I have no Ambition of your Acquaintance, nor will I concern myself with the Sect, abominable Tribe! Your Name bespeaks Contempt; more it may, less methinks! it cannot. —The Humourist to the Critics (February 12, 1754)
Today we explore The Humourist’s two essays of February 12, 1754. In the first essay, he criticizes literary critics. In his second essay, he promises to lay any man “on his Center of Gravity” if he laughs at or jokes about his writings.
As I study these two essays, I confess that I am feeling more and more like Bradford McLaughlin, the hugger-mugger farmer in Robert Frost’s “The Star-Splitter.” Brad had a penchant for star-gazing, and he decided to burn his house down and collect the insurance money so that he could buy himself a telescope “To satisfy a lifelong curiosity /about our place among the infinities.” With six hundred dollars and a new job, he fulfilled his goal. One night, he and a friend were out stargazing:
Bradford and I had out the telescope.
We spread our two legs as it spread its three,
Pointed our thoughts the way we pointed it,
And standing at our leisure till the day broke,
Said some of the best things we ever said.
That telescope was christened the Star-Splitter,
Because it didn’t do a thing but split
A star in two or three the way you split
A globule of quicksilver in your hand
With one stroke of your finger in the middle.
It’s a star-splitter if there ever was one,
And ought to do some good if splitting stars
‘Sa thing to be compared with splitting wood.
We’ve looked and looked, but after all where are we?
Do we know any better where we are,
And how it stands between the night tonight
And a man with a smoky lantern chimney?
How different from the way it ever stood?
And so it is with me this week as I examine these two Humourist essays. I have looked and looked, but do I know anything new about his identity? Have I been able to find any new clues?
His first essay confirms that which we knew already: he loves literature and the classics. Thus, we can move on.
His second essay—a logical follow-up to the first—shows the action he will take if any critic dare criticize his work: he will lay him “on his Center of Gravity.” Volatile? Perhaps so. Look at the following passage from that essay. It does provide some clues:
Know then, that I was born under a Planet not to die in a Lazaretto. The hot Constellation of Cancer presided at my Nativity. Mars was then predominant. Of all the Elements, Fire sways most in me. I have many Aspirings, many elevated Conceptions, owing, for the most Part, to the peculiar Quality of the ground wherein I was born, which was the Top of a Hill situated South-East, so that the House must be illustrious, being so obvious o the Sun-Beams.
Thus, we now know—assuming that The Humourist is telling the truth—that he was born under the sign of Cancer, between June 22 and July 23. Further, we know that Mars was predominant, so he has a willingness to fight for a cause. In this case, he is willing to fight Critics who attack his literary works. (I wonder: why is he so passionate about this topic? Has he himself been the victim of critics? Food for thought.) So, perhaps, my looking and looking has disclosed some new information after all.
But what am I to do with “I have many Aspirings, many elevated Conceptions, owing, for the most Part, to the peculiar Quality of the ground wherein I was born, which was the Top of a Hill situated South-East, so that the House must be illustrious, being so obvious o the Sun-Beams.” Well, I have done a lot with that information, but remember: these are controlled revelations, and I must control how much I reveal just now. If I say too much, I could reveal all—prematurely!
Truthfully then—and I am not teasing now—I have looked and looked at these essays, and although I know a little more about The Humourist, I don’t know a lot more about him this week than I knew before.
However, all is not lost.
What occurs to me as I examine these two essays is that The Humourist holds the distinction of having written the first Colonial American essay criticizing literary critics. It is possible, of course, that I might be wrong in making this claim, but I don’t think so. I have spent the better part of the last two days thinking about and exploring American writers who have criticized literary critics. I have found no early American essays dealing exclusively with that topic. So, from that perspective, The Humourist’s February 12, 1754, essays hold a unique place in American literature.
My research journey that allowed me to make this claim has been an interesting one, and I thought I would share highlights with you, especially selected quotes about critics and criticism.
It may well be that critics have always been fault-finders. In his essay, The Humourist zeroes in on a compelling story:
When Phidias had completed the Athenian Minerva, a Critic, of much the same Discernment with these of the present Age, intimated to him, that the Waist was too thick; the silly Crowd, who always put an Implicit Faith in these malevolent Leaders, join’d in the Opinion, and the Statuary, in order to rectify the Blunder, chipp’d it to the Delicacy of their Fancy: But when another Set of People came to see it, they insisted, that it was too slender; Phidias then threw aside his Tools, informing them, that it was impossible to chip any on again.
Other quotes from “the Antients” that show critics in a less-than-favorable light come to mind. Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BC –43 BC) commented, “I criticize by creation, not by finding fault.” Aristotle (384 BC-322BC) noted that “Criticism is something we can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing. And Plutarch (c. 46-120AD) observed, “It is a thing of no great difficulty to raise objections against another man’s oration, it is a very easy matter; but to produce a better in its place is a work extremely troublesome.”
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) the word “critic” came into the English language as a noun meaning “One who pronounces judgement on any thing or person; esp. one who passes severe or unfavourable judgement; a censurer, fault-finder, caviller” in 1598. Two instances of its usage appear in that year. In his Worlde of Wordes, J. Florio defines critic as “Those notable Pirates in this our paper-sea, those sea-dogs, or lande-Critikes, monsters of men.” In the same year, Shakespeare used it in his Love’s Labour’s Lost, “I that haue been loues whip…A Crietick, nay, a night-watch Constable.”
The Humourist’s British contemporaries also looked at critics with suspicion. Below are some representative quotes:
Joseph Addison (1672-1719)
“A true critic ought to dwell upon excellencies rather than imperfections, to discover the concealed beauties of a writer, and communicate to the world such things as are worth their observation.”
“It is ridiculous for any man to criticize the works of another if he has not distinguished himself by his own performances.”
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)
“’That was excellently observed’, say I, when I read a passage in an author, where his opinion agrees with mine. When we differ, there I pronounce him to be mistaken.”
“We of this age have discovered a shorter, and more prudent method to become scholars and wits, without the fatigue of reading or of thinking.”
Henry Fielding (1707-1754)
“Now, in reality, the world has paid too great a compliment to critics, and has imagined them to be men of much greater profundity then they really are.”
Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)
“Court not the critic’s smile nor dread his frown.”
“Criticism is a study by which men grow important and formidable at very small expense. He whom nature has made weak, and idleness keeps ignorant, may yet support his vanity by the name of a critic.”
“The duty of criticism is neither to depreciate nor dignify by partial representations, but to hold out the light of reason, whatever it may discover; and to promulgate the determinations of truth, whatever she shall dictate.”
As for writers in the American colonies, The Humourist had one or two who could keep him company when it came to criticizing critics. One predates his arrival on the scene. Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672), in her “The Author to Her Book,” pens these lines:
In this array ‘mongst vulgars may’st thou roam.
In critic’s hands beware thou dost not come,
And take thy way where yet thou art not known;
If for thy father asked, say thou hadst none;
And for thy mother, she alas is poor,
Which caused her thus to send thee out of door.
Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), one of The Humourist’s contemporaries, commented, “Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain and most fools do.”
As I pondered what other American writers had said about critics, I could only recall several quotes. One is from Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849): “In criticism, I will be bold, and as sternly, absolutely just with friend and foe. From this purpose nothing shall turn me.” Poe, of course, had such a negative reputation as a critic that he was dubbed “The Hatchet Man,” presumably after Felix Octavius Carr Darley drew a caricature of Poe that was published in Holden’s Dollar Magazine, January 3, 1849.
“With tomahawk upraised for deadly blow,
Behold our literary Mohawk, Poe!
Sworn tyrant he o‘er all who sin in verse —
His own the standard, damns he all that’s worse;
And surely not for this shall he be blamed —
For worse than his deserves that it be damned!”
Other than Poe and Franklin and Bradstreet, I could also come up with James Russell Lowell’s A Fable for Critics (1848), a book-length poem that poked fun at well-known poets and critics of the time, including Lowell himself!
Having exhausted my immediate knowledge reservoir of what America writers had to say about critics, I did some cursory research and compiled some quotations that show a prevailing attitude of scorn and disdain.
James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851)
“‘Tis a strange calling!’ muttered Hawkeye, with an inward laugh, ‘to go through life, like a catbird, mocking all the ups and downs that may happen to come out of other men’s throats.'”
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
“As long as all that is said is said against me, I feel a certain sublime assurance of success, but as soon as honied words of praise are spoken for me, I feel as one that lies unprotected before his enemies.”
“Blame is safer than praise.”
Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894)
“Nature, when she invented, manufactured and patented her authors, contrived to make critics out of the chips that were left.”
Mark Twain (1835-1910)
“Tomorrow night I appear for the first time before a Boston audience – 4000 critics.”
“The trade of critic, in literature, music, and the drama, is the most degraded of all trades.”
“I haven’t any right to criticize books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”
Henry Adams (1838-1918)
“These questions of taste, of feeling, of inheritance, need no settlement. Everyone carries his own inch-rule of taste, and amuses himself by applying it, triumphantly, wherever he travels.”
Henry James (1843-1916)
“When you lay down a proposition which is forthwith controverted, it is of course optional with you to take up the cudgels in its defence. If you are deeply convinced of its truth, you will perhaps be content to leave it to take care of itself; or, at all events, you will not go out of your way to push its fortunes; for you will reflect that in the long run an opinion often borrows credit from the forbearance of its patrons. In the long run, we say; it will meanwhile cost you an occasional pang to see your cherished theory turned into a football by the critics. A football is not, as such, a very respectable object, and the more numerous the players, the more ridiculous it becomes. Unless, therefore, you are very confident of your ability to rescue it from the chaos of kicks, you will best consult its interests by not mingling in the game.”
H. L. Mencken (1880-1956)
“I have often misunderstood men grossly, and I have misrepresented them when I understood them, sacrificing sense to make a phrase. Here, of course, is where even the most conscientious critic often goes aground; he is apt to be an artist before he is a scientist, and the impulse to create something passionately is stronger in him than the impulse to state something accurately.”
William Faulkner (1897-1962)
“The artist doesn’t have time to listen to the critics. The ones who want to be writers read the reviews, the ones who want to write don’t have the time to read reviews.”
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)
“’Hem,’ he said, and I knew he was a critic now, since, in conversation, they put your name at the beginning of a sentence rather than at the end.”
John Steinbeck (1902-1968)
“In literary criticism the critic has no choice but to make over the victim of his attention into something the size and shape of himself.”
Randall Jarrell (1914-1965)
“More and more people think of the critic as an indispensable middle man between writer and reader, and would no more read a book alone, if they could help it, than have a baby alone.”
Lawrence Ferlinghetti (b. 1919)
“Don’t bow down to critics who have not themselves written great masterpieces.”
Edward Albee (b. 1928)
“The difference between critics and audiences is that one is a group of humans and one is not.”
Joyce Carol Oates (b. 1938)
“Critics sometimes appear to be addressing themselves to works other than those I remember writing.”
Stephen King (b. 1947)
“I have spent a good many years since–too many, I think–being ashamed about what I write. I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction or poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent. If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all.”
So, perhaps my “looking and looking” paid off after all.
I know a lot more now than I did when it comes to what American writers have had to say about critics. And I feel confident in my claim: the Humourist wrote America’s first essay criticizing critics!