ambition when he set out to balk or bludgeon the prurient or mudstuck taste of his time, and with a genuine curiosity about the mysteries of human behavior, but his shock-tactics, which had their use in his criticism, led him into some sad nonsense when he put his hand to fiction.

The criticism is admittedly a mixed lot. A share of it was written as propaganda and promotion and remains frankly journalistic. Another part is made up of jeux d’esprit and pastiches, free-wheeling excursions into aesthetic excitements and novelties. Still another part is panoramic, a parade of names and innovations, an open assault on provincialism that forms one of the most inclusive inventories of the arts in its period. But there are also Huneker’s more sustained essays, the ones in which he marshalled his years of reading, looking, listening, and his (in music at least) formidable technical knowledge into well-ordered evaluations and came to some assessments that still remain, after all our later strides in scholarship, impressive. His two book-length studies, the Chopin (1900) and the Liszt (1911), however useful in their time, are miscellanies, as loose critically as structurally. But when he tackled a subject that seriously taxed or challenged him—Stendhal, Laforgue, Mussorgsky, Strauss, the Impressionists, the Russian novelists, the French realists—he rose to his occasions and did work which, if now superseded, is superseded largely because he laid the foundations for the criticism that came later. He had his acknowledged ancestors in this program. Gautier was the first of them; the Baudelaire of the Salons evidently impressed him deeply; the classic and contemporary Germans must have influenced him continuously. Closer at hand he had the examples of Brandes, Gourmont, George Moore, Arthur Symons, and Havelock Ellis, all of whom he enlisted as confederates. The Shaw of the music and dramatic criticism (Huneker prepared the first published collection of the latter as early as 1906) unquestionably gave him a standard by which to measure his own more restless and less incisive labors. The James whose fiction he pioneered in admiring must have set him an equal standard in what he wrote on the French and English masters of fiction.

What Huneker shared with all these men—it was his greatest stroke of luck and the high opportunity of his life—was a great age of crisis, ferment, discovery, and invention in the arts. The modern arts are still living on its enormous burst and release of energy, impatience, innovation, re-creations of style, imaginative matter, expression, experience. He rose to all of these. The bare listing of the artists he was among the first—in America often the first—to champion, defend, or qualify is still astonishing: Stendhal, Ibsen and Strindberg, Wagner (whose cause he enlisted in here as Shaw did in England), Zola and the realists, Nietzsche (inevitably), Strauss (around 1900 his new hero of orchestration), Mussorgsky, James during thirty years of his career, the Eight in 1908, the Armory Show in 1913, Cézanne, Laforgue, Dreiser, Crane, and the new American novelists, the Stieglitz disciples, even the composers he viewed with less affinity or outright suspicion—Debussy, Puccini, Schoenberg, Prokofiev: their names are literally legion.

Today many of these causes are won, some are lost, some have dropped into limbo. Ranks and values have been sorted out. The discoveries of sixty years ago have become commonplaces. Any bright undergraduate can pick holes in Huneker’s tastes and values; the new critical rigorists stand aghast at his appetites and brashness; we have our own ventures, doubts, and risks (on however diminished a scale) to wrestle with; and the giants of those days have receded into acceptance, shrunken glory, or remote classical status. In Huneker’s time they loomed large, threatened the conventions, defied the complacencies, bombed the prevailing timidity and dullness, blasted the stale routines of the theater, concert hall, galleries, and literary establishment; and Huneker was one of those, few in any age, who saw to it that their function was recognized and their discoveries respected. Berenson was only one who had a “high opinion” of him as “a taster, and a taster who wanted to tell others what and how to taste…the foundation and essence of criticism in all the fields of art.” The young Edmund Wilson of 1922 had a like opinion: when the fireworks of Huneker’s writing “exploded, we all held our breaths and were caught up for a moment,” so that even “if the sparks faded out in the sky and left no fixed stars in the firmament, it was not that the fiery beauty had not left its colors in our hearts.” Anyone whose memory and artistic education reach back to those books in their heyday; who once felt the electricity that crackled in the pages of Overtones, Iconoclasts, Visionaries, Egoists, The New Cosmopolis, Ivory, Apes and Peacocks, Unicorns, and Bedouins (undoubtedly the “titles are a little noisy,” as another young and respectful reviewer, T. S. Eliot, said in the Harvard Advocate in 1909); and who saw the whole panorama of the modern arts displayed in their pages, need feel no occasion for self-congratulation in those who missed these stimulants at the age when they count for most, or who lacked the best introduction then available to the developments that lay ahead.

The hardest part of being a pioneer comes in remaining a contemporary.” The remark has been made before, and it applies to a large company of modern talents. Criticism, all but the greatest of it, is like scholarship: it continuously supersedes itself, and even the boldest of it is likely to carry the seed of its own obsolescence. Huneker’s vitality was his supreme asset, but it was also his liability. The moral, social, political, and psychological obligations he shirked in his craft have established their claims in the years since he died and relegated much of his work to a simplistic rank. Was he as “ethicless” as Kenneth Burke said in 1920? Not exactly. He respected to the point of obsession the artist’s right to his own sincerity, honesty, tenacity of purpose and expression, vision of truth; and in a time of compromise, smugness, and complacency, this was an ethic as necessary as any among critics. He missed, it is true, the luck of crowning his journalism with a creative achievement of enduring worth, as Gautier, Shaw, James, and Pound did, or Mencken with The American Language and his Days books. His celebrated and at best brilliant style (for “a style it decidedly is,” said Eliot, “and shares with that of Mr. Henry James…a conversational quality; not conversational in admitting the slipshod and maladroit, or a meagre vocabulary, but by a certain informality, abandoning all the ordinary hoaxes for securing attention”) lent itself readily to debasement. Where Mencken and a few others held it to a genuine pitch of energy and realism, in other hands it fell into the vulgarization of such wordslingers as De Casseres, Rascoe, and the later jargonizers of the arts. And perhaps, having given so much enthusiasm to the daring and the avant-garde of his time, Huneker was unprepared for what lay ahead. Already in 1912 Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (“enharmonics that almost made the ears bleed, the eyes water, the scalp to freeze…the very ecstasy of the hideous!”) made him conclude that “if such music making is ever to become accepted, then I long for Death the Releaser.” What would he have made of the later triumphs of tone rows and tone clusters, magnetic tape and the computer machine? His bout with Cubism gave him warning that the oncoming developments in painting would have baffled his wits and senses. He welcomed the early Joyce, but what would he have made of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake? And as for what the author of Painted Veils and its arcane vices would have done with our later and higher pornography, even an imagination schooled by Huneker’s boggles at the thought.

Mr. Schwab has done admirable work, not only in what he tells as a biographer but in what he does to define Huneker in his role in his American century—a critical pioneer who takes rank with James before him and with Pound later as one of the major instigators, pathfinders, and éclaireurs in modern art. The claim, sometimes repeated today, that Huneker was “America’s greatest critic” or “without question the most gifted writer on music this country has ever produced” was uncertain in his lifetime and is certainly untenable now. What is more arguable is that for thirty years he was the most comprehensive, informed, and large-visioned critical journalist the country has seen, the best-equipped eclectic of the arts, and an inciter of aesthetic curiosity and sympathy on a scale which even today has not been surpassed. Mr. Schwab makes some large claims for Huneker’s influence, not only on Mencken and his school, but on Brooks, Wilson, and other American critics in whom his trace is less visible. But there is a sense in which he is right. What Huneker opened up, promoted, and defended lies somewhere behind the work of almost every American critic, and of many American artists, who have read, felt, or followed him in the past sixty years. However superseded, ignored, or dropped from print, he continues to exist in the arts and the knowledge of the arts in our time. He is part of what we know. And since, with the modesty that accompanied his ambition, he called himself a “Jack of all [arts], master of none,” this degree of fame and influence would have satisfied him that his labor was not misspent.