ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)

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BOOK REVIEWS - ESSAYS (2)

 

A Look Round Literature (1887)

On Descending into Hell (1889)

 

A Look Round Literature (1887)

 

The Academy (26 February, 1887 - No. 773, p.140-141)

A Look round Literature. By Robert Buchanan. (Ward & Downey.)

MR. BUCHANAN is my intimate friend. Needs must be I set it down, if only as a possible set-off against the warmth of friendly praise, or, as the case may be, the extreme candour of friendly censure. I now feel free to say that I find Mr. Buchanan’s volume of essays fresh, vigorous, original, and full of suggestion, admirable and varied in substance, strenuous and powerful in style. The book gives abundant proof that Mr. Buchanan is an excellent critic when not too strongly under the influence of personal feeling. His knowledge of literature is broad and intimate, his insight is keen and deep, and his sympathies are catholic. As a critic of poetry he finds room enough in the world for the poetry of enchanted symbolism, and for the poetry of kicking up one’s heels and rolling with the milkmaids in the hay. Aeschylus and Victor Hugo, Goethe and Walt Whitman, Burns and Rossetti, Shelley and the author of the burlesque on the “Wicked World,” have all their points of appeal for him. Nevertheless, his opinions are clear and his aim is distinct. He is a Philistine, and he knows that the name of Philistine is the only name in modern parlance which it is possible for him to bear. To his thinking, however, and to mine also, that title of courtesy or badinage does not mean exactly what it is intended to convey when it comes from the people who have it oftenest on their lips. To them Philistinism is an equivalent for the lack of culture; to Mr. Buchanan it means power, passion, and imagination.
     Though this volume is informed and penetrated by a strong central idea and something like a central purpose, it contains several essays of independent criticism. Of these the most considerable are the essays on Thomas Love Peacock, on Rossetti, and on free thought in America. I have no space to traverse them, much as they tempt one with pregnant reflections. Of Goethe, in his character as a man, Mr. Buchanan has formulated the most deadly impeachment that I have met with outside the fragment of autobiography. A deadlier impeachment of self than Goethe’s unconscious picture of his miserable selfishness and deplorable egotism it was only reserved for his disciple Carlyle to furnish. Mr. Buchanan discusses the “affinities” that finally manufactured Goethe into a fine literary genius, and concludes that the mystery of sex was at the bottom of it all. With a little less animation Goethe might have made an acceptable parson; the amours turned the scale; the sweetheart Gretchen, the affair at Leipzig, the bad business with Frederika decided the bent of mind and heart; and nature, which, at the beginning, hardly meant Goethe for a genius at all, finished up by making the world the richer for “Ottilie,” “Clärchen” and “Mignon.” This is literary Jacobinism, indeed; and the white wrath of the Goethe-worshipper may easily be conceived. Goethe, as Mr. Buchanan says, comes to us, not like Shakspere, on his own merits only, but like a first-class master of the ceremonies with excellent credentials, which the public has yet shown no disposition to accept, even with a liberal grain of salt. We talk and write of Goethe as if he were side by side with Shakspere; but there is this difference between our acceptance of the two poets—Shakspere has mastered the popular heart and Goethe has hardly touched it. When “Hamlet” was produced in London for the nine hundred and ninety-ninth time the audiences at the Lyceum Theatre thought less of the acting and the accessories than of the play. When “Faust” was produced here for the first time with any completeness or pretentions to fidelity the audiences thought less of the dramatic action than of the dramatic acting. It is true that Mr. Irving’s company gave us more of Shakspere than of Goethe, though both were given in solution; but the difference of appeal for the popular heart may be seen at any glance at the faces of any audience. Wheresoever, whensoever and howsoever “Hamlet” may be played the play must be the thing, and under no circumstances can this be true of  “Faust.” And if not in “Faust,” which by sheer genius places its author in the world’s Pantheon, where is Goethe’s native strength as a poet likely to master the world’s heart? Not in Wilhelm Meister, for that theatrical old bore is merely tolerated for his maker’s sake. Not in Werther, for the day is gone when the world could contemplate with patience such showy attitudinising. Perhaps in the ballads here and there. I have given the substance of Mr. Buchanan’s argument, and I have given it in my own words rather than his, in order to indicate a general and earnest agreement. Goethe was certainly not the Philistine poet, if Philistinism may stand for imagination. Fifty years ago it was said by an English poet who was probably more strongly in sympathy with the genius of the German mind than any Englishman of his time, that the day would come, and was near, when it would be a subject for surprise that Germany had ever placed her Goethe above her Schiller. That day has not yet come; and if we may judge by the present ardour of Goethe-worship, not only in Germany but in England, it is not yet near. But I shall not, therefore, shrink from saying that I find more passion, more imagination, and a broader outlook upon life, man, and the universe in certain scenes of “Wallenstein”—as, for instance, in the scene of the Countess’s dream—than in any part of “Faust.” And the author of the “Robbers” was a Philistine poet.
     Mr. Buchanan takes Goethe as the master of all whose sole quest in literature is what Mr. Arnold has styled the criticism of life: the master of George Eliot, of Thackeray in his different way, of Mr. Arnold himself, and of the “plague of microscopes” who produce the delicate story-less stories that come from across the water. Recognising in George Eliot not a woman of genius, but merely a “noteworthy woman,” a “woman of unexampled cleverness and veracity,” who has left works that will speedily be forgotten; and in Thackeray a hater of all imaginative revolt, a Major Pendennis of literature, a delightful flâneur, a charming exponent of the philosophy of laissez-faire, a critical novelist-essayist; and in Mr. Arnold not a poet at all, but a writer of didactic verse, whose inspiration is not of the heart, but always and only of the head, whose didacticism reaches its highest level in the verses to Overmann, and its lowest depths in prose in the manner of a literary leader in the Daily News, Mr. Buchanan holds Goethe responsible for what he regards to be the misfortune to literature that such writers have been widely read and liberally praised. I certainly shall not follow Mr. Buchanan in saying that the author of “The Strayed Reveller” was not born among the laurel-bushes of Parnassus. If that snug retreat was not the birthplace of the man who wrote “East and West,” “East London,” and the sonnet to Shakspere, it is certain that he must be the literary Jacob who has stolen the birthright blessing. I am quite as reluctant to believe that the author of that great book that tells of the shot from the field of Waterloo that found the heart of Amelia Sedley was at best the critical novelist-essayist; though I think I see clearly that, following Thackeray, some living “storytellers,” who have “no story to tell,” are able, by help of the critical journalists, to base what seem to be splendid reputations on their consummate art of suckling fools and chronicling small beer. But I am at one with Mr. Buchanan in thinking that George Eliot was far too busy in presiding over a cosmos to know much of the rapture of inspiration, too much occupied with philosophical discoveries to feel as deeply as a great artist must the simple issues of human life and death. She was a close observer, as her early novels show; but her knowledge of life was limited, as her later ones sufficiently prove. The sheer reality, the flesh and blood vitality of her Mrs. Poyser, of Hetty Sorrel, of Adam Bede, of Silas Marner, of Maggy and Tom Tulliver, and of the exquisite old aunts, give way to the vague intellectual abstractions of the waxwork figures in Daniel Deronda and Middlemarch. Her plots are conventional to the utmost verge of conventionality; her grouping of character is often as mechanical as the cast of a domestic drama, with its places for the leading man, the leading lady, the comic man, the old man, the chambermaid, and so forth. She establishes her right to the old clothes of other novelists by the exquisite care with which she fits them to her own proportions. Her veracity is her originality. The old story of seduction, flight, disaster, death is now her story, because she has made it her own in the pathos and the power of the episode of Hetty Sorrel. But this is the art of the microscope. It is the perfect veracity that finds its highest exponent in Goethe. I will go farther than Mr. Buchanan, and say that this veracity which is so admirable in its way, has, in the works of George Eliot and in George Eliot’s influence, done more harm than good to imaginative literature in England. Nowadays the critic who tells you that a novel is a true picture of everyday life, that it is natural and probable, and so forth, believes that he has struck the best, if not the highest, note of praise. As if this fidelity to the pots and pans of life, this naturalness, this probability, this authenticity, could be rigidly applied to any masterpiece whatever! Of the rapture of inspiration, of the rugged power of creating ideals, I see nothing in George Eliot. Compared with such Philistines as some of Shakspere’s contemporaries, Ford, Webster, Dekker, with their lusty imagination, their virile daring, how tame and weak seems this “noteworthy woman” whom critics like Mr. Hutton have more than once found the courage to place with Shakspere! Their excess, her sanity, their mad freaks of inspiration, her tranquil sagacity—how powerful a contrast! If, as Mr. Buchanan thinks, it is a misfortune that literature in England has long ceased to pay allegiance to these rugged old masters, we cannot resist Mr. Buchanan’s conclusion that Goethe is the literary Jupiter whose self-contained culture is to blame. For my part I would rejoice to see the novelist’s art cut away from the bonds in which the critical journalist and the critical novelist-essayist have leagued together to bind it; and if we were to forsake the old story of Hetty Sorrel for some of the more full-blooded themes of Shakspere’s friends the gain would be ours. It is by no means necessary to outrage the sensibilities of the “young Person.” That dapper little body is not the lion in the way of imaginative literature. If she is left alone she will take the best of whatever is offered her. She always has done so, and I think she always will. The real obstacle is the Old Woman of both sexes. The Old Woman must have had a bad time in Shakspere’s day, when the best of Ford’s plays bore a title which she found it impossible to pronounce, and she has had many a bad bout since  then. But for the last forty or fifty years in England she has had every whim consulted, every rheumatic ache and gouty pain soothed away, every jarring noise banished from her nervous ears. The Old Woman flourishes best in America, where she might have least expected peace. There she finds the humour of Dickens to be so much mere noise and buffoonery, and his pathos to be so much silly sentiment. Hence the Old Woman drives Dickens from the home of Howells back to that old country which is still known to hanker after old-fashioned ways of making people laugh and weep.
     Mr. Buchanan thinks that literature in England is in a bad way, and that what we need is to see on the wall the colossal cypher of some supreme satirist. We have too much criticism, and Mr. Buchanan writes a big book of criticism to say so. Let half the critics try their hand at creative writing, and then we shall see what their supernatural wisdom is worth. Good or bad, the result cannot be less worth having than what we get. For my part I think I see that literature is not now in such serious straits; that there are clear indications of a revival of romantic feeling, and that when one novelist can make a sensation by reproducing the treasure-seeking of Monte Christo, and another by reviving the marvels of Peter Wilkins, and a third by redressing Dekker’s masterpiece, the “plague of microscopes” is about to see its end. If it is only half true that literature is now suffering from a “plethora of genius”; and if a tithe of “our noble selves” be found worthy to assist at the revival of English romantic art, we shall soon see more of the Philistinism that means imagination. May this book help on that golden time!
                                                                                                                                           HALL CAINE.

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The Pall Mall Gazette (7 March, 1887)

MR. BUCHANAN’S “LOOK ROUND.” *

“SOME of these opinions,” says Mr. Buchanan, in his Prefatory Note, “will doubtless awaken animadversion in quarters self-considered authoritative; but the literary Inquisition, like its religious prototype, will soon be a thing of the past. . . . At the same time, I have quite as great a distrust of my own discernment as of that of any of my contemporaries.” In this it is clear that Mr. Buchanan either says what he does not mean or means what he fails to say. He tells us that the opinions of his contemporaries are probably every bit as good as his own, and yet he resents by anticipation the cavillings of a certain “literary Inquisition.” What is this “literary Inquisition” which Mr. Buchanan threatens with swift extinction? Can it be periodical criticism? If so, what remotest analogy has it with the Holy Office? and on what ground can Mr. Buchanan declare it moribund? As for his “distrust of his own discernment,” that is all nonsense. He is “self-considered authoritative” (as he elegantly puts it), and why should he not be? No sane critic supposes himself infallible; but, on the other hand, no critic has any right to express an opinion at all unless he heartily believes in it. Mr. Buchanan is quite as ready as any one else to “back his opinion;” indeed, he sometimes backs it with unnecessary emphasis. In the present volume he “animadverts” pretty sharply upon the opinions of a good many very respectable people; why, then, does he cry out when his own opinions “awaken animadversion”? and why menace the animadverters with sudden death?
     The essays in this volume are for the most part reprints from magazine and newspapers. The first is a parallel between Æschylus and Victor Hugo, followed by an unsympathetic study of the character of Goethe, a paper on Lucretius and Professor Tyndall, notes on Rossetti, Thomas Love Peacock, Sydney Dobell, Charles Reade, Zola, and Whitman, “A Talk with George Eliot,” three essays on the modern stage, and a good deal of padding in the shape of ephemeral magazine articles and reviews which might well have been omitted. Mr. Buchanan loves to pose as a “literary Jacobin,” and seems to consider himself in a state of chronic revolt, we know not against what. He has a vivid admiration for all that is grandiose and symbolic in literature, a hearty contempt for mere observation and analysis, and a scornful hatred of science in so far as it conflicts with a certain optimistic theism of his own, which he would probably describe as Christianity. His physico-metaphysical polemics are out of date and unprofitable. They are mere skirmishes with over- hasty pioneers of science, or rather with incautious irregulars who straggle from the main body into the marshes of metaphysics. Mr. Buchanan considers that he has scored a triumph when he has landed his opponent up to his knees in the morass; blissfully unconscious that he himself is in up to the armpits. His literary judgments, though often perverse enough, are of more value, and so are his literary reminiscences. The paper on Peacock is delightful, the essay on Sydney Dobell is full of interest, the personal sketches of Charles Reade and Walt Whitman are worth preserving. One cannot but smile to think that a book in which the “pretentious and pedagogic Talent” of George Eliot is over and over again consigned to oblivion, may perhaps itself escape oblivion in virtue of two or three authentic glimpses of the Priory drawing-room which it affords us. The papers on the drama contain a good deal of sound criticism, as well as some swashing blows at that grotesque and deplorable survival, the Censorship of the stage.
     Mr. Buchanan’s printer has played him such strange tricks both in his English and in his Greek, that we hesitate which to blame when we find Frau von Stein figuring as “Fräulein Stein” and Lord Tennyson’s patriotism described as “actual Anglophobia.” It can scarcely be the printer, however, who conceived the quaint idea of speaking of “the whole Bostonian cosmogony, from Lowell upwards.” Fancy the glee of “the Savile Club cosmogony” on catching their Jacobin reviler in such a flagrant delict as this! “It is doubtful,” says Mr. Buchanan, “whether any Frenchman will ever understand the sea”—a piece of Rule-Britannia-ism (or shall we say “Anglophobia”?) which, if it comes to the notice of the Paris Figaro, cannot fail to heighten the irritation caused by Mr. Gilbert’s wanton insult to the French marine. Lastly, let the reader listen to this Buchananade over the grave of Napoleon:—“He had mounted the popular Monster, and although he seemed to curb and drive it, it took him pretty much where it pleased; and finally, in mercy to the man’s immortal soul, God made England pitiless and consigned him to St. Helena.” If it was thus that Mr. Buchanan nourished the name of God in his Adelphi melodrama, one can scarcely wonder that the Censor intervened.

     * “A Look Round Literature.” By Robert Buchanan. (London: Ward and Downey. 1887.)

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The Leeds Mercury (14 March, 1887 - p.8)

LITERARY ARRIVALS.*
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“It is in Literature as in Finance—much Paper and much Poverty may co-exist.”
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     Parnassus, as every schoolboy knows, is one of the highest mountains in Europe, and therefore a poet who has climbed its rugged slopes may be forgiven if he uses the opportunity afforded by his coign of vantage to take A LOOK ROUND LITERATURE. Unfortunately, when poets cease to sing they frequently begin to scold, in proof of which assertion it is only necessary to turn to this fiery philippic in which Mr. Robert Buchanan gives vent to a spleen which is rather too obvious. In reality, this “Look Round Literature” consists chiefly of magazine articles which have a very slight connection with each other beyond the fact that they are all written by a man who avows in a prefatory note that his opinions are “somewhat independent of current criticism,” and who moreover cherishes the hope that the “Literary Inquisition, like its religious prototype, will soon be a thing of the past.” Meanwhile, Mr. Buchanan, who words his indictment with undeniable freshness and vigour of style, appeals from Cæsar to the “common sense of the reading public in general.” It is a far cry from Æschylus to Victor Hugo, but in about fifty pages the author of “Idyls and Legends of Inverburn” contrives to bridge the distance—apparently with vast satisfaction to himself. Mr. Buchanan regards Victor Hugo as the Æschylus of this generation; he thinks him as headstrong and as grim as the great tragic poet of antiquity. He describes Hugo as a “literary Jael,” and declares that though “fortified with all the culture of the nineteenth century, deep in all its science, and strong in all its poetry, he cannot move about the earth in peace or take his place among the creatures of gladness, even for a single day. He gives us sun, moon, stars, earth, clouds, man, woman, bird, and beast—all in colossal “silhouette.” Not content with discovering a moral and intellectual resemblance between Æschylus and Victor Hugo, suggestive in his eyes of a “transmigration of souls,” Mr. Buchanan gravely declares that there was a physical resemblance also, as “any one may see by comparing the photograph of one with the traditional likeness of the other!” Possibly Mr. Buchanan may some day find reason to modify the elaborate parallel which he draws between the author of the “Prometheus” and the author of “Les Misérables,” and meanwhile it is enough to chronicle the fact that he admits it is just possible that he may be occasionally mistaken in his estimate of men, women, and books. It certainly is rather startling to find the author of a certain famous tirade against the “Fleshly School of Poetry” forgiving Mr. Swinburne “all his outrageousness” when he is moved to speak, “as he so often can and will, the lovely language of Sion.” One of the best essays in the book is a scathing, but not unmerited, review of the literature of spiritualism, for which Mr. Buchanan has coined the clever phrase, “Post-mortem Fiction.” Pitiful ignorance and moral degradation are betrayed by those who have already “half manufactured” a ghost when they have determined to behold one. There is a sympathetic sketch of Charles Reade and another of Sydney Dobell, but perhaps the most brilliant, and certainly not the least courageous, passage in the book is the masterly but cynical analysis of the character of Goethe, whose finished selfishness has, perhaps, never been more ruthlessly portrayed, and the daylight which is cast on another idol of the cultivated classes—George Eliot:—“What I saw of George Eliot personally confirmed me in my impression that the sibylline business, both publicly and privately, had been overdone. Naturally passionate, aggressive, sceptical, yet impulsive, she had sat so long upon the tripod that her genius had become frozen at the fountain, and her character was veneered over with the self-pride of insight; she lacked sympathy, and with all her moral enthusiasm, was spiritually cold.” Mr. Buchanan pleads for the rejection in literature of all dilettantism; he wishes to see the apotheosis of the highest and most truthful human teachers, dead or contemporary, and the recognition of every kind of noble effort, whether in the region of the lowest “cakes and ale,” or the highest sphere of the ideal. Books, he concludes, are the “merest waste of force unless they tell us something new, or lend a new significance to something that is old.” In spite of the dogmatism of Mr. Buchanan’s tone, and the defiant manner in which he hurls, to give an unexpected application to a phrase of his own, the “wealth of his vocabulary of abuse” at the heads of the critics, there is a great deal of unconventional thought in this volume, and it is not too much to say that even when we least agree with its author his very candour is fascinating, though we regret that he occasionally lapses into a half-hysterical Cassandra cry.

     * A Look Round Literature. By Robert Buchanan. Ward and Downey.

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New-York Daily Tribune (8 April, 1887 - p.6)

NEW PUBLICATIONS.
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A LOOK ROUND LITERATURE. By ROBERT BUCHANAN. Crown, 8vo. pp. xi., 386. Scribner & Welford.

     Mr. Buchanan has collected in this volume a number of his contributions to the periodical press, and prefixed to them a characteristically contemptuous and vehement condemnation of the business of magazine and newspaper criticism. His papers belong to the class of productions which he despises, and it certainly is not easy to find a reason why some of them should be reprinted, since they are trivial in subject and slight in treatment. There is always a public, however, which enjoys strong language and “independent,” that is, unusual, opinions, and to this public even the least important of the essays will have some interest. Moreover, there are chapters in the book which deserve the attention of more serious readers. Still Mr. Buchanan’s impulsive criticism, which never gets much further than the expression of individual liking and disliking, has too little substance to be taken gravely. He praises and blames with equal fervor, but he really does not tell us why he does either.

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The New York Times (17 April, 1887)

A VIGOROUS CRITIC.

A LOOK ROUND LITERATURE. By ROBERT BUCHANAN. New York: SCRIBNER & WELFORD. 1887.

     Mr. Robert Buchanan has distinguished himself in verse, prose fiction, and the drama, so that what he has to say about the writers of his time will receive attention. As a dramatist he has failed; as a poet he has produced a number of beautiful works which have not, however, succeeded in placing him in the front of the bardic tribe. Perhaps in his romance, “The Shadow of the Sword.” a novel reflecting the spirit of Victor Hugo, he has accomplished the most vigorous and absorbing piece of work of all; certainly none of the seven other prose books and none of his books of verse have received so much appreciation. “A Look Round Literature” contains articles reprinted from the periodicals of the day, and owes most to the fact that Mr. Buchanan has the Scottish faculty of hitting hard without fearing that he makes himself disagreeable. With his quarterstaff he lays about lustily, and is never so happy as when he can hear the pates crack under his blows. There is an Irish quality in Mr. Buchanan, the Irish love of a fight, but his is a humor much less good tempered than that of the typical Irish fighter. He lacks wit and the jovial temperament. “The Character of Goethe” is an arraignment of the great German from the side of morals which will grieve all Teutons who have not placed themselves irrevocably and with bitterness on the Schiller side in the perennial discussions as to the genius of the two authors. For Mr. Buchanan has the audacity to question further the genius of Goethe, after explaining his utter selfishness and inability to appreciative love in a great sense. Thus, after jilting Frederika Briou, in order to build higher the pyramid of his existence:

     “My own belief is that this pyramid building was an afterthought, used by Goethe in fighting with his own sense of moral littleness. The simple truth, as I believe it to have been, is that Goethe’s conduct was far less owing to tremendous calculations of self-culture than to simple want of earnestness in any of the concerns of life, added to a tremendous æsthetic horror of that most unpicturesque of all things—matrimony as practiced in modern Germany. Throughout his whole career he never allowed any one feeling to strike deep root. He carefully watered his sentiments, trained his  virtues, (such as they were,) daintily enjoyed his tastes—made, in fact, a sort of back garden of his affections, whither he could retire without any danger of being bored by the world, and where all was fine weather and perfect shade. * * * He loved pretty women and light women—he would even go to the length of temporarily adoring them to distraction—but his appetite was satisfied with sipping and he seemed never to desire like rasher lovers for full possession. Marriage thus repelled him on the æsthetic side and we scarcely wonder, seeing what sort of wives would have been made of any of these women typified in his heroines. * * * Then, again, he had ascertained at a preternaturally early age (and this, by the way, is a fact so unusual and strangely unnatural that it looks not only like genius but diablerie,) that every additional human tie, however delightful in the forming, is a source of anxiety and irritation. He feared responsibility not because he lacked strength, but because he was a moral coward.”

     Superficial because incomplete criticism of this kind on the character of Goethe is oftener seen in French than in English because the conservatism of English-speaking people has kept up the impetus given by Coleridge, Carlyle, and other worshippers of German literature earlier in the century. It is well to hear it as representative of the other side of the medal. “A note on Lucretius” is aimed especially at Dr. Tyndall, but is more effective in recalling the ancient and mediaeval guesses at the truths to which we have come a little nearer in this century with doctrines of evolution than in gainsaying anything written or said by Darwin, Huxley, and Company. “The Irish National Poet” takes up that charming little butterfly Tom Moore on the tip of the spear of Goliath, and leaves nothing of him—very pleasant reading, doubtless, to rabid Nationalists, who cannot forget that Moore exiled himself from the island whose champion in verse and prose he attempted to be, but not a remarkably fair statement of his case. Very charming, on the other hand, is the account of an interview with Shelley’s friend, the novelist Thomas Love Peacock, author of “Headlong Hall,” “Crotchet Castle,” and other satirical books which foreran Mr. Mallock and his “New Republic.” In “Flotsam and Jetsam” the eye catches an amusing bit of naïveté from Mr. Buchanan like this, showing that he does not suspect that the mirror might be turned his way and his own portrait take that of Mr. Anthony Trollope. “Yet I read in a newspaper the other day that Trollope considered Reade (Charles) almost a genius! *** Trollope, whose art was the art of Count Smorltork plus the pathos of vestrydom, Trollope, who could write a book about the West Indies without putting into it one poetical thought or line, passes judgment on a literary giant and pronounces him a genius—almost!” The articles which will give most enjoyment are those on “The Modern Stage,” for Mr. Buchanan has had parlous adventures in that field, and lays on with Scottish claymore like a true descendant of Roderick Dhu. Whatever may be said of the imperishability of the judgments given ex cathedra in this collection, whatever may be said regarding the English in which they are conveyed, nobody can deny liveliness and extreme “readableness” to Mr. Buchanan’s formulation of his likes and dislikes, his whims, literary opinions and religious views.

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The Nation (12 May, 1887)

A Look Round Literature. By Robert Buchanan. Scribner & Welford. 1887.

MR. ROBERT BUCHANAN speaks of himself toward the end of this volume as “a man who is far beyond all literary predilections or passions.” This bit of self-criticism is the gem of the book. It is possible, however, that it is not meant to be retroactive, and he might acknowledge that some of these papers, which are collected from his critical utterances for several years past, are not the work of a mind completely emancipated. The article on Rossetti, in which he won his spurs, is, of course, not reproduced, since he has many times expressed his contrition for its errors; but he cannot praise that tenuous poet now without a left-handed dig at Burns’s muse, as “the poetry of kicking up one’s heels and rolling with milkmaids in the hay.” The essay on Goethe, however, is the most rich in unexpected felicities of pugnacity. The “Titanic Tutor,” the “greatest Stage-Manager,” the possible “very popular Parson,” had he had a trifle less animation and fewer amours, the master of Arnold and Lowell, as he calls him—for this man, Goethe, Mr. Buchanan has an invincible repugnance. There is Thackeray, too, who “based a splendid reputation on the theory of suckling fools and chronicling small beer”; George Eliot, “whose writings reflected, not the lover of humanity, but the superior person”; Emerson, with “no pathos”—and so on, over big and little reputations, saving and excepting only Walt Whitman, the Socrates and Christ of American democracy, in apotheosizing whom his worshipper makes that remark respecting his freedom from “literary predilections or passions.”
     But, withal, one has a hearty good liking for this mighty Nimrod of a critic, who disturbs the repose of the monarchs of the forest and gives the comfortable deer of our contemporary preserves a taste of wild life. It is not unpleasing to know that the race of the Dekkars and Dennises and Christopher Norths has not died out; and Buchanan, like his prototypes, has at times that facility in blurting out a brutal truth for which the British censor, time immemorial, has had a native genius. The strength of his social and religious convictions, the energy of his beliefs of all kinds, give genuineness and vitality to his words: and the cultivated reader who still has in him a mild strain of the old English blood that loves a fighter, cannot be hard on a sturdy champion engaged in what seems less like serious criticism than a game of literary fisticuffs.
     The personality of Buchanan is the real thing in the volume; his opinions—at least the literary ones—are not of so much consequence. He is a good hater, and he does not hide his talent in a napkin; he veneers his solid billingsgate with rhetoric of some color and polish; but all this must not blind us to the fact that he has ideals, and that he does truly regard the great names with which he makes free, and venerates them. He cannot refrain from the ill word; but he never tweaks the ear of a literary god without expressing his high respect for all other parts of his person. There is one portion of the book which is altogether agreeable, and it gains a considerable part of its attractiveness from the writer’s personality exhibited more directly than in his criticism. It is that which deals with a few of his private friendships with literary men when he was a struggling youth. Of Thomas Love Peacock, to whom he introduced himself by one of those letters which boys of genius will write, he gives us a very charming sketch. The old man on the lawn teaching his granddaughter Italian, or in his library finding Aristophanes funnier than Dickens, or learning Spanish at eighty years to read those “Autos” of Calderon that Shelley so long ago had praised to him—all this is excellently done, with both taste and feeling. Peacock belongs to a class of Englishmen whose lives too seldom get into literature. He was “a cold scholar”—this epithet of Hogg’s will stick to him as long as his name; but he presents a pleasanter picture in his old age. It is a piece of the omnipresent irony of life to find it written of that man to whom Shelley wrote those immortal Italian letters, “Italy he knew not, nor cared to know.” He had never been to Paris even. He spoke freely of Shelley, not with much understanding; and his claim to have aided Shelley in forming his poetic style in ‘Alastor’ is ridiculous. Another interesting person on whom Buchanan throws the light of personal reminiscence is Sydney Dobell, who befriended him on his coming to London, and touched him with his peculiarly sweet and noble nature and also by the sight of his physical frailty, so in contrast with his own “rude flush of health and hope” and “audacity of physical well-being.” The human feeling in both these sketches is very simple and true. The “Priory,” also, was one of his harbors of entertainment, but George Eliot probably had no more unawed spectator; he represents her as always “on the tripod,” on which she had sat so long that “her genius had become frozen at the fountain, and her character was veneered over with the self-pride of insight; so that, with all her apprehensiveness, she lacked sympathy, and with all her moral enthusiasm she was spiritually cold.” To Buchanan, with his Lares and Penates of Democracy and Religion, she was a poor kind of Sibyl. Of Democracy and Religion there is always a groundswell in his own work, and there is much humanity in it, too; in criticism he is not well furnished, but if one is experienced enough not to be irritated by it, he will better measure and appreciate the spirit of the man who seems to put his whole heart into all he does.

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The Morning Post (18 May, 1887 - p.2)

A LOOK ROUND LITERATURE.*

     The title chosen by Mr. Buchanan for his latest collection of articles is comprehensive, but it does not cover half the contents of the book. “Poetry, poltics, painting, all tings” were the subjects of Count Smorltork’s inquiries, and of the present work it may be said, in the language of that eminent foreigner, that it “surprises within himself,” poetry,  philosophy, science, theology, and the drama, among other matters. The author begins his survey with Æschylus, and ends it with Walt Whitman. Lucretius, Goethe, Rossetti, George Eliot, and Cardinal Newman come under his notice with many others, as, for instance, Epictetus and Emile Zola. Inspired by Mr. Swinburne, before whom, as he tells us, he is “helpless,” Mr. Buchanan has composed a dedication on a familiar plan, addressed to a literary review with which, in a recent controversy, he found himself unable to agree, and whose opinion he opposed in a letter concerning the value of which there can have been little difference of view among those who happened to read it. Mr. Buchanan is quite right in saying that his present articles “have no arbitrary connection with each other,” and any references to them must be as disconnected as the subjects referred to. That Mr. Buchanan is right in declining to believe that because a judgment is “generally accepted” it is necessarily correct, no one who has ever tested the matter with reasonable care is likely to  deny, and whether he is right or wrong in the opinions now to be noted is a question each one (on the author’s own principle) must decide, if he wishes, for himself. Mr. Buchanan considers that with regard to Goethe’s character, “If his life was necessary to his works, well and good; only eulogise the works, and admit that his life was bad. So far from being a creature of inexorable will and tremendous perseverance, Goethe was about the most plastic piece of clay that ever came out in the rough shape from nature’s manufactory.” Concerning Moore, Mr. Buchanan appears to be somewhat inconsistent, for while admitting that the poet “evinced in his arrangement of words for the exquisite national melodies a most refined taste and a well-nigh perfect judgment,” he goes on to say that “nearly every line he wrote is pregnant with platitude and literary affectations; nearly every song he sang is either playfully, or forlornly, or affectedly genteel.” Mr. Buchanan’s opinions on modern writers of fiction are not, in many cases, peculiar to himself, but they are certainly heretical from the point of view of that “literary inquisition” whose end he prophesies. He maintains of George Eliot that “she will be long remembered and always deeply respected; but her fatal mistake was that of writing as if the last words of wisdom had been spoken,” and of Charles Reade he says “some of us who are not to be daunted by bogus reputations, or to be awed by the idiocy of approven literary godhead, hold to our first faith that one man alone in our generation mastered the great craft of Homeric story-telling, and that this same man has created for us a type of womanhood which will live like flesh and blood when the heroines of Thackeray, Dickens, and George Eliot are relegated to the old curiosity shop of sawdust dolls.” Of the philosopher of Chelsea, about whom so many hard things have been said since his private life has been turned inside out for the world’s inspection, Mr. Buchanan naturally has but a poor opinion. “Carlyle liked his work, got both fame and money for it, and was covetous of both. Posterity has now to appraise, apart from all tall talk and atrabilarious grumbling, what the work was worth. I believe that posterity will decide with me—that it was not worth one solitary hour of domestic misconception, that, cast in the balance, it would all be outweighed by one of Jane Welsh’s secret tears. Carlyle’s books, indeed, possess all the worst qualities of the lower Transcendentalism.” The censorship of the stage fares as badly at the author’s hands as the “literary inquisition,” and he would like to see it abolished altogether. It cramps genius, and prevents the progress of dramatic art, though why this is so he hardly explains with sufficient clearness. In Paris, where greater latitude is allowed, the playgoer is treated to a constant succession of “moral lessons” derived from the contemplation of conjugal faithlessness; but whether the drama is thereby elevated, or its ethical value increased, it is hardly necessary to consider. In other respects surely the margin allowed in this country is sufficiently wide already.

     * A Look Round Literature. By Robert Buchanan. London: Ward and Downey.

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The Graphic (4 June, 1887)

     Mr. Robert Buchanan, in “A Look Round Literature” (Ward and Downey), offers varied fare. The book consists of a series of papers contributed to magazines, and now reprinted. If there is some padding in the volume, most of the papers bear reprinting. They range from a comparison between Æschylus and Victor Hugo and a study of the character of Goethe, to “Freethought in America,” “The Literature of Spiritualism,” and “A Talk With George Eliot.” The last-named, and another paper on Peacock are, to our mind, the most interesting in the volume. “A Note on D. G. Rossetti” is interesting as a complete retractation of all that “Thomas Maitland” once wrote. So closes an episode in modern letters which was interesting on account of the eminence of the man attacked, by no means on account of the position of the attacker. Mr. Buchanan has some good notes on modern playwrights, and a slashing attack on the censorship of plays.

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Catholic World (Vol. 45, Issue 267, June 1887 - pp. 418-419)

A CHAT ABOUT NEW BOOKS

     Mr. Robert Buchanan’s A Look Round Literature (Scribner & Welford) is, as might have been expected from the author’s previous reputation, impudent, superficial, and impertinent. Inflated rhetoric is necessary, in Mr. Buchanan’s opinion, to divert the reader’s attention from the fact that he has nothing to say. Prometheus is as quickly coated with Mr. Buchanan’s wash of words as Victor Hugo, Ouida, Æschylus, and George Eliot! A talk with the latter is included in the volume. To report the conversation of a dead person, one ought to have a thoroughly reliable memory and a thoroughly unimpeachable reputation. The dead are always wrong in a dialogue with the man who lives to report it. How few of us could resist the temptation to make ourselves more clever than we were in the presence of a celebrity! How easy it is to polish a repartee that might have been uttered, had we thought of it! It will be seen how in this dialogue —which is a good sample of the turgidity of the book—“myself” shines. Miss Evans, Mr. Lewes, and Mr. Buchanan were the persons present:

     “George Eliot. We are absolutely the creatures of our secretions. So true is this that the slightest disturbance of the cerebral circulation, say a temporary congestion, will pervert the entire stream of moral sentiment.
     “Myself. All this is doubtless very correct. I hold, nevertheless, that the soul, the ego, is invulnerable, despite all temporary aberrations—clouds obscuring the moon’s disc, so to speak.
     “George Eliot. Say rather disintegrations with the very substance of the moon herself. Where the very substance of the luminary is decaying, what hope is there for the permanence of your moonlight?
     “Myself. The analogy is imperfect; but, to pursue it, the lunar elements remain indestructible, and after transformation may cohere again into some splendid identity.
     “George Eliot. Moonlight is sunlight reflected on a material mirror: thought, consciousness, life itself, are conditions dependent upon the physical medium, and on the brightness of the external development. Cogito, ergo sum should be transposed and altered: Sum materies, ergo cogito.
     “Lewes. And yet, after all, there are psychic phenomena which seem to evade the material definition.
     “George Eliot. Not one. And science has established clearly that while functional disturbance may be evanescent, structural destruction is absolute and irremediable. An organism once destroyed is incapable of resurrection.
     “Myself. Then life is merely mechanism, after all?
     “George Eliot. Undoubtedly. It is very pitiful, but absolutely true.”

     It is very pitiful, if George Eliot said it. But, notwithstanding what the spicy Mrs. Carlyle calls her masquerading as an “improper woman” and her hopeless theories, the expression “absolutely true” seems to be a positive touch of Mr. Buchanan’s. George Eliot, so far as we can judge from her books, did not refuse at least to acknowledge the inexplicable “psychic phenomena” of which Lewes is made to speak. A Look Round Literature is a book to be avoided. Evil communications corrupt good manners. We have lately heard of a scholar who has permission to read his breviary in Greek, to prevent any injury to his Ciceronian style. Similarly A Look Round Literature should be avoided, for fear that a good literary taste should be even slightly injured by the influence of Mr. Robert Buchanan.

                                                                                                                                             Maurice F. Egan

Back to Reviews, Bibliography or Essays

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On Descending into Hell: a letter addressed to the Right Hon. Henry Matthews, Q.C., Home Secretary, concerning the proposed suppression of literature (1889)

 

The Glasgow Herald (8 July, 1889 - p.6)

     THE recent sentence on Mr Vizetelly has caused a good deal of discussion in literary circles. I am told that the existing state of the law will be sharply criticised by two writers who are generally antagonists, not allies. Mr Robert Buchanan, I learn, is about to publish a pamphlet on the subject, while an article by Mr George Moore will appear in the Nouvelle Revue. It was only by a change of plan at the very last moment that an article by the latter did not appear in the current number of a leading London review suggesting, I am told, amongst other reforms, that such cases should be tried by a Court of three Judges without a jury.

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St. James’s Gazette (12 July, 1889 - p.5)

     Mr. Robert Buchanan has published in a pamphlet (Redway) an appeal to the Home Secretary to liberate Mr. Vizetelly. “On Descending into Hell” is the title; and certainly the pamphlet does contain a good deal about hell. Also it contains a great deal about Mr. Robert Buchanan, how pure he is, how eclectically catholic, how fond of reading M. Zola—whose filth he knows cannot hurt him because, like the Knight of Poesy, his heart is pure. All this is very brave and not unclever; but Mr. Buchanan’s pamphlet really amounts to a plea for free trade in pornography. He calls M. Zola “a dreary and dismal gentleman,” which is perfectly true; but he is anxious that everybody, including, as he puts it, “young clerks and frisky milliners,” should be able to read M. Zola if they want to. He thinks that these young persons are sufficiently robust and healthy-minded to come to no harm by ill-regulated reading. His idea (so far as it can be followed) seems to be that, because the reading of Shakspeare, Rabelais, and Boccaccio has sent no soul to perdition, the study of M. Zola and his like will, if it has any effect at all, fortify the reader in well-doing.

     It is this very question of the young clerk and the frisky milliner which is one of the two cruces of the whole matter. So long as books, which depend, for such interest as they have, upon minute description of the filthy, can be read only in a foreign language, the evil is limited so far as concerns those who do not understand it. The curious student reads them and is disgusted. The “general reader” misses them altogether. When, however, these books are issued in cheap translations, which any errand boy may purchase, it is time to cry Hold! But it is when we have to decide what is literature and what filth that the real difficulty arises. That question is far too delicate to be left to an ordinary jury, and it is impossible to suggest any form of censorship which would not be a danger. But all the same it is not a good thing to give facilities to the young clerk and the frisky milliner—persons who, as a rule, are utterly destitute of ballast—to grow vicious by reading nasty books which they can buy for a shilling or two.

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The Academy (13 July, 1889 - No. 897, p.23)

     MR. ROBERT BUCHANAN has issued in pamphlet form (George Redway) a letter addressed to the Home Secretary “concerning the proposed suppression of literature.” By this he means the recent condemnation of Mr. Henry Vizetelly for publishing translations of certain novels of M. Zola. Putting aside the general issue—which involves some considerations that Mr. Buchanan seems to ignore—we gladly endorse Mr. Buchanan’s generous tribute to the long list of services Mr. Vizetelly has rendered to literature in the past, as author, editor, journalist, artist, and—we do not shrink from adding—publisher.

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The Blackburn Standard and Weekly Express (13 July, 1889 - p.2)

MR. ROBERT BUCHANAN.

     Mr. Robert Buchanan has in the press a shilling pamphlet, which is at once a vigorous defence of Mr. Henry Vizetelly, the publisher, and a violent attack upon the National Vigilance Association. It bears the somewhat remarkable title of “On Descending into Hell: A Letter to the Home Secretary on the Suppression of Literature,” and it will be out and about on Wednesday at the latest.

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The New York Times (4 August, 1889)

LITERATURE IN CHAINS

ROBERT BUCHANAN’S PLEA FOR VIZITELLY.

A NEW PHASE OF THE MOVEMENT FOR FREEDOM IN LITERARY MATTERS—
ARGUMENT WHICH HELPS LITTLE.

     LONDON, July 24.—It is a familiar saying that the English are neither an artistic nor a literary people. All the Continental races hurl this commonplace of reproach at their British cousins on the slenderest provocation. Even Taine, whose study of English literature is a monument alike to himself and his subject, somehow manages to suggest an inner consciousness that English writers have been a species apart from their fellows, an alien and exotic growth in the garden of conventional and pharisaical dullness. The Englishman, as a type, in turn rather regards this foreign view of him in the light of a compliment. He is proud of a good many possessions, tangible and otherwise, and in truth it must be admitted that he has more to be proud of than most of his neighbors; but deep down in his heart he values most of all the universally conceded fact that he is a practical, slow-going, tenacious, conservative sort of man, with no tendencies to flippancy and very little nonsense about him. He likes to think of himself as always fighting against odds. He smiles when caustic visitors comment on the stupidity of this, that, and the other thing they find in England—and the smile is meant to convey his satisfaction at the thought that, in spite of this historic stupidity, England has gone up to the top of the tree and maintained her place there against all comers. The despairing gibe of the foreigner, “Those English haven’t intelligence enough to know when they are beaten,” has the place of honor in his national scrap book of comments on him by outsiders. His pride is to be the one man in the world who guides his actions by common sense. Other peoples—less substantial races—are ruled by perception, by logic, by feeling, by their impulses, their likes and dislikes, but the Englishman believes that he has a monopoly of common sense, just as he has of Burton ales and mixed pickles and machine guns that jam when they get into action.

* * *

Naturally, the literary temperament does not flourish on this hard-baked soil. The Englishman, still speaking of the race type, has no desire to be regarded as literary. His great-grandfathers thought. that Johnson, Goldsmith, Nat Lee, and the rest were low pothouse scribblers, whose lives were one long device to get along without respectable employment—just as their ancestors in turn saw nothing in Shakespeare but a play-acting fellow, of whose goings and comings it was not worth any sensible man;s while to take note. So to-day this proud islander acquiesces in the existence of a writing class in his midst, but does not care to know more about them, and values the printing press chiefly as the agency which supplies him with news about the cricket matches and the horse races and the designs of the Russians upon his Indian Empire. When Matthew Arnold dies not an additional paper is sold in London. But the death of Archer the jockey throws every English town into a state of excitement, and extra editions race hot from a hundred presses in the vain effort to supply the popular demand.

* * *

     This much by way of preface to a curious agitation now working its way slowly through what may be called the literary circles of London. There are very many of these little circles, revolving each on its own axis in a semi-covert way, but their motive power is more often the jealousy of exclusiveness than any impersonal desire to keep a sacred flame ablaze. The chances of contact among these various circles are extremely limited. If fortune casts you in one the prospect of your ever having anything to do with the others is small. Only accident brings people of one group into touch with those of another, and when they separate it is for good. I saw yesterday, for example, three English novelists of established reputation gathered with other visitors in the drawing-room of an American authoress here in London. Each of these three looked with curiosity when they heard who the other two were. They had never seen one another before. I gathered no hint that any of them was occupied with the desire that they might meet again. Under such conditions of reserve—part diffidence, part the inborn sense of exclusiveness which prompts every landed Englishman to build as high a wall as he can between himself and the general public and cover the top of it with broken glass—it is very difficult to unite the writing class upon any given line of action, or even to interest them in any common grievance.

* * *

     There is now a first-class misdemeanant in Holloway Jail, a venerable man whose offense is that he has published English translations of Emile Zola’s books. Henry Vizitelly, now seventy years of age, has spent his whole life in the service of art, journalism, and literature. His father was a book printer, and Henry, as a boy, learned the trade of wood engraving. He was in at the beginning of the Illustrated London News, and after some years of good work there, started publishing on his own account. He introduced “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and the works of Poe to English readers. He brought out the famous illustrated editions of Longfellow’s “Evangeline” and “Hyperion,” with the now world-familiar pictures by Sir John Gilbert and Birket Foster. He founded a weekly illustrated paper, and personally bore the brunt of the fight which ended in the abolition of the newspaper stamp impost. He went through the Franco-German war, the siege of Paris, and the Commune as the correspondent of the Illustrated London News. He has written several admirable books, and now again for nearly ten years has been one of the well-established publishers of London. He is in prison, as I have said, on a three months’ sentence for including in his publications some fairly literal and extremely clever translations from Zola.

* * *

     Of the extensively-signed memorial for his release I cabled last week. A more recent development of the movement is a pamphlet of some forty pages, written by Robert Buchanan and printed by Redway, but not, of course, issued to the trade in the ordinary commercial channels. W. H. Smith & Sons, who control the railway and general minor bookstalls, and Mudie, who rules over the libraries, would not dream. of countenancing its circulation. The pamphlet is called “On Descending Into Hell,” and is in the form of a letter addressed to Henry Matthews, the present Tory Home Secretary. Mr. Buchanan is very much in earnest, and here and there throughout his long diatribe against “the proposed suppression of literature,” it is possible to pick out effective arguments expressed tersely and with vigor. But the pamphlet as a whole is a somewhat melancholy comment on the “literature” which its author is supposed to represent. He had a strong case, and he muddles it into a meaningless one. He begins by addressing the Home Secretary thus: “You are, I understand, a Roman Catholic; I am a Catholic plus an eclectic. I have the highest respect for the creed in which you believe, since it is perhaps the most logically constructed of all human creeds; but while I admire the logic, I do not admit all the premises, and cannot consequently follow you to all the conclusions.” There are two more pages of this sort of thing, with allusions to the Church having burned Bruno, and some obscure talk about Calvin. What the Catholic communion has to do with Zola and Vizitelly, in the mind of the author, one does not learn for fifteen pages. Then Mr. Buchanan develops the theory that Rome, while intolerant toward spiritual schismatics, has always been very complacent in the matter of secular pornography. To quote again: “One of her most logical postulates, indeed, has been that man is evil by inheritance and by predisposition, and that only by faith, by spiritual knowledge, can he be saved. Hence her gentleness to the literature of heathendom, her complacency in dealing with purely human art and letters. While preserving the Christian documents, she was quite content to leave humanity its Sappho, its Lucretius, its Juvenal, its Catullus, even its Aristophanes. For though she was persuaded to make short work of schismatics, who after all have little knowledge of life, she was ever kindly to the poets, the most incontinent of whom knew life thoroughly. She went with Dante into hell, and she ascended with Calderon up to Heaven, but loving also her cakes and ale, she preserved the gaudriole (Anglice; smutty joke) for the amusement of her monks.  * *  * Far less human and sympathetic has been her gloomy half-sister, Protestantism,” &c.

* * *

     The idea of seriously appealing to the Home Secretary to step forward as a Catholic and vindicate the historic claim of his Church to be the protector of indecent literature could surely have occurred to no one but a Scotchman. And he really seems to pin more faith upon this phase of his argument than on the intelligent plea that Zola is an earnest worker in the field of social analysis, and has as much right to be printed, translated, read, as any preacher of them all. This is the ground which English writers who have expressed an opinion seem to take, and it is quite conceivable that out of this prosecution, covering as it does a period during which the ferment of Ibsen’s strange, strong work has begun visibly to work upon the English literary mind, some definite advance may come in the direction of English literary freedom. But this advance, if it does come, will scarcely have been assisted by Robert Buchanan’s pamphlet.

* * *

     Speaking of Buchanan, although he has been in evidence here for a long time, writing poems and novels and producing plays with more or less success, he is still most frequently thought of as the subject of one of Edmund Yates’s most characteristically savage attacks. When Buchanan first came down from Scotland and looked about for friends and employment, he was taken up by Yates, who is the best-hearted man alive to those he likes, and the enemy most to be feared in Christendom. Years later, Buchanan in some way failed to requite the kindness he had experienced and managed, I forget just how, to anger his whilom benefactor. The scoring which he received in the World is still a sort of text-book of complete and merciless excoriation among London journalists. One sentence only lingers in my memory. Edmund Yates, after recounting how his midday meal was interrupted by the arrival of the needy Scotchman, and detailing his earliest impressions of his visitor, wrote: “I gave him food for his belly and sulphur for his back.” These words will be remembered when everything Buchanan ever wrote is dead.
                                                                                                                                         HAROLD FREDERIC.

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The Dundee Courier (9 August, 1889 - p.6)

LITERATURE.
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     ON DESCENDING INTO HELL. By ROBERT BUCHANAN.—This is a shilling pamphlet containing a letter by Robert Buchanan, addressed to the Home Secretary, regarding the proposed suppression of literature and the imprisonment of Mr Vizetelly. In characteristic words of noble eloquence, Mr Buchanan pleads the cause of freedom of thought and expression, and calls for the removal of the interdicts on the sale of Zola’s novels. The defence is admirably conceived and sustained, being supported by historical and literary examples, as well as the arguments of philosophy and human nature. The suppression of French novels of a certain class has occasioned much comment in literary circles, and in Mr Buchanan’s eloquent sentences may be found a decisive refutation of the prudish policy which has actuated that suppression. The letter is worthy of careful perusal. The publisher is George Redway, 15 York Street, Covent Garden, London.

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The Gloucester Citizen (10 August, 1889 - p.3)

     Mr. ROBERT BUCHANAN, under the repulsive title “On descending into Hell,” has written to the HOME SECRETARY a letter of remonstrance against the imprisonment of Mr. VIZETELLY for selling translations of EMILE ZOLA’S novels. It is a powerful piece of writing, and whatever effect it may have upon Mr. MATTHEWS we may be quite sure that he will give it a careful reading. Mr. BUCHANAN describes “Our latter Inquisition” as a curious conclave, composed of all phases of character and opinion; with Justice SHALLOW as Chief Inquisitor, and Messrs. DOGBERRY and VERGES, as watchmen in ordinary. Its decrees he thus gives:—

     Decree number one: let all “deformed” individuals, and especially all Frenchmen, be “run in” and “charged.” Decree number two: books being the Devil’s engines, all books are to be inspected, and if found guilty of any “ideas,” summarily burnt or expurgated. Decree number three: any publisher of a book calculated to destroy our cardinal principle, that this is the best of all possible worlds, is to be seized, fined, and imprisoned. Decree number four: that public virtue is impossible without the sanction of the police, and (as a corollary) that public taste is a thing strictly within the determination of the watchmen and custodians of our virtue. Decree number five: that our system of sewerage is to remain in the region of Supernatural Mystery, and that any literature touching upon it is to be condignly abolished. Imprimantur, the revised New Testament, the Lamplighter, and the tracts of Christian knowledge. Condemnantur, all poems, all fictions which expose the Gehenna underground, or attack the moralities which shine above it. Expurgantur, Shakspere, Dryden, and Byron (the last delicately, for he was a lord). Signed, Shallow, Grand Inquisitor; Countersigned, Dogberry, Chief Constable in Ordinary. In the intervals of our pleasant Inquisition, we listen blandly to a droning Military Person who beguiles our leisure with prospects of a general Conscription, and who holds up the German system of providential and governmental superintendence in all departments of life and thought as the beacon of modern civilisation.

This latter is, of course, a reference to General Lord WOLSELEY.

     Mr. BUCHANAN claims, roughly, though it is most eloquently put forward in the pamphlet, that Mr. VIZETELLY’S services to literature far outweigh his indiscretions. He has been a “brave sergeant in the army of English journalism.” But Mr. BUCHANAN declines to admit Mr. VIZETELLY’S error.

     “I affirm” says he “that Emile Zola was bound to be printed, translated, read. Little as I sympathise with his views of life, greatly as I loathe his pictures of human vice and depravity, I have learned much from him, and others may learn much; and had I been unable to read French, these transactions would have been to me an intellectual help and boon. I like to have the Devil’s case thoroughly stated, because I know it refutes itself. As an artist, Zola is unjustifiable; as a moralist, he is answerable; but as a free man, a man of letters, he can decline to accept the fiat of a criminal tribunal.”

The book is not one that will be read by everyone, and Mr. BUCHANAN is no doubt to a great extent “crying in the wilderness.” Still there is danger to the freedom of the press in the imprisonment of Mr. VIZETELLY at the instance of the Vigilance Committee, and hundreds will rejoice that the mantel of MILTON has fallen upon ROBERT BUCHANAN, and will cheerfully say “Amen” to his Nineteenth Century “Areopagitica.”

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Book Reviews - Essays continued

The Coming Terror (1891) to Is Barabbas a necessity? (1896)

 

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