Criticism of Criticism of Criticism: An Essay by H.L. Mencken

I. Criticism of Criticism of Criticism (from Prejudices: First Series)

EVERY now and then, a sense of the futility of their daily endeavors falling suddenly upon them, the critics of Christendom turn to a somewhat sour and depressing consideration of the nature and objects of their own craft. That is to say, they turn to criticizing criticism. What is it in plain words? What is its aim, exactly stated in legal terms? How far can it go? What good can it do? What is its normal effect upon the artist and the work of art?

Such a spell of self -searching has been in progress for several years past, and the critics of various countries have contributed theories of more or less lucidity and plausibility to the discussion. Their views of their own art, it appears, are quite as divergent as their views of the arts they more commonly deal with. One group argues, partly by direct statement and partly by attacking all other groups, that the one defensible purpose of the critic is to encourage the virtuous and oppose the sinful — in brief, to police the fine arts and so hold them in tune with the moral order of the world. Another group, repudiating this constabulary function, argues hotly that the arts have nothing to do with morality whatsoever — that their concern is solely with pure beauty. A third group holds that the chief aspect of a work of art, particularly in the field of literature, is its aspect as psychological document — that if it doesn’t help men to know themselves it is nothing. A fourth group reduces the thing to an exact science, and sets up standards that resemble algebraic formulae — this is the group of metrists, of contrapuntists and of those who gabble of light-waves. And so, in order, follow groups five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, each with its theory and its proofs.

Against the whole corps, moral and aesthetic, psychological and algebraic, stands Major J. E. Spingarn, U. S. A. Major Spingarn lately served formal notice upon me that he had abandoned the life of the academic grove for that of the armed array, and so I give him his military title, but at the time he wrote his “Creative Criticism” he was a professor in Columbia University, and I still find myself thinking of him, not as a soldier extraordinarily literate, but as a professor in rebellion. For his notions, whatever one may say in opposition to them, are at least magnificently unprofessorial — they fly violently in the face of the principles that distinguish the largest and most influential group of campus critics. As witness: “To say that poetry is moral or immoral is as meaningless as to say that an equilateral triangle is moral and an isosceles triangle immoral.” Or, worse: “It is only conceivable in a world in which dinner-table conversation runs after this fashion: ‘This cauliflower would be good if it had only been prepared in accordance with international law.’ ’ One imagines, on hearing such atheism flying about, the amazed indignation of Prof. Dr. William Lyon Phelps, with his discovery that Joseph Conrad preaches “the axiom of the moral law”; the “Hey, what’s that!” of Prof. Dr. W. C. Brownell, the Amherst Aristotle, with his eloquent plea for standards as iron-clad as the Westminster Confession; the loud, patriotic alarm of the gifted Prof. Dr. Stuart P. Sherman, of Iowa, with his maxim that Puritanism is the official philosophy of America, and that all who dispute it are enemy aliens and should be deported. Major Spingarn, in truth, here performs a treason most horrible upon the reverend order he once adorned, and having achieved it, he straightway per- forms another and then another. That is to say, he tackles all the antagonistic groups of orthodox critics seriatim, and knocks them about unanimously — first the aforesaid agents of the sweet and pious; then the advocates of unities, meters, all rigid formulae; then the experts in imaginary psychology; then the historical comparers, pigeonholers and makers of categories; finally, the professors of pure aesthetic. One and all, they take their places upon his operating table, and one and all they are stripped and anatomized. But what is the anarchistic ex-professor’s own theory? — for a professor must have a theory, as a dog must have fleas. In brief, what he offers is a doctrine borrowed from the Italian, Benedetto Croce, and by Croce filched from Goethe — a doctrine any- thing but new in the world, even in Goethe’s time, but nevertheless long buried in forgetfulness — to wit, the doctrine that it is the critic’s first and only duty, as Carlyle once put it, to find out “what the poet’s aim really and truly was, how the task he had to do stood before his eye, and how far, with such materials as were afforded him, he has fulfilled it.” For poet, read artist, or, if literature is in question, substitute the Germanic word Dichter — that is, the artist in words, the creator of beautiful letters, whether in verse or in prose. Ibsen always called himself a Digter, not a Dramatiker or Skuespiller. So, I daresay, did Shakespeare… . Well, what is this generalized poet trying to do? asks Major Spingarn, and how has he done it? That, and no more, is the critic’s quest. The morality of the work does not concern him. It is not his business to determine whether it heeds Aristotle or flouts Aristotle. He passes no judgment on its rhyme scheme, its length and breadth, its iambics, its politics, its patriotism, its piety, its psychological exactness, its good taste. He may note these things, but he may not protest about them — he may not complain if the thing criticized fails to fit into a pigeonhole. – Every sonnet, every drama, every novel is sui generis; it must stand on its own bottom; it must be judged by its own inherent intentions. “Poets,” says Major Spingarn, “do not really write epics, pastorals, lyrics, however much they may be deceived by these false abstractions; they express themselves, and this expression is their only form. There are not, therefore, only three or ten or a hundred literary kinds; there are as many kinds as there are individual poets.” Nor is there any valid appeal ad hominem. The character and background of the poet are beside the mark; the poem itself is the thing. Oscar Wilde, weak and swine-like, yet wrote beautiful prose. To reject that prose on the ground that Wilde had filthy habits is as absurd as to reject “What Is Man?” on the ground that its theology is beyond the intelligence of the editor of the New York Times.

This Spingarn-Croce-Carlyle-Goethe theory, of course, throws a heavy burden upon the critic. It presupposes that he is a civilized and tolerant man, hospitable to all intelligible ideas and capable of reading them as he runs. This is a demand that at once rules out nine-tenths of the grown-up sophomores who carry on the business of criticism in America. Their trouble is simply that they lack the intellectual resilience necessary for taking in ideas, and particularly new ideas. The only way they can ingest one is by transforming it into the nearest related formula — usually a harsh and devastating operation. This fact accounts for their chronic inability to understand all that is most personal and original and hence most forceful and significant in the emerging literature of the country. They can get down what has been digested and redigested, and so brought into forms that they know, and carefully labeled by predecessors of their own sort — but they exhibit alarm immediately they come into the presence of the extraordinary. Here we have an explanation of Brownell’s loud appeal for a tightening of standards — i.e., a larger respect for precedents, patterns, rubber-stamps — and here we have an explanation of Phelps’s inability to comprehend the colossal phenomenon of Dreiser, and of Boynton’s childish nonsense about realism, and of Sherman’s effort to apply the Espionage Act to the arts, and of More’s querulous enmity to romanticism, and of all the fatuous pigeon-holing that passes for criticism in the more solemn literary periodicals.

As practiced by all such learned and diligent but essentially ignorant and unimaginative men, criticism is little more than a branch of homiletics. They judge a work of art, not by its clarity and sincerity, not by the force and charm of its ideas, not by the technical virtuosity of the artist, not by his originality and artistic courage, but simply and solely by his orthodoxy. If he is what is called a “right thinker,” if he devotes himself to advocating the transient platitudes in a sonorous manner, then he is worthy of respect. But if he lets fall the slightest hint that he is in doubt about any of them, or, worse still, that he is indifferent, then he is a scoundrel, and hence, by their theory, a bad artist. Such pious piffle is horribly familiar among us. I do not exaggerate its terms. You will find it running through the critical writings of practically all the dull fellows who combine criticism with tutoring; in the words of many of them it is stated in the plainest way and defended with much heat, theological and pedagogical. In its baldest form it shows itself in the doctrine that it is scandalous for an artist — say a dramatist or a novelist — to depict vice as attractive. The fact that vice, more often than not, undoubtedly is attractive — else why should it ever gobble any of us? — is disposed of with a lofty gesture. What of it? say these birchmen. The artist is not a reporter, but a Great Teacher. It is not his business to depict the world as it is, but as it ought to be.

Against this notion American criticism makes but feeble headway. We are, in fact, a nation of evangelists; every third American devotes himself to improving and lifting up his fellow-citizens, usually by force; the messianic delusion is our national disease. Thus the moral Privatdozenten have the crowd on their side, and it is difficult to shake their authority; even the vicious are still in favor of crying vice down. “Here is a novel,” says the artist. “Why didn’t you write a tract?” roars the professor — and down the chute go novel and novelist. “This girl is pretty, “says the painter. “But she has left off her under-shirt,” protests the head-master — and off goes the poor dauber’s head. At its mildest, this balderdash takes the form of the late Hamilton Wright Mabie’s “White List of Books” ; at its worst, it is comstockery, an idiotic and abominable thing. Genuine criticism is as impossible to such inordinately narrow and cocksure men as music is to a man who is tone-deaf. The critic, to interpret his artist, even to understand his artist, must be able to get into the mind of his artist; he must feel and comprehend the vast pressure of the creative passion; as Major Spingarn says, “aesthetic judgment and artistic creation are instinct with the same vital life.” This is why all the best criticism of the world has bee nwritten by men who have had within them, not only the reflective and analytica lfaculty of critics, but also the gusto of artists — Goethe, Carlyle, Lessing, Schlegel, Saint-Beuve, and, to drop a story or two, Hazlitt, Hermann Bahr, Georg Brandes and James Huneker. Huneker, tackling “Also sprach Zarathustra,” revealed its content in illuminating flashes. But tackled by Paul Elmer More, it became no more than a dull student’s exercise, ill-naturedly corrected… .

So much for the theory of Major J. E. Spingarn, U. S. A., late professor of modern languages and literatures in Columbia University. Obviously, it is a far sounder and more stimulating theory than any of those cherished by the other professors. It demands that the critic be a man of intelligence, of toleration, of wide information, of genuine hospitality to ideas, whereas the others only demand that he have learning, and accept anything as learning that has been said before. But once he has stated his doctrine, the ingenious ex-professor, professor-like, immediately begins to corrupt it by claiming too much for it. Having laid and hatched, so to speak, his somewhat stale but still highly nourishing egg, he begins to argue fatuously that the resultant flamingo is the whole mustering of the critical Aves. But the fact is, of course, that criticism, as humanly practiced, must needs fall a good deal short of this intuitive re- creation of beauty, and what is more, it must go a good deal further. For one thing, it must be interpretation in terms that are not only exact but are also comprehensible to the reader, else it will leave the original mystery as dark as before — and once interpretation comes in, paraphrase and transliteration come in. What is recondite must be made plainer; the transcendental, to some extent at least, must be done into common modes of thinking. Well, what are morality, trochaics, hexameters, movements, historical principles, psychological maxims, the dramatic unities — what are all these save common modes of thinking, short cuts, rubber stamps, words of one syllable? Moreover, beauty as we know it in this world is by no means the apparition in vacuo that Dr. Spingarn seems to see. It has its social, its political, even its moral implications. The finale of Beethoven’s C minor symphony is not only colossal as music; it is also colossal as revolt; it says something against something. Yet more, the springs of beauty are not within itself alone, nor even in genius alone, but often in things without. Brahms wrote his Deutsches Requiem, not only because he was a great artist, but also because he was a good German. And in Nietzsche there are times when the divine afflatus takes a back seat, and the spirochaetae have the floor. Major Spingarn himself seems to harbor some sense of this limitation on his doctrine. He gives warning that “the poet’s intention must be judged at the moment of the creative act” — which opens the door enough for many an ancient to creep in. But limited or not, he at least clears off a lot of moldy rubbish, and gets further toward the truth than any of his former colleagues. They waste themselves upon theories that only conceal the poet’s achievement the more, the more diligently they are applied; he, at all events, grounds himself upon the sound notion that there should be free speech in art, and no protective tariffs, and no a priori assumptions, and no testing of ideas by mere words. The safe ground probably lies between the contestants, but nearer Spingarn. The critic who really illuminates starts off much as he starts off, but with a due regard for the prejudices and imbecilities of the world. I think the best feasible practice is to be found in certain chapters of Huneker, a critic of vastly more solid influence and of infinitely more value to the arts than all the prating pedagogues since Rufus Griswold. Here, as in the case of Poe, a sensitive and intelligent artist recreates the work of other artists, but there also comes to the ceremony a man of the world, and the things he has to say are apposite and instructive too. To denounce moralizing out of hand is to pronounce a moral judgment. To dispute the categories is to set up a new anti-categorical category. And to admire the work of Shakespeare is to be interested in his handling of blank verse, his social aspirations, his shot-gun marriage and his frequent concessions to the bombastic frenzy of his actors, and to have some curiosity about Mr. W. H. The really competent critic must be an empiricist. He must conduct his exploration with whatever means lie within the bounds of his personal limitation. He must produce his effects with whatever tools will work. If pills fail, he gets out his saw. If the saw won’t cut, he seizes a club… .

Perhaps, after all, the chief burden that lies upon Major Spingarn’s theory is to be found in its label. The word “creative” is a bit too flamboyant; it says what he wants to say, but it probably says a good deal more. In this emergency, I propose getting rid of the misleading label by pasting another over it. That is, I propose the substitution of “catalytic” for “creative,” despite the fact that “catalytic” is an unfamiliar word, and suggests the dog-Latin of the seminaries. I borrow it from chemistry, and its meaning is really quite simple. A catalyzer, in chemistry, is a substance that helps two other substances to react. For example, consider the case of ordinary cane sugar and water. Dissolve the sugar in the water and nothing happens. But add a few drops of acid and the sugar changes into glucose and fructose. Meanwhile, the acid itself is absolutely unchanged. All it does is to stir up the reaction between the water and the sugar. The process is called catalysis. The acid is a catalyzer.

Well, this is almost exactly the function of a genuine critic of the arts. It is his business to provoke the reaction between the work of art and the spectator. The spectator, untutored, stands unmoved; he sees the work of art, but it fails to make any intelligible impression on him; if he were spontaneously sensitive to it, there would be no need for criticism. But now comes the critic with his catalysis. He makes the work of art live for the spectator; he makes the spectator live for the work of art. Out of the process comes understanding, appreciation, intelligent enjoyment — and that is precisely what the artist tried to produce.


Goethe on Criticism

Transcribers note: From Goethe’s literary essays, edited by J.E. Springarn; translated from the German by J.E. Springarn. Originally published seperately in Über Kunst und Alterthum as a review of Mazoni’s Carmagnola and Rochlitz’s Für Freunde der Tonkonst; selection and arrangement by J.E. Springarn.

On Criticism (1821-24)


Criticism is either destructive or constructive. The former is very easy; for one need only set up some imaginary standard, some model or other, however foolish this may be, and then boldly assert that the work of art under consideration does not measure up to that standard, and therefore is of no value. That settles the matter, and one can without any more ado declare that the poet has not come up to one’s requirements. In this way the critic frees himself of all obligations of gratitude toward the artist.

Constructive criticism is much harder. It asks: What did the author set out to do? Was his plan reasonable and sensible, and how far did he succeed in carrying it out? If these questions are answered with discernment and sympathy, we may be of real assistance to the author in his later works, for even in his first attempts he has undoubtedly taken certain preliminary steps which approach the level of our criticism.

[Transcriber’s note: Carlyle once paraphrased Goethe as follows: “We should ask (he says) what the poet’s aim really and truly was, and how far this aim accorded, not with us and our individual crotchets and the crotchets of our little senate where we give or take the law, but with human nature and the nature of things at large; with the universal principles of poetic beauty, not as they stand written in our text-books, but in the hearts and imaginations of all men.”]

Perhaps we should call attention to another point which is altogether too frequently overlooked, namely, that the critic must judge a work of art more for the sake of the author than of the public. Every day we see how, without the least regard for the opinions of reviewers, some drama or novel is received by men and women in the most divers individual ways, is praised, found fault with, given or refused a place in the heart, merely as it happens to appeal to the personal idiosyncrasy of each reader.


Criticism is a practice of the Moderns. What does this mean? Just this: If you read a book and let it work upon you, and yield yourself up entirely to its influence, then, and only then, will you arrive at a correct judgment of it.


Some of my admiring readers have told me for a long time that instead of expressing a judgment on books, I describe the influence which they have had on me. And at bottom this is the way all readers criticize, even if they do not communicate an opinion or formulate ideas about it to the public. The scholar finds nothing new in a book, and therefore cannot praise it, while the young student, eager for knowledge, finds that knowledge increased, and a stimulus given to his culture. The one is stirred, while the other remains cold. This explains why the reception of books is so varied.


I am more and more convinced that whenever one has to express an opinion on the actions or on the writings of others, unless this be done from a certain one-sided enthusiasm, or from a loving interest in the person and the work, the result is hardly worth considering. Sympathy and enjoyment in what we see are in fact the only reality; and from such reality, reality as a natural product follows. All else is vanity.