Art, of course, lives in history. We are obliged to consent that a work is not today what it was yesterday, neither as a whole nor in its details. It is easy enough to agree that time alters the past and all its terms, but the agreement is rather abstract. In taste, as in love, the preferences are violent and few are willing to look ahead, to profit from experience. We have little power over our own sensibilities, even though they appear to us as singular and personal as our bodies. We know our ideas and likes to be formed by the present and yet it is hard to resist a belief that they are somehow in touch with eternity.
The novel: history sends the reader away and brings him back again. We explain the decline in great reputations as the working of a cyclical force, which dips low for a decade or a century only to swing up once again. Fashion corrupts, but, like artificial respiration, it also gives a second life to the fallen. Structure bores in this generation; freedom repels in the next. What is it they have in common, those great novels of the past? We cannot find words, except in tautology, for the power of splendid creations. Merit is an assertion, subject if not to proof at least to convincingness. Every work struggles for its rights, and few maintain them without remissions. Certain works, as if they were sovereign states, weaken from time to time and whole generations turn their attentions away.
The once large, well-defended kingdom of Sir Walter Scott comes to mind. Even over one hundred years ago, Bagehot detected an uneasy wandering in Scott’s audience. V. S. Pritchett thought the decay of regionalism and the dislike of dialect were at the source of the gradual loss of appeal. Galsworthy is a territory fallen into decay and a novelist like Sinclair Lewis seems used up, absorbed, like a fertilizer. There is much sadness in the history of taste, and joy, too, when he who was lost is returned. Still, it is not the sudden recognition of an over-estimation that puzzles so much as the apparent impossibility of reviving our own and other people’s interest in a major novelist like Scott.
It is not quite so easy to think of revived reputations and works in the novel as in poetry. Henry James? It seems now that an ebbing and flowing of popularity will attend his work—and not without a certain rightness. The beauty and grandeur and peculiarity of his novels and stories benefit from the proper setting, the propitious moment, the waiting and receptive sensibility. Melville? A discovery, not a revival, a correction of a mistake, an omission. It is not merely capricious taste that works upon us, but violent changes in the moral, political, and social environment.
The novel has always been resistant to abstract analysis, to structural definition, to purely formal speculation. When the English critic, Percy Lubbock, tried …
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