Ameican Notes

By E. A. B.

Reproaches have been made that I have neglected to adorn these Notes with the names of American authors unknown as yet to fame. I protest my innocence! Nothing in this New World would give me greater pleasure than to discover a real American genius. With unnatural optimism I have hoped and sought for the best, but in vain. The literary acoustic properties of the Eastern States are so perfect, the Trans-Atlantic echoes so faithful, that I have preferred, as a rule, to refer my readers to the original sounds-cacophonous or otherwise. In the course of a recent correspondence in these pages "Pteleon," carried away by his enthusiasm for Mr. George Sterling, accused me of wasting space "by useless gibes and jeers," instead of writing of "the hidden treasures of American literature." I fear he must continue to take the will for the deed.

The correspondence of "Pteleon" and Messrs Bunting and Danielson surprised me. I had no idea that Mr. George Sterling, whose name figures at intervals in the magazines, whose biography adorns "Who's Who in America," and whom I shall not be indiscreet in describing as by no means a poetic stripling-that Mr. George Sterling, the friend of Bierce, would appear to readers of THE NEW AGE as a mystery! What a pity "Who's Who in America" was not consulted instead of the British Museum catalogue! Much unnecessary speculation would have been avoided, and the poet's name would not have been obscured in the slightly incongruous halo of an undiscovered genius ; unless, perhaps, he is an instance of what "Pteleon" so confidingly refers to as "the hidden treasures," which I have withheld!  Let me reassure him. The art of writing American Notes is not to conceal American literature.

The first time I heard Mr. George Sterling discussed, an American critic asserted that he was "a very overrated poet." Whether true or false, the statement obviously does not suggest obscurity. Mr. Sterling is a Californian, and the fact that all his books are published at San Francisco tends io make them somewhat inaccessible on this side of the States. Few people, however, who read, are unfamiliar with his work, in periodical form at least. At present he is living and writing in New York, where, indeed, I recently met him, still dazed by the efforts of "Pteleon." His melancholy comment was: "If those letters had appeared in an American review, people would have said I paid for the advertisement." Fortunately, even here, the poverty of THE NEW AGE is admitted to preclude this insinuation.

With no intention to advertise, in the sense alluded to, but simply for the information of those interested, I add that Mr. George Sterling's four volumes, "The Testimony of the Suns," "A Wine of Wizardry," "The House of Orchids," and "Beyond the Breakers," are published by A. M. Robertson, San Francisco, and cost 1.25 dollars each. None of these contains anything so bad as the "Night Sounds" quoted by "Pteleon" from "Munsey's Magazine," but there are many poems that do not reach the level of the two sonnets which originally attracted his attention. Even Mr. Sterling himself does not, I think, claim that all his lines are perfect, though some of his reviewers have not failed to do so. Discounting the ecstasies of the tribe, one may say that there is material for a small volume of good verse.

Mr. Sterling has undoubtedly a power of evocation, he likes to suggest the vastness of cosmic things, his verse is filled with the immensities of the universe. This is particularly noticeable in his longer poems, such as "The Testimony of the Suns," which Bierce announced as the herald of a great poet. These can best be suggested by saying that they remind me vaguely of "A." If one could imagine the vision of "Æ" emptied of its mystic content, one would have an idea of a great deal of George Sterling's work.

Of course, "Æ," without mysticism, ceases to be "Æ," whereas Sterling with mysticism would not be the poet as we know him. For it is precisely the grandiose framework, without profound content of thought, that is Mr. George Sterling. Let this be at once his virtue and his vice. At first one is impressed by the energy and sweep of his imagination, but in the end there comes a sense of dissatisfaction. But he has written some good sonnets. In these he succeeds in conveying something of the landscape and atmosphere of California, the sea and the canyons, and the great open spaces. Mr. Sterling has, at all events, the merit of being entirely uninfluenced by the faddists and the cliques, who find in "Poetry" an ever uncritical welcome for their worst aberrations. American poetry may be divided into that which appears in "Poetry," and that which does not. The divergency is one of aim and culture. Miss Harriet Monroe's protégés are concerned with everything that is ephemeral, the others know better. They recognise what is of permanent value and occasionally approximate to it. I prefer their unrealised ideals to the awful realities of "Poetry's" successes. I shall shortly return to this question. For the moment, I am content to say that Mr. George Sterling belongs to the unelect-in the Imagiste sense of the term.

Mr. John Curtis Underwood is a poet and critic whose fame, I think,, is confined to his own country. His new book, "Literature and Insurgency" (Mitchell Kennerley, N.Y.), is hardly likely to change his position in that respect. These "ten essays in what might be called strenuous criticism," to quote the publisher, are merely an addition to that production "untouched by criticism, unlighted, uninstructed, unashamed," of which Henry James spoke when he lectured some years ago in Philadelphia. Mr. Underwood quotes with manifest exasperation that lecture ; and why should he not, seeing that he places Frank Norris and David Graham Phillips at the head of his literary hierarchy? Mr. Underwood and Mr. Phillips are agreed as to the sins of the American woman, her pose of culture, her snobbishness and utter uselessness. My sympathy with their grievance will not, however, allow me to join Mr. Underwood when he hails "The Second Generation" and "The Husband's Story" as fine literature. Mr. Phillips, as a social critic, may be compared to Marie Corelli, while his work has as much relation to letters as "The Sorrows of Satan," which it resembles.

Having given himself away so far as Frank Norris and Phillips are concerned, Mr. Underwood should have hesitated before attempting to be critical. His attack on "Henry James : Expatriate," is "one of the most fiercely destructive criticisms" Mr. Mitchell Kennerley has ever seen! Beyond the inevitable reference to James's mannerisms, there is no evidence that Mr. Underwood has ever studied Henry James. Mere abuse of the "unconscious charlatan," the "precisian" with "a microscopic order of mind," is not convincing, especially when the admirer of David Graham Phillips calls readers of James "the spiritually illiterate." Mr. Underwood is obviously suffering from Mr. James's blows. The ''American Scene" is a deadly wound to American prestige, and Mr. Underwood vents his rage upon it, just as all but a few Americans grow abusively contemptuous when one is unimpressed by the Woolworth Building, the Pennsylvania Railway Station, or the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. These are the real triumphs of American civilisation; they filled Henry James with a perfectly natural horror; consequently his place in literature must be challenged. Let Frank Norris charm Mr. Underwood's soul with "the epic of the wheat," and he will gladly leave to degraded Europeans the decadent pleasures to be derived from the reading of "Daisy Miller" or "What Maisie Knew." If Americans only knew how uninteresting they are to Henry James, until he gets them in Europe with a civilisation as a background, they might be spared these paroxysms.

New Age, vol. 16, no. 14, Feb. 4, 1915.