The Friendship of Art

by Bliss Carman

The Man Behind the Book


    CRITICISM after all is little more than discovery. It is like science in that. Their main business is to find the truth. To science the multiform world of appearances is a complex, fascinating, and inexplicable creation, with something behind it, — purpose, reason, mind, — which science seeks to understand. To criticism the world of art and literature is just a mimic creation, the work of cunning hands of many ages, a contrivance of human intelligence, behind which lurks and hides the immortal spirit of man.

    The scientist or philosopher, with an unflinching and unquenchable curiosity, asks of [Page 161] the universe, “Who goes there behind the shadowy substance? What Presence inhabits these fleeting forms, which make the lovely earth? Where dwells the Eternal, and what like is the Unchanging, if any Unchanging or Eternal there be?” In his smaller way the critic stands before a work of art, inquiring in like spirit, “What manner of man was behind this thing? What soul found vent in this shape of beauty? What comprehending being lent a passing permanence to its own aspirations in this scrap of art?”

    The answer to the critic is never easy. The answer to the scientists will perhaps never be possible. Yet something of the seriousness of philosophic science should always invest the business of criticism. Discovery, exposition, revelation, — that is the task of the critic. To find the man behind the book, the man behind the painting, the man behind the music, to understand him with sympathy and intelligence and respect; that is the first duty of criticism. And its second duty is to help others [Page 162] to understand him. These two aims of criticism imply a patience, an indulgence, and a modest regard for others, not always found in the critic as he is. They would make him think of his artist first of all, of the public next, and last of himself, with his own pet theories and aversions. Unhappily it is common to invert this order of procedure, and the critic is so engrossed with exhibiting his own cleverness that the true subject of his exposition is eclipsed. Criticism is a fine art, of course; and as such it very properly embodies the personal bias of the critic. As a science, however, its prime regard must be for its subject.

    The man behind the book is not easy to discover. To meet the author, to dine with him, to receive his autograph, to photograph him carefully posed in his workshop, to note the style of his collar, the set of his coat, this is not to know the man behind the book. These things only give us a glimpse of a human being embarrassed by publicity and [Page 163] shrinking from unwarranted scrutiny. Any real knowledge of the man behind the book is much more difficult and requires a procedure much more subtle, and is apt to come casually at unexpected moments. For it is not merely the man apart from his work we wish to know. Having created anything in art, the creator is no longer the same; some part of him has gone into the making of his work; a large part of his real self is there, his deepest convictions, his sincerest purpose, his finest taste. It is this underlying personality which is so interesting and so profitable an object of study. How the world impressed him, with what fortitude or timorousness he fronted life, what mark sorrow left upon him, how grateful he was for joy, where he failed and where he was strong, and whether his ideals, if made practical and put into effect, would help or hinder us in the difficult business of living. In short, the object of criticism is to know the man, just as his object as an artist was to make himself known. Not [Page 164] the mere making of himself, known to fame, but the making of himself known in his work, in the adequate expression of himself, — this is the ambition of the artist. If the passion for creation is in him, it will not concern him much whether men recognize him widely or not; his chief anxiety will be to reveal his finer inner self in his art, whatever that may be; and none will be so conscious as himself of any shortcoming or failure in that delicate, almost impossible, achievement.

    Every great writer is a friend of all the world, one whom we may come to know, who can aid us with solace and counsel and entertainment. In his books he has revealed himself, and in them we make his acquaintance. This is the purpose of serious reading. Not merely to be delighted with beauty of style; not merely to be informed and made wise; not merely to be encouraged and ennobled in spirit; but to receive an impetus in all these directions. Such is the object of culture. To know a good book is to know a good man. [Page 165] To be influenced by a trivial, or ignoble, or false book, is to associate with an unworthy companion, and to suffer the inevitable detriment. For the book, like the man, must be so true that it convinces our reason and satisfies our curiosity; it must be so beautiful that it fascinates and delights our taste; it must be so spirited and right-minded that it enlists our best sympathy and stirs our more humane emotions. A good book, like a good comrade, is one that leaves us happier or better off in any way for having known it. A bad book is one that leaves us the poorer, either by confusing our reason with what is not true, or by debasing our taste with what is ugly, or by offending our spirit with what is evil. For a book must always appeal to us in these three ways, and be judged by these three tests.

    Then, too, it is only the man behind the book that makes the book worth reading. And what worthless things often masquerade under that noble name! Factory-made abominations [Page 166] of cloth and paper, without a shadow of soul or sincerity in them from beginning to end! You perceive at once that the author (Heaven forgive him!) went about to make a contrivance which should fool the guileless public, a book in nothing but appearance, a conscious cheat. The real book has vitality, it convinces and moves and entrances us by its indubitable veracity. Its maker was not concerned to produce an effect, but to free his mind and give vent to his feeling. Inevitably the result of his effort bears the stamp of his own personality. The book is the living image of the man. That is why real books have a power over us. It is the individuality that counts. And wherever there is a false note, something that the writer did not truly believe and intimately feel, be sure the reader will be aware of the discrepancy, and the book will fail to seem natural — it will not be “convincing,” as we say in the jargon of the studios. On the other hand, let a book be never so crude and ill written, if the writer [Page 167] was in earnest and put his heart and mind into the work, that book will have merit and some quality at least of an actual creation. It will have had a creator behind it — a veritable maker, not a mere manipulator; and the vitality it received from him it will in turn impart to others. This is the true life of a book, without which the making of volumes becomes a contemptible trade, and literature a lost art. [Page 168]