« PreviousContinue »
EARLY DAYS IN WORCESTER
(Dictated but not read)
Y grandfather, Henry W. Benchley, wore a beard. I never knew him, but I have seen pictures of him. My grandmother on my mother's side was a Heyward, although I don't think that I ever knew her either. The Heywards were always very quiet people and kept to themselves a great deal; so it is quite possible that I never met her. On my father's side everyone was either a Goddard or a Gale. One of my forebears, I think it was an Endicott, later had his name changed to Lipsky.
I remember how good baked beans and fish balls used to taste at Sunday morning breakfast.
The furnace dealer said (as nearly as I can remember): "There was a grate in the furnace when it was sent to your house. Have you looked everywhere for it? Perhaps you threw it away with the excelsior."
I said: "I did not throw it away with the excelsior. I threw the shaker away with the excelsior but not the grate. I guess I ought to know what I threw away with the excelsior and what I didn't."
This floored him, and he hung up.
I afterward found out that he was the same man who had worked in Brooks Brothers years before and who had been so disagreeable about that overcharge on Donald Stewart's suit.
I met a man the other day who said that he was Dr. Fisher. "What Dr. Fisher?" I asked. "The Dr. Fisher", he replied. There was a Dr. Fisher who used to live in Worcester, but I don't think it was he, because that Dr. Fisher was a woman.
Ellen Terry and the Dramatists-F. M. Ford's Book on ConradT. W. H. Crosland - The World's Classics-William Archer - A Lamb "Discovery"
LONDON, February 1, 1925.
HE first "Honours" List of the new British government has given more satisfaction than usual, because it contains a number of well deserved awards. Nobody, I suppose, will regret the granting of the Order of Merit to Sir James Frazer, whose long and devoted work upon "The Golden Bough" has been the marvel of all who are capable of understanding its value. A most popular award has been that made to Ellen Terry, in the interview with whom upon this occasion were some words which deserve more than passing note. said one thing which illustrated a theory of mine (a theory which no doubt has already been held by many others), and which incidentally commented upon a theory of Bernard Shaw's. Mr. Shaw once declared that the reason the Elizabethans wrote in blank verse was that blank verse was easier to write than prose. I do not think this. I think they wrote blank verse because it is easier to memorize than prose. In days when performances had to be given without much rehearsal it was desirable that the actors should have every aid. Miss Terry gave color to this suggestion by saying that Shakespeare "is the easiest poet to remember". She addShe added that she could still, in spite of failing memory, repeat the whole of one of Shakespeare's plays. She went on to say some further most interesting things: "Shaw, too, I always found
easy, but Barrie was ever a teaser. I remember, I learned my part in 'Captain Brassbound's Conversion' in a few days: but how I had to struggle over 'Alice Sit-by-the-Fire'!" It would be very interesting to know what it is that makes one author easy to memorize and another author difficult. The test might extend to the work of poets and novelists. One can think quite easily of poems from which many lines remain in the memory forever whether the poet be Shakespeare or Darley or W. S. Gilbert. We all know that some novels are easier to read than others — easier to "get into". We all know that there are some poems and some novels which can be read aloud and some which do not stand being read aloud. Possibly a good "reader aloud" would make anything appear to be satisfactory, but I am not sure of this. I have been told that my own books are very difficult to read aloud, although (however difficult they may be to finish) they are easy to read. With other authors there is no hindrance at all to the eye and the tongue. The words come tripping as if they had no other purpose than that of giving good material to the reader of slight elocutionary gifts. It may be that ideal perfection in phrasing and a tendency to rhetoric are equally good material. Winston Churchill's perorations will serve as illustration of the rhetoric, or perhaps the works of Macaulay passim would do even better. These are superb for
reading aloud - as superb as a bathroom for the indefatigable songster. I cannot think of any particularly simple writer who is benefited by being read aloud. I would always rather read poetry to myself than have it read to me. I cannot endure performances of Shakespeare's plays, because the music of the poetry always seems to me to be lost in bombastic declamation. Anything, in fact, which has loveliness at its heart is better read, I should say, by the inner voice. But the colloquial or dramatic poems of Browning could perhaps fittingly be read aloud; Whitman could be read aloud; Jane Austen can be read aloud. Mr. Shaw acts better than he reads. Is the same not true of Barrie? of course, the point is different. Terry did not say that Barrie could not be learned or that when learned he could not be effectively spoken. What she said was that Barrie was difficult to memorize. I have gone beyond her remark into a general speculation. The obvious explanation is to be found in the question of rhythm. Mr. Shaw was a musician before he was a writer. As far as I know, Sir James Barrie has never been a musician. On the other hand, it may be that Mr. Shaw makes his characters talk in a more realistic fashion than Sir James Barrie. They
may use more familiar rhythms and intonations. They may use the expected word, although this I should hardly have believed. Mr. Shaw, of course, is a master of plain expression. He is a public speaker of great experience. Sir James Barrie's public speaking has come late in life, and I gather that he relies more upon fancy than rhetoric to get him past the criticism of his audiences. Mr. Shaw has always had the power of a first class debater. This must in some degree affect his dramatic work. But the
question could be considered endlessly. I have attempted nothing more here than the adumbration of a most interesting topic, and if others will carry the discussion further I shall be glad. I fancy there can be no doubt that a musical ear will assist an author to write musically, and in that case one might expect him to be a suitable subject for the reader aloud. This cannot be the whole explanation, however. Moreover (under correction) I believe it has somewhere been shown that many poets have no appreciation of music that is not verbal. Shakespeare is not of their number, it seems clear; but I have been given distinguished examples.
I was going to mention above that I thought Joseph Conrad was neither an easy writer to read nor an easy writer to declaim. His writing was always so full of shades that the reader could not at once grasp and illumine the meaning. Ford Madox Hueffer or, as he now prefers to call himself, Ford Madox Ford - has just shown (in "Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance") how Conrad and he debated phrases together, their aim being to use words which suggested precisely the nuances of a situation. I am under the impression that the stage has little use for nuances and that accordingly Mr. Shaw has little use for nuances. Sir James Barrie, on the other hand, constantly gives (rightly or wrongly) the air of dealing, not in subtleties, but in little graces of invention which require verbal delicacy in their manipulation. Mr. Conrad was much bent upon shades of emotion, shades of thought, shades of meaning. To expect that he should be an easy man to read, either to oneself or aloud, would be too much. But
one may perhaps express the wish that Mr. Hueffer's restless egotism had been checked slightly before he allowed himself to write the recently published personal impression of Mr. Conrad. Mr. Conrad can hardly have been in his grave when Mr. Hueffer had finished his disagreeable portrait, and while Mr. Hueffer might have lost sales by delaying for a short time his impressionist sketch, he would almost certainly have made the book more worthy of Mr. Conrad and of himself. For in spite of a sort of vividness Mr. Hueffer always improvises rather brilliantly the book is not a satisfactory piece of work. In the first place, it is in deplorable taste. I do not know why it is, but with all his gifts Mr. Hueffer has always shown a lack of sensitiveness in the saying of delicate things. His touch, whatever the skill of his pen, is a heavy one. With extraordinary taste in literature, he has no taste in taste. "The English Review" as it was under his editorship remains a monument to the literary effort of its era and to Mr. Hueffer's ability as a connoisseur. Some of Mr. Hueffer's own critical writing is extremely distinguished, and would be more distinguished still if it were true. This book on Mr. Conrad is the work of a man with great talents. And yet, whether it is that Mr. Hueffer has some overweening estimate of those talents, and of the rights which talents give their possessor; whether he is merely bad mannered, and wishes to be bad mannered, under the common but mistaken impression that bad manners are a mark of genius, the fact remains that Mr. Hueffer is at times an insufferable writer. This I say after some admiring experience of Mr. Hueffer as a writer, and quite disinterestedly, since I am able to read him with interest (at times pathological
interest) even when he is being insufferable, and since I am sure many people justifiably find my own writing at times insufferable and wanting in good taste. There is a coarseness somewhere in Mr. Hueffer's mind which prevents him from being quite the great writer he is always promising to be. He has written many books, and I constantly meet people who tell me that this or that book of his is the real thing. Now I have never read a book by Mr. Hueffer which seemed to me the real thing. He may have a lazy imagination; he may be not always sincere (I mean artistically sincere); or he may be careless when he ought to be most scrupulous - I cannot tell. But he has a longer list of disabled masterpieces behind him than any other writer I can recall at this moment. And I hazard the guess that what is wrong with Mr. Hueffer's talent is that Mr. Hueffer is not really an artist at all. If he had been an artist he would not have been guilty of this little book about Mr. Conrad, which will be forgotten (but not forgiven) in a month. It is the work of a journalist of unusual felicity. One catches occasional glimpses in it of a portrait, of a real Conrad. But these glimpses are not enough to redeem the impression one gets of a great sprawling Ford Madox Ford, like a fat patronizing slug upon the Conradian lettuce. Even this large figure so benignly drawn - cannot obscure the tastelessness of the whole. For while Mr. Hueffer seems to exult in his own rudeness, he has no truly humorous appreciation of himself. He gives the impression of being boastful of the dislike of others, of taking it as proof of his merit; but he does not seem to try to cure himself of faults, and he is not amusing in his references to himself, as a really humorous egoist
customarily is. On the subject of Conrad he may be malicious, but on the subject of Ford he is always quite solemn. Moreover, like so many men who emphasize their own qualities, he does this with some anxiety. Possibly that is one of the reasons which make me suspect that Mr. Hueffer is not an artist; for the writer who is not an artist is invariably one who tries to convince others of something which he does not himself believe.
Another brilliant journalist is just dead, and he will be missed, although it is long since he did anything particularly memorable. I refer to T. W. H. Crosland. When I first heard of Crosland he was making "The Outlook" the most startlingly candid critical review in London. This must be something like twenty two or three years ago. Crosland used to be the literary editor of "The Outlook", and he used to write a "First Glance at New Books" similar in scope to that which appears each week in "The Times Literary Supplement". land's glance, however, was quite different from the glance of any other literary journalist of whom I ever heard. It was a glance that took the skin off a book. It blistered more books than it blessed. It was penetrating, and it was savage. "The Outlook" at that time had the habit of circulating this first glance to the booksellers in a single sheet. The same thing used to be done, and for all I know is still done, by the Chicago "Daily News". Booksellers exhibited the sheet issued by "The Outlook", and it was a good advertisement for books, because the books destroyed and the books maimed and the books extolled were made by Crosland's process part of a live literature. More
over, when literary journalism is well done, as if opinion mattered, literary journalism is read first for its own sake and then for its recommendations. Crosland showed that there was something to criticize. He also showed that there was a mind engaged upon current literature which was alert, well informed, and merciless. If a book was praised in "The Outlook", there was every prospect that it was a good book. This was a better state of things than that in vogue at present, when a series of good reviews no longer makes a reputation or draws attention to an exceptional book, so free are reviewers with praise of the "right" authors. Crosland left "The Outlook", which continued the feature with less vigor, and presently dropped it. In the meantime Crosland had gone to the office of Grant Richards (where one of his colleagues was John Masefield); and here, in the intervals of literary editorship and, I think, a general control of that unsurpassed series of reprints, "The World's Classics", he wrote several works of a sensational character, such as "The Unspeakable Scot" and "Lovely Woman". These books were of the type known as "provocative", and they admirably fulfilled their aim. They caused much indignation, and were very widely read. At a later period, after he had started several periodicals such as "The Tiger", the lives of which were brief, Crosland was associated with Lord Alfred Douglas in the control of "The Academy". Here the old trenchancy was again seen, but it was coarsened and noisy. Never again did Crosland as a journalist show the genius of his early days. He remained a poet, and during the war his collected poems were published in a single volume. Strangely enough, and characteristically, this book bore