« ForrigeFortsæt »
LITERARY CRITICISM IN COLLEGE WRITING.
T is often and truthfully said that the literary criticism. written by college men is generally artificial, unnatural, either heavy and dull or superficial and frothy, and so in either case valueless. It is further often contended that college men can not have the power to write criticism. A man can write well, it is said, only of what he knows and knows by experience, not indirectly. Therefore college men, whose knowledge of literature is, comparatively speaking, so limited, and is, so far as it goes, so largely gained through other men, not directly, can not be expected to write upon literary topics with power and genuineness.
But by arguing from the same proposition that a man can write well only of what he knows, a place for criticism in college writing may, we think, be established. The college man, because of the undeveloped state of his powers and the scantiness of his knowledge can not, it is true, do any great things in criticism. He can not, unaided, comprehend the literary tendencies of a whole period or form a complete estimate of an author's work. But he
can exercise the knowledge and the powers that he has upon subjects with which he is familiar, which must necessarily be not of wide reach, and he can express his opinions, which need not be without value. For if a man is ever to have good taste and critical insight they must begin to show themselves while he is in college, and if these qualities are backed by a thorough knowledge of, and an interest in his subject, there is no reason why he can not write criticism.
One fundamental trouble in college criticism is the method of the acquirement of the necessary knowledge. Men often choose their subject and then learn about it, instead of choosing it because they have learned about it and have become interested. It is not strange that criticism written under such circumstances should be mechanical and artificial. This way of choosing the subject is probably responsible, too, for the essays so frequently written on obscure subjects. Writers go with malice prepense into the out-of-the-way corners of literature and pick up subjects, in the hope, probably, of making an essay attractive because it is "something new." Of course in cases when the subjects are prescribed, this way of choosing the subject is sometimes to a certain extent unavoidable, but it is hardly ever wholly so. It is, to be sure, easy to see why men choose their subjects so, and why also this way of writing leads to artificiality and insincerity. It is much easier and much more tempting to take an attractive sounding subject, read up a little on it in the originals, more in what other men have written on it, and then partly from original thought, partly from others' thought, construct an essay which shall be at least readable, than to take from one's own reading a subject perhaps not written on before, at least not in the particular way thought of, and then work out one's own salvation in the treatment of it. But if it is easier and more tempting it is certainly also destructive to hope of valuable writing.
In the finding fault with the learning about the subject after it has been chosen instead of before, there was not the slightest intention of speaking against further inves
tigation of a subject after it has been decided on, or of in any way discouraging the fullest possible study. For a second great fault in college critics is a indisposition to make such a study, to consider the subject in all its bearings, and everything bearing on it. The persistent, rigorous, laborious studying and thinking out of a subject is much neglected, partly from a mistaken idea that sympathetic criticism, which we all wish to be able to do, does not require work, partly from pure laziness. Like all amateurs we college men are apt to half do our work. It ought to be remembered that careful study and thought are the first essentials necessary for good matter and good manners. If men always did this careful work, there would be no danger of their taking, as they often do, subjects too far-reaching for thorough treatment by them.
Again in the writing of the essay, after it has been thought out in a way which promises a good piece of work, many men fail. They fail most often not by being grandiose and verbose, for college writing has of late years happily been less marked by these qualities, once proverbially characteristic of it, but by being somewhat dictatorial and cocksure, and again by being too solemn and
The omniscient way of some college writers is often, it is true, not at all an expression of the corresponding feeling, but is simply an accident or a carelessness of style. However, it is just as much to be avoided, whatever its cause. It is well for us very young men to remember that our opinions, though they may seem not half bad to us, are likely to be one-sided or totally incorrect, and will not be regarded as very important anyway, and that it is becoming that they should be expressed in a retiring manner.
But a greater and more common fault than this is the exceeding solemnity of much college criticism. If men would but write naturally, write more as they talk, about their authors, their writing would be immeasurably improved. It is well here also for us to remember that our deliverances upon literary subjects are not anxiously awaited or reverentially looked up to, and that we might
as well speak out our own opinions in our own fashion, without pretentiousness or affectation. But this manner of writing does not by any means imply superficiality or flimsiness of thought. It is quite possible to have a completely and sympathetically thought-out conception of an idea or a man, and yet to be natural in expression. Indeed a man who has a thorough and familiar acquaintance with his thought is more likely to be familiar and easy in its expression.
There is another fault of style which is seen in college criticism not so often as these other two, but which when it does occur, is almost as bad. This is a mildness, amounting often to dullness, resulting from excessive re-writing and refinement, which destroys the native vigor of the thought. Pieces which are rude but forcible are commonly more readable than those which are polished into tame perfection. This is indeed a fault not often seen. The tendency is generally the other way. But when it does occur, it is usually in the work of men of more than ordinary ability and ambition, and so is doubly harmful.
We have thus attempted to point out some of the principal and most obvious faults of college criticism, not for the sake of giving advice, but for the sake of thus proving that criticism has a place in college writing. For though these faults are indeed serious in their effect on the writing, they appear less serious when it is considered that in the case of the tasteful, thoughtful, persistent man they can be remedied. Proof of the fact that they can be remedied, as well as proof that there are men of good ability who have not remedied them in themselves, is often seen in college writing, spoken and published. If they can be and are remedied to a reasonable extent, so that criticism of some merit is produced, criticism certainly has a place in college writing, for in a place of training like a college, merit is a sufficient excuse for the existence of writing of any class.
But however good it may be, its place exists for the most part not because of any value it may have as literature. To be sure, it is not infrequently interesting and
sometimes suggestive and useful to its readers. There is no reason why it should not be if the writer has reasonable ability, for the thought of young men, from the freshness with which impressions come into their minds, has sometimes an unusual and very pleasant life and newness of appreciation.
But the value of college criticism is not so much in this way. If it has merit enough to give it a reason for existence, its value will be more in the gifts which the writers receive from the labor necessary to produce writing of merit, in increase of literary knowledge and training of thought and expression, and in its helping through its effects on them and the influence which their example exerts for the growth of literary interest toward that end for which we all are or ought to be striving-the improvement of what is called in those familiar words of venerable antiquity "the average literary culture of the University." Robert H. Nichols.
Calmly, serenely gleam the stars to night
And here below man's heart, earth-fettered, beats
Yet, in those silent worlds may there not be
Souls that can look upon our distant star;
See not our world-worn hearts? upon whose sight
Seen through the golden, dim immensity
Our earthly planet casts its rays afar,
One pure and shining spark of diamond light?
Burton J. Hendrick.