A Modern "Gentlemans" Library
A LITTLE while ago a lady complained to me that she did not know how to continue and develop an excellent library left so her by her father. He and his father had built it up easily and gracefully; so that it would suit the eyes and the minds of their generations. But, repeated the lady, times and literary tastes and values have so completely changed! And how is one to know today if an author will endure? With the Brontes and Dickens and Browning and Thackeray and Smollett and Sterne and Fielding it was an easy matter. They rarely broke off sharply with the traditions of their day, said the lady. I did not agree with this but I admitted her problem. And it seemed to me that a solution was not too difficult.
Now in grouping authors and styles it is not necessary to be bothered too literally with dates. Emily Dickinson, for example, is a decidedly modern poet, terse, brief, never wordy, sinning, if in any way, in the opposite degree. Let us set her up to begin with, a woman poet fittingly the cornerstone of our modern "Gentleman's Library." We can follow along then rather briskly with A. E. Housman, W. H. Davies, Hodgson, Robert Frost, de la Mare. They are conventional but they would have shocked the lady's father and grandfather. Then too there is Hardy, a link between three generations, the Victorian, the eighteen nineties, and the twentieth century. But only genuinely appreciated by our own age. Men like Hardy and Francis Thompson help us to bridge the sharp turns in the stream. After Thompson follow Yeats and A. E., and then it is but a brief jump to Masefield and contemporaries. Aiken and Robinson branch off but then follow quickly Ezra Pound, T. E. Eliot, Amy Lowell, John Fletcher, D. H. Lawrence and the rest. The stripes are many and twisting but the resulting Zebra seems to me just as interesting an animal as the dignified elephant that came before him.
In prose it is even easier Hardy, of course, would begin, and we might follow him with Doughty (also in line for his poetry) Conrad, and W. H. Hudson. Bear in mind that these are popular and "sell" and also that they are "classics"--beyond a human doubt. De Morgan is your modern Dickens and in place of Charles Lamb there is Max Beerbohm and a worthy modern equivalent he is. Follow him with James Stephens, possibly Machen, and Aldous Huxley. Hudson leads us to Cunninghame, Graham, and Shaw. For Jane Austen we shall have (let us hope) David Garnett and for Leslie Stephen, Lytton Strachey! It will not be as easy to follow the literary scientists and philosophers; somehow William James and Santayana and Bertrand Russell do not suggest the heights of the ancient Olympus. But they, along with Neitzsche, make better reading. Possibly one thinks too much of those beautiful Victorian beards. But as I write this I think of Havelock Ellis who has the beard, the science, and the literary style too. From this group we cannot exclude Henry Adams.
As yet I have not named Henry James, possibly the greatest of modern English language novelists and possibly greater than that. A victorian in "The American" but a contemporary modern (and a model impossible to copy) in "The Golden Bowl" and the "Wings of the Dove"! All modern English writers have copied him and aped him without success. The which has made many of them damn him! After him come Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf. And possibly, too, Marcel Proust, as great but in a limited sphere and another tongue.
At this point it occurs to me that I have named forty authors and I have but scratched the surface. It is good, I think, to scan this panorama occasionally. It is a tolerably good answer to those who wail about modern literature (and who don't read it). Most of these authors should be collected in their original bindings and the lady will, of course, have to do over her library. There will be many cloth books in bright colors and paper labels and the decorator will have to use uncommon skill. Somehow I cannot see Barbellion in calf or Sherwood Anderson in levant. Hardy and France? Perhaps.
I am certain the lady will follow some of my advice; possibly because I didn't even mention "Ulysses."