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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.
G. R. Lomer, ed. The Student’s Course in Literature.

Early Twentieth-Century Essays

By Dorothy Brewster (1883–1979)

WHAT is the field covered by the twentieth-century essay? A criticism of a recent book of essays characterized the “pure” essay as anachronistic, and stated that, except in the “more arid and cloistered” magazines, the essay had capitulated to the special article. What is this anachronistic pure essay? Would Bacon’s essays be classified as “pure”? Bacon wrote of Truth, Death, Revenge, Parents and Children, Marriage and Single Life, Love, Atheism, Empire, Gardens, Prophecies, Suitors, Education,—matters, that is, of the widest human interest, or other matters more closely connected with his business as a statesman or his pursuits as a scholar. He offered his readers “counsels, civil and moral,” admonition, instruction. Thus the essay arose as “the handmaiden of philosophical speculation, when philosophy was a generous and inclusive name for knowledge in general.” We read the Bacon essay for its wisdom, and the Lamb essay (another variety of the “pure” essay) for the charm of its self-revelation. The writer may reveal himself through any kind of haphazard, unscientific, leisurely, and delightful speculation—on poor relations, ears, old china, chimney-sweepers, roast pig, old actors. The only requirement (but it is an exacting one) for the essay in the revelatory vein is that there should be a definite personality to reveal. The essays of Mr. A. C. Benson, for instance, in their avoidance of excess, their delicacy, their quiet charm, reveal the scholar, devout but not ascetic, academic but not aloof. And one is always glad to listen to Mr. Le Gallienne or Miss Repplier, in the cloistered ‘Atlantic’ or ‘Harper’s,’ discourse on any topic, from cats or patriotism to salt-marshes.

If the old leisurely “pure” essay is becoming archaic, it is due to the fact that “the disheartening extent and depth of modern knowledge, with its multifarious divisions, its distinctions and specializations, its technical terminologies, makes mere lay speculation seem a dilettante impertinence.” At all events, the mere lay speculator must now assume the air of an expert,—brisk, businesslike, polemic,—though perhaps the impertinence of his speculation is thereby increased rather than diminished. Note how Mr. H. G. Wells plunges into modern knowledge. The synopsis of his ‘Social Forces in England and America’ reads in part: “He considers the King and speculates on the New Epoch; he thinks Imperially, and then coming to details, about Labor, Socialism, and Modern Warfare; he discourses on the Modern Novel and the Public Library; criticizes Chesterton, Belloc, and Sir Thomas More, and deals with the London Traffic Problem as a Socialist should; he doubts the existence of Sociology, discusses Divorce, Schoolmasters, Motherhood, Doctors, and Specialization; questions if there is a People, and diagnoses the Political Disease of our times; he then speculates on the future of the American population, considers a possible set-back to civilization, the still undeveloped possibilities of Science, and—in the broadest spirit—the Human Adventure.” A simpler synopsis, equally inclusive, might have been furnished by the titles of Mr. Belloc’s collections of essays—‘On Anything,’ ‘On Something,’ ‘On Nothing.’ A list (compiled by Mr. Slosson) of G. K. Chesterton’s dislikes is suggestive of the range of his speculations: cocoa, colonies, divorce, equal suffrage, Esperanto, eugenics, latitudinarianism, Lloyd George, official sanitation, organized charity, peace movements, pragmatism, prohibition, simplified spelling, vaccination, vivisection, and workingmen’s insurance. In the face of this evidence, what can be said in defining the modern essay except that its field is everything that relates to man and society? It may be written in the speculative, the revelatory, the informative, the polemical, the appreciative, the admonitory vein. It must, however, be addressed to the intelligence of the general reader; otherwise it becomes material for the university class-room, the expert’s laboratory, or the scholar’s study.

In the essays classified below as sociological, speculation ranges far afield; destructive and constructive criticism neglects no social or economic institution of society. Here we meet old friends in new guises: the Old Maid, a pleasantly humorous topic for the older essayists, becomes the subject, not of jest, but of sociological investigation. Society is being deprived of her possible children, and it is her children, precisely, that are needed to regenerate society. Or the Pig, served, roasted, for our delectation by Lamb, is offered up, slaughtered by brutal methods, for our pity by Galsworthy. The cruelty of society, not the enjoyment of the heartless epicure, is the theme. What is wrong with the world? Everything, if we accept in good faith all the explanations of Shaw, Wells, and Chesterton; for among them, they contrive to overthrow everything that is heterodox as well as everything that is orthodox. What one attacks, the other champions. “Chesterton discovers new reasons in things; Shaw discovers new unreasons in things.” And the highly stimulated reader is in danger of finding no reason in anything. Other writers cultivate assiduously one corner of the field: Edward Carpenter, Havelock Ellis, and the Swedish feminist Ellen Key have dealt with various problems of sex, and different aspects of the Feminist movement.

Besides the sociological essays, other groups may be somewhat loosely classified: essays in the field of philosophy, religion, and science; in that of politics, history, and war; and in that of literature, art, and music. Most of the literary critics write now and then on general topics, or make excursions into neighboring territory. The ninth volume of Paul Elmore More’s Shelburne Essays, for instance, is concerned with the problem of “the elect against democracy,” and criticizes the unquestioning acceptance of certain popular humanitarian ideals. On the other hand, the social critics find the literary essay a useful medium for the exposition of their own theories; it happens very conveniently that Dickens or Ibsen had the same views as Chesterton or Shaw about public-houses or ideals. In many cases, the literary critics are identified with certain fields of work. Austin Dobson is the delightful interpreter of the eighteenth century; Brander Matthews has taken the drama and the theatre in all their aspects as his province; James Huneker writes on plays and playwrights, musicians, and artists. Not much of the work of the foreign critics has been translated. But the musical criticism of Romain Rolland and his biographies of musicians are accessible, and so is most of the work of Georg Brandes.

The philosophers are not content with an audience of philosophers, and their speculations (to some extent, at least) are in a form not beyond the comprehension of the educated multitude. Haeckel, according to Mr. Slosson, declared that he had set forth his philosophy of Monism with due dignity and order in his ‘General Morphology,’ and for thirty years nobody read it; “nobody reads it now, even when they criticize my ideas; so what could I do but put them forth in a way that would secure attention?” And his ‘Riddle of the Universe’ became a “best-seller.” Pragmatism and Vitalism, expounded by philosophers with the literary gifts of William James and Bergson, have no difficulty in attracting general interest. Partly as a result of the Great War, curiosity about philosophical theories—German, especially,—has grown, and Chesterton’s once heretical view has a chance of being accepted: “The most practical and important thing about a man is his view of the universe…. It is important to know the enemy’s numbers, but still more important to know the enemy’s philosophy.”

In addition to the articles in the LIBRARY referred to below, the two books by Edwin E. Slosson—‘Six Major Prophets,’ and ‘Major Prophets of To-day’—will be found useful. In the list of political and historical essays has been included a group of the more interesting books on the causes and purposes and problems of the war, by writers of divergent viewpoints.

Reading Recommended

I. Essays on Literature, Art, and Music

1. English and American:

Belloc, Hilaire: On Anything; On Something; On Nothing.

Benson, A. C.: The Upton Letters; At Large; The House of Quiet; From a College Window; Beside Still Waters; The Silent Isle; Rossetti; Ruskin; Walter Pater.

Birrell, Augustine: Collected Essays; Essays about Men, Women, and Books; Essays and Addresses; In the Name of the Bodleian and Other Essays; Obiter Dicta; Res Judicatæ; Andrew Marvell; William Hazlitt.

Brownell, W. C.: American Prose Masters; Victorian Prose Masters; French Art; French Traits.

Chesterton, G. K.: Charles Dickens, a Critical Study; Appreciations and Criticism of Dickens; Victorian Age in Literature; George Bernard Shaw; Robert Browning; William Blake; Varied Types; Five Types.

Dobson, Austin: Eighteenth Century Essays; Eighteenth Century Studies; Eighteenth Century Vignettes; Fanny Burney; Fielding; Hogarth; Samuel Richardson.

Gosse, Edmund: French Profiles; Portraits and Sketches; The Jacobean Poets; A History of the Eighteenth Century; Northern Studies; Henrik Ibsen.

Hearn, Lafcadio: Appreciations of Poetry; Interpretations of Literature; Japanese Letters.

Howells, W. D.: Criticism and Fiction; Heroines of Fiction; Literature and Life; Certain Delightful English Towns; Literary Friends and Acquaintance.

Huneker, James: Egoists; Overtones; The Pathos of Distance; Iconoclasts; Ivory Apes and Peacocks; Visionaries; Mezzotints in Modern Music; Franz Liszt.

James, Henry: French Poets and Novelists; Partial Portraits; William Wetmore Story and His Friends; Notes on Novelists.

Mabie, H. W.: American Ideals; Books and Culture; Essays in Literary Interpretation; Essays on Nature and Culture; Essays on Work and Culture; Works and Days.

Matthews, Brander: Aspects of Fiction; The Philosophy of the Short Story; The Historical Novel and Other Essays; Gateways to Literature; The Development of the Drama; A Study of the Drama; A Book about the Theatre; Molière; French Dramatists of the Nineteenth Century.

More, Paul Elmore: Shelburne Essays (nine volumes).

Repplier, Agnes: Compromises; Americans and Others; Counter Currents; Books and Men.

Sedgwick, H. D.: Essays on Great Writers; Italy in the Thirteenth Century; An Apology for Old Maids, and Other Essays.

Shaw, George Bernard: The Perfect Wagnerite; The Quintessence of Ibsenism; Dramatic Opinions and Essays.

Stephen, Sir Leslie: Hours in a Library; Swift; Pope; George Eliot; English Literature and Society in the Eighteenth Century.

Symons, Arthur: Figures of Several Centuries; Plays, Acting, and Music; The Romantic Movement in English Poetry; Studies in Seven Arts; Symbolist Movement in Literature; William Blake.

2. French (in translation):

Brunetière, F.: Brunetière’s Essays in French Literature; The Law of the Drama.

Faguet, Émile: Balzac; Gustave Flaubert; Initiation into Literature.

France, Anatole: On Life and Letters.

Lemaître, Jules: Chateaubriand; Fénelon; Rousseau.

Rolland, Romain: Beethoven; George Frederick Handel; Life of Michael Angelo; Musicians of To-day; Some Musicians of Former Days; Tolstoy.

3. Danish:

Brandes, Georg: Anatole France; Eminent Thinkers of the Nineteenth Century; Friedrich Nietzsche; Main Currents in Nineteenth-Century Literature; William Shakespeare.

4. Russian:

Merezhkovsky, Dmitri: Tolstoy as Man and Artist, with an Essay on Dostoyevsky.

II. Essays on Philosophy, Religion, and Science

1. English and American:

Balfour, Arthur J.: The Foundations of Belief; Theism and Humanism; Criticism and Beauty; and a collection of the more important and interesting passages in his non-political writings, entitled Arthur James Balfour as Philosopher and Thinker.

Butler, Samuel: Erewhon; Erewhon Revisited; Essays on Life, Art, and Science; Evolution Old and New; Luck or Cunning; Life and Habit; Note-Books.

Dewey, John: The School and Society; Schools of To-morrow; The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy and Other Essays in Contemporary Thought; German Philosophy and Politics; Democracy and Education.

Dickinson, G. Lowes: Religion and Immortality; A Modern Symposium; The Greek View of Life.

James, William: Essays in Radical Empiricism; Pragmatism; The Meaning of Truth; Human Immortality; A Pluralistic Universe; Some Problems of Philosophy; The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy; The Varieties of Religious Experience.

Russell, Bertrand: Scientific Method in Philosophy; The Problems of Philosophy; Philosophical Essays.

Santayana, George: Interpretations of Poetry and Religion; The Life of Reason; The Sense of Beauty; Three Philosophical Poets; Winds of Doctrine; Egotism in German Philosophy.

Schiller, F. C. S.: Humanism; Studies in Humanism.

Stephen, Sir Leslie: The English Utilitarians; Essays on Free-thinking and Plain-speaking; History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century.

2. French:

Bergson, Henri: Creative Evolution; Time and Free Will; Matter and Memory.

Fabre, Jean H. C.: Bramble-bees and Others; The Hunting Wasps; The Life of the Caterpillar; The Life of the Fly; The Mason Bees; The Life of the Spider.

France, Anatole: Garden of Epicurus; Penguin Island.

Maeterlinck, Maurice: The Treasure of the Humble; Wisdom and Destiny; The Buried Temple; The Measure of the Hours; The Double Garden; Our Eternity; Life of the Bee.

Poincaré, Henri: Science and Hypothesis; The Value of Science; Foundations of Science.

3. German.

Eucken, Rudolf: Christianity and the New Idealism; The Truth of Religion; The Meaning and Value of Life; The Life of the Spirit; Life’s Basis and Life’s Ideals; Main Currents of Modern Thought; The Contest for the Spiritual Life; Knowledge and Life.

Haeckel, Ernst: The Riddle of the Universe; The Wonders of Life; The Natural History of Creation; The Evolution of Man; Monism as Connecting Religion and Science.

Nietzsche, Friedrich: Complete Works (18 vols., Macmillan). Especially volumes 11–16, containing Thus Spake Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil, Genealogy of Morals, Will to Power, Twilight of Idols, The Anti-Christ.

Ostwald, Wilhelm: Individuality and Immortality; Natural Philosophy.

4. Italian.

Croce, Benedetto: Æsthetic as Science of Expression and General Linguistic; Philosophy of the Practical: Economic and Ethic; Historical Materialism and the Ethics of Karl Marx.

5. Russian:

Solovyev, Vladimir: War and Christianity (or War, Progress, and the End of History, according to the title of another translation).

Tolstoy, Leo: What is Art?; What is Religion?; The Gospel in Brief; My Religion; The Kingdom of God.

III. Essays on Sociology

Carpenter, Edward: Civilization, Its Cause and Cure; The Drama of Love and Death; England’s Ideal; Intermediate Types among Primitive Folk; Love’s Coming-of-Age.

Chesterton, G. K.: Orthodoxy; Heretics; What’s Wrong with the World; All Things Considered; Tremendous Trifles; Alarms and Discursions. Also the allegorical fantasias, The Ball and the Cross; Manalive; The Flying Inn.

Ellis, Havelock: Man and Woman; Studies in the Psychology of Sex; The New Spirit; Impressions and Comments.

Faguet, Émile: The Cult of Incompetence (or The Dread of Responsibility, translated from the French).

Key, Ellen: The Century of the Child; Love and Ethics; Love and Marriage; Morality of Woman and Other Essays; War, Peace, and the Future; The Woman Movement (translated from the Swedish).

Shaw, G. B.: The Common Sense of Municipal Trading; Fabian Essays in Socialism; and the Prefaces to the dramas.

Wells, H. G.: First and Last Things: A Modern Utopia; Anticipations; Mankind in the Making; The Future in America; New Worlds for Old; Social Forces in England and America; God, the Invisible King.

IV. Essays on Politics, History, War

Angell, Norman: The Great Illusion; Arms and Industry; The Foundations of International Polity.

Belloc, Hilaire: Danton; Robespierre; Marie Antoinette; The French Revolution; The Servile State; A General Sketch of the European War—First Phase.

Dickinson, G. Lowes: Letters from a Chinese Official; Justice and Liberty, a Political Dialogue; From King to King, the Tragedy of the Puritan Revolution; An Essay on the Civilizations of India, China, and Japan; The European Anarchy.

Ferrero, Guglielmo: Characters and Events of Roman History; The Greatness and Decline of Rome; Militarism; Ancient Rome and Modern America (translations from the Italian).

Roosevelt, Theodore: The New Nationalism; America and the World War; American Ideals and Other Essays; History as Literature and Other Essays; Fear God and Take Your Own Part.

Wilson, Woodrow: Congressional Government; Constitutional Government in the United States; A History of the American People; The New Freedom; The State: Elements of Historical and Practical Politics; Why We Are at War.

V. Essays on the Great War

Brandes, G.: The World at War.

Carpenter, E.: The Healing of Nations.

Chesterton, G. K.: The Crimes of England.

Dickinson, G. Lowes: The Choice before Us.

Ellis, H.: Essays in War Time.

Galsworthy, J.: A Sheaf.

Maeterlinck, M.: The Wrack of the Storm.

Murray, Gilbert: Faith, War, and Policy.

Rolland, R.: Above the Battle.

Russell, Bertrand: Justice in War Time; Why Men Fight (English ed. called The Principles of Social Reconstruction).

Wells, H. G.: What is Coming?; Italy, France, and Britain at War.

Zangwill, I.: The War for the World.