The Delegate from Great Neck
by Edmund Wilson


Mr. Van Wyck Brooks and Mr. Scott Fitzgerald.

Mr. Fitzgerald: How do you do. I’m afraid it’s an awful nuisance for you to see me.

Mr. Brooks: Not at all. I’m very glad to. I’m only sorry to have had to put it off. But I’ve been so frightfully busy with my book that I haven’t been able to do anything.

Mr. Fitzgerald: What’s that—the James? I suppose you’re hurrying to have it out in time to get the benefit of the publicity of the Dial award.

Mr. Brooks: Oh, no: it may take me a long time yet. But it’s really rather a complicated job and I don’t like to drop a chapter in the middle or I lose all the threads. I’ve just come to a breathing-space.

Mr. Fitzgerald: I should think you’d want to rush it right through and get it out now: it might double your sales.

Mr. Brooks: Oh, I couldn’t possibly: I still have a good deal of work to do on it.

Mr. Fitzgerald: I suppose you must read hundreds of books,don’t you? How many books do you suppose you’ve read for the James? Two hundred? Five hundred?

Mr. Brooks: Oh, I don’t know, I’m sure—everything I could get hold of that threw any light on him.

Mr. Fitzgerald: I suppose you must quote on an average of four or five books on every page of one of your biographies, don’t you?—and you probably refer to four or five others—and you’ve probably read half a dozen others that you didn’t get anything out of. That makes fifteen or sixteen books to a page. Think of it! Reading fifteen or sixteen books just to write a single page! For a book of two hundred and fifty pages that would be—

Mr. Brooks: They’re not all different books, you know. One uses the same books again and again.

Mr. Fitzgerald: I know: but even so—it’s perfectly amazing! I suppose you must know more about American literature than anybody else in the world, don’t you?

Mr. Brooks: Oh, no! not by any means.

Mr. Fitzgerald: Well, you’re the greatest writer on the subject, anyway. That’s the reason we’ve written you this letter. As I told you, I’ve been delegated by the Younger Generation of American writers to congratulate you for getting the prize. They chose me as really the original member of the Younger Generation. Of course, there were a lot of people writing before This Side of Paradise—but the Younger Generation never really became self-conscious before then nor did the public at large become conscious of it. My slogan is that I am the man who made America Younger-Generation-conscious.

Mr. Brooks: Well, I am certainly very much flattered—

Mr. Fitzgerald: Besides, I’m about the only one who still really looks young. Most of the others are getting old and bald and discouraged. So they picked me out to represent them. They thought they ought to send somebody under thirty.—Well, could you stand to have me read you the letter they’ve written you or would you rather read it yourself?

Mr. Brooks: No: Certainly—read it. Do!

Mr. Fitzgerald: “Dear Van Wyck Brooks: We, the undersigned American writers, desire to offer you our heartiest congratulations on the occasion of your receiving the Dial award. If it is a question of critical service to American letters, we are of the opinion that there is no one living to whom it might more fitly go. You were, when we first began writing, almost the only critic in America who had anything to say to us which could help us to orient ourselves.”—This first part’s pretty heavy—but it gets a little more interesting later on.—I didn’t draft the letter myself.

“You yourself called a caustic roll of the critics we found in authority: Professor Babbitt, who, having in romanticism thrown overboard one of the chief creative movements of the modern world, could hardly be expected to prove encouraging to young writers still inspired by it; Mr. More, who, for all his learning and his intellectual integrity—anti-romanticist like Professor Babbitt—had excommunicated as the libertinage of romanticism what is actually the indispensable condition of any artistic activity—the response to irrational impulse—and thus, if he could have enforced his injunction against it, would have shut off the arts at their source; and Professor Sherman, who, having taken over the severity of Mr. More’s manner without the conviction of his moral passion, soon began to sound so discordant that even now he is changing his tune. These critics were preaching discipline and restraint to a race already bound hand and foot. The country at large, as they thought, may have been suffering from anarchic expansion; but what afflicted our literature was inertia and timidity. You were among the first to urge upon Americans the romantic doctrine of the value of “experience for its own sake” and the importance of literature as a political and social influence. Those ideas were perhaps open to criticism as a definitive aesthetic program; but they served at least to awaken us to a sense of the drama in which we were playing and of the heroic demands of the part. Our fathers had been further than our grandfathers from the civilization of Europe and you goadedus back to our proper role in the western world. You roused us with the cry that the hour had come ‘to put away childish things and to walk the stage as poets do.’

“For all this we are for ever in your debt and we have wished to express our gratitude. Do not think us ungracious, we beg, if we accompany it with a plea. You were almost alone, when you first began to write, in taking American writers seriously—in appraising them as rigorously as possible, in comparison with European literature, and in exhorting us to the task of bettering their achievements. Yet, in your anxiety to find out how and why our literature has fallen short of the greatest, and your zeal to confess its deficiencies, you seem sometimes to create the impression that it has accomplished nothing at all. The older generation of critics had failed, primarily, as humanists—that is, they had failed, not in intellect, but in sensibility. They had lacked the instinct to feel the value of the widely different forms of beauty which the men of other lands and ages have distilled from their different experience. Can it be that, with more generous intentions than theirs, you, too, with your different dogmas, are tending to fail in appreciation? After all, a good many of the Americans whose inadequacies you analyze so damagingly have had each his peculiar sense of life, his peculiar aspect of America, which he has succeeded in preserving for us in some more or less vivid form. Emerson pursuing happy guides through the winey yet fumeless air in his commerce, so blithe and so lonely, with the high places of light; Thoreau with his compact prose and his strong and fresh colors, like the open white of clouds against blue Massachusetts sky, like the thick green masses of trees about square New England houses—both these men have conveyed to us the beauty of a particular kind of life. We feel in them a freshness and a freedom as of lawns that slope away to fenceless meadows—and we taste a frosty sea-captain sarcasm which seasons ideal and discipline. So Mark Twain has most poignant pages that give us something which we do not find in your Ordeal of Mark Twain; it is not only the sadness of the Mississippi in the days when life there was poor, but the romance and the humor of the pioneers straying wide across the empty continent; and we recognize in that sadness, that romance and that humor at once genial and cruel, something more than the outlandish product of a particular time and place: we are moved by the troubling compound of life in all places at all times.”—

Mr. Brooks: Will you forgive me if I interrupt you a moment? I don’t want to find fault so much with your description of the New England writers—though even there I suspect you have allowed distance to gild with an imaginary glamor a society which, when we examine it, turns out rather disappointingly barren—but in regard to the West, I believe it is really very difficult to doubt that its reputed humor and romance are almost entirely fictitious. The life along the Mississippi which Mark Twain knew in his boyhood was depressing in the extreme—a mere matter of lonely villages scattered along a muddy shore; and the romantic attractions of the life which he was to know afterwards in Nevada and California consisted chiefly of profanity, drunkenness, gambling, and outbreaks of murder. The savage jokes of which you speak were, like those other manifestations, merely an hysterical relief from repression and privation.

Mr. Fitzgerald: Well, I come from the West—the Middle West—myself and I will say it’s pretty bad in some ways. But still don’t you think there must have been a certain amount of romance about it in Mark Twain’s day? I should think even a pilot on the Mississippi, like Mark Twain was, must have felt a sort of a thrill at knowing he was playing some part in the mastery of the continent. And then there must have been a sort of a fine comradeship about the life of the mining-camps and the ranches—when they all called each other Captain and Colonel. I always have a feeling of something heroic in the old songs and stories of the West. Think of the men who first dared to play a part in those gigantic amphitheaters of Utah, where the black rock ranges wall them round like the ramparts of the world! Think of life among the red fantastic shapes of the sandstone hills of Nevada, never escaping from the silent presence of those faceless prehistoric gods! And do you suppose that the men who went to California, even in Mark Twain’s time, could havehelped getting drunk with the sunshine like the Californians today? Don’t you think they really must have felt a great exhilaration when they found themselves on that golden coast, where no worry from the old world ever comes, where Time itself seems to have been abandoned like some tyrannous mediaeval institution and human life restored at last to the original spaciousness of Eden, where it is always summer-time and always afternoon? Think of the mountains turning purple at sunset and the purple-fringed sea—think of those men looking out at last upon a new horizon of ocean and hearing the drums of a deeper, a wider, a more deliberately pounding surf that beat the rhythms of the Southern sea! Don’t you really suppose that those men must have had a tremendous feeling of freedom?

Mr. Brooks: The condition of survival for the pioneer, even in California, I believe, was the suppression of all instincts which might tend to conflict with his adjustment to his rude environment. You assume that the generation of Mark Twain would have been capable of the enjoyment of landscape. But there is no evidence that this was the case. The enjoyment of landscape must effect an enrichment of the spiritual soil which bears its fruits in artistic creation, and the generation of Mark Twain— who can doubt it?—throttled its impulse to delight in natural beauty as an interference with its concentration upon its immediate material task. The psychology of the Puritan and the pioneer has always, it seems to me, rendered Americans singularly blind to natural beauty. It may, in fact, be doubted whether there has ever been an American who can be said to have appreciated it properly. Think of the vital relation to natural objects that one finds in a Ruskin or a Jeffries and then summon the most distinguished examples in this kind that Americans have been able to produce. How fatally meager, how pale, how lacking in genuine significance, the latter must inevitably appear!

Mr. Fitzgerald: Well, I really oughtn’t to try to talk about it because I haven’t read the documents or anything, the way you have.—I dare say that that part of the letter does lay it on prettythick, but they wanted to put in a purple passage to show you what they meant about enthusiasm.—I’ll go on reading.

“In the case of Henry James, again, we have been a little disappointed as we have read the published chapters of your forthcoming book about him. What we had hoped for was a definitive study of a novelist of genius who, fortunately for us, happened to be an American; but what we seem to be getting is the tragedy of an American who was rash enough to try to be a novelist. Yet James was surely, for all his partial failures at filling in the outlines of his canvases, very much a first-rate artist, one of the few indubitable masters of literature- whom America has produced; and, by his peculiar position of detachment, probably made up as a critic of international society for what, as an expatriated American, he sacrificed in completeness of experience of American life. Must we believe that his social maladjustment as an American of his period was really of such overshadowing importance as you seem to make it appear? The first installment of your study is based on his own autobiographical volumes; yet what interests us when we read these volumes is less the record of the provincial background and the writer’s relation to it than the wonder and enchantment of the artist before the spectacle of life—life even in the nineteenth century, even in the United States. Do not, we beg you—it is the burden of our plea—lose too much the sense of that wonder!”—

Mr. Brooks: I beg your pardon: but I really think you overestimate the vividness of those autobiographical volumes! To me there has always seemed to be something rather flaccid and empty about them. Think how much more colorful and spirited is Cellini’s autobiography! How much more candid Rousseau’s! How much more alive to the intellectual currents of their time those of Renan and Mill! How much richer in psychological interest Marie Bashkirtseff’s! James wrote in his later years, you know, of “the starved romance of my life.” And what I feel in his autobiography is the starvation rather than the romance. What American can fail to recognize the peculiar American spiritual blightof which James himself spoke so often? Have we not all run up against it—an impotence and blindness of the soul—like one of those great blank implacable walls that balk the view in American cities?

Mr. Fitzgerald: The Puritan thing, you mean. I suppose you’re probably right. I don’t know anything about James myself. I’ve never read a word of him.—Just let me finish reading; there’s not very much more.

“We thus deprecate the gloomy conclusions you have come to in regard to the American classics; yet, with our conviction of the importance of the social criticism which has betrayed you into them, we should never have thought of complaining, if we had not recently come to fear that your long preoccupation with the diagnosis of our diseases of the past has ended by inhibiting your view with an a priori theory about our future. You have discovered so many reasons why artistic achievement in America should be difficult that you seem finally to have become convinced that it is permanently impossible. When you write of contemporary literature, it is politely but without conviction: the modern writers who have been most successful in realizing the ideal you proposed have not received your accolade. And the effect upon us, in the long run, has been a little discouraging. The other day, one of the youngest of our number, reading your essay on The Literary Life, broke down in a wild fit of weeping and cursed God for having made him an American.”—

Mr. Brooks: Dear me! How distressing! Really—

Mr. Fitzgerald: Oh, that’s just a silly joke! It didn’t really happen, of course. I made it up myself and had them put it in. In fact, it’s the only part I wrote.—I’m sorry: I suppose it was bad taste!

Mr. Brooks: No—no: not at all! I see! I beg your pardon. Go ahead.

Mr. Fitzgerald: “Most of our newer critics, it is true, tend to err through too easy enthusiasm: it is usually enough for a book to make pretensions to artistic seriousness for them to hail it incontinently as a masterpiece. But their excitement hardly compensates us for your indifference. We begin to suspect that, instead of regarding all our contemporary writers as equally gifted, you have formed a habit of taking it for granted that they must all be equally deplorable—merely so many dreadful examples of ways in which it is possible for artists to fail in America—so many cadavers for the sociological clinic—not a literature but a Chamber of Horrors. And we end with an uneasy suspicion that, if you neglect your contemporaries, it is perhaps chiefly from a feeling of delicacy about cutting people up before they are dead.

“Yet the younger generation of writers have tried their hardest to put into practice the principles you recommended. They have not blenched before the artistic boldness of the great European masters, as you accuse their fathers of doing; and they have attempted to follow their example. They are deeply interested in the life of their own country; and they have opened their souls to the experience it offers. For all their pessimistic pronouncements, they are filled with confidence and gaiety. But when they have looked for your snow-white banner flying beside their motley ones, they have found you still brooding the wrongs of an earlier generation, the defeats of an older army. They find you shivering among the archives and they shiver at the sight of your chill. Meantime, there is life in America—even artistic life—to warm us all. And if we reproach you for failing to enjoy it, we are only preaching to you a gospel which we first learned from yourself.”

And then the names—I won’t read the list—but practically everybody, you see.

Mr. Brooks: It was really awfully kind of you to take the trouble to write to me. I’m very much interested in what you say.— But I can’t reconcile the picture of yourselves which you draw at the end of your letter with the account which you gave me yourself when you were talking about your friends just now. You said, I think, that the younger generation were “getting old and bald and discouraged.” I appreciate your gallant effort to take a cheerful view of your situation; but I fear that your courage has already been shrivelled by the indifference of a commercial society and your gestures toward spiritual expression lost in the void.

Mr. Fitzgerald: Oh, I was just kidding about them. They’re not really old and discouraged. I’m the only one that’s discouraged, because I find that I can’t live down at Great Neck on anything under thirty-six thousand a year and I have to write a lot of rotten stuff that bores me and makes me depressed.

Mr. Brooks: Couldn’t you live more cheaply somewhere else?

Mr. Fitzgerald: Nowhere that’s any fun.

Mr. Brooks: I think it’s a pity that a writer as gifted as you should be let in for such heavy expenses. As you say; it lays you open to exploitation by the popular magazines and, despite the fact that you charge me with indifference, that is something I regret very much. I begin to fear that your whole generation is falling a victim to that sort of thing. You are “the man,” you told me, you know, at the beginning of our conversation, “who has made America Younger-Generation-conscious.” Did you realize, when you used that expression, that you had dropped into the language of advertising? In describing your literary activities, you could not avoid the jargon of business. For it strikes me that the production of books by the younger generation has at last become an industry like another. The first crop of younger writers had scarcely scored their first successes when a race of editors and publishers appeared, eager to commercialize them— not by turning them into hacks of the old sort who would have had to do work of a kind altogether against their conscience, but by stimulating them to write much and often rather than thoughtfully and well, by putting a premium on their second best; so that, instead of advancing beyond their first attempts, they have not infrequently sunk below them. A large half-educated public has created a demand for half-baked work. And I am not sure you are so very much better off than your predecessors were: then, there was a small cultivated public and not much question of pleasing the rest. I will say of the distinguished writers of the last generation, whom you accuse me of undervaluing, that almost invariably they followed their art with a high sense of its dignity, so that their very journalism sounds like the work of serious men of letters—and this is true of Stephen Crane as much as of HenryJames; whereas, in your case, one can’t help feeling that the most ambitious of your productions are a species of journalism. How can one doubt that you have finally succumbed to our capitalist civilization in a way which you could never have foreseen?

Mr. Fitzgerald: Well, I knew that what I said about making America Younger-Generation-conscious sounded like advertising. I was just making fun of the way the advertising people talk.

Mr. Brooks: Freud has taught us that the things we say in jest are as significant as the things we say in earnest—more significant, in fact, because they reveal the thoughts which are really in our minds but which we are unwilling to avow to the world. I was struck also with that other joke which you contributed to the letter—I mean about cursing God for having made you an American. Who can fail to see in this desperate image a tragic involuntary cry which contradicts everything else you have strained so bravely to affirm?—Again, I notice that when you mention the signatories, who explicitly include yourself, you always speak of them as “they” instead of “we.” And I can’t help feeling that, in doing so, you furnish an irresistible piece of evidence that, in spite of the artificial unity which you have assumed in collaborating, you are actually, in spirit and ideas, as far isolated from one another as it has always seemed that literary men must inevitably be in America. In allowing your art to become a business, you have made intellectual unity impossible and have given yourselves up to the competitive anarchy of American commercial enterprise. You can at best, I fear, gain nothing but money and hollow popular reputations—each for himself—and these things for fifty years in America have brought nothing but disillusion and despair.

Mr. Fitzgerald: Well, don’t you think, though, that the American millionaires must have had a certain amount of fun out of their money? Can’t you imagine a man like Harriman or Hill feeling a certain creative ecstasy as he piled up all that power? Think of being able to buy anything you wanted—houses, railroads, enormous industries!—dinners, automobiles, stunning clothes for your wife—clothes like nobody else in the world couldwear!—all the finest paintings in Europe, all the books that had ever been written, in the most magnificent editions! Think of being able to give a stupendous house party that would go on for days and days, with everything that anybody could want to drink and a medical staff in attendance and the biggest jazz orchestras in the city alternating night and day! I must confess that I get a big kick out of all the glittering expensive things. Why, once, when I’d just arrived in New York with a lot of money to spend, after I’d been away in the West for a long time, and I came back to the Plaza the first night and I looked up and saw that great creamy palace all blazing with green and gold lights and the taxis and the limousines streaming up and down the Avenue—why, I jumped into the Pulitzer fountain just out of sheer joy! And I wasn’t boiled either.

Mr. Brooks: Are you sure you weren’t a little hysterical?

Mr. Fitzgerald: No: I’ve been hysterical, too. This was exhilaration.—Look: I don’t suppose you could possibly be persuaded to come down to Great Neck over Sunday. We’re having a little party. Maybe it would bore you to death—but we’re having some people down who ought to be pretty amusing. Gloria Swan-son’s coming. And Sherwood Anderson and Dos Passos. And Marc Connelly and Dorothy Parker. And Rube Goldberg. And Ring Lardner will be there. You probably think some of those people are pretty lowbrow, but Ring Lardner, for instance, is really a very interesting fellow: he’s really not just a popular writer: he’s pretty morose about things. I’d like to have you meet him. There are going to be some dumb-bell friends of mine from the West but I don’t believe you’d mind them—they’re really darn nice. And then there’s a man who sings a song called, Who’ll Bite your Neck When my Teeth are Gone? Neither my wife nor I knows his name—but his song is one of the funniest things we’ve ever heard!

Mr. Brooks: Why, thank you ever so much. I’d like ever so much to go—and I’d like ever so much to meet those people. But I’m really afraid that I can’t. I’m not nearly done with the James and I have to devote all my free time to it. And, since you feel thatI’m being unfair to him, I must go through my material again and think about it from that point of view.—You know, I really appreciate very much your taking the trouble to write me this letter, even though I don’t agree with everything you say. I’m sorry you find me discouraging: of course, I don’t intend to be. On the contrary, I think that your generation shows a great deal of promise.

Mr. Fitzgerald: Well, I’m sorry we’ve pestered you with this letter. It’s been very good of you to listen to it.

Mr. Brooks: Not at all! It was good of you to write it.

Mr. Fitzgerald: Well, I won’t bother you any longer.—I’m sorry you can’t come down Saturday.

Mr. Brooks: Thank you ever so much! I wish I could!


From Discordant Encounters by Edmund Wilson, (1926).


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